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Who Do You Say Jesus Is?, Revisited
Approaching the Personhood and Nature of our Savior During Christmastime
In an earlier reflection published on Missio Dei I focused on our understanding as Catholics the nature of Jesus Christ, whose Incarnation we celebrate around the world on Saturday, December 25: “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” [https://missiodei.substack.com/p/who-do-you-say-jesus-is]. The focus of the first reflection considered the particular heretical teachings of Arianism. As a supplement to this initial December 7, 2021 publication, I would like to develop further this line of thought and analysis in larger context during this Christmas season. As I noted earlier, 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).
Apollinaris of Laodicea left a legacy in Church history that addressed critical issues of the time in the debate concerning the nature of Christ. Ultimately, however, his Christological positions found rejection beginning in the First Council of Constantinople in 381, A.D. From what we do know about him, Apollinaris was initially a force against Arianism, who in his writings advanced the hypostasis of God the Father as well as Jesus Christ: the Son of God as single nature and single essence (Norris 16). So far so good. However, in his exposition of the nature of Christ’s divinity and humanity, Apollinaris argued that the divine Logos substituted for the human soul or spirit in the person of Jesus Christ.
In this Apollinarian Christology, as man Jesus possessed a sensitive or animal soul, but not a human rational soul, which was substituted by the Divine Logos itself. Earlier Greek philosophers, most notably Aristotle, conceived of the soul as a specific type of nature in which living entities in rest and in motion existed in both matter and form. The soul, to Aristotle, is a particular type of in-formed matter. Aristotle conceptualized three degrees of the soul: (1) the nutritive (encompassing plants); (2) the sensitive (encompassing all animals); and (3) the rational (the distinctive human) soul. For Aristotle, possessing a soul was to have a corporeal essence, a body that was not merely matter, but rather an organized form “so that it worked in certain ways” (Gottlieb 241). However, form was not a distinct substance from the body itself. Transposing this basic philosophical framework concerning degrees of the soul to the nature of Christ, for Apollinaris the Lord indeed had a real human body, and as a human a sensitive soul dwelt within, but the rational soul was in essence replaced by a uniquely divine soul; a divine wisdom replacing the imperfection of humanity. In taking this position, Apollinaris put himself at the opposite spectrum of what Theodore of Mopsuestia had written about in his own Christology: that of the human Jesus who became God; in contrast to Apollinaris’ position of the divine Christ who became human (Ferguson 259).
As Norris concludes, “Apollinaris insists that Jesus is one, ‘one composite nature,’ in which flesh and divine intellect share the same life. This unity means that even though the body truly is a body it is rightly spoken of as divine, and even though the Logos is truly God he is rightly spoken of as human. The human characteristics of Christ belong to the Logos, and the divine life is conferred on the body” (17). The synod of Alexandria in 362, A.D. led by Athanasius, a close acquaintance of Apollinaris (Norris 16), labeled as heresy any proposition that rejected the belief that Jesus Christ fully possessed a rational or human soul. However, as Ferguson (258) notes, the focus of Athanasius’ condemnation was most probably the Arians, not Apollinaris, at least not by name. In an odd sort of way, the Apollinarian position in some respects was not all that theologically distinct from the main tenets of Arianism — in the sense that the rational soul of God the Son replaced the human soul of the man known as the human Jesus, thus relegating this human person to secondary existential status. Arius couldn’t have said it better, even though the position espoused by Apollinaris on the surface appears to be an overcompensation for Arian Christology.
While Apollinaris had taken from Athanasius a central Trinitarian insight that God the Father and God the Son are a single, identical, consubstantial divine substance (homooúsios), the Word Himself, according to Apollinaris, became flesh without having assumed a human mind or soul with all its potential pitfalls and error (Davis 104). As Apollinaris himself concluded: “So Christ, having God as his spirit – that is, his intellect – together with soul and body, is rightly called ‘the human being from heaven’” (Norris 83). Therefore, even though there was one nature in Christ, for Apollinaris the Lord was not fully human in that He did not possess in this unity a truly human soul. To my understanding, this position was at least a variant of Docetism if the argument is brought to its natural conclusion concerning the nature of Christ as less than fully human in such a central, critical respect.
In opposition to this Apollinarian position on the nature of Christ as God and man, the Council of Constantinople decreed that this position did not follow from the Nicene tradition. After the council ended, the emperor Theodosius banned the teachings of Apollinaris. As Gregory of Nazianzus later articulated, this Apollinarian Word-Flesh Christology erred by depriving Christ of his true humanity (Kelly 36). In other words, without a human soul, Jesus could not be considered to be a full human person. Even though Apollinaris (and it also could be said Eutyches of Constantinople) accepted the Alexandrian formula of miaphysis — the uniting of the human and divine — in depriving Christ of a human soul, a human mind, the teachings of Apollinaris in the end violated the essential foundation of the Council of Nicea in 325, A.D. that God the Father and God the Son were of one essence (homooúsios), and that Jesus Christ was and is both fully God and fully human. On June 19, 325, A.D. the Council of Nicea issued the following creed in Greek:
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 [gennēthenta] of the Father as only-begotten, that is, out of the being [ousia] of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made [gennēthenta ou poie-thenta], one in being [homoousios] with the Father, through whom all things are made, things in heaven and things on earth, who, for us humans and for our salvation came down and became flesh [sarkothenta], becoming human [enanthrōpēsanta], he suffered, and he rose on the third day, and having gone into the heavens, is coming to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Spirit. Those who say, “There was a time when he was not” and “before he was begotten he was not” and that he was made from what was not, or that he was of another being or substance or a creature . . . let the universal church consider them anathema.
If we unpack the Nicene term “enanthrōpēsanta” from the original Greek, we also should take note that at this point in history Athanasius also used this specific word – enanthrōpēsanta – to refer to the Incarnation, wherein the Lord Jesus Christ took on “himself all that makes man human” (Capon 97, emphasis added). This use of enanthrōpēsanta, championed by Athanasius at the Council of Nicea, is clear contradiction to the later Christology of Apollinaris. And, as articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the rejection of Jesus not having a human soul is heresy:
The unique and altogether singular event of the Incarnation of the Son of God does not mean that Jesus Christ is part God and part man, nor does it imply that he is the result of a confused mixture of the divine and the human. He became truly man while remaining truly God. Jesus Christ is true God and true man. During the first centuries, the Church had to defend and clarify this truth of faith against the heresies that falsified it (464, emphases added).
Belloc, Hilaire. The Great Heresies. Milwaukee, WI: Cavalier Books, 1938. Kindle Edition.
Capon, Robert F. The Fingerprints of God: Tracking the Divine Suspect Through a History of Image. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000.
Ferguson, Everett. Church History, Volume One: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013.
Gottlieb, Anthony. The Dream of Reason: A History of Western Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (New Edition). New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.
Kelly, Joseph F. The Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church: A History. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009.
Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Catechism of the Catholic Church. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011.
Norris, Richard A., ed. Christological Controversy (Sources of Early Christian Thought). Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980.