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Evangelicals’ Favorite Heresies

Listen to a three-part Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast series (January 6-9, 2015) on this topic: 

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

By Eric Johnson

In the November 2014 Christianity Today (CT) magazine is an article titled Evangelicals’ Favorite Heresies. It lists theological topics that apparently confuse many Evangelical Christians. Describing how they picked the respondents—which was done by Lifeway Research—the CT article explained:

Lifeway Research says the survey used was a balanced online panel in February and March. Of the survey’s initial 3,000 responses, this report looked at the 557 who came from Protestantism who described themselves as evangelical—which would be about 19 percent of the American population.

Assuming this poll was somewhere close to being accurate, we will consider the questions (in bold) while quoting from the notes we used for our broadcasts. And check out the Viewpoint on Mormonism radio shows on this topic!

Jesus is the first creature created by God?

According to the article, “nearly a quarter (22%) said God the Father is more divine than Jesus, and 9 percent weren’t sure. Further, 16 percent say Jesus was the first creature created by God, while 11 percent were unsure.”

See more here on the Book of Mormon.

The article went on to say:

No doubt, phrases like “only begotten Son” (John 3:16) and “firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15) have led others in history to hold these views, too. In the fourth century, a priest from Libya named Arius (c.250–336) announced, “If the Father begat the Son, then he who was begotten had a beginning. … There was a time when the Son was not.” The idea, known as Arianism, gained wide appeal, even among clergy. But it did not go unopposed. Theologians Alexander and Athanasius of Alexandria, Egypt, argued that Arius denied Christ’s true divinity. Christ is not of similar substance to God, they explained, but of the same substance.

Believing the debate could split the Roman Empire, Emperor Constantine convened the first ecumenical church council in Nicaea in A.D. 325. The council, comprising over 300 bishops, rejected Arianism as heresy and maintained that Jesus shares the same eternal substance with the Father. Orthodoxy struggled to gain popular approval, however, and several heresies revolving around Jesus continued to spread. At the second ecumenical council in Constantinople in 381, church leaders reiterated their condemnation of Arianism and enlarged the Nicene Creed to describe Jesus as “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” In other words, the Son is not a created being, nor can he be less divine than the Father.

Here are some biblical references that support the orthodox teaching of Jesus:

John 1:1-3: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

John 8:52-59: At this they exclaimed, “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that whoever obeys your word will never taste death. 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”

54 Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. 55 Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and obey his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

57 “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”

58 “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”59 At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.

Colossians 1:15-17:  The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Romans 9:5:  Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.

Revelation 1:8: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

God the Father is more divine than Jesus?

To show Jesus is a lesser “god” than the Father, many quote John 14:28, which says, “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.” The question is, what does it mean when it says “the Father is greater than I”? Is it possible for a person to be under another person’s authority, positionally, but still be equal in nature? Consider a boss who is, positionally, “greater” than his employee.  If the President of the United States walked into the room and I said, “Here is a man greater than I,” such a declaration is accurate. Although he is “greater,” this does not make him “better.” In the same way, Jesus humbled Himself and, though while equal to the Father in His essence, limited Himself in His authority. Such an idea is taught by Paul in the second chapter of his epistle to the Philippians:

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Notice, Jesus–being in “very nature (essence) God” allowed for humility to become human. Yet quoting from Isaiah 45, Jesus (not God the Father) is credited with having “every knee bow and every tongue confess.”

John 10:30-33, which says that I and the Father are one.” Notice the power of this statement in the following verses:

31 Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, 32 but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” 33 “We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”

Historically, the Trinity has always been considered an orthodox doctrine. The following analysis comes from our book Answering Mormons’ Questions:

Another objection to the Trinity is that it was a later invention of the Christian church. Opponents like to aim their artillery at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, though the Latin word Trinity apparently was formulated by the church father Tertullian (160–220) more than a century before the council. This gathering of bishops was convened to focus on the heretical view of a North African bishop named Arius who rejected the teaching that Jesus was God. Those opposed to the Trinity often bring up the name of the Roman emperor Constantine in an attempt to portray the Council of Nicaea as being used to promote a pagan concept of God. Actually, Constantine was not even involved in the debate and had nothing to do with the decision made at Nicaea.

Arius’s teaching in the early fourth century that Jesus was just a created being led to a real possibility of a church split. The council was called to deal with this specific issue. The result was the Nicene Creed, which explained that Jesus was truly God in the flesh. Recited every Sunday by numerous Christians all over the world, the creed says in part, “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of Him before all ages, 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.”

Christian pastor/theologian A. W. Tozer explained,

“For more than sixteen hundred years this has stood as the final test of orthodoxy, as well it should, for it condenses in theological language the teaching of the New Testament concerning the position of the Son in the Godhead.” (The Knowledge of the Holy, 21)

Mormon apologist Gilbert Scharffs writes, “Both before and after the Nicean council in AD 325, most Christians favored the view of a man named Arius.” (The Missionary’s Little Book of Answers, 22) The facts do not support this view. Indeed, fewer than two dozen bishops (out of approximately three hundred) attending the council were ever in favor of Arianism; by the time the council concluded, only two continued to hold to Arius’s position. Christian theologian Roger E. Olson writes,

According to one account, soon after the council opened someone called for a reading of the Arian position so that all could know exactly what was to be debated. At that point the Arians—or at least some of them—made a serious strategic error. Alexander and his bishops must have been delighted. Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia stood before the council and read a clear and blatant denial of the deity of the Son of God, emphasizing that he is a creature and not equal with the Father in any sense. . . . Before Eusebius finished reading it, some of the bishops were holding their hands over their ears and shouting for someone to stop the blasphemies . . . Apparently, in spite of circulating letters written by Arius and Alexander before the council, most of the bishops were naïve about how clear-cut the issue really was. They had come to the council hoping to hear something moderate—a mediating position between these two opposite views. When one of their own expressed the Arian side in such stark terminology, making clear that they considered the Son of God a mere creature, they were convinced that this was heresy. (The Story of Christian Theology, 154)

Therefore, biblically, historically, and theologically, Jesus is fully God and should be viewed as such by those desiring a correct understanding of the Godhead.

The Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being?

The Holy Spirit is less divine than God the Father and Jesus?

The CT article states:

But if evangelicals sometime misunderstand doctrines about Jesus, the third member of the Trinity has it much worse. More than half (51%) said the Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being. Seven percent weren’t sure, while only 42 percent affirmed that the Spirit is a person. And 9 percent said the Holy Spirit is less divine than God the Father and Jesus. The same percentage answered “not sure.”

As we concluded in AMQ:

Later, the doctrine of the Trinity was overwhelmingly confirmed in a fuller form at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. That council dealt a final deathblow to Arianism while refuting the heresy of Macedonianism, which taught that the Holy Spirit was not God.

Here are some verses to explain the Personhood of the Holy Spirit:

John 15:26: “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me.”

John 16:13-14: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.”

Matt.28:19-20: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Eph. 4:30:”And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”

Acts 5:1-4: “Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”

The Holy Spirit is referred to as a person, as a “force” could not be grieved or lied to. For good interpretative reasons, He is referred to in English Bible translations as a “he” and not an “it.” Having a correct understanding of the Trinity is vital for the believer who wishes to worship God “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).

People first seek God, then he responds with grace?

The CT article states:

Human nature and salvation were other areas of confusion for respondents. Two out of three (68%) said that a person obtains peace with God by seeking God first, and then God responds with grace. A similar percentage (67%) said people have the ability to turn to God on their own initiative. Yet half (54%) also think salvation begins with God acting first. In the fifth century, a British monk named Pelagius reportedly argued that people can choose God by the strength of their own will. Adam’s sin, he taught, did not sabotage human freedom, so we still have the ability to choose and follow God by the strength of our will.

His school of thought, known as Pelagianism, was denounced at the Council of Carthage in 418 and later at the Council of Ephesus in 431. A variation, known as Semipelagianism, cropped up shortly thereafter, affirming original sin but teaching that humans take the initiative in salvation. The Council of Orange in 529 rejected Semipelagianism as heretical, maintaining that faith is a gift of God’s grace and does not originate in ourselves.

As far as the ordus salutis is concerned, the Bible teaches that people—who indeed will ultimately respond to God’s calling—are drawn to the Father, as John 6:44 says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

Nobody can do this on his or her own. Down deep, sin taints each one of us. Psalm 14:3 and 53:3 put it this way: “All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” This theme is reiterated in Romans 3:

10 As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
11     there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
14     “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16     ruin and misery mark their ways,
17 and the way of peace they do not know.”
18     “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.

If a person is dead in his sins, as Ephesians 2:5 puts it, then how can a dead man choose anything?

People must contribute their own effort for personal salvation?

God loves me because of the good I do or have done?

The CT article says,

More than half of survey participants (55%) said people have to contribute to their own salvation. This, however, is a debated issue. Some Christians—such as Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and certain Protestants—believe humans cooperate with God’s grace in salvation. Others believe our efforts can contribute nothing, though a response to God’s grace is a necessary element of conversion. Nevertheless, historic Christian teaching in all branches maintains that whatever role humans play is ultimately inspired by the work of God’s Spirit. The Council of Orange put it this way:

If anyone says that God has mercy upon us when, apart from his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock, but does not confess that it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought; or if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7), and, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).

At this point, the Latter-day Saint may want to point to James 2:18-20 in support of works being necessary for a person’s justification (salvation). This passage reads:

18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. 20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?

The idea that good works somehow can justify a person before God is contrary to scripture. Consider Ephesians 2:8-9:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

Just in case somebody might claim that this passage must minimize good works, it is necessary to quote verse 10 as well:

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Thus, just after saying we’re not “saved” (justified) by good works, Paul goes on to say that good works are a result of who we are. It is vital that we distinguish between justification (made righteous by grace through faith) and sanctification (good works done in response to the saving grace). There is no conflict with James. Indeed, “faith without works is dead,” and for the person who claims to be justified but has no fruit (either in his or her doctrines or good works), then such a person is a liar and the truth is not in them. Good works are a product of a genuine faith.

Other biblical verses support this notion. For example:

Romans 3:28: For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.

Galatians 3:6: So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Galatians 3:10-11: For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11 Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.”

Titus 3:4-5: But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. . .”

The Book of Mormon is a revelation from God?

The poll showed that about a quarter of all Evangelicals either agree with or just don’t know if the Book of Mormon is historical and scriptural. Without many details provided in the CT article to understand how this question may have been interpreted (i.e. we wonder if some of these folks had never read the Book of Mormon and didn’t want to judge its message by just saying “they didn’t know” rather than “the Book of Mormon is not a revelation from God.),” we’re not sure how to take this statistic. We certainly hope that knowledgeable Christians would not be fooled to think that the Book of Mormon is either based in history or somehow commissioned by God.

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