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Patristic Christology – Lecture 3B

October 18, 2007

Lecture 3-B:
Patristic Christology
by Fr. Andrew Younan


Christology in the Patristic Period

Fr. Andrew Younan

Part I – History

This first lecture on Christology will give a very broad overview of the history of the question. [A], the problem itself will be presented. [B], there will be an overview of the heresies eventually condemned by the Councils of the Church and the immediate response of the contemporary Fathers. [C], there will be a presentation of the current scholarship on the issue. Thesecond lecture will focus on the definitions and condemnations of the Councils of the Church rather than on any particular writers. The final lecture will examine how the Church of the East dealt with the issue.


A. The Problem

After the Apostolic Age, in which the New Testament was written, debates arose about its interpretation, especially regarding the question of who Christ is. Because this question is ultimately beyond our understanding, even the authors of the New Testament, inspired as they were by the Holy Spirit, struggled to find human language to express a Divine reality. There are many places in Scripture where Christ is called “man,” and many places where his Divinity is strongly affirmed, though nowhere that simply says “Jesus is God.” This led to a variety of expression within the Church in explaining who Christ is. Is he a man united to God? Is he God who became a man? What do these phrases mean? How can we understand how Christ is at once true God and true man?

Again, the tension in finding language to express this is found already in the Bible. Between St. Paul and St. John, for example, there is a large divergence of terminology and mode of expression, though the sensitive reader can see that they are both straining to speak of the same reality. For example, Paul’s boldest declaration about Christ comes in these terms: “In him the whole fullness of Divinity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9), whereas John portrays Christ using God’s holy Name revealed to Moses, “Yahweh,” or “I Am,” when he responds to the Jews and says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham was, I Am” (John 8:58). These are two examples of how complex is this question, and they show why there was a debate over it in the early Church.

The subject should therefore be approached humbly. Mar Isho’dad of Merv (c. 850 AD), in his Commentary on the Gospels, lists many difficult passages in Scripture next to their counterparts, such as:

God his Father raised him from the dead.

– Galatians 1:1

I will raise it up in three days.

– John 2:19

The Father has sanctified him, and sent him into the world.

– John 10:36

For their sakes I sanctify myself.

– John 17:19

You will not always have me with you.

– Matthew 26:11

I am with you always.

– Matthew 28:20

The Christ is God over all.

– Romans 9:5 (Pshytta)

God was in Christ.

– 2 Corinthians 5:19

Isho’dad continues, after listing pages of such quotes, “It is necessary for the reader to know and distinguish between the ideas of the Scripture, lest instead of profit he should get more damage from them, but especially with the adorable Gospel, this which even if according to the outward man it has spoken in a simple way, yet according to the inward man, hidden mysteries are crowded into it; and about this Bar Tholmai bears witness: ‘Small and yet great is theology, and also the Gospel is great, and broad, yet small and simple;’ and he who understands it enters into the midst of the incomprehensible darkness.


B. Fathers & Heretics

One way we can learn how the Church addressed the question “Who is Christ?” is to see what she rejected. In other words, we can get a better idea of the right answer when we know about the wrong answers. What the Church, in the Name of Christ, declares a false teaching is termed a “heresy,” and those who teach it “heretics.” What we will discover when we examine the history of the Christological question is that heresies are almost entirely the result of extremism and oversimplification.




The First Two Christian Centuries

A very early (Second Century) Christological heresy, or rather proto-Christological heresy because it arose before the full-blown Christological controversy of the fourth century, was calledEbionism. The sect called the Ebionites were an ultra-Jewish offshoot of the early Church who continued strict observance of the Jewish Law, but regarded Christ as the foretold Messiah. The Ebionites denied that Christ is God, along with rejecting his virgin birth. This heresy died away as the Christian Church loosened its identity with Judaism, though elements of its teaching lived on in other heresies.

An equally early heresy regarding Christ, one beginning even in apostolic times, is calledDocetism (from the Greek “dokein” = “to seem”). This heresy claimed that Christ’s humanity was only an illusion or a phantasm, as were his sufferings. What is noteworthy here is that, aside from the Judaic sect of the Ebionites, the intellectual tendency of much of the early Christian community was not to deny Christ’s divinity but his humanity. There is no doubt, therefore, that mainstream Christianity from the beginning thought of Christ as truly God. Among the Patristic opponents of this heresy are St. Justin Martyr, St. Polycarp and St. Ignatius of Antioch. The latter is particularly clear in many of his statements regarding Christ’s humanity and divinity being unified in one being. For example: “There is one physician, composed of flesh and of spirit, generate and ingenerate, God in man, authentic life in death, from Mary and from God, first passible and then impassible, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Moreover, many of Ignatius’ writings, by affirming the real suffering of Christ and his divine unity, became the seed of the later practice of the communicatio idiomatum, or the “transferal of idioms,” where because of the unity of Christ’s person it was possible for him to use phrases like “the blood of God,” “the suffering of my God,” and “God…was conceived by Mary,” though God in his own Nature does not have blood, nor suffers, nor was conceived, but rather Christ through the Incarnation.


The Third Century

The next phase in Christian intellectual history, taking place in the third century AD, centered not around Christ insofar as he is God and man (the “question of Christology”) but rather around the Son and Spirit of God insofar as they relate to the Father and are One God (the “question of the Trinity”). St. Irenaeus, Tertullian and Origen are the key figures of this time period. Tertullian began using non-Biblical phrases such as “two substances” in referring to Christ’s humanity and divinity, whereas Origen began to express the Christian faith in terms of the neo-Platonic philosophy popular in Alexandria at the time. This insertion of philosophical framework and terminology into Christology was to play an immense role in the following centuries.

The Fourth Century

The mind of the Church returned to the Christological question in full intensity when an Egyptian priest named Arius began to teach that the Son of God is not equal to the Father, and that there was some point in time when he did not exist. Thus Arianism became the name of a new set of beliefs which explicitly denied Christ’s divinity. But the mental progression to this conclusion is quite complex, and involves a great number of philosophical presuppositions. The first great mistake made by the Arians was not their denial of Christ’s divinity, but their denial of his human soul. Whereas Origen and Tertullian both taught (in their own ways) that Christ possesses a real human soul, the Arians claimed that the Word of God stood in place of the human soul in Christ. This claim led to a series of startling questions regarding some passages of Scripture. If Christ has no human soul, then what does it mean when it says “Jesus was troubled in spirit” (John 13:21) or that he “grew in wisdom” (Luke 2:52)? How can God be “troubled” or “grow in wisdom?” In fact, God as God cannot be troubled or grow in wisdom, and if the Word of God is the soul of Christ, then (the Arian conclusion is) he is not God but a creature.

Against this current, which enjoyed an overwhelming popularity in its time, stood the teaching of St. Athanasius. For Athanasius, also an “Alexandrian,” the Word of God is indeed fully divine, and those places in Scripture that point to suffering or change refer not to his Divinity but to his flesh. This important step in Christological understanding, which distinguishes what is said of the Word “as divine” from what is said of him “in the flesh,” begins to develop strongly in Athanasius. But although it is a step closer to a solution, it is still an incomplete Christology, since the Platonism popular in Alexandria made it very difficult for Athanasius to affirm that Christ has a human soul or a human mind. The problem was simply that if the Word of God is (in the Platonic scheme of things) the “reasonability of the universe,” then what need would there be for a human soul or mind if the “Logos” dwells in a body? This difficulty became more and more pronounced as the debate intensified.

A friend of Athanasius named Apollinarius took the Athanasian understanding of Christology to its logical conclusions. Where Athanasius’ understanding of Christ had no need of positing a human soul, Apollinarius explicitly denied a human soul in Christ. For Apollinarius (and the heresy named after him, Apollinarianism), everything normally performed by the human soul in an ordinary man was performed by the Word of God, from thoughts to biological processes. This prevented a handful of problems, since there would (in this schema) no longer be two minds or two wills in Christ, and his unity would be clear. Moreover, the actual Flesh of Christ would contain the divine power of salvation, since it would be so completely united to his Divinity: the Body of Christ would be God in this union. This element remained in some form in later orthodox Christology, though what was rejected by the Church was his terminology that the Flesh of Christ is “one nature with the Godhead.”

In response to this, three Fathers named the “Cappadocian Fathers,” St. Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzen and St. Gregory of Nyssa, formulated several objections to this exaggerated Alexandrian Christology. Firstly, the question was asked how Apollinarianism was different than Docetism, the early-rejected Christological heresy denying Christ’s humanity. Secondly, why is it impossible for two natures to become one perfect unity? Was it necessarily the case that for Christ to be One he could not have two distinct natures, Divinity and humanity? Thirdly, how can Christ be called “man” if he does not have the most human characteristic, a soul? A living human body without a soul is not a miracle but a monster, asserted Gregory of Nyssa. Fourthly, the actions of Christ in the Gospels can hardly be explained as the actions of one without a human soul. Finally, and most importantly for the Cappadocians, how could the human soul be saved if Christ did not possess one? Gregory Nazianzen phrased it thus: “What has not been assumed cannot be restored; it is what is united with God that is saved.”


The Fifth Century

This ranking of objections shows the relative concerns of the Cappadocian Fathers (according to J.N.D. Kelly), but farther East, the primary concern was to return to the roots of the Faith as found in the Scriptures, and what was fourth among a list of concerns became the first and main concern in the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia. Theodore was a bishop and well-known Interpreter of the Bible, one respected throughout the whole Church, a good friend of St. John Chrysostom and, according to one account, called “the great” even by St. Cyril of Alexandria, whose followers in Egypt would later condemn Theodore, over a century after his death. “Theodore the Interpreter” naturally placed his top priority in the most honest interpretation of the Bible, and it was upon this foundation that he built his Christology. Seeing clearly the dialectic in the New Testament regarding Christ’s divinity and humanity, and observing the controversy in the Church, he built upon the terminology and understanding of the Cappadocian writings and developed what may be called “two nature Christology” as opposed to the “one nature Christology” of Apollinarius.

That is, Theodore began to take very seriously the reality of Christ’s humanity, not only in theoretically affirming it to exist but in making it a true part of his Christology. Again, his first motive in this was the full understanding of the New Testament: if Christ was “troubled” (John 13:21), then he has a human soul; if he “grew in wisdom” (Luke 2:52), then he has a human mind; if he said “not my will, but yours be done” (Mark 14:36), then he has a human will. These bold affirmations led him to go farther than the Cappadocian Fathers had done before him in speaking of Christ’s humanity, and he began to refer to “the man who was assumed.” This is, of course, only to use the language of the Bible, but the frankness with which Theodore spoke was jarring to many in Alexandria, who preferred to ignore Christ’s humanity and even spoke (eventually) of “it” being “subsumed” by his Divinity, the end result being “one nature.” Alexandrians eventually accused Theodore of teaching an “accidental” union between Christ’s divinity and humanity, and that there was some time when Christ’s the man was not one with the Word of God, though there is nothing in his writing to suggest this, and much to contradict it.

This “school” of thought affirming and taking seriously the two natures of Christ led to a deeper controversy regarding terminology such as “Mary, mother of God.” Theodore himself accepts the phrase: “When they ask whether Mary is a man’s mother or God’s mother, we must say, ‘Both,’ the one by the nature of the thing, the other in virtue of a relation. Mary is a man’s mother by nature, since what was in her womb was a man, just as it was also a man who came forth from her womb. But she is God’s mother, since God was in the man who was fashioned – not circumscribed in him by nature but existing in him according to the disposition of his will. Therefore, it is right to say both.”

But a student of Theodore’s named Nestorious, who was bishop of Constantinople, took the “two natures” teaching a step farther. Distinguishing with theological precision “what belongs to Christ as man” and “what belongs to Christ as God,” he began to avoid and warn against terms such as “Mother of God,” for theological reasons, because they are not found in Scripture, and in order to avoid confusion (e.g., lest someone think that Mary is the mother of the Father or the Holy Spirit). The major opponent to Nestorious was Cyril of Alexandria who, among other things, accused Nestorious and his followers of “splitting Christ into two.” Cyril and Nestorious wrote several letters to one another, in which they debated the issue and attempted to explain their respective positions. Cyril was concerned with Christ’s unity being retained and not “split,” asserting that “in an unspeakable and incomprehensible way, the Logos united to himself, in his hypostasis, flesh enlivened by a rational soul, and in this way became a human being and has been designated ‘Son of man.’” Nestorious, on the other hand, was concerned with respecting the distinction of the two natures in Christ, since God cannot suffer or change or learn by his Nature.


C. The Current Interpretation

This delicate tension led to the definitions and condemnations of the Church Councils we will discuss next week. I would like to conclude today, however, by presenting the “ordinary way” in which Christologists present the problem today, so that I may criticize it in a later class.

The first issue is one of terminology. Modern scholars see much of the confusion to be caused by the different uses of words. The debatable terms (in Greek) are: fusis, hypostasis, andprosopon. To give a general idea of the problem, the term hypostasis initially meant “nature,” or “what is common between the Father and the Son,” but developed, over centuries and in certain parts of the Greek-speaking world, into meaning “substance” or even “person.” Those who later used the original meaning of the word said, therefore, that Christ has two hypostases, or natures, while those who used the later meaning said that Christ has one hypostasis, or Person.

The second issue presented by scholars today is one of anthropology, or the study of “what man is.” Depending on the philosophical presuppositions of the culture or the individual writer, there can be different understandings of what it means that “God became man.” In what is called a “Platonic” anthropology, popular in Alexandria, man can be defined as “a being that is both spiritual and physical.” In what is called an “Aristotelian” anthropology, popular in Persia and Syria (commonly, though I would argue inaccurately, called the “Antiochene School”), however, man is defined as “body and soul.” For God to become man, then, in each of these understandings means different things. In the “Platonic” scheme, the Word of God simply replaces the soul as the “spiritual element,” making a complete man. In the “Aristotelian” scheme, the Word of God assumes both the soul and the body, since both are essential parts of the human being.

These two anthropologies therefore produce two different Christologies. If the Word of God replaces the human soul, as in the “Alexandrian”/“One-Nature” understanding, the scholarly term used is “Word/Flesh Christology.” If the Word of God assumes both body and soul, as in the “Antiochene”/“Two Nature” understanding, the scholarly term used is “Word/Man Christology.”


“Alexandria”/Egypt “Antioch”/Mesopotamia
“Platonic” Anthropology – man = spiritual + physical“Aristotelian” Anthropology – man = soul + body
“Word/Flesh” Christology – “One Nature”“Word/Man” Christology – “Two Natures”
Apollinarius, Cyril of AlexandriaTheodore, Nestorious


Sources: J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Richard A. Norris, ed. The Christological Controversy. Isho’dad of Merv,Commentaries.