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Who Do You Say Jesus Is?
The Catholic Church’s Ongoing Challenges Over the Millennia
As we prepare ourselves for the coming of our Lord during this Advent Season of 2021, a question that all Christians think about, whether consciously or not, concerns their central belief in the nature of their Savior. As the original foundation and expression upon this earth of the Christian faith, Catholicism also has had to address this issue on an increasingly global scale. As a consequence, at times the teachings of the Church on the nature of Jesus Christ have led others individually and in larger groups to not only adopt contrary conceptualizations of Christ to Church teachings, but also break formally or informally with the Church itself. Such is an ongoing issue for the Church, now approaching a full millennium since the East–West Schism of 1054 that resulted in a break to this day between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. As this article goes to press Pope Francis is now visiting Greece in his ongoing ecumenical attempts to bring the Body of Christ back into unity. But long before this major East-West Schism occurred, the Church was dealing with others who were leading Christians down dubious paths of faith in Christ.
Belloc once observed that “there had been from the foundation of the Church at Pentecost A.D. 29 to 33 a mass of heretical movements filling the first three centuries. They had turned, nearly all of them, upon the nature of Christ” (Kindle Locations 269-271). Early Christological debates and disagreements, incorporating theological, historical and philosophical writings on the very nature andessence of the Lord, was a driving force that required both clarified orthodoxy within the Church, and required — and still requires — the Church to deal with movements outside of that orthodoxy.
One of the most serious early heresies in the Church concerned Arius and his followers. Put simply, Arianism questioned the very essence and nature of the Son in relationship to the Father, denying Jesus Christ’s coeternal or consubstantial essence with the Father (Barry, 1907). In the Apostolic Age, as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, the first followers of Jesus embarked on what became a fearless quest to proclaim the Gospel, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit: “When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness. Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:31-33).
As the early Church emerged within the vastness of the Roman Empire, disputes and doctrinal debates also surfaced during the Apostolic Age concerning the methodology of how evangelization was to be accomplished; with whom; and the very nature of the message itself — including both the divine and human natures of Christ as Lord and Savior. After all, Jesus Himself did not commit to the written word any of what He revealed to His Apostles. And decades would elapse before the emergence of the canonical Gospels and other authoritative texts such as the Acts of the Apostles. Kelly succinctly frames this important issue facing the Apostles:
Paul believed that the Holy Spirit motivated him to take Jesus’ message to all people, not just to Jews in the Diaspora but also to Gentiles, an idea that puzzled and even repelled some of Jesus’ Jewish followers. Opposition to Paul grew, and so the leaders of the Jerusalem church called a council, circa 50, to deal with the matter. To their credit, the Palestinian Jews agreed that the faith should be brought to all people, affirming both Paul and his work. Paul and other, now anonymous, missionaries spread the faith throughout the cities of the eastern Mediterranean, along the way picking up a new name, “Christians” (followers of the Chrístos, the Messiah), a term first used of them in the Syrian city of Antioch, home to a large diasporan community (11).
From this first Church council, so to speak, in 50, A.D. there emerged doctrinal disputes that began manifesting themselves in ways that caused active strife within the Church as the Gospel spread outside Judea and throughout the western world within the Empire. It is this context in which Arius (ca. 260 to 336, A.D.), emerged, and put forth the doctrine that Jesus Christ — the Son of God — is subordinate to God the Father, because ultimately the Son is not divine, but rather a creation of the Father: “there was when he (the Son) was not” (Kelly 21). As noted by Bennett, Arius was:
A presbyter of the church at Alexandria in Egypt, one of Athanasius’s superiors, and according to Sozomen, “a zealous thinker about doctrine ... [whom Bishop Alexander held] in high repute, since he was a most expert logician.” About this time, Arius nevertheless “fell into absurd discourses, so that he had the audacity to preach in the churchwhat no one before him had ever suggested; namely, that the Son of God was made out of that which had no prior existence, that there was a period of time in which he existed not” (Kindle Locations 1394-1397).
In other words Arius challenged the very essence and nature of Jesus Christ — the Son — in relationship to God the Father. Essentially Arius preached that the Son was not coeternal or consubstantial with the Father (Barry, 1907).
The spread of Arianism led to the Council of Nicea 275 years after the first council in Jerusalem (Leclercq, 1911). Arianism was by no means the only heresy afoot during the first few centuries, the only Christological exposition to cause internal problems to the Church through the post-Apostolic to Patristic periods. Another example of heretical movements and separations included Docetism, which postulated that Jesus was in spirit only, His body being mere phantasm; in keeping with an emerging gnostic approach to Christology.
Not unrelated to Docetism for some of its followers, Adoptionism in its variant forms held that there was complete unity between God the Father and God the Son, although debate ensued concerning the possibility of disparate essences, as well as debate as to when Jesus the human became imbued with the divine spirit of God the Father. The Donatist schism active in northern Africa beginning in the fourth century, A.D., and Pelagianism, also caused concern. Donatists invalidated Original Sin and questioned whether there was even a necessity for divine intervention in mortal life. These are just some examples of heretical movements within the early Church.
McBrien has an interesting take on how Arius became such a challenge to the most central nature of the Catholic understanding of the nature of the Word Made Flesh Himself:
In every period of the Church ’s history, theologians have confronted mysteries of faith in one of three ways: first, they in effect eliminate the mystery and reduce everything to what reason can grasp (the Liberal or Rationalist approach); second, they throw up their hands and insist that the mystery is so impenetrable that we should ask no further questions of it (the Fideist or antiintellectual approach); or third, they acknowledge that the mystery never can be resolved, but they press ahead nonetheless, hoping at least to clarify the problem and reach some greater measure of understanding (the mainstream, orthodox approach). Arius pursued the first course (287).
Arianism at its core was in my judgment an acknowledgment of human limitations, what Lonergan would term “naive realism” (204). Far from being inspired by the Holy Spirt, the Arian heresy in essence could not accept the dual natures of Jesus Christ as both fully God and fully human. Arianism, therefore, capitulated to a reductionistic notion that the Son and the Father were of two different essences. As Belloc astutely notes: “Since it is very difficult to rationalize the union of the Infinite with the finite, since there is an apparent contradiction between the two terms, this final form into which the confusion of heresies settled down was a declaration that Our Lord was as much of the Divine Essence as it was possible for a creature to be, but that He was none the less a creature. He was not the Infinite and Omnipotent God” (Kindle Locations 284-288).
As Athanasius of Alexandria responded to Arius in the fourth century, A.D., in keeping with the promulgations of the Council of Nicea, for Christians to rightfully understand Jesus Christ, “one must seethat he is at the same time the eternal Word and a human being. The imperfections displayed by Christ — hungering, thirsting, growing weary — are ‘things proper to this flesh’ that the Word took on; likewise, the perfections displayed by Christ – raising the dead, healing the sick — are ‘the proper works of the Logos’” (Bauerschmidt & Buckley 126). Putting the Jerusalem conference of 50, A.D. aside, the first of the twenty one general councils of the Catholic Church, the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea, was held in 325 A.D., in no small part to deal with Arianism.
Four or five years prior to the Council of Nicea, circa 320 or 321 A.D., Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria, called his own council at Alexandria, which was attended by over a hundred bishops from both Egypt and Libya who were opposed to Arius. The net impact of this gathering drove Arius to Palestine and then to Nicomedia, in present day Turkey (Leclercq, 1911). Contemporaneously there was a major political power struggle within the Roman Empire, between co-Emperors Constantine (in the west) and Licinius (in the east). In 324, A.D. Constantine achieved a decisive military victory over Licinius at the Battle of Chrysopolis, becoming sole emperor of Rome. Twelve years earlier Constantine was a pagan who worshiped the Roman sun god. However, in 312, A.D. Constantine triumphed at the battle of the Milvian Bridge, defeating emperor Maxentius, thereafter dividing the Empire between himself and Licinius. As the history recounts:
Just before the battle, [Constantine] had either a vision or a dream (two accountsof the event survive) in which he saw either a cross or the Chi-Rho, a symbol based on the first two Greek letters, Chi (X) and Rho (P), in the word Chrístos. Believing this to be a sign that the Christian god was on his side, Constantine had his soldiers put the Chi-Rho on their shields and then went on to win the decisive battle of the Milvian Bridge, which resulted in the death of the general opposing him. In 313 Constantine and his ally Licinius met in northern Italy and issued the Edict of Milan, which gave Christians freedom of worship and restored to them much of their confiscated property. Using this newfound freedom, the Christians successfullyevangelized in much of the empire (Kelly 17).
Following his defeat of Licinius at the Battle of Chrysopolis twelve years later, he who became the first Christian emperor of Rome sought to bring religious peace to a now unified Empire of east and west. In this vein Constantine made entreaties to both Alexander and Arius, seeking to end all discord within the Church. But Arianism by that time had grown as Christological doctrine, and as a movement, throughout Roman territories. When the emissary dispatched by Constantine, Hosius of Cordova, was unable to bring the matter to an equitable conclusion, the emperor called for a Council, to be held at Nicea in 325, A.D. It was at this significant Council wherein the Son was declared as one in being with the Father, a full rebuke to the heresy of Arianism (Barron 95).
As Hahn (2016) has succinctly articulated concerning significance of the Council in rebuking Arius and declaring his movement a heresy:
The Church employed in its creed a word that did not appear in the Bible. In Greek it is homooúsion. We translate it to English as “consubstantial.” But even though the term is not in Scripture, it sums up the very meaning of Scripture. Homooúsion captures the basic meaning of sonship. We know from our earthly families that children — sons or daughters — must share the nature of their parents. A human father cannot sire a puppy or a kitten; nor can he adopt one as his legally recognized offspring. When we say that Christ is “consubstantial with the Father,” we are saying that he is God as the Father is God. They are coeternal. They are coequal. They share a love that is life-giving, a love we know in an analogous and imperfect way through human fatherhood. Through the Incarnation, God the Son became what we are. He stooped down to the level of a creature, taking up what is ours and giving us what is his. He didn’t just assume human nature to wear it, like a jersey or a jacket, for a day or two. He lived human life concretely and in the most painful and sacrificial ways. The life he lived is a revelation of sonship, and that sonship is a revelation of God’s eternal fatherhood (Kindle Locations 138-148).
The incorporation at Nicea of homooúsion was the Christological centerpiece of the Council, providing the basis to reject not only Arianism, but also the Stoic notion that only bodies are real in Tertullian’s Christology of divinity as well as the Middle Platonism in Origen’s Christological exposition (Lonergan 21). Lonergan writes that “homoousios was understood in one sense and in one sense only; it meant ‘of one stuff;’ and as applied to the Divine Persons, it conveyed a metaphor drawn from material objects. The Fathers at Nicea, then, did not find ready to hand a sharply defined, immutable concept which they made into a vehicle for the Christian message; on the contrary, they found a word which they employed in a metaphorical sense...It explains the word ‘consubstantial ’ by a second-level proposition to the effect that the Son is consubstantial with the Father, if and only if what is true of the Father also is true of the Son, except that only the Father is Father” (21-22).
The Council of Nicea convened on May 20, 325, A.D., and included more than three hundred bishops, Constantine himself giving an opening address and greeting. Kelly (2009) gets to the heart of the matter concerning homooúsion:
Constantine wanted to know if the bishops would agree to the term homooúsios, a Greek version of the Latin consubstantialis, that is, that the Father and Son were consubstantial, sharing the same divine substance. The emperor was a sharp man but no theologian; scholars assume the term came from his theological advisor, Hosius of Cordova, although “consubstantial ” did not have official status in the Latin churches. Although some bishops, such as those in union with the Alexandrians, would have been open to this, most bishops reacted with surprise or indignation, and for two reasons. First, the term does not appear in the Bible. This meant that the bishops would have to go outside of Scripture to find an adequate way to express their faith...The bishops accepted the imperial suggestion and adopted a statement of faith that said that the Father and Son are of one substance, that the Son was begotten of the Father and was not created, and that the Son was True God of True God. As would be typical of councils down to Vatican I, the bishops included anathemas (denunciations). They declared anathema the notions that there was a time when the Son did not exist, that he was created from nothing, and that he did not share the same substance with the Father. Arius and his supporters could not accept these. Constantine banished Arius to Illyria (modern Balkans), and two Arian bishops who refused to sign the council’s statement were deposed. Victory for the “homoousians,” as they were called, seemed complete, but events after the council would shatter that illusion (22-23).
The illusory aspects of what seemed a doctrinal triumph at Nicea would be manifest soon after its adjournment. Despite the fact that what we still refer to as the “Nicene Creed” — adhered to by the Church and recited during Holy Mass for well over a millennium and a half following the Council in 325, A.D. — this creed was more fully explicated, including incorporating the Holy Spirit as the Third Person in the Holy Trinity, some fifty six years later, at the Council of Constantinople in 381, A.D. This is what we now essentially refer to as to the Nicene Creed (Davis 122). Even though the Council of Nicea served to unify and articulate this most essential element of Christology that the Father and Son are consubstantial, problems remained in the half century between the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople. The Nicene Creed was published at the very top of the decrees issued by the Council of Nicea, and promulgated to the Roman world.
Shortly thereafter Alexander died, and his successor Athanasius took up the mantle to challenge and eradicate the Arian heresy (Hahn Kindle Locations 688-690). Yet thirty years after the Council of Nicea, Jerome lamented “Down with the faith of Nicaea was the cry. The whole world groaned, astonished to find itself Arian” (Davis 99). Although the struggle would persist, ultimately the Arian heresy would again be proclaimed at the Ecumenical First Council of Constantinople of 381, A.D., wherein as noted above what we now refer to as the Nicene Creed was fully articulated by the Church. As Hahn summarizes:
The text we call the Nicene Creed was actually elaborated upon and approved in 381 at the First Council of Constantinople, shortly after the death of Athanasius. By then, the Church’s worship of the Holy Spirit had begun to suffer the same challenges as the worship of Jesus had suffered in the previous generation. Athanasius responded to these as well, though the task of a full refutation fell to younger men, especially the Cappadocian Fathers: St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa (Kindle Locations 750-754).
In the several decades following Nicea, before the Council of Constantinople, the Arian heresy continued to spread throughout the Roman Empire. The emperors abetted the survival of Arianism by the fact that the successors to Constantine himself, who developed Arian leanings before his own death in 337, A.D., were Arians or at least Arian sympathizers; including Constantius II (337 to 361, A.D.) and Valens (364 to 378, A.D.). Arians were being created bishops during this period, and Constantius II summoned a council at Arles in modern France which actually deposed Athanasius, encountering no significant pushback from Pope Liberius (352 to 366, A.D.). Athanasius was then forced to leave Alexandria, and Pope Liberius was seized by imperial soldiers when he repudiated his earlier acquiescence at Arles; only to change his position again in captivity by endorsing a theological formula that was at best ambiguous.
Liberius would again waffle. In the end, although some of the tenets of Arianism would survive centuries more. The last Roman emperor of a unified east and west, Theodosius I, in 388, A.D. finally repudiated Arianism and effectively ended the heresy. The Christology so fully and completely articulated at the Council of Nicea in 325, A.D. thereafter would triumph in the Church to the present day (Hitchcock 84).
So you see, we Catholics have almost twenty centuries of experiences dealing with those who would lead us astray from a theologically intact understanding of the nature of our Savior, and our relationship to God as Christians. Despite these ongoing challenges, it is of vital importance that we “keep the faith,” so to speak, and remain true to the magisterium of the Church; to honor its great and ongoing teaching authority in bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to our world in this twenty first century.
Barron, Robert. Catholicism (Enhanced Edition): a Journey to the Heart of the Faith (p. 95). New York, NY: The Crown Publishing Group, 2011.
Barry, William. (1907). “Arianism.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved December 20, 2018 from New Advent: http://newadvent.org/cathen/01707c.htm.
Bauerschmidt, Frederick. C., and Buckley, James J. Catholic Theology: An Introduction . New York: Wiley, 2017.
Belloc, Hilaire. The Great Heresies. Milwaukee, WI: Cavalier Books, 1938. Kindle Edition.
Bennett, Rod. The Apostasy That Wasn’t: the Extraordinary Story of the Unbreakable Early Church. El Cajon, CA: Catholic Answers Press, 2015. Kindle Edition.
Davis, Leo Donald. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1987.
Hahn, Scott. The Creed: Professing the Faith through the Ages. Emmaus Road Publishing, 2016. Kindle Edition.
Hitchcock, James. History of the Catholic Church. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press. 2012.
Kelly, Joseph F. The Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church: A History. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009.
Leclercq, H. (1911). “The First Council of Nicaea.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved December 21, 2018 from New Advent: http://newadvent.org/cathen/11044a.htm.
Lonergan, Bernard. “The Origins of Christian Realism.” A Second Collection: Volume 13 (Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan ). University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division, 2016.
McBrien, Richard P. Catholicism: New Study Edition . San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1994.