The Christological Heresies: Apollinarianism

During the first five centuries after its conception, the church was forced to deal with several different heresies concerning Christ. In fact, the church was forced to formulate a concise universal statement about the nature of Christ (Nicene Creed), because of the many differing heresies proposed during its infancy.

Most of these heresies centered around the nature of Christ, his humanity and divinity. How divine was Christ, really? How human was Christ, really? And how do these natures interact with one another?

In the next few blog posts, I want to consider a few of the more famous Christological heresies. In this post, I want to consider what is called the Apollinarian heresy:

By the fifth century, it became orthodox to believe that God in Christ had assumed a full human nature for our redemption. The eastern church had coined a phrase which is still prominent today: “God became man that man might become God” — and by that, they meant that God became fully man, that we might participate fully and redemptively in His very life. The thought was that if God wanted to assume and redeem mankind back into fellowship with him, he needed to become fully human in the incarnation to raise us back to glory.

One bishop name Apollinaris (after whom was named this heresy), however, was uncomfortable with affirming that God the Son became fully man. To him, to become fully man was to taint the divine nature.

Allister McGrath explains:

Apollinaris of Laodocia had anxieties about the increasingly widespread belief that the Logos (God the Son) assumed human nature in its entirety. It seemed to him that this implied that the Logos was contaminated by the weaknesses of human nature. How could the Son of God be allowed to be tainted by purely human directive principles? The sinlessness of Christ would be compromised, in Apollinaris’ view, if he were to possess a purely human mind. Was not the human mind the source of sin and rebellion against God? Only if the human mind were to be replaced by a purely divine motivating and directing force could the sinlessness of Christ be maintained. For this reason, Apollinaris argued that, in Christ, a purely human mind and soul were replaced by a divine mind and soul: “The divine energy fulfills the role of the animative soul and of the human mind” in Christ. The human nature was thus incomplete. (Historical Theology, 47)

Apollinaris thus promoted the view that the divine nature of Christ “replaced” the human soul and mind, protecting him from the corruption of human sin. One can almost picture the human nature of Christ like a puppet. The problem with this view of course, was that it made Christ not fully human. He merely appeared to be human, but was in fact only outwardly human, not having a human mind or soul.

The early church rejected this notion for one massively important reason: if Christ was not fully human, he could not fully redeem the human race! If the goal of redemption was to welcome fully humanity back into fellowship with the Godhead, how can a half-human Christ redeem whole humanity?

Gregory of Nazianzus, theologian of the fourth century, replied famously to Apollinaris by saying: “what has not been assumed has not been healed”. If Christ did not assume a “fallen” human mind, or soul, how can the mind and soul be redeemed? The answer is that it cannot!

McGrath explains:

For Gregory, only aspects of human nature which have been united to divinity in the incarnation are saved. If we are to be saved in the totality of our human nature, that totality must be brought into contact with the divinity. If Christ is only partly human, then salvation is not possible.(ibid, 49)

The biblical record of course agrees with this. Hebrews 2:17 says that Christ…

had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people”.

Christ had to be made like his brothers “in every respect”. What this means is that while God the Son had a fully divine nature, he also had a fully human nature. For this reason, Christians affirm that God the Son is one person with two natures. When asked who was acting in the person of Christ, we answer the eternal Logos. But when we ask about the what, we must reply: full divinity and full humanity.

Why grace could never be “made up”


A large part of Paul’s letter to the Galatians comprises arguments for why Paul’s gospel is of God, and not of man. Apparently some had accused Paul of making up his gospel of free grace (Gal 1:11) for the purpose of pleasing man (1:10). Some thought that free, unearned, salvation was too easy! So they figured that Paul was making salvation free in order to win a crowd.

Paul spends the bulk of his letter (1:10-2:21) trying to prove that his gospel is in fact not of man, but actually direct revelation from God (1:15-16).

One of the first arguments that Paul provides, is that his gospel could never be “made up”, because humans are by nature religious. Paul says in verse 14 that he could never think up grace himself, because before he was saved, he was aggressively “advancing in Judaism”. In other words, Paul was too busy trying to work his way to heaven to concoct this concept of grace. He was too immersed in trying to earn God’s favor to think up the gospel of Christ.

And I believe that this is true of anyone. Grace is not a concept that is natural to us. Humans by nature like to build their resumes. We naturally want to work for what we get. To us, for someone to receive what they didn’t pay for, is offensive. And the reason is simple: they didn’t earn it, so they shouldn’t have it.

Grace is by its very nature, is offensive to us. But in fact, this is the way that God has chosen to work. He chooses to love us, not because of any merit within us, but simply because of the lavishness of his mercy. This is what Paul says in Galatians 1:15-16: God “set [Paul] apart before he was born“. God’s love was set on Paul before he had done anything “good” to earn it! God’s love was directed toward Paul before he had even known who God was. This is the nature of grace. It is unmerited love. Grace has no consideration for deservedness or lack thereof. And this is why it is offensive. We want to earn it! We want the credit! Yet grace gives God the credit. It gives God the glory (Gal 1:4). Because God does all the work in Christ to bring us to himself.

Ryken, in his commentary on Galatians, says this of Paul’s arguments:

Not surprisingly, the religions that human beings invent always end up glorifying human beings. There is some law to keep, some teaching to follow, some ritual to perform, some penance to endure, or some state of consciousness to achieve that will bring salvation. One way or another, we can climb up to heaven and reach God.

Christianity is different. What distinguishes it from other world religions is that it actually comes from God. The one true gospel is not man-made, which is why it gives glory to God. The good news of the cross and the empty tomb could come only from God because it is about what God has done to save us through Jesus Christ. It does not teach that we can reach up to heaven; it teaches that God has come down to earth. In Christ, God has entered human history and the human heart.

…As Luther put it, “The knowledge of Christ and of faith is not a human work but utterly a divine gift”

Revival vs. Revivalism


Doug Wilson contrasts the difference between what a revival is, and what revivalism is. He says,

Revival, which is a gift of God, has been turned into a work of man through theological confusion. The result is revivalism, not revival…

In a true revival, doctrine is the emphasis, and the doctrine is God-centered. In revivalism,… man is [at] the center, [and] feelings are emphasized. In [true] revival, truth overwhelms the mind, resulting in an emotional response — inexpressible joy. In revivalism, the emotions are excited directly, and any number of teachings, true or false, can do that…

In a true revival, the change in the moral behavior of those blessed is significant and lasting. With revivalism, very little is done to teach the people to restrain their passions. In fact, because the “revival” encourages a lack of restraint in the church, it is not long before a lack of restraint is evident elsewhere, usually in the area of sexual immorality (1)

I couldn’t agree more with Wilson. Revivalism is about emotions, the show, the lights and the smoke. But it is all mustered up. It is all planned, without any consideration that God’s Spirit is the One who brings about real revival.

But, in true revival, God is at the center, with healthy teaching, and a biblical emphasis. And true revival is brought about through the Word and prayer by God’s Spirit, bringing about conviction, salvation, and passionate repentance. 

For more consideration of this, here is a great conversation between Keller and Carson on revival. Some great thoughts here:

(1) Easy Chairs, Hard WordsDoug Wilson

What did Paul mean when he said, “you’ve fallen from grace”?


Paul, in the height of his letter to the Galatians, says in Galatians 5:4,

You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace

What does Paul mean by this? Many have claimed that Paul here is teaching conditional security (as opposed to unconditional); the thought that one can lose their position in Christ, no longer being saved.

But is this what this passage is teaching? I really don’t think so.

First of all, from the context, Paul was not speaking about the status of one’s salvation. Paul here (as he has been addressing throughout the entire letter) was speaking of the method of salvation. Meaning, Paul wasn’t arguing whether someone is saved; his primary concern here and all throughout Galatians was how one becomes saved. And in Galatians, Paul had been arguing for free salvation through faith in Jesus, and against works-based, self-meritorious salvation.

And in fact, the Galatians had been duped by false teachers into thinking that the way someone is saved is through adherence to specific laws and outward obedience. They were tricked into thinking that if they obeyed enough, that they would be accepted and loved by God. But Paul was arguing that people are saved not on the basis of merit, but on the basis of grace. People are not saved by performance, or by outward actions, or by righteous deeds, but by the performance of Another; namely, by the performance of Jesus.

With this context in mind, I think it is clear that in Galatians 5:4 Paul was telling his readers that by attempting to win God’s approval through works, they were operating in a crippling system of legalism and works-righteousness, as opposed to salvation by grace.

In this light, Paul was not saying that people can sin their way out of salvation. He was not introducing this concept that a Christian could out-sin God’s grace, or forfeit their salvation through licentious living. In fact, Paul never had this concept in his head when he brought out this phrase “fallen from grace”. It is ironic that some mean “lose salvation” when they say “fall from grace”. But again, given the context of the entire book of Galatians, this cannot mean what Paul meant. And in fact, with Jesus’ perfect work being the ground of salvation, the thought that a Christian could out-sin grace would have been detestable to Paul.

In reality, when Paul said that the Galatians had “fallen from grace”, he was referring to the deadly thought that anyone could ever work their own way into salvation. Paul was refuting the Galatians’ legalism, not their licentiousness (Paul does renounce licentiousness in Romans 6 — but not here). Again, we cannot miss the context of this phrase.

So then, the Galatians had fallen from grace in that they were trying to earn the love of God with their own works. They had fallen from grace in that they thought their works could somehow merit God’s approval. They had fallen from grace in that they were not trusting the merit of Jesus, and in his sin-atoning death to attain the love of God for them.

But Paul was not saying that they had lost their salvation.

Rather, Paul was reminding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He was reminding them that the only way they could win or earn or achieve any type of love or acceptance from God was through the life and death of Jesus. Because through faith in Christ, Jesus’ perfect performance was given to them. And all of their sin was hoisted onto Jesus and punished in their place. Jesus had already done all the work. He had already lived the perfect life. He had already atoned from the sins of his people. And for that, those who had believed were already beloved children in the Father’s eyes (Mark 1:11). Why should they severe themselves from this truth? Why should they remove themselves from this grace? Paul was writing to make sure they understood where their righteousness came from.

James Boyce, commenting on this verse, says, “to ‘fall from grace’, as seen by this context, is to fall into legalism. Or to put it another way, to choose legalism is to relinquish grace as the principle by which one desires to be related to God”.

When our own works are the principle by which we relate to God, we are fallen from grace.

The Reformers on Works-righteousness

“For if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal 2:21).

John Calvin, from his commentary on Galatians, writes,


Hence it follows, that we are justified by his grace, and, therefore, not by works… If we could produce a righteousness of our own, then Christ has suffered in vain; for the intention of his sufferings was to procure it for us, and what need was there that a work which we could accomplish for ourselves should be obtained from another? If the death of Christ be our redemption, then we were captives; if it be satisfaction, we were debtors; if it be atonement, we were guilty; if it be cleansing, we were unclean. On the contrary, he who ascribes to works his sanctification, pardon, atonement, righteousness, or deliverance, makes void the death of Christ.

Martin Luther, from his commentary, says:

martin luther

Is it true that Christ suffered death or not? Did he suffer in vain or not? Unless we are quite mad, we have to answer that he did indeed suffer, not in vain or for himself, but for us… Take the…law, which contains the most perfect religion and the highest service to God — that is, faith, the fear of God, the love of God, and the love of our neighbor — and show me anyone who has been justified by it. It will then be true that Christ died in vain, for anyone who is justified by the law has power to obtain righteousness by himself… If you grant this, it must follow that Christ died in vain… Are we to allow this horrible blasphemy that the divine Majesty, not sparing his own dear Son, but giving him up to death for us all, should not do all these things seriously but as a sort of joke? I would rather see all the saints and holy angels thrown into hell with the devil. My eyes will see only this inestimable price, my Lord and Savior Christ.


The Offense of the Cross

offense cross

“But if I brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed” – Galatians 5:11

In this magnificent letter, Paul writes the Galatian church who had been inundated by false teachers. These teachers had come into the Galatian fellowship, and had started preaching salvation by self-merit. In fact, they went so far as to force the Gentile Galatians to become Jewish and to follow the Mosaic Law (Gal 5:1-12). Paul therefore wrote this letter to defend his gospel of salvation by Christ’s merit, not our own.

In this letter, Paul had to argue on a myriad of levels in order to convince his hearers that his gospel was the true gospel. Because of this, Paul gave many differing defenses of his gospel.

One of Paul’s defenses for his gospel was the fact that he was being persecuted heavily for preaching it (by both Jews and Gentiles — the persecution was just as bad on either side). In fact, in Galatians 5:11, Paul called his message “the offense of the cross”. Apparently, for Paul, the fact that his preaching was an offense to man was confirmation of the validity and veracity of his gospel. And in fact, Paul did offend most of his hearers. Over the course of his ministry, his gospel earned him scores of beatings, mockings, imprisonments, and banishments. And this was for Paul a good thing, because it meant that his gospel was about Christ and not him.

In contrast, however, Paul mentioned repeatedly that the false teachers who were misleading the Galatians had not been mistreated or persecuted at all for their message. Paul said that they preached their message of salvation by self-merit in order to be praised. He argued that the false teachers preached their “gospel” in order that they might be esteemed by others (Gal 4:18), and boast in themselves (Gal 6:13). In fact, Paul accused the teachers of preaching salvation by merit for the very purpose of avoiding persecution (Gal 6:12).

One question that we have to ask from all this is: what was so offensive about Paul’s gospel? And, what was so non-offensive, even self-promoting about these false-teachers’ message?

I think the obvious answer is merit: Upon whose merit are you attempting to be saved?

The false teachers preached a gospel of self-merit. It was a salvation that depended on proving yourself worthy of love and acceptance by God. It was a gospel that esteemed human willpower and morality. It was a gospel of self. And for this, these false teachers were praised (and they loved the it!), because the message boasted in its hearers. It was a message of, “You can do it! Just follow the rules!”

In contrast, Paul preached a gospel that pleaded the merit of Another. It was a gospel that despaired of human ability. It disparaged of self-will, and insulted the moral capacity of men. Instead, Paul’s gospel pleaded and hoped in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It found acceptance in Christ’s righteousness, and forgiveness through Christ’s death. It was a gospel that boasted in Christ alone, through whom we die to the world and find acceptance, love, and fellowship with God (Gal 6:14).

This was what Paul was trying to highlight when he gave attention to the false teachers’ need and desire for praise. They had a man-centered gospel! And, this is why Paul highlighted his own persecution. He had a Christ-centered gospel; one that was offensive to his hearers. It was a message of offense — and Paul did not want that offense removed, even if it led to his own martyrdom (which it eventually did).

James Boyce comments on Galatians 5:11, saying, a man-centered gospel is “part of a system that seeks to attain standing before God through merit. In opposition to this, the cross proclaims man’s complete ruin in sin, to the degree that nothing he does or can do can save him, and thus also proclaims man’s radical need for God’s grace. The natural man does not understand such teaching (1 Cor 2:14) and, in fact, hates it, because it strips away any pretense of spiritual achievement”.

Luther adds to this, saying, “God forbid, therefore, that the offense of the cross should be taken away. This would happen if we should preach what the prince of this world and his members would be glad to hear — that is, the righteousness of works”.


A Different Gospel? How False Teachers Mislead the Church


Is there another gospel besides the gospel of Christ? Of course, the answer to this is a resounding “no”. But it is interesting that in Galatians Paul calls the false message given to the Galatian church “a different gospel”. He exclaims to them, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6).

It should be apparent that Paul is using hyperbole. And he is using this language to highlight the absurdity of the Galatians’ actions in turning to a false message. James Boice comments on Galatians 1:6-7, saying that Paul’s statement in verse 6 “might suggest that there are after all various gospels among which a Christian may choose. This is the opposite of what Paul is saying”. Paul’s statement here was one of sarcasm and hyperbole. And in fact Paul says in verse 7, “not that there is another [gospel], but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of grace”. Boice says that Paul wants to clarify that “there cannot be another gospel as long as the gospel is understood to be God’s way of salvation in Christ”.

But why does Paul use this hyperbole, calling the false teachers’ message a “different gospel”? Why wouldn’t Paul simply tell us from the outset that their message is dangerous heresy? I think that Paul wants to make a point by calling this false teaching a “gospel”. First off, when you read through the book of Galatians, the false teachers were not opposing the Christian God. In fact, they were claiming to have more apostolic authority than even the apostle Paul! This is why Paul spent the first 2 chapters of Galatians defending his ministry. Second, they weren’t even denying the work of Christ. In fact, they were claiming that their doctrine was in more alignment with Christ than Paul’s! Lastly, they were claiming that their teaching was the teaching of true Christianity.

In this way, these false apostles were truly clothing themselves in a false version of the true gospel. Spurgeon once said that the difference between the true gospel and false teaching is not the difference between black and white. It’s more subtle than that! The difference between true and false teaching is the difference between white and off-white. For this reason, these apostles peddled a gospel so similar to the true gospel, that the Galatians were misled, and had nearly thrown off Christ altogether (Gal 5:2). In fact, these teachers were affirming Christ’s work; but, they were also adding to his work. “Yes Christ, but also Judaism was their gospel. They claimed that if one were to be truly justified before God, they must have Jesus as Messiah and adherence to the Mosaic Law. Interesting that these false teachers never once opposed Jesus (outwardly at least), but slyly added a work on top of it.

For this reason, their message looked so much like another gospel, when if fact it was blatant heresy. But this is how false teachers work — they clothe themselves in just enough truth and mix it with lies.

John Stott wisely says, “the church’s greatest troublemakers (now as then) are not those outside who oppose, ridicule and persecute it, but those inside who try to change the gospel…Conversely, the only way to be a good churchman is to be a good gospel-man”.

Martin Luther, in his great commentary on Galatians adds, “here we see the devil’s tricks. No heretic comes to us claiming errors and the title of the devil; nor does the devil himself come as a devil in his own likeness…In spiritual matters when Satan appears white, like an angel of God himself, he disguises himself in a most deadly way and offers for sale his most deadly poison instead of the doctrine of grace”.

Let us then be good Gospel-men, who can tell even the difference between white and off-white. Because this is the only way we can recognize the true gospel from a false one.