Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Man or Flesh?

The Christian Church began on the foundation of faith centered in the person of Jesus Christ…

The Council of Chalcedon Re-Examined, by V.C. Samuel

What to believe of this Jesus?  The various communities, widely dispersed in a Roman Empire antagonistic to their faith, adopted statements of faith or belief – later called creeds.  One or another of these statements were taught to candidates for baptism and recited regularly in worship.  Despite being somewhat varied…

…they emphasized that Jesus Christ was the Son of God through whom men and women could have a direct access to God, and from the time the New Testament writings were in circulation they could point to them as apostolic transmissions in support of their exposition.

I have, on and off, been in conversation with someone who belongs to a religion that teaches that Jesus was a good man who lived a perfect life…but don’t call Him God or the Son of God.  This idea of Jesus as God was an invention of Church councils held under the authority of various emperors, and therefore, for some reason, this makes these councils invalid.

Yet we see in this passage from Samuel that this idea was in the various communities from the beginning, before any formal councils and certainly before any Christian Roman emperor.

Dr. Jordan B. Cooper is in the middle of an ongoing series on Christology, tracing this from the earliest Church through Chalcedon and beyond.  In the fourth video of the series, he specifically discusses Patristic Christology through Chalcedon.  Beginning here, he offers:

Just because it took that long [until Chalcedon] to develop what kind of language the Church was to use, that doesn’t mean that it took that long for the Church to develop the essence of the doctrine itself. 

He points to the earliest post-apostolic writers like Ignatius, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus as all speaking the same truths; the issue is figuring out the best way to express this truth.  The essence of this teaching of Christ’s divinity and humanity was there from the beginning.

Returning to Samuel:

In clarifying the nature of the faith several attempts made during the second and third centuries were rejected by the Church.

Eventually, beginning in the second century, three broad streams of Christology could be identified: Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome.  However, controversies such as Arianism were dealt with and condemned in Nicaea in 325, supported by Athanasius of Alexandria and the Cappadocian theologians. 

…the Church accepted officially the affirmation that the Son who became incarnate in Jesus Christ was eternally and fully God…

It should be noted again that this was an affirmation of that which many in the Church believed (based on both Scripture and the teaching and writings of the earliest Church fathers, even from the first and early second centuries), and not something newly discovered or invented.

Nicaea resolved only one side of the equation – that of the divine nature of Christ.  How was this to be understood in regard to His humanity, His human nature?  And this without prejudice to the divine?

There were still some differences east and west. One leaning on the Cappadocians and the other on Augustine – although the west could better accommodate the Antiochene heritage more than the Alexandrine.  But this did not result in any type of split, as would happened after Chalcedon.  Despite these differences, all could accept the Nicene Creed.

Apollinarius of Laodicea would offer that Christ was one hypostasis (a concrete particular, hence a person) and one physis.  He would deny the presence of the human rational principle in Christ. While he was condemned by all parties, the terminology he created was retained.

Demonstrating that Nicaea was not complete, the Nicene position was understood in Alexandria by means of their ‘Word-flesh’ Christology (based on John’s language that the Word became flesh).  The Antiochenes held to a ‘Word-man’ Christology, worked out by Theodore of Mopsuestia in Cilicia.  (The difference of these two will be later covered by Samuel, and I will attempt to summarize it in a future post).  Both would claim continuity from Nicaea, though neither really understood fully the position of the other.

Nestorius, trained in the Antiochene ‘Word-man’ Christological tradition, was made patriarch of Constantinople in 428.  A few months later, his chaplain, Anastasius, preached a sermon criticizing the use of the title Theotokos as applied to the Virgin by the Church since around the second century.  Contrary to popular expectation, the patriarch supported the priest.

Cyril of Alexandria would write to Nestorius.  The title for the Virgin had a significant bearing on the faith of the Church, seeing that God the Son ‘came down, was incarnate, lived as a man, suffered, rose the third day, and ascended into heaven.’

This doesn’t mean that God became man, but that the natures of Godhead and manhood converged in the Lord Jesus Christ.  At the moment of conception, the eternal God the Son united Himself hypostatically in the womb of the Virgin.  Therefore, she brought forth the Son of God.  Therefore, Theotokos (one who brings forth God).

Nestorius refused to be taught, and accused Cyril of teaching heresy.  Meanwhile, the issue came to the attention of Coelestine of Rome and John of Antioch.  The former, in a Roman synod, decided against Nestorius; the latter urged his friend Nestorius to accept the term and bring the conflict to an end.  But Nestorius wouldn’t budge.

Cyril, knowing he had at least Rome on his side, drew up twelve anathemas for Nestorius to endorse – in default of which he would be excommunicated.  This was an uncompromising statement of Alexandrine Word-flesh Christology. 

The letter affirms that ‘both the human sayings and the divine were spoken by one person.’ …God the Son indwelt the manhood in the same way that the soul of man dwells in the body. …the union was indeed true and real.

Cyril himself presided over the council.  Nestorius didn’t show up.  Based on his writings, he was convicted of heresy.  Shortly thereafter, the Syrian delegation arrived, enraged that the decision had been made without them – and protested accordingly.  They held a counter-council with John as president, adopting a resolution deposing Cyril, Memnon of Ephesus, and all those who accepted the anathemas of Cyril against Nestorius.

Both sides appealed to the emperor.  After deposing Cyril, Memnon, and Nestorius, the emperor called the first two back and Nestorius was sent first to a monastery in Euprepius, then Arabia, and finally to the desert of Egypt where he died in about 449.


Samuel summarizes: Nestorius was condemned simply because he held to the ‘Word-man’ Christology of the Syrians (Antioch); the ground of this was the understanding of Alexandria.

As can be seen, despite both sides believing that they were in accord with Nicaea, there was still much work to be done in developing Christological language, terminology, and common understanding. 


I know I have yet to get to the Council of Chalcedon in Samuel’s book, but I will add this further comment from Cooper, who offers:

Chalcedon didn’t solve all of the Christological issues, and it wasn’t supposed to.  Chalcedon created boundaries.  It created boundaries within which we can now have Christological debates.  But it doesn’t solve the essential division between someone like Cyril of Alexandria…and those who lean more toward the Nestorian approach but aren’t going to use the strong language of Nestorius of a total division of persons.

Which brings me back to a comment made in my earlier post in this series: my understanding is that at least some of the non-Chalcedonian Churches rejected Chalcedon because the language wasn’t precise enough.  Yet they accepted the subsequent councils that better clarified the language. 

Unfortunately, this hasn’t healed the division.


  1. I have to admit, I can't tell much difference between the sides. I always heard Jesus was 100% God and 100% man and left it to that. Trying to explain exactly how that happens goes outside of explicit statements in the Bible. At that point, I don't have a dog in the fight.

    1. In all my reading on this topic, I cannot either (and have written as much here at the blog in the past). It strikes me that once having agreed that Jesus Christ is both divine and human, the rest is truly un-explainable to the human mind.

      God never explained it in the Scriptures. Even if He did, would we understand it?

  2. My ordaining bishop, Pierre L'huillier, an expert on the early church canons, said that, even if the Chalcedonians and the opponents to the Council of Chalcedon were to agree that much of their division had to do with mutual misunderstanding of linguistic terms, the practical difficulty would still remain: what to do about how liturgically to handle persons, such as St. Cyril, honored as a saint by one ecclesiastical community, but anathematized by the other? This is the sort of question of vital importance to the East, but hardly on the radar screen of the Western Churches.

    1. Yes. I have read of similar difficulties. With the non-Chalcedonian churches agreeing with the subsequent councils, what next? Can they say "we were right, you were wrong" regarding the lack of clarity at Chalcedon? Would the Chalcedonian Churches accept such a statement?

  3. Great stuff - brings this to mind: "The Lord said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they do not understand each other" So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. = Gen 11:6-9 - language is both a miracle and a curse - with it we think and process the world - it structures how we see the world. When the language is not clear, neither is our understanding. You know, the whole "it all depends on what the meaning of "is" is!" Thanks be to God that still somehow we can pray and be with him even in our limited way in this world. May we keep trying find and understand Him who is the Word made flesh!

    1. I often think that if we just keep it simple, it would be enough. Jesus offered the same when He said we must approach as little children. The apostle Peter preached a very simple first sermon, with 3000 added to their number.

  4. Christ took on human nature through the Theotokos. As such He is indeed the only True Man, the perfection of Adam. I suggest Bionic to look up the work of the theologian Fr John Behr who speaks and writes most eloquently on this subject and simply the best to elucidate the issues you are wrestling with.