Backgrounds of the Restoration Movement: Heresy, Part 1 (Phinehas, the Nestorians)

passioncartoonFirst story

We all know about God’s covenant with Abraham.

(Gen 15:6)  Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

The Old Testament has a surprising parallel —

(Psa 106:19-22, 30-31)  At Horeb they made a calf and worshiped an idol cast from metal. 20 They exchanged their Glory for an image of a bull, which eats grass. 21 They forgot the God who saved them, who had done great things in Egypt, 22 miracles in the land of Ham and awesome deeds by the Red Sea. … 30 But Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was checked. 31 This was credited to him as righteousness for endless generations to come.

The Psalmist declares that Phinehas “intervened” and his work was credited to him as righteousness. What did Phinehas do to win such praise?

(Num 25:5-13)  So Moses said to Israel’s judges, “Each of you must put to death those of your men who have joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor.”

6 Then an Israelite man brought to his family a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. 7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand 8 and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them–through the Israelite and into the woman’s body. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; 9 but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000. 10 The LORD said to Moses,

11 “Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites; for he was as zealous as I am for my honor among them, so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them. 12 Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. 13 He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.”

Phinehas was a grandson of Aaron, and by virtue of his zeal for the Lord, his descendants were to be priests before God.

In Deuteronomy, the Law of Moses declares,

(Deu 13:4-5)  It is the LORD your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. 5 That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he preached rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery; he has tried to turn you from the way the LORD your God commanded you to follow. You must purge the evil from among you.

Abraham believed in God’s promises, and it was credited as righteousness. Phinehas killed an Israelite and his Midianite wife, who’d brought Baal worship to Israel, and that was credited as righteousness. Why did Paul use Abraham, and not Phinehas, as the foundation of his gospel?

In fact, many scholars conclude that that Paul consider Phinehas as his model — before Damascus. As Saul of Tarsus, Paul led an effort to purge Christianity from Judaism, surely seeking to follow in the footsteps of Phinehas and have his violence credited as righteousness. Saul approved the death of Stephen. And Saul of Tarsus was not alone. Phinehas was the hero of the Zealot movement, who justified taking up arms against the Roman idolaters on the same grounds.

But when Paul met Jesus (literally) on the road to Damascus, all thoughts of serving God through violence were gone. Paul taught righteousness through faith in Jesus — crucified and resurrected — the suffering Servant of Isaiah, rather than through zeal against heretics. We are to follow Jesus by following his example of service.

What happens when we equate a disagreement over the Bible with rebellion against God or idolatry? Well, like Saul of Tarsus we find ourselves following Phinehas rather than Abraham.

Second story

In the 5th Century, the church split over the Nestorian controversy. As explained by the Wikipedia,

Nestorianism is the doctrine that the two individual natures of Christ, the human and the divine, are joined in conjunction (”synapheia”) rather than in hypostatic union. The doctrine is identified with Nestorius (c. 386–c. 451), Archbishop of Constantinople. This view of Christ was condemned at the First Council of Ephesus in 431, and the conflict over this view led to the Nestorian schism, separating the Assyrian Church of the East from the churches adherent to the First Council of Ephesus, among them being the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Oriental Orthodox Church.

Nestorianism originated in the Church in the 5th century out of an attempt to rationally explain and understand the incarnation of the divine Logos, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity as Jesus Christ. Nestorianism taught that the human and divine essences of Christ are separate and that there are two natures, the man Jesus and the divine Logos, united in Christ. In consequence, Nestorians rejected such terminology as “God suffered” or “God was crucified”, because the humanity of Christ which suffered is separate from his divinity. Likewise, they rejected the term Theotokos (Giver of birth to God/Mother of God) as a title of the Virgin Mary, suggesting instead the title Christotokos (Giver of birth to Christ/Mother of Christ), because in their view he took only his human nature from his mother, while the divine Logos was pre-existent and external, so calling Mary “Mother of God” was misleading and potentially wrong.

Frankly, I think most modern day Protestants would find themselves preferring the Nestorian position to the orthodox position.

The controversy resulted in a split in the church, with Nestorian Christianity coming to dominate the world east of Palestine. Nestorians were effective missionaries, but their work was ignored in the West because they’d been declared heretics. Thus, tens of millions of believers, who spread the gospel from Jerusalem to Japan were forgotten by the European church. And when they were later persecuted to near extinction by the Moslems, the West paid very little attention. Why would we care about a bunch of heretics?

The result was for Islam to conquer Christianity in a world where the apostles themselves had once converted entire eastern nations.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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7 Responses to Backgrounds of the Restoration Movement: Heresy, Part 1 (Phinehas, the Nestorians)

  1. Alan says:

    What happens when we equate a disagreement over the Bible with rebellion against God or idolatry? Well, like Saul of Tarsus we find ourselves following Phinehas rather than Abraham.

    You can follow the example of both Phinehas and Abraham. The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact the whole point is that both of them illustrate how faith exhibits itself in action, and how God credits that kind of faith as righteousness.

    Paul's problem wasn't his zeal. The problem was that the zeal was misguided (unlike Phinehas). And that's also the problem IMO with the modern day conservative zealots.

  2. Todd says:

    I agree with Alan on this one Jay. Following the example of Phineas is not in any way shape or form a problem for a believer so long as we actually know what we are getting up in arms about. Many could argue – successfully – that your zeal for the gospel of grace, your willingness to combat the heresy of "works" salvation, and your faithful devotion to this medium is in keeping with that zeal.

    Saul of Tarsus's problem was not his zeal, but his understanding. He uses the same zeal for Christ. The difference being that Moses allowed us to spear God's enemies to defend the Truth while Jesus demands that we take the thrust ourselves.

  3. J. T. says:


    Paul renounced the misguided zeal of Saul as well as his violence. He retained his zeal for God. We need to do the same. We also need to recognize that "violence" does not have to be physical.

  4. Todd says:

    Then Paul did not renounce all violence. His writings retain quite an edge. A Godly rebuke is a violent act. It is also an act of love.

  5. J. T. says:

    Rebuke in the spirit of gentleness, considering your own vulnerability to temptation is hardly an act of violence. (See Galatians 6:1-2.) To run rough-shod over people's feelings while pointing out their faults is violent.

  6. Todd says:

    But the same phraseology offered in a "spirit of gentleness" by the speaker will be interpreted as running "roughshod over people's feelings" by the unwilling hearer. So the violence or non violence of my words are subjective?

    Truly a rebuke should be offered in love, but the act itself is verbal violence. Correction is often gentle, rebuke almost never. And Paul displays both gentle correction and verbal violence in his writings.

    Now we must raise the question – does our definition of violence force the word into a sharply negative light? Indeed the majority of modern references paint it so, but the word also means to compel, to use vehemence, highly excited moral action, that which produces a powerful effect.

  7. nick gill says:

    Again, we come to a place that Eugene Peterson addresses! 🙂 I think I already shared an extensive quote from The Jesus Way on the word we typically translate "of one accord" (I'm in a car headed to DC, so I don't have any resources handy).

    Eugene Peterson loves that word because he says Luke and Paul use it to capture all the passionate zeal of the Zealots without their violence.

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