While I do eventually intend to address the subject of Creation vs. Evolution, here is a good article on the topic.
Thus far, I have gone over some of the core beliefs of Gnosticism, shown you some of the ways that it conflicts with Scripture, and highlighted some of the history involved. We have looked at the Nag Hammadi library, the Corpus Hermeticum, and have even taken a glance at a more modern example of Gnosticism known as “Mystic Christianity”. Now, we need to take a closer look and bring it into focus by showing who they are.
Who are they?
I will begin with a list of the various forms of Gnosticism that have shown up throughout history, along with a brief synopsis of their history and particular belief. Much of it will be unfamiliar, but there will be the odd name here and there that you just might recognize. Do note that this list will not be exhaustive, as the number of Gnostic groups that have sprung up in history is tremendous. If this is a subject that happens to catch your attention, by all means, chase down the information.
Valentinians: Valentinus (100 AD-155 AD) was a second century mystic and poet, who placed great importance in Gnosis. It was for this reason that he was labeled “Gnostic”. He was a disciple of the teacher Theudas who had supposedly been a disciple of Paul. He made the claim that Theudas taught him secret wisdom that Paul had taught privately to those in his inner circle.
According to the teachings of Valentinus, there were esoteric teachings which originated from Jesus who passed them on in secret. When Jesus spoke in public, he used parables that did not disclose his complete teachings; choosing to pass them on privately to His Disciples. He referred to this when he said: “The knowledge about the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but to the rest it comes by means of parables so that they may look but not see and listen but not understand.”(Luke 8:9-10; Ireneus Against Heresies 1:3:1). Similarly, when Paul encountered the risen Lord in a vision (2 Corinthians 12:2-4; Acts 9:9-10), he received the secret teaching from him. Valentinus claimed that he learned this secret teaching from Theudas.
Sethianism: This particular Gnostic sect hails from Egypt and Judea. While some have suggested that they are a pre-Christian Gnostic sect, there are those who would argue that they are also a true Gnostic Christian group.
The Seth that they venerate is Adam and Eve’s third son, Seth, who was born after Cain murdered Abel. He is typically regarded as God’s replacement for Abel, and seen as the father of all mankind, given that he is the direct ancestor of Noah.
According to Jewish texts, dating between the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, Adam gave esoteric knowledge to Seth that would eventually form the basis for Kabbalah, the Gnostic form of Judaism. The Book of the Zohar, a book on Jewish mysticism, refers to Seth as the “ancestor of all the tzadikkim” (righteous ones). (Zohar 1:36b)
While their belief structure is primarily Judaic, they also adhere to the standard Gnostic theology, with strong Platonic influence. They regard Seth as being a divine incarnation along the same lines as Jesus, and see his descendants as making up a higher elect within humanity. It is worth noting that Seth is listed as one of Jesus’ ancestors.
Naassene: Known only through the works of Hippolytus, this is believed to have been the earliest Gnostic sect to exist. This sect taught that there were three levels of Man:
1. Material, or Bound: unbelievers held captive solely by physical reality.
2. Psychic, or the Called: ordinary Christians.
3. Spiritual, or the Elect: the few chosen Naassenes.
They taught that the way to enlightenment lay with Gnosis and celibacy, possibly indicating why they did not last very long. There is very little known about the Naassenes, except that their theology was regarded as so close to the teachings of Jesus, they had to be the first to part ways with what would become orthodoxy. In spite of this, what could be drawn out from Hippolytus’ work shows the standard “material existence bad, spiritual existence good” beliefs of the other Gnostic religions.
How to fight them.
Part of me says, “Don’t bother.” The reason why is that they have taken Scripture and twisted it into such a way as to support their idea, and there is not a single thing you will say that will change their mind until they are genuinely ready to listen. At best, you can use the discussion as an opportunity to demonstrate the folly of this belief for the audience, if there is one.
That being said, should you choose to engage a Gnostic, knowledge is power. The more you know about the true history, and the philosophy, the better. I strongly recommend the following books, to further help:
“The Gnostic Gospels”, by Elaine Pagels
“The Fifth Gospel?”, by Nicholas Perrin
“Against Heresies”, by Irenaeus of Lyons
“The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics”, by Jean Doresse
These were of tremendous use in this series, and provided a lot of valuable information. As always, I encourage you to do your own research, and draw your own conclusions.
[Note: On Perrin’s, “The Fifth Gospel?”, this is not a book, it is an article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 49/1 (March 2006) 67–80]
Above all else, trust that the Lord will provide you with what you need. As Jesus said in Matthew 10:19, “do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour.” Remember to trust Lord Jesus, and not yourself. All else will flow from there.
This particular work hit my radar during a conversation with my younger sister. Like me, she is a lapsed Methodist, and like me, she strayed into a purely secular life after leaving the Church. The only difference between us is that I finally found Jesus, and she’s still mired in Sin. While neither of us intend to ever return to the UMC, based on our own reasons, I am still a firm believer in Jesus, and she is not. I have not ceased in praying for her, her husband, and their son. May they find their way back to the Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and may my nephew be brought up knowing the Lord.
What is the Corpus Hermeticum?
The Hermetica is a volume of work dating back to the Second Century. It takes the form of a series of dialogues between an instructor (Hermes Trismegistus) and his students, during which he enlightens them about the cosmos, the divine, the mind, and nature. Among the topics he covers, he includes astrology and alchemy, reincarnation, along with various related topics.
The entire collection is believed to have originated with the school of Ammonius Saccas, and is believed to have once been under the care of Michael Psellus, as the oldest known copies are 14th Century manuscripts. All of these works are remnants of the syncretic, intellectualized paganism of their era, a cultural movement that also included the Neoplatonic philosophies of the Greco-Roman mystery religions, late Orphic literature and which also influenced the Gnostic versions of the Abrahamic religions.
What does it teach?
While the teachings found in the Hermetica are heavily influenced by Judaism, like Gnosticism, it does teach that our universe was not created by the Supreme Being, but rather the Demiurge. Extant texts also focus on the oneness and goodness of God, the purification of the soul, and support various pagan practices like the veneration of images. Of course, their ultimate goal is spiritual enlightenment, but they tend to take a more practical approach.
“Seeing within myself an immaterial vision that came from the mercy of God, I went out of myself into an immortal body, and now I am not what I was before. I have been born in mind!” ( )
In this quote, what is apparent is a subtle reminder that the physical realm is something we must want to leave behind. The idea is to evolve beyond the physical, and find freedom, happiness, and enlightenment in the spiritual realm.
Another thing that the Corpus teaches is that there is one original religion, that all other religions contain a piece of that original religion, and that the Corpus contains the tenets from that faith. It also teaches that Jesus was not so much THE Son of God, as He was A Son of God. Just like Gnosticism, enlightenment leads to Salvation, which elevates us to the level of gods, thereby negating Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross by rendering it pointless. If we can achieve Salvation through Gnosis, then why did He need to die on the Cross for us?
This particular book is not a part of the Corpus, but was so very clearly influenced by it that it bore mentioning as a modern example. A few years back, I was exploring an old secondhand book shop and stumbled across this very interesting book. As it turns out, this book was the compiled collection of 12 lessons written by a man using the pseudonym “Yogi Ramacharaka”, but whose real name was William Walker Atkinson.
These lessons were published in the early 1900’s, and can still be found today. The quotes I’ll be providing in this and any future posts come from a pdf copy I downloaded for free. That is exactly how pervasive these heretical teachings are, and illustrates how easily the world gravitates toward Satan.
The book maintains that John the Baptist and Jesus were both Master Adepts and Occult Masters of the Essenic Brotherhood, and that the reason why John objected to baptizing Jesus had to do with the fact that He outranked him in the order. (Note that the Essenic sect of Judaism was an ascetic branch that lived near the Dead Sea, and were likely the authors of the Dead Sea scrolls. The Essenes lived a monastic life, avoiding life in Jerusalem, in favor of a cloistered one in which they constantly studied Scripture and served God.) It goes on to state:
“The Essenes believed in, and taught the doctrine of Reincarnation; the Immanence of God; and many other Occult Truths, the traces of which appear constantly in the Christian Teachings, as we shall see as we progress with these lessons. Through its Exalted Brother, John the Baptist, the Order passed on its teaching to the early Christian Church, thus grafting itself permanently upon a new religious growth, newly appearing on the scene. And the transplanted branches are still there!”
It can be plainly seen that “Mystic Christianity” teaches a form of Gnostic Hermeticism, which has managed to find its way into the modern age.
“Of course, the true history of the real connection between the Essenes and Christianity is to be found only in the traditions of the Essenes and other ancient Mystic Orders, much of which has never been printed, but which has passed down from teacher to pupil over the centuries even unto this day, among Occult Fraternities.”
It is also worth noting that there is no historical evidence to support the idea that these are the things that the Essenes believed. So little is known about them, but what is known is that they were ascetics who taught a very strict and severe form of Judaism, which has never believed in reincarnation. As for the Gnostic form of Judaism, Kabbalah, there is simply too much to be covered in this post. I may address it in a future post.
According to the Corpus Hermeticum, the Demiurge created the universe. It also insists that it contains the tenets of the world’s oldest and original religion. It seeks to justify both through Scripture, as well as outside sources. The fact of the matter is that this could not be farther from the truth.
This body of works actually teaches things that are absolutely contrary to what the Bible teaches, such as Gnosticism and Hermeticism. The challenge is not in proving that the teachings contained run counter to biblical doctrine, but rather in convincing adherents of this fact.
The truly funny part is that they will accuse the Church fathers of hiding the truth, in order to cement their positions of power, all while seeking to push an obvious fraud written centuries after Jesus, in an effort to subvert His effort to bring Salvation to Mankind.
In part four, we will explore the various ways in which we can combat the influences of Gnosticism, some of the different types of historical Gnosticism, and the Scriptural arguments against Gnosticism.
Discovered near the Upper-Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi, the Gnostic Gospels (also known as the Nag Hammadi library, or the Nag Hammadi Codicies) have managed to capture imaginations, and generate heated debate over what biblical canon ought to be, what it is, and why it exists in its current form. This collection is made up of 13 leather-bound Codicies, and contains 52 separate works, most of which are Gnostic treatises. Of the parts that are not, there are three works that are part of the Corpus Hermeticus, and a partially rewritten version of Plato’s “Republic”, complete with Gnostic themes that had not existed prior.
Since their discovery, much of the debate that has surrounded them has focused on whether or not they are to be considered biblical canon. For the majority of Christians, they simply are not considered Scripture for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that they are inconsistent with the actual biblical canon. In this post, we will explore why they are inconsistent, and hopefully dispel a few of the more interesting conspiracy theories.
In 1945, a man named Muhammad Ali and his brother were digging for fertilizer near the town of Nag Hammadi, when they unearthed a sealed clay jar. Though they were initially hesitant to open it, fearing that it might contain a Jinn (a type of Arabic demon, and where we get the English word “genie”), they were amazed to find the library carefully hidden within.
Rather than turn it over to local authorities, they chose to hang on to the library, in the hope that they would be able to get a really good price for each piece. The brothers took it home, and kept it there.
Through a series of events, virtually all of the library was eventually acquired by the Egyptian government, and is presently housed in a museum in Cairo. Of the parts that did not make it there, an unknown number were burned by Muhammad Ali’s mother, who feared that the codicies might cause too much trouble, and another part was eventually sold to an organization in the Netherlands, after it had been unsuccessfully offered for sale in the U.S.
Though the Nag Hammadi library was written in Coptic, some linguists have suggested that it had been translated to Coptic from Syriac, based on the wording of certain works, like the Gospel of Thomas. The prevailing scholarly opinion is that it was originally written in Greek, but there is a strong case to be made for a Syriac origin.
In his essay, “The Fifth Gospel?”, for example, Nicholas Perrin points to linguistic analysis to suggest that the Gnostic Gospels were in fact Second Century Syriac documents, rather than First Century Judean. He says, “As I have argued more fully elsewhere, the evidence seems to show that the Coptic
gospel is not so much a witness to the historical Jesus, but instead a witness
to early Syriac Christianity. Following a linguistic analysis of the Coptic collection, with particular attention to the use of catchwords, it appears that
Thomas was not written—per the standard and prevailing assumption—in Greek, as an evolving sayings collection, dating back to the first or early second century. Instead, it seems that our sayings gospel was written in Syriac, as a piece, showing dependence on the first Syriac gospel record,
Tatian’s Diatessaron (c. ad 173).”
A page from Perrin’s “The Fifth Gospel?” showing the comparison between the Gospel of Thomas, the Diatessaron (a Second Century Syriac harmonization of the Synoptic Gospels) , and Scripture.
According to Perrin, the wording in the Gospel of Thomas is more reminiscent of the Diatessaron than the actual Gospel accounts, suggesting that the Gospel of Thomas was derived from the Diatessaron, not from the Synoptic Gospels. What this means for the Gnostic Gospels is that they may well have been written in the wrong time and place, with the wrong content, to be Scripture.
While the Gnostic Gospels themselves were physically dated to the Fifth Century, it is the materials contained within that were dated to the Second Century. This would imply that the Gospel of Thomas was written in the Second Century, never mind the fact that he is not believed to have survived to the turn of the century. Historians place him in India in the late 70’s when he died, yet, the Gospel of Thomas is dated to somewhere between 120-150 AD. That disparity is rather difficult to ignore.
Do bear in mind that I’ve only chosen to focus my attention on one small portion of the overall library because it is so big a detailed analysis would end up becoming a series of its own. The idea is not out of the question, but for now, I plan on sticking with the more skin-deep approach. I trust that the person reading this is more than capable of doing their own research.
Going beyond the age of the documents, there are also the contents to be considered. What the Gospel of Thomas contains is a list of sayings attributed to Jesus throughout His ministry. Some are correct, others only partially so, and most find absolutely no correlation with what is found in the Synoptic Gospels. It runs the full gamut of credibility, however, it also completely lacks a narrative.
While some have suggested that the Gospel of Thomas is as old as the document commonly referred to as “Q”, the fact of the matter is that one would be hard pressed to make the case given the similarities between it and the Diatessaron.
Here are a few examples of what is found in the Gospel of Thomas:
#3. Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the (Father’s) kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the (Father’s) kingdom is within you and it is outside you.
#7. Jesus said, “Lucky is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human. And foul is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human.”
#9. Jesus said, “Look, the sower went out, took a handful (of seeds), and scattered (them). Some fell on the road, and the birds came and gathered them. Others fell on rock, and they didn’t take root in the soil and didn’t produce heads of grain. Others fell on thorns, and they choked the seeds and worms ate them. And others fell on good soil, and it produced a good crop: it yielded sixty per measure and one hundred twenty per measure.” (Similar to the Parable of the Sower)
Note that much of 14 appears to be the very characterization of Gnosticism, while one small portion actually pertains to something Jesus said. This is an example of what I was saying. It is not difficult to insert an outside influence into Scripture and make it sound good. What simply does not help is that people today seem to be unwilling to sit down and engage with Scripture. People do not want to learn, and will be easily duped when someone comes along with heretical teaching that sounds similar to some half-remembered verse they heard in Sunday school.
How They Fail the Test
In my post on what constitutes heresy, I made the point that biblical teaching must be consistent with what is found in the Bible. The Bible is, in and of itself, the final judge of what is Scripture and what is not. Each of the books in Scripture find corroboration with the other books. Both Testaments support each other, with high degrees of agreement. Anything that does not mesh with this system is not to be considered Scripture. This is why the Gnostic Gospels fail as Scripture. Gnosticism is not biblically supported, it is actually proved false by it.
In Part 3, we will take a look at the Corpus Hermeticus.
As I have already covered one heretical system, Mormonism, we will go ahead and count this as the second post in the series. This post will cover a heresy so ancient Paul was refuting it in his epistles, and so incidious we can still find it hiding in plain sight in most mainstream Denominations today: Gnosticism.
To begin, here are a couple of definitions, as ever, courtesy of Merriam-Webster:
Gnosticism (γνωστικός, pronounced gnostikos): the thought and practice especially of various cults of late pre-Christian and early Christian centuries distinguished by the conviction that matter is evil and that emancipation comes through gnosis.
Gnosis (γνῶσις): esoteric knowledge of spiritual truth held by the ancient Gnostics to be essential to salvation.
[Note: Merriam-Webster definitions do not include the words in the original languages. The original Greek provided comes courtesy of Strong’s Concordance.]
This definition is more than a little oversimplified out of necessity, as the topic of Gnosticism is a far-reaching topic, one with a history that begins two centuries before Jesus, and continues at least two centuries after. During the course of this post, we will take a stroll through the history of Christian Gnosticism, and cover some of the beliefs, with only a nod toward the thinkers who pre-date Jesus, and deal with its impact on modern theology. More will be covered in later posts as there is simply too much information for one post. As with my series on Mormonism, this will likely take up three or four posts.
In The Beginning…
The actual Greek movement, known as Gnosticism, is believed to have begun in the Second Century. This movement incorporated aspects of Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian Scripture, turning it into an amalgamation of the two.
The core beliefs of Gnosticism are as follows:
- Physical existence is evil, and the non-material, spirit-realm is good.
- There is an unknowable God, who gave rise to many lesser spirit beings called Aeons.
- The creator of the (physical) universe is not the supreme god, but an inferior and evil spirit known as the Demiurge.
- Gnosticism does not deal with “sin”, only ignorance.
- To achieve salvation, one needs gnosis.
This branch of Platonic philosophy emerged in the Third Century, and owes it’s influences to philosophers such as Ammonious Saccas, and Plotonus (204-270 AD). Their influence can be seen in the works of the Nag Hammadi library, and the Corpus Hermeticus, all of which incorporates the idea that physical reality is evil, that spiritual existence is good, and that one may only be saved by the possession of special, hidden knowledge. A modern example of Christian Gnosticism would be the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believe that Jesus’ resurrection was not a physical one, but rather a spiritual one.
This system doesn’t so much center around a set of ideas, as it does a series of thinkers. From Plotinus to Porphyry, Iamblicus, and a few others, they all had an influence on both Hellenistic Greece and early Christianity. It was so influential that Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars were discussing Neoplatonism for centuries beyond, and they still are, to a certain extent.
When I was in my early twenties, I had occasion to go live with my grandparents while I was trying to get myself established. My step-grandmother is a Wiccan, and my grandfather was Gnostic. I’d never heard the term before, so I had assumed he meant “agnostic”. Only now, that I’ve had the chance to study Gnosticism, has it occurred to me that he was a Gnostic. In hindsight, I can remember that he told me that sin is not what we were taught it is, but rather another word for ignorance. I did not know any better, so I did not think to ask too many questions. In hindsight, I realize that I should have.
While there are true Gnostics to be found in Pagan circles, we must contend primarily with the Christian Gnostics. To varying degrees, Gnosticism has either infiltrated our doctrines and theology, or it is found at the root of our doctrine and theology. Mormonism, for example, has a very strong Gnostic streak through it. The LDS church teaches that physical existence is evil, that spiritual existence is good, and that salvation and exultation are found in the special knowledge entrusted only to Joseph Smith, Jr., and his followers. In fact, if you are not reading his translation of the Bible, you are likely reading the wrong book altogether. Do not forget that the LDS Articles of Faith state that the Bible is the Word of God, so long as it is translated correctly.
Likewise, any church that teaches that physical existence is evil, that only spiritual existence is good, and/or anything else in line with the teachings of Gnosticism, is just as guilty as the Mormons. If you are teaching this, stop! It is heresy! Every time you declare the world to be evil, without making the distinction between the world of Man, and the planet we live on, you are declaring evil what Jesus declared “Good” on the sixth day of creation! I can well imagine He might have something to say about that.
A Lesser God?
According to their beliefs, Gnosticism teaches that our universe was created by an evil being known as the Demiurge. It also teaches that the Demiurge is not the Most High God, but rather a lesser god who only claims to be the Most High God. Additionally, it teaches that Jesus was sent by the Most High God to essentially fix what is wrong with physical existence. None of this is borne out in Scripture, but they have that covered.
Sin is Sin
According to Gnostic teachings, sin is nothing more than ignorance, and they believe that sin is only mitigated through the acquisition of esoteric knowledge. In other words, salvation comes only through study, meditation, and prayer, and not through faith or even works. It’s worth noting that some scholars also find a heavy Buddhist influence in Gnosticism, in case any of you were wondering.
In order to support their position, they go to great lengths to reinterpret Scripture, and turn it into a mangled version of itself. For example, I once debated a Gnostic who claimed that the Torah was not a historical record, but rather a coded message based on the deeper meanings of the early proto-Hebraic language, and that it fully supported Gnosticism. He also claimed that there is no connection between the Old Testament and the New, especially where Jesus’ teachings were concerned.
While Hebrew does have shades of meaning to the language, so much so that a lot of subtext does not make it into most English language translations, what he was proposing was so utterly ridiculous and contrary to thousands of years worth of Judeo-Christian scholarship that it absolutely left me wondering if he was actually joking. Sadly, I was to learn that he was absolutely sincere about what he was saying.
Each and every Scriptural point I made against his position, and there are many to be made, was greeted with a linguistic deconstruction of the Scriptural reference in ways that simply twisted it beyond recognition. Even when I pointed to passages where Jesus Himself was quoting directly from the Torah in the traditionally understood context, he responded by saying that it could not be the right interpretation because (insert linguistic breakdown here). He was so slippery, it was difficult to nail down an effective argument.
What I did find a bit effective, when dealing with the topic of sin, was the whole of the Tanakh. Even if they dismiss the Torah, you still have the Nevi’im (prophets) to work with, as well as the Kituvim (writings). Isaiah, for example, spoke extensively on the topic of sin, and how the Lord defined it. (Isaiah 1 for example) It is contextually defined in Scripture as the intentional separation of Man from God, through the violation of His Mitzvot (Commandments).
As Jesus came to stand as propitiation for the Sin of Mankind, any system that offers up Salvation but avoids the topics of Sin and the Wrath of God is easily and demonstrably false. That is just one of the crimes for which Gnosticism is guilty, there are more. The Gnostics have caused no end of problems for the Church, and we cannot be lax in our dealings with their heresy.
Coming up in Part II, The Gnostic Gospels, we will cover the history and teachings of this collection of heretical works.
“Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than truth itself,” (Irenaeus, “Against Heresies” 1.2)
[Note: For this post, we will need to define a few terms, so that we are all on the same page. Each definition presented comes courtesy of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the dictionary I tend to use most often, so if any wish to take issue with the definitions I have presented, take it up with the people who compile the dictionary, and not this guy.]
Heresy: adherence to a religious opinion contrary to church dogma
Dogma: a doctrine or body of doctrines concerning faith or morals formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church
In Christian terms, a heresy is a false teaching that contradicts what is found in the Bible. A person who teaches or believes such teachings is known as a heretic. Any Church doctrine, policy, practice, or teaching is heretical if it does not find justification in Scripture. Examples of heresy found within the Christian realm would be Arianism, Modelism (Sebellianism), Gnosticism, Decisionism, and the Prosperity Gospel. These are doctrines and teachings for which there is little to no Scriptural basis, as they either deny the Triune nature of God, the deity of Jesus, other essential Christian Doctrines and/or Jesus’ teachings in whole, or in part. In this post, we will take a look at what constitutes heresy, and maybe dispel a few myths that might be associated.
Where to Begin?
This post will be the beginning of a series on the various heretical teachings that can be found out there. Admittedly, I have already covered one such heresy, Mormonism, but that is just one of a whole host of heresies that the Church as whole has been unable to shake. As such, I will not be going into tremendous detail relating to the specific heretical teachings in this post, just giving a basic overview. While the names of some of these teachings might not be very familiar to some of you, their modern equivalents will ring more than a few bells, and my hope is that you will come away with more information with which you can use to disarm any arguments. Jesus did warn us about false prophets, false doctrines, and false teachers (Matt. 7:15-20), and these constitute some of the most dangerous of them.
To begin, we will discuss what the word Heresy means. It originates from the Greek word αἵρεσις (airesis), which means “choice, opinion” (Strong’s Greek Concordance #139). While the word did not originally carry the negative connotation it has been given today, the Church was beset early on by a variety of disparate and patently false ideas and teachings that ran counter to Orthodoxy. Though it was never their original intent to do so, these various teachings forced the early Church to deal with these heresies by answering the questions that arose from their teachings. One example of this is the Council of Nicea.
The Council of Nicea (325 A.D.)
This famous ecumenical council is the go-to for many anti-Christian critics when they want to attack the Doctrine of the Trinity, as well as the age and authorship of the Gospel accounts. They also erroneously insist that the Council named Christianity as the official state religion of the Roman Empire, at the direction of Emperor Constantine. (This actually took place roughly 55 years later, in 380 A.D., under Emperor Theodosius I with the Edict of Thessalonica.) I have lost count of the number of times a Unitarian or an Atheist has gleefully said to me, “You do know that the New Testament was written in the Third Century, right?” Sadly, this historically unsupported lie is really difficult to uproot, and I blame popular media and intellectual laziness for it.
No thanks to the efforts of people like Dan Brown, author of “The Da Vinci Code“, people have formed the opinion that Jesus was married, that He fathered a child, that He was only a man, and that the New Testament canon did not exist prior to this council. In “The Da Vinci Code”, for example, the character Sir Leigh Teabing insists that Jesus had been just a man prior to the Council of Nicea, and that one of the issues decided by the council was His divinity; basically stating that Jesus was an extraordinary man one day, and God the next,
“until that moment in history Jesus was viewed by many of his followers as a mighty prophet, as a great and powerful man, but a man nevertheless. A mortal man.” -Sir Leigh Teabing, “The Da Vinci Code”
Of course, this could not be farther from the truth, but the issue with popular opinion is that it is popular; blasphemy or no. Most people simply want to accept these ideas without ever trying to find out if they are true, and seem utterly confused when I point out that Dan Brown is not in fact a historian.
Once you take all of that into consideration, there is a question that does come to mind. If New Covenant canon and Jesus’ divinity were not in fact decided at the Council, what was the purpose to it, then? Why did they call the council, and summon every Bishop from the Christian world to what is now Turkey? Well, the primary purpose to the council was to address the heretical teachings of an Egyptian Presbyter named Arius of Alexandria. The main thrust of his teachings, known as Arianism, is that Jesus, though divine, was nothing more than a created being. He was not God incarnate, and there is no Trinity.
A modern day example of Arianism is Islam. Though not a part of Christianity, this is exactly what the Qur’an teaches about Jesus and God. Occurring a few centuries before the birth of Muhammad, the Council of Nicea excommunicated Arius and his followers, many of whom migrated to the Arabian peninsula and formed their own communities in places like Mecca, the hometown of Muhammad ibn Abdullah. Islam was heavily influenced by the Arian heresy, which shows in the Quranic approach to the Trinity. Take Qur’an 4:171 for example,
“Those who say, “God is the Messiah, son of Mary,” have defied God. The Messiah himself said; “Children of Israel, worship God, my Lord and your Lord.” If anyone associates others with God, God will forbid him from the Garden, and Hell will be his home. No one will help such evildoers. Those people who say that God is the third of three are defying [the truth]: there is only One God. If they persist in what they are saying, a painful punishment will afflict those of them who persist. Why do they not turn to God and ask his forgiveness, when God is most forgiving, most merciful? The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a messenger; other messengers had come and gone before him; his mother was a virtuous woman; both ate food. See how clear We make these signs for them; see how deluded they are.” (emphasis added)
What the council resulted in was less than ideal for Emperor Constantine, who had just legalized Christianity within the Roman Empire. He had presided over the council hoping to bring about unity within the Church. The result was the excommunication of Arius of Alexandria, the expulsion of his followers from the Church, and the formulation of the Nicene Creed, which is as follows:
“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
This creed had been meant to be as much a repudiation of Arianism as it was a declaration of an official Church position on the topic of the Trinity. It is worth noting that this creed is just as valid for Protestant Christians, Orthodox Christians, and any other type of true Christians, as it is for the Catholic Church. The reason why resides in the meaning of “catholic”. According to Merriam-Webster, catholic means, “of, relating to, or forming the church universal”. This creed is a basic overview of what true Christianity teaches. (In case any are wondering, yes, I will eventually address the Catholic/Protestant schism, and will weigh in on whether or not I believe Catholics are Christian. All in due time.)
How Did They Decide?
How did the ecumenical council at Nicea arrive at the conclusion they did? This moment in history did not show up out of nowhere. Considering that these men had spent their entire lives being persecuted for their faith, it is clear that compromise was not anywhere on their minds. Yet, two of the three groups attending were able to hammer out a consensus statement that has withstood the test of time. They had to have had some basis for this decision.
The groundwork was laid centuries before, when the Apostles and Disciples began their writings. Modern biblical scholars agree that the books and letters we now know as the New Testament, or New Covenant, had all been written before the early part of the Second Century. Over the course of the next few centuries, the early Church fathers wrote sermons, homilies, and letters, all of which account for such a huge volume of text that one could reconstruct virtually the entire New Covenant Scripture from them. These collected volumes of work are commonly referred to as “Patristic writings”. Through this, modern scholars have not only been able to determine what it is that was considered Scripture in those days, but also see how they interpreted what that Scripture said. Through this, they are able to determine whether or not something is sound doctrine.
One of the things they have been able to determine is that the entire New Covenant canon was unofficially laid out by the middle of the Second Century, and that the Council of Nicea simply made official what had already been put into place by the Christians themselves. This means that several key doctrines were already established by the time of the council, including the Doctrine of the Trinity, the Doctrine of Regeneration, and the Doctrine of Salvation by Faith.
History also shows that Arianism was not the first heresy to be addressed by the early Church. Contained within Paul’s writings are hints of heresy beginning to appear in the congregations at Corinth, Ephesus, Thessalonica, and Galicia. It would appear that a Greek philosophical belief known as Gnosticism was very quickly introduced into the Church, forcing Paul to address it just as quickly.
The Standard in the Text
If you were to go back through the Nicene creed what you would find is a direct reference to one of the ways the council arrived at their conclusions. One line states, “according to the Scriptures;”. Not only did they have access to the Patristic writings, but they also had Scripture itself to help them make a determination about whether or not Arius was correct in his teachings. As I have previously pointed out, the texts that point to Jesus as the Divine Messiah are extensive, so they would not have had to look far.
In addition to Scripture, and the Patristic writings, the men at the council also had access to the scholarly tradition of the Jews, along with that of early Christian scholars who had been in operation since the earliest times. Between these sources, we know that three is a definite standard. We begin with Deuteronomy, Chapters 13 & 18, which of course outlines how a person would be able to judge for themselves who would be a true prophet of God and who is not. These two chapters also provide an outline, an absolute standard that teachers must follow when teaching the Word of God.
The standard is:
- The teachings must not go against the Commandments, rules, or the expressed wishes of God, given through His Word.
- It must be consistent with the rest of the Bible, i.e. history, philosophy, and science must match up with what is known about the world around us.
- The interpretations of Scripture must be consistent with the original languages, culture, and history.
- They must be consistent with the teachings of the early Church, as found in the Patristic writings.
Their Reasons Were Not Self-seeking
There are some people out there who maintain that the theologians at Nicea came to their conclusions in order to consolidate their own power. What they fail to realize is that these men had survived to see the end of three centuries of outright persecution, having spent much of their lives facing the real threat of imprisonment, starvation, torture, and horrific execution. They had been abused, discriminated against, and outright persecuted for their faith, all without refusing to waver or recant. These were not the type of people who would have been concerned with their own comfort, or their own fortunes, and that is why they would not have been seeking to consolidate their own power. These were men of faith and substance who knew what they were about. In short, compromise was not in their vocabulary, which was unfortunate for Emperor Constantine because compromise was exactly what he had wanted.
As you can see, there are definite challenges that one must face in order for one’s teachings to be considered biblically sound. Decisions one way or another must not ever be made lightly, as this deals directly with matters relating to Salvation. The men of the council were clearly not motivated by greed or avarice, but rather Truth. While it might be possible that some members of the council might have had such motivations, it would be illogical and irrational to suggest that the majority or even the entirety of the council was.
What this means for the topic of heresy is that we get a clear standard of proof that cannot be disputed. The Council of Nicea is just one example of the Church dealing with heresy, and shows how that is to be done. When faced with a teaching we think might be heretical, our first stop is found within the pages of that wondrous volume of books made up of the Word of God. Delve into Scripture and determine for yourself the validity of a given teaching. Do be mindful, though, and check your understanding of Scripture with the Source. Never forget to go the Lord prayer and ask for understanding.
“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” -1 Thessalonians 5:21, KJV
The Enemy is tricky, but very clear in his goals. He wants to deny humans the free gift of salvation, and will do all he can to accomplish this. To that end, when you seek to share the Gospel with the public, he will go out of his way to prevent people from hearing it. Why? Simply put, he wants to destroy everything that God has made, especially us.
Tell me, does this sound familiar? You are sharing the Gospel, trying to tell someone about the Lord Jesus Christ and His free gift of salvation, when a critic comes against you and demands to know why you are there. They will say something like, “Why aren’t you in a soup kitchen, or doing something to help the poor and/or homeless?”, or “Why are you out here judging people and making them feel bad about themselves?” The general direction of their questioning is meant to imply that you are failing in your Christian walk because you are either delinquent in the command to care for the less fortunate, or because you are out there passing judgement. Overall, the implication is that you should have something better to do elsewhere, rather than hassling people in the public. They may even quote Matthew 7:1 (Judge not…) to you, in an effort to dissuade you from speaking out against Sin in general.
Additionally, you will encounter critics who will demand to know why it is that you, a sinner, feel that you have the right to speak out against Sin. They will ask what qualifies you to speak of the brokenness of other sinners, when you are a broken sinner yourself. They may even quote Matthew 7:1-5, in an effort to convince you that what you are doing is being hypocritical.
Before you can answer them, you must begin with the understanding that their goal is simply to silence you, and you must refuse to be silenced. It is the Enemy moving against you, in an effort to prevent people from hearing the Truth, and you cannot allow him to win. Now is the time that you ought to ask yourself how you would answer this line of questioning, if for no other reason than to know and understand why you are out there.
We Are All Broken Sinners
One of the most important aspects of the Gospel Message that we must all remember is that we are all broken sinners in desperate need of a Savior before our Almighty God. We must remember that we would all be condemned to hell were it not for the salvation offered us by Lord Jesus, who took our portion of God’s Wrath while He hung and died on the Cross. In Isaiah 64, this painful fact is beautifully spelled out with, “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” (Isa. 64:6, KJV)
What does this particular verse mean? Just what are “filthy rags”, and why was that example used? As it turns out, the original Hebrew speaks to something that is utterly defiled in the Levitical sense. In saying that we are an “unclean thing”, what’s being expressed is that we are polluted and defiled according to the Law of Moses. The word טמא (ṭâmē’) indicates that the people saw themselves as polluted and depraved.
“All our righteousnesses” indicates that all of our good deeds, everything we do that would otherwise be pleasing in the sight of God is tainted with the pollution of Sin, which means that it is useless in providing us with salvation. This is a beautiful affirmation of faith based salvation, because our works will not garner us right standing before the Lord. Do remember that the reason Abraham was declared righteous was because of his faith, not anything he said or did. (Gen. 15)
In truth, the word used for “filthy” (עדים ‛iddiym) is one that not only references the rags women once wore during menstruation, but indicates that they did not have a way to express the concept with more abhorrence. This description was as low as they could go. In this, they were comparing their righteous deeds with their version of a bloody tampon, in order to make clear just how the Lord views the greatest of our deeds, our thoughts, and our words! This is profound when you consider how many people in our world consider themselves to be “good people” because they believe that their good deeds outweigh their bad. It also makes our efforts to evangelize all the more urgent.
We are all broken sinners, deserving of condemnation. Knowing this, the Enemy tries to use it as a way to silence us. He tries to convince us that our status as broken sinners precludes us from speaking out against sin. I’m sure some of you are familiar with the saying, “Why would I hate someone for sinning differently than me?” The implication, of course, is that speaking out automatically equates to hatred, and no one wants to be seen as hateful.
The True Extent of our Dependence
In his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, Jonathan Edwards states, “The observation from the words I would now insist upon is this: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.” By the mere pleasure of God, I mean His sovereign pleasure, His arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty, any more than if nothing else but God’s mere will had in the least degree, or in any respect whatsoever, any hand in the preservation of wicked men one moment.”
What does that mean? The only thing keeping us out of hell is God? We exist in a state of constant rebellion and condemnation before Him, unable to truly come clean on our own, and He is the only thing keeping us from falling in? How amazingly profound is that?!
Imagine falling into a pig sty, and having to use only a package of baby wipes to clean yourself up before going to stand before a judge in a courtroom. No matter how thoroughly you scrub, you will never truly come clean! This is each and every one of us, and without Jesus of Nazareth we will all find ourselves standing before the Judge in an unclean and imperfect condition, reeking of filth.
Yet, in spite of living in that condition, day after day, for an entire lifetime, God freely gives us an opportunity to be made completely clean and new. I don’t mean just-stepped-out-of-the-shower clean, either. I mean it-never-happened clean. The kind of clean that sets God so far apart from His Creation that exposure to Him would turn us all to ashes. All He asks of us is to believe, to submit, and to repent, even unto death.
When you truly submit to Almighty God through His Son Jesus Christ something amazing happens. You feel as if someone has just lifted ten tons of weight off your shoulders. It’s an amazing feeling to suddenly lose a weight you never even realized you were carrying! As the Apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” Throughout his letters, Paul makes reference to the different ways that we change, to the ways we can tell if someone has truly converted, and even outlines for us which behaviors we should not accept amongst ourselves and why. The most pertinent to all of this would be Chapter 5 of his letter to the Galatians, in which he states:
“This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.
17 For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.
18 But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.
19 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,
20 Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies,
21 Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,
23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.” (Gal. 5:16-23, KJV)
In this passage, what Paul is trying to express is that we are to seek to live according to the Spirit, not the flesh. In the Complete Jewish Bible, it is referred to as our “old nature”, while the King James translates it as “flesh”. Either one works, and are appropriate for this purpose. The basic message here is that one can expect to see fundamental changes in themselves when they truly repent and submit. The desire of the Spirit is to supersede the desires of the flesh, and this overpowers any tendency towards carnality.
He even goes so far as to describe both sides of the coin, so that we may have a very clear picture. In verses 19-21, we have adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings. In verses 22-23, we have love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. In order for us to know if a transformative experience [conversion] has occurred within ourselves, or another person, these are the things to watch for. It is with great sadness that one must note that we see entirely too much on one side of the coin, and not enough of the other, in most churches today.
When reading through those lists, what becomes abundantly clear is that each and every one of us is guilty of one or more of the old nature offenses in violation of God’s Law. During His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus states that one commits adultery if they so much as look upon a woman to lust after her. He also states that hatred of your brother is the same as murdering him. These are just two examples of how we fall short of the glory of God, as Paul expressed it in Romans 3:23. As it is clear that these sins taint us, and the only way to be rid of them before our Lord is through the saving grace of our Lord and Savior, it is easy to see why people might decide that our choice to speak out seems a bit hypocritical, but they would wrong in that assumption.
The Great Commission
By this point, some of you might be wondering how it is that people who are so broken and sinful can justify standing before crowds of people and preaching about the brokenness of man, the wrath of God, and eternal life without hypocrisy. You might feel as if this is somehow impossible. The answer is simple. Jesus told us to.
In Matthew 28, we find that Jesus is finishing up His time on earth. He has already resurrected from the dead, and spent time with His Disciples and followers. He has spent 40 days instructing His followers on what they are to do once He is gone. The closing three verses of the chapter, verses 18-20 say, “And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.
19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”
Please note that this is the fulfillment of prophecy found in Daniel 7:13-14, “I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.
14 And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.” Of all the names and titles applied to Jesus, the one He called Himself most often was “Son of Man“, which becomes all the more significant when you look at these two passages together.
Here, we have the One known as Messiah, the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Lord of the Sabbath, the One who knew no Sin, and He is ordering all of His followers to go out and share the Good News (Gospel) of His Message, His Salvation. How can we disobey? He says it, it is. That is all there is to it. No matter who objects, even those in positions of authority, we simply must obey that dictate even under threats of violence, torture, imprisonment, starvation, and even death. As Jesus said in Matthew 10:28, “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
I’ve spent a lot of time considering what I would say here. I promised that I would write on this topic, as a way to help share the Word of God with as many people as possible. A lot of research, thought and prayer have gone into this, so bear with me. Some of this will be a bit dry and technical, but there is a reason for it.
One day I was on YouTube, watching a presentation by Dr. Frank Turek. For those who might not know, he is a Christian Apologist, and the author of a book entitled, “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist”. I strongly recommend that people study his work. It’s very insightful.
During his presentation, he made mention of something that I hadn’t really thought about, or considered. He said that 75% of all Christian teens sent away to college would leave the faith by the time of their graduation. I was staggered by that, given that my oldest is now 18. I mean, what does her future hold, if she has only a 25% chance of retaining her faith?
It goes deeper than that for me. You see, for much of her life, I was ambivalent about Christianity. I never renounced my faith, but more or less went into a kind of spiritual hibernation. The end result is, my two oldest kids received very little by way of spiritual instruction from me. I’m now working to fix that problem, especially given that my second oldest is 16, and will be a Junior this coming fall. I want to make sure he’s as prepared as I can make him.
Back in December I found myself embroiled in an online debate regarding Islamic Doctrine and its prescribed treatment of the Kafir, or unbelievers. Much to my surprise, I was facing down arguments from two Jews and three Muslims, all of whom argued strenuously against my assertion that Islam is a supremacist doctrine. I ultimately had to back out because I simply couldn’t keep track of who was saying what, and found myself struggling to avoid calling people by the wrong names.
During the debate, I noticed that all five of them were forming a unified front against Christian Doctrine. In short order, I was forced into the position of defending the Doctrine of the Trinity and the Messiahship of Jesus. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that I wasn’t prepared to argue these rather fundamental points.
This fight actually did me a huge favor, and I’m grateful to the men who helped me identify and fix these deficiencies. At the time of this debate, my knowledge of the Trinity and Jesus as Messiah were only skin-deep, given that the only training I’d received in these areas were half-remembered but utterly inadequate confirmation classes from a little more than two decades ago. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude, because they forced me to realize that I didn’t know my Lord and Savior as well as I should.
The Next Step
For the next several months, I sort of waded into a self-paced, self-designed study program, focusing on the Scripture surrounding Jesus, and His mission to bring salvation to all mankind. It began as a study of the Messianic prophesies found in the Old Testament, and eventually branched out into a study of Trinitarian texts associated with it.
It wasn’t long before I made a rather eye-opening discovery. Without the Trinity, much of the Messianic texts make absolutely no sense at all. Why? Many of those texts refer to a Messiah who is not only divine in nature, but who is God Himself. It quickly became clear that I would have to prove the Trinity before I can even think about arguing for Jesus as the Messiah.
I’ve been reading Scripture, found in both my copy of the Complete Jewish Bible and in my wife’s New King James Version Study Bible, as well as multiple other books. I’ve also watched and listened to numerous videos on YouTube, engaged in long conversations with my pastor, and basically worn a hole in Google, in my endless search for even greater knowledge of my Lord and Savior. I’ve also managed to acquire a decent library of books relating to Scripture, which I’ll be drawing on to build this series.
Not to be left out, I’ve also studied Jewish and Muslim materials, including the Qur’an, the Tanakh, the Talmud, the works of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, and various others, all in my pursuit of knowledge and understanding on these topics. What will follow this post is the fruit of that labor, shared in the hopes that I can inspire others to undertake the same journey I did. Believe me, it’s well worth it.
Well, without further ado, I shall take the time to close out this post, so that I may follow up with Part II. As always, I wish everyone a blessed day, and may the Lord bless all of you.