Christological controversies

  1. Two approaches to Christ's person
    1. Remember that Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) settled the question of the deity of Jesus Christ. Now that this was settled, debates about the precise nature of Christ's humanity began to surface.
    2. The Alexandrian school of theologians had always been strongly concerned about the deity and unity of Christ's person. They allegorized Scripture and tended to make the human side of Christ of less importance.
    3. The Antiochene school of theologians took a more literal, historical approach to Biblical interpretation. They believed in the deity of Christ, but stressed that his full humanity was important too. Often they could seem to be teaching two persons in Christ.
    4. Different versions of the two above approaches did battle for 200 years in the eastern Empire.
    5. The Western theologian Tertullian had already formulated a basic doctrine of Christ's person -- Christ was two natures in one person. His divine nature and his human nature were both resident in a single person. This old idea became the basis for a compromise between the Antioch and Alexandria schools, but only after the Church was split a couple of times, bishops were exiled and died, and the Church received historical black marks which have remained until the present day.
  2. Apollinarianism
    1. Apollinarius (c.310-390) was a strong supporter of the Nicene creed and a friend of Athanasius. He was bishop of Laodicea in Syria. Reacting to Antiochene teachings, he formulated a doctrine which stated that Christ had no human spirit. Rather, the Word (Logos) of God (John 1:1) took the place of the human spirit, and performed its normal functions.
    2. Athanasius reluctantly decided that his friend was a heretic, and he was condemned by the pro-Nicene party at Alexandria at the council of 362, and again at the Council of Constantinople in 381.
    3. Note Gregory of Nazianzus' classic argument in Letter 101 to Cledonius: "That which he has not assumed, he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead, is also saved." (Hall, p. 159)
    4. After this time the Alexandrians never denied that Christ had (has) a human soul. But they never assigned the importance to it that the Antiochenes did. (Dowley, p. 179).
  3. Nestorianism and Ephesus
    1. Nestorius (?-451) was Bishop of Constantinople from 428. He came from the Antioch school and was taught theology there by Theodore of Mopsuestia
    2. He opposed a relatively new theological and devotional slogan Theotokos - affirming that Mary was the "God-bearer" or "Mother of God." This was more of a Christological statement than a Mariological statement. But its acceptance fit in well with the popular piety of the monks and people, who loved to exalt Mary. Therefore contradicting it could lead to the wrath not only of other bishops and leaders, but the whole populace.
    3. Nestorius was concerned with the thought that God might be seen to have had a new beginning of some kind, or that he suffered or died. None of these things could happen to the infinite God. Therefore, instead of a God-man, he taught that there was the Logos and the "man who was assumed." He favored the term "Christ-bearer" (Christotokos) as a summary of Mary's role, or perhaps that she should be called both "God-bearer" and "Man-bearer" to emphasize Christ's dual natures.
    4. He was accused of teaching a double personality of Christ. Two natures, and two persons. He denied the charge, but the term Nestorianism has always been linked with such a teaching.
    5. Nestorius's main antagonist was Bishop Cyril of Alexandria, a man of theological and practical ability who was also one of the most ruthless and uncontrolled of the major early bishops.
    6. Cyril wrote to Nestorius several times. His Second Letter to Nestorius is important because it states the Alexandrian doctrine in a moderate, careful way. This document became a powerful influence on later orthodoxy. Cyril called his doctrine the "hypostatic union," because he used the Greek word hypostasis to mean what we call "person" in English. (This caused problems for the acceptance of his doctrines, because in many Greek-speakers' minds the word hypostasis was a synonym for "nature" rather than "person," which caused them to believe that Cyril was teaching that Christ has one nature rather than one person.
    7. Unfortunately Cyril did not confine himself to careful theology. He stirred up the monks and the politicians. He enlisted the aid of the Bishop of Rome, Celestine. When Theodosius II, who supported Nestorius, called a general council for Ephesus in 431, Cyril used the delayed arrival of the Syrians to accomplish the triumph of his doctrines. When the Easterners arrived, they were outraged and set up a rival council and condemned Cyril. After the Roman legates arrived, Cyril re-convened the Council and re-condemned Nestorius with the support of Rome. Nestorius was finally sent into exile.
    8. He lived long enough to see the substantial triumph of his ideas at Chalcedon, but the Nestorian "heresy" had begun. Many Eastern churches remained Nestorian, notably the Persian church. Nestorians never fully reunited with the orthodox Church, and Nestorian Christians remain to this day.
    9. Philip Schaff's comments on the Council of Ephesus, which has remained a recognized Ecumenical Council to this day: "But in moral character this council stands far beneath that of Nicaea or of the first council of Constantinople. An uncharitable, violent, and passionate spirit ruled the transactions" (Schaff 3-722). Also this: after quoting a very negative review of early councils, he says, "This is but the dark side of the picture. In spite of all human passions and imperfections truth triumphed at last, and this alone accounts for the extraordinary effect of these ecumenical councils, and the authority they still enjoy in the whole Christian world" (Schaff, 3-723, footnote).
  4. Eutycheanism and Chalcedon
    1. Eutyches (c.375-454), an archimandrite (monastic superior) from Constantinople, was not satisfied with the prevailing climate after the condemnation of Nestorius. In spite of Nestorius's disgrace, it seemed to him that Nestorian ideas were prevalent.
    2. He began to teach a form of what would later be called Monophysitism, that Christ has one nature rather than two after the incarnation, that the God-man was to be seen as a single kind of being (with the superiority of the Divine over the human being emphasized). He would not acknowledge the human nature of Christ, but only that "his body is consubstantial with ours" (Bettenson, p. 48). He believed that the humanity of Jesus was absorbed by the divinity like a drop of wine in the sea.
    3. Flavian (?-449), bishop of Constantinople, summoned Eutyches to a synod in November 448. Here he was questioned. He maintained that his doctrine was orthodox and was the faith of Cyril and Athanasius and Nicaea. Nevertheless it was perceived that his doctrine led to a different kind of humanity for Christ than our humanity, which led to the conclusion that Christ could not save us because he was not really a man. Eutyches was condemned, and Flavian sent news to "Pope" Leo of Rome so that he could comment.
    4. Leo wrote back a sophisticated and orthodox reply condemning Eutyches and expounding on the doctrine of Christ. This document became known as the Tome of Leo. It was later adopted at Chalcedon as an orthodox statement.
    5. However, it did not affect the outcome of the 449 "Council of Ephesus" which Theodosius II called, and which was dominated by Dioscorus (?-454), bishop of Alexandria and supporter of Eutyches. Dioscorus was a less capable theologian than Cyril, his predecessor, but if possible was even more ruthless. The council reinstated Eutyches, condemned Flavian (he was beaten to death three days later), and excommunicated Leo for good measure. Leo called it the "Robbery" (traditional English name: Robber Council), and the name has stuck.
    6. After Theodosius II died, the council of Chalcedon was called. This was the largest council yet, and was the last one acknowledged as "Ecumenical" by all branches of the church (excluding the Nestorian and Monophysite churches).
      This council re-condemned Eutyches, condemned Dioscorus, declared Flavian a martyr, and supported the Tome of Leo and Cyril's 2nd Letter to Nestorius. The council also (for reasons that had more to do with asserting their authority as equal to Rome than with the quality of Leo's statement) wrote up a new creed. The core of that statement is called the Definition of Chalcedon and follows:

      Therefore, following the holy Fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance (homoousious) with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer (Theotokos); one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the Fathers has handed down to us. (Bettenson, p. 51-52)

      This creed is regarded as orthodox by the mainstream Church in its Roman, Eastern, and Protestant branches.

  5. Monophysitism
    1. Several parts of the Church, especially the Egyptian groups, never accepted the decisions of Chalcedon. They kept rebelling against it and proclaiming the "one nature" of Christ after the Incarnation, hence the name Monophysite. These groups eventually became separate churches which didn't recognize the normal church leaders.
    2. Some believe that this disunity weakened the southern and eastern churches and contributed to the quick downfall of Christianity when the Muslim invasions began. Christianity was virtually destroyed in Africa and the Middle east.
  6. Monothelitism
    1. Monothelite refers to the doctrine that Christ had only one will, not a human and divine will which is considered the orthodox doctrine. All monophysites are monothelite, but there were groups which accepted the doctrine of two natures who nevertheless tried to help bridge the gap between orthodox and monophysite thinking by proposing that Christ had only one will.
    2. Emperor Heraclius and pope Honorius (?-638) were among those who wanted to use this solution.
    3. This teaching was condemned by the Third Council of Constantinople, 680.
  7. Summary and Review
    1. By 680 this controversy was fairly well played out. We can be sure that all the possible options had been debated by the early Church. There are only a few ways, really, that this can be worked out. Assuming the validity of the distinction between "nature" and "person" which was developed in the discussions on the doctrine of the Trinity, and assuming Jesus Christ was God in some sense, we have the following major options:
      1. Jesus the man was dwelt in by God (adoptionism)
      2. God used the outer shell of manhood, but Jesus' human spirit did not exist but was replaced by God's spirit (Apollinarianism)
      3. Christ was both true God and true Man and was thus two persons (Nestorianism, but not necessarily Nestorius)
      4. Christ was both true God and true Man but was one composite nature, not two (Monophysitism).
      5. Christ was true God and true Man in two natures but was one person (orthodox Christianity). (Also called the hypostatic union.)
    2. Any of the last three would be probably be seen as "close enough" by conservative Christians today. Certainly the dissenters should not have been condemned, but rather reasoned with. We would see them as all Christians, not Christians vs. unbelievers. However, this is not to say that it is not important to hold to the real doctrine instead of the errors.
    3. See Dorothy Sayers' discussion of the "relevance" of the Christological controversy in Creed or Chaos?, chapter "Creed or Chaos?"
    4. Brown, p. 183: "The Creed of Chalcedon, with its clear affirmations in terms of the essence of God and the essence of man, seems too abstract and static, too ontological -- even for many conservative Christians who accept both the deity and humanity of Christ. If contemporary liberal Christianity tends to revert to a kind of adoptionism, contemporary conservative Christians -- including evangelicals and fundamentalists as well as traditional Roman Catholics -- reveal a tendency to drift into a Eutychean or monophysite view, seeing in Christ only his deity and failing to take his humanity as seriously as the Bible and historic orthodoxy require. Thus Chalcedon not only was important for its own day, in setting limits to Christological speculation, but it remains significant for us today, for if we ignore it, nothing is easier than to drift back into the errors it was intended to stop."
  8. Modern corruptions of the Trinity and Christology
    1. The Cults
      1. We are commanded to fight false teachers
        1. Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; 3 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 (I John 4:1-3).
        2. Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. 4 For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (Jude 3,4).
        3. Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you. (II Timothy 1:13,14)
      2. There are many ways to identify cults, but there are two doctrines that cults just simply can't abide: the Trinity and the Divine-Human person of Christ.
        1. Jehovah's Witnesses
        2. Mormons
        3. Modalistic groups
        4. Worldwide Church of God (in its pre-1990's version)
        5. eastern cults
      3. An orthodox Christian can
        1. pray to Jesus Christ (Stephen's prayer in Acts 7:55-59)
        2. Affirm Jesus Christ as his Lord and his God (John 20:28)
        3. Worship Jesus Christ (Matt 14:33)
        4. Affirm Jesus Christ as Creator (Col 1:15-17)
        A cultist cannot.


Review of Trinitarian and Christological Controversies
Adapted from Chronological and Background Charts of Church History, Robert C. Walton, 1986, Zondervan
Controversy Heresy/ Heretic Doctrine Conclusions
(pre-Nicene) Adoptionism/ Paul of Samasota Jesus the man became Christ at his baptism, when God indwelt him Apostles' Creed: "And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary..." 

Creed of Nicaea (325): "true God ... who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, and became man ..."
(pre-Nicene) Modalism/ Sabellius Father, Son, and Spirit are merely three names or manifestations of one person Creed of Nicaea (325): "We believe in one God the Father ... and in one Lord Jesus Christ ... and in the Holy Spirit ..."
Trinitarian Arianism/Arius Christ is a created being Creed of Nicaea (325): "true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance (homoousios) with the Father, through whom all things were made ..." 
Christological Apollinarianism/ Apollinarius Christ had no human spirit. The Word (Logos) replaced it. Alexandria (362): rejected this doctrine. 

Chalcedon (451): "... at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body ..."
Christological Nestorianism/ Nestorius The Logos indwelt the person of Jesus, making Christ a God-bearing man rather than the God-man. Accused of teaching two persons within Jesus Christ. Chalcedon (451): "... the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons ..."
Christological Eutycheanism/ Eutyches The human nature of Christ was absorbed by the Logos. Christ had one nature. Chalcedon (451): "... recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union ..."
Christological Monophysitism Christ had one nature. Many attempts were made to forge a compromise with Monophysites, including the 2nd Council of Constantinople (553). Ultimately all were unsuccessful.
Christological Monothelitism Christ had no human will, just the one divine will. Rejected at Constantinople 3 (680)

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Copyright © 1997, 1999 by Mark S. Ritchie. Permission is granted to use materials herein for the building up of the Christian Church. Bibliographic entries for published works quoted may be found in Bibliography page.