A Chapter Summary of Robert Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith
Chapter Sixteen –The Christ of the Early Councils
Of the mysteries of sacred Scripture there are certainly few more difficult for the finite mind to reconcile than that of the God-man considered ontologically. How are we to understand the mingling of two immiscible natures – infinite, eternal deity and finite, temporal man – in one person? Having struggled through the first two centuries of church history with the questions – Who is God? Who is man in light of who God is? How can man be reconciled to this God? – we see the early church continuing by necessity to fine tune its theology leading to divisions, debates and heated rivalries; the furnace through which much theological gold has been refined.
The earliest of these theologians after the apostles themselves are known as the apostolic fathers, as they are said to have lived in the age of the apostles – Barnabas of Alexandria, Herma, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Papias of Hierapolis and Ignatius of Antioch. In their post-canonical writings they shared doctrinal agreement regarding the truths of monotheism, the eternal preexistence of Christ, the full deity of Christ and the full humanity of Christ. What their writings did not elucidate, likely in part due to a lack of necessity, was the implications of these doctrinal understandings. It was the next two centuries that saw the development of aberrant stances regarding the nature of the person of Christ, frequently leading to heresy, that came to necessitate closer scrutiny of God’s revelation of this matter.
Many of the writers following the apostolic fathers were entrenched in defending Christian truth claims to a largely pagan Roman empire. There were those, Justin and Irenaeus for example, however that did combat some of the Christianized Jewish sects, like the Ebionites, who denied the true deity of Christ, claiming instead that he was anointed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism thereby being elevated to the office of prophet subsequently earning the title “Son of God” through his piety. The ascetic Elkasites, a rather Gnostic form of Jewish Christianity, believed Christ to be an angel and the true prophet but again denied his deity. These and other “Apologists” further sought to assuage the hostility engendered by the claims of Christian exclusivity and other teachings among much of the populace. At the same time however they were jealous to defend the faith against such false accusations as cannibalism and sexual licentiousness. Despite their fervor for the defense of Scripture, the Apologists, no doubt products of their culture, themselves perceived Scripture in far too contemporary philosophical terms; namely through the lens of Platonism. This led them to an erroneous understanding of the eternal co-existence of the “Logos” with God as an impersonal force of reason. By this understanding it seemed reasonable that one can know God by reason apart from divine revelation which, on this basis, led Justin to assert that Socrates and some other Greek philosophers were Christians. Further, they offered a “confused Trinitarianism”. While holding to a three-in-one conception of the God-head, the Logos was subordinated to God in their thinking. This group of early church fathers, though missing the mark is many ways, did earnestly serve to advance our understanding of God’s revelation thereby providing the benefit of further ground work for future inquiry that they themselves lacked.
The heresy of Gnosticism finds its opposition in the work of the “Anti-Gnostic Fathers” of the second century A.D. – largely represented by Irenaeus of Lyons and Tertullian of Carthage. The Gnostics drew a firm distinction, in fact, a firm antagonism between Spirit and matter; also seen as good and evil, respectively. In this tradition of thought there is a lesser “Demiurge” responsible for the material world and is the God of the Old Testament where God the Father, the Father of Jesus Christ, is the merciful God of the New Testament. As for the incarnation of Christ, the Gnostics offer two possible theories. Their sub-heresy – a heresy within a heresy if you will – of adoptionism argues that because of this insoluble division between Spirit and matter, Christ could not have been truly incarnate, rather he merely temporarily associated himself with the man Jesus. Docetism, the other sub-heresy of Gnosticism, posits that Jesus had no actual, physical form but rather only took the appearance of physical form; essentially an apparition. The primary means of salvation then is said to be the rescue, often through asceticism, of the soul from its bodily imprisonment. What remains of Christianity in Gnosticism is nothing resembling Christianity at all. It was the Anti-Gnostic fathers who stood firm for the biblical concept of one, unified God who is “Creator, Preserver, and Redeemer.” Irenaeus, insisting on a true incarnation of Christ and the One God as a Triad, rejected the Gnostic contention that the Logos departed from Jesus prior to his death. For his part, Tertullian was fully convinced of the eternally pre-existent Logos as well as the true humanity of the God-man. He carried the logical ramifications of the Triad propounded by Iraneaus a bit further and, while he ended up landing at a position that erroneously subordinated Christ and the Spirit to God the Father, he did speak of God as a unified Three, a Trinity.
Origen, the greatest theologian of the third century, was also a Trinitarian whose Trinitarianism was also unduly informed by his Plantonistic worldview. He affirmed God’s aseity and, in an attempt to reconcile the “begetting” and the “eternal existence” of the Son and Spirit, he insisted that they had lain dormant in the Father from all eternity only to emerge when God desired to create the world. By this proclamation, perhaps inadvertently, Origen makes the second and third persons of the Trinity entirely dependent upon the Father, denying them the attribute of self-existence that is essential to divinity. Also inadvertently, out of this came much fodder supplied to heretical teachings over the next two centuries.
Bolstered by Origen’s subordination of Christ and the Spirit, jealous to preserve Christian monotheism, Monarchianism arose. Under this heading were two schools: Dynamic Monarchianism (aka Samosatianism, after Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch, and later spawning the Socinian and Unitarian traditions) and Modalistic Monarchianism (aka Patripassianism, from which Sabellianism emerged). The former school taught that rather than being a distinct person in the Godhead, which they argued would destroy monotheism, the Logos was an impersonal rational power within God. The latter school also taught that the Son was homoousia, one in substance with the Father, it was in their case a result of their being absolutely no difference whatever in person among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Rather, each of these were simply “modes” (Modalism) of the one God as he acted at different times. Patripassianism refers specifically to God the Father himself being the one to condescend, suffer and die in his mode as the Son.
The roiling cauldron that well describes the controversy that gradually emerged, largely between eastern and western Christians over the next couple centuries led to the great conciliar events of the fourth and fifth centuries. The church itself, apart from Roman government involvement, had held formal gatherings such as the Synod at Antioch in A.D. 268. However, prior to Constantine, from Nero in the first century through to Diocletian in the fourth, there were 10 major persecutions endured by the Christians at the hands of Rome with the express purpose of bringing about their extinction in the empire. In A.D. 312, during his 6th year as emperor, ostensibly as a result of his own radical conversion, Constantine established a policy of toleration for Christianity. From this time the state became involved in church disputes giving greater weight to the decisions of the councils that were held.
It was during this time that Arianism (Arius, presbyter of Alexandria) emerged. Further perverting the errors of Origen and Tertullian and capitalizing on the rejection of the idea of homoousia by the Synod at Antioch, Arius came to the conclusion that the Son could not be eternally existent and unbegotten, as was the Father, and was therefore created and was also therefore something less than God. Further, the incarnate Christ could not have two undiminished natures but rather his nature as the Son took the place of the human soul. Arianism was vigorously opposed by Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria who accused Arias of Sabellianism. Their conflict gained such fervor that Constantine, concerned for the potential consequences of this dispute on the empire, ordered the First Council of Nicea in A.D. 325. At the council the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea proposed a compromise between the Arians and Alexandrians with a rather ecumenical confession with a decidedly Origenistic flavor. This did not set well with Alexander. Athanasius, the soon-to-be successor of Alexander, then proposed some Alexandrian refinements to the confession of Eusebius and capped off his revised confession with a direct attack on Arianism. It reads in part:
We believe … in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not created, [of] the same substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, things in heaven and things on earth. But the holy and apostolic church anathematizes those who say that there was [a time] when he was not, and that He was made from things not existing, or from another [hypostasis], or [ousia], saying that the Son of God is mutable, or changeable.
After this became recognized as the Nicean confession the “debate over the Greek iota” regarding the substantial relationship between the Father and the Son continued. Were they homoousios (of the same substance) or homo(i)ousios (of similar substance)? A.D. 381 saw an end to this debate at the Council of Constantinople at which homoousia was affirmed and became the official position of orthodoxy when it stated what is today known as the Nicene (or Niceno-Constantinopolitan) Creed.
While this creed settled the issue of Christ’s deity, at least in terms of orthodoxy, controversy raged-on concerning his humanity. An ardent defender of homoousia, Apollinaris, bishop of Laodicea, an Alexandrian, held that Christ necessarily lacked complete humanity. He argued that while man is body, soul and spirit, the incarnate Christ was but human body and divine Spirit or Logos, the latter having displaced the human spirit. Apollinaris defended the necessity of this reasoning that for Christ to have taken on the human spirit he would have been subject to human variability and sin. In his well-intentioned attempt to exonerate Christ he, likely inadvertently, fell in to a modified docetism. Condemning the view of Apollinaris the council in the end agreed that to accept such a construction would be to make Christ impotent to the work of the restoration of man. As stated by Gregory of Nazianzus, that which “has not been assumed, cannot be restored”. So, carrying orthodoxy a step further than Nicea, which affirmed the necessity of the true deity of Christ, Constantinople affirmed also the necessity of his true humanity.
Divine Providence, in its way of ferreting out heterodoxy in the temporal matters of the church, brought forth the next major debate which led to the calling forth of what became a very contentious Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431 by Emperor Theodosius II. The headline issue of this council was related to the debate regarding Mary’s relationship to God. Was she theotokos (God-bearer) or Christotokos (Christ-bearer)? Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, who staunchly affirmed Christ’s true deity and humanity, was of the latter opinion. He argued that birth, suffering and death could only be said of Christ’s humanity, therefore the two natures, his deity and humanity, must remain distinct, that is, non-integrated and each retaining its own individual attributes. Opposing Nestorius was Cyril of Alexandria who, defending theotokos, declared, somewhat ambiguously, that to deny Mary as being the God-bearer is to affirm that “the way, the truth and the life” through whom we are saved is but a mere man. Two years after this council Cyril, along with John of Antioch, more clearly nuanced this confession stating in a “Formulary of Reunion” that “there has been a union of two natures; wherefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord. In accordance with this conception of the unconfused union, we confess the holy Virgin to be Theotokos, because the divine Logos was incarnate and made man, and from the very conception united to himself the temple that was taken from her.” The Council of Chalcedon a few years later recognized and affirmed the position as orthodoxy that Christ is one person consisting of two (true human and true God) natures that are to ever remain undivided.
Carrying this “undividedness” of Christ’s natures to extremity, Eutyches of Constantinople advocated a strict monophysitism, the complete integration, without distinction, of the two natures of the God-man. This position was opposed as heresy by Flavian, then bishop of Constantinople as well as Leo I (Leo the Great), bishop of Rome. Taking up defense for Eutyches was Dioscurus, bishop of Alexandria who, through malicious tactics, took hostage the A.D. 449 council at Ephesus that had been called by his ally, Emperor Theodosius II. When Theodosius II was succeeded the following year by Marcian a deposed Leo I – desposed by Dioscurus – was restored and a council at Chalcedon was ordered to be held in A.D. 451. This would prove to be the council to end all councils, vis-à-vis, Christological orthodoxy. Chalcedon was attended by a broad representation of Christendom of the time including Alexandria, Antioch and Western Christianity. The council reaffirmed the Nicene and Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creeds – the latter specifically refuting Apollinarianism, Cyril’s refutation of Nestorius and Leo’s Tome over against Eutychianism.
Though certainly with imperfection and not to be held to the level of divine revelation, Chalcedonian Christology has been vigorously scrutinized – consider its repudiation by the Second Council of Constantinople of A.D. 553 – rightly affirmed and reaffirmed repeatedly – consider its reaffirmation at the Third Council of Contantinople of A.D. 680 – over the intervening centuries as a test of Christological orthodoxy. The sum of its tenets include its rejection of Docetism, Samosatian adoptionism, Sebellianism, Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, and Eutychianism. It forced the tension between the “Word-flesh Christologists” (Alexandrians) and the “Word-man Christologists” (Antiochenes). Regarding the former, Christ indeed possessed two distinct natures, the divine taking upon itself the human. Concerning the latter, that Christ was not two persons but one person, one subsistence. In doing so the confession drew a distinction between “person”, being self-conscious substance, and “nature”, being the peculiar set of attributes. This divine person (one self-conscious subsistence) and nature (holy set of attributes) of the eternal Son has joined with the nature (all of the inherent attributes) of man while the single divine person remains unchanged. Jesus is to be understood as truly the God-man as opposed to God and man.
Unfortunately there have been several departures from Chalcedonian Christology held since its original affirmation. By way of example, Lutheran’s affirm that the Son’s divine nature was entirely communicated to his incarnate human nature, sharing those divine attributes such as omnipresence, and the others, with the human nature; using John 20:17, 16:30, 4:29; Mat. 9:4 and others in support. Heading the opposite direction is the kenosis theory which, rather oppositely, argues, partly based on statements of Jesus such as that in Mark 13:32, that upon his incarnation Jesus divested himself of his divine attributes. Both of these fall short of the truth of biblical revelation. As for the first, it is by definition that the human nature cannot assume divine attributes without necessarily ceasing to be human at all – this is to deny the full humanity of Christ, which those who hold this view tend to self-contradictorily affirm. The latter renders the opposite extreme. If the Son divested himself of his divine characteristics he would necessarily cease to be God at all. This position is fraught with illogic. The divine attributes of God are not simply characteristics that he exhibits out of his deity, rather, these attribute are essential to his deity and if removed deity disappears. The other obvious conundrum with this position is the violence is perpetrates on the doctrine of the immutability of God as well as his inability to do anything that is logically impossible – in this case, his inability to deny himself. It has been well said that the Incarnation was not an act of subtraction but of addition.
All of this considered we must in this case, as always, be very cautious to avoid an erroneous eisegesis of Scripture in order to protect our desired presuppositions, irrespective of good-intentions, thereby forcing an interpretation outside or beyond that which the whole counsel of revelation supports. Consistent with the light available the definition affirmed at Chalcedon affirms that Christ is one person, truly human and truly divine, consubstantial with the Father and with man, being of one substance (person) but two distinct natures whose individual attributes remain preserved. In conclusion, a balancing statement is here in order. Rather than viewing this definition as the absolute final word, as it is but from fallible, finite men, it should engender a passion to know this God and his revealed word more deeply. That said, to those who would question its validity, however incredible in the minds of some, this definition was the product of much labor, debate and controversy and thereby should not, without sound and exhaustive reasoning from the Scriptures alone, be easily dismissed. Be warned: Thus far, those who have done so, perhaps without malicious intent, have in every case chosen a path to heresy.