The Rise of Christological Heresy

by Simon Turpin on September 9, 2023

The most important question ever is who is Jesus Christ? Is he the eternal Son of God or just a created being like us? Well, a 2022 survey showed that professing Christians’ understanding of the Lord Jesus is slipping, as more than half held heretical views about him.1 According to the survey, only 54 percent agreed that “There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” An astonishing 73 percent agreed with the statement that “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.” Given this belief, it is not surprising that 43 percent affirmed that “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.” False beliefs regarding the identity of Jesus are not new but have been condemned throughout church history as heresies, such as Sabellianism, Subordinationism, and Socinianism. Each of these heretical positions continue to this day but just under different names (see below).2

This biblical truth is what Christians call the doctrine of the Trinity.

To understand the deity of Jesus, it is important to define what Christians believe about the doctrine of God, as many objectors to the deity of Jesus misunderstand what Christians believe about the triune nature of God. The biblical teaching on the nature of God (YHWH, יהוה) is that there is one true being of God (Deuteronomy 6:4; Isaiah 45:5) who exists eternally as three coequal and coeternal distinct persons: the Father (Isaiah 63:8; Philippians 1:2), the Son (Isaiah 63:9; John 1:1, 18), and the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 65:10, 14; Acts 5:3–4).3 This biblical truth is what Christians call the doctrine of the Trinity. All Christological heresies deny the doctrine of the Trinity.


In the early third century, an obscure Roman theologian named Sabellius (c. AD 217) taught that God is only one person who acts as the Father in creating the world, the Son in redeeming sinners, and the Holy Spirt in sanctifying believers. For Sabellius, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were not three distinct persons, but only one person acting in three different ways. Sabellianism is also known as Monarchianism (monos, one, and arche, principle = monarchy) or Modalism because it sees the Son and the Holy Spirit as simply “modes” of the Father’s acting, rather than distinct persons. The denial that the being of God is shared by three distinct persons is found in modern-day Oneness Pentecostalism. Sabellianism was popular in the early church because it gave people a way to believe in the deity of Jesus while holding to the oneness of God. However, in doing this, Sabellianism failed to maintain the personal distinction between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.4

Sabellius believed that the Father and the Logos (Word), were the same person, and therefore, it was God the Father who became flesh as Jesus Christ. However, this contradicts what we know about the Word (cf. John 1:14, 18), who is the person Jesus (cf. Revelation 19:13).

The Apostle John opens his Gospel with the words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).5 John 1:1 teaches three things: (1) the Word is eternal; (2) the Word has had an eternal relationship with the Father; and (3) the Word, as to his nature, is deity. First, the Word has eternally existed (cf. John 1:15, 8:58, 17:5). The Word (logos) was (ēn)6 already there in the beginning, but not as something that came into being. This not only indicates the eternality of the Word, but there is a pointed contrast between the Word (that precedes everything) and everything else that comes into existence. The Word was (John 1:1), but everything else became (ginomai) (John 1:3; cf. 1:6).7 In John 1:1–3, the Word’s preexistence and continuous being is contrasted against the “becoming” of all created things. Second, the Word has an eternal relationship with God (the Father, John 1:18). John describes the Word as being with (pros) God, which is a relational term showing that the person of the Word was with the person of God the Father (cf. John 6:46; 1 John 1:2). Third, the Word, as his nature, is deity. The Word is not only distinct from God (the Word was with God), but the Word is God (theos).8 John 1:1 clearly shows that the Word (Jesus) is personally distinct from another who is called God; he is not a different God but possesses the same nature as the one whom he is with—the Father (cf. John 5:18).9


Subordinationism is the belief that Jesus is different in nature than the Father. In the fourth century, the Alexandrian presbyter Arius (AD 256–336) started teaching that the Father alone was God. Arius argued that the Son (Jesus) was the first and greatest of all that God had created and that God created everything else through the Son. By teaching this, Arius believed he was defending the truth that there is only one God. Arius believed that the deity of Jesus would mean that the Father and Son were two separate Gods, which would, in his view, contradict the Bible’s teaching that there is only one God.10 Arius’ view meant that Jesus is subordinate to the Father, as he is a created being. Arianism is still around today in Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestant Liberalism. However, it is not sound thinking to say that Jesus is a creature and Creator; those two things do not go together. The authors of the New Testament clearly see Jesus as the Creator of all things (see John 1:3; Hebrews 1:3).

By describing Jesus as the “firstborn over all creation” (NKVJ), Paul is saying that he is the absolute ruler over all creation.

In Colossians 1:15, the Apostle Paul says of the Son (Jesus), “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Like Arius, the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Paul’s statement teaches that Jesus was a created being. However, this resembles the view of the ancient Colossian heresy that Paul had to combat. The Colossian false teachers advocated the idea that Jesus was the first of many other created mediators between God and men. By using the specific Greek word prōtotokos, “firstborn,” Paul rules out the idea of Jesus as a created being. “Firstborn” does not mean “first created.” Rather, Paul uses a term that was based on the ancient designation of the authority, or preeminence, metaphorically given to the firstborn (cf. Exodus 4:22). In the same way, David, the youngest of Jesse, was named “firstborn” who ruled Israel (see Psalm 89:20–27). If Paul had wanted to describe Jesus as a created being, he could have used the Greek word protoktistos, which means “first created.”11 So why didn’t he use it? Because Paul did not believe Jesus was created. By describing Jesus as the “firstborn over all creation” (NKVJ), Paul is saying that he is the absolute ruler over all creation.

In fact, in Colossians 1:16, Paul absolutely rules out the idea that Jesus is a created being, because he presents Jesus as the Creator of the entire universe which exists by his creative power: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” The reason Jesus can create all things is because “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). The Greek word for “deity,” theotēs, refers to “the state of being God.”12 The verb “dwells” (katoikeō) is in the present tense and suggests that the indwelling of the Son in bodily form is permanent (cf. John 1:14). Whereas Arius believed Jesus was subordinate to the Father, Paul sees the Son (Jesus) as being equal with the Father with respect to his deity (Colossians 1:15, 2:9; cf. Hebrews 1:3).


Socinianism is a theological movement that believes God is one singular person. Socinians reject the triune nature of God and argue that the Bible teaches that Jesus was not a divine person but is simply the one Lord Messiah (an exalted human being).13 Socinianism is a form of subordinationism but is distinguished from Arianism because it doesn’t view Jesus as existing prior to his conception. Socinianism came out of the radical Reformation and developed in Poland during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It derives its name from the Italian theologians Laelius Socinus (1525–62) and his nephew Faustus Socinus (1539–1604), who denied almost all the basic tenants of the Protestant Reformation (original sin, substitutionary atonement of Jesus, and justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ). Due to his rationalist approach to Scripture, Faustus Socinus denied the Son (Jesus) was by nature God and believed his resurrection and ascension made him into an “adopted God.” Although the name Socinian is not commonly used in our modern-day context, Unitarians are essentially the theological descendants of Socinians.

A passage Unitarians always quote to try to prove their point is John 17:3, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Unitarians believe this shows that only the Father is God. However, Jesus does not say that only the Father is the true God, as he has already identified himself as divine (John 5:18, 8:58). Moreover, according to Jesus, to have eternal life is to know two persons: both the Father and Jesus (see John 14:6–7, 16:3). Knowledge of God cannot be separated from knowledge of Jesus, as knowing Jesus is the only way to know God (John 14:7). Jewish monotheism (unlike Unitarianism) could contain the idea that the Messiah was divine (Psalm 45:6, 110:1, 5; Isaiah 9:6; Jeremiah 23:6) and that together with the Creator, he could give life (see John 5:25–26). But when Unitarians bring up John 17:3, they often neglect to mention that two verses later Jesus says, “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5). Jesus is speaking of the glory he shared with the Father before the world existed. The words “before the world existed” show that Jesus’ sonship did not begin at his baptism or resurrection (as many Unitarians believe) but is an eternal sonship (John 1:1, 8:58). John 17:3–5 is an example of a divine (John 1:1), yet incarnate (John 1:14) person—the Son—communicating with a divine, but non-incarnate person—the Father in heaven.

Jesus is the only one who can save his people, because as God-incarnate he gave his perfect life as a ransom for sinners on the cross (Matthew 20:28).

The name Jesus (YHWH is salvation) is theophoric (a name that bears God’s name).14 Unitarians often point out that there are many people in Scripture who have theophoric names, such as Isaiah (YHWH will save), Daniel (God is my judge), Joel (YHWH is God), and Nathanael (gift of God), but it doesn’t mean these individuals are God. This is true, but it is evident that Jesus’ name (YHWH is salvation) identifies him as God, “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21, emphasis added). Matthew is telling us that Jesus is YHWH who saves. No one else in Scripture who has a theophoric name can save people from their sins—only Jesus can (cf. Matthew 8:25). Jesus is the only one who can save his people, because as God-incarnate, he gave his perfect life as a ransom for sinners on the cross (Matthew 20:28). Matthew also identifies Jesus as “God with us” (Matthew 1:23; cf. Isaiah 7:14). New Testament scholar Craig Keener notes, “In view of Matthew 18:20 and 28:20, Matthew clearly understands ‘God with us’ in Isaiah 7:14 to mean that Jesus is truly God.”15

Sabellianism, Subordinationism, and Socinianism are old heresies that are still around and are again gaining ground in the church. The only way for churches to avoid these heresies is by emphasizing sound doctrine (such as the deity of Christ) in our teaching and preaching (cf. Titus 1:9, 2:1, 2:13).


  1. The three questions quoted in this article are statements 2, 6, and 7 in the 2022 State of Theology survey that was conducted by Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway Research,
  2. Many of the Apostle Paul’s greetings in the New Testament refute Sabellianism, Subordinationism, and Socinianism because they recognize the deity of Jesus and the distinct personhood of the Father and the Son (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:2; Philippians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:2; 1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2; Titus 1:4; Philemon 3). Paul ordinarily refers to the Father as God (theos) and Jesus as Lord (kyrios) (once, Jesus is referred to as Savior—Titus 1:4). The Holy Spirit is either mentioned within the context of those greetings (Romans 1:4; 1 Corinthians 2:4–5; 2 Corinthians 1:21–22; Ephesians 1:13–14) or later in the letter (Galatians 3:2–3, 4:6; Philippians 3:3; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Timothy 3:7, 4:1; Titus 3:5).
  3. The three persons are identified as YHWH (the Father in Isaiah 64:8; the Son in 1 Corinthians 8:6; the Holy Spirit in 2 Corinthians 6:16) and are equal in power, glory, and worship (cf. Ephesians 4:4–6; 2 Corinthians 13:14). The persons of the Trinity are numerically identical to the divine essence (YHWH) but numerically distinct from each other as to their personhood.
  4. Nick Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power: The Age of the Early Church Fathers, vol. 1 (Scotland: Christian Focus, 2016), 135–136, 419–420.
  5. When the Apostle John refers to the Word (logos) he has the Old Testament in mind (not Greek philosophy), as it often speaks of God’s Word as his self-expression in creation, revelation, and salvation (Jeremiah 1:4; Isaiah 55:11; Psalm 33:6; 107:20).
  6. The Greek verb ἦν (ēn) is an imperfect form of the verb εἰμί (eimi, I am) and is used to show continuous action in the past.
  7. When John uses these verbs in the same context, ēn implies “existence” and egeneto [ginomai] implies “coming into being.” For example, in John 8:58, “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was [became], I am.’” Whereas Abraham became (genésthai [ginomai]), Jesus preexisted (egō [eimi]).
  8. In John 1:1: “kai theos ēn ho logos” (“and the Word was God”), the subject of the verse is highlighted by the article (ho logos, the Word), and God (theos) is a predicate nominative; theos does not take the article, it comes before the linking verb “was” (ēn), and therefore tells us that the Word is deity.
  9. For the deity and personhood of the Holy Spirit, see John 14:16–17, 26, 15:26, 16:13–14.
  10. Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, 219–220.
  11. See Bruce M. Metzger, “The Jehovah’s Witness and Jesus Christ: A Biblical and Theological Appraisal,” Theology Today 10, no. 1 (April 1953): 77.
  12. Joseph H. Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 288.
  13. If Jesus is not divine (uncreated) and is only human, it does not matter how much of an exalted human he is, there is still an infinite divide between him and God. An exalted human could not sit down at the right hand of God (Hebrews 1:3; 10:12).
  14. In Greek, the name Jesus (Iēsous, Ἰησοῦς) is a form of the Hebrew name Joshua (yᵊhôšûaʿ, יְהוֹשׁוּעַ).
  15. Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009), 97.


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