A Shifting of the Discussion
While the Council of Nicea (AD 325) made significant and irrevocable advances for orthodox trinitarian theology, history shows that its creedal resolution was more of a contribution than a conclusion to the discussion. Because truth is one, whole, unified, and ultimately indivisible body of complete knowledge, men will never reach the place (this side of glory) where the propositions we affirm will be without the need for careful scrutiny and ongoing examination. The importance of recognizing that every proposition comes with its own implications, cannot possibly be overstated.
Biblical doctrine is part of a closed and consistent system of thought, so that the insertion of even one bad idea must compromise that system. By the nature of the case then, the degree to which we err is the degree to which we compromise. At no time, perhaps, in the entire history of Christianity, did the Church of Jesus Christ find this to be more true, than in the one hundred twenty-six years following Nicea.
In the century ensuing the council, the church of that day found herself without the kind of unity—political, ecclesiastical or theological—that she had worked so hard to establish. Instead, the drafting of an officialized body of words and phrases only set the stage for a perpetual battle of linguistic tug o’ war. And while terms like, “begotten” (γεννηθέντα) and “same substance” (ὁμοούσιον) took center stage in the discussions preceding and leading up to the council of Constantinople (AD 381), there were two other terms employed in the creed that proved to be equally susceptible to controversy and misinterpretation.
Those terms, as they appeared in form, were “took flesh” (σαρκωθεντα) and “was made man” (ενανθρωπησαντα), having more to do with the relationship of Christ to humanity, than his relation to God the Father. The complexities of the ongoing controversy, far from being abated by the provision of sanctioned terminology, had only opened a new chapter as the focus of the discussion shifted almost seamlessly from the doctrine of the Trinity, to the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
The purpose of this (and the next) installment, is to survey a small portion of that historic Christological discussion, ultimately spanning from Nicea to the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451). The primary focus will be be tracing out the problematic ideas of a man named Apollinaris, and showing theologically, why they were and must continue to be rejected. In doing so, the hope is that the facts themselves – accurately recounted – might somehow and to some degree demonstrate the wisdom, beauty, and abiding relevance of the Chalcedonian Definition.
From Nicea to Constantinople (381)
The period spanning from Nicea to Chalcedon is usually summarized by the dishonorable mention of three men – Apollinaris, Nestorius and Eutyches. And while each of these men have been highlighted for their influential contributions to the Christological discussion of their day, we shouldn’t conclude on that account that the views they espoused were entirely without historical precedent. Indeed, one Church historian is careful to mention that decades before Apollinaris himself entered the scene, two distinct schools of Christology had already developed.
The first school of thought, often referred to as a kind of “Word-flesh” Christology, can be traced back to the followers of Origen, who departed from his original construction. In reaction to his theory that the human soul was itself the point of union between the Word and his flesh, Origen’s exponents pulled hard in the opposite direction, ultimately claiming that the Divine Logos is in Christ what the interior man is in us. In other words, their “Word-flesh” Christology taught that there was no human soul in Jesus Christ, so that the Word having taken on “flesh” can only amount to the Logos having assumed a human “body.”
This “Word-flesh” construction, eventually finding expression in the Arian creed of Eudoxius of Constantinople, found its opposition in the so-called “Word-man” construction championed by Eustanthius, Bishop of Antioch (325-332). Contrary to the expression, “We believe … in one Lord … Who was made flesh but not man,”1 Eustanthius sought to affirm the orthodox position that in Christ the Word united Himself to a complete human nature, consisting of a body and a soul. Unfortunately however, beyond these facts independently enumerated, Eustanthius could offer no significant advancement to the discussion. The questions of how, and in what way, the two natures of Christ were unified, ultimately remained beyond his ability to ascertain.
The Apollinarian Heresy
As we come now to the teachings of Apollinaris Bishop of Laodicea (361-390) we can see that his contributions, like Eustanthius, were heavily reactionary. In opposition to the dualistic formulations of his time, Apollinaris gave himself to the development of a construction that would affirm a true and uncompromised unity in Jesus Christ. With an orthodox trinitarian form of unity in mind, Apollinaris adopted for his new Christological model the Nicene concept of consubstantiality. But by taking what was only categorically true concerning the Father and the Son—and attempting to turn it into a transferable paradigm—Apollinaris had to affirm things that were beyond the pale of orthodoxy.
In his effort to apply a trinitarian unity to the dual natures of the Godman, Apollinaris argued that the flesh of Christ was not something super-added to his Godhead, but rather constitutes “one nature with the Godhead.”2
In addition to the heresies involved with an implicit deification of humanity, further explanations were needed if Apollinaris was to demonstrate the plausibility of his metaphysical construction. The concept of consubstantiality though, only makes sense when applied to the oneness of nature existing between two Persons. How then, would Apollinaris resolve the inherent difficulties associated with the consubstantiation of two natures in a single Person?
To begin with, Apollinaris argued from a platonic view of anthropology, teaching that there are three constituent elements to Man – body, soul, and spirit. According to his theory, the human body is the material aspect, the soul is the principle of animal life, and the spirit is the rational mind. Believing also that the spirit of man is essentially liable to sin, Apollinaris thought to kill two birds with one stone. The Divine Logos, he concluded, was substituted for the rational mind in Christ, and in this way, the Incarnation was a fusing together of the Divine and Human natures – or almost. For Apollinaris, the Word himself had become flesh without having assumed a human mind, so that while his metaphysical construction prevented the possibility of sin in Jesus, it also prevented the possibility of humanity in Jesus. In other words his anthropology proved too much.
First of all the Scripture teaches plainly that there are only two parts to Man’s constitution – a material aspect (body) and a rational aspect (spirit). Man is not a soul that has a body and a spirit. Rather Man is body and spirit. When God created Man he simply formed a body from the dust of the ground and breathed into that body the breath of life – a rational spirit. Man, considered as a created being, is described en toto in Genesis 2:7 as “a living soul.” To state it differently, a living soul is a man, and a man is the union of a body and a spirit.3
At the end of the day, however, the trichotomous view of Apollinaris was not itself the problem. The real issue was the fact that he defined humanity by three elements, and yet assigned to Christ only two of those elements. In other words, regardless of the fact that his definition of Man was less than biblical – the real heresy lies in the fact that his definition of Christ was less than human.
In the second place, Apollinaris assumed that sin – being an essential characteristic of the human spirit – was therefore an essential element of human nature. This is false. Sin is not in the definition of Man as Man, but only in the definition of Man as fallen. Scripture teaches that God originally created Man good and after His own image, that is, in righteousness and true holiness.4 Therefore the nature of man is sinful not by virtue of creation but by virtue of condemnation.
The true doctrine, outlined in the Canons of Dort, is that Man “after the fall begat children in his own likeness” so that “all the posterity of Adam have derived corruption from their original parent,” not by design but “in consequence of the just judgment of God.”5 So while Apollinaris certainly had soteriological concerns in view, he failed to connect the dots in the most critical places. If we are to equate sin with humanity as the Gnostics connected sin with creatureliness and finitude, then salvation is no longer restoration, but deification.
Moreover, Gregory of Nazianzus was careful to point out that whatever is not assumed by the Redeemer is not redeemed. Since the whole of Adam fell, the Savior must be united to the whole nature of Adam in order to save it wholly.6 And since Adam was not a mindless animal, a mindless Christ would simply not do.
The Logos comes to His own image, and bears flesh for the sake of my flesh, and conjoins Himself with an intelligent soul for my soul’s sake, cleansing like for like, and in all points, sin excepted, becomes man.7
In perfect docetistic fashion, Apollinaris attempted to defend his thesis from Scripture passages which speak of Christ bring “found as a man” and in the “likeness of men.” But this was only a slanted reading of the data, since the gospels everywhere display the human intellect of Jesus – in his learning, praying, and suffering.
Unfortunately Apollinaris did not recover from his error, despite the amount of material that was produced in refuting it. In all the controversy his name was rarely mentioned by his opponents, among whom were men like Damasus and Athanasius himself. In fact, even in councils where his teaching was condemned, such as the Alexandrian (362) and the Roman (376), Apollinaris was not specifically named. This is not to say that his Christology was not clearly denounced and condemned by the Church – indeed it was.
The Council of Constantinople (381) certainly confronted Apollinarianism with these words:
We pronounce anathema against those who say that the Word of God is in the human flesh in lieu and place of the human rational and intellectual souls. For, the Word of God is the Son Himself. Neither did he come in the flesh to replace, but rather to assume and preserve from sin and save the rational and intellectual soul of man.
1 Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 282
2 Davis, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils, 104
3 This is why the apostle Paul, praying for the sanctification of the Thessalonians wrote, “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole soul, that is body and spirit, be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thes. 5:23).
4 “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness… And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:26, 31). “Put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Eph. 4:22-24).
5 Canons of Dort; Heads III and IV, Article II
6 Davis, First Seven Ecumenical Councils, 106
7 Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 296