X Close Menu

Christological Debate

A. The Council of Nicea (a.d. 325): the Contribution of Arius and Athanasius to the Development of Trinitarian Thought

 

1. Arius and his Theology - The details of Arius’s life are unknown. Some speculate that he was born in what is now Libya in North Africa. Arius was a presbyter over the church district of Baucalis in Alexandria, who was asked by his bishop to explain Prov. 8:22-31. Arius affirmed, among other things, that "the son, born of the Father before all time, created and constituted in being before all ages, did not exist before He was begotten." If there is a point of emphasis in the theology of Arius it is the absolute indivisible unity of God, which Arius believed precluded any possibility of God sharing or communicating his being or nature (which is what Arius mistakenly thought was involved should deity be predicated of the Son). To say that God was Father and Son and Holy Spirit would subdivide that being who is by definition, according to Arius, an indivisible unity. He wrote: “For God to impart His substance to some other being, however exalted, would imply that He is divisible (diairetos) and subject to change (treptos), which is inconceivable.” Arius' theology may be summed up in four assertions:

 

·First, the Son is a creature, a product "out of nothing" (ex nihilo) of the divine will. The Son is neither a communication of God’s being nor a derivation from it.

 

·Second, inasmuch as the Son is a creature, he must have had a beginning. "We are persecuted," said Arius, "because we say the Son had a beginning whereas God [the Father] is without beginning" (Ep. ad Euseb. Nicom.; in Epiphanius, haer. 69,6). Hence, the Arian slogan: "There was [a time] when He was not” (en pote hote ouk en).

 

·Third, the Son can have neither communion with nor direct knowledge of the Father in any way other than that which is true of all creatures (notwithstanding Mt. 11:25-30!).

 

·Fourth, the Son, being a creature, is peccable, that is, he is capable of both sin and change.

 

Jesus is called the Son of God only as an expression of courtesy because of his superior participation in the grace of God. Arians worshipped the Son and prayed to him, but denied his eternal deity. Arius believed that the only way Jesus could accomplish salvation is if he were a creature, and thus fully human, like us. Only then could his choices be an example we might follow.

 

Arius was a tall, slender man and a persuasive speaker, who was in the habit of putting his theology into poetry and chanting or singing it to his enraptured congregation. Arius was excommunicated in 318 by the synod of Alexandria (at which were more than 100 bishops) and was condemned by the synod of Antioch in 325. Again in 325 he was condemned by the Council of Nicea. He died in 336.

 

2. The Council of Nicea (a.d. 325) - Following his excommunication in 318, Arius fled to his friend Eusebius of Nicomedia, an important bishop. Together they mounted an intensive letter-writing campaign designed to win over to their side those who had not attended the synod of Alexandria. Eventually Constantine heard of the controversy and was informed by his personal chaplain, Bishop Hosius, that the dispute threatened to divide the empire, something Constantine would never allow.

 

While Constantine was overseeing the reconstruction of Byzantium, a city that he would rename Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), he resided at Nicea in Bythinia of Asia Minor. It was there that he called for a Council that was to meet from May 20 to July 25, 325.

 

Among the 318 bishops (out of a possible 500), there were 3 parties present: 1) approximately 30 Arians (but not Arius who, because he was not a bishop, could not attend); 2) the Homoousians (among whom was a 25-year-old man named Athanasius), whose label was a reflection of their belief that the Son was of the same substance (homoousios) and not merely similar to (homoiousios) that of the Father; and 3) an uncommitted group led by Eusebius of Caesarea. There are no actual records or minutes of the council, but Eusebius, Constantine’s biographer, wrote an account of what occurred. The emperor was far more concerned with the unity of the empire than he was with theology and was therefore inclined to endorse a formula that would be acceptable to the greatest number of bishops possible.

 

The Arians made a tactical blunder at the beginning. Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, friend of Arius, stood and read a description of the latter’s views: a clear and blatant denial of the deity of the Son, emphasizing that he is a creature and not equal with the Father. Olson describes what happened next: “Before Eusebius finished reading it, some of the bishops were holding their hands over their ears and shouting for someone to stop the blasphemies. One bishop near Eusebius stepped forward and grabbed the manuscript out of his hands, threw it to the floor and stomped on it. A riot broke out among the bishops and was stopped only by the emperor’s command” (153-54). Those bishops who were uncommitted when they arrived were offended by the lack of theological moderation in Arius’s views and immediately sided with Alexander and Athanasius.

 

The Nicene Creed reflected an unmistakable anti-Arian theology. Attached to the end of the creed was an anathema, which read: “But as for those who say, There was [a time] when He [the Son of God] 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 of a different hypostasis or substance, or is created, or is subject to alteration or change, these the Catholic Church anathematizes.” Everyone present signed the creed, with the exception of two of Arius’s most devoted disciples who were immediately sent into exile with their heretical leader.

 

N.B. The term homoousios “seemingly” (see below) could not be construed to teach anything other than an identity of essence between Father and Son. Together they are eternal and uncreated deity. Harold O. J. Brown makes this important point:

 

"The distinction between homo ('same') and homoi ('similar') may seem trivial, but it was not so subtle that most ordinary Christians failed to grasp what is at stake. If Jesus is of the same substance as the Father, then he is truly God, and it is reasonable to think that he is able to 'save to the uttermost' those who come to him (Heb. 7:25). On the other hand, if he is only of similar substance, which was all that even the conservative Arians were willing to concede, then it is not evident that he necessarily possesses the divine power and authority he needs to make an atonement on behalf of the whole human race" (Heresies [Garden City: Doubleday, 1984], 119).

 

[It should be noted, however, that not everyone who affirmed the Nicene Creed was pleased with the use of the term homoousios, for the simple fact that it had been earlier used by the heretic Paul of Samosata. Paul denied any personal distinction between Father and Son. As we saw in the previous lesson, he was a modalist. The word he used to describe this sameness of identity between “Father” and “Son” (no more than titles for the one God) was homoousios! In other words, for those at Nicea the term meant that the Father and Son shared the same substance, whereas for the modalists it meant that the Father and Son were the same substance. It was because of this ambiguity in the term that some at Nicea had suggested they compromise and use the term homoiousios or “of similar substance.” If two things are “similar” they can’t be identical. “Similarity demands duality: you cannot be similar to yourself” (Bell, 66). In the final analysis, however, there were greater advantages for the orthodox faith to retain homoousios.]

 

The Nicene creed was not intended to explain the trinitarian relationships among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, nor to discuss the relation between the human and divine natures in Christ. The intent of its authors was simply to affirm without equivocation the full deity of the Son. Here is the full text of the creed:

 

“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, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, the same substance with the Father (homoousion to patri), through Whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming man, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and will come 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 substance, or is created, or is subject to alteration or change --- these the Catholic Church anathematizes.”

 

3. Athanasius and his Theology - The contribution of Athanasius (296/300-373; referred to derisively by his critics as the “Black Dwarf”) primarily came after the Nicene Council. The Arian party experienced a resurgence after 325, during which time Athanasius was exiled 5 times (for a total of 17 years)! His perseverance, both personally and theologically, has placed the church forever in his debt. “It may not be much of an exaggeration,” notes Olson, “to say that all Christians have Athanasius to thank that the theology of Jehovah’s Witnesses is not the ‘orthodoxy’ of most of Christendom” (161-62).

 

Whereas Arius began with the idea of the divinely transcendent and indivisible God (thus in his mind demanding that the Son be a creature), Athanasius took his clue from redemption and concluded that only God himself could save fallen humanity:

 

What help then can creatures derive from a creature that itself needs salvation? . . . A creature could never be saved by a creature any more than the creatures were created by a creature” (Ad Adelph. 8).

 

From this he deduced an identity of nature between Father and Son. Athanasius insisted that the pre-incarnate Son is other-natured (heteroousios) with regard to mankind but same-natured (homoousios) with regard to the Father. The Son is thus co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

 

There are certain statements in Athanasius’s writings that have led some to question if he believed wholeheartedly in Christ’s complete humanity. At times he appears to question whether Christ had a human soul, suggesting that the Logos had taken its place (which allowed the Apollinarians at a later time to appeal to Athanasius for support). Toward the end of his life, however, Athanasius did assert that Christ had a human soul, even if it was given virtually no theological function. As for the functional relation between the divine and human natures in Jesus, the following is Athanasius’s attempted explanation:

 

“And thus when there was need to raise Peter’s wife’s mother, who was sick of a fever, He stretched forth His hand humanly, but He stopped the illness divinely. And in the case of the man blind from birth, human was the spittle which He gave forth from the flesh, but divinely did He open the eyes through the clay. And in the case of Lazarus, He gave forth a human voice, as man; but divinely, as God, did He raise Lazarus from the dead. These things were so done, were so manifested, because He had a body, not in appearance, but in truth; and it became the Lord, in putting on human flesh, to put it on whole with the affections proper to it; that, as we say, that the body was His own, so also we may say that the affections of the body were proper to Him alone, though they did not touch Him according to His Godhead” (Four Discourses Against the Arians, Discourse 3, NPNF Second Series vol. 4 [Peabody: Hendrikson, 1994], 411).

 

As for Athanasius the man, Robert Payne writes that

 

“in the history of the early Church no one was ever so implacable, so urgent in his demands upon himself or so derisive of his enemies. There was something in him of the temper of the modern dogmatic revolutionary: nothing stopped him. The Emperor Julian called him ‘hardly a man, only a little manikin.’ Gregory Nazianzen said he was ‘angelic in appearance, and still more angelic in mind.’ In a sense both were speaking the truth” (The Fathers of the Eastern Church [New York: Dorset Press, 1989], 67).

 

He was, says Hall, “a theological street fighter, courageous, cagy, and cunning” (Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers [IVP, 1998], 57).

 

The period following Nicea is one of incredible instability and infighting. Although the council spoke clearly, the debate by no means ended. Early in 328, at a small council in Nicomedia a group of bishops reinstated Arius and his followers. Constantine began to yield to pressure from Arian bishops and advisers and in 332 he declared Arius restored as a presbyter in Alexandria and ordered the new bishop to accept him back into communion there. Athanasius said he would agree to this only if Arius affirmed homoousios of the Son. Arius refused. Athanasius then rejected him and ignored the emperor’s decree! This led to the first of Athanasius’s exiles (he was sent to the farthest outpost of the Roman Empire in the west, the German city of Trier). His exile lasted two years until Constantine’s death on May 22, 337. Arius died only months before Constantine, one day before the ceremony where he was to be restored as a Christian presbyter. Some speculate that he was poisoned by his enemies. (Arius was apparently stricken with agonizing stomach spasms and died as he sat on the toilet!) Of Constantine, Olson says, he “lived as a pagan and died as an Arian. Hardly an admirable curriculum vitae for ‘the first Christian emperor!’” (164). Constantine’s son, Constantius, restored Athanasius to his position in Alexandria. But not for long. Constantius demanded that Athanasius put the term homoiousios into the Nicene Creed. Athanasius condemned the suggestion as rank heresy! He was again forced into exile in 339, having been accused of financial improprieties and abuse of power (obviously trumped-up charges). At one point “Athanasius was publicly attacked by Roman guards while leading worship in the cathedral in Alexandria. When the troops burst into the church with the clear intention of arresting and possibly killing Athanasius, the congregation surged around him and protected him. He was able to slip away from the city and lived with the desert monks for five to six years until things cooled down back in the city” (165-66). During one of his exiles in Egypt, an Arian named George was appointed as his replacement. When it was reported that Athanasius was soon to return, George and his associates were put in chains and dragged to the prison square where they were beaten to death. Their corpses were paraded through the streets and eventually burned. Athanasius died in 373 in Alexandria, having spent the last seven years of his life in relative peace and quiet.

 

A recent attempt to describe the events of this period from an anti-Athanasian and pro-Arian perspective is the book by Richard Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1999).

 

B. Post-Nicene Theology: Constantinople (381), Chalcedon (451) and the Consolidation of Trinitarian Doctrine

 

1. Constantinople (a.d. 381) - Following Nicea, Athanasius formulated a doctrine of the Spirit. Although he did not call the Spirit God, he argued that the Spirit, like the Son, shares one and the same substance (homoousios) with the Father.

 

The work begun by Athanasius was completed by the Cappadocian fathers:

 

·Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia (central Turkey; 330-79 who wrote in 375 the first lengthy treatise on the person and deity of the Holy Spirit; he came to be known as the “theologian of the Holy Spirit”; he was the enemy of a group known as the pneumatomachians who denied the deity of the Spirit and insisted the latter was a mere force or power sent by the Father into the world through the Son)

 

·Basil's younger brother Gregory, bishop of Nyssa (340-94; generally regarded as the most brilliant of the group; he claimed to have experienced remarkable dreams and visions)

 

·Gregory of Nazianzus, patriarch of Constantinople (Basil’s best friend; 329-91).

 

At Constantinople in 381 the secured both a reaffirmation of Nicea and the homoousion of the Holy Spirit. The terminology they employed was significant. Justo Gonzalez provides this excellent summary of their thought:

 

“The Cappadocians took upon themselves the task of defining more clearly the unity and the diversity within the Godhead, and of seeking a terminology capable of expressing both poles of this issue. Their solution was based on the distinction between the terms ousia and hypostasis. In philosophical literature, and even in the decisions of the Council of Nicea, these terms were used as synonymous, and both were usually translated into Latin by substantia [i.e., substance]. But they were both ambiguous, for they referred to the individual subsistence of a thing as well as to the common essence of which all the members of the same species participate. The Cappadocians distinguished between these two terms, reserving the use of hypostasis to refer to the individual subsistence of a thing, and that of ousia to refer to the essence that is common to the various members of a species. Then they affirmed that there are in God three hypostases and only one ousia or, in other words, three individual subsistences that participate in one divine essence” [or, to put it somewhat crudely, one What and three Who’s] (A History of Christian Thought, I:294-95).

 

N.B. This terminology continues to be employed as a way of expressing the historic and orthodox view of the doctrine of the Trinity: God is one in essence and three in person.

 

2. Apollinaris and his Theology - The Cappadocians (in particular, Gregory of Nazianzus) opposed Apollinaris because he reduced the reality of the human nature in Christ. He argued that the idea of two natures in Jesus, one human and one divine, implied a double personality. His "solution" was based on a trichotomist view of 1 Thess. 5:23, according to which man is composed of soul, spirit, and body.

 

Apollinaris said the soul was the impersonal and unconscious vital principle that gives life to the body. The spirit is the seat of personality, conscience and rational thought. He argued that the pre-incarnate Son or Logos simply replaced the spirit in the man Jesus. Consequently, there was in Jesus no sphere in which freedom of choice could be exercised, no human personality with which the divine Logos must be united. Christ is human because he has a body and a soul. But he does not have a human spirit. His reasoning faculty, the seat of his personality, is the Word, the second person of the Trinity. Any possibility of conflict between two distinct intelligences in the incarnate Christ was thus eliminated.

 

But if the most distinctive element in human personality, the spirit, is absent, then Christ's humanity is eliminated as well. Recognizing this, the church condemned Apollinaris and his teaching at Rome in 377, at Antioch in 378, at Constantinople in 381, and again at Rome in 382. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 also condemned Apollinarianism.

 

According to Olson, “the impression given by this Christology [that of Apollinaris] is of ‘God in a bod’ – an omniscient being inhabiting a creaturely body and using it as a vehicle without actually becoming human and experiencing human limitations and sufferings” (189).

 

3. The Council of Chalcedon (a.d. 451) - The principal characters in the dispute ultimately resolved at Chalcedon were a) Nestorius (d. 451), patriarch of Constantinople and representative of the school of Antioch, and b) Cyril (d. 444), patriarch and representative of the school of Alexandria.

 

·Nestorius (school of Antioch / focused on earthly, material world / literal-historical interpretation of Scripture) believed in the separation of the two natures in Christ, with emphasis on his humanity. Opposed Theotokos (“God-bearer” or “mother of God”) as title for Mary (fearful that it would diminish Christ’s humanity).

 

·Cyril (school of Alexandria / focused on heavenly, spiritual world / allegorical-mystical interpretation of Scripture) believed in the union of the two natures with the human nature virtually absorbed into the divine, thus placing greater emphasis on Christ’s deity. Supported Theotokos (insisted that Nestorius resisted the title because he did not believe in deity of Christ).

 

Cyril was apparently guilty of sending spies to Constantinople to lurk in the shadows of the cathedral in an attempt to catch Nestorius and his followers in heresy. In 431, at the Council of Ephesus (the Third Ecumenical Council), Cyril was successful in securing a condemnation of Nestorius, partly due to the fact that the latter’s principal supporters were delayed in their journey to the city. Upon arriving, they convened their own council and proceeded to excommunicate Cyril! The emperor Theodosius II imprisoned both Nestorius and Cyril while he decided what to do. Weary of the conflict, Nestorius requested and was granted permission to return to his monastery. But in 436 the emperor banished him to a remote oasis in Egypt where he died in obscurity in 451.

 

A man named Eutyches (d. 454) advocated an extreme form of Cyril's doctrine of the one nature in Christ, arguing that Christ's humanity had been wholly absorbed by his Deity. His view was condemned at Constantinople in 448, under the leadership of Pope Leo, whose written response, known as the Tome, asserted that Jesus was one person with two natures.

 

The Council of Chalcedon (the Fourth Ecumenical Council) convened on Oct. 8, 451, with over 500 bishops and 18 high-state officials in attendance. It reaffirmed the Nicene Creed, approved Leo's Tome, and proceeded to describe the relationship of the divine and human in Christ in a way that set the pattern for all subsequent Christological debate.

 

"We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change [these two declarations protect the doctrine from the heresy of Eutychianism and monophysitism], without division, without separation [these two declarations protect the doctrine from the heresy of Nestorianism, which tries to emphasize the distinction between the humanity and deity of Christ by tearing them apart into two different persons], the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning (have declared) concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

 

The creed thus affirmed that God and man had come together in the incarnate Christ, but without explaining precisely how. It rejected a dualism of natures in which the divine and human are joined but not united. On the other hand, it likewise resisted the tendency to fuse the two natures which would result in something neither truly human nor divine.

 

Theologically speaking, the union of the divine and human natures in the one person of Christ in such a way that they are neither confused nor separated is crucial.

 

Without confusion – By way of analogy, think of Christ’s divine nature as if it were wine and his human nature as if it were water. Now mix the two. The nature of the water has been changed, having been made alcoholic by mixing it with wine. Likewise, the strength of the wine has been diminished, having been diluted by the water. It is now impossible (theologically, not scientifically, speaking) to separate the two. Thus, “if the divinity and humanity are mixed in this way, the humanity is transformed by the fusion (the water becomes alcoholic), and thereby loses its true nature. It is no longer human as we are human, and a non-human Saviour cannot save the human race” (Bell, 102).

 

Without separation – This was designed to prevent moving to the other extreme, according to which the divine and human natures are little more than (by way of analogy) a block of granite glued to a block of wood. There is certainly no confusion of the two, but neither is there a genuine union. Two separate entities are simply resting on or in some way connected to each other, but they are clearly distinguishable and easily separable.

 

David Bell provides the following analogy as a way of making sense of what the fathers at Chalcedon had in mind. He suggests that we

 

“symbolize the divinity by light-coloured sand and the humanity by dark-coloured sand, and mix them together. The resultant material now appears to be grey, but if we look at it very closely and very carefully we can still see the individual grains of dark and light sand, and we can also see that not one of them has changed in colour. Furthermore, for all practical purposes, we cannot now separate the millions of grains back into their constituent colours, even though we can discern them. So what we have here is something which appears to be confused, but is not, and something in which the two constituents retain their individual characteristics – dark and light – but cannot be separated once they have been joined together. In other words, we have an unconfused union, and that . . . is the only tolerable Christian alternative” (104).

 

In effect, Chalcedon set boundaries, as it were, beyond which Christological speculation should not venture. The creed did not claim to be an exhaustive portrait of Christ, but it did provide a model by which both his humanity and deity were united in one person. This is not to say that Chalcedon is final, but neither is it dispensable. Nothing less in our description of Christ can be permitted, but something more may well be within our reach.

 

[Two misguided efforts to improve upon the Chalcedonian formula were made by the monophysites (who insisted on one nature in Christ, and were condemned at the second Council of Constantinople in 553; the Coptic Church of Egypt is the modern remnant of that schism) and the monothelites (who advocated a variant form of monophysitism which insisted that Christ had but one will; condemned at the third Council of Constantinople in 680). It should be noted, however, that the principal reason the monophysites resisted Chalcedon is because for them the word “nature” (physis) = person, whereas for Chalcedon “nature” (physis) = substance. The monophysites, therefore, viewed Chalcedon as endorsing the heresy of Nestorius by affirming that Christ was in fact two persons.]