“Who do you say that I am?” Controversies about Christ in the early church

Detail - Glory of the New Born Christ in prese...

Glory of the newborn Christ in the presence of God the Father and the Holy Spirit; ceiling painting made by Daniel Gran (1694-1757), Annakirche, Vienna

The Council of Nicea in 325 established as orthodoxy the belief that Jesus Christ was co-eternal with the Father–an equal partner in the Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit (though a full theology of the Holy Spirit had yet to be developed).

But another controversy was beginning to heat up–one that would cause the first great schism of the church. And this one involved many more heretical bunny trails than the controversy with the Arians–even counting all of the Eusebians, Homoians, and so forth who muddied the Trinitarian waters between Nicea and the First Council of Constantinople (381).

This is the story of the tangled web of controversy about the person of Christ: how it was woven, what its strands were, and how at last the controversy was resolved. If you’re like I was when I first learned this stuff, this will stretch your mind and make you ask some questions you’ve never asked before:

The councils of Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon, by condemning certain views in error about JC, clarifying what he was not, were able to produce words about what he was; sort of.

Christians proclaim JC is truly God are truly human; the two natures are mysteriously united: Nor did he lose his divinity on becoming human, nor his humanity after the resurrection. Still today, JC is fully and perfectly human.

But let’s stop and think: what image flashes across our minds when I say “JC became man.” How do we picture that moment? If asked this question by a child, where would we start?

We might say, “There were three persons in heaven, and one flew down and entered the womb of a human mother.”

Or we might start down on earth, in the gospels, with the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would conceive and bear a son, called “son of the most high.”

Or we might begin with Phil. 2:6-8, “JC, who though in the form of God did not count equality a thing to be grasped at but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…among men.”

Where we place the focus, whether in the emptying, or in the womb of Mary, changes how we view the Jesus of Nazareth who walked around Palestine 2000 years ago.

This was just the same for the early Christians. The evidence of Scripture and tradition seemed to allow for a number of interpretations of who Christ was, depending on one’s point of view. For some, Jesus seemed a spirit cloaked with an outer covering of humanity, which was an adjunct to his essentially divine nature.

For others, Jesus seems first a human, who at the exact moment he started to form in Mary’s womb, also received the incarnate God. This allowed his humanity, different from all others, to incorporate a divine nature as well.

Well, with the first image, of a “cloak,” you can fall into the error of docetism, (and I’m just going to mention these errors now, we’ll come back to them more fully in a minute) where Christ is really divine, but looks human; or even monophysitism, the idea that he really only has one nature, and it is not a human nature.

With the second image, that of the human who receives the incarnate God, you can fall into Apollonarianism, where JC is not really totally man or God, but sort of a mixture; or Nestorianism, where Jesus was really two persons, a divine and a human one, sort of stuck together.

So, the first view stresses Christ’s divinity over humanity; and the second, vice versa. Either has its unacceptable extremes.

Well, that’s our start on this topic. In further posts, I’m going to look at how, at each of the subsequent councils after Nicea, a certain extreme view of Christ was at issue.

Continued in “Controversies about Christ in the early church, part II: The hybrid Jesus and the Second Council.”

3 responses to ““Who do you say that I am?” Controversies about Christ in the early church

  1. Thanks for the post. I enjoy church history and the unfolding of doctrine.
    I look forward to the rest of the series.


  2. I just went through all these debates last year when I did Patristics, and it really is exciting stuff – especially when you look at the eviscerating language the debaters on all sides used against one another. Riots and excommunications and intrigue, oh my! Why isn’t this stuff taught in Sunday school? Who needs political thrillers? Truly, my tongue is only slightly in my cheek.

    • Cole,

      Which is exactly why Philip Jenkins has taken this as the topic of his new book, Jesus Wars. The subtitle pretty much tells the tale: “How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 years” (though actually I think this is significantly misleading–these decisions were in fact made “ex corde ecclesia”–out of the heart of the church). It is a rollicking tale, indeed, and sad–as it always is when Christians get at each others’ throats in this way. However, there is no question that those involved felt nothing less than salvation was at stake.

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