Earlier in this study of Christian Theology, we studied the doctrine of the Trinity. We studied several views of the relation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to one another. Apart from the view that became the Church’s orthodox view, all were rejected. That was a study of the so-called Trinitarian problem.
Now we are ready to take up various views of the relation of the humanity and divinity in Christ’s person, which is a totally different issue. This is the question of how Jesus can be both God and man at the same time. It is called the Christological problem. Once again, except for the view that the Church accepted as orthodox, these all have been rejected.
The orthodox view of the nature of Jesus Christ is that he is both fully human and fully divine. But this view wasn’t completely articulated and accepted until the fifth century of the church’s existence. So in the mean time, as the Church struggled toward an orthodox formulation, many ideas were put forward that had to be rejected.
Looking at it historically, in the earliest decades of the Church’s existence, Christ was proclaimed without much concern about the relation of the divinity and humanity in his person. But the Church soon found itself forced to reflect upon this Christological problem, for an early challenge arose to the idea that Christ was both divine and human, as the Christian preachers proclaimed. The challenge came from people known as Gnostics. By the second century they had developed a competing religion called Gnosticism.
The Gnostics taught the Greek idea that matter is evil. And because matter is evil, they continued, God never would associate himself directly with evil in the way taught by Christian preachers. That is, God never would become matter, flesh.
The Gnostics taught instead that Christ only seemed to have a material body; he only appeared to have one. This view is called Docetism, from the Greek verb dokeo, which means “to seem,” or “to appear.” Although Gnosticism proper did not fully develop until the second century AD, we clearly see the problem of a docetic view of Christ rising even in New Testament times.
John in his Gospel and Epistles, addressed the problem. He insisted that the Word did indeed become flesh (Jn. 1:14). And he called teaching otherwise a teaching that was of the antichrist (1 Jn. 4:2-3). Thus we see that one of the earliest threats to a proper understanding of Christ was the docetic threat to the humanity of Jesus. And we are not yet completely free from such thinking. Any doctrine that takes away the true humanity of Jesus is docetic, no matter how piously phrased.
Interestingly, Gnostics not only denied the true humanity of Jesus, but they also denied the true deity of Jesus. The Gnostics were willing to say that Jesus was divine, but without being the supreme God. That is, the Gnostics believed that there is a hierarchy of divine beings.
The supreme being is pure spirit. But there is a whole series of lower ranking divine beings that are less and less divine, because they are more and more material. Christ, in this view, was a divine being of high rank, but not the supreme God.
Some Gnostics suggested that the divine Christ was a completely different person from the human Jesus. Jesus the man was not the divine Christ. Rather the divine Christ descended on the human Jesus at his baptism, remained on Him during his ministry, and ascended from him back to the spiritual world at Jesus’ death. John, in his first epistle attacks this view when he says: “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?” (I John 2:22).
Another early threat aimed at the divine side of Jesus’ nature was the view of certain Jewish Christians, who could not reconcile the deity of Jesus with their strict monotheism. By the second century there was a definite sect of such persons known as Ebionites. The Ebionites maintained that Jesus was given an unmeasured fullness of the Spirit at his baptism, and that this constituted him the Messiah. However, he definitely was not God. Thus by the second century we already had two extreme views: the Gnostic, or docetic view, which denied both the true humanity and deity of Jesus, and the Ebionite view, which denied the deity of Jesus.
Now then, as the Church reflected on this problem of how Jesus can be God and man at the same time, every conceivable option was advanced in an effort to show the relation of the divine and human natures in Christ.
We will begin with the view of Arius. We learned a bit about Arius when we studied the Trinitarian problem. Arius was a presbyter (i.e. an elder) in charge of one of the churches in the area of Alexandria, Egypt, during the early fourth century. According to Arius, the divine Logos (Greek for “Word”) entered Jesus’ human body, taking the place of his human reasoning spirit. In other words, whereas the ordinary human being is flesh and spirit, Jesus is flesh and Logos. Thus in this view, Christ is neither fully God nor fully man. He is a mixture of the two.
However, at that time the theological world was more concerned about the relation between Jesus and the Father, than about the relation between the divine and human natures in Christ. So Arius’ teachings on this latter point did not get much attention. Therefore Arius was exiled by the First General Council held at Nicaea in 325. But he was banished not for his Christological view, but for his Trinitarian view.
Arius’ Christological view was not severely challenged until later in the fourth century when the same kind of Christology was advanced by Apollinaris, bishop of Laodicea. The Council of Constantinople (The Second General Council) in 381 condemned his view as heresy.
The next major Christological heresy was put forth by a man named Nestorius, who became patriarch of Constantinople in 428. Nestorius was accused of teaching that the two natures of Christ were separate, so much so, that they constituted two persons instead of one. Of course that was not acceptable, because it destroyed the unity of Christ’s person. This view was condemned by The Third General Council that met at Ephesus in 431.
Another Christological heresy which was condemned a little later in the fourth century at the Fourth General Council at Chalcedon in 451, was advanced by Eutyches, abbot of Constantinople. Eutyches said: “I confess that our Lord was of two natures before the union [that is, before the Incarnation], but after the union one nature.”
The idea behind this is that “before the incarnation there were two natures, the divine Logos and the human ovum in the womb of the Virgin Mary, but in the union of these natures the human element was “divinized” In other words, the humanity was absorbed by the deity. That is why this view sometimes is called absorptionism.
This idea refused to die out, in spite of the condemnatio of the Church. It came back in a later version of this same heresy that was condemned at the Fifth General Council that met at Constantinople in 553.
A final Christological heresy said that Jesus had no human will. These persons by declaring two separate natures; but then they said that there was only one will, the divine will. This heresy, like most of the others, denies Jesus’ full humanity (Nestorians and Ebionites being the exceptions); and it too was condemned; this took place at the Sixth General Council, held at Constantinople in 680.
To summarize, I want to use a loose analogy to try to get this picture across. If it is not helpful, forget it. It is not original with me, but it was helpful to me. And that is why I am sharing it with you.
I want you to think of the humanity of Christ as ice cream, and his divinity as heat. Ice cream equals humanity; heat equals divinity. The views that confuse or mix the two natures, that is those that don’t keep them separate are like ice cream with hot peppers in it. There is heat in it, which doesn’t melt the ice cream. But it tastes terrible. You end up with a mixture of humanity and divinity, and Jesus is neither fully human nor fully divine.
The view of Nestorius is more like baked Alaska, an ice cream dessert that has meringue around the ice cream and is baked. The meringue insulates the ice cream from the heat and keeps the ice cream from melting, while baking. In respect to Christ, the humanity and divinity certainly are both preserved; but unfortunately, the unity of his person is destroyed, because the two natures are so separate.
The absorptionist views are not satisfactory either, because they are melted ice cream. Remember, they are views in which the humanity is absorbed by the deity.
The Church, in working its way through all of these ideas, finally realized that there is no “neat” solution to the idea of Jesus’ being both divine and human at the same time. In terms of our analogy of ice cream and heat, Jesus is hot ice cream by definition. The council of Chalcedon in 451 formulated the orthodox view in the so-called Calcedonian creed that is still held today, namely, that Jesus is fully God and fully man at the same time.
The Chalcedonian Creed reads as 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 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 in the last days, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; 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, Documents of the Christian Church, p. 73).
This doctrine, though it must be accepted by faith, is not irrational. The pre-existent Christ was of course totally divine. That divine person then became a genuine human being. When he did that, he did not give up being the divine Christ. But he did give up his divine powers. When Jesus performed miracles, he did so by the power of the Holy Spirit, just as many of the apostles did. Therefore he functioned as any human being functions, because he was a genuine human being. But at the same time, this human being still was the divine being, who had chosen to become human in order to die as the only possible perfect sacrifice for our sins.