Is the worship of Jesus Christ idolatry?
Updated: Jun 18, 2020
#nestorianism / #apollianarianism / #hypostaticunion / #sabellianism / #eutychianism
The question sounds odd to our ears, doesn't it? This question was posed to me by a couple that was being very sincere about what they were asking. They are young believers. They love the Lord. They want to honor Him. I'm not sure what prompted the question, but I can guess that it was a family member or someone who had asked them this question. There are those in their life, as there are in all of our lives, that are not members of the kingdom of God and ask us these kinds of questions. We must always be ready to give a reason for the hope that lies within us (1 Peter 3:15-16).
The short answer to that question is "No". But, since Scripture teaches that one of the primary functions of a biblical shepherd is to equip the saints with proper doctrine so that questions like this can answered we will dig a bit deeper. The answer to that question is found first and foremost in what Scripture teaches concerning the person and nature of Christ in the Incarnation. It is also of value to see how this question has been brought up, or used as a cover for abuse, in certain heresies that threatened the Gospel when the church was still young.
In the attempt to hold to the unity of God and at the same time to grant the person of Christ the place of honor proper to Him, it is easy to fall into error. The first of those errors we will look at is named after its foremost proponent, Sabellius (AD 215) of the 3rd Century. According to His teaching, the three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, are not eternal realities, contained in the being of the Godhead, but they are modes, forms and manifestations in which the one Divine Being manifests Himself successively in the course of the centuries: namely, in the Old Testament, in the earthly sojourn of Christ, and after Pentecost. This heresy is more commonly known as Modalism. An example of a modern adherent to aspects of Sabelliunism would be Martin Luther King, Jr. While arguably one of the greatest civil rights reformers of the United States, he held to a denial of substitutionary atonement, a denial of original sin, a denial of the pre-existence of Christ, and a denial of the physical resurrection of Christ. You can find his paper stating these positions here - https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/humanity-and-divinity-jesus
In the 4th century there were a variety of false teachings that arose concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ. One of those was the heresy of Arianism, originating with the Alexandrian priest Arius (c.250–c.336). Arianism maintained that the Son of God was created by the Father and was therefore neither co-eternal (i.e. not God) with the Father, nor consubstantial (i.e. of the same essence). A modern example of this ancient heresy would be the cult of Jehovah's Witnesses. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of Athanasius, the Arians were cast out of the church, and the orthodox, biblical view of the deity of Christ prevailed. After decades of exegetical and theological arguments against Arianism, a church council was called in AD 381 at Constantinople. There, church leaders reaffirmed the decisions of the Council of Nicea (AD 325) on the deity of Christ, and the fact that the Holy Spirit is also truly God was also clarified. The end result was the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, which Christians around the world confess today, usually referring to it as the Nicene Creed.
We should note here that the creeds are not equal with Scripture, but they are useful tools in defeating false belief and heresy as they tend to focus the weight of Scripture upon select teachings or issues that arise. Examples of that in our day might something like the The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel (on Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and the cultural Marxism they were formed to promote), The Nashville Statement (on biblical sexuality), or The Danvers Statement (on God's immutable purposes for gender/sex). Each of these deals with dangerous ideological perils to the truth the Church is built upon by giving articulate and timely wisdom from God's Word as its applies to these specific issues. The author's may not refer to these as creeds, but they function the same nonetheless much like The Westminster Catechism (Long and Short), the 2nd London Baptist Confession 1689, and the unfortunately less detailed Baptist Faith and Message 2000. All of these have similar functions. I, for one, affirm all of these and am grateful for such confessions of faith as these and others.
After AD 381, debate and discussion continued concerning the person and nature of Christ, but the humanity of Christ became the new center of theological controversy. The important players in the initial phase of this argument were Nestorious, the bishop of Constantinople, and Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria. Nestorious, driven by a concern to preserve the full deity of Christ, began speaking of Jesus as two persons, one human and the other divine.
This view treats the nature of Christ, or Christology, perilously. First off, it presents a Savior with a divided personality—a being divided against Himself. The second issue is that it gives us a Redeemer who did not truly become Incarnate, or to put it another way, he did not assume our human nature fully. A dangerous outworking of this heresy is that God the Son did not truly unite Himself to humanity, which means that God the Son cannot offer a satisfactory atonement. That which is of infinite worth, the divine person, cannot give infinite worth to an atonement made according to finite humanity if the human nature and divine nature are not truly united in one person. The early church father, Cyril, argued that there had to be a true union of humanity and deity in Christ that preserved the distinctive attributes of each nature while making the divine person able to save human beings. An ordinary human being is finite, and his sacrifice cannot do anything for anyone other than himself. But a divine person with a true human nature is of infinite worth, so He can save the world. Cyril’s position was affirmed at the Council of Ephesus in AD 431.
Yet the Christological debates were not over. A variety of other heresies had to be addressed, including monophysitism. Eutyches (AD 375-454) was its proponent. His teaching came to the conclusion that if in Christ there was but one person, one self, present, then the two natures had to be so mingled and welded together that only one nature, a Divine-human one, would emerge from the blending.
In Nestorius the distinction of the natures was maintained at the cost of the unity of the person; in Eutyches the unity of the person was maintained at the cost of the duality of the natures. which held that the divine nature swallowed up the humanity of Jesus. That finally produces a Jesus who cannot save us because He is not fully human. After a long and vehement struggle, however, the church got beyond these disputes. At the Council of Chalcedon AD 451 it stated that the one person of Christ consisted of two natures, unchanged and unmingled (against Eutyches), and not separated nor divided (against Nestorius), and that these natures existed alongside of each other, having their unity in the one person. With this decision which, later, at the Synod of Constantinople in 680 was amplified and completed on one specific point, the century-long struggle about the person of Christ came to an end. What we have been left with is the biblical and orthodox belief that says Christ is one person with two natures, each nature retaining its particular attributes.
For us to understand how the Councils came to their conclusions we must address the concerns and teaching of Scripture. There the figure we encounter in the person of Christ on the pages of Scripture is a unique figure. On the one hand, He is very man. He became flesh and came into the flesh (John 1:14 and 1 John 4:2-3). He bore the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3). He came of the fathers, according to the flesh (Rom. 9:5), of Abraham’s seed (Gal. 3:16), of Judah’s line (Heb. 7:14), and of David’s generation (Rom 1:3). He was born of a woman (Gal. 4:4), partook of our flesh and blood (Heb. 2:14), possessed a spirit (Matt. 27:50), a soul (Matt. 26:38), and a body (1 Peter 2:24), and was human in the full, true sense. As a child He grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man (Luke 2:40 and 52). He was hungry and thirsty, sorrowful and joyful, was moved by emotion and stirred to anger. He placed Himself under the law and was obedient to it until death. He suffered, died on the cross, and was buried in a garden. He was without form or comeliness. When we looked upon Him there was no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised, and unworthy of esteem, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:2-3).
Not only was He according to His human nature conceived by the Holy Spirit; not only was He throughout His life, despite all temptation, free from sin; and not only was He after His death raised up again and taken into heaven; but the same subject, the same person, the same I AM who humiliated Himself so deeply that He assumed the form of a servant and became obedient unto the death of the cross, already existed in a different form of existence long before His incarnation and humiliation.
He existed then in the form of God and thought it no robbery to be equal with God (Phil. 2:6). At His resurrection and ascension He simply received again the glory which He had with the Father before the world was (John 17:5). He is eternal as God Himself, having been with Him already in the beginning (John 1:1 and 1 John 1:1). He is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end (Rev. 22:13); He is omnipresent, so that, though walking about on the face of the earth, He is simultaneously in the bosom of the Father in heaven (John 1:18 and 3:13) ; and after His glorification He remains with His church and fulfills all in all; He is unchangeable and faithful and is the same yesterday, and today, and forever (Heb. 13:8); He is omniscient, so that He hears prayers; He is the One who knows all men’s hearts (Acts 1 :24; unless the reference here is to the Father); He is omnipotent so that all things are subjected unto Him and all power is given to Him in heaven and on earth, and is the chief of all kings.
While in possession of all these Divine attributes, He also shares in the Divine works. Together with the Father and the Spirit He is the creator of all things (John 1:3 and Col. 1:5). He is the firstborn, the beginning, and the Head of all creatures (Col. 1:15 and Rev. 3:14). He upholds all things by the word of His might, so that they are not only of Him but also continuously in Him and through Him (Heb. 1:3 and Col. 1:17). And, above all, He preserves, reconciles, and restores all things and gathers them into one under Himself as Head. As such He bears especially the name of the Savior of the world. In the Old Testament the name of Savior or Redeemer was given to God, but in the New Testament the Son as well as the Father bears this name. In some places this name is given to God, and in some places it is given to Christ. Sometimes it is not clear whether the name refers to God or to Christ (Tit. 2:13 and 2 Peter 1:1). But it is Christ in whom and through whom the saving work of God is wholly effected.
All this points to a unity between Father and Son, between God and Christ, such as nowhere else exists between the Creator and His creature. Even though Christ has assumed a human nature which is finite and limited and which began to exist in time, as person, as Self, Christ does not in Scripture stand on the side of the creature but on the side of God. He partakes of God’s virtues and of His works; He possesses the same Divine nature. This last point comes into particularly clear expression in the three names which are given Christ: that of the Image, the Word, and the Son of God.
Christ is the Image of God, the brightness of God’s glory, and the express image of His person. In Christ the invisible God has become visible. Whoever sees Him sees the Father (John 14:9). Whoever wants to know who God is and what He is must behold the Christ. As Christ is, such is the Father. Further, Christ is the Word of God (John 1:1 and Rev. 19:13). In Him the Father has perfectly expressed Himself: His wisdom, His will, His excellences, His whole being. He has given Christ to have life in Himself (John 5 :26). Whoever wants to learn to know God’s thought, God’s counsel, and God’s will for mankind and the world, let him listen to Christ, and hear Him (Matt. 17:5). Finally, Christ is the Son of God, the Son, as John describes Him, often without any further qualification (1 John 2:22 if. and Heb. 1:1, 8), the one and only-begotten, the own and beloved Son, in whom the Father is well pleased. Whoever would be a child of God, let him accept Christ, for all who accept Him receive the right and the power to be called the children of God (John 1:12).
Scripture finally places its crown upon this testimony of Scripture by also allowing Him the Divine name. Thomas confessed Him already before the ascension as his Lord and his God (John 20:28). John testifies of Him that as the Word He was with God at the beginning and Himself was God. Paul declares that He is from the fathers according to the flesh but that according to His essence He is God above all, to be blessed forever (Rom. 9:5). The letter to the Hebrews states that He is exalted high above the angels and is by God Himself addressed by the name of God (Heb. 1:8-9). Peter speaks of Him as our God and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:1). In the baptismal mandate of Jesus as reported in Matthew 28:19, and in the benedictions of the apostles, Christ stands on one line with the Father and the Spirit. The name and essence, the attributes and works of the Godhead are recognized in the Son (and the Spirit) as well as in the Father.
Christ was God, and is God, and will forever remain God. He was not the Father, nor the Spirit, but the Son, the own, only-begotten, beloved Son of the Father. And it was not the Divine being, neither the Father nor the Spirit, but the person of the Son who became man in the fulness of time. And when He became man and as man went about on earth, even when He agonized in Gethsemane and hung on the cross, He remained God’s own Son in whom the Father was well pleased (had all His pleasure). It is true. of course, as the apostle says, that Christ, being in the form of God, did not.think it robbery to be equal with God, yet made Himself of no reputation and emptied Himself (Phil. 2:6-7). But it is a mistake to take this to mean, as some do, that Christ, in His incarnation, in the state of humiliation, completely or partly divested Himself of His Divinity, laid aside His Divine attributes, and thereupon in the state of exaltation gradually assumed them again. For how could this be, since God cannot deny Himself (2 Tim. 2:13), and as the Immutable One in Himself far transcends all becoming and change? No, even when He became what He was not, He remained what He was, the Only-Begotten of the Father. But it is true that the Apostle says that in this sense Christ made Himself of no reputation: being in the form of God, He assumed the form of a man and a servant. One can express it humanly and simply in this way: before His incarnation Christ was equal with the Father not alone in essence and attributes, but He had also the form of God. He looked like God, He was the brightness of His glory, and the expressed image of His person. Had anyone been able to see Him, he would immediately have recognized God. But this changed at His incarnation. Then He took on the form of a human being, the form of a servant. Whoever looked at Him now could no longer recognize in Him the Only-Begotten Son of the Father, except by the eye of faith. He had laid aside His Divine form and brightness. He hid His Divine nature behind the form of a servant. On earth He was and He looked like one of us.
In this union Christ in the unity of His person commands all the attributes and powers which are proper to both natures. It is always the same rich Christ who in His humiliation and exaltation commands the properties and powers of both natures and who precisely by that means can bring those works to pass, which, as the works of the Mediator, are distinguished on the one hand from the works of God and on the other hand from the works of man, and which take a unique place in the history of the world.
On the one hand, He then is and remains the one and eternal Son of God, who with the Father and the Spirit has made all things, sustains and governs them, and who therefore may remain the object of our worship. He was such an object already in the days of the apostles, even as He was then, and now yet is, the object of the faith and confidence of all His disciples. But He cannot and He may not be both of these things unless He is true God, for it is written: You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve (Matt. 4:10). The basis for the religious worship of Christ can be only His Divine nature, so that whoever denies this and yet maintains the worship becomes guilty of deifying the creature and of idolatry. The Divinity of Christ is not an abstract doctrine but something which is of the highest importance for the life of the church.
On the other hand, the Christ became very man and perfect man, like us in all things, sin excepted. He was infant, child, youth, and man, and He grew in wisdom and in favor with God and man (Luke 2:40 and 52). All this is not appearance and illusion merely, as those must say who hold that the Divine properties belong to the human nature, but it is the full truth. There was in Christ a gradual development, a progressive growth in body, in the powers of the soul, in favor with God and man. The gifts of the Spirit were not given to Him all at once, but successively in ever greater measure. There were things which He had to learn, and which at first He did not know (Mark 13:32 and Acts 1:7). Even though He was in possession of the not-able-to-sin state of being (i.e. impeccable), there was in Him, because of His weak human nature, the possibility of being tempted (yet not sin) and of suffering and dying. So long as He was on the earth He did not live wholly according to His nature in heaven, and hence He too humanly speaking had to live by faith in His Father's will. He fought and He suffered, and in all this He clung fixedly to the word and the promise of God. Thus He learned obedience from the things which He suffered, continually established Himself in obedience, and so sanctified Himself. And in this at the same time He left us an example, and became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him (Heb. 5:9).
You are quite correct that “worshiping man rather than God” would be idolatry, but the orthodox doctrine of the incarnation formulated at the Council of Chalcedon is emphatic that in the incarnate Christ there is one and only one, undivided person who has two distinct natures, one human and one divine. That one person is the second person of the Trinity, the Son, and is therefore divine. He is not a human person, nor is there another person who is Christ and is human. Thus, there is no human person named “Jesus of Nazareth.” He is divine. Jesus is a divine person, and careful theologians were careful never to refer to Jesus as merely a human person.
We as Christians worship the person - the fully divine person who is both the Son of God and the Son of Man - the Lord Jesus Christ. Since Christ is a divine person, and since there is no person who is Christ and who is only human, there just is no room at all for idolatry in worship. We take Him as He is - one person with two complete natures who is fully divine - and we worship Him as the Only Begotten of the Father.
Material from Berkhof's "Systematic Theology", Brakel's "The Christian's Reasonable Service", and commentary from Ligonier Ministries have been used as a part of this blog.
"Creeds of the Churches" - John H. Leith, 3rd ed., 1982 - are recommended for the formulaic creeds designed to dispel heretical understanding from the Church.