THIS MONTH WE BEGIN a new series with a rather provocative title: “Learning from the Heretics”.
What is heresy? Heresy may be defined as the distortion of Christian belief that could ultimately subvert, destabilise and even destroy the core of the Christian faith. As theologian Alister McGrath puts it poignantly: “Heresy lies in the show lands of faith, a failed attempt at orthodoxy whose intentions are likely to have been honourable but whose outcomes were eventually discovered to be as corrosive as Nikolaos Balanos’ iron clamps.”
According to this definition, heresy is an evaluative notion. It is the Church’s judgement on a set of ideas based on what she believes to be true. The fathers of the early church have always regarded the internal threat of heresy as more dangerous than the external threat of persecution.
Any student of Christianity would know that the history of Christian orthodoxy is often accompanied by the shadowy history of heresy. The plight of the pilgrim church was reflected in Samuel John Stone’s sobering hymn written in 1866, The Church’s One Foundation: “By schisms rent asunder / By heresies distressed”.
One of the earliest heresies to emerge from Christian soil is Ebionitism. Our knowledge of this early sect comes mainly from the translations of the Old Testament by the Ebionite Symmachus, and portions of the Pseudo-Clementine literature.
The Ebionites sought to promote a distinctive form of Jewish Christianity. Confusing Jewish and Christian elements, and heavily influenced by the Essene monks, they held fast to the validity of the Law of Moses. So uncompromising was their commitment to the Mosaic Law that the Ebionites regarded Paul as the true enemy of Jewish Christianity.
It was Paul who opposed the reintroduction of circumcision (Gal 5). And it was Paul who taught that righteousness is to be found in faith in Jesus Christ, and not by simply obeying the Law. To the Ebionites, Paul became the first antinomian who rejected God’s law, and an apostate from the true faith when he elevated Christ above the divine Law.
Consequently, it was the Ebionites’ Christology – their understanding of the person and work of Christ – that ultimately situated them beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy. For them, Jesus Christ was the true prophet of God, the new Moses, who alone was able to unite Judaism and Christianity. Thus, for the Ebionites, Christ was never divine, but merely “a man born of men”.
The Ebionites therefore rejected the doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ, the virgin birth and the incarnation. Furthermore, Jesus Christ was not always the son of God. He was adopted by God and anointed by God’s Spirit at a certain point in his life. Some Ebionites believed that this took place at Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist at the Jordan, while others (a minority) taught that Jesus became God’s adopted son at his resurrection.
As God’s adopted son and anointed prophet, Jesus was given a mission to announce the coming of the kingdom of God. The divine Spirit that descended upon him as he emerged from the waters of the Jordan empowered him for his mission and ministry.
The Ebionites taught that as God’s anointed prophet, Jesus came to fulfil the Law, not to abolish it. But according to them, Jesus fulfilled the Law by becoming its most perfect embodiment and by encouraging Jews and Christians to follow his impeccable example. There is no place in Ebionite Christology for the concept of Christ’s death as sacrifice and atonement. For them, the cross is unimportant and has no significance for salvation at all. What is important is the perfect obedience that Jesus exemplified throughout his life.
The Ebionites suffered from a particular impairment in their theological judgement that distorted their vision of Christ. They failed to grasp who Jesus Christ really was, the incarnated Son of God, who came to inaugurate a new covenant. They instead reduced him to a mere prophet who was different in degree but not in kind from the prophets of old. Although Ebionitism disappeared in the third century, other versions of Jewish Christianity have appeared in the history of the Church. Like their ancient predecessor, many of these later versions also fail to understand that “the law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves”. (Heb 10:1)
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.