The Complexity of Theology
Theology is complex, because God Himself is complex. We do not and we cannot fully understand God’s nature because we are nothing like Him and He is completely beyond us. We are small and dependent on the world around us, while God is vast and immeasurable. He stands outside of space and time, cannot be measured by anything in the physical universe, and is fundamentally beyond the reach of our finite minds. We are able to comprehend Him at all only because He chooses to reveal Himself to us. We are the characters in a story God has written. We can only know about the Author of the story because He makes Himself known to us. Indeed, our God is just that amazing in that He wrote Himself into the story of Creation by becoming a character Himself. That’s what it means for Jesus to be “incarnate” … to “pitch his tent among us” (John 1:14). This Jesus was at the same time a man from Nazareth in the 1st century AD and the eternal divine Son of God, equal in every way to the Father (see John 1:1-18, Colossians 1:15-20, Hebrews 1).
Seek to know God, not “figure God out”
Over time, many have tried to “figure God out” by attempting to simplify the complexities or resolve the tensions encountered in the study of theology. Theology is simply a compound Greek term for the discourse (logos) about God (Theos); Theos + logos = theology. But every time someone claims to “figure God out,” it’s because they are oversimplifying and trying to make God fit in a box they’ve created for Him. That, of course, never works.
It’s easy to misunderstand the profound complexity in God’s nature in our struggle to relate to Him, because we subconsciously think of God as mostly like us, when He’s not like us at all. God is not the greatest being in a category of beings that includes grasshoppers, dogs, dolphins and humans, such that He is the greatest being on the spectrum with a bunch of lesser beings. That’s the wrong (and horribly misleading) way to think about God. Instead, God is in a category all by Himself. Nothing anywhere, in any context is at all like Him. Every other being in the universe, including angels and human beings, are of the same type: “created, finite being.” God alone is of the type: “uncreated (eternal), infinite being.” Every tool we have to understand God is also created, is locked within our limited, creaturely experience with us, and is therefore totally inadequate to describe or measure or define God. The only tool that “works” is God’s self-disclosure to us (the holy Scriptures), and even that has to be done in language and via analogy that we would understand. In fact, John Calvin said that God uses “baby talk” so that we would have a hope of understanding anything He says to us. And every time human beings have gotten it into their heads that God’s “baby talk” is the full language of the divine, presuming that we are mature enough to sit at the adult table (so to speak) with God, it has ended badly. When we try to drag God down out of His heavenly shroud of mystery, totally-other-ness and unresolvable tension, it always leads to heresy (wrong theology).
Solomon said, “There’s nothing new under the sun”
What’s fascinating is that pretty much every heretical view of God has been tried and failed. Even 2,100 years after Jesus walked among us, people are still regularly thinking they have come up with some new revolutionary idea about God. But you might be surprised to discover that most of these theories were already taught all the way back in the first few centuries of the church, and after careful consideration by a then-much-smaller and far-more-unified church (not saying much when comparing to today), were rightly identified as wrong understanding.
Common Wrong Beliefs about God
The most significant and frequent sources of this kind of oversimplification and misunderstanding surround the church’s thinking about two concepts:
- The Trinity – the reality that God is one God (of one kind or essence) but is three Persons
- (Brace yourself for technical theological word) The hypostatic union – the reality that Jesus is only one Person, but has two natures (fully God and fully human)
Neither of these concepts is explicitly stated in the bible. You cannot look up a specific chapter and verse that make concise statements like I just did. In fact, it took the church centuries to formulate these statements so succinctly. However, both these concepts are everywhere in Scripture. There are literally dozens of ways in which each of these concepts is implied. So in the early days, the church burned a lot of calories carefully considering and documenting exactly what impact the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus did to the existing Jewish understanding of monotheism. Followers of Jesus poured over the Scriptures trying to understand the full breadth and depth of what it is really teaching us, putting together all the implications of what one can clearly read in the Old Testament (the teaching of the prophets) and what would come to be known as the New Testament (the teaching of the apostles), and formulating systematic statements like the two I’ve made above.
Because well-meaning students of theology can easily arrive at any number of heretical (wrong) conclusions by simply trying to resolve tensions (even seeming paradoxes) in our understanding of God, or simplify how we relate to Him, or even give more weight to our human reason or instincts than they deserve, a few heresies have come up often in history. They all have funny names that are hard to remember, so I thought it would be useful to create a reference for easy access and recall.
In the early 4th century AD, a leader in the church in Alexandria, Egypt named Arius (c. 256-336) declared that Jesus must have been created by God because He was a man. This led to an enormous debate about Jesus’ deity which was resolved at the 1st ecumenical (entire church speaking with one unified voice) council at Nicaea in AD 325. The reality is that Jesus was not created by God. He is at the same time the eternal God who created the universe (fully divine) and a human being just like you and me (fully human). Any attempt to resolve this tension leads to a wrong understanding of who Jesus is.
Macedoniansim was a fourth-century heresy that denied the full divinity or personality of the Holy Spirit. This idea was popularized by a former bishop of Constantinople, a semi-Arian named Macedonius. According to this heresy, the Holy Spirit was a created being, subject to the Father and Son in something of a servant role. This error was addressed and soundly refuted at the 2nd ecumenical council at Constantinople in AD 381. The reality is that the Holy Spirit is a person (not a thing) who is fully equal, eternal, divine and of the same essence and substance as God the Father and God the Son.
Nestorius (c. AD 386–451) was the Archbishop of Constantinople in the early 5th century AD. Nestorianism wrongly emphasized the disunity of the human and divine natures of Christ. According to the Nestorians, Christ essentially exists as two persons sharing one body. His divine and human natures are completely distinct and separate. This sparked great controversary, of course, which was resolved at the 3rd ecumenical council at Ephesus in AD 431. The reality is that Jesus has two natures in one unified person. He is both fully God (sharing the divine nature with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit) and fully human (sharing human nature with all of us), but in a single, whole, complete, undivided person.
Pelagianism is the unbiblical teaching that Adam’s sin did not affect future generations of humanity. According to Pelagius (c. AD 360-420), Adam’s sin was solely his own, and Adam’s descendants (us) do not inherit a sinful nature. Pelagius wrongly believed that since God creates every human soul directly, every human soul starts out in innocence, free from sin and basically good. This heresy was repudiated at the 4th ecumenical council at Chalcedon in AD 451. The reality is that Adam’s sin poisoned the entirety of human nature, so we are all born sinful, separated from God, and desperately in need of a savior.
Reference of the First Four Ecumenical Councils
The First Council of Nicaea (AD 325)
- Repudiated Arianism, which wrongly believed that Jesus was a created being. Nicaea affirmed that Jesus is “homoousios with the Father” (of the same substance or essence as God the Father)
- Adopted the original Nicene Creed
- And, btw, established the date for celebrating Easter, which is a cool fun fact.
The First Council of Constantinople (AD 381)
- Repudiated Arianism (again; this time, it would stick)
- Repudiated Macedonianism, which wrongly denied full personhood and divinity of the Holy Spirit, understanding the Spirit to be a “He” (Person) not an “it” (not a “force” as in Star Wars) and paving the way for understanding Him to the 3rd (full) member of the Trinity
- Constantinople clearly affirmed that Jesus is “begotten of the Father before all time”
- Revised the Nicene Creed to speak more directly to the Person of the Holy Spirit, resulting in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. When the Nicene Creed is recited, it’s typically this modified version. Read both the original Nicene creed and the 381 updates.
- Here’s another link to a helpful article about the creed and its meaning: The Essentials of Christianity
The Council of Ephesus (AD 431)
- Repudiated Nestorianism, which wrongly claimed that Jesus is two distinct Persons, one divine and one human, each with its own separate nature. In truth, Jesus has two natures (divine and human) but (Read more: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Nestorianism)
- Affirmed that Mary was Theotokos (“God-bearer” or “one who gives birth to God”). Nestorianism claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was only a man (so Mary had given birth to a mere human), and that the Divine Logos (the eternal Son of God) was a separate person who was only loosely joined with Jesus the human being. This is false. Mary did in fact “give birth to God” because Jesus is both fully God and fully man. (Read more)
- Repudiated Pelagianism, which wrongly claimed that people are born good and that both sin and righteousness are simple choices. His followers took this a step further to claim that there is no original sin. Augustine of Hippo famously championed the campaign against this wrong understanding of human nature and sin, giving us the doctrine Luther would later refer to as “the bondage of the will.”
- Reaffirmed the 381 Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed
The Council of Chalcedon (AD 451)
- Repudiated the Eutychian doctrine of monophysitism, which wrongly claimed that Jesus was not fully human. They “explained” the incarnation by claiming that Jesus’ human personhood was “overcome” by his divine nature, making him more of a “phantasm” than a human being. Instead, we understand Jesus to be a full human being and fully God (two natures) at the same time in one Person. (Read more)
- Adopted the Chalcedonian Creed, which described the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ, both human and divine, in one Person. (Link to the creed)
Looking for more information?
For more information about the ecumenical councils of the church: