November 16, 2007
by Fr. Andrew Younan
Christology in the Patristic Period
Fr. Andrew Younan
Part III – Christ in the East
This third and final lecture will examine the Christological synthesis of the Church of the East. Having explored the history both of individual writers (orthodox and heretical), on the one hand, and the Councils of the Universal Church and the Synods of the Church of the East, on the other, we will turn now not to history but to concept and understanding. First, there will be a review of the “Two Christologies” exemplified by Alexandria and Mesopotamia. Second, we will analyze the Christological Terminology used throughout the Church, but especially that of the Church of the East, focusing more on the crucial term qnoma. Finally, I will present Three Hymnsfrom the Hudhra to show how this Christological synthesis found beautiful liturgical and spiritual expression.
- Two Christologies
Returning again to the Bible, we find that even in that primary document of the Church there are two fundamental approaches to understanding who Christ is, the first being expressed in the Synoptic Gospels and in most of the Epistles and the second in the Gospel of John and related literature. In the first approach to Christology, Christ is observed as he was revealed in the flesh, as a man, and it is concluded, after a close examination of him, that, so to speak, within this one we find two. In later Conciliar terms, this would be expressed by saying “in this one Person we find two natures,” but this terminology does not exist in Scriptural or Apostolic times. In the secondapproach, the eternal existence of the Word of God is presupposed, and his taking flesh is recounted in a chronological way; “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word became flesh.” (John 1:1, 14).
What is common between both of these approaches is that from the beginning Christ is seen as a single being; it is only upon later theoretical abstraction that “what is two” in him is discovered. The difference between the two is only in their starting-point. The first begins with Christ revealed for us; the second begins with the Word “from the beginning.” In philosophical terms, the first Christology follows epistemological priority (that is, orders things according to how we know them), while the second Christology follows ontological priority (that is, orders things according to how they exist in themselves). Both are valid, Scriptural descriptions of the Messiah, and both have Canonical acknowledgement by the Catholic Church, neither being superior to the other.
Indeed, since an unbalanced methodology could lead to heresy in either case, both extremes are condemned “equally” by the Councils. It is not one approach or the other that causes heresy; rather it is human intellectual weakness caused by laziness or unbalanced emotion. It was not because he was an Alexandrian that Apollinarius fell into heresy, but because he oversimplified the issue; it was not because of the Synoptic approach that Nestorious was accused of “splitting Christ,” but because of anger. This shows the fundamentally spiritual character of theology: it must form the human soul into a vessel of Christ’s peace if it is to be authentic and orthodox.
The two “schools” can, again, be categorized as such:
|“Platonic” Anthropology – man = spiritual + physical||“Aristotelian” Anthropology – man = soul + body|
|“Word/Flesh” Christology – “One Nature”||“Word/Man” Christology – “Two Natures”|
|Johannine Literature||Synoptics, Paul|
|Apollinarius, Cyril of Alexandria||Theodore, Nestorious|
|Begins with the Eternity of the Word||Begins with the revelation of Christ|
In this final lecture, I hope to show that the Church of the East, in her usual calm and balanced way, retained all that is good in both approaches in her Christology, though preferring the second approach, both because it is the truly human mode of knowing and also because it is God’s way of teaching: he revealed his Son not as eternal, but as in the flesh. And so we know him in the same way: not as intruding upon God’s own eternity but as learning as he himself taught us.
We have seen how, in reaction to the Arian heresy, the Council of Nicea resorted to using philosophical, rather than Biblical, terminology in defining the Divinity of the Son of God. Though this was helpful in answering the Arians and in clarifying beyond any doubt the teaching of the Church on this question, the use of philosophical terms was to cause some confusion in the coming centuries. Both because of the passage of time and because of geographical distance, terms came to take on different meanings, especially the Greek terms hypostasis and prosopon. Before moving to the terminology of the Church of the East, this chart will help to show how complex the terminological problem became:
|At Nicea||“nature” (one in the Trinity)||–|
|Cyril/Ephesus||“person” (one in Christ)||“face” or “personality” (one in Christ)|
|Theodore/Nestorious||“individual nature” (two in Christ)||“person” (one in Christ)|
|At Chalcedon||“person” (one in Christ)||“person” (one in Christ)|
In order to understand the terminology of the Church of the East, we turn to a writer named Mar Babai the Great, who defined her terms in his book On the Godhead and on the Manhood, and on the Parsopa of the Union. The first term in the Aramaic usage of the Church of the East is kyana, which means “nature” and translates the Greek phusis as well as the ousia and hypostasis of Nicea. The most important terms, however, are qnoma and parsopa.
Mar Babai defines qnoma in the following way: “A singular essence (ousia) is called a “qnoma.” It stands by itself, singular in number, being one and distinct from many. It is not, therefore, joined [to anything else] – except, with such things as are rational and free creatures, when it receives various accidents, either of excellence or evil, or of knowledge or ignorance, but with the irrational there are also here various accidents…a qnoma is fixed in its natural state…it is differentiated from its fellow qnome in the unique property which it possesses in its parsopa – that of Gabriel is not that of Michael, and Paul is not Peter. However, in each and every qnoma the whole common nature is recognized, and it is known intellectually what the one nature is which encompasses the qnome in general.” (Liber de Unione, I.17).
As for parsopa, this definition is given: “Parsopa is also the characteristic of a certain qnomawhich distinguishes it from others. Therefore the qnoma of Paul is not that of Peter, even though in nature and qnoma they are the same, for each of them possesses a body and soul, ad is living and rational and fleshly, yet parsopically they are distinguished from one another by the singular uniqueness which each of them possesses, whether in stature, or in form, or in temperament, or in wisdom…” (ibid).
The point to be made here is that having encountered the single Christ, “what is two” in him must be understood if he is to be understood, and “what is two” in him is not simply an abstract concept of a “nature” (what the Church of the East would have called kyana), but this particular nature, both in Divinity and in humanity. It was not the Holy Trinity which became flesh, but God the Son, who is Christ; nor was it “human nature” that was united perfectly to God the Son, but the man Christ. This category of “particular nature” vs. “abstract nature” is the contribution of the term qnoma. This is also the reason why it is perhaps best left untranslated, since neither “person” nor “nature” nor even the Greek “hypostasis” in any of its forms does qnoma justice. The nearest English translation might be “individuality.”
The next note to make is concerning the mode and time of the union. Though the humanqnoma of Christ is, like all other human qnome, an individualized nature, it is in no way separate from either the Qnoma of the Word nor of the Parsopa of the Union. Though the two qnome are absolutely distinct, they are absolutely united, and completely inseparable; nor was there ever a moment that the human qnoma existed independently or apart from the Word. In fact, the human qnoma of Christ was united perfectly to the Word at the very moment of its creation, and conversely, the human qnoma of Christ was created precisely at the moment of, and because of, its union with God the Word.
Finally, the only way we know either qnoma is through the one Parsopa of Christ. In Babai’s own words: “In the same on parsopa of the one Lord, Jesus Christ, the properties of the two natures and two qnome of the Godhead and manhood of Christ are made known. As the nature of God is made manifest in the property of the three qnome of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so in the same one parsopa of one Lord, Jesus Christ, the two qnome of God and man are made known – the likeness of God and the likeness of a servant, one Son in one union in one authority, worship and Lordship.” (Ibid., I.8). In other words, in Christ we find not only the full revelation of Divinity, but also of humanity as well. It is not only God who is revealed in Christ, but also the meaning and purpose of human life, perfected in his qnoma. What this conclusion amounts to is that a full, complete humanity was assumed by God the Word, including, as is affirmed by the Councils of the Church, a created human mind, a human will, and even a human “I,” though in every case the created human mind, will and “I” of Christ is always and perfectly united to the uncreated and eternal mind, will and “I” of the Word of God. This is the only way to make sense of the Scriptures, which say both that “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28) and that “the Father and I are one” (John 10:30).
- Three Hymns
Knowing Christ, in his one Parsopa in two qnome, is not a matter of mere theological speculation. It is first and foremost the salvation of the human race, and the center and fount of all our prayer as Christians. As such, I present here three Christological hymns for our reflection and prayer, to show how the Church of the East took her deep understanding of Christ into her heart and made it the source of her prayer and spirituality.
First, the Basilica Hymn from the First Sunday after Christmas, which is a straightforward discussion of the unity of Christ’s being through the distinction of his natures:
O Lord of all, while you are in the likeness of God, you assumed the likeness of a servant in your love, and you neither robbed your Divinity nor defrauded your humanity. Rather, in both natures you are truly one Son, undivided. Indeed, above you exist without a mother, from the Father; and below, without a father, from a mother. Thus have the prophets anticipated and predicted; thus also have the apostles preached; and thus have the Fathers taught in the Church. And so, by their pleading and in their faith, may you protect us, O God, and have mercy on us.
Secondly, a longer hymn from night prayer of Christmas Day, discussing how both natures of Christ act throughout his earthly life, and how through the distinction of operations, there is one Subject who is acting at every moment.
- The Son of God showed the revealed truth to his Church betrothed when he chose, in his love, to come to the world and proclaim and teach his Divinity and his humanity.
- For he had been in the womb of his Father, before the ages, without beginning – truly, he is God indeed.
- He came to us in the latter times, put on our body and saved us through it – truly, he is man indeed.
- The prophets proclaimed him in their revelations, the just revealed him through their mysteries – truly, he is God indeed.
- He was carried in the womb for nine months, and was also born as a man – truly, he is man indeed.
- The angels glorified him – he is God indeed. He was placed in a manger – he is man indeed. The star proclaimed him – he is God indeed. He suckled milk – he is man indeed. The magi of Persia carried and brought him glorious gifts and offerings – truly, he is God indeed.
- He accepted circumcision and offered sacrifices in the holy temple according to the law – truly, he is man indeed.
- Simon called him a light to the nations and the glory of the people of Israel – truly, he is God indeed.
- He fled to Egypt from Herod the tyrannical king full of all evils – truly, he is man indeed.
- The shepherds ran to honor him, and they knelt on their staffs and adored him – truly, he is God indeed.
- He grew and advanced in stature, in wisdom and in divine grace – truly, he is man indeed.
- He was baptized in the Jordan – he is man indeed. Heaven opened up for him – he is God indeed. The Father proclaimed him – he is man indeed. The Spirit descended upon him – he is God indeed. He fasted and was tempted – he is man indeed. He put the evil one to shame – he is God indeed. He was invited and went to the banquet-house with his mother, brethren and disciples – truly, he is man indeed.
- He changed water and it became wine, and the guests drank and glorified his Name – truly, he is God indeed.
- He entered the house of Levi, the house of Zacchaeus, and the house of Simon and ate and drank at dinners and banquets – truly, he is man indeed.
- He healed the sick, gave health to the wounded, cleansed lepers and gave sight to the blind – truly, he is God indeed.
- He went out to the mountain to pray, and remained there in prayer – truly, he is man indeed.
- He gave the lame the power to walk and the paralytic the power to move limbs – truly, he is God indeed.
- He slept on the boat – he is man indeed. He pacified the sea – he is God indeed. He went up the mountain – he is man indeed. He established a law – he is God indeed. He was weary from labor, sat on the well and asked for water from the Samaritan woman – truly, he is man indeed.
- He revealed her secrets and her obvious deeds, her reputation and all her works – truly, he is God indeed.
- He cried and wept over Lazarus, and asked, saying “where is his tomb?” – truly, he is man indeed.
- He called out and resurrected him from the grave by the power of the authority of his Divinity – truly, he is God indeed.
- He rode upon an ass – he is man indeed. The children praised him – he is God indeed. The Pharisees became jealous of him – he is man indeed. He accomplished signs – he is God indeed. The priests envied him – he is man indeed. The assemblies glorified him – he is God indeed. He went out to Bethany, outside of the city, with his disciples and spent the night there – truly, he is man indeed.
- He cursed the fig tree, and immediately it withered, and he showed his glory and made known his power – truly, he is God indeed.
- Mary anointed him with perfumed oil, and dried his skin with the hair of her head – truly, he is man indeed.
- He forgave her faults and absolved her sins, he blotted out her wounds and blemishes – truly, he is God indeed.
- He ate the Passover of the Law in the upper room with his disciples – truly, he is man indeed.
- He predicted and revealed the evil of the deceit of the Iscariot during dinner – truly, he is God indeed.
- He took a towel and put it around himself, and washed the feet of his Twelve – truly, he is man indeed.
- He revealed also the one who would deny him – Simon Kepa, head of the disciples – truly, he is God indeed.
- He sweated and prayed, and was strengthened by an angel which was made visible to him – truly, he is man indeed.
- He approached the ear of that man who had been struck, and he healed and restored it through his great power – truly, he is God indeed.
- He was seized with suffering and accepted spit, and a crown of thorns was placed on his head – truly, he is man indeed.
- He cast down his captors and drove off those who sneered at him, and for their sake he fell on the ground – truly, he is God indeed.
- He was fastened to wood – he is man indeed. He ripped through rocks – he is God indeed. Nails were fastened to him – he is man indeed. He opened tombs – he is God indeed. He was given gall to drink – he is man indeed. He tore open the temple – he is God indeed. He cried out on the cross – he is man indeed. He darkened the sun – he is God indeed. He accepted death and his body was embalmed, and placed in a tomb that was hewn in a rock – truly, he is man indeed.
- He rose from the grave and abolished death, and shattered the bars and the ramparts of Sheol – truly, he is God indeed.
- He ate and drank with his disciples after his resurrection, as it is written – truly, he is man indeed.
- He entered the doors when they were closed, and requested the peace of his Twelve – truly, he is God indeed.
- He showed them the place of the nails which were fastened in his hands and feet, and to Thomas he showed his side – truly, he is man indeed.
- He ascended in glory to his Sender, and he is coming at the end to judge all – truly, he is God indeed.
- The angels proclaimed that he was destined to come in unveiled body, just as he ascended – truly, he is man indeed.
- He sent the Spirit, the Paraclete, upon his disciples, and made them wise – truly, he is God indeed.
- Constantine traced, sought out and found the wood upon which he was crucified – truly, he is man indeed.
- He chose a Church for himself from all the nations, and sanctified her through the glory of his Divinity – truly, he is God indeed.
- Blessed is the one who completed his providence on behalf of the salvation of mankind! To him be glory, and upon us his mercies, at all times.
Finally, a Advent and Christmas hymn by Mar Babai himself, called “Brykh Hannana.”
Blessed is the Merciful One who, in his grace, has provided for our lives through prophecy. Isaiah saw with a spiritual eye the amazing child of virginity. For Mary gave birth to Emanuel, the Son of God, without copulation. From her the Holy Spirit fashioned the united body, as it is written, to become a dwelling and an adorable temple for the Radiance of the Father in one Sonship, and from the beginning of his incredible conception, unite it to himself in one adoration, that everything that is his will be fulfilled in it for the salvation of the people, as is fitting for him. The angels glorify him on the day of his birth, with their praises in the heights above. The earthly also offer adoration with their offerings in one honor. Christ is one – the Son of God, more honored than all, in two natures. In his Divinity he was born of the Father, without beginning and above time. In his humanity he was born of Mary, in the latter times with a united flesh. Neither is his Divinity from the nature of the mother, nor his humanity from the Nature of the Father – the natures are unconfused [lit. “protected”] in their qnome, in one Person of one Sonship. And wherever there is divinity, there are three Qnome and one Existence. Thus is the Sonship of the Son: in two natures, one Person. Thus has the holy Church learned of the faith of the Son who is the Messiah. We adore you, O Lord, in your Divinity and in your humanity which are without division.