Friday, December 16, 2011

Patristic Christology

I have finally finished all my commitments for this semester at the GTU! I'm currently applying both for philosophy employment (please pray for that) and for New Testament PhD programs at the same time and will see where Providence takes us. In the meantime, I'll make a couple of posts from the papers (mostly summarizing my own synthesis of course materials) I wrote for my Historical Development of Christology class. Here's the first one:


Arius, Apollinaris, and Nestorius represented respectively for the early church three different foils for the development of Christological doctrine. In response to the Christological imbalances in the views of these thinkers and others after them, the successive ecumenical councils of the early church progressively centered in on a truly balanced Christology, taking into account Christ’s full humanity, full divinity, and unity, while at the same time maintaining the transcendence of God within the mystery of the Incarnation. In this essay I will consider each of the three heterodox thinkers listed above and show how Nicea, Constantinople I, Ephesus, Chalcedon, and Constantinople III all redressed in their particular ways the doctrinal mistakes of those three.

Arius was the first early heretical thinker to provoke his own ecumenical council devoted to adjudicating his views. It is arguable that one of the key determining factors in Arius’s Christology was his concern to protect the transcendence of the divine as he understood it – to keep the divine immutable and well-removed from the earthly realm of becoming and corruption. Arius’s God is, in effect, not so different from modern Deist versions of the deity, if not even more aloof from his creation, if that is possible.

The Logos serves in Arius’s thinking, as in Origenist theology of the period, as the intermediary in creation between God and the world, keeping the two firmly apart. But since the Logos is thus involved in creation, the Logos cannot be transcendent in the same way God is. With the rejection of a Platonic view of levels within God and a focus on divine transcendence as essential to divinity, this apparently lower being, the Logos, cannot have a share in that divinity. As such, the Logos must be created by God Himself, all else coming from the Logos directly rather than God in his unsullied distance from Creation.

Apart from cosmological considerations, Arius’s understanding of transcendence also pushes him towards a rejection of the Son’s divinity because of his view of the Incarnation and the nature of the unity of the Incarnate Son. Arius takes onboard the Logos-sarx framework then fashionable in Alexandria, according to which Jesus Christ had a human body but instead of a rational soul in the way other humans do, he had the supreme Logos as his rational, animating principle (I will return to this framework below in discussing Apollinaris). As such, since Christ underwent suffering and change, the Logos as his vital principle also underwent these. But since the divine nature is immutable and impassible, not to mention transcendent, the Logos cannot possess the divine nature as its own.

Arius, then, certainly protects divine transcendence as well as the unity of Christ – the Logos is not an additional entity but rather takes the role of the soul in the man Christ, thus combining Logos and human body in one incarnate being. The Platonically-influenced thought was that if something is the rational, animating principle of a human body then that basically makes it a human soul. However, the Logos was very different from a human soul, hence the worry with Logos-sarx Christology that Christ’s full humanity had been compromised. Christ becomes a kind of super-creature with a human body but something very different from the human mind or soul possessed by the rest of the human race. While preserving the need for Christ to actually suffer and die, thus entering into human reality, that very human reality is compromised by replacing the soul with the Logos. Christ, rather than being a human being, becomes in this view of the Incarnation a new kind of entity, compounded of human bodily parts and the super-creature who mediates between God and man. And if Christ, as many argued, needed to be fully human in order to fully save humans – possessing every bit of human nature in order to redeem every bit of it – then this Christ is not able to redeem us as whole human beings, bodies and souls. Jettisoning divinity for Christ, Arius thus also ran afoul of the objection that his Christ, lacking divinity, could not save, since only God can save.

The Council of Nicea, called to address Arius’s views, succeeded in theologically resolving at least some of Arius’s imbalanced theology. Without addressing issues relating to the divine transcendence or Christ’s humanity or unity, Nicea did affirm the full divinity of Christ, declaring him same in substance or being (ὁμοούσιος) with the Father. The Origenist notion of levels of divinity in the Godhead via emanation from the ultimate, transcendent, unitary God was abandoned. This safeguarded both Christ’s full possession of the divine nature shared with the Father as well as his ability to save in virtue of this fact.

Since Nicea did not address the other issues involved in Arius’s view, however, it is not surprising to see Apollinaris accept Nicea and the full divinity of Christ (or at least attempt to do so) and yet fall into other problems related to Arius’s view, all stemming from Apollinaris’s acceptance of the same Logos-sarx framework as Arius. Like Arius, Apollinaris views Christ as a composite of the Logos and a human body, the former again replacing the human soul in Christ. But once the Logos is recognized as fully divine, the combination with the Logos-sarx view, while rendering Christ a true unity, in fact causes problems in almost every other area.

Since the Logos, on Apollinaris’s view, joins with a human body, it seems to form a new, composite entity, Christ (similar to the way it does in Arius’s view) – a tertium quid neither fully human nor fully divine but something else. Just as in Arius’s view, a human body with the Logos instead of a human soul is not fully human. Christ apparently also cannot be fully divine for the additional reason that since it would seem that the Logos, as the replacement for the human soul, would have to serve as the seat of Christ’s suffering and other experiences. But that would make the Logos passable. The Logos in such a case could not have the full divine nature, lacking divine transcendence and its impassibility. Being neither fully God nor fully man, Christ would then neither save as God nor be able to redeem whole human persons since he would lack whole human personhood himself. While it could be claimed that the Logos retains its impassibility, this would require a mere appearance of suffering and human experience and hence a retreat to a docetic Christ, a denial of the true reality of the man Jesus and his real suffering, human life and free obedience for our salvation as he is swallowed up in the transcendent divine.

The First Council of Constantinople condemned Apollinaris and affirmed the true, full humanity of Christ. Rather than a mere human body, his humanity was a full one, involving a combination of both body and soul, complete humanity for the salvation of human beings. It thus also safeguarded against a violation of divine transcendence as well as the danger of docetism since the Logos was not directly compounded with a human body (and hence helped save the reality of the man Jesus).

Without the Logos-sarx framework, however, the problem of accounting for the unity of Christ returned. If we start with the divine Logos on one hand – God – and this complete human being on the other – the man Jesus – then how do we account for their unity in Christ? The unity of Christ thus provides the central problem affecting Nestorius’s Christology. Nestorius accepted both a full human nature and a full divine nature in Christ, but seems to have had problems putting them together in such a way as to form a convincing unity, so averse he was to the danger of forming a tertium quid out of the two as Apollinaris or Arius did. Nestorius’s notion of a nature was that of an concrete individual entity and hence he thought of the incarnation as the coming together of two concrete individuals, which results in one new prosopon or phenomenal reality of unity. On Nestorius’s view, then, there is not a single subject who is the Logos and hence has divine properties and who is also the man Jesus and hence has human properties – existing both as God and as man. Hence, there can be on his view no communication of idioms – no applying of predicates of divinity to the man Jesus and no applying of predicates of humanity to the divine Logos, as would have followed were the subject identical. Mary, on this view, cannot be rightly said to be the Mother of God – the Theotokos (Θεοτόκος) or God-Bearer.

Nestorius, in trying to maintain full divinity and divine transcendence on the one hand, and full humanity on the other, thus trips over the issue of the unity of Christ, which in turns raises the issue of whether Christ on Nestorius’s view would be able to save, given that only God can save, since it would seem that one would not then be allowed to say that God lived, suffered, died, and was raised for our salvation. Human mediatorship in salvation is secured, but the role of the divine, being pushed out of the created world as in Arius’s view, seems to be damaged.

The Council of Ephesus responded to Nestorius by rejecting his views as providing insufficient unity for Christ. It is one and the same Logos who is at once God and man, to whom both divine and human attributes accrue and hence Mary is indeed Theotokos. As Cyril noted, divinity and humanity are united in the one hypostasis or person of the divine Logos, hence the communication of idioms is completely appropriate (it is, in fact, just an application of the logical rule Leibniz’s Law, also known as the Indiscernibility of Identicals) – we can say both that God truly suffered on the cross and that the man Jesus is creator of the world, Second Person of the Trinity, since these are really one person, God the Son. Unity is hence found in the person of the Logos, not in some special extra relationship added as an outside extra to Christ’s divinity and humanity. Hence the unity of Christ and the divine role in salvation were secured for the time being by the council.

Ephesus, however, did not solve the question that Nestorius’s view seems to have addressed fairly well; that is, how to maintain divine transcendence and full divinity in the face of full humanity, taking both the divinity and humanity seriously as demanded by Nicea and Constantinople I. The idea of dividing humanity and divinity into two distinct, unmixed natures seems to do this, allowing for full humanity without being distorted or altered in nature by mixing with divinity and for full divinity without being distorted or altered in nature by mixing with humanity. Hence, in divinity Christ can remain transcendent and divine, whereas in humanity he can be a full, though sinless, human.

The Council of Chalcedon takes on this important usage of the notion of two natures, but without adding in Nestorius’s interpretation of the notion. That is, Constantinople does not interpret the notion of a nature in terms of a concrete individual entity. The natures are not independent things added together to form Christ but, instead, the human and divine natures are distinct sets of characteristic properties or ways of being, united in the person of Christ as the one subject of these properties who thus exists in two fully distinct ways – the divine way and a particular human way. Without changing in the divine nature, the single person of Christ took on a new mode of existence in the Incarnation, which is a change in the created order rather than in Christ qua God. Chalcedon thus takes on the important insights of the two-nature view held by people like Nestorius but without the distortions caused by too-concrete a notion of what a divine or human nature might be. Chalcedon thus successfully integrates the insights of Nicea – that Christ is fully God – and of Constantinople I – that Christ is fully human – with that of Ephesus – that Christ forms a unity in the person of the divine Logos.

The Third Council of Constantinople clarified and further developed the Chalcedonian trajectory of Christology by addressing Christ’s full humanity not merely in the sense of the possession of an abstract, though concretely realized, nature but also in terms of a fully human way of life and activity, a human use of human freedom to form a truly human life, giving truly human obedience to the Father unto death. Without a distinctly human will and human activity, which were rejected by the monothelites, there is an inherent danger of a kind of implicit Apollinarism or even docetism, where the human life of Christ is consumed by rather than perfected by the divine life he also possesses. There is a danger then in the two directions of either failing to respect divine transcendence by, in effect, replacing much of the functionality of the human soul with that of the divine Logos, or, on the other hand, failing to respect the true reality of the man Jesus. In either case, a truly human life has been compromised and, if as in the West, it is thought that such a life and human obedience are important for our salvation, then such a view will certainly not do. If Christ is to save us by humanly taking on as free, human action, a human obedience unto death on the cross, this would seem to require that he actually act and will in his human nature and that he both have a human will and source of activity and that these not simply sit there inert, as good as absent from him.

The Third Council of Constantinople addresses this concern by investing in Christ a fully human reality – Christ, in addition to his divine will, has and uses a human will, a human principle of activity. Christ, in other words, acts in both of his natures, not simply the divine one. The real human existence, activity, and freedom of the man Jesus are thus at last properly ascribed to the one Logos who is at once also in possession of a divine existence, activity, and freedom, unified together in that one divine person who acts and exists in each nature.

In conjunction with the councils before it, then, Constantinople III guarantees that Christ is truly one of us – the perfect human being and representative of us as human beings before the Father and to us of what we as Christians can and must become in Christ. At the same time, however, Christ is guaranteed as where we are able in this life to directly meet God – not mediated through creation but the divine Son himself who, in virtue of his consubstantiality with the Father, reveals to us the Father as well. In Christ, we encounter God himself in the only way we are currently able to do so – the infinite taking on the finite in order to be revealed to the finite.

The orthodox view developed in the councils examined in this paper, then, does something that the heterodox thinkers do not – that is, present a picture of Christ which balances all the important considerations and truths we get from theology and Scripture. While the heterodox views latch onto and appear to do extremely well with certain considerations, they do so at the cost of others, failing to take into account other important considerations or truths and thus ending up with a lopsided theology as a result or even a Christ who perhaps cannot even save.


thirdmillennialtemplar said...

That was a great post. I particularly liked the suggestion that Arius was not so far from a Deist, as that helps to make sense of some of the confusions and debates which followed afterwards, along with the designation of some fathers, like Eusebius of Pamphili, as quasi-arian.

I think I'll be following this blog now.

Ian and Gilda said...

Thanks! Just don't hold up other posts to the standards of this one... :)