Heresy is often the main driving force behind the doctrinal formulations and articulations in the early church. It was heresy that prompted the first two Ecumenical Councils and it would be heresy that would prompt the next 3 Ecumenical Councils.
Historically it wasn’t philosophical or intellectual or scholarly “progress” that prompted the Church to convene Ecumenical Councils and condemn certain views as heretical. It was usually someone departing from the faith that was handed down and teaching something “new.” Appealing to tradition might not seem like a good argument to us today who are some 2,000 years removed from the beginning of Christianity. But when you are only 300-500 years removed from the origin of Christianity appeals to tradition carry a lot of weight, especially during a time when traditions were slow to change (unlike our current time when traditions are changing or being thrown out altogether at a rapid pace). Most, if not all, of the heresies in the early Church were actually departures from what the Apostles had handed down orally and in written form (the written form is now referred to as the New Testament).
The Arian heresy is really a departure from what the Apostles had taught about Jesus and how he related to the Father and the Holy Spirit. What the council of Nicea did was really just put into a clear formula what the Apostles had taught and what had been handed down to them in a way that excluded the Arian view and condemned it as heresy. It would be more heresies, specifically Nestorianism and Eutychianism, that would force the church to further define and articulate who exactly Jesus was.
Who Jesus is has important implications for salvation. A full exposition of that importance will unfortunately have to be reserved for a future article. For the purposes of this article however it is important to know that the basic Christian belief is that Jesus saved humanity from being enslaved to sin and death and the devil by uniting human nature to his divine nature. When Jesus was crucified and rose again he defeated death, which was the curse pronounced upon humanity at the Fall, and made it possible to partake of the divine nature and become divine (what is referred to as theosis). This salvation is only possible if Jesus had both a fully divine and fully human nature. Without a fully divine nature he could not have defeated death. Without a fully human nature it would not be possible for us to partake of the divine nature and become divine ourselves. I know that I’m saying a lot here and that you might not fully understand it all right now, but that’s ok. The important thing for now is to know is that who Christians believe Jesus to be has direct implications on what we believe about what he accomplished and that he could not have accomplished it without being fully human and fully divine.
Essentially Christians believe Jesus is God incarnate. He is not simply a man, nor was he some sort of extended appearance of God. In the person of Jesus Christ God put on human flesh. It was not until Chalcedon (451), which is known as the 4th Ecumenical Council that the church would finally settle on the exact verbiage for describing Jesus. That verbiage, known as the Chalcedonian Definition says the following:
The Chalcedonian Definition
Following, then, the holy Fathers (of Nicea and Constantinople and Ephesus, the three prior Ecumenical Councils), we unite in teaching all men to confess the one and only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. This selfsame one is perfect both in deity and also in humanity; this selfsame one is also truly God and truly man, with a rational soul and a body. He is of the same essence (homoousion) as the Father as far as his deity is concerned and of the same essence (homoousion) as we are ourselves as far as his humanity is concerned; thus like us in all respects, sin only excepted. Before time began he was begotten of the Father, in respect of his deity, and now in these last days, for us and on behalf of our salvation, this selfsame one was born of Mary the virgin, who is God-bearer (theotokos) in respect of his humanity.
We also teach that we understand this one and only Christ—Son, Lord, only-begotten—in two natures (physesin); and we do this without confusing the two natures, without mixing one nature into the other, without dividing them into two separate categories, without separating them according to area or function. The distinctiveness of each nature is not nullified by the union. Instead, the properties of each nature are conserved and both natures concur in one identity (prosopon) and in one person (hypostasis). They are not divided or cut in two identities, but are together the one and only and only-begotten Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thus have the prophets of old testified; thus the Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us; thus the Symbol of the Fathers (the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed) has handed down to us.
This definition is against both Nestorianism and Eutychianism. Nestorius separated the two natures of Christ so much that he said there was no union. Eutyches combined the two natures of Christ so much that neither the human nor divine nature remained, but instead what resulted was a new third nature that was neither human nor divine. These views were both condemned as heresies. The language of union is against Nestorianism and the language of the two natures not being confused or mixed together and each nature maintaining its distinctiveness is against Eutychianism. Both of these views were condemned as heresy because they were not compatible with what previous councils had decided, nor did they really align with what the scriptures said about who Jesus was: one person, two natures (fully human and fully divine).
As I have argued above, what the council of Chalcedon (and Ephesus) did was simply put into a clear formula the teaching that was handed down to them by the Apostles. If you would like a further explanation and a survey of the Biblical data showing how and why the Chalcedonian Definition came about continue reading.
From the beginning it is evident that in Jesus there is some sort of union between God and human flesh. In Matthew 1.20 and Luke 1.35 what is conceived in Mary is said to be from the Holy Spirit (i.e. God) and not from a man. So the child that Mary gave birth to was not a mere human because she did not conceive by a man. However, the child was not simply God either because he developed in her womb and was born just like any other child. This union of the human and divine is what Chalcedon was trying to accurately articulate.
Passages describing Jesus as God
There are a number of passages that are clearly showing Jesus to be God. Perhaps the most prominent and well known of these passages are the so called “high Christological passages” typically considered to be John 1.1-18, Romans 1.2-5, Philippians 2.6-11, Colossians 1.15-23, Hebrews 1.1-14, and 1 John 1.1-3. These passages are, I think, fairly straightforward in what they are saying and who they are claiming Jesus to be, so I will leave it up to you dear reader to read them for yourself if you are unfamiliar with them.
There are other passages though that also, in one way or another, attribute Divinity to Jesus:
- The name Immanuel (which means “God with us”) is applied to him in Matthew 1.23.
- Jesus is called the son of God in Mark 1.1, 11.
- In the Parable of the Tenets in Mark 12.1-8 Jesus himself claims to be the son of God (see also the reaction of the Jewish leaders to the parable in John 12.12). In John 10.36 Jesus also claims to be the son of God.
- Jesus claims equality with God in John 5.17, which angers the Jews (John 5.18).
- Jesus claims to be equal with God in John 10.27-30, which angers the Jews (John 10.31).
- Jesus claims to be the Christ in Mark 14.62.
Passages describing Jesus as human
There are also a number of passages describing Jesus as human:
- Jesus was circumcised in accordance with Mosaic Law in Luke 2.21.
- Jesus is recorded as experiencing hunger and thirst in Matthew 4.2; Luke 4.2; John 19.28.
- Jesus is tired after a journey to Samaria in John 4.6.
- Jesus is resting during a storm in Mark 4.38.
- Jesus felt pain and anguish when he prayed before his crucifixion in Luke 22.41-44.
- Jesus mourns the death of Lazarus in John 11.33-35.
- Jesus is angry with those who misuse God’s house in John 2.14-17 (see also: Matthew 21.12-13; Mark 11.15–17; Luke 19.45, 46).
- Jesus rejoices in the Holy Spirit in Luke 10.21.
- Jesus is said to have experienced intellectual growth in Luke 2.40, 52.
- Jesus calls himself a man in John 8.40 and is called a man by Paul in 1 Timothy 2.5 and 1 Corinthians 15.45, 47.
- Joseph of Arimathea asks for Jesus’ body after he dies in Matthew 27.57-58.
- Jesus still has a body after his resurrection in Luke 24.39 and John 20.27.
Conclusion from biblical data
From the biblical passages above (which are not intended to be exhaustive) we can see that Jesus is at times described as being human and at others as being divine (i.e. God) and that there is some sort of union between these two natures. This is the “data” that the Church was taking into account and considering when dealing with the Nestorian and Eutyhcian heresies. Ultimately what the 3rd and 4th Ecumenical Councils are doing is putting the teaching of scripture, which are the written teachings of the Apostles, into a clear and articulate format that condemns these heresies and affirms the teaching of the Apostles.
Nestorius was a bishop in the early church who held that we should not call the Virgin Mary Theotokos because she did not give birth to God (Theotokos is literally “God-bearer”). Instead we should call her Christotokos because she gave birth to Christ. At first glance Nestorius’ position may sound not only reasonable, but also correct because technically Mary did give birth to Christ, not God because God is eternal and uncreated. The issue with Nestorius’ position however is who he said that the Christ that Mary gave birth to was. For Nestorius there was no union of the divine and human natures in Jesus; they had “contact,” but there was no union between them. Nestorius then is really denying the doctrine of Nicea which affirmed that Jesus was God incarnate and had united human nature to his divine nature. His main opponent was Cyril of Alexandria, who held that there was a union between Christ’s human nature and divine nature. Nestorius’ views were condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431, which is known as the 3rd Ecumenical Council.
Keeping tabs on all the drama and intrigue of the Nestorius-Cyril controversy was Eutyches, a monk in the early church who was a firm supporter of Cyril. In fact, he was an extremist. Eutyches believed that not only were Jesus’ human nature and divine nature unified (which was Cyril’s view), but they were so unified that they were essentially mingled together and created one new nature that was neither human nor divine (not Cyril’s view). His views are what prompted the convening of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and ultimately gave rise to what is now known as the Chalcedonian Definition, which is quoted above.
The Chalcedonian Definition had no issues being received in the West. In the East however there was once again controversy and disagreement over the language used in the Definition. The main criticism of the opposition to Chalcedon was that the definition sounded Nestorian because it spoke of two natures in Christ, which is what Nestorius held and what Cyril argued against. The rallying cry of the opposition became: One incarnate nature of the divine word (Christ). Now, it is true that in his arguments against Nestorius the “one nature” terminology was employed by Cyril. However, what Cyril was really arguing for was a union of the divine and human in Christ, not a division as Nestorius held. Unfortunately the followers of Cyril (who had died by the time of Chalcedon), who later would become known as Monophysites, didn’t understand that Chalcedon really was supporting the view of Cyril, but it was doing so using different language.
In his arguments against Nestorius it was important for Cyril to demonstrate and emphasize the unity of the human nature and divine nature in Christ. So using the terminology of “one nature” helps make his case because his opponent was emphasizing two natures. When the council of Ephesus was convened the Nestorian view was condemned.
When Chalcedon was convened its task was to decide on Eutychianism, which was an extreme expression of Cyril’s view that took the unity of natures in Christ too far. So using the “one nature” terminology would be detrimental in combatting this view since it was extremist belief in the “one nature” terminology that led to the rise of Eutychianism in the first place. In order to combat this new heresy the distinctness of the natures in Christ had to be emphasized (but not too much, because then they would fall into Nestorianism). It ultimately settled on the Definition quoted above. The goal of the Definition was to condemn Eutychianism as heresy while remaining faithful to what the previous 3 Ecumenical Councils had decided, which included condemning Nestorianism also. Unfortunately to the Monophysites they only succeeded in condemning Eutychianism because the language of “two natures” in Christ sounded Nestorian to them because for them in order for Christ to have two natures he would also need to have two identities or two persons, so they refused to accept the decision.
Eventually another Ecumenical Council would need to be called, Constantinople II, the 5th Ecumenical Council, in 553 in order to clarify what Chalcedon was actually trying to say and appease the Monophysite opposition by showing them that Chalcedon really did affirm their view. For the most part Constantinople II was successful and most of the Monophysites accepted Chalcedon. A few however did not, like the Egyptians, and even to this day the Coptic Christians in Egypt remain Monophysites, even though their view is basically the same as the rest of the Church. It is in my opinion one of the most unfortunate schisms in church history.
The purpose of this article has been to layout and explain the basics concerning who Christians believe Jesus to be. Simply stated that belief is that Jesus is God incarnate (in the flesh). He has one person, one identity, and two natures. These natures are united together in one person: Jesus Christ. One of these natures is a perfect and full human nature. The other is a perfect and full Divine nature. The union of these natures in Jesus does not lead to them being mixed or combined or confused into each other; they each maintain their own distinctiveness and that distinctiveness is not nullified by the union.
These beliefs about Christ have important implications for what Christians believe about salvation, which will be the topic of next week’s post.