The following is a list of some of the theological movements that are important to understand when studying Methodism ... in part because our Church's beliefs evolved to combat many of these movements. The first two listed are long-time heresies, having plagued Christianity for most of the past 2000 years. They were very strong in earlier eras, but can still be found active today.
Arianism is characterized by a denial of the Divinity of Jesus. Most Arians believed that Jesus was a human being who was adopted by God at his Baptism. Some Arians believed that Jesus wasn't Divine, but was more than Human by being an Angel who possessed a human baby to become Jesus. Modern day versions of the first form of Arianism are liberal academic scholars and others who prefer to talk about only the human Jesus, and want to avoid questions of divinity. Modern day versions of the second form of Arianism are Jehovah Witnesses.
If Arianism is the denial of the Divinity of Jesus, then Gnosticism is the exact opposite tendency -- it is the denial of the Humanity of Jesus. Gnostics didn't believe that Jesus was really human, but that His physical nature was only an illusion. They believed that the flesh was evil and that the purpose of the Christian existence was to escape the bonds of the flesh so that we can enter heaven. The way of doing this was to receive secrete, private revelations of God's knowledge, which explains the way to get out of the flesh and into heaven. Modern examples of Gnostic tendencies can be found in many protestant Churches, but are especially strong among some Pentecostal groups and among those Protestant and Catholic Christians who have a problem thinking or talking about Jesus as having a physical body, or of being capable of sin.
Beyond the classic heresies of Arianism and Gnosticism, there are several other heresies that are of particular influence even in modern day Churches. One of them is Pelagianism. Pelagianism is the belief that Adam and Eve's Fall from Grace didn't bequeath to humans anything other than a bad example. According to Pelagians, humans don't HAVE to sin, and can -- if we attain the proper knowledge of God's Will -- by our own free will, DO what God wants us to do, not sin, and achieve salvation. According to Pelagians, Jesus doesn't give us anything except (1) forgiveness of sins, and (2) a good example of how to live in God's Will. For Pelagians, NO Grace is needed to BE a Christian. For Pelagians, salvation depends entirely upon the human's will to respond to Jesus' teachings.
Most Pelagians today are legalists who view Christianity as more a set of rules and regulations than a living relationship with a Risen Lord. They don't deny the resurrection, but they do deny the normative Christian understanding of the purpose of the death and resurrection of Jesus. While Jesus' death does pay for our sins, we do not need anything other than right-teaching and a good example for us to be able to be "good Christians."
These three ideas -- Arianism, Gnosticism, and Pelagianism -- are theological ideas that we, as a denomination, oppose. Jesus is Fully Human, Fully Divine, and died so that we might live ... and live with the power and life of Christ within us.
© 1997, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
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