Theological Terms

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

The following is a list of some of the theological movements that are important to understand when studying Methodism. Understanding them is crucial, in part, because the Methodism's theological approach uniquely addresses 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, and can still be found active today.

Arianism is characterized by a denial of the divinity of Jesus. Fundamentally, there are two different versions of Arianism: the first believed that Jesus was a human being who was adopted by God at his baptism. The second version of Arianism asserts that, while Jesus wasn't divine, he was nevertheless still more than a simple human being; essentially, these Arians believed that, prior to his incarnation, Jesus was an angel who then possessed a human baby in named Jesus of Nazareth. Modern-day versions of the first version of Arianism are often found among academic scholars of the Historical Jesus school. These New Testament scholars usually prefer to view any references to Jesus' divinity as being part of the later accretion of Church tradition and interpretation to the "simple, early Jesus story" about a good and wise Rabbi who ran afoul of Jewish and Roman authorities. As for modern-day examples of the second version of Arianism, these are almost always 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, at best, 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 they can enter heaven. The way this was accomplished was through the receipt of secrete, private revelations from God's; these revelations were understood to explain the way to shed oneself of the flesh and enter into heaven. Modern-day 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 at least theoretically 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 according to God's Will. For Pelagians, no grace is needed for one 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. In their way of thinking, while Jesus' death may well pay for our sins, we do not need anything other than correct 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 Methodists 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 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from