In the study guide for the “Animate” series in Session Three, the authors state that “Beginning in the first century, Christians identified some beliefs as outside the circle. These were later named ‘heresy'”. 

A heresy is any forumalation of belief that falls outside the generally accepted norm of conviction as dictated by the dominant opinion defining the identity of any group.  Many of the early Christian “heresies” related to the nature of Jesus.

As the church struggled with its understanding of the nature of Jesus, the generally accepted tradition settled on the formulation  that

“in the one pseron, Jesus Christ, there are two natures, a human nature and a divine nature, each in its completeness and integrity.. these two natures are organically and indissolubly united, yet… no third nature is formed thereby… orthodox doctrine forbids us either to divide the person or confound the natures.” (Chalcedon 451)

Or, expressed in terms that became known as “The Athanasian Creed”:

Now the right Faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both God and Man.

He is God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the world; and he is Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world;

Perfect God; pefrect Man, of reasoning soul and human flesh subsisting;

Equal to the Father as touchng his Godhead; less than the Father as touching his Manhood.

Who although he be God and Man, yet he is not two, but is one Christ;

One however, not by conversion of Godhead into flesh, but by taking of Manhood into God;

One altogether; not by confusion of Sustance, but by unity of Person.

For as reasoning soul and flesh is one man, so God and Man is one Christ;

(“The Creed of Athanasius” date unknown – possibly late 5c.)

The early Christian church, surrounded by a multiplicity of competing voices attempting to define Jesus, found it necessary to attempt to draw the line of definition quite clearly around the sacred person of Christ.

So, the early church put quite a bit of energy into guarding against anything that seemed to fall outside the accepted parameters of formulations about the nature of Jesus.

Here are some of the most common “heresies” relating to Jesus:

Docetism (2nd c. from dokeo [to seem]) – Jesus only seemed to be human and did not really suffer

Ebionites (2nd c) – Jesus was the human son of Joseph and Mary on whom the Holy Spirit alighted at baptism, endowing him with gifts which distinguised him from other human beings

Apollinarianism (4th c.) – Jesus was fully divine but not really human

Nestorianism (5th c) – The human and divine natures dwelt separately in Jesus

Monophystism (5th c.) – Jesus had only a divine nature which absorbed or utilized his human faculties

Monothelitism (7th c.) – Jesus had only one will

Adoptionism (8th c.) – Jesus was the adopted not the natureal son of God. Jesus was only human until the Holy Spirit descended on him at baptism making him divine

But, before we rush too quickly to launch a crusade against the heretics who misrepresent the person of Jesus, we would do well to take to heart a caution from Rowan Williams, soon-to-be-former Archbishop of Canterbury, who wrote,

Heresy is possible; but before we throw the word around, we need to remember that orthodoxy is common life before it’s common doctrine. (Open to Judgement, p. 264)

When Jesus encountered interested seekers, he did not demand that they sign on the dotted line of a finely tuned theological prospectus. He invited them into relationship (John 1:39). He called those who were interested in truth and life into a living relationship. He seemed to believe that, by living with him, they would come to understand all they needed to understand and find their way in the confusing world of theology and doctrine.

What was good enough for Jesus, perhaps should be good enough for us. Come walk with Christ. Live in daily relationship with the Living One whose pefect nature is Love. See where he leads you. Let him shape your life. Open your heart to his Spirit. He will lead you into all the truth you need to know.

Perhaps the real heresy is living a life that contradicts the presence and action of the Christ who is Love at work in our lives. The real heretics may be those who use language to divide and demonize when the power of Christ desires to open and include.

Both the Athanasian Creed and the Chalcedonian formulation of the nature of Christ sound more like poetry than scientific formula. Indeed, it is impossible to talk of the deepest mysteries of faith without resorting to poetic language.

The fact that theology is poetry does not mean it is not true. Poetry is the language of deeper truth. It is the language of mystery and paradox. Poetry uses words to point us beyond our limited mental capacities to open to the deeper realities that are known to us by faith.

Only poetry has the power to hold divinity and humanity together in one person. Only poetry has the capacity to guide us to the mystery of Incarnation in which the fullness of God is understood to dwell bodily in human history in the person of one man.

Poetry calls us into the open spaces where we can encounter the living presence of God known in Jesus. Poetry touches our deepest being, evoking the reality of God living in our lives and calling us forward into relationships of love.