When we read in John 1:14 that “the Word became flesh,” we recognize that Jesus took on a human body. But did Christ take on a human soul too? Today, Barry Cooper discusses a fourth-century heresy that seems slightly off but actually makes a world of difference.
Excuse me for asking such a rude question when we’ve never been introduced, but are you a heretic?
To be honest, you may be the wrong person to ask. It’s surprisingly easy to hold heretical views without even realizing. We can happily say something like “Well, here’s how I like to think about all this . . .” without realizing that as we do so, we’re moving beyond the bounds of orthodox Christian teaching.
And it’s no small thing if we do that. A seemingly innocuous departure from Scripture can have huge consequences down the line. Think of one of those huge tankers heading out across the Atlantic. All it takes is for the ship’s navigation system to be out by a fraction of a degree when it leaves the port, and the tanker misses its destination by hundreds of miles. So it is with our theology. Getting things even slightly wrong can take us places we really don’t want to go, places we never imagined we would ever get.
By way of example, I thought it would be good to talk about one of the more common heresies of our times. It’s a view we may hold without even realizing. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “the Word became flesh” in John chapter 1. So clearly, Jesus had a human body. But let me ask you: Did He have a human soul too?
If your answer to that is no, and you imagine Jesus as being a divine soul in a human body, that’s actually a heresy called Apollinarianism.
This teaching originated with a man called Apollinaris way back in the fourth century. (The early church condemned him as a heretic in 381.) Apollinaris was the bishop of Laodicea, a city which is name-checked in Colossians and Revelation, in the country we now call Turkey.
In an attempt to explain exactly how Jesus Christ could be both God and man, Apollinaris taught that the physical body of Christ was truly man, but that His mind wasn’t human at all, but divine. So in other words, the body and mind of Jesus were not both truly God and truly man. The body was truly man, and the mind was truly God.
Now, why does any of this matter? Well, if Jesus actually were as Apollinaris described Him, then Jesus would not be able to save anyone. He can save human beings precisely because He is a human being Himself. Only a human being can mediate on behalf of human beings. If He’s only partially human, then He can’t mediate for us, and He can’t die for us either. Hebrews chapter 10 reminds us that nonhuman sacrifices (for example, animal sacrifices) are powerless to atone for human sin. So if Jesus is only partly human, which would be the case if He lacked a human mind and soul, He can’t bear the punishment humans deserve on our behalf. Neither can He be the last Adam, sent to succeed where the first Adam failed. And so on. But thankfully, we have a great Savior: truly God and truly man.
It’s important to say that there’s a world of difference between being a “heretic”—someone who persistently teaches false doctrine—and someone who is simply mistaken, as all of us are at one time or another. It makes a world of difference if we’re teachable enough to do a theological course correction when necessary.
It’s also wonderfully comforting to remember that Jesus Christ is such a great Savior that He doesn’t depend on your perfect understanding of His truly human, truly divine nature in order to save you. The gates of heaven aren’t entered on the condition that you pass a doctrinal exam or can complete a tricky multiple-choice questionnaire about early church heresies.
Yes, it’s important to avoid these misunderstandings, because they can cause us to see Christ as less than He is and even ultimately lead us away from trusting Him. But our knowledge has no power to save us—only the truly God, truly man, Son of God can do that.