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Challenges to the Faith in Jesus Christ
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.
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.
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).
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St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College< Back to the articles list