The first ecumenical council was held in Nicea in 325; the second in Constantinople in 381. We note three reasons why a second council was necessary. Our last article (July 2020) noted that the church had to defend Nicea’s teaching that Christ is truly God because some continued to deny it. A second reason, which we consider now, is that some who defended Nicea’s doctrine of Christ’s divinity proceeded to give wrong explanations for how He is God. The Council of Constantinople was needed to declare how Christ is God against these wrong explanations.
The first “canon” (pronouncement) of the Council of Constantinople indicates that the Council dealt with these errors: “That the faith of the 318 Fathers who assembled at Nicaea in Bithynia, is not to be made void, but shall continue established; and that every heresy shall be anathematized, and especially that of the…[here are listed heresies that we noted in our last article]… Sabellians and Marcellians, and that of the Photinians, and that of the Apollinarians.”1
While the Arians had denied that Christ is God, Sabellius (200s; dates uncertain) went far in the other direction. That God’s Son was divine, he admitted; but that God was three distinct Persons in one Being, he denied. How, then, to explain that the Scriptures speak of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Sabellius’ answer was that God revealed Himself in the Old Testament as Father and Creator; when Christ came to earth, suffered, and died, He revealed Himself as Son and Redeemer; and from Pentecost on He revealed Himself as the Holy Spirit and Sanctifier. In other words, these three names do not refer to three Persons in the Godhead, but to three modes in which God revealed Himself to us. Sabellius’ view, therefore, became known as modalism.
Sabellius lived in the 200s. He had been condemned and excommunicated, and probably had died before the Council of Nicea met in 325. However, his views lived on.
Do you see the error in this teaching? It denies that God has three distinct Persons and, therefore, that He is a covenant God in His Being. Following this, the error denies that salvation is the work of God the Father, through Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit—the work of bringing sinners into God’s covenant life and bestowing covenant blessings. Some who understood the error pointed out the absurdity to which it leads: if God the Father is really the same as God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, then when Jesus died on the cross, the Father suffered and died!
Marcellianism and Photinianism
Like Sabellius, Marcellus (d. 374) taught that Christ was divine, and denied that God was three in Person. However, Marcellus modified Sabellius’ view; after all, the church had condemned it. Marcellus taught that God’s Son (Christ) was not eternal and did not come into existence before Jesus was born. God’s Logos (Word) was eternal. That Logos went forth when God created the world, and it entered Jesus when He was born. When Christ died, arose, and ascended, God’s Son ceased to exist, but His Logos continues.
Like Marcellus, Photinus (d. 376) also denied that the Son was eternal. Marcellus had tried to explain that Jesus had something divine in Him. Photinus viewed Jesus as simply a human being. Jesus was not God, nor did God dwell in Him. The Bible, when speaking of Jesus as the Son of God, simply teaches that Jesus was supremely human, an exemplary human, and became “divine” in His own power.
Do you see the problem with these teachings? If Christ is not everlasting, how can He make priestly intercession at God’s right hand? How can He declare the words of salvation as our chief Prophet and rule in our hearts as our eternal King? If He is not truly God, He never saved us when He lived on earth, and cannot save us today.
Apollinaris (d. 382) taught that Christ was God and that Christ took to Himself a human body. But how were the divine and human natures united in the person of the Son of God? Apollinaris taught that man consists of three parts—body, soul, and spirit (I Thess. 5:23)—and that man’s will was a function of his spirit. When Christ became human, He took to Himself a human body and soul. However, in the place of a human spirit, Christ possessed the divine Logos. In other words, Christ was human in two aspects, but divine in the third, in His will. This explained Christ’s sinlessness, according to Apollinaris, for sin is a matter of man’s will.
In this way Apollinaris denied that Jesus was completely and fully human. Sin has corrupted the whole of man. Certainly, sin also corrupted our will. To deliver us from the bondage of sin, Jesus Christ must be fully human. True, He must also be without sin—but not because the divine replaced part of the human. How could Jesus save us regarding our sinful wills if He did not have a human will? T
he Arians and semi-Arians said Christ was not God. Photinus did the same. The other heresies mentioned above said that Christ was God, but explained His divinity in a wrong way. The church needed to face the question of how Christ is God. The Council of Constantinople would do that.
What about the Holy Spirit? Is He also truly God? The wrong answers to that question were the third reason why the Council was necessary. We will examine that next time.