Jesus Christ – The Centre Of Our Faith:
An Historical Investigation

Introductory Remarks

At the heart of the good news of the New Testament is the person of Jesus Christ. This means that fundamentally the Christian faith is neither a philosophical system, nor a set of doctrines or a conglomeration of rules, rituals and customs but is a way of life centred on the person of Jesus Christ. Essentially the first confession of faith made by the early Christians was that Jesus , which literally means Saviour was the Christ. For this reason we say that the message of the New Testament is effectively Christocentric (centred on Christ). It is imperative therefore for every person who claims to be a Christian to become familiar with Jesus’ identity and work by asking who this historical Jesus was. According to the Synoptic gospels, it was precisely this same question that was posed to his disciples on their way to

Caesarea Philippi:

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am? (Mk 8:27)

The numerous answers given to this question in Biblical literature and all subsequent theological writings throughout the ages suggest that this Christological question was not always unanimously proclaimed. Already in the New Testament the disciples point to the wide span of opinion:

And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah [Christos] (Mk 8:28-29).

Indeed from the first days of the Christian community there have been many answers given to this question – a clear reflection of the difficulty of encapsulating the mystery of the person of Jesus. The various titles used by the early Christians to express their faith included: prophet, teacher, shepherd, Messiah, Son of David, Son of Man, Son of God, Lord, second Adam, bridegroom, light of the World, the Alpha and the Omega, the High Priest, the Suffering Servant, Saviour, Logos. Therefore already from the Biblical texts one can detect a rich variety of titles indicating the profound depth of the question at hand. Indeed an entire discipline within theology is committed to the systematic study of the person and work of Jesus Christ and is known as Christology.

The Meaning of the name ‘Christ’

The English word ‘Christ’ which translates the Greek word ‘Christos’ and the Hebrew term, Messiah’ means the ‘anointed One’ of God. The answer given by Peter in the synoptic gospels and by Martha in the Johannine gospel, that Jesus is the ‘Christ’ has formed the foundational confession of faith concerning Jesus. The term ‘Christ’ is significant as it already underscores the intimate relationship (or communion) between Jesus and God, His Father and the Holy Spirit. The fact that Christ is the ‘anointed One’ implies first and foremost that Jesus cannot be thought of apart from His Father and the Holy Spirit since it is God the Father who wills that Jesus be anointed by the Holy Spirit who thereby anoints Christ making Him be what He is. Secondly as a corollary to the first point, being the ‘anointed One’ of God indicates that the Father and the Holy Spirit actively participate in the ministry of Christ. Therefore any individualistic understanding of Christ is incompatible with the person and work of Jesus. Christ is a relational being drawing His identity from His relation with the Father and the Holy Spirit. This minor yet important point highlights that Jesus bestowed upon all human persons and the world at large this gift of divine communion enjoyed by Him by virtue of becoming human Himself. In other words Christ’s abiding presence in the Church today, as proclaimed and testified by the book of Acts for example, ensures that the entire cosmos is also incorporated into the filial relationship between Christ and His Father. Therefore all human persons who are in Christ acquire their particular person-hood in the same communal relationship inherent in the life of the Trinity.

Aspects of Jesus’ Historical Life

Historically what is certain about the person of Jesus is that He appeared on earth in conjunction with John the Baptist , gathered disciples around Himself forming a symbolic group, ‘the Twelve’ and began his brief preaching ministry proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God, for which He was executed. Very little is known about the life of Jesus prior to His baptism by John the Baptism. Born shortly before the death of King Herod the Great (4 BC) in Bethlehem, He was known as a Galilean from Nazareth. For this reason the every day language of Jesus would have been Aramaic, which had long been the preferred popular language after the Babylonian exile. Yet that he could argue with the Pharisees on issues of biblical interpretation points to the fact that Jesus would have had a knowledge of Hebrew as well. Some scholars have even argued that Jesus could have had some knowledge of Greek since it was the language of the Gentiles with whom he also interacted. Therefore we would claim that Jesus was literate, spoke Aramaic and was familiar with Hebrew and Koine Greek, the Greek language of the time.

Furthermore, the Scriptures claim that he was from the lineage of David (cf Rom 1:3) , Israel’s greatest king and the prototype of the royal Messiah. The virginal birth of Jesus is affirmed only by the gospel according Matthew:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus (Mt 1:18-25).

In regards to the virginity of the mother of Jesus, the Orthodox Christian tradition claims that she was a virgin before, during and after the birth of her son and for this reason is called ‘ever-virgin’ (aeiparthenos). Many argue that this could not be the case as the New Testament affirms that Jesus had other brothers (cf Mt 13:55). In answer to this apparent difficulty, the Patristic tradition has offered two different answers: firstly some Fathers of the Church rightly stressed that in the Scriptures the words ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ could refer to the wider family, namely cousins. It is true that to this day Middle-Eastern cultures refer to their extended family as ‘brothers’. The second view is that the brothers of Jesus referred to in the gospels could be stepbrothers of Jesus from a possible prior marriage of Joseph. Yet what is certain is that there is no evidence from the New Testament suggesting that Mary had other children besides Jesus. Besides, the fact that from the cross, Jesus committed his mother to the care of John is a strong indication not only that Joseph was deceased by the time of Jesus’ crucifixion but that Jesus was Mary’s only child.

The Historicity of Jesus

Before we begin to reflect upon the person and work of Jesus as a whole, we will investigate the historicity of the person of Jesus since many people today have raised serious doubts not only about the Christian message in general but on the fact that Jesus actually existed. Since the entire Christian faith is based on the person of Jesus it is fundamental to understand that Christianity is based on a historical reality and not a fictitious myth. In seeking to verify the historicity of Jesus, we will not begin with the New Testament testimony since many critical scholars have rejected the historical value concerning the person of Jesus. For this reason we will examine the non-Christian sources, both pagan and Jewish which refer to the Jesus and His movement.

Even though it is true that the evidence for Jesus overwhelmingly comes from the Biblical literature yet there is still some scattered information from other sources which either directly or indirectly refer specifically to Jesus or to the expanding Church he left behind after His crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. Therefore the methodology employed for determining the historicity of the life of Jesus in this case will be an approach called “evidential intersection” or “internal/external coincidence” . This implies that a careful study of the non-Christian literary sources will be undertaken to see to what extent they coincide with the New Testament. Then those New Testament stories which do in fact correspond to the extra-Biblical data will be taken to be trustworthy. In this way we shall begin to form an historically trustworthy image of Jesus Christ and it is to this investigation that we now turn.

Explicit Non-Christian references to Jesus

• Josephus

A Jewish historian named Josephus who was born in 37 AD and raised in Jerusalem has made one of the most explicit references to Jesus. Historians believe that Josephus would have heard about Jesus as a boy but that he did not record this information until the nineties whilst in Rome. Being Jewish he had nothing to gain by referring to Jesus and yet he did. Aware of the ‘Nazarene sect’ as he called it, he wrote:

“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people who accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvellous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”

From the above quote we learn several facts about Jesus which are also affirmed in the New Testament. In recording that Nicodemus, an eminent Jew of the period addressed Jesus as teacher, the Gospels substantiate what is recorded by Josephus. The Gospel according to St John writes:

He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (Jn 3:2).

That Josephus claims that Jesus gained great popularity is well attested in the Scriptures. The book of Acts records the growing number of Jews and Greeks (that is Hellenistic or Greek-speaking Jews) from within Israel who had been won over by Jesus. Josephus also refers to the Roman trial of Jesus by Pontius Pilate in precisely the same way that the New Testament gospels convey it. Lastly Josephus’ mention of the resurrection of Jesus in writing that ‘he appeared to them’ is in line with the Gospel accounts. Josephus’ understanding of the convictions of Christians towards Jesus is, on general terms, therefore the same as that of the New Testament writers.

• Tacitus

Whilst Josephus was not hostile in his description of the identity and work of Jesus, the same cannot be said of the writings of Tacitus, another explicit non-Christian source regarding Jesus. He was considered one of the greatest historians of the period. At the time of writing his Annals of Imperial Rome in which is described the great fire of Rome in 64 AD, Tacitus was the governor of the province of Asia. In his history, Tacitus argued that the people of the time believed that Emperor Nero himself was to blame for the fire. Yet, Tacitus continued that in trying to divert the blame from himself, Nero gave the strong impression that “the notoriously depraved Christians, as they are popularly called” were responsible for the terrible fire. Tacitus continues to describe the originator of the Christians in the following way:

Christus, from whom the name [Christians] had its origins, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, [in] Judaea.

The gospels’ record of the accusation against Jesus which led to his crucifixion, namely that he was the Christ, the king of the Jews, is consistent with Tacitus’ account. Tacitus also precisely details that Jesus was tried at the hands of Pontius Pilate, during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. Mention is also made to the rapid spread of the movement to Rome:

… the deadly superstition, thus checked for the moment, broke afresh in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but also in the City [Rome], where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world meet and become popular.

Even though Tacitus’ negativity towards Christianity is apparent when he calls it a “deadly superstition”, an “evil”, and “hideous and shameful” yet he was historically precise in his references that Jesus was executed in Judaea under the governorship of Pontius Pilate and that his movement had reached Rome. Whilst Tacitus omits to explain why Christianity after the death of Jesus ‘broke afresh’ since all movements usually died with the death of their leader, the Gospels would explain this phenomenon in terms of God raising Christ from the dead.

• Pliny

Pliny was a friend of Tacitus and governor of Bithynia an adjoining province where Tacitus was also governor at the same time. Writing about contemporary events, Pliny described the followers of Jesus in the following way:

[Christians] met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternatively among themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god.

This important detail sheds light on the way the early Christians came together to worship Jesus as the Son of God. Furthermore, in his dislike towards the Christians, Pliny had ordered that they renounce their follower publicly. Upon arresting them he demanded that they “revile publicly the name of Christ” which he soon came to see that they would rather die than to obey such an order.

• Suetonius

Suetonius was a historian who recorded events also described by Tacitus but did so much earlier than Tacitus. In his history, he records a serious event of 49 AD in which the Emperor Claudius forced the Jewish community residing in Rome out of Italy. In a similar way, Suetonius lays blame on the followers of ‘Chrestus’ whom he believed to be “a class of men given to a new and wicked superstition” Suetonius believed that ‘Chrestus’ and his followers were dangerous to the peace and harmony of Roman society. Even though the description is negative, as one would expect since Christianity was known as a an ‘illicit religion’ until Emperor Constantine officially recognized it in the forth century, the fact is that the historical existence of Jesus is not denied.

Implicit Non-Christian references to Jesus

• Phlegon

A second century Greek, Phlegon was a historian whose writings have survived through references made by others to him. For example, Origen, one of the greatest fathers of the Church who lived in the third century referred to the writings of Phlegon on several occasions. Origen mentions Phlegon as indicating that Jesus had in fact prophesied about the destruction of Temple which took place in 70AD. Elsewhere Origen directly cites from Phlegon that Jesus,

While alive was of no assistance to himself, but that he arose after death, and exhibited the marks of his punishment, and showed how his hands had been pierced by nails.

From this implicit data Origen clearly shows that Phlegon was aware of the life and work of Jesus.

• Rabbi Eliezer

A Jewish teacher by the name of Eliezer who lived between 70-200AD referred to Jesus though he did not specifically mention Him by name in writing about the Old Testament prophet, Balaam. In interpreting an ancient oracle of Balaam, Eliezer believed that Balaam’s prophetic words were meant against Jesus:

Balaam looked forth and saw that there was a man born of a woman who should rise up and seek to make himself God, and cause the whole world to go astray. Therefore God gave power to the voice of Balaam that all the peoples of the world might hear, and thus he spoke: “Give heed that you go not astray after that man; for it is written, God is not a man that he should lie. And if he says he is God he is a liar, and he will deceive and say that he departs and comes again at the end. He says and he shall not perform.

It is obvious that the man Eliezer is referring to in his own interpretation of Balaam’s ancient oracle is Jesus whose followers were rapidly growing. This again highlights the fact that Jesus’ historical existence could not be doubted even by those who were against Him.

Furthermore, a post 70 AD Jewish tradition recorded in the Talmud records the fate of Jesus in the following way:

Jesus was hanged on Passover Eve. Forty days previously the herald had cried, “He is being led out for stoning, because he pas practiced sorcery and led Israel and enticed them to apostasy. Whosoever has anything to say in his defence let him come forward and declare it”. As nothing was brought forward to his defence, he was hanged on Passover Eve.

Although the interpretation of Jesus is quite contrary to the testimony of the New Testament, the historicity of the existence of such a person is never questioned.

Concluding Remarks

This brief investigation of the extra-Biblical sources examined above has brought to light that Jesus was a genuine figure of history. The major difference between Christians and others regarding the historical person and mission of Jesus is in the area of interpretation. It will be the Gospels who will attribute deity to Jesus. However for such perspectives on the identity and ministry of Jesus Christianity is entirely dependent on the New Testament. Yet the following conclusion can be drawn for now:

a. Jesus was a Jew born sometime between 10-4BC during the reign of Augustus Caesar and during the governorship of Herod I over Palestine

b. He was a religious leader and founder of a non-Jewish ‘sect’ as the Roman historians of the time called it.

c. He was a wise teacher who spoke with great authority

d. He came before John the Baptist.

e. He was executed during the governorship of Pontius Pilate during the reign of the emperor Tiberius.

f. He left behind Him followers who rapidly spread his teaching throughout the Roman Empire.

g. His early followers worshipped Him as God and sang hymns upon gathering on a fixed day (Sunday).

On the other hand, it would be apostles of Jesus, who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, would came to recognize Jesus as the Christ (the anointed One of God) and come to identify Him with the God (Yawheh) of the Old Testament. For this reason the Gospel of St John would record Jesus’ words that “I and the Father are one” (Jn 14:28). Moreover, it would be the early Christian community who would come to refer to Jesus as Lord, a title used proper to God alone since, as Son of God, they came to see that the man Jesus was also God with exactly the same divinity as His Father.

Therefore to really know Jesus Christ is to receive Him as He appears in the Church’s canonical New Testament writings. Ultimately, as to the exact historical events one cannot be entirely sure. Yet what is all important is the claim made by the Eastern Orthodox tradition that the real Jesus is the Jesus Christ of the Gospels, the book of Acts, the writings of Paul and John, Peter, James and Jude. Therefore to ‘know’ Christ requires a thorough and critical study of the Scriptures which means becoming disciples of Jesus. And it is this belief in ‘the one Lord Jesus Christ’ as this proclamation is described in the Scriptures which continues to form the fundamental confession of faith for Christianity. A reflection of the New Testament titles to Jesus will concern us in the next issue of Vema.

Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College

Jesus Christ – The Centre Of Our Faith:
The Scriptural Image of Christ

Introductory Remarks

An important starting point to discover the person and work of Jesus is to examine the various images offered in the Gospels. In fact, in reflecting upon Jesus the early Christian community, as we shall see, used various titles available to them drawn from the Scriptures (and by this is meant the Old Testament) to answer the fundamental question as to who Jesus was. The fact that all the titles used by the Gospel writers to describe Jesus were derived from the Old Testament Scriptures is meant to point out that Jesus was the One sent from God (cf Jn 8:42) to fulfil all that the Hebrew Scriptures had foretold that the expected Messiah would do. Some of the many Old Testament titles included: Son of God, Messiah, Lord, Son of David and Word of God. However, during His earthly life Jesus was also seen in more human terms, as a prophet and teacher. We can begin to see already that whilst the real humanity of Jesus was obviously affirmed, the early Christian community wanted to underscore a divine aspect which they had experienced in His person. They did this since they believed fundamentally that Jesus was the Christ, the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15), the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being (Heb 1:3) and even God.

The Scriptural Christ

From this is can be inferred that the Gospels were more concerned to proclaim that Jesus was divine with exactly the same divinity as God, the Father since this had been made entirely clear to the first Christians following the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. And the Scriptural Christ was affirmed by attributing to Him properties and activities which belonged to God alone: creating the world (Jn 1:3), granting life (Jn 6:35), forgiving sins (Mk 2:5-7), raising the dead (Lk 7:14-15), making the blind to see, the lame to walk, the deaf to hear and ultimately being victorious even over death (Mt 11:5). Indeed the name ‘Jesus’ is already a clear indication of His person and divine mission. In Hebrew the name Jesus (yesu’ah) meant God’s victory of salvation. Jesus came to save the world. The Gospel of Luke is emphatic in this regard:

The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost. (Lk 19:10).

Therefore in examining the various titles attributed to Jesus, in what the entire Christian Church accepts as the canonical Scriptures it is important to recognize exactly who the Gospel writers understood Him to be and how they comprehended His mission.

An important point that needs to be made right from the very beginning, in this regard is that the Gospels are not concerned so much to give facts about the historical figure of the man named Jesus. Rather they offer a particular interpretation of Jesus in light of His crucifixion and resurrection. The Scriptures are a testimony of the early Christian community’s experience to the crucified and risen Lord and not a historiography of the life of Jesus. The very heart of the Christian gospels which refers to Jesus’ question, who do people say that I am?” (Mk 8:27) is to proclaim that Jesus is truly human but not merely human – that is, that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed Son of God. Therefore the concern of the Gospel writers was not simply to describe His historical life but to testify that Jesus was the Christ, the very Word of God, the Lord and Son of God.

Having affirmed that the New Testament is written from a particular perspective – that Jesus is the Lord, the anointed One of God – we must not go to the other extreme and conclude that the written testimonies of Jesus are not historically authentic. Rather it is to point out that the writers of the New Testament Scriptures, relying upon the oral tradition of the day, re-contextualized this message in light of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. That is to say, the primary concern of the Gospel writers was not simply to preserve some authentic sayings of Jesus but to present Him as the One victorious over death and exalted because of His death on the Cross. This subtle yet fundamental point is made very clear at the point where the Gospels describe Jesus rebuking Peter in the harshest manner possible – Christ said to him, “Get behind me Satan!” (Mk 8:33) – when Peter tried to convince Christ not to take up His Cross. In this we see the importance the Gospels placed in understanding the person and work of Christ in terms of His crucifixion and resurrection. The concern of the early Church was to demonstrate that the crucified and resurrected Jesus had all the characteristics which the Old Testament (the Law, Psalms and the Prophets) belonged to God alone. And to affirm this they depicted Jesus with many titles which they drew from the Hebrew Scriptures and it is to these titles to which we now turn.

Son of God

The title ‘Son of God’ was given to Jesus in the Scriptures both at his Baptism and Transfiguration. At both the Baptism of Christ and His Transfiguration a voice from heaven was heard testifying that Jesus was God’s son. The reason that the writers of the Scriptures used this title for Jesus was to affirm Jesus’ unique relationship and intimate communion with God, His Father. The theme of divine sonship is proclaimed in all four gospels in which it is testified that there is in fact no other way to God the Father except through Jesus, His only begotten Son. In the gospel according to St Matthew, for example Jesus is depicted giving thanks to His Father and saying:

“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Mt 11:25-27).

This claim made by Jesus was greater than that of any of the Old Testament prophets, who saw and heard divine things but did not claim such knowledge on the unique basis of a filial relationship with God. This indicated that the Father was permanently with Jesus, His Son throughout His ministry and that Jesus was totally committed to fulfilling His Father’s will. Therefore the title was not derived from the early Church as some have suggested but from Jesus’ unique relationship and intimate communion with His Father.


All four Gospels describe the ministry of Jesus beginning with His baptism in the Jordan River. Baptism was a symbol of death and resurrection (dying whilst being immersed in water and resurrecting upon coming out). In being baptised, Jesus identified himself with sinners. It is for this reason that the Johannine gospel has John the Baptist saying to Jesus:

Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29).

It is at His baptism by John the Baptist where Jesus is revealed as the Son of God. The Gospels claim that the voice of the Father was heard saying, “this is my Son the Beloved in whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17) and that the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove confirming the words of the Father. The baptism of Jesus not only reveals that Jesus is the Son of God but that God the Father and the Holy Spirit are with Him throughout His entire earthly ministry.


Immediately after the confession of Peter where Jesus was proclaimed to be the Messiah, the gospels record Jesus referring to His forthcoming suffering and going up to Mt Tabor in order to show three of his disciples His divine glory. This Jesus did by transfiguring in front of them. The transfiguration of Christ is one of the central events recorded in all four of the gospels, where Jesus is again recognized as the Son of God. The Gospels depict the face of Jesus shining like the sun and his clothes becoming white as snow (cf Mt 17:2) as He speaks with Moses and Elijah. Here, as in the baptism account the voice of the Father is heard saying, “this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear him!” (Mt 17:5) and the presence of the Holy Spirit is recorded – this time in the form of a cloud. In the transfiguration of Christ the disciples were able to behold the glory of the kingdom of God present in all splendour in the person of Christ. The glory denoted the majestic presence of the kingdom of God among the people. The letter to the Colossians affirmed that in Christ

“all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19) “for in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9).

Christ disclosed himself in all His glory so that the disciples may know, after His crucifixion who it was that suffered for them.

Son of God

As a title, “son” was already a term applied to angels, kings and the faithful people of Israel. In the beatitudes Jesus Himself said:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Mt 5:9).

Elsewhere Jesus also exhorts people to love their enemies “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:45). However throughout all four gospels Jesus is described by others as the Son of God but Jesus refers to Himself also in this way:

“All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Mt 11:27).

In fact in the Gospel according to St John Jesus said “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30) and for this reason Jesus can say that “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s bosom who has made him known” (Jn 1:18). This passage is very clear in underlining that it is through Jesus, as the Son of God that Christians have access to God the Father.

As the Son of God Jesus addressed God as abba, which is an intimate form of “father”. In this way Jesus not only showed His whole dedication and absolute obedience to His Father but also His intimate proximity with God, something which was unprecedented at the time of Jesus. The will of Jesus was to carry out His Father’s will (cf Jn 5:19). This detail shows again that throughout His ministry Jesus did not consider God to be absent but permanently present and in communion with Him. As the Son of God, Jesus saw His love coming from the bosom of the Father and returning to the Father by way of his Crucifixion and Resurrection.

Being in communion with the Father has given Christians throughout all ages not only the possibility of calling God “abba” by the power of the Holy Spirit, but direct access to the Father by being members of His body, the Church, of which He is the head. And so in his letter to the Romans St Paul noted:

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:14-16).

Through their own accord, faithful people could not call God, abba, but it was made possible only in the Holy Spirit.

Christ – Messiah

The declaration that Jesus was the Messiah or the Christ (ie the One anointed by God) lay at the heart of the earliest Christian kerygma validated by Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The early Church searched the Scriptures to shed light on Jesus’ Messianic role and His saving work and recorded this in the New Testament Scriptures. After His baptism, Jesus began his public ministry performing all the Messianic signs, which the Old Testament Scriptures affirmed that the eagerly expected Messiah would do. The central confession of Jesus as the ‘Messiah’ took place when Jesus himself asked His disciples, as they are walking on their way to Caesarea Philippi who they thought that He was:

“But who do you say that I am? Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16).

The answer to this question directed to the Twelve but given by Peter in the synoptic gospels affirmed that Jesus was the anointed one of God, the Messiah of Israel sent into the world to save people from their sins. Far from being seen now as a simple prophet or teacher, Jesus was now seen as the Christ, as the true Messiah sent by God to accomplish His will. In fact Jesus saw Himself as the fulfilment of the Old Testament messianic hopes.

Peter’s answer began to make manifest, for the early Church, the relationship of Jesus to God the Father and the Holy Spirit. The fact that Christ was understood as the ‘anointed One’ implies first and foremost that He was seen closely connected with God, His Father. The early Church came to see Jesus as the one upon whom the Holy Spirit had rested throughout His entire earthly ministry. This meant that they did not perceive Jesus apart from His Father and the Holy Spirit. The reason for this was that the early Church claimed that, since God the Father had willed that the Holy Spirit anoint Jesus this meant that the Father and the Holy Spirit actively participated in the ministry of Christ. Therefore any individualistic understanding of Christ was seen to be incompatible with the person and work of Jesus. Being the Christ, Jesus was seen as relational being drawing His identity from His relation with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

According to the Scriptures the Messiah was the one who would restore Israel to its original grandeur and lead it back into communion with God. Furthermore it was claimed that the Messiah was to come from the lineage of David since God had promised David that his throne would be established forever. This messianic tradition was based on a promise the prophet Nathan had made to David. This story is recorded in the book of Samuel:

from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. (2 Sam. 7:11-14).

In this passage we see God wanting to reward David for his piety by promising to establish an everlasting dynasty through his son. God further promised not only to be the father to David’s heir but also to anoint Him thus fulfilling His covenant with His people. A further characteristic of the Messiah was that he would be born in Bethlehem (cf. Mic 5:2). From the eighth century before Christ the idea of an ‘anointed offspring’ of David became the theme of many of the Old Testament prophets. Increasingly however the idea of ‘messiah’ was becoming more and more connected with the idea of a political liberator who would unite the people bringing peace and restoration to righteous living (cf Ezek 37:24).

Since most people of the time understood the term ‘Messiah’ in terms of political deliverance, Jesus went to great lengths to teach people what He meant by this title. For example, upon entering Jerusalem on a donkey, He let it be known that He came as king of peace and not as one of the sword. It was for this reason that even His closest disciples did not understand that Jesus had to suffer and so Jesus is depicted in the Gospels as going around not only fulfilling the Old Testament expectations of the Messiah but also correcting the prevalent Messianic ideas of the people. In this way Jesus was able to lead His people to a higher understanding of the idea of ‘Messiah’. And so Jesus went around doing all the signs that the Old Testament Scriptures said the Messiah would do but also redefining and reinterpreting this title. This He did by predicting His sufferings.

In performing the Messianic signs of the Old Testament Scriptures, Jesus wanted to show that he was the Messiah, whom the Israelites were expecting. The Gospel according to St John records seven such miraculous signs expected of the Messiah:

1) changing water in wine at the wedding of Cana in Galilee ;
2) whilst in Galilee curing the nobleman’s son, who was in Capernaum, a distant town ;
3) healing a paralytic in Jerusalem who was lying next to the pool of Bethesda for thirty eight years ;
4) feeding the five thousand with only five barley loaves and two small fish ;
5) walking on rough water towards His disciples ;
6) giving sight to a man born blind by anointing the eyes of the blind man with the clay ; and
7) raising Lazarus from the dead thus manifesting His power even over death.

The Christian Scriptures also claim that he preached the “good news” to all; cast out demons; performed countless miracles and even forgave the sins of people. Since the Scriptures claim that only God can forgive sins, this event in itself was a clear indication, for the Church fathers that Jesus was divine with the same divinity as his Father.


After transfiguring on the mountain, Jesus spoke to His disciples about His crucifixion and then went on to ask the second most important question to those who were trying to catch him out. And so He asked them: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” (Mt 22:42). He asked this so that He could show that He was not only the Messiah [ie the Christ] but also the Lord. Knowing the Scriptures, the people answered “The Son of David” (Matt 22:42). Jesus then responded by referring to Psalm 110, which is the most quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament. Jesus asked:

How is it then that David, by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying ‘the Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet”‘? (Psalm 110). If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son? (Mt 22:43-45).

The whole point to the question was, how could David, the father of the ‘Messiah’ refer to his future son as ‘Lord’. One would expect the son to refer to his father as ‘lord’ and not the other way around. Yet though the ‘son’ of David was a descendent of David, He was still greater than David – in fact He was the Lord. The Messiah was not so much the son of David as He was the Lord of David. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, we see that David called Christ ‘Lord’ because he had recognized to be all that Yahweh Himself was.

Not only did the early Christian tradition believe Jesus to be the Son of God but also the Lord (o kyrios). The first Scriptural mention of Jesus prayed to as Lord is found in the book of Acts:

While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. (Acts 7:59-60)

In this case Stephen, the first deacon of the early Christian Church is quite naturally depicted calling upon the ‘Lord Jesus’ to receive his spirit in view of his forthcoming martyrdom. Whilst many scholars have rightly pointed out that the title ‘lord’ could be used as a simple form of address – as ‘sir’ – denoting a polite expression of respect , its use in the Scriptures is entirely unique. Therefore in order to understand its meaning in the writings of the Scriptures it is necessary to examine how it was used to refer distinctly to the one God of Israel and Jesus. That the term was used by the Israelites to refer to God is without question. Yahweh, the proper name for God was too sacred to pronounce and therefore appeared only in written form in the Scriptures.

So for example, the classic statement for the Israelites was the following: Hear o Israel: Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone. (Deut 6:4).

The sacred name of God was replaced in speech by Adonai which meant ‘Lord’. Used as the spoken substitution for Yahweh, the reference now to Jesus as ‘Lord’ would have been a clear indication of the divine qualities of Jesus. By calling Jesus, Lord, the early Church recognized that all those divine attributes [idiomata] of the one God of Israel – described as holy, self-sharing, abounding in steadfast love, merciful, gracious, kind, slow to anger – applied to Jesus as well. It is for this reason that on many occasions St Paul claimed that the mere calling upon the name of the Lord had saving effects:

Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved (Rom 10:13).

The full divinity of Jesus was thus affirmed and recorded by the writers of the New Testament in their reference to Jesus as Lord. Through His crucifixion Jesus was seen as a man witnessed to by God, raised and exalted by the Holy Spirit. In the crucified Lord, the early Church turned its praise and glory to acknowledging Him as ‘Lord’.


From the very beginning the early Church began to reflect upon their experience of the crucified and resurrected Christ and interpreted this in various symbols and images from the Hebrew Scriptures. However nourished through worship they gave new meaning to these Old Testament titles. In this way the Church fully saw Jesus as the ‘Son of God’, the ‘Christ’ and the ‘Lord’. In examining only three such titles we already can being to appreciate the rich variety of Christologies that developed as the early Church tried to articulate their Easter experience of Christ. There are several other significant titles attributed to Jesus in the New Testament which give yet other aspects of His identity and mission. And it is to those that we will turn in our next issue of VEMA.

Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College

Jesus Christ – The Centre Of Our Faith:
The Scriptural Image of Christ (Son of Man)

Introductory Remarks

It has long been recognised that the title ‘Son of Man’ is one of the principal Christological titles employed in the New Testament Scriptures. Appearing in all four Gospels, the expression ‘Son of Man’ [o uios tou anthropou] represented one of Jesus’ most frequently used self-depictions. In fact it never became a way for other people to refer to Jesus but was used only by Jesus to refer to Himself and His work. Unlike the titles ‘Son of God’, ‘Messiah’ and ‘Lord’ which were incorporated in the Church’s doctrinal statements, the phrase ‘Son of Man’ remained a self-designation of Jesus. Interestingly, this appellation is not encountered in the entire Pauline corpus or in other epistles but only occurs in the Gospel traditions (in fact more than eighty times ) and only twice outside – once in Acts 7:56 and twice in Revelation, 1:13 ; 14:14 . Even though the sense of the term must have been understood by those who heard it in Jesus’ times since there is no explanation of its meaning in the Gospels, today its usage must be examined since it is not readily clear and has in fact been misinterpreted.

Unfortunately today the phrase ‘Son of Man’ has been grossly misunderstood by modern scholarship who argue that, in reference to Jesus, it simply highlighted the humanity of Christ and nothing more. In fact in its attempt to question the traditional Christology of the Church throughout the centuries which affirmed both the human and divine natures of Christ, for over four centuries now biblical criticism has strongly challenged the contention that the title ‘Son of Man’ may suggest the divinity as well as the humanity of Jesus. And so, it is argued, the expression was simply a generic way that any human being could refer to himself. That is to say, many biblical scholars fail to recognize that when Jesus used this term, in the same way that the Old Testament Scriptures did, He did so in order to betray His divine attributes and not only His human.

It is important therefore that this title be properly delineated and understood otherwise we may run the risk of believing, like those modern scholars that Jesus saw Himself merely as a human being without any divine self-understanding. And in order to discover meaning of the title ‘Son of Man’, its origins from the Old Testament Scriptures will be looked at since this was the way that Jesus understood this title when He incorporated it for Himself. Appearing for the first time in Jewish apocalyptic literature, it came to signify a type of redeemer figure who would appear at the end of time. The following examination of the term will thereby affirm our contention that this title ‘Son of Man’ denoted more than a merely human self-appellation.

The Son of Man in the Old Testament – Books of Daniel and Ezekiel

The four most significant sources from Jewish literature which shed light on the meaning of Son of Man are found in the Old Testament books of Daniel and Ezekiel and also in the Book of Similitudes and 4 Enoch, two first century AD Jewish apocalyptic writings. In all four works the title ‘Son of Man’ was understood as a reference to a ‘super-human’ figure whose primary function centred around a final judgement and salvation. Even from this one can easily see the reasons which prompted Jesus to use this title in order to express His own intentions and divine mission. Firstly looking at the book of Daniel we see here a description of the prophet Daniel’s vision which is focused on ‘one like a Son of Man’ upon whom was bestowed all earthly power and glory by the Ancient of Days.

From this passage alone we come to see that the ‘Son of Man’ is no mere mortal:

“As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a Son of Man (bar Enosh in Aramaic) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed” (Dan 7:13-14).

In this passage the vision of the heavenly figure, who appeared as a Son of Man receiving power which is explicitly described as ‘everlasting’, hints not only to the similarity of this figure to human beings but also to a dissimilarity in so far as the Son of Man is depicted as a messianic figure, that is an agent of judgement and salvation.

The other main Old Testament work where the term ‘Son of Man’ is used is in the book of Ezekiel. Here, as in Daniel, the one called ‘Son of Man’ is a herald of judgement whose pronouncements are of eschatological significance (i.e. important as they relate to the end times). In the book of Ezekiel however it is clear that the title ‘Son of Man’ is employed as a form of address on the part of God to the mortal prophet. Yet it is precisely in Ezekiel that the role of the prophet is delineated in rather super-human terms and thus Ezekiel, as the ‘Son of Man’ is understood to occupy an intermediary position between the human and divine in so far as he mediated the judgements of God to the world. It is in this sense that the formula ‘Son of Man’ must be seen as something other than merely human.

Jewish Literature

Subsequent Jewish writings began to give fuller descriptions of this manlike figure of Daniel not only interpreting him in messianic categories but stating that he was pre-existent and divine. Two such works dating from the first century AD were: 1) The Book of Similitudes which formed part of the pseudoepigrahic work of 1 Enoch (ch 37-71) and 2) 4 Ezra 13 which scholars argue was written approximately 100 AD.

One such example clearly outlining how the book of Daniel was interpreted in relation to the ‘Son of Man’ sayings within the Book of Similitudes is the following:

“and the Son of Man whom you have seen shall put down the kings and the mighty from their seats…(46.4) And at that hour the Son of Man was named in the presence of the Lord of Spirits, And his name before the Head of Days. Yea, before the sun and the signs were created, before the stars of the heaven were made, his name was named before the Lord of Spirits… (48.2) And all the elect shall stand before him on that day. And all the kings and the mighty and exalted ones those that rule the earth shall fall before him on their faces and worship and set their hope upon that Son of Man and petition him and supplicate for mercy at his hands… (62.7).”

From the above passage it can clearly be seen that the Son of Man was believed to be the ‘Messiah’ who was pre-existent and given prerogatives which traditionally belonged to God alone. Clearly, in using this title for Himself Jesus saw Himself as fulfilling the Scriptures in that He was the One about whom Daniel had spoken and upon whom later Jewish literature further elaborated. It is against such a background that Jesus would have used the ‘Son of Man’ terminology which is recorded in the New Testament.

The ‘Son of Man’ in the New Testament

Putting aside the whole scholarly debate which is centred on examining whether the ‘Son of Man’ sayings found in the Gospels were actually said by Jesus (the so called ipsissima verba of the historical Jesus) or if they were added subsequently by the early Church since this would in effect suggest large scale alterations (retrojections) of the Biblical texts on the part of the early Christian community which seems highly improbable, we will now consider the usage of the ‘Son of Man’ sayings in the Gospels. Firstly, it is clear that the expression ‘Son of Man’ is used in similar ways in all four Gospels. Having affirmed the similarity in connotations, one can conclude that there are at least three different ways in which the term is used in the Synoptic Gospels. The three distinct groups refer to

[a] Jesus during His earthly life as the Son of Man,
[b] predictions of Jesus’ death and resurrection as the Son of Man,
[c] the future coming of the Son of Man and the vindication of His sufferings and authority as judge.

A survey of the group of passages referring to Jesus as the Son of Man during His earthly ministry reveal an authority of Jesus which was beyond the human. In fact it extended not only to His dominion over the Sabbath but referred also to His power to forgive sins. In the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) the ascription of such authority remained the divine prerogatives of Jawheh (God). In using the title ‘Son of Man’ when referring to these divine functions and others, such as judging, creating and saving, Jesus was affirming His divine-human self-understanding. In healing the paralytic and thereby claiming the ability to heal and save, Jesus realized that the Pharisees were questioning His authority and so He said:

“Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he then said to the paralytic — “Stand up, take your bed and go to your home” (Mt 9:4-6).

Furthermore Jesus revealed even His authority even over the Sabbath when He pronounced that the Sabbath was made for humanity:

“The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27-28).

Such authority not only to forgive sins but also over the Sabbath which Jesus claimed for Himself as the ‘Son of Man’ would normally belong to God alone in the Scriptures or One whom God would send to the world with the same authority as God. This goes to show that the phrase ‘Son of Man’ betrayed a self-understanding on Jesus’ part as the One sent by God who had come to fulfil the Old Testament Scriptures.

During His trial, Jesus spoke to the High Priests and to the Sanhedrin of the impending death of the Son of Man in a series of predictions emphasising that this was to happen so as to fulfil what was written in the Scriptures:

“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again”…. (Mk 8:31) … “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles” (Mk 10:33).

Whilst these two biblical passages make it clear that as the Son of Man, Jesus had to suffer, they also betray that He would be victorious over death, thereby betraying His divine attributes as One able to conquer death by death. This second use of the title ‘Son of Man’ by Jesus clearly showed a divine element in His understanding of the expression.

The third meaning associated with the Son of Man sayings has to do with Jesus as the final judge at the Second Coming. The most striking passage illustrating the connection between the expression ‘Son of Man’ and the theme of judgement is found in the gospel according to Luke which describes Jesus speaking to His disciples that one amongst them would betray Him:

“For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” Then they began to ask one another, which one of them it could be who would do this” (Lk 22:22-23).

Other biblical references relating to the future coming of Jesus in judgement as the Son of Man “in clouds and with great power and glory” to assemble His scattered people and to reject those who were ashamed of Him are the following two biblical verses:

“Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” …. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory” (Mk 8:38; 13:26).

These passages are clearly reminiscent of the Danielic tradition which described the One who would descend from the clouds ‘like a Son of Man’ in order to judge the world and then be given everlasting power and dominion in the Kingdom of Heaven. As the Son of Man, the Scriptures claim that Jesus would confront all nations, both Jews and Gentiles in order to judge them, bestowing eternal life upon the righteous and consigning the accursed to eternal punishment. One could therefore easily conclude that Jesus used of the title ‘Son of Man’ in order to describe His unique person and mission, having in mind the figure prophesied by Daniel who would come as God’s agent to gather and judge His people. Clearly such an understanding goes contrary to the contention put forward by modern scholarship which understands this title purely as a description of Jesus’ human self-understanding.

Concluding Remarks

In using the term ‘Son of Man’ it has been shown that Jesus did in fact refer to Himself in this way being fully aware of the way the term was used in the Scriptures. Since the Scriptural Christ was interpreted as the One who came to fulfil the Old Testament, truly divine with the same divinity as His Father, it is not unreasonable to postulate that the title ‘Son of Man’ represented something more than a purely human category. In fact, knowing the Scriptures (that is the Old Testament) Jesus would have been familiar with Daniel 7 and therefore used this phrase to teach the people that it was He who was the ‘human-like’ figure that Daniel had foretold and which 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra had identified as the Messiah, God’s Son, the Elect One. The title betrayed the divine aspect of His person and work and this was precisely the reason why Jesus appropriated the title ‘Son of Man’ for Himself. Besides contextually speaking, such an interpretation of ‘Son of Man’ betraying Christ’s divinity fits in with the occasion of the writings of the New Testament, whose authors had to explain and justify not the fact that Jesus was a man, as this was taken for granted, but the position that He was also God. Therefore the title ‘Son of Man’ is best understood as an authentic reference to the divinity of Jesus over and against His humanity since it is clearly attributed with transcendent features far surpassing any purely human features.

The only exception to this is found in John 12:34 where it is the people in this case who use this title in speaking to Jesus so as to ask Him to whom Jesus was referring: ” The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”” (Jn 12:34). The term occurs 69 times in the Synoptic Gospels and 13 times in the Gospel according to St John “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest.
Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand!

Wellhausen observed that “Jesus uses [the expression] not esoterically at all, not merely in front of his disciples, yet no one finds it strange and requires an explanation. All let it pass without being astonished, even the quarrelsome Pharisees… who were not accustomed to accept something unintelligible.” (cited in G. Vermes, Jesus the Jew (London: SCM Press, 1986), 161).

1. The only exception to this is found in John 12:34 where it is the people in this case who use this title in speaking to Jesus so as to ask Him to whom Jesus was referring: ” The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”” (Jn 12:34).
2. The term occurs 69 times in the Synoptic Gospels and 13 times in the Gospel according to St John
3. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
4. and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest.
5. Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand!
6. Wellhausen observed that “Jesus uses [the expression] not esoterically at all, not merely in front of his disciples, yet no one finds it strange and requires an explanation. All let it pass without being astonished, even the quarrelsome Pharisees… who were not accustomed to accept something unintelligible.” (cited in G. Vermes, Jesus the Jew (London: SCM Press, 1986), 161).

Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College

Jesus Christ – The Centre Of Our Faith:
The Scriptural Image of Christ (The Word Incarnate)

Jesus Christ – The Word Incarnate

It is in the Gospel according to St John that Jesus Christ is encountered with the title ‘Logos’ or ‘Word’. Specifically it is seen in two places: in John 1:1 and 1:14. In the opening lines of the Gospel we see highlighted the pre-existence of the Word:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1).

Applied to Jesus, the title ‘Word’ in this case affirmed Christ to be pre-existent, beyond the confines of time and space, divine, and as we shall see later in the Gospel the agent of creation and the mediator between the Father and the world. In fact as the Word of God, Jesus Christ was depicted not only in an intercessory role but as the very revelation of God, His Father. Jesus, as the Word of God is therefore both the revealer and the revelation of God.

As God’s revealer, Jesus made known, by His actions, speeches, dialogues and indeed His entire life those things that God wanted for the world. That is to say, the incarnated Word revealed or exegeted the Father thereby making visible and comprehensible the invisible and ineffable God. At the same time, as God’s revelation, encountering Jesus meant beholding God, His heavenly Father. As Word, Christ was not only the revealer of the Father’s revelation but the very embodiment of that revelation as well. And so in St John’s Gospel, the phrase ‘Word’ became a title for Jesus since His very person and work came to be identified completely with His proclamation – that is, the person of Jesus became synonymously identified with the Gospel itself. This idea of Christ as revelation of, and revealing the Father was taken up by other New Testament writings which describe Jesus as the ‘image’ , ‘effulgence’ and ‘wisdom’ of God. After examining the use of the expression ‘Word’ in the New Testament, a brief outline of the various meanings of the term will be looked at from certain extra-biblical sources to see how these shed light on Jesus Christ as the Word of God.

Exegesis of St John’s Gospel

A careful exegesis of this opening verse of St John’s Gospel (cited above) provides us with an insightful acquaintance with the concept of ‘word’ in its relation to Jesus Christ. Divided into three simple clauses, each however contains the same imperfect form of the verb ‘to be’, yet used slightly differently in each case. The first part of the first verse explains that the Word existed from the very beginning with God the Father. In this way, it reveals that there was never a time when God was without His Word. Later, the Fathers of the Church would speak of the co-eternity of the Father and the Son in their confrontation with Arius by stating that even though the Son (and for that matter the Holy Spirit) were from the Father, this did not mean that they came after Him. Just like the sun is not prior to its light, said St Gregory the Theologian, so too was the Father not prior to His Son. Ultimately the Patristic tradition would claim that the Word of God was begotten from the Father in a non-temporal manner (achronos) which goes beyond any logical explanations. It must be remembered that even though the Fathers spoke of the co-eternity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, they did not say that all three persons were co-unoriginate – since only the Father was the only cause and source of the Godhead.

Turning now to the second clause of the opening verse of St John’s Gospel, although the same verb ‘was’ is used, its meaning does not describe existence, as in the first clause, but a relationship – “the Word was with God” in the sense that the Word was in the presence of God or in communion with God. One can appreciate here the unity of the Word with God yet also the Word’s distinctiveness from God. For this reason the Eastern Orthodox tradition would claim that the Father and the Word are one in essence, they are united in their energies and action towards the world, but each is a distinct, unique mode of existence – i.e. a unique person. Therefore the second clause affirms the indivisible distinction and unconfused unity between the Father and the Word of God.

Finally the third clause of the first verse of St John’s first chapter uses the imperfect from of the verb ‘to be’ in a predication which reveals the essential characteristic of the word – i.e. “the word was God” – that is, the divine quality of the Word. The word order in this case if significant since it implies that the Word in His nature was truly God. If for example, the Gospel writer wanted to imply that the Word was a lesser god he would have written o logos en theos – the Word was a god. If, on the other hand, he wanted to identify the Word completely with God without any distinction, he could have written o theos en o logos – God was the Word. From this verse taken as a whole, one can clearly see what led the Church in subsequent years to conclude that the Word was in unity with, yet distinct from, the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Now, for St John the Evangleist not only was the Word recognized to be divine with exactly the same divinity as God His Father, but in total contrast to this, fully human as well:

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14).

In stating that the divine Word became flesh, John wonderfully combined, in the meaning of ‘Word’, two diametrically opposed notions – those of divinity and humanity. The surprising unity between these two antithetical elements was now incorporated into Jesus Christ the Word. In Christ the Word, divinity became inseparably bound to humanity to such an extent that from now on Christ could most authentically be described only in a theanthropic manner (i.e. both as fully God and fully human). Even though the Word dwelt with the Father from all eternity, as the Prologue observed, in having now assumed the flesh of humanity, Christ was now depicted as a real human being. Hence those scholars who argue today that the notion of the true incarnation is not found in the New Testament does not stand since St John’s Gospel strongly emphasized the ‘flesh’ of the Word of God. In fact the importance of the incarnational nature of Christ is further emphasised in the first letter of John to such a degree that those who reject this foundational truth are referred to as ‘antichrist’:

“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world” (1 Jn 4:2-3).

The emphasis is clearly upon the historical reality of the existence of Jesus Christ, the Logos incarnate in the flesh since Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the pre-existent Word. Having looked at the biblical notion of ‘Word’ as it applied to Jesus Christ, we now turn our attention to its use in certain extra-biblical literature as this will give us insights into the various other meanings of Christ as the Word of God.

Ancient world understanding

In the ancient world, the notion of ‘word’ was heavily reflected upon by many philosophers as it conveyed important and meaningful insights from which they were able to explain the meaning and existence of the world. In its attempt today to determine the source of the various nuances of this profoundly rich expression of the term ‘word’, much literature and debate have arisen within biblical scholarship. There is however agreement that the phrase the ‘word’ originated either from within Hellenistic philosophy, Gnosticism or Jewish literature. Whilst the contention of many scholars who argue that the term came to predominate in St John’s Gospel as a reaction to the Gnostic frequent use of God as wisdom, is not entirely incorrect, it is more plausible, though to conclude that Christ came to be referred to in this way since He was believed to be the all pervading ‘reason’ (logos) or ’cause’ which created and sustained the universe. Besides, this was the interpretation that many fathers, such as Justin Martyr and Maximus the Confessor gave to the title ‘Word’ in reference to Jesus. Furthermore this was how Greek philosophy understood the title as this too is evidenced in the ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato, Heraclitus, the Stoics and Philo.

Coupled with this notion, the concept of ‘word’ implied much more than simply an expression of thought, but included its result, that is the analogous action or deed. Therefore beyond speech and thought the notion of ‘word’ implied the reason of existence, that power which gathered together the various scattered elements of the world and put harmony into them. For example Heraclitus wrote that the Logos was “the omnipresent wisdom by which all things are steered” thereby attributing the Word with divine qualities. On the other hand, for the Stoics, the ‘word’ was the common law of nature, the raison d’etre of existence, immanent in the world and maintaining the unity of the universe. And for Philo, the Logos was the agent of creation, the means by which God could be known. And so for St John the Evangelist it is Jesus as the Word of God by whom, through whom for whom all things were made, the one in whom all things hold together.

So rich was the meaning of ‘word’ in the ancient world, that the Gospel of St John was able at once to convey with this title not only the divinity of Jesus, but also His powerful action as the life-force behind the entire universe. This dynamic character of the meaning of ‘Word’, as God’s expression and accomplishing act is found everywhere in the Scriptures. And so in the Old Testament it is through the mighty utterance of God’s word that the entire world is created from non being:

“By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth” (Ps 33:6).

In the Psalms of the Old Testament, the Word is even personified:

“he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction” (Ps 107:20)… “[He] sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly…He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow” (Ps 147:15;18).

The Patristic tradition interpreted these passages as sustaining actions by the Son of God, the Father’s Word, betraying also God’s continued care and providence for the world which He created out of love. Unlike the ancient use of the term, St John’s gospel never described the Word as a faceless emanation overflowing out from God’s divinity, but identified the Word with the person of Jesus. It is this personification of the Word that the author of the Gospel of John takes up, to begin his Gospel in order to affirm that it was through His Word, that God, the Father brought about His entire divine purpose in history. And so, in reference to Jesus, as the Word of God, this implied Christ’s identification with God whose expression, deed and unifying cause He was. And as the unique expression of God Himself, divine sonship was now possible for all believers. Communion with God the Father was only possible because Jesus Christ was ultimately depicted as the Word of ‘God’, divine with the exactly the same divinity as His Father. In the next issue of VEMA we will examine those landmark statements which explicitly refer to Jesus Christ as God.

Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College

1. Cf Jn 1:18 “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known (exegesato)”.
2. Cf Col 1:5 “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” and ‘In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’ (2Cor 4:4);
3. Cf Heb 1:3 “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high”.
4. Cf Wis 7:26 ” For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness”.
5. Arius was a pious priest from Alexandria who lived in the fourth century but who did not believe in the divinity of the Son of God believing instead that He was a creature (albeit the most exalted of all God’s creatures) begotten in time. For this reason he was condemned at the first Ecumenical Council in 325AD. Since the Scriptural Christ was depicted as co-eternal with the Father (and the Spirit), then there “was never a time when the Son of God was not.”
6. Cf St Gregory the Theologian, Third Theological Oration, 29.3.
7. ibid.
8. Gnosticism basically was a sect of the early Church which believed that though Jesus was a divine figure, He nevertheless was one of the many aeons and therefore not divine like the absolute God. Their general view was that God could not assume a materially human nature since matter was considered evil and therefore was not divine like God the Father who was utterly transcendent and far removed from the material world.
9. James Adam, The Religious Teachers of Ancient Greece (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1909), 216-34.

Jesus Christ: The Suffering Servant

Holy Week

During Holy Week the Orthodox Church reads many prophecies from the Old Testament. In particular on Good Friday a text is read from Isaiah (Is 52:13-53:12) which relates to God’s servant who will undergo nothing but suffering. And yet it will be through this suffering that this righteous and Suffering Servant of God will accomplish God’s saving mission. The Eastern Orthodox tradition claims that this prophecy was fulfilled by the person of Jesus Christ who suffered unto death as the “Suffering Servant” of God in order to bestow life to the entire world.

For this reason, as Holy Week and Easter is fast approaching it would be good to reflect on Jesus as the Suffering Servant.

Introductory Remarks

In many verses of the New Testament Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth is depicted as the ‘Suffering Servant’ of God. In fact it is especially those passages which record the impending Passion of Christ that have Jesus’ person and mission referred to in terms of God’s ‘Suffering Servant’. Used by Jesus Himself in order to describe His saving and messianic mission, this title finds its source in the ‘Suffering Servant’ prophecies as they are expressed in the book of Isaiah. Indeed on several occasions, one finds Isaiah’s ‘servant’ passages directly quoted by New Testament writers in order to describe central ideas about Jesus’ person and mission. Therefore in order to understand what was meant by Jesus as the ‘Suffering Servant’ it is necessary to examine the prophecies of Isaiah to see in what ways Jesus fulfilled what was alluded to by the prophet over 700 years before Christ’s birth. That is, it is only Jesus Christ who sheds light fully on the meaning of these prophetic writings, thereby highlighting their abundantly rich and theologically suggestive character. And yet it is the prophecies read in the light of Jesus Christ which can illumine the meaning of Jesus as the ‘Suffering Servant’ of God and it is to these that we now turn.

The Prophet Isaiah

Writing over seven hundred years before the coming of Christ, the prophet Isaiah was able to predict the coming of the Messiah because it was God who had revealed to him His future coming. One cannot but be astounded at the remarkable way that Isaiah was elected by God to this prophetic mission: God is revealed to him; Isaiah is utterly perplexed at the tremendous vision; he confesses his unworthiness and an angel is described as touching his lips with a burning coal in order to cleanse them.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” … And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean … Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” (Is 6:1-7).

Following God’s call it would be quite safe to say that Israel produced few other figures as great in stature as the prophet Isaiah. We know that after being called to his prophetic office, Isaiah engaged in the events of his time many ways guiding the nation of Israel through times of tragedy and crisis.

Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Poems

Biblical scholars have usually identified four particular passages from the book of Isaiah which tell of the Lord as the Suffering Servant – these are, what is traditionally called the poems of Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9 and 52:13-53:12. Filled with powerful images and striking descriptions these passages boldly and imaginatively tell the story of God’s Suffering Servant. The first of these, Isaiah 42:1-4 portrays God’s beloved chosen servant as the decisive figure who acted on God’s behalf to bring justice to the world. In the Old Testament justice was understood in terms of social equity where the weak, the vulnerable, the orphans and widows could enjoy a life of dignity, security and well-being. Being entirely obedient to God’s purposes and commands, this servant of God, Isaiah describes, as anointed with God’s spirit, one in whom God would totally delight:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him (Is 42:1).

One can easily see why the early Christian tradition identified this servant of God with the anticipated Messiah, Jesus Christ, the fulfilment of God’s justice and salvation.

The second articulation of servanthood, found in Isaiah 49:1-6 exemplifies even more clearly the reason why the Eastern Orthodox tradition has identified Isaiah’s Suffering Servant with Jesus Christ. Whereas the first passage had God referring to his chosen servant, this passage has the Suffering Servant himself addressing the people of God:

The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me… And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified…. I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Is 49:1-6).

In announcing that he, as God’s ‘Suffering Servant’ was chosen even before he was born betrays that God would be with him as he brought God’s plan to its ultimate end for the salvation of the people and the glorification of God. Therefore the self-affirmation of the servant of God coupled with God’s declaration reveal that the ‘servant’ of God was not only identified with God but was God’s agent for His purposes of deliverance and in this way is ‘a light to the nations’. The passage is even more powerful in that the servant knows that his labour will be in vain and his strength will be spent for nothing and in vanity (cf Is 49:4) and yet the suffering will not discourage the servant’s resolve to do the work of God. Therefore, if identified with Jesus Christ, as the Eastern Orthodox tradition has done so, the anticipated servant would come into the world in order to suffer willingly.

The third passage, Is 50:4-9 makes explicit the role of the Suffering Servant of God as the one who would lead the people of Israel out of exile and back to the Father’s home. He could do this because the ‘Lord God’ had given him “the tongue of a teacher” (Is 50:4), and therefore could claim to be a genuine spokesperson of God, whose words could sustain the weary ones. That he was the faithful servant of God is further outlined in the next verse where Isaiah reveals that the Suffering Servant of God would both listen and obey the Lord God even in the face of scourging and mocking:

The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting (Is 50:5-6).

The extent of the servant’s attentiveness to the will of God necessarily means affliction, hostile opposition from the world, and ultimately death to which the Suffering Servant remains uncompromisingly committed and steadfast. Yet the Suffering Servant’s willingness to suffer abuse is equalled with God’s steadfast action to help and ultimately vindicate him. Again this passage was interpreted by the early Christian Church as a prophecy fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.

The last of the four poems under study from Isaiah, (Is 52:13-53:12) affirms that in suffering, would the servant of God be glorified, exalted and lifted up. The image of the honoured servant is made even more powerful by the extensive description of suffering and humiliation presented in these verses which signify that the glory of God’s servant is to be situated in his suffering. It is precisely for this reason that, during His Passion, Christ is depicted as a bridegroom by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Whereas the image of a bridegroom is naturally identified with the glorious crowning of a man’s life, in the case of Christ it is associated with his suffering to show precisely that it is through suffering that Jesus Christ is glorified. Read in the light of Jesus Christ Isaiah 53 typologically describes Christ’s earthly life from his birth to his death and resurrection. In a stunning affirmation of the entire salvific work of the servant, we read:

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed… and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Is 53:2-6).

Not only is the suffering of God’s servant disclosed at length but also the reasons for this suffering are also presented – that the entire sin of the world was laid upon him for our deliverance. This is further intensified in that verse 4 contrasts how the miraculous events of salvation came from a person whom the people of Israel had disregarded and dismissed. Furthermore the intensity of his suffering is heightened in that verse 5 states that in taking on of the sins of Israel the servant was ‘wounded’, ‘crushed’ and ‘bruised’, yet in this, were the faithful healed. Therefore the suffering of the One made healing possible for the entire world which had gone astray like foolish and recalcitrant sheep.

The indescribable astonishment continues in that not only is the righteous Servant utterly rejected, unjustifiably put to death and buried with the wicked, but in all this, he issues no protest, nor does he present any defence choosing, on his part to remain silent:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. (Is 53:7).

The image of a lamb is so poignant in that this animal is known not only for its innocence, purity and gentleness, but also for its silent, submissive and accepting stance in the face of any type of opposition. As if this were not enough, the poem continues by stating that “it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain” (Is 53:10). And yet this passage, which at first sight seems so harsh can only be understood in light of what follows. Through the death of the Suffering Servant the will of God would come to prosper in that His servant would be exalted and together with him the entire world. That is, it is this ultimate sacrifice of the Suffering Servant which puts an end, once and for all, to the tyranny of death. One cannot but see the parallels between Isaiah’s prophecy and the New Testament description of Jesus, especially Philippians:

[Jesus Christ] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:7-11).

We now turn our attention to see all those events in the Gospels which refer to the sufferings of Jesus of which Isaiah spoke.

Jesus Christ: the fulfilment of the ‘Suffering Servant’ prophecies

Throughout His life, the New Testament records several episodes which refer to Jesus as the Suffering Servant of God. They include 1) His Baptism, 2) the Temptation of Jesus Christ, 3) His rejection at Nazareth, 4) first prediction of His suffering, 5) Jesus’ Transfiguration and second prediction about suffering and 6) Jesus’ third prediction of suffering on His way to Jerusalem. The six episodes make it abundantly clear that it would be in the person of Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant about whom Isaiah had foretold, that these prophecies would be fulfilled. And it is to these six episodes that we now turn briefly.

Already from His baptism in the Jordan River by St John the Forerunner, is the suffering of Jesus Christ disclosed. The Gospel of John describes Jesus as the sacrificial lamb who in His baptism would begin His ministry to take away the sins of the world by suffering and ultimately dying for his people: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29). Clearly the baptism of Jesus therefore points to His suffering and death on the cross. Immediately following His baptism, Jesus’ temptation are attempts, by Satan to take away His sufferings for the salvation of the world. In overcoming the devil, Jesus remained obedient to His Father’s will and in this way expressed His unwavering commitment to suffer on behalf of the world. The Gospel of Luke ends this episode with a clear statement that Jesus would have to confront many other temptations: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Lk 4:13). Therefore whilst the baptism of the Lord refers to His impending suffering, the temptation for forty days in the wilderness emphasise Jesus’ willingness to suffer, so as to break the world’s bonds with the evil one.

The Gospels claim that after Jesus was tempted for forty days, He began to preach in Galilee and then in Nazareth, the city in which He was brought up (cf Lk 4:16). As was the custom on the Sabbath day, Jesus entered the synagogue and began to read from the book of Isaiah (ch.61) which spoke of God’s Suffering Servant who was authorized to carry out God’s salvific mission by preaching the ‘good news’ and performing many miracles to His people. Upon reading this, Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). After momentarily admiring Jesus, those who had listened to Him, then turned to disbelief asking “is not this Joseph’s son” (Lk 4:22) and then became hostile towards Him. For this reason, He left Nazareth and went to other towns performing many miracles and healings. And then as Jesus came to the town of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples: “who do you say that I am?” (Lk 9:20). After Peter’s confession of faith that Jesus was the Messiah, God’s Son, Jesus, for the first time made His first prediction about His imminent suffering: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Lk 9:22). So important is the suffering of Jesus, since, in this will the world be set free, that when Peter attempted to question Him on this, Jesus replied “Get behind me Satan” (Mt 16:23). Clearly Jesus understood His person and mission in terms of the Suffering Servant of God described in Isaiah and so after this He began to teach His disciples about His future suffering in the hands of the Jewish elders, the chief priests and the scribes (or Pharisees).

Only after having spoken about His suffering did Jesus transfigure in the presence of three disciples, Peter, James and John precisely to show that only through suffering would the glory of God be revealed. However, the transfiguration also records Jesus’ second prediction of His future suffering and death:

“while he [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure (exodon), which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Lk 9:30-31).

The reference to Jesus’ exodus pointed to His voluntary death which would bring about the freedom of the people of God from slavery. Immediately after the Transfiguration, Jesus said that: “Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands” (Mt 17:12). And again after healing the boy with the evil spirit “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised” (Mt 17:22-23). This time the theme of suffering and resurrection is brought together in a most explicit way.

Lastly, as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he told His disciples that He would be betrayed, mocked, condemned flogged and turned over to be crucified. (cf Mt 20:17-19). As the former two predictions regarding the suffering of Jesus, this one also contains references to Jesus as the Suffering Servant of God who would be condemned not only by the Jewish Sanhedrin but also the Gentiles:

“the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised” (Mt 20:18-19).

Together the three predictions disclosed in great detail the impending suffering and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Concluding Remarks

In all six episodes just delineated, the disciples are presented as not understanding what Jesus meant by all this. Specifically regarding Jesus’ three predictions about His impending death, Kesich has wonderfully noted that, in the Gospels the three predictions of Jesus’ suffering occur within the context of two miracles where Jesus healed two blind men, one at Bethsaida and the other as He was leaving Jerico. From this, the author beautifully concluded that Jesus was trying to make them ‘see’ that it would be only in fulfilling His role as the Suffering Servant of God, that He would be exalted and glorified by God. It could safely be said that it was in having seen Jesus described as ‘Suffering Servant’ that the disciples came to understand Jesus’ death not as defeat, but as His ultimate glory and the basis for the world’s salvation.


1. The Bible depicts the prophet Isaiah beginning his prophetic mission at approximately 740BC after the death of king Uzziah. It has also been suggested that he died a terrible death being sawn in two by Manassseh (cf Heb 11:37). After 701BC Isaiah disappears from the scene without a trace.

Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College

The Scriptural Image Of Jesus Christ As God

Introductory Remarks

In the New Testament, especially in St John’s gospel, but also in certain writings of St Paul, Jesus is explicitly referred to as God. However, before examining the use of the title ‘God’ for Jesus Christ in the Scriptures two preliminary points will made regarding the general meaning of the expression ‘God’. Firstly an etymological analysis highlights that the term ‘God’ is derived from the Greek verb ‘to run’ (theein) or ‘to burn’ (aithein) denoting the idea of God’s “continuous movement and the consuming of evil qualities”. Not only does this betray God’s continuous concern (or providence) for what He has created but also His personal mode of existence. That is to say, insofar as God is forever ex-static (i.e moving outside of Himself) He is also personal since a person by definition exists only to the extent that an ‘other’ is beheld. Far from being an abstract idea, God is a personal existence – indeed three Persons who continuously move outside of their divinity to relate with the world. In this way, God is truly experienced on a personally intimate level and not simply logically accepted.

Having briefly outlined the meaning of the term ‘God’ from a linguistic point of view, several considerations must be brought to the fore regarding the use and original meaning of God in general. We note that the term ‘god’ was originally used as a generic noun to simply denote any deity of the transcendent realm. That is to say, just like the expression ‘human being’ denotes all those creatures who share a set of common properties, which include, amongst other attributes, reason, thought, will judgement, imagination, memory so too the name ‘god’ signified a transcendent reality. There were many ‘gods’ in the ancient world and each had their own proper name. And so the proper name of the God of Israel was “I am who I am” (Ex 3:14). Such a name was used by God to proclaim to His people that He was entirely transcendent and that not any one name could contain Him, much less define Him – He simply was who He was.

It was later that the term ‘god’, as a generic name for the deity, came to be used, by the Jewish nation, as the proper name for ‘God’. The Israelites did this because, for them, there was no other god except their God. This point is important because it can explain the use of the term ‘god’ in its broader sense in the Scriptures. For example, all those who hear and abide by the word of God are called gods. In quoting Psalm 81:6 (according to the Septuagint), Jesus said:

“I said you are gods, son of the Most High” (Jn 8:41).

This is to be understood in reference to the gift of eternal life bestowed on all those who follow Jesus, becoming ‘gods’ by grace (cf 2Pt 1:4). It must be remembered that in the Greek language, when the term ‘god’ is used with an article as in, ‘o theos’ the title ‘God’ is reserved almost exclusively without exception to God the Father alone. Therefore in being named as ‘o theos’ the Scriptures show Jesus Christ to be divine with exactly the same divinity as God the Father. And so, this detail is also an important argument for all those who, on the basis of this more general use of the term ‘god’ argue against the divinity of Jesus Christ. After these preliminary remarks about the expression ‘god’ in general, we now turn our attention to examine its use in reference to Jesus Christ.

In the Gospel according to St John

In the New Testament one can distinguish at least three explicit verses which refer to Jesus as God: two references in the gospels and one in the letters of St Paul. In fact in the Gospels the only application of the term God (o theos) to Jesus Christ is found in the gospel according to St John – one reference at the beginning of the gospel and one towards the end. As it is well known, in the opening verses of the prologue of the gospel, the pre-existent Word is referred to as God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (kai theos en o logos)” (Jn 1:1) . This verse makes explicit the fact that Jesus Christ, the pre-existent Logos of God, whilst distinct from God the Father is also divine with exactly the same divinity as His Father – that is to say, Jesus Christ, the incarnate Logos is perfect God. From this verse alone, we see that in the Son of God who was made flesh, the fullness of the deity dwelt bodily (cf Col 2:9).

There are some who maintain, however that since the definite article before the word ‘God’ (in the third clause of verse one) is missing in the original Greek, the verse can then be interpreted to mean that Jesus was a ‘god’ in the broader sense of the word but not God in the full sense. And so they conclude that this verse in no way betrays the divinity of Jesus Christ. By way of a reply to this assertion based on grammatical syntax (which is nonetheless, admittedly never entirely binding), it can be argued that the article was not needed because of the fact that the word ‘theos’ appears at the beginning of the clause in question and predicate nouns preceding a verb do not require the article. However beyond the ‘linguistic’ response, the unanimous interpretation given to this verse by the entire early Church, all testifies to the fact that this verse was understood as a declaration of Christ’s divinity. And so, the Patristic tradition argued that the articular ellipsis in the phrase ‘the Word was God’ skilfully declares the consubstantiality of the Logos with the Father without confusing the Persons. That is to say, without the definite article, it can safely be concluded that Jesus Christ, the Logos of God, whilst remaining indivisibly distinct from God the Father, was nonetheless of the same essence and of the same being as God – i.e. not a lesser God. Therefore the phrase emphasises Christ’s intimate and eternal relationship with the Father whereby the two, though distinct cannot be thought of apart – that is they are perfectly united in an unconfused manner. And being ‘God from God’, Jesus Christ was able to reveal perfectly to the entire world all that God was, and will be, from the very beginning until the end of time.

The next occurrence of the title ‘God’ applied to Jesus Christ is to be found in Thomas’ confession of faith in Jesus Christ, where he professed the risen Lord as ‘my Lord and my God’ (Jn 20:28). St John’s Gospel relates that when the disciples were gathered again in the house, in the evening of the first day of the week after Christ’s resurrection, Jesus appeared to all of His disciples (cf Jn 20:21ff) except for Thomas which the gospel notes was not there. The passage continues, that eight days later, when the disciples were gathered together again, Jesus appeared to them again – this time Thomas was with them – and said: “Peace to you!” (Jn 20:26). The resurrected Lord then turned to Thomas and said to him to reach out his finger and to touch the side of Christ. The invitation extended to Thomas to put his fingers on the hands and side (cf Jn 20:27) of the risen Lord, dispelled all forms of doubt that bound Thomas and led to the proclamation of the divinity of Jesus – an affirmation that was made only by Thomas and not the other disciples.
It is precisely for this reason that it would be more correct to see in Thomas’ desire to touch Christ, not an indication of doubt, but more an insatiable desire to immerse himself fully, with fingers and hands, in fact with all his senses into the mystery of the resurrected Lord so as to relive to some extent the humanity of Christ. Unlike the other disciples who simply saw Christ and rejoiced, Thomas wanted to embrace the reality of the resurrection with his entire being. And it was this desire which led him to his confession of faith of “my Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28). Furthermore, the use of the personal pronoun ‘my’ in this declaration of faith was not an impersonal or abstract recognition of the divinity of Christ but a personal affirmation and a total dedication of Thomas’ entire existence to the risen Lord as God. For this reason many exegetes are correct in seeing in this confession, which stands at the end of the gospel, a direct correspondence with the prologue’s declaration of Christ’s divinity.

In St Paul’s letter to the Romans

There is one passage in St Paul’s letter to the Romans where Christ is referred to as ‘o theos’. In highlighting the unbelief of the Jews in chapter nine despite God’s continued blessings – exemplified in His bestowal of the various covenants, the law, the promises and His glory – Paul also came to affirm the divinity of Christ:

“to them [the Israelites] belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen” (Rom 9:5).

This passage belongs to that part of the letter to the Romans in which St Paul underline the continuity but at the same time discontinuity between the Jewish and Christian faiths, which, at the time, was one of the most important theological and pastoral concerns of the early Church. Yet, for our purposes, this important text also refers to Christ as ‘God’, who is to be ‘blessed forever. Amen’.

At this point it must be noted that much of modern scholarship rejects the claim that Rom 9:5 is a reference to the divinity of Jesus, seeing it instead as a doxology to Jesus the Messiah – i.e the Son of God – and to God separately. The reason for this is that the original Greek text would not have had punctuation marks and therefore, depending on how one punctuates this sentence determines the meaning as well. And so, the reading which is favoured by many biblical scholars today would have a full-stop placed after the word ‘sarka’In this case, a distinction is introduced between the words ‘Christ’ and ‘God’, whereby Christ and God the Father are seen to be over all. That is to say they see this verse as a reference to two different entities – to Jesus Christ as the ‘anointed One’ of God (but not God) and also to God the Father who is blessed forever. In other words, they argue that ‘theos’ in this case is not a description of Christ but a reference to God the Father. Such an interpretation however has not been the widely accepted one throughout the ages of the Church’s history of Biblical hermeneutics.

The claim of the Christian Orthodox tradition, on the other hand, that the verse in question is a reference to the divinity of Jesus Christ is reached, by having a comma, and not a full-stop placed after the Greek word ‘sarka’. In this case, the phrase does not describe God the Father and the Son of God, but rather the expression ‘God blessed forever’ qualifies who the Messiah is – i.e. ‘God over all who is blessed forever’. Read in this light, the passage, Orthodoxy would assert, unambiguously describes Jesus as God (though not o theos who is usually God the Father in the Scriptures). That this is most likely reading is evidenced in the writings of the Patristic tradition, which has interpreted this verse as a proclamation, by Paul of Christ’s divinity. Indeed, many Fathers understood this Pauline verse to be a Trinitarian confession of faith. And so, Origen (d. 253AD) for example, upon whom many subsequent fathers relied wrote:

“It is clear from this passage that Christ is the God who is over all. The one who is over all has nothing over him, for Christ does not come after the Father but from the Father. This Spirit is also included in this… So if the Son is God over all and the Spirit is recorded as containing all things, it is clear that the nature and substance of the Trinity are shown to be one and over all things.”

Clearly, in his commentary, Origen, like many fathers, clearly believed that St Paul was affirming here that Christ was over all things as God, and therefore blessed forever.

Even though one cannot argue apodictically for either reading, the latter interpretation is more likely not only because this is in agreement with the Patristic tradition but also for at least the following three reasons: firstly, if the last phrase of the verse were a doxology to God the Father and not a description of Jesus Christ, then Paul would have begun his doxology, as he normally did, with the word ‘blessed’ and not ‘God’ as is the case in the original Greek. And so the verse would read: “Blessed is God forever!” and not as it stands in the verse “God blessed forever” . Moreover another consideration rightly noted by Behr is that if the title ‘God’ were not addressed to Jesus Christ then the participle, ‘being’ (o on) would not be required. As it stands now, this participial phrase is in apposition to the words ‘o Christos’ furthering qualifying who Jesus Christ was – i.e. God blessed forever. A third reason favouring the Patristic understanding is that other Pauline letters refer to Christ as God. An example is the letter to Titus in which Christ is referred to as both saviour and God:

“while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ” (Tit 2:13).

From all of the above it can be concluded with certainty that the Patristic tradition was correct in seeing in Rom 9:5 a clear statement of the divinity of Christ. Overall, then it seems most probable that Romans 9:5 contains the title ‘God’ for Jesus Christ.

Yet it must be remembered however that all these affirmations referring to Jesus Christ as ‘God’ are to be kept inseparably together with the rest of the New Testament writings where the Father of Jesus is the one God of Israel and it is on the basis of this, that Jesus, the Son of God, is divine as His Father is divine. Referring to His Father, Christ Himself said:

And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (Jn 17:3).

From this passage we see that the one true God is distinguished from Jesus Christ and yet identified with Him in so far as the gift of eternal life is granted to those who know God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus was all that God the Father was yet without actually being the Father. And so our original remarks concerning the title ‘God’ in which it was argued that when the expression ‘God’ was used as a proper name it usually stood for God the Father, while when used as a common noun it could be applied to both the Father and the Son stand.

Concluding Remarks

Far from highlighting any human limitations, the titles of Jesus which have been examined over the past few months in VEMA have shed light upon the divinity of Jesus without of course discarding His humanity. Whilst much Christological scholarship today focuses its examination of the Bible on those indicators which suggest Jesus’ human limitations (eg His hunger, thirst, weeping, tiredness and fear), we have been able to show that the aim of the Gospel authors and traditional Christology concentrated upon presenting Christ as the Son of God sharing in exactly the same divinity as His Heavenly Father. Without denying His humanity, the New Testament writers and the patristic and conciliar decrees consistently affirmed the true divinity of Jesus, explaining that He was none other than the Christ (that is the Anointed One of God), the Lord, in fact God the Logos incarnate.

Immediately following the New Testament period, the Ignatian literary corpus would constantly refer to Jesus as God in line with the famous fourth century Nicene definition which declared that Jesus was ‘of one essence’ (homoousion) with the Father. However as we shall see, throughout the history of the Church, there was always opposition to the notion of Jesus’ divinity in one way or another. And yet there were others, who tended to deny His full humanity in their desire supposedly to ‘safeguard’ Jesus from corruptible humanity which was part of the material world and therefore considered to be inherently evil.

1. St Gregory the Theologian, Oration 30.18.
2. Cf Christos Yannaras, Elements of Faith, trans. Keith Schram (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), 27.
3. The original Greek is: “En arche en o Logos, kai o Logos en pros ton Theon, kai Theos en o Logos” (Jn 1:1). Note the absence of the definite article in the last
4. It is significant that Jesus does not say to Thomas “do not be faithless” but “do not become faithless”. In other words Jesus guards Thomas from an ensuing faithlessness and not one which already exists. Therefore Jesus does not rebuke Thomas for being ‘doubtful’. I am indebted here to Harkianakis’ exegesis of this pericope which can be found in: Archbishop Stylianos (of Australia), ‘Thomas as Truth’, in Incarnations of Dogma, in Greek (Athens: Domos, 1996), 77-81. phrase of the verse.
5. Cf. Brendan Byrne, Romans, Sacra Pagina Series, vol 6, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville: A Michael Glazier Book, 1996), 288.
6. Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans 4:140.
7. Joseph Fitzmyer, Romans, The Anchor Bible Series, vol. 33 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 549.
8. John Behr, The Way of Nicaea, vol. 1 (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2001), 59.
9. Other Johannine biblical references which desribe God as the only true God are the following:
“You are indeed doing what your father does.” They said to him, “We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.”” (Jn 8:41); “Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (Jn 20:17). It must be noted that the Fathers explain this verse as a reference to the incarnate state of the Son of God. That is to say, in so far as Christ identified totally with humankind, except for sin, did He speak also of God, His Father as ‘my God’.
10. John Behr, The Way to Nicaea, vol. 1, 64

Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College

The Formation of Christology:
Challenges to the Christian Faith in Jesus Christ from the New Testament and Beyond

Introductory Remarks

With the spread of Christianity beyond its original environment in Judea and into the Hellenistic world of the Roman Empire came the challenge of finding ways to express the foundational Christian faith in Jesus Christ in the thought categories of the Greco-Roman world. The task set before the apostles, and those who came after them, was to adopt the philosophical language of the time without ‘Hellenising’ the faith. Instead, in seeking to proclaim the Christ-event to all nations, the Church had to find ways to ‘Christianise’ Hellenistic thought and culture and this they did. That God’s salvific testimony of faith in Jesus Christ was meant for all nations, and that therefore the task at hand was a necessary one, is evidenced in the New Testament Scriptures in that, Paul, for example saw his ‘ministry of reconciliation’ (2 Cor 5:18) as a message meant for all people, both Jews and Gentiles. More than half of the book of Acts is devoted to recounting the story of Paul’s missionary journeys throughout the Roman Empire.

Indeed the apologists who came after Paul, like Justin Martyr (d. 165) and Clement of Alexandria (d. approx. 215), in their dialogue with the surrounding culture of their time tried to illustrate the extent to which Greco-Roman philosophies contained ‘seeds’ of Christian truth in their different writings. This process of ‘enculturation’, as it is referred to today, brought with it a new language and new terms, which either had to express Jesus Christ as the self-revelation of God, and in so doing had to defend His full divinity. Or, other times, the Christian faith, grounded in the historical life of Jesus had to defend the full humanity of Jesus Christ. That is to say, the early Church did not only have to relate the saving mission of Jesus Christ (what is known as functional Christology) but also Christ’s relationship with God on the one hand and with the human race on the other. Furthermore the difficult task of elucidating how Jesus Christ sustained both these relations seemed to demand further formulations, not simply functional, but also about His person and identity (what is known as ontological Christology).

Articulation of Faith

It has to be said right from the outset that the task of articulating the faith correctly was not the result of any curiosity on the part of the apostles, apologists or fathers, but rather had to do with the salvation of the human person and by extension the entire world. Far from being purely abstract or merely theoretical, Christological thinking and salvation were inextricably linked, since unsatisfactory teachings were seen to undermine this very salvation. Already the gospel according to St John had made this important connection:

“And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3).

These and similar words from Scripture show how salvation and a true knowledge in Jesus Christ could not be thought of apart since Christ became human in order to lead all of humankind to divine life. And so as we read statements of fathers or confessions of councils as to the person of Christ (what is known as Patristic Christology) we must keep in mind their intimate relationship with soteriology.

Before examining the various challenges faced by the early Church regarding its belief in Jesus Christ, it must be remembered that the Christological doctrinal formulations, which arose in the Church were produced primarily when the lived experience within the ecclesial community came to be threatened. That is to say, the Christological doctrine emerged as a result of many disputations, disagreements and problems which were taking place in regards to the real identity and mission of Jesus Christ. Already within the New Testament Scriptures there were quarrels as to who this person, Jesus was. The second letter to Peter warned against those, who, upon having received St Paul’s message about Christ, were trying to twist its meaning to suit their own needs:

“So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him… There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Pt 3:15-16).

The above verse explicitly points out that already in the apostolic Church, there were some who were trying to distort other writings of the canonical New Testament Scriptures (in this case St Paul’s). Indeed the major theme of the entire letter of 2 Peter is focused on the true knowledge of Christ which Christians were encouraged to uphold and pursue in contradistinction to others who, not only did not believe, but were distorting the truth of Christ.

Scriptural Support

Furthermore, in his letter to the Corinthians, St Paul in fact argued that schisms and false teachings had to take place so that the genuine faith could surface from the ‘tested ones’ (oi dokimoi) who had remained firm in these difficult times:

“For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine” (1Cor 11:18-19).

This New Testament passage reveals that from the very beginning the ecclesial community was characterised by quarrels, debates and disagreements. That is to say the story of Christianity from the very beginning, and specifically speaking Christology is characterized by such heretical tendencies. Indeed if looked at from a purely sociological or historical perspective, what the Christian Orthodox tradition would claim to be the true teaching regarding Jesus Christ was in fact one of the many testimonies about the identity and mission of Jesus of Nazareth. What came to be known as the canonical Scriptures were only one group of writings, amongst a plethora of others, which a group of Christians were convinced to be a true testimony to Christ.

Yet despite these historical factions, the Eastern Orthodox Church would claim that by the end of the first century, there was a group of Christians who had one mind and one common interpretation of Jesus the Christ and so came to affirm the veracity of what is known today as the New Testament believing these writings to be a true testimony to the truth of Jesus. Indeed the Orthodox tradition would also argue that all statements about Jesus in the books of the New Testament and subsequent conciliar creeds and Patristic writings were valid interpretations of the proper testimony of Christ. Now, as to why this is the case can only be answered by examining each of the controversies which arose in the Church separately so as to see how all these, far from embracing the entire experienced truth about Christ, made one aspect absolute thereby making all others relative. Usually this was done either by affirming the divinity of Christ at the expense of His humanity or highlighting only his human side without regard for His divinity – that is to say failing to see Christ in a fully theanthropic manner, as the incarnation of God, of the God-manhood of Christ. And so now we turn our attention to two of the first major heresies which the apostolic Church had to face, namely Docetism and Gnosticism.


The central fact of the Christian faith that the Son of God really appeared on earth as an genuine human being in the flesh by being born of the virgin Mary in time, in order to die and rise again so as to bestow life to the world was first questioned by a group who came to be known as the Docetists. Coming from the Greek word dokein (to seem, to appear), Docetism downplayed the real humanity of Christ claiming that Jesus had only given the impression, or looked as if He had become a man but in reality that He had not. That is to say, they claimed that the birth, life, humanity and sufferings of the earthly Christ to be apparent rather than real. Indeed this tendency also went so far as to argue that Christ had somehow miraculously fled from the humiliation of death by exchanging places with Judas Iscariot or Simon of Cyrene. And so Jesus Christ was reduced to some ghostlike phantom, that is to say, an optical illusion. In this way the Docetists were able to avoid implicating divinity from the processes of human birth and death which they believed was unbecoming for God.

Their belief regarding the impropriety or even impossibility of the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus inevitably led to the very essence of the Christian message being destroyed. In wanting to safeguard the transcendent God from the fluidity of fallen life and, what they considered to be the evil materiality of the world, they denied the real humanity of Christ. Furthermore, in denying that Jesus was the subject of all the human experiences attributed to him in the canonical Scriptures, they were rejecting his ability to save as well since if He did not resurrect from the dead then, according to St Paul the Christian faith was all in vain:

“and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1Cor 15:14).

Far from being an illusion or a mere semblance devoid of any reality, the resurrection of Christ was real and it was upon this that the Christian faith was based. Furthermore, the Gospel according to St John identified such a group denying the humanity of Christ and wrote explicitly against such a tendency in very strong terms:

“Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist!” (2Jn 1:7).

From this passage it is clear that the early Church had to defend the central fact that Jesus, being the Son of God in human flesh, really lived on earth, was raised from the dead and was glorified as the only Lord and God of the world.


Another group known as the Gnostics , which came into prominence in the second century further postulated such a non-incarnational Christology. Gnosticism was a broad and diverse movement which had primarily Hellenistic, but also Jewish and Christian strains. Their name also derived from a Greek expression – the word for knowledge (gnosis) – came to be associated with different teachers (such as Valentinus, Basilides and Marcion) who attached particular importance to supposed ‘secret’ knowledge. Despite the variations depending upon whose group the different followers belonged, the Gnostic movement basically claimed to have received this ‘special’ or ‘secret’ knowledge either from the apostles themselves or directly from their leader.

Characteristic of Gnostic teaching was not only that Jesus, whom they called the Redeemer/Revealer or Demiurge (meaning creator god) was distinguished from God the Father, resulting in a total separation between the ‘Demiurge’ and the supremely unknowable and remote Divine Being, but also that His descent into the world did not entail an incarnation. As to their first basic teaching, this distinction between God and Jesus Christ was explained by the concept of aeons (or emanations) from where, they claimed, Jesus came into being. Upon falling from the Pleroma (the ultimate realm where only the Father dwelt) and into a number of aeons, their Jesus-figure, who was believed to be an inferior god, brought the material world into existence, which was in opposition to the purely spiritual and divine realm. The Gnostics, however, who had knowledge of this phenomenon, could be rescued from the evil material environment thus returning to the spiritual world and becoming purely ‘spiritual’ themselves – that is devoid of any fleshly or material existence.

In regards to Jesus Christ the Demiurge, though, the Gnostics believed that He was a purely ‘spiritual’ entity and therefore they were led to reject his humanity. And so the rejected the central gospel proclamation that Jesus had become ‘enfleshed’ in the world opting instead to teach that Jesus had simply appeared to ‘put on’ human flesh, much like one put on a piece of clothing temporarily only to take it off again. Just as he was not trapped within a physical body, so too those whom the Redeemer figure had awoken from ignorance (that is the Gnostic believers) could be freed from materiality. The redeemer figure, Christ, was thus depicted in Gnostic texts as delivering special discourses of revelation (the true gnosis) to his true followers. Because of their radically anti-cosmic dualism, the Gnostic lifestyle was often very ascetic in character since they denied the importance of the human body. For this reason they considered themselves to Pneumatics (the spiritual ones) over against those whom they believed were enslaved to and in the human body. The Gnostics ultimately believed that the entire cosmic order would be dissolved and that those who had received the divine sparks of secret knowledge would return to the Light or Pleroma.

Already in the New Testament the importance of the incarnational character of Christianity is stressed with an emphasis on the historical reality of Jesus. Indeed the first letter of John begins with this stress:

“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1Jn 1:1).

Far from denying the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the letter demonstrates that Christ’s actual body was central to the message of the Christian gospel thereby rejecting any purely spiritual saviour. Against this ‘spiritualising’ movement, many fathers, especially Irenaeus insisted on the humanity of Jesus Christ, his birth, life, crucifixion and resurrection and in this way were able to declare not only the absolute deity of the Logos-Son of God but also his full humanity in harmony with the Johannine conviction that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14).

Furthermore such teachings were rejected by the Patristic tradition since the various books of the New Testament make explicit references to Christ’s humanity: beyond the numerous human titles attributed to Him (son of David, teacher, prophet, king of Israel) there are accounts in the Gospels which irrefutably indicate his human nature – Christ is said to have grown in wisdom (Lk 2:52); to have felt abandoned by God on the cross and therefore crying out “my God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46); on the issue of the second coming, He declared that He did not know the hour or the day (Mk 13:32). It was these and other passages which led the fathers of the early Church to affirm his full humanity without of course denying his divinity.


1. Up until the twentieth century, most of our knowledge of Gnosticism came from their opponents since there were no writings which were known to exist. In 1945, however, a discovery of a large group of texts near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, (known as the Nag Hammadi texts, usually designated NHC – Nag Hammadi Codices) gave scholars the opportunity, for the first time to discover the ancient Gnostics from their own writings.

Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College

Challenges to the Christian Faith in Jesus Christ

Introductory Remarks

The full divinity of Jesus Christ as it was witnessed in the Scriptures (both Old and New Testament) came to be undermined in the beginnings of the fourth century. This conflict which made Christ less than God came to be known as Arianism since it was propagated by Arius, a pious priest of Alexandria, yet one who had unfortunately swayed in his teaching on Christ as the Theanthropos (that is, Christ as both divine and human). Indeed, his theology had caused such turmoil in Alexandria and the Empire at large, that the Emperor Constantine was compelled to convene a council in Nicaea in 325AD (which subsequently came to be known as the First Ecumenical Council) to deal with this matter so as to establish doctrinal unity in the Church.

However, in order to appreciate fully the reasons which led Arius to such false teachings regarding the person of Christ it is necessary firstly to consider some earlier theological expressions which had been formulated by proponents of two great schools of theology – that of Alexandria and the other from Antioch. The most notable representative of the former was Origen (ca 185-254) whilst Paul of Samosata (d. 272), a bitter opponent of Origen came from the Antiochian school of theology. In their emphasis of different aspects of the person and work of Christ, these two schools were important since they offered different perspectives to the profound and inexhaustible mystery of Christ. Yet when taken to their extreme, the Christology, which representatives of these schools put forward could lead to dangerous and heretical Christological conclusions.

It would be the council of Chalcedon in 451 which would successfully reconcile the two schools of thought in its teaching that Jesus Christ was ‘perfect in Godhead and perfect in humanity, truly God and truly human… acknowledged in two natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably’. Therefore, before discussing and evaluating the teaching of Arius, who coming from Alexandria was still influenced by the Antiochian school of thought, a basic survey of the two great catechetical schools will be presented as they provide the context for understanding the christological conflicts of the time.

Before Chalcedon, however the patristic debates over the person of Christ basically centred on affirming either the divinity of Christ (also called Logos [Word] – cf Jn 1:1) or his genuine humanity. Whilst most early fathers took the humanity of Christ as a given, what required further elucidation was Christ’s divinity. Later on, it would be the human nature of Christ which came to be undermined requiring the Church to express accurately its experience of the genuine humanity of the Word incarnate. That is, the early Church had to articulate precisely the relationship of Christ to his heavenly Father – was he fully divine and therefore akin to the Father or was he a creature separated by an unbridgeable gap. The early Christian Church had to find terms to express the reality of Jesus Christ as both human and divine whilst remaining monotheistic (belief in one God), that is, not being seen to fall into any form of pagan polytheism. Specifically, they had to express in what way the incarnate Word was related to God yet also distinct from God the Father.

The Schools of Alexandria and Antioch

The two great catechetical schools of theology – that of Alexandria and Antioch – which had arisen in the Church emphasised different aspects of the twofold inexhaustible and mystical character of Christ. Whilst the Alexandrian school, from which Arius came stressed the incarnation of the Word – that is, the Son of God who had become ‘flesh’ (Logos-sarx Christology) the Antiochian emphasised the human side of Christ (Logos-anthropos). Strongly soteriological in character, the Alexandrian school rightly believed that Jesus Christ was the redeemer of the world taking the human person into the very life of God. In order to achieve this, the eternal Son of God, they claimed, was united with human nature thereby enabling it to share in the very life of God. That is to say, the Son of God became human so that humanity might be united with divinity. Far from simply dwelling within humanity, the eternal Logos became flesh (cf Jn 1:14) by assuming human nature in order that He may redeem it.

At the time of Arius, it was bishop Alexander of Alexandria who, representing this school spoke not only of the co-eternity of the Son of God with the Father but also his eternal generation (anarchos gennesis) from, and unity with, God. Indeed for bishop Alexander both God and His Son were inseparable from one another. The danger of this school was that they could be led to dismiss the humanity of Christ and see Him purely as God (as did a group known as the Monophysites in the fifth century) or, in their concern for divine redemption, reject Jesus Christ since a ‘human being’ (which by definition was created) surely could not be in a position to save another creature. Arius could not see how God could mingle with the historical and limited condition and therefore thought that he should remain in his complete transcendence.

Before Arius, Origen had also proclaimed that the Son of God was subordinate to the Father thereby reducing the Son to a creaturely status. And so, Arius, coming out of this same school (which in and of itself was not a bad thing) but taking certain peculiar teachings of Origen to their extreme underlined the human side of Christ but at the same time denied his divinity. That is to say, he affirmed the absolute uniqueness of God but in so doing denied that the Son of God was co-eternal with the Father.

The school of Antioch, on the other hand was known for its stress on the human nature of Christ and the absolute uniqueness of God. Founded by the martyr Lucian (d. 312), one of its famous pupils, however was Paul of Samosata. Upon being consecrated to the bishopric, Paul of Samosata very quickly aroused much suspicion regarding his teaching on Jesus Christ. Indeed several synods were held, which finally condemned him in 268 (it was the synod of Antioch). Many scholars believe that Arius was influenced to a great extent by the theological principles of this school as well. Even though Arius would have claimed to be a representative of the great school of Alexandria, one can see nonetheless that in wanting to stress the distinctiveness of Christ’s human nature (in his case, at the expense of the divine), he was most certainly influenced also by the school of Antioch as well.

In wanting to safeguard the humanity of Jesus, Paul of Samosata went too far by claiming that Jesus was simply ‘an ordinary man in nature’ in whom the Spirit of God had only later come to dwell – he taught that Jesus was ‘adopted’ and raised by God to be the Son of God at his baptism. Indeed the union between the man Jesus and the eternal Logos was described by Paul in terms of ‘indwelling’ (enoikesis) or ‘inspiration’ (empneusis) thereby reducing Christ to an inspired prophet whose body God ‘rented’ in order to make His Logos manifest. The danger of his thought was that the one person of Christ was in danger of being thought of as two distinct persons – the man Jesus as opposed to the divine Son of God.

The teaching of Arius

Born in Libya in 256, Arius was formally educated within the Alexandrian tradition and became a priest to a major congregation in Alexandria. In opposition to bishop Alexander of Alexandria, who believed that the Son was eternally generated from God the Father and therefore divine, Arius affirmed the absolute uniqueness and transcendence of God and thereby taught that the Logos was dissimilar from the Father. Arius defended God’s absolute uniqueness in a letter he sent to bishop Alexander:

We acknowledge one God, who is alone ingenerate, alone eternal, alone without beginning, alone true, alone possessing immortality, alone wise, alone good, alone sovereign…

From this he was led to conclude that the Word of God was a creature (ktisma) or a demigod and not of the same ‘essence’ with God. The term ‘essence’ is a word coming from the Latin word esse meaning ‘to be’. Therefore by essence was simply meant the ‘being’ or nature of God (i.e. the ‘what’ of God). It was therefore believed that Christ shared the same divine nature as the Father from whom He was begotten. Indeed he taught that Christ’s essence (or being) was ‘alien from and utterly dissimilar to the Father’s essence and individual being’. Yet if the Son was not divine with exactly the same divinity as the Father he could not save or redeem the world.

Undoubtedly, Arius’ motive for such a belief was his concern to protect the transcendence (or absolute otherness) of God. Even though the Eastern Orthodox tradition claims that the ‘essence’ of God is entirely unknowable, impalpable and ineffable, it nevertheless asserts that the Son of God shares the same divine existence as God, His Father. Indeed the famous catch-phrase of Arius regarding the Logos was “there was a time when he [i.e. the Son of God] was not” . In this way, Arius taught that the Son of God had a beginning and was therefore not co-eternal with God. Finally, this led Arius to state that since the Son of God was a creature then he was also liable to change and indeed even to falling into sin. Not only did this reduce Christ to a mere creature – even though, according to Arius an exalted one at that – but it also introduced a radical distinction between the two person of the Holy Trinity which led Arius to argue that the Son of God “who has a beginning is in no position to comprehend or lay hold of the one who has no beginning”. One can see that Arius had reduced the Christian message to Hellenistic philosophy which separated, at all costs the transcendent God from the world, or in the specific case of Arius, a radical separation of God from His Son, Jesus Christ.

The Nicene Response

In opposition to Arius, the Council in Nicaea underscored the divinity of Jesus Christ and His equality with the Father in no uncertain terms. Specifically, certain fathers of the church, such as Athanasius of Alexandria, and later on Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory the Theologian of Nazianzus affirmed that the Son and Word of God – incarnate in human form as Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, the Christ of Israel – was not a creature, but truly divine with the same divinity as God the Father. Far from being the result of speculation, the fathers of the Church were motivated purely out of soteriological concerns – if Christ was anything less that ‘true God from true God’ then He could not save the world since only God can save and redeem.

It was precisely this reason which led the Patristic tradition to affirm that Jesus was God incarnate. In order to find an accurate term, which could adequately depict the precise nature of the relation between the Father and the Son the term ‘homoousios’ (of the same essence) was suggested and ultimately it prevailed. That is to say, the fathers of the Church claimed that Jesus Christ was of the same essence as God the Father. Therefore ‘of the same essence’ meant the kind of substance common to the Father and the Son – that is, in the sense of a generic unity. The term ‘homoiousios’ (of a similar essence) – note the subtle difference [indeed a variation only of one letter in the Greek] had also been proposed as a compromise since it declared the close proximity between the Father and the Son without precisely speculating on the nature of that relation. This however was rejected since the Scriptures explicitly witness to the divinity of the Word of God.

The doctrine of Christ as consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father preserved for the Church of all ages the faith that Jesus is indeed the divine Son of God, of one essence with the Father. The definition of the First Ecumenical Council which was approved on 19 June, 325 and signed by the 318 bishops who were present reads as follows:
We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of all things, visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten from the Father, that is from the essence of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one essence with the Father, through whom all things were made, both those in heaven and those in earth; for us and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate, became human, suffered and rose up on the third day, went up into the heavens, is coming to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Spirit.

But as for those who say, there was when He was not, and before being born He was not, and that He came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is from a different hypostasis or essence, is created, or is subject to alteration or change – these the catholic Church anathematizes.

Firstly it is important to note that the above Creed of Nicaea is slightly different to the ‘Nicene Creed’, as we know it today. The Nicene Creed, as it is known today is the result of certain emendations and additions (the five extra articles, for example on the Holy Spirit) which were made to the above creed at the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople (in 381AD). Nonetheless the above definition made it clear that the Son of God was ‘begotten’ (i.e. born or generated) from the Father and not simply created like the world was created from he will of God. It would be the Council of 381 which would add begotten ‘before all ages’ to make it absolutely clear that the Son of God was born before the commencement of time and was therefore co-eternal with the Father.

Thus, not only was there never a time when the Son of God was not but also the Son of God was generated from the very same being and nature as God the Father. Besides this was simply the Scriptural witness of Christ as we have it in the Gospel according to St John:

He [the Son of God] was in the beginning with God [the Father]. (Jn 1:2).

Indeed the verse continues by stating that the Son of God was with the Father in the original act of the creation of the world:

All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being. (Jn 1:3).

And so the Father is maker of heaven and earth but the Son of God was the One who accomplished His Father’s will. Furthermore this was also St Paul’s teaching:

For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col 1:16-17).

Thus, in line with the biblical witness, the Son of God was confessed as One ‘through whom all things were made’. Later the Patristic tradition would declare that the Holy Spirit is the perfecting cause of the world.

The Creed of Nicaea continued by emphasising that the Son of God who always existed with the God Father is essentially the same as the Father in all attributes. Therefore if the Father is ‘light’ so is His Son, if the Father is ‘God’ so is His Son. Just as God was considered to be ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, ever-existing, eternally the same and loving, so too was His Son. Indeed the Son of God was defined as being of the same essence with God – that is, possessing exactly the same divinity as God, His Father. Just as human persons, for example, give birth to human persons, so too God gave birth to His Son, the only-begotten of the Father who was consubstantial with Him. The divinity of the Son was further emphasized in the Credal phrase, ‘came down from heaven’ which simply meant that the origin of the Son of God is not the created world but the divine existence of God which is outside the bounds of time and space. Clearly the council declared and proclaimed that Jesus Christ was God in the same sense that the Father is God.


1. Arius was a devout person who could not see how God could be seen to mingle with the historical and limited condition and therefore believed that God should remain in His complete transcendence. It was out of a deep respect and awe for the greatest abyss of God which led Arius not to accept the divine nature of Christ.
2. Whilst founded by Clement of Alexandria (d. 215), the greatest theologian of the school of Alexandria was Origen (ca. 185 – 254). Indeed, before Origen there is little serious theological reflection on the person of Christ.
3. The Definition of Chalcedon.
4. The Greek text reads, ‘allelon achorista pragmata duo’, cited in J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 225.
5. Even though there is much debate regarding the theological education of Arius where some place him within the Antiochian tradition under Lucian, in his classic work entitled Christ in Christian Tradition Grillmeier placed him within the Alexandrian school of theology.
6. Cited in J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 227.
7. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 225-30.
8. Interestingly by essence the early Church meant the kind of substance common to several persons or things that exist within the same class and not the numerical unity of substance. By homoousios the fathers of the Council of Nicaea underscored in an explicit way their belief that the Son shared the same divine essence as His Father and was thus fully God. It did not connote substantial unity of the Godhead as the term ‘essence’ later came to be used – i.e. three Persons, one essence.
9. Cited in Athanasius, Against the Arians, 1,6.
10. Cited in Athanasius, Against the Arians. The original Greek reads as follows: ‘en pote oti ouk en’.
11. Cited in Athanasius, Ep. Encyc., 10.
12. Cited in Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 284.
13. Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol. 1: Nicaea I to Lateran V, ed. Norman P. Tanner (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1990), 5.

Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College

Challenges to the Faith in Jesus Christ

Introductory Remarks

The next great Christological controversy arising after Arianism was one connected with Apollinarius of Laodicea (310-390AD). Being the son of a presbyter, he was a most learned scholar having a profound knowledge of the ecclesiastical affairs of his day. Furthermore, he was an impressive writer producing many volumes of commentaries on the Scriptures and several writings against certain heresies of his time. He even set about, together with his father, to render the Bible in classic Greek form and meter. It must be remembered that, like his friend, St Athanasius the Great, Apollinarius was staunchly anti-Arian rejecting any form of subordination or division of Christ’s being in relation to God the Father. And like Athanasius, Apollinarius was strongly motivated by soteriological concerns and for this reason vehemently upheld the unity of Christ’s personhood. However, even though he was a devoted supporter of the homoousion (that is, that Christ was of the same essence or consubstantial with His Father), where he affirmed not only the consubstantiality of the Son but also of the Holy Spirit (i.e. that the Son and the Holy Spirit are of the same essence as God the Father), his teaching nevertheless ultimately came to be viewed with suspicion in the mid seventies and he was therefore subsequently condemned by various councils including the 2nd Ecumenical Council held in Constantinople in 381.

Before cutting himself from the Church however, he had been elected bishop of Laodicea in 362, and even though others had also laid claim to this episcopacy, he was ultimately recognized as the rightful bishop for the faithful of that city after being acknowledged by the bishops of Alexandria and Rome. The context in which Apollinarius’ teaching took shape was in his refutation of particular teachings coming from Diodore, a certain presbyter from Antioch (and later bishop of Tarsus) who wrongly taught that the eternal Son of God and the son of Mary were two distinct subjects. That is to say, Apollinarius rejected any form of separation in Christ or that there were two ‘sons’ – the ‘Son of God’ and the ‘Son of Man’. In so far as Apollinarius wanted to assert the absolute unity of the one Lord Jesus Christ against any tendency, which wanted to divide or separate his being into two distinct persons, he was right. Yet, as we shall see, his denial of the presence of a human mind in Christ and his assertion that Christ’s body pre-existed before the ages (and not beginning with Mary at the Incarnation) led to his denunciation by the Church.

It was Apollinarius’ extreme concern to uphold the absolute unity of the one Christ, that raised suspicion amongst his contemporaries, since in doing this, he had made Christ into a ‘heavenly man’ thereby stripping him of his full created humanity. By ‘heavenly man’, Apollinarius essentially believed that Christ had brought his flesh down from heaven, something which the Church had never previously claimed. Rather, it was always held that the Son of God assumed a body at his Incarnation. Now, regarding the unity of the one Christ, Apollinarius stated that Christ could not be considered apart from his body (not an incorrect claim in and of itself) but in doing so, he understated the created human qualities of the body. He wrote: “it is not possible to speak separately of the body as created, for it is altogether inseparable from him whose body it is, but rather it partakes in the title of the uncreated”

This naturally led Apollinarius not to deny the humanity of Christ openly, but nonetheless to underestimate it greatly to the point of discrediting it. He noted: “Every human being is earthly; Christ is not earthly but heavenly: therefore Christ is not a man”. For this reason, in the final analysis, it would not be wrong to see in this statement a denial of Christ’s humanity. That Apollinarius did this to safeguard the unity of ‘the Son of man’ and ‘the Son of God’ is without question, but in doing so he made Christ so entirely different from, and alien to, humankind and the human condition, that he ceased being human. Therefore it could be claimed that, whilst Apollinarius did underscore the humanity of Christ, what was of more importance was the fact that he was a different human being – ‘a heavenly man’ thereby ultimately excluding from him a complete humanity – i.e. a human nature including a human nature, mind, will energy.

The Two Consequences

There are two consequences of this teaching: firstly, such an assertion not only blurred the distinction-in-unity between, what one could call the naturally divine and human aspects in Christ but equally important discarded the fully created and finite human qualities. And so this naturally led him to further contend that the humanity of Christ could not be considered apart from his divinity since Christ existed “in the singleness of a commingled incarnated divine nature”. In such a statement, Apollinarius had rejected the Christian claim that, in the person of Christ was united both a divine and human nature.

Secondly, this overtly strong emphasis on the unity naturally led Apollinarius to state that “the man Christ pre-exists” which rejected the reality of Christ’s incarnation within a concrete moment in history. Indeed Apollinarius affirmed that: “God is incarnate from the beginning, and thus the visible and tangible body that was born in the last days, that by human food, grew in gradual increments, that one is the one that existed before all beings”. It is not that the Son of God did not exist from all eternity, but his Incarnation took place within a concrete historical context and therefore could not be considered a timeless historical reality. It is precisely for this reason that the Nicene-Constantinopolitan symbol of faith came to state: “and was incarnated of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human”. That is to say, the Son of God always was, but Jesus was not a human being before being born in time from the Virgin Mary. Avoiding such speculations, the fathers of the Church simply asserted that the One who appeared on earth as a human being was truly divine with exactly the same divinity as God the Father. Furthermore, the Eastern Orthodox tradition, in the person of St Gregory the Theologian (of Nazianzus) would claim:

For we do not part the man from the divinity, but rather teach one and the same, formerly not man but God and Son only, pre-eternal, unmixed with the body and all that belongs to the body, and finally man, assumed for our salvation, passible in flesh, impassible in divinity, circumscribed in body, uncircumscribed in spirit…

Clearly for St Gregory the Son of God assumed a body and flesh in a concrete historical point in time.

These particular conjectures by Apollinarius, regarding the ‘heavenly man’ led him to state that Christ did not possess a human soul since this would supposedly make him merely human and therefore not in a position to save the world. According to Apollinarius if Christ had a human mind then he would have been captive to polluted thoughts and could not be in a position to save the world. That is, in order to secure the sinlessness of Christ, Apollinarius excluded from Christ a human mind. And so in order to redeem the world, Christ could not have possessed a human mind as this, according to Apollinarius could have led Christ not only to do something contrary to the will of God, but also taken away his ability to save.

A second reason as to why Apollinarius deprived Christ of a human mind was that two complete realities, for him, could not be united into a single being. That is, a changing mind could not exist together with an immutable one for they would desire and will contrary things. That is to say, according to Apollinarius, two perfect realities could not become one because they would necessarily oppose one another by their respective wills. And so, for Apollinarius, a human mind in Christ would necessarily imply two subjects not one. Apollinarius could not accept that Christ was one subject consisting of two natures – a divine and human one. In this words of St Gregory the Theologian, the Son of God consisted, of one [thing] and another (a[llo kai; a[llo) [i.e. a human and divine nature]… but not one person and another (oujk a[llo” kai; a[llo”).

That is, divinity and humanity were affirmed as really existing in one and the same Christ. Ultimately for Apollinarius, the Son of God did not become human in the full sense of the word since He was deprived of a mind. In his own words, Apollinarius noted: “He is not a man, but like a man, for he is not consubstantial with man in the highest dimension”. It was this mutilation of the humanity of Christ to which the Patristic tradition had to respond, and it is this that we now turn.

The Orthodox Reaction

In responding to Apollinarius, the Church quite simply stated that if Christ did not also have a human soul, then not only would He have not been a real man, but following on from this, He could not save the world. As to the real humanity of Jesus, the Gospels and the New Testament Scriptures as a whole are entirely clear. For example, the letter to the Hebrews states:

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. (Heb 2:14-17).

Clearly the Scriptures, and indeed all official doctrinal statements of the Church after the Bible, always insisted that the Son of God had become a real human person sharing the ‘same things…in every respect’ like his fellow human beings in order that He may redeem the world. St Gregory of Nyssa stated quite emphatically that only “by becoming exactly what we are, did He unite the human race through Himself to God.” Clearly the Orthodox tradition has stressed a real unity of Christ with the world. In stating that Christ became a human being in the full sense of the word, this by not means implied any sin of the part of Jesus Christ. Sin was not part of the origin plan that God had for humanity and therefore did not constitute a defect in Christ’s humanity. On the contrary, sin in the human condition, took away from human beings their integral humanity.

Apollinarius’ thinking occasioned the famous response of St Gregory the Theologian in a letter to Cledonius, a presbyter: “whatever is not assumed remains unhealed; whatever is united to God is also saved”. That is to say, Christ could not have redeemed humanity, if He did not assume humanity entirely, sin apart. If the human mind with its ability to choose was considered the centre from where sin originates, then if Christ had not united Himself with this aspect of humanity, then the salvation of humanity would not have been fully achieved. Indeed it was precisely by also having his immortal soul that Christ was able to save the souls of humankind doomed to death through sin. Besides, the Biblical image of Christ is presented in terms of a Saviour who was fully man: that is, who developed (Lk 2:52) showed signs of ignorance of the last day (cf Mt 24:36), suffered, experienced grief at Gethsemane , and underwent all human experiences (for example, hunger, thirst etc). The Orthodox tradition would claim that in the Incarnation, the Son of God came to experience all normal human, physical, emotional and intellectual growth but was always overshadowed by the grace of God who filled Him with wisdom and strength (cf Lk 2:40). The freedom to be tempted, as Christ was on several occasions by the devil (Mt 4:1-11), did not in any way imply that Christ was liable to sin since temptation is quite different from the sin itself.

Lastly, the philosophical axiom purported by Apollinarius that two perfect realities cannot coalesce into one was flawed since such a principle only holds true for the material world and not the divine. In giving an answer to such a proposal, St Gregory the Theologian admitted that in the physical world, it is true that 1000mls of water, for example cannot be contained in a 600ml bottle. On the other hand, he continued, this principle does not hold true for the spiritual or contemplative world as this can be seen even on a human level. According to St Gregory, if it is true in our sensory world, that there is enough ‘room’ for our eyes, for example to encompass many sights, for our ears to hear many sounds and for our noses to take in many smells, how much more so could the Son of God contain two nature without one diminishing or eradicating the other. To use another of St Gregory’s analogies, the assumption, by Christ of a human nature did not destroy Christ’s humanity, in the same way that the existence of a drop of water in a vast river is not eliminated but can still be distinguished if need be. So too the vast divinity of the Son of God did not eliminate the human mind.

Concluding Remarks

To conclude, such a response by St Gregory was ultimately what the Scriptures taught, which can be seen from the following Scriptural text:

who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Phil 2:6-9).

Truly the Son of God united within his person both a divine and human nature, which the Council of Chalcedon in 451 would later assert was done without confusing the two, without transmuting one nature into another, without dividing them into two separate categories and without contrasting them according to their function:

We teach… one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, known in two nature, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.


1. In his ecclesiastical history Sozomen (d. ca 450AD) recorded that Apollinarius had rendered the Gospels and apostolic writings in the form of Platonic dialogues (Ecclesiastical History 3.16).
2. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, fifth edition (London: A & C Black, 1989), 296.
3. Apollinarius, On the Union in Christ of the Body to the Divinity, 2.
4. Anakephalaiosis 4.
5. Fragments 9, cited in John Behr, The Nicene Faith, Part 2, Formation of Christian Theology, vol. 2 (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2004), 392.
6. Fragments 53. Cited in John Behr, The Nicene Faith, 393.
7. St Gregory the Theologian, Letter 101, 4.
8. Fragments 93. Cited in John Behr, The Nicene Faith, 397.
9. St Athanasius considered this philosophical axiom which had its origins in Aristotle to be the basic flaw of Apollinarius’ teaching.
10. Fragments 81.
11. St Gregory the Theologian, Epistle 101, 5.
12. Ibid, 35.
13. Against Eunomios 3,10.
14. St Gregory Nazianzus, Letter 101 (The first letter to Cledonius the Presbyter).
15. Cf ibid, Letter 101, 5.
16. Cf St Mark’s account of Gethsemane: “They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated” (Mk 14:32-33).
17. Cf. St Gregory the Theologian, Letter 101. (Obviously the measurements in the above example were changed to coincide with today’s metric system).
18. Ibid.

Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College

Challenges to the Faith in Jesus Christ

Introductory Remarks

In the fifth century yet another extensive and complicated controversy developed over the person and nature of Jesus Christ. Named Nestorianism after its chief protagonist Nestorius, this heresy posed a grave danger to the Church since it seriously came to question the divinity of the historical person Jesus. Formerly a monk and a priest of the Church in Constantinople, Nestorius also ascended to the Episcopal throne, becoming Patriarch of that city in 428. In wanting to stress the humanity of Christ, Nestorius went to the opposite extreme of Apollinarius (analysed in the last issue of VEMA) and taught that in the person of Jesus Christ there were two natures and two persons. That is to say, unlike Apollinarianism which had denied the presence of a human soul in Christ and thereby failed to recognize Christ’s full humanity, Nestorianism came to stress the humanity of Jesus Christ to such an extent that it ultimately failed to recognize the divinity of Jesus Christ.

As we shall see, Nestorius’ theology came to be questioned by the Church as a whole when he tried to put as stop to the title ‘Theotokos’ being used for the Virgin Mary since this term was also a key word for the person of the incarnate Christ. For a long time, in popular piety the Virgin Mary was believed to be Theotokos or ‘God-bearer’. However, Nestorius falsely claimed that it was more correct to say that the Virgin Mary gave birth to a mere man called Christ and so His mother could be called ‘Anthropotokos’ (bearer of a human being) or at best ‘Christotokos’ (Christ bearer). Reflecting back on this, one could say that Nestorius’ Christology was one-sided since, in so far as it emphasized the distinction between the divine and human elements to such an extent it failed to account for the unity of Christ. And so the Church had to respond so as to safeguard not only the natural distinction in Christ but also to uphold the person unity.

Nestorius’ position

Nestorius, as his former teacher Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), wanted to highlight the fullness of the human aspect of the person of Christ. And so, in their writings they underscored the significance of the human soul in Christ, of Christ’s ignorance and His real temptations (both physical and spiritual) especially at Gethsemane. Indeed at a time when the humanity of Christ was being seriously questioned in the person of Apollinarius, Nestorius was able to assert not only the fullness of Christ’s humanity, but also to allude to a human will in Christ as well, something which St Maximus the Confessor, several centuries later would fight to uphold against all odds. In Christ they saw not only a victory of God but also a real triumph in Christ’s human nature since, at every step of Christ’s life, they maintained, Jesus chose voluntarily to obey God His Father. That such a concern to emphasize the humanity of the person of Jesus was important is without question, yet the problem arose in their articulation of the unity. Indeed, it could be said that whilst Nestorius’ language concerning the distinction between the divine and the human in Christ was to be commended, the terms used to explain the unity was indeed weak and deficient.

Nestorius’ main deficiency was his assertion that the unity between the divine and human in Christ was merely external. This basically meant that one could speak of the oneness of Christ only on an external level – that is in terms of honour, will, value (i.e. that both were equally valid) and rank. It was not enough to say that Christ simply shared in all the divine qualities of the Logos as if the union was merely a moral one since this would lead Nestorius to assert that Christ only progressively became god-like. That is to say, Nestorius believed that it was only after a gradual process of intensification that the union between Christ and the Logos was radically transformed. In regards to this issue, Nestorius wrote: “But although he [Christ] had all those things which appertain unto our nature, anger and concupiscence and thoughts, and although also they increased with the progress and increase of every age [in His life], he stood firm in thoughts of obedience.” From this it is clear that Nestorius believed that Christ was ultimately divine only because he always obeyed the divine Word of God. And in believing the union in Christ to be purely external, ultimately led Nestorius to the erroneous belief that the historical person, Christ, was, ontologically speaking [i.e in His actual being] sinful even though He never sinned. That is to say, for Nestorius, the man Jesus was potentially sinful in precisely the same way that any other human being is said to be sinful, but that, in the case of Christ, He gradually overcame His sinfulness, through obedience, moral struggle and divine aid. In stating this however Nestorius went very close to admitting that Christ was sinful by not being able to declare his absolute sinlessness. Like Apollinarius, Nestorius was not able to understand that sinfulness, although a reality of the fallen human condition, did not go hand in hand with integral humanity as God had originally conceived and willed from all eternity.

The unity between the divine and human in Christ was further weakened and, in the end destroyed by Nestorius in his insistence that the Logos not only assumed a human nature but also a human person or hypostasis as well. For Nestorius, Jesus was the man to whom the Son of God (the Logos) subsequently joined himself. That is to say, he did not wish to identify Jesus Christ with the divine Logos of God. He believed that the Son of God assumed and joined (synapheia) with the Son of Mary. That is to say, the real unity in Christ was not secured by Nestorius since he was not able to speak of the one person (or hypostasis) of Christ. This led to the suggestion that the divinity and humanity of Christ were to be conceived ultimately as two persons. In this regard, Nestorius argued: “the essence of the likeness of God and the essence of the likeness of the servant remain in their hypostases [i.e. the person of the divine Logos and the different person of the human Christ]”. From this, it is clear that Nestorius went so far as to say that the distinguishing features between what was human and divine in Christ were the separate hypostases (or two centres of activity), in this way implying another person alongside the Logos. And even when he did speak of ‘two natures, one person’ this formula was not understood in a proper manner. For him, the term ‘one person’ simply indicated the outward appearance of Jesus Christ who still had two natures and two prosopa – i.e. the Son of God and the Son of David were two distinct personal subjects. Nestorius’ belief was contrary to the faith of the Church since, by ‘person’ the divine Son and Word of God who had become incarnate was not meant, but the unified activity of an alleged two persons (the divine Word and the person of the human nature) in Christ.

Church’s Response

The Church was most concerned to stress the fact that the One who was born of the Virgin Mary was no other than the divine Son of God – the second person of the holy Trinity – in human flesh, something which Nestorius failed to perceive. For the fathers of the Church, the fullness of Christ’s human nature was never questioned, yet, unlike Nestorius, they wanted to assert that it never existed in a separate human person because this would ultimately destroy its unity with the divine Word of God. And this would make Christ incapable of saving the world. Far from existing side by side or each having its own prosopon conjoined (synapheia) in an exterior or moral way, the two distinct natures were united in the one divine Logos of God. The man Jesus and the divine Word of God [the second person of the holy Trinity] were not joined together as two distinct entities forming a union since this could easily be misinterpreted as suggesting ‘two sons’. That is to say, the person whom the Virgin Mary gave birth to was not merely a human person upon whom the Son of God came to be joined in a later stage, but was the very Son of God Himself. There could be no division between the Son of God begotten in eternally from God the Father and the Son of Man born in time from a human mother. And so it was not possible to speak of a ‘connection’ or ‘conjunction’ between God’s Son and Mary’s son since they were in fact one and the same person.

Furthermore, the Church rightly believed that the unity of the one undivided reality of the Word of God, who existed as one unique personal divine subject of both His divine and human natures, was safeguarded in the title ‘Theotokos’ given to the Virgin Mary. Indeed it was Nestorius’ rejection of this term, in favour of Christotokos which gave rise to his dispute with the Church since the One who was born, crucified and resurrected was God, the divine Word of God. The title ‘Theotokos’ is a composite Greek word made up of the Greek words ‘Theos’ meaning God and the verb ‘tikto’ meaning ‘to give birth to’. Therefore the title ‘Theotokos’ implies the one who gives birth to God. Both before and after this period, it was seen as a term central to the confession of the true Christian faith. The term was already in use for over two hundred years already employed by Origen (2nd century). In an even earlier statement, St Ignatius of Antioch had written: “Our God, Jesus Christ was conceived by Mary according to the economy.” St Gregory the Theologian stated: “if anyone does not confess the Holy Virgin to be Theotokos, that person is estranged from God.” It is clear that the Patristic tradition understood this appellation as possessing a precise Christological significance which safeguarded the personal unity in Jesus Christ.

And so, in so far as the person to which Mary gave birth was the Son of God, divine with exactly the same divinity as God the Father, she could subsequently be called Theotokos – that is the ‘God-bearer’ or the one who gives birth to God. By calling the Virgin Mary, Theotokos, the Church safeguarded and guaranteed the unity of Christ. In his second letter to Nestorius, St Cyril of Alexandria clearly indicated the position of the Church:
When the fathers dared to call the Holy Virgin Theotokos, they did not mean by this that the nature of the Word or His Godhead originated from the Holy Virgin.

Clearly for St Cyril, the term Theotokos in no way implied that the Virgin Mary gave birth to the eternal Godhead or the nature of the Godhead. Rather, just as a mother in general gives birth not to a ‘faceless nature’ but to a person so too the person that the Virgin Mary had given birth to was none other than the divine second person of the Holy Trinity and in this sense could be called ‘God-bearer’. Nestorius’ theological blunder was that he failed to understand that the personal subject in the incarnate Christ was always the divine Word of God. Therefore if the term ‘Theotokos’ were not accepted then there would be a danger of dividing the incarnate Christ into two personal subjects. And so, it was claimed that the title Theotokos was not an optional title of worship but a theological presupposition of true doctrine in Christ.

Concluding Remarks

In calling a council in Ephesus which came to be known as the 3rd Ecumenical Council in 431 to condemn Nestorianism, the Church had triumphed over this long and difficult dispute over the person of Christ. In calling the Virgin Mary ‘Theotokos’ the Church was able to affirm that it was God the Logos who was born of the Virgin and suffered on the cross. By no means did this mean however that it was the divine nature of the Son of God that was born or suffered on the cross. Rather it implied that that the person who was born in order to save the world was no mere human being, but God Himself incarnate. Yet as we shall see this was short lived since the Church was soon to be confronted with yet another Christological dispute which came to be known as Monophysitism (the heresy that Christ had only one nature). Did Christ have two natures which remained without confusion or was He simply from two natures? That is to say, did Jesus Christ remain in two natures or was He from two natures? It was this question which would give rise to the convocation of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 which dealt with this important matter and in so doing gave the Church once and for all a clear and comprehensive teaching on the person and nature of Jesus Christ. Indeed for the Orthodox Church, the Chalcedon articulation regarding the person and nature of Jesus Christ marked both the most important declaration of Patristic Christology and the final and binding Christological synthesis.


1. Strictly speaking the title ‘Patriarch’ was given to the bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch only after the 3rd Ecumenical Council which met in Ephesus to condemn Nestorius and his teaching in 431.
2. Indeed Nestorius’ teacher, Theodore of Mopsuestia believed that Christ’s spiritual conflicts would have been greater that his physical ones (cf De Incarnatione 15, 3).
3. Cf Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 22-23.
4. Cf Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ, 19.
5. Nestorius, Bazaar of Heracleides, 63.
6. For Nestorius and Theodore of Mopsuestia, the man Christ was not simply to be attributed as having the so called ‘blameless passions’ (adiableta pathe) such hunger, thirst, desire for sleep, tiredness, pain, sadness and agony, but sinful passions and therefore could be characterised as being sinful even if Christ had not actualised any sinful actions. Indeed the fifth Ecumenical Council held in Constantinople in 553 condemned in an outright manner the erroneous belief that: “Christ was troubled by the passions of the soul and the desires of human flesh, was gradually separated from that which is inferior, and became better by his progress in good works and faultless through his way of life… and.. became after the resurrection immutable in his thoughts and entirely without sin”. (See Tanner (ed.), Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, i. 119, cited in Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ, 56).
7. Even though it has to be admitted that Nestorius could also speak of one person, the fact that he also spoke of two persons clearly made him guilty of the theory of two Sons. Besides by the formula ‘two natures, one person’ Nestorius did not mean the Logos of God.
8. Nestorius, Bazaar of Heracleides, 172.
9. For Nestorius, the term ‘Christ’ did not imply the divine Word of God but the person to which the Son of God joined himself.
10. Upon being enthroned Patriarch Nestorius wanted to rid the city of heresy. Ironically Nestorius supported his presbyter who preached a sermon on the Theotokos stating: “Let no one call Mary Theotokos, for Mary was but a woman and it was impossible that God should be born of a woman”. (Cited in Georges Florovsky, The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century, vol. 8 (Belmont: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987), 216.
11. PG 67.812B.
12. To the Ephesians 18, 2.
13. Cited in Kallistos Ware, ‘Mary Theotokos in the Orthodox Tradition’, Epiphany Journal, 9.2(1989): 50.
14. Letter 4.7.
15. On this point Ware noted: “the key here to Cyril’s standpoint is that he regards motherhood as a relationship between persons, not natures”. Kallistos Ware, ‘Mary Theotokos in the Orthodox Tradition’, Epiphany Journal, 9.2(1989): 52. Florovsky also stated that “Christian thought moves always in the dimension of personalities not in the realm of general ideas. It apprehends the mystery of the Incarnation as a mystery of the Mother and Child”. (Georges Florovsky, Creation and Redemption, Collected Works, vol. 3 (Massachusetts: Norland Publishing Company), 179).

Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College

Eutychian Monophysitism:
Challenges to the Faith in Jesus Christ

Introductory Remarks

After the death of St Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444), who had championed the faith of the Church in Christ by insisting on Christ’s personal unity, but also, it must be remembered, the distinction between His divinity and humanity, there came another wave of Christological debates linked with a monk by the name of Eutyches and his supporter Dioscorus (he had succeeded St Cyril to the Episcopal throne in Alexandria). Whereas St Cyril had unambiguously distinguished between the two natures in Jesus Christ, underlining that “the natures remained without confusion” after Christ’s Incarnation, Eutyches spoke in terms of the complete ‘merging’ of the divine nature with that of the human so that there was only one nature after Christ’s Incarnation. His often repeated motto was: “I confess that our Lord consisted of two natures before the union, but after the union I confess one nature”. It would be his insistence in ‘one nature after the union’ that would lead to his condemnation not only at the Council of Chalcedon (known as the Fourth Ecumenical Council) which was convened in 451 but in earlier local councils such as the Council of Constantinople in 448. The reason for this was that Eutyches had destroyed Christ’s consubstantiality with humankind (i.e. that Christ was of one essence with us). And so the Christian Church was faced with yet another Christological controversy known as Eutychian Monophysitism (insistence on one nature in Jesus Christ), a name which it had received from its founder Eutyches.

The case of the monk Eutyches

Even though, what was at stake, with the theology of the Eutychian Monophysites, was the difference of one preposition, nonetheless the salvific consequences were vast. Eutyches was adamant that Christ was ‘from’ two natures (ejk duvo fuvsewn), which he interpreted as two natures before the Incarnation but one after the union. That is, Eutyches claimed that the Lord’s humanity was totally absorbed or swallowed up by His divinity and that Jesus Christ had therefore formed ‘one nature’. He therefore repudiated vigorously any suggestion of two natures in the incarnate Christ. However, following St Cyril of Alexandria, who had become the criterion of ‘orthodoxy’, the fathers of the Church chose ‘in’ two natures (ejn duvo fuvsesin), which did not allow for any misunderstanding as to the existence of a full humanity of Christ after the union. The position of Eutyches was extremely dangerous as it not only denied the possibility of speaking of the ‘body’ of Jesus but also suggested that Christ’s humanity was a mere appearance and therefore not real. That is, ultimately Eutyches believed that Jesus Christ had only given the impression that He had become a man, with a body and a real human nature, but that in reality this was not the case. But this could then be classified as another form of Docetism, which the New Testament Scriptures had already rejected. Denying that he was a Docetist, Eutyches simply argued that he feared asserting that Christ was ‘of the same essence’ as human beings because in this he saw the danger of being led to believe that Christ’s humanity could be seen as a distinct concrete existence apart from His divinity (something which Nestorius had previously done).

To make matters worse, Eutyches was restored by Patriarch Dioscorus of Alexandria who had convoked what came to be known as the so-called Robber Council of 449, with the aid of emperor Theodosius II to rehabilitate Eutyches. Meeting at Ephesus in the month of August, this council swiftly condemned not only any confession of two natures after the union but Patriarch Flavian of Constantinople and all those who spoke of two natures in the incarnate Son of God. Eutyches had also written to Pope Leo, but Flavian had already informed Pope Leo of a local council he had summoned in 448 to condemn the teachings of Eutyches. Leo replied to Flavian with his famous Dogmatic Letter or Tome , as it came to be known, which would be endorsed by the 4th Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon as declaring the faith of the Church in Jesus Christ. Leo also made known, in no uncertain terms his opposition to Eutyches’ ‘one nature’ Christology. It would be the Council of Chalcedon, which would meet in 451 to find an adequate formula which was not one-sided in its emphasis either on the unity of Christ at the expense of the two natures or the distinction of the two natures in Christ without equally safeguarding His unity.

The Council of Chalcedon

The significance of Chalcedon for both the Eastern Orthodox and Western Christian traditions can hardly be overestimated. The Council had to confront the matters raised by the so-called Robber Council, which had preceded it. Leo sent his representatives to the Ecumenical Council in order to have his Tome accepted as a true doctrinal articulation of the faith in Jesus Christ. Leo’s legates argued that the Tome was in agreement with the theology of St Cyril of Alexandria whose theology was seen as normative for all subsequent theology. Indeed St Cyril’s Twelve Chapters were compared to Leo’s Tome and only after this comparative exercise had been undertaken, was Leo’s Tome endorsed, since it was seen to be in agreement with Cyrillian Christology. Amongst other things, the Tome of Leo affirmed four things: Firstly, that Jesus Christ was ‘in two natures’. Secondly, that His divinity was identical with the divine Word of God. In this regard he wrote: “He who became human in the form of a servant is He who in the form of God created humankind”. Thirdly, the Tome emphasised that the divine and human natures co-existed in Jesus Christ without mixture or confusion. That is, in becoming man, Christ did not cease to be God, nor did His humanity diminish His divinity. Indeed if Christ were to really save the world, then salvation required that:

“one and the same mediator between God and human persons, the man Jesus Christ, should be able both to die in respect of the one [nature] and not to die in respect of the other [nature]”.

In this Leo stated that the natures were to be distinguished even though they always acted together: “Each form accomplishes in concert with the other what is appropriate to it, the Word performing what belongs to the Word, and the flesh carrying out what belongs to the flesh”. Lastly, it affirmed the ‘communication of the idioms [properties]’ (communicatio idiomatum) – that is, it could be affirmed that the Son of God was crucified and buried, but that the Son of Man came down from heaven.

With the death of Emperor Theodosius II in 450 and the succession of Marcian to the throne, who, together with his wife Pulcheria were sympathetic towards the ‘in’ two natures Christology, the Church was able to assemble so as to nullify the deliberations of the Robber Council which had become state law. The 4th Ecumenical Council opened on 8 October 451 in Chalcedon in the presence of more than five hundred bishops. Its mandate was to establish a single faith in the face of imperial division by endorsing the Dogmatic Letters of St Cyril and Leo’s Tome, which was in agreement with St Cyril’s Christology. The Council fathers firstly reaffirmed their adherence to the faith of Nicaea (the symbol of faith), to the Dogmatic Epistles of St Cyril and to the Tome of Leo. The Council then set out to articulate a formula (or definition) of faith to which all bishops could sign thereby showing their loyalty to the faith of the Church. In its final form, the text of the Definition was a compilation of excepts taken from St Cyril’s two letters, Leo’s Tome and Flavian’s profession of faith at the 448 Council in Constantinople.

Both a standard and binding text for Eastern Orthodox Christians in regards to the person of Jesus Christ, the Definition of Chalcedon read as follows:

“Following the holy fathers, we teach with one voice that the Son of God and our Lord Jesus Christ is to be confessed as one and the same (Person), and He is perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, true God and true man, of a rational soul and [human] body consisting, of one essence with the Father as touching His divinity, and of one essence with us as touching His humanity; made in all things like unto us, with the exception of sin only; begotten of His Father before all ages according to His divinity. But in these last days, for us and for our salvation, born [into the world] of the Virgin Mary, Theotokos, according to His humanity. This one and the same Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son [of God] must be confessed to be in two nature, without confusion, without change, without division and without separation, the difference of the natures being by no means removed because of the union, but the property of each nature being preserved and coalescing in one prosopon and one hypostasis – not parted or divided into two prosopa, but one and the same Son, only-begotten, divine Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets of old and Jesus Christ Himself have taught us about Him and the creed of our fathers has handed down”.

The above declaration of faith pronounced at least five different points which are important for Christology. It affirmed Christ to be a) perfect God and perfect man; b) of one essence with the Father in his Godhead, and of one essence with us in his manhood; c) made known in two natures without confusion, without change, without division and without separation. Furthermore it was declared that d) the two natures were in no way abolished by the union and the e) the properties of each nature were preserved intact and finally, f) that both came together to form one person (prosopon or hypostasis).

The definition of faith painstakingly wanted to assert the divinity and unity of Jesus Christ yet at the same time the reality of His humanity. Indeed Chalcedon was most concerned in its terminology to protect the faith both from Nestorian and Monophysite aberrations. One can therefore understand why in the definition there is an insistence and repetition of the phrase, ‘one and the same person’. That the unity of Christ is emphasized is also reinforced in the definition by its use of the title ‘Theotokos’ which St Cyril had insisted at the 3rd Ecumenical Council since it underscored the unity of the humanity and divinity in the person of Jesus Christ. Yet its clear assertion on the unity of Christ was not done at the expense of the humanity of Jesus Christ. So together with the unity, the definition, made it clear that the Son of God existed ‘in’ two natures, in this way leaving no room for the acceptance, by the Church of Eutychian Monophysitism.

Furthermore, there was not only a clear emphasis on the existence of the two natures but that each retained its distinctive properties and operations. The definition insisted upon the fact that the Son of God united within his person both a divine and human nature, which was done without confusing the two so that the proper characteristics of each was not lost; without transmuting one nature into another; without dividing them into two separate categories and without contrasting them according to their function. The Council of Chalcedon succeeded in finding adequate words to explain the unity of Jesus Christ in terms of ‘person’ and the distinction in terms of ‘physis’ [nature]. In this way, it was able to safeguard the Church’s conviction that Jesus Christ was perfectly divine on the one hand and perfectly human as well thereby affirming Him to be the source of salvation, yet at the saem time the locus of salvation in human history. However, Chalcedon did not explain ‘how’ the two natures were united in the person of Christ, since this was seen to be beyond all human comprehension.

Concluding Remarks

Unfortunately there were a great number of people who did not accept the Christological teaching of Chalcedon and so broke away from the communion of the Church. One of the most influential exponent of anti-Chalcedonian thought was Severus of Antioch who in identifying the terms ‘nature’ and ‘person’ believed that Chalcedon had proclaimed a Christ with two persons and therefore concluded that the council had revived Nestorianism. That is to say, in stressing that there is no nature without a hypostasis or person (oujk e[sti fuvsi” ajnupovstato”), the anti-Chalcedonians believed that two natures in Christ (namely a divine and human) implied two persons (i.e. the heresy of Nestorius and his followers). Yet Chalcedon argued that the term ‘nature’ and ‘person’ were not to be identified since a nature is simply revealed by a person. And, in the case of Christ, it was the ‘divine Son of God’ – i.e. the second Person of the Holy Trinity, who revealed the human nature of Christ.

Such Christians have survived to this day and are called ‘Monophysites’. They continue to exist today in the Coptic, Ethiopian and Armenian Orthodox Churches, usually grouped together as Oriental Orthodox Christians in contrast to the Eastern Orthodox Church. And therefore in spite of all its attempts to bring unity to the Empire, Chalcedon failed to bring a permanent peace to the Church. Yet for the Eastern Orthodox Church – and for the Roman Catholic Church for that matter – this Council remains binding since it adheres strictly not only to the theology of St Cyril of Alexandria but also the Scriptures concerning the teaching on Christ where it is stated throughout that the Son of God was perfect in His divinity and perfect in His humanity and not a compound of the two. From the perspective of Chalcedon, the Monophysites, in their emphasis on the divinity of Christ were in danger of downplaying his humanity. Chalcedon, on the other hand, stated that the very hypostasis [person] Jesus Christ was the divine Son and Word of God which also became the hypostasis of the assumed human nature and therefore Christ was truly Theanthropos, something which the Church would have to state again in stronger terms so as to safeguard its faithful from any further misinterpretation.


1. Indeed Dioscorus was so extreme in his ‘one nature’ Christology that he held a council in 449 to condemn the ‘two nature’ Christology and to restore Eutyches. This council came to be known in history as the Robber Synod of 449.
2. Scholia on the Incarnation of the Only-Begotten Son [Scholia de Incarnatione Unigeniti] PG 75.1381A-B.
3. Cited in Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of the Faith (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2002), 85.
4. For example in 2 John 1:7 we read: “Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist!”
5. On Nestorianism, refer to the August issue of Vema (2005): 8/26-9/27.
6. Epistle 28.
7. Interestingly from a historical perspective, Chalcedon needed to meet and deal with Robber Council since the Emperor would endorse all doctrine and canons declared by a council, not only signing its minutes but also declaring them as state law. Therefore Chalcedon had to put aright the Christological doctrine.
8. Ep. 28, 3 (Leo’s Tome).
9. Ep. 28. 3 (Leo’s Tome).
10. Ep. 28. 4 (Leo’s Tome).

Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College

Neo-Chalcedonism and the Fifth Ecumenical Council:
A Supplement to the Christological Teaching of Chalcedon

Introductory Remarks

In the fifth century a large group within the Christian Church rejected the Council of Chalcedon in 451 [i.e. the 4th Ecumenical Council], which had insisted on the one person of Christ in two natures, perfect God and perfect man. Resulting from this, there arose within the Church a theological movement, which came to be known as the Neo-Chalcedonian school of Christology whose mandate it was to attempt the reconciliation of those who were opposed to Chalcedon (the anti-Chalcedoninans) so as to bring them back to the Church. The representatives of this theological movement would offer a way of interpreting the 4th Ecumenical Council, with its explicit insistence that the person [or hypostasis] of Jesus Christ was none other than that of God the Logos, the second Person of the Holy Trinity. Accordingly, the Fifth Ecumenical Council convoked by Justinian and held in Constantinople in 553 came to supplement the teaching of Chalcedon by explaining in clearer terms how the two natures of Christ had united in the eternal divine Person of the Son of God. Following on from this it could be said that the 5th Ecumenical Council was essentially convened to endorse, amongst others, the Christologies of both Leontius of Byzantium and Leontius of Jerusalem.

It did this by clearly distinguishing between the terms ‘person’ or ‘hypostasis’ and ‘nature’ or ‘essence’ since the anti-Chalcedonians, had identified ‘nature’ with ‘person’ and therefore believed that the Council of Chalcedon had introduced the former heresy of Nestorius who had argued that there were two prosopa [persons] in Jesus Christ – the divine Logos of God and the man born of the Virgin Mary. It is for this reason that Neo-Chalcedonism argued that the human nature attributed to Christ did not introduce another human person alongside the divine Logos of God. As stated above, the Council of 553 essentially ratified the Christologies of Leontius of Byzantium and Jerusalem who spoke both of a personal unity, and a natural distinction in Christ. Indeed they would coin the term en-hypostaton [which etymologically speaking, means ‘in’ ‘one person’] so as to state that the two natures of Christ [divine and human] had been united in the person of the divine Word of God.

Leontius of Byzantium

Distinction between Person/Hypostasis and Nature/Essence

Leontius of Byzantium was born in Constantinople in 500AD and, it is said that at the age of twenty went to Palestine to become a monk at the monastery of Old Lavra. Without doubt Leontius was one of the greatest theologians in the field of Christology, who was able to offer a precise understanding of certain technical terms which had been used at Chalcedon to articulate that Council’s understanding of the person and nature of Christ. Leontius transferred Trinitarian terminology to the field of Christology and highlighted that the terms ‘physis’ (nature), ‘ousia’ (essence) and ‘eidos’ (species) expressed what was identical or common in Christ whereas the terms ‘hypostasis’ (hypostasis), ‘prosopon’ (person) and ‘atomon’ (individual) referred to the particular. And so, ‘hypostasis’ implied the real existence of a being or an independent existence which existed in and of itself (tov kaq j eJautovn ei\\nai), that is it was distinct. For this reason one can see why the terms hypostasis and prosopon [person] came to be identified since a person was an particular existence.

Nature, on the other hand could only exist and be revealed by a person since it was not self-existent. The term ‘nature’ answered the question ‘what’ something is whereas hypostasis denoted a ‘somebody’ or answered the question ‘who’. That is to say, one could not speak of an abstract nature without reference to the person which revealed it. Many centuries later, St Gregory Palamas would state explicitly that our personal God does not come from essence/nature but that essence is derived from our personal God in this way affirming that the fundamental foundation of existence is not nature but person – that is to say that nature cannot exist without a person/hypostasis. In stressing that nature could not exist in and of itself (i.e. as an ‘independent existence), Leontius explained that nature was an-hypostaton [i.e. there can be no nature without being made real in a person]. The Monophysites misconstrued this using it to their own advantage when they tried to conclude from this that, since nature cannot exist apart from personhood, then the human nature of Christ could not exist without a corresponding human hypostasis. Obviously this missed the point entirely as to the Church’s understanding of an-hypostaton. As we shall see, to counter this, the term en-hypostaton was coined so as to underscore that the human nature of Christ did not exist in itself but within the incarnate person [or hypostasis] of the Word of God.

The Individual Human Nature of Christ

The next point developed by Leontius was that the human nature of Christ was an individual one. This naturally raised difficulties with the anti-Chalcedonians in that they could be led to conclude that this amounted to saying that Christ’s human nature included with it its own individual person. In replying to this, Leontius argued that by ‘individual human nature’ was implied the unique or distinct way that the divine Logos of God gave existence to the common set of properties belonging to human nature in a general way. That is to say, just like all human persons share a common set of properties (eg reason, thought, will, judgement, imagination, intuition memory etc) which distinguish them from other existent realities) – that is, they possess a common human essence or nature – yet they make these common properties real in their own unique, distinct and unrepeatable way, so too, it can be said that Christ gave existence to [or hypostasised] these human qualities in His own unique way and could therefore be said to possess an individual human nature. Or to put it yet another way, just like the common human nature of all persons, when revealed by a distinct person, exists in a unique and particular way, so too was the human nature of Christ revealed in its own ‘individual’ way without this implying two persons.

In order to illustrate this more clearly Leontius made use of the example of a ‘glowing sword’. According to Leontius a ‘glowing sword’ is said to be one self-existent reality [i.e. one hypostasis, to use his terminology] since when iron is heated to very high temperatures it begins to become red hot so that one can no longer distinguish between the fire and the sword. So, just like a glowing sword is made up of an element of fire and the sword itself, so too, in the case of the incarnate Logos, the two natures [the divine and the human] were united in one hypostasis. In stressing that Christ had assumed an individual human nature, the Eastern Orthodox tradition, in no way implied that the Logos took on another prosopon (as this would be no different to Nestorianism), but simply asserted that when a nature partakes in an hypostasis, it is revealed in a distinct and unique way and can therefore be said to be individual. In so doing, Leontius was able to affirm the human nature of Christ was complete but in so far as it did not exist in separation from the divine it could not be said to exist in a different hypostasis from that of the incarnate Word of God. That is to say, for Leontius the divine person of Logos could not be thought of apart from His human nature. Indeed for Leontius the person of Christ was realized through the concurrence (sundromhv) of the two natures in the one hypostasis.

Leontius of Jerusalem

Like his namesake, Leontius of Jerusalem was most concerned to defend the particularity of Christ’s human nature. Only very little is known of his life. Patristic scholars today claim this Leontius to be the author of two theological treatises entitled ‘Against the Nestorians’ and ‘Against the Monophysites’. Like Leontius of Byzantium, he defined the term ‘hypostasis’ as ‘subsisting [existing] by itself’ but went further in using terms such as apo-stasis (distance) , dia-stasis (separation) to define the notion of personhood. In this way he was able to assert that even though the human nature of Christ was an ‘individual’ one this in no way implied that it also had an hypostasis different from that of the Logos since the human nature of Christ was never separated from the Word of God. We can see again that the fullness of Christ’s human nature was never questioned, yet unlike Nestorius, Leontius asserted that it never existed in a separate human person because this would undervalue and ultimately destroy its unity with the Logos.

In referring to the person in Christology, Leontius of Jerusalem spoke of a ‘composite hypostasis’ [suvnqeto” or difuhv” uJpovstasi”]. By this was simply meant that Christ was ‘composed’ not of two persons but of two natures. Therefore Christ could be said to be a composite hypostasis in terms of his natures. It was the two natures of Christ which were united in the person of the Word of God (e{nwsi” kaq j uJpovstasin) resulting in a composite hypostasis and not as the Monophysites believed in a composite nature. Indeed, after the incarnation, the second person of the Holy Trinity was no longer simple but composite. And so with the introduction of the concept of ‘composite hypostasis’, Leontius was able to affirm both the divinity and humanity of Christ whilst still insisting that the divine Son and Word of God was the unique personal subject of both these natures in his person. Barthrellos noted that on the level of ‘nature’ one could discern, in line with Chalcedon a profound level of symmetry in so far as the person of Christ was seen to be made up of the “Logos and his human nature”. However, when speaking on the level of ‘person’, which Leontius unmistakably identified with God the Logos, there was a radical asymmetry in so far as the divine Logos was the “unique… and unaltered person in Christology, who now ha[d] a human nature united to him”.


In order to affirm both the existence of two natures existing in the person of the divine Word of God, both Leontioi introduced the concept of ‘en-hypostasia’ into their Christology and it is for this that they are primarily remembered. By the Christological term ‘enhypostaton’, was simply meant, that, after the incarnation there were two natures which existed in the one hypostasis [or person] of the Logos. Both Leontioi wanted to ground the two natures of Christ in the one hypostasis and therefore to point out that in the one hypostasis of God the Logos there were united the two natures. This implied that after the Incarnation, the person or hypostasis of the divine Son of God possessed two natures – the divine and the human. That is to say, both the divine and human natures were said to exist in the one hypostasis of the Word of God. Or to put it yet another way, in the one hypostasis of God the Logos were united two natures. From this they were able to say that the human nature of Christ did not exist as a separate hypostasis of an independent human subject but only in the hypostasis of the Word. The introduction of this term firmly grounded their Christology to the definition of Chalcedon and for this reason, the term ‘en-hypostaton’ became a technicus terminus for Christology in the Christian Church.

Concluding Remarks

It is becoming clear that the Christological developments, which took place in the first common Christian millennium had to be articulated in such a way so as not to swallow up Christ’s humanity in His divinity, but at the same time not to separate His natures to such an extent that would inevitably lead to their complete division. As if walking on a ‘tight-rope’, the theologians of the fifth and sixth centuries were able to highlight wonderfully the personal unity in Christ without undermining the natural distinction. Not only did they have to insist on the full divinity of Christ but also His full humanity. And so at the 3rd Ecumenical Council (431) in Ephesus, we saw the emphasis on Christ’s divinity, whilst at the 4th Ecumenical Council (451) in Chalcedon Christ’s full humanity was reaffirmed. The 5th Ecumenical Council was convoked so as to affirm that the Christological doctrine of the Council of Chalcedon (one person – two natures) was in fact compatible with the Christology of St Cyril of Alexandria in its attempt to emphasize both the natural distinction in Christ yet at the same time the personal unity. Its hope was that it could facilitate a union with all those who had not accepted Chalcedon. For this reason it accepted Cyril’s formula ‘one incarnate nature of God the Logos’ so long as it was understood in light of the Council of 451.

Furthermore, the condemnation, by the fifth Ecumenical Council of the person and works of Theodore of Mopsuestia, the anti-Cyrillian writings of Theodoret of Cyrus and the letter of Ibas, bishop of Edessa to the Persian bishop of Maris confirmed once and for all that Chalcedon was not Nestorian [i.e. the erroneous assertion that in Christ there are two natures and two persons] as the Monophysites [those who asserted that there was one nature in Christ after His incarnation] had come to believe. And so, in thoroughly explaining Cyrillian Christology, the Leontioi were able to show that Ephesus and Chalcedon were not mutually opposed to each other. In this way their theology served to clarify that a duality of natures need not necessarily imply a duality on the level of persons since, with their use of the term ‘enhypostasia’ they were able to find words to formulate the mystery of the two natures in Christ united in the one person. In this way they were able to affirm, once again the unity of subject in Christ.

Yet as history has shown, Christology was to experience several more developments, having to emphasize, as we shall see, the reality of two energies or wills in Christ – both a divine and human one, as championed especially by St Maximus the Confessor. And finally in the eighth century, in response to the iconoclastic controversy (those who did not want icons in Churches) the Church would have to respond affirming the possibility of depicting or circumscribing Christ with icons since He had been heard, seen and touched (cf 1Jn 1:1). These latter controversies will be looked at in the following issues of VEMA.


1. This is not to say that Neo-Chalcedonism offered a new interpretation on the Fourth Ecumenical Council (451AD) which was convened in Chalcedon but that it affirmed the teaching of this council in response to the needs of the time making explicit certain truths which could led to erroneous conclusions if not interpreted correctly. Nor is this meant to imply that the Neo-Chalcedonian movement came to interpret the 4th Council in light of St Cyril since the Dogmatic Statement of this council was essentially Cyrillian in its articulation.
2. The Fifth Ecumenical Council condemned ‘Three Chapters’: namely the person and works of Theodoret of Mopsuestia, the anti-Cyrillian writings of Theodoret of Cyrus and the letter of Ibas to Maris. It also saw the condemnation of Origen
3. In the past there has been considerable debate as to whether there was in reality one person or two. Today the consensus view is that there were indeed two different writers; yet their theologies were essentially the same (this view was favourably presented first by Marcel Richard in his article ‘Léonce de Jérusalem et Léonce de Byzance’, Mélanges de science religieuse 1(1944): 35-88. At this point it must be mentioned that I am not in agreement with Meyendorff who claimed that these fathers of the Church were Origenistic (John Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1987), 61-68.
4. Remember that whereas in God it was said that there were three divine persons and yet one nature, in the case of Christ the mystery of this unity in diversity lay in that there was one person in two natures.
5. St Gregory Palamas expressed this very clearly: “God, when He was speaking with Moses, did not say, “I am the essence”, but “I am who I am” (Ex 3:14). It is not therefore He-who-is who comes from the essence, but it is the essence which comes from He-who-is” (Triads, 3.2.12).
6. Contra Nestorianos and Eutychianos, 1293B. Cited in Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 44. Elsewhere Leontius stated that the human nature was constitutive of the person of Christ (sumplhrwtikav tou’ proswvpou th'” katav Cristovn uJpostavsew”). (Contra Nestorianus and Eutychianos, 1289A).
7. These works can be found in Patrologia Graeca: Contra Nestorianos, PG 86. 1399-7681 & Capita Triginta contra Monophysitas, PG 86. 1769-1901.
8. Adversus Nestorianus 1529D
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid, 1568B.
11. Adversus Nestorianus, 1585B.
12. Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ, 48. Of course one must keep in mind that even on the level of ‘nature’ the notion of symmetry cannot be taken too far because, ultimately one cannot speak of an alleged evenness between the divine nature of Christ with that of His human.
13. Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ, 48.

Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College

Monotheletism and the Sixth Ecumenical Council:
Further Clarification to the Christological Teaching of Chalcedon

Part I

Introductory Remarks

In the sixth century a great dispute arose within the Church, which resulted in the fathers having to affirm the full divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ by insisting, this time, on the reality of two wills – a divine and a human one in the incarnate Logos. Whereas several centuries before, the Council of Chalcedon, 451 AD (which came to be known as the fourth Ecumenical Council) had clearly distinguished two natures in the person of Christ united ‘without confusion, without change, without division and without separation [ἀδιαιρέτως, ἀτρέπτως, ἀμερίστως, ἀσυγχύτως]1, it had not explained the consequences of such a teaching, especially with regards to the willing process in the person of the historical Christ. Resulting from this, there arose a group of people within the Church who began teaching that Christ had only one will, claiming that His human will had been entirely swallowed up by the divine. This belief came to be known as ‘Monothelitism’ since, as the word suggests, it affirmed only one will in the person of Christ, teaching that only one single divine ‘force’ could safeguard the unity of the incarnate Son of God. However the fundamental issue that emerged was, could Christ have experienced the fullness of human life in an authentic way without a human will? It is to this most fundamental question that the fathers of the seventh century had to respond.

Defence of Dyothelite Christology

Discerning the inherent danger of the teaching of Monothelitism, since it ultimately denied the full humanity of Jesus of Nazareth, the Church would now have to defend the truth of the two wills and energies in Christ. Specifically the doctrine of the Church which upheld the reality of the two wills in Jesus Christ and consequently His fully humanity came to be known as ‘Dyothelite’ Christology – the term etymologically derived from the Greek words ‘dyo’ meaning ‘two’ and ‘thelema’ signifying ‘will’. This dyothelite doctrine arose in order to do justice to the two aspects of Christ’s incarnation – namely the unity of the person, but also in this case, the genuine distinction-in-unity of the two natures which had been proclaimed at Chalcedon but also witnessed to in the Scriptures. That is to say, the error of acknowledging only one will in Christ lay in its betrayal of former biblical and conciliar statements and definitions which had accepted both divine and human actions in Christ – according to His divinity and according to His humanity – both of which were harmonised in the person of Christ. And so we can see that the unity of the incarnate Logos, for the fathers, lay not in the concept of one single action but in the notion of personhood. For this reason, the doctrine of the two wills would not destroy the unity of the incarnate Son of God, but on the contrary would in fact uphold the gospel image of Christ.

It was at a council held in Constantinople during the years 680-1, subsequently becoming known as the sixth Ecumenical Council that the Church formerly condemned the Monothelite heresy. Very simply put, the council claimed that since Christ had two natures, He must also have had two wills – because the notions of ‘will’ and ‘energy’ were rightly considered to be traits of ‘nature’ and not of ‘hypostasis’ [i.e. personhood]. It did this especially so as to uphold the integrity of Christ’s humanity, since a human nature without a human will would have jeopardised the integrity of that nature. Far from being fused together, the divine and human wills, just like the natures, could be distinguished, yet without separation or confusion. The definition of faith proclaimed at the sixth council reads as follows:

… in Him [Christ] are two natural wills and two natural operations without confusion, without change, without division and without separation according to the teaching of the holy fathers. And these two natural wills are not contrary to one another…. but His human will follows, and not as resisting and reluctant, but rather preserved… We glorify two natural operations… in the same Lord Jesus Christ our true God, that is to say a divine action and a human action… for we will not admit one natural action in God and in the creature…. Believing our Lord Jesus Christ to be one of the Trinity, and after the incarnation our true God we say that His two natures shone forth in His one hypostasis in which He both performed the miracles and endured the sufferings… wherefore we confess two wills and two actions concurring most fitly in Him for the salvation of the human race.

In proclaiming that Christ was perfectly divine and perfectly human united in one person, the definition of the sixth Ecumenical Council affirmed both a genuine human activity and will, but also a real divine activity and will in the incarnate Lord. According to the definition, the human will submitted to the divine will and so the two were not in contradiction or opposition. Accordingly, even though they did not act contrary to one another, the wills did not lose their proper natural characteristics and properties.

For the fathers of the seventh century, upholding the doctrine of the two wills in Christ had definitive soteriological implications. Far from being preoccupied with any abstract philosophical interest, the Church’s concern to preserve two wills in Christ lay, in wanting to defend firstly the integral image of Christ as portrayed in the Scriptures and secondly the complete salvation of the human person. It was in that vein that they argued that if the incarnate Christ did not possess a human will then the salvation of the human person – of which the will was correctly considered to be one of its most basic and fundamental aspects – would have been rendered incomplete. That is to say, since humankind fell as a result of deciding contrary to God, then Christ had to assume a human will otherwise it would have been left unhealed, and therefore a basic aspect of humanity would have been left outside the realm of salvation in Christ. Consequently, discarding the human will in Christ not only led to a rejection of the full reality of Christ’s human nature, but also to depriving the world of its complete salvation. Conversely, upholding two energies or wills in Christ, safeguarded the integrity of the theanthropic principle in Christ, and the salvation of the created world.

Dyothelite Christology

This dyothelite Christology proclaimed at the sixth Ecumenical Council was especially championed by St Maximus the Confessor (b. 580), a monk from Constantinople. Just before the seventh century, the city of Constantinople had seen a major reconstruction, the pinnacle of which had included the completion of the Great Church dedicated to Holy Wisdom (Agia Sophia). It was into such a world that St Maximus was born, being of noble parents, receiving an excellent education, and becoming the first secretary to the Emperor Heraclius by the age of thirty. Soon after, however, he would renounce this position and enter monastic life. And during the last decades of his life he would have to struggle with Monothelitism – a struggle that would cost him his very life. In particular, for his insistence to confess Christ as He was witnessed to in the Scriptures, he was severely mutilated: his tongue and right hand were cut off so that he could not preach or write.

Indeed, unlike most within the Church who were willing to compromise their faith in order to bring the Monophysites back to the Church, St Maximus stood his ground and it was only after his death that the official Church came to exonerate him and affirm his Orthodoxy in 680. It is widely known, for example, that Pope Honorius and Patriarch Sergius had accepted the Monothelite compromise which had affirmed two natures but only one will, in order to secure an ‘alleged’ unity within the Church. To be sure therefore, it was St Maximus’ theological outlook, which contributed creatively to the Church’s understanding of the unity-in-distinction of the two natures and the two wills in the one person of Jesus Christ. Consequently, it would be no exaggeration to state that in his confrontation with Monothelitism, St Maximus was predominantly the first father of the Church to develop extensively an entire theology of the ‘will’, in agreement with the Christology of Chalcedon, understanding it as a fully-developed natural yet rational faculty.

The Church’s concern to affirm two wills in the person of Christ had to do, as mentioned above, with upholding the two aspects of the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, namely the unity of the person and the distinction of the two natures. Now, since the Church maintained two natures in Christ, it followed that each nature was to be attributed with its distinguishing common set of characteristics, which also included the ability of willing since the will was rightly thought to be a quality of nature. In its formulation of the Trinitarian doctrine, the Church had long established such a connection between nature and will. If the will were to be connected to the person – something which the Monothelites would do – then three persons in the Holy Trinity would imply three different wills, something which was outrightly rejected by the Church. And so, in precisely the same way that there was one essence or ‘nature’ in the Holy Trinity and therefore one common will, so too, two natures in Christ – a divine and a human one – implied two wills. Indeed if Christ was thought to have only a divine will, this would only recognise divine characteristics to the Son of God which would subsequently amount to a denial of His incarnation.

Biblical Foundations of the Notion of Will

Now a question which may arise in relation to the willing process in Christ, is why there was such a preoccupation, by the Church, with attributing to Christ both a divine and a human will. For the fathers, it was the biblical nature of the term θέλησις  which gave rise to its paramount significance for Christology in the seventh century. Indeed the Patristic tradition clearly discerned, as has been shown, both a divine will and a human one in the enfleshed Logos. That is ti say, even though the term ‘will’ was rare in ancient Greek literature, not enjoying any terminological status within the philosophical world – the more prevalent notions being ‘βουλή’ [deliberation], προαίρεσις’ [choice or decision] or ‘ὄρεξις’ [appetite] –  it was nevertheless employed by the Church in the seventh century precisely because it was used in the Gospels to express the volitional process, or the capacity of willing in Christ. In particular, in the New Testament there are over sixty references to the term ‘will’ which all point to its importance. Indeed, a presupposition for entry into the kingdom of heaven is often described in terms of obeying the will of God:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will [τό θέλημα] of my Father in heaven.” (Mt 7:21).

Situated within the context of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus was talking about the righteousness of the kingdom, the verse, at first sight is understood to be underscoring the importance of the will for a human person’s salvation. However, more specifically it reveals the deity of Christ not only because it refers to Jesus as ‘Lord’ – a title attributed specifically to Yahweh in the Old Testament – but also as it highlights that Jesus fully knew and shared in the divine will of His Father. Jesus Christ could not have possibly spoken about the importance of doing the will of the Father if He Himself did not know it in the first place. This detail, often gone unnoticed points to and verifies a divine will in Jesus.

Now, not only did Jesus know the will of His Father, but the very reason that He came into the world was to do His Father’s will. Indeed all four Gospels specifically depict Christ’s life in terms of doing the will of His Father:

‘for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me’ (Jn 6:38).

Clearly this passage understood Christ’s earthly life not without reference to a human will, but specifically in terms of His human will adhering to that of His Father’s. Furthermore, the implication is that this human will of the Son of God would be completing the work of God the Father throughout all moments of His earthly life. This was important for the fathers of the seventh century as it highlighted that Christ’s human will was always in conformity to the divine will. That is to say, the divine and human wills were permanently and absolutely united, yet without confusion. Furthermore, there was never a moment where Christ deviated from doing the will of His Father since His human life was so radically in communion with the life of God. Not only was Christ’s life understood in terms of doing His Father’s will, but so was the life of each faithful member of the early Christian Church, as witnessed, for example in the Lord’s prayer, ‘your will be done’ (Mt 6:10).

In the next issue of the Voice, we will continue our discussion on the reality of Christ’s human will. This will then naturally put us in a better position to offer a more extensive theology of the will as it was understood in the sixth Ecumenical Council.


1. Definition of Chalcedon
2. Exposition of Faith, The Sixth Ecumenical Council: The Third Council of Constantinople, 680-81 cited in Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, vol. 1, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Valerie Hotchkiss (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 225 & 227.
3. Cf St Maximus the Confessor Disputatio, 324B: “if Adam ate willingly, then the will is the first thing in us that became subject to passion. And since the will is the first thing in us that became subject to passion, if, according to them, the Word did not assume it along with the nature when He became incarnate, I have not become free from sin. And if have not become free from sin, I was not saved, since whatever is not assumed is not saved.”
4. Also in the Gospel according to St John, the divine will of the Son of God is also affirmed, since the Son of God, “to whomever he wishes”, “raises the dead and gives them life.” (Jn 5:21).

Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College

Monotheletism and the Sixth Ecumenical Council:
Further Clarification to the Christological Teaching of Chalcedon

Part II

Introductory Remarks

According to St Maximus, there was another set of Biblical references which pointed to the existence of a human will in Christ. Specifically, Christ”s human will was further manifested in certain episodes which clearly expressed a human desire: for example, His human desire to go to Galilee to preach the Gospel (cf Mk 1:38-39), His expressions of hunger and thirst (Mt 21:18), or His wish for other people not to know that he was passing through a certain town, as was the case when He was entering the region of Tyre and Sidon:

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice (Mk 7:24).

The fact that Jesus did not wish others to know that He was passing through the region of Tyre, even though the contrary happened when a woman discovered that He was there and brought her young daughter to be cleansed from an unclean spirit, attests to His human will – since His divine will was omniscient and omnipotent and whatever was willed would have come to pass. That is to say, according to St Maximus, Christ, in that particular case, had willed with His human will because had He done so with His divine will, He would have gone unnoticed as He had expressed. Interestingly, from this we see that the fathers accepted in Christ acts of human willing which did not necessarily coincide with the divine will, but were nevertheless not opposed to it. Furthermore with regards to Christ’s human will, as a man, Christ became obedient willingly to the point of death (cf Phil 2:8).

Garden of Gethsemane

Another Scriptural example most often used by the fathers to affirm the existence of a human will in Christ was the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane where for a moment Christ had asked that the cup be removed from Him, but then instantly said to His Father, “not what I want, but what you want” (Mk 14:36). Immediately after Christ had finished the last supper with His disciples, He went out to the Mount of Olives with His disciples to pray. As a man, Jesus was “sorrowful and deeply distressed” (Mt 26:37) about His impending death, and upon falling on His face onto the ground, He prayed to His heavenly Father:

“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done [μὴ τὸ θέλημά μου ἀλλὰ τὸ σὸν γινέσθω]” (Lk 22:42).

From the first part of the verse, we can see that, as a man, Christ had expressed a human wish for the chalice to pass over Him, for just like the will of all human beings it instinctively wanted to obviate itself from situations leading to death. Indeed, the fact that all four Gospel writers referred to this moment of Jesus’ life is undoubtable proof of His true humanity and human will.

In that same vein, Christ’s genuine humanity is further verified in the second part of the verse – ”yet not my will but yours be done.” Now, unlike the first part of the verse, which emphasised the natural human aversion to death, the second also highlighted the free and unwavering submission of the human will to that of the divine will of the Father. That is to say, it was not the case that Christ was speaking as a man – or, for that matter on our behalf – in the first part of the verse but in the second, as God. This was the view generally held by the Church before St Maximus which although not erroneous in itself did not fully do justice to Christ’s human will. Rather, according to St Maximus, in both cases, it was the full reality of the human will which was being underlined. St Maximus the Confessor believed that the verse, taken as a whole, was an unambiguous affirmation of the willing assent and concurrence of Christ’s human will to that of His Father. Only in this way could humanity have a perfect example to imitate by choosing to will whatever Christ willed as a man. Simply put, if Christ had did not willingly submitted His human will to that of the Father, as a man, then He could not expect the same from human beings. Therefore, in the second part of the verse Christ was not speaking as God, but as a man – the Theanthropos. In handing over his human will, as a man, to that of the divine will of the Father, and allowing it to be moved by the divine, Christ showed humankind what they too should do. All this naturally leads to a critical reflection of a theology of the will in order to become familiar with its physiognomy.

Theology of the Will

Generally speaking, the term, ”will” [θέλησις] was defined as that fundamental and permanent faculty possessed by all human persons enabling them to make decisions as to what to do. For the fathers of the Church, especially St Maximus in the sixth century, it was this ability to choose freely which distinguished human beings from all other instinctual creatures of the animal world in general. Accordingly, the term ”will” was used to express a person’s ability to deliberate upon, or consent to, issues, so as not to act merely out of impulse or biological necessity. Now, as a quality of nature, it is true that the will was instinctive – in that it would naturally avoid situations which could lead to death. And yet, the will was also rational in that it was characterised by self-determination, able to choose freely, and not acting simply by compulsion. For this reason, the term ”will” expressed a human person’s genuine inclination or free volitional activity, which subsequently also betrayed their true intention when actualised by concrete physical actions. Our attention is now turned towards this distinction between wilful intent and its concrete expression.

Already at this point, we can discern a subtle distinction made by St Maximus between a certain desire wished for, and its actual execution. Many times for example human persons may wish for something but, in reality they do the exact opposite. In his letter to the Romans, St Paul wrote: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom 7:19). It becomes evident from this verse that there are two aspects to the willing procedure which can obviously be opposed to each other. For this reason, St Maximus and the fathers after him came to distinguish between the ability to choose [θέλησις] and the actual object of what was chosen – the latter was called θέλημα or θελητόν. That is to say, unlike θέλησις denoting the inclination or the wish for something which may have remained unrealised for any number of reasons, θέλημα signified the accomplished act of the willing procedure. Such a distinction was largely original in the history of human thought, which up to that point had not differentiated between the ability to will from the object of what was willed. Specifically, this distinction was made by St Maximus in order to underline the radical and eternal difference between the will of God which was by it very nature absolutely efficacious and definitive, and that of humankind’s which was not. Accordingly, it follows from this basic distinction that even though there may have been a common object of willing in God and the saints – i.e. the salvation of the world – their actual wills were ontologically and therefore forever different 6 since one was by its very nature saving, whilst the other was in need of salvation.7

Both Divine and Human wills

Having affirmed a fundamental difference between the divine and human wills in general, St Maximus proceeded to outline the process of willing which unfolded in the human person and then to discuss whether Christ, who had a human will, was subject to this same willing procedure. As we shall see, for St Maximus, Christ was not subject to the same willing procedure as human beings. Unlike human beings, who after the Fall had opposed the will of God, Jesus Christ never strayed, even for a moment, from willing what was good. According to St Maximus, after the Fall the gnomic will was introduced into the human person which was basically a deduced and conscious or deliberate choice to do good since the human person could no longer instinctively and freely opt to act in that way. The gnomic will was considered to be a particularised will [ποιά θέλησις] marked by ignorance, indecision, uncertainty, ambiguity and mutability which were all foreign to Christ. It was this gnomic will which had taken root in every fallen human person, not allowing them to orientate themselves naturally to the divine will. Or put another way, the gnomic will was simply a calculated action of the human natural will inclined towards, and marked by, sin. Since Christ would not have oscillated between good and evil in His choices, because He always did the will of God, He therefore did not possess a fallen gnomic will but the primordial human will which had worked together with, submitted itself to, and followed the divine will. In Christ, the divine and human wills always freely co-operated – for example, the miracles performed by Christ were worked together through a human energy [e.g. the act of anointing spittle and soil when Jesus healed a man from blindness] and a divine energy [the miracle working power] (cf Jn 9:6-7) – and never once did Christ deviate from choosing good, since His human life was so radically in communion with the divine life.

From the above, it can be seen that the fathers did not in any way reject a human willing procedure from Christ, but a particular kind of choosing and desire which was characteristic of the fallen human person. Since the gnomic will was a power exercised on a personal level and since the person of Christ was none other than the second person of the Holy Trinity, then Christ could not be marked by a sinful and ambiguous gnome because to attribute this to Christ would ultimately have turned Him into a mere man and not the Theanthropos. Now, having denied a gnomic will in Christ, St Maximus and the fathers after him, in no way rejected a particular and personal mode of human willing in Christ. On the contrary Christ’s natural human will was actualised and personally expressed in particular acts of human willing which were moved by the divine Person of the incarnate Logos in obedience to the Father – indeed, the subject of willing and acting was the incarnate Logos and not the divine or human natures. Therefore Christ had His own particular human mode of willing, but not a sinful gnomic will. That is to say, that the natural human will of Christ was shaped and given expression to by the incarnate Logos resulting in particular acts of human willing which were not contrary to, but in accordance with the common divine will of the Father and the Holy Spirit.

All this points to a very important question, which has occupied the thought of many Patristic scholars – specifically the question of the relationship between the divine and human wills in Christ. Whilst one school of thought has tended to underscore the domination of the divine will over the human in Christ, the other has been characterised by a tendency to stress their independence in order to protect their authenticity. According to St Maximus, the answer had to be sought on the level of personhood – that is, on the level of the incarnate Son of God and not on the level of natures. Simply put, for St Maximus, it is a person who wills and not a blind nature. And so, in the case of Christ’s human will, far from being actualised by His human nature, it was shaped and moved – as was the case of his divine will – by the person of Jesus Christ the incarnate Son of God. That is to say, it was the Son of God who was the subject of the willing process, giving expression to divine wishes by His divine nature and human wishes by His human nature. In the words of St Maximus:

as God [i.e. the enfleshed Logos] by nature willed the divine and fatherly [deeds] according to nature… and the same again as man by nature willed the human [deeds] according to nature.

Given that it was the enfleshed divine Logos of God who was responsible for moving the human will of Christ, this in no way implied that the human will was swallowed up by the divine; on the contrary the concrete expressions of Christ’s human will, witnessed to in His public ministry were an affirmation of its existence. That is to say, just because it was the divine Person of the Son of God concretely giving expression to His human will, this did not, in any way, signify the human will’s eradication; rather it was the divine Person who was responsible for its actualisation thereby affirming its existence in reality. In this way, not only was the integrity and genuineness of Christ’s humanity maintained, but also His human obedience to the Father was shown to be a free and willing act of personal and self-determining acceptance. Accordingly the incarnate Son of God willed and acted both in a divine and a human manner.

Concluding Remarks

In adopting the basic tenet of Chalcedonian Christology – one person in two natures – the fathers of the sixth Ecumenical Council were able to further emphasise the genuine humanity of Christ by affirming the reality of two natural wills – a divine and human one without allowing, at the same time, for any opposition or separation. In this way, the Church again came to highlight the foundational Scriptural truth that Christ, the incarnate Logos of God, had experienced an authentic human life. It was further shown that it was particularly St Maximus the Confessor who was able to develop, for the first time in Christian thought, an entire theology of the will. In this way the Church could now, not only acknowledge the reality of a genuine and natural human will in Christ but could also differentiate this from its actualisation in particular acts of willing – the former belonging to His nature, the latter, concretely expressed by His Person. Accordingly, in further attempting to relate the human and the divine wills of Christ, the Church was now able to point out that the incarnate Son of God did not only will as God by His divine will, but also as a man, willingly obeying the diving will of His Father by His human will. Without denying a human will, the Church, on the contrary was able to affirm the human will in all moments of Christ’s life – always conforming of course to the omnipotent will of the divine nature, and made concrete by the incarnate Logos. And all this was insisted upon because the very notion of salvation was founded upon the divine and human wills acting in unison – where there was a sublime conformity of the human will of the incarnate Logos to that of the to divine will of the Father thereby giving humankind the perfect example to follow in its journey to enter into the Father’s kingdom in heaven.


1. Barthrellos cites numerous Biblical references which St Maximus the Confessor used to affirm the human will in Christ – Jn 1:43; Jn 17:24; Mt 27:34; Jn 7:1; Mk 9:30; Mk 7:24-25; Mk 6:48. (Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 138).
2. Cf St Maximus the Confesssor, Disputatio, 321C-D.
3. To argue that Christ was simply speaking on our behalf would inevitably dispense with the reality of Christ’s statement to avoid the cup.
4. This section is especially indebted to the insightful study on St Maximus” theology by Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ, 117-140.
5. Cf St Maximus the Confessor, Opusc. 196A: “in accordance with this [the will] alone we naturally desire to be and live and move and think and speak and feel and participate in food, sleep and rest, and not ache, nor die and simply to possess fully everything that constitutes our nature and lack everything that destroys it.”
6. Cf St Maximus the Confessor, Opusc. 1, 21C – 28A.
7. Disput. 292B-D.
8. Cf John A. McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology (Louiseville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 365.
9. It must be stated that by ”ignorance”, St Maximus did not deny in Christ what could be called a ”blameless ignorance” [as a child, for example, Christ would naturally have had to learn to speak, to walk etc], but wanted to affirm that Jesus Christ, as the second Person of the Holy Trinity, was omniscient as God, His Father was. That is, in rejecting any ignorance in Christ, St Maximus was simply wanting to avoid introducing a merely human person parallel to Christ – as Nestorius had done – who was sinful and ignorant.
10. D. Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ, 164.
11. Opusc. 7, 77C-80A cited in D. Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ, 182.
12. Bathrellos expressed this in the following way: “… this does not in any way contradict the self-determination of the human will; on the contrary, it affirms it, by enabling its actualisation.” (D. Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ, 168).

Dr Philip Kariatlis
Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College

Find our more: