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§ 5. Erroneous and Heretical Doctrines on the Person of Christ.

Plainly as all the truths above mentioned concerning the person of Christ, seem now to us to be revealed in the Holy Scriptures, it was not until after the conflict of six centuries that they came to be fully stated so as to secure the general assent of the Church. We must indeed always bear in mind the difference between the speculations of theologians and the faith of the great body of the people if God. It is a false assumption that the doctrines taught by the ecclesiastical writers of a particular age, constituted the faith of believers of that age. The doctrines of theologians are largely determined by their antecedents and by the current philosophy of the day in which they live. This is unavoidable. The faith of the 398common people is determined by the Word of God, by the worship of the sanctuary, and by the teachings of the Spirit. They remain in a great measure ignorant of, or indifferent to, the speculations of theologians. It cannot be doubted that the great body of the people from the beginning believed that Christ was truly a man, was truly God, and is one person. They could not read and believe the Scriptures without having these truths engraved on their hearts. All the records of their confessions, hymns, and prayers, prove them to have been the worshippers of Him who died for their sins. And in this light they were regarded and described by all contemporary heathen writers. But while the people thus rested in these essential facts, the theologians were forced from without and from within, to ask, How can these things be? How can the same person be both God and man? How does the Godhead in the person of Christ stand related to his humanity? It was in the answers given to these questions that difficulty and controversy occurred. To avoid the great and obvious difficulties connected with the doctrine of the incarnation of God, some denied his true divinity; others denied the reality or completeness of his human nature; others so explained the nature and effects of the union as to interfere either with the integrity of the divine or of the human nature of Christ or with the unity of his person.

The Ebionites.

The errors which disturbed the peace of the early Church on this, as on other subjects, arose either from Judaism or from heathen philosophy. The Jews who professed themselves Christians, were not able, in many instances, as we learn from the New Testament itself, to emancipate themselves from their former opinions and prejudices. They had by the misinterpretation of their Scriptures been led to expect a Messiah who was to be the head of their nation as David and Solomon had been. They, therefore, as a body, rejected Christ, who came as a man of sorrows, not having anywhere to lay his head. And of those who were constrained by his doctrines and miracles to acknowledge Him as the promised Messiah, many believed Him to be a mere man, the son of Joseph and Mary, distinguished from other men only by his holiness and his extraordinary endowments. This was the case with the sect known as Ebionites. Why so called is a matter of doubt. Although as a body, and characteristically, they entertained this low, humanitarian view of the person of Christ, yet it appears from the fragmentary records of the ancient writers, that they differed much 399among themselves, and were divided into different classes. Some had mingled with their Jewish opinions more or less of the elements of the Gnostic philosophy. This was the more natural, as many of the teachers of Gnosticism were Jews. The fathers, therefore, speak both of Jewish, and of Gnostic Ebionites. So far as their views of Christ’s person were modified by Gnosticism, they ceased to be distinctly the views of the Ebionites as a body.

Another class of nominal Jewish Christians is known as Nazarenes. They differed but little from the Jewish Ebionites. Both insisted on the continued obligation of the Mosaic law, and both regarded Christ as a mere man. But the Nazarenes acknowledged his miraculous conception, and thus elevated Him above all other men, and regarded Him as the Son of God in a peculiar sense. The acknowledgment of the divinity of Christ, and the ability and willingness to unite in worship of which He was the object, was from the beginning the one indispensable condition of Christian fellowship. These Jewish sects, therefore, who denied his divinity, existed outside of the Church, and were not recognized as Christians.

The Gnostics.

As the Ebionites denied the divinity, so the Gnostics in different ways denied his humanity. They were led to this denial by their views of the origin of evil. God is the source only of good. As evil exists it must have its origin not only outside of Him, but independently of Him. He is, however, the source of all spiritual existences. By emanation from his substance spiritual beings are produced; from them other emanations proceed, and from those still others in ever increasing deterioration according to their distance from the primal fountain. Evil arises from matter. The world was created, not by God, but by an inferior spirit, the Demiourgos, whom some sects of the Gnostics regarded as the God of the Jews. Man consists of a spirit derived from God combined with a material body and an animal soul. By this union of the spiritual with the material, the spirit is defiled and enslaved. Its redemption consists in its emancipation from the body, so as to enable it to reenter the sphere of pure spirits, or to be lost in God. To effect this redemption, Christ, one of the highest emanations from God (or Æons), came into the world. It was necessary that He should appear “in fashion as a man,” but it was impossible He should become a man, without subjecting Himself to the pollution and bondage from which He came to deliver men. To meet this difficulty various theories were adopted. Some held that Christ 400had no real body or human soul. His earthly manifestation is human form was a phantasm, a mere appearance without substance or reality. Hence they were called Docetæ, from the Greek verb δοκέω, which means to appear, to seem to be. According to this class of the Gnostics, Christ’s whole earthly life was an illusion. He was not born, nor did he suffer or die. Others admitted that he had a real body, but denied that it was material. They taught that it was formed of some ethereal or celestial substance, and brought by Christ into the world. Although born of the virgin Mary, it was not of her substance, but only through her as the mould in which this ethereal substance was cast. Hence in the ancient creeds it is said that Christ was born, not per, but ex Maria virgine, which is explained to mean ex substantia matris suæ. It was also in opposition to this Gnostic heresy that the ancient creeds emphasized the declaration that Christ, as to his human nature, is consubstantial with us. Others, as the Cerinthians, held that Jesus and Christ were distinct. Jesus was an ordinary man, the son of Joseph and Mary. Christ was a spirit or power which descended on Jesus at his baptism, and became his guide and guardian, and enabled Him to work miracles. At the time of his passion, the Christ departed, returning into heaven, leaving the man Jesus to suffer alone. As nothing is more distinctly revealed in Scripture, and nothing is more essential to Christ’s being the Saviour of men, than that he should be truly a man, all these Gnostic theories were rejected as heretical.

The Apollinarian Doctrine.

As the Gnostic doctrine which denied entirely the human nature of Christ was rejected, the next attempt was directed against the integrity of that nature. Many of the early fathers, especially of the Alexandrian school, had presented views of this element of Christ’s person, which removed Him more or less from the class of ordinary men. They nevertheless maintained that He was truly a man. The Apollinarians, so called from Apollinaris, a distinguished bishop of Laodicea, adopting the Platonic distinction between the σῶμα, ψυχή, and πνεῦμα, as three distinct subjects or principles in the constitution of man, admitted that Christ had a true body (σῶμα) and animal soul (ψυχή), but not a rational spirit, or mind (πνεῦμα or νοῦς). In Him the eternal Son, or Logos, supplied the place of the human intelligence. The Apollinarians were led to the adoption of this theory partly from the difficulty of conceiving how two complete natures can be united in one life and consciousness. If 401Christ be God, or the divine Logos, He must have an infinite intelligence and an almighty will. If a perfect man, He must have a finite intelligence and a human will. How then can He be one person? This is indeed incomprehensible; but it involves no contradiction. Apollinaris admitted that the ψυχή, and πνεῦμα in ordinary men, although two distinct principles, are united in one life and consciousness. The ψυχή, has its own life and intelligence, and so has the πνεῦμα, and yet the two are one. But a second and strong inducement to adopting the Apollinarian theory, was the doctrine then held, by many, at least, of the Platonizing fathers, that reason in man is part of the divine Logos or universal reason. So that the difference between man and God, so far as man’s intelligence is concerned, is merely quantitive. If this be so, it is indeed difficult to conceive how there should be in Christ both a part of the Logos and the entire Logos. The part would be necessarily superseded by the whole, or comprehended in it. But notwithstanding the force of this ad hominem argument as directed against some of his opponents, the conviction of the Church was so strong that Christ was a perfect man, possessing within Himself all the elements of our nature, that the Apollinarian doctrine was condemned in the general council held in Constantinople, A.D. 381, and soon disappeared.


The integrity of the two natures in Christ having been thus asserted and declared to be the faith of the Church, the next question which arose concerned the relations of the two natures, the one to the other, in the one person of Christ. Nestorianism is the designation adopted in church history, for the doctrine which either affirms, or implies a twofold personality in our Lord. The divine Logos was represented as dwelling in the man Christ Jesus, so that the union between the two natures was somewhat analogous to the indwelling of the Spirit. The true divinity of Christ was thus endangered. He was distinguished from other men in whom God dwelt, only by the plenitude of the divine presence, and the absolute control of the divine over the human. This was not the avowed or real doctrine of Nestorius, but it was the doctrine charged upon him, and was the conclusion to which his principles were supposed to lead. Nestorius was a man of great excellence and eminence; first a presbyter in Antioch, and afterwards Patriarch of Constantinople. The controversy on this subject arose from his defending one of his presbyters who denied that the Virgin Mary could properly be called the Mother of God. As 402this designation of the blessed Virgin had already received the sanction of the Church, and was familiar and dear to the people, Nestorius’s objection to its use excited general and violent opposition. He was on this account alone accused of heresy. As, however, there is a sense in which Mary was the Mother of God, and a sense in which such a designation is blasphemous, everything depends on the real meaning attached to the terms. What Nestorius meant, according to his own statement, was simply that God, the divine nature, could neither be born nor die. In his third letter to Cœlestin, Bishop of Rome, he said, “Ego autem ad hanc quidem vocem, quæ est θεοτόκος, nisi secundum Apollinaris et Arii furorem ad confusionem naturarum proferatur, volentibus dicere non resisto; nec tamen ambigo quia hæc vox θεοτόκος illi voci cedat, quæ est χριστοτὸκος, tanquam prolatæ ab Angelis et evangelistis.” What he asserted was, “Non peperit creatura creatorem, sed peperit hominem deitatis instrumentum. . . . . Spiritus sanctus . . . Deo Verbo templum fabricatus est, quod habitaret, ex virgine.” Nevertheless, he obviously carried the distinction of natures too far, for neither he nor his followers could bring themselves to use the Scriptural language, “The Church of God which he purchased with his blood.” The Syriac version used by the Nestorians, reads Χριστός instead of Θεός in Acts xx. 28. The principal opponent of Nestorius was Cyril of Alexandria, who secured his condemnation by violent means in the Synod of Ephesus in A.D. 431. This irregular decision was resisted by the Greek and Syrian bishops, so that the controversy, for a time at least, was a conflict between these two sections of the Church. Ultimately Nestorius was deposed and banished, and died A.D. 440. His followers removed eastward to Persia, and organized themselves into a separate communion, which continues until this day.


As Nestorius so divided the two natures in Christ as almost to necessitate the assumption of two persons, his opponents were led to the opposite extreme. Instead of two, they insisted that there was but one nature in Christ. Cyril himself had taught what clearly implied this idea. According to Cyril there is but one nature in Christ because by the incarnation, or hypostatical union the human was changed into the divine.312312See Dorner, Hagenbach, and Münscher, on this controversy. With the extreme Alexandrian theologians, the humanity of Christ was ignored. It was the Logos who was born, the Logos who suffered and died. All 403about Christ was divine, even his body.313313Neander, Dogmengeschichte, vol. i. p. 349. The opposition between the Syrian and Egyptian bishops (Antioch and Alexandria) became so pronounced, that any distinction of natures in Christ was by the latter denounced as Nestorianism. It was Eutyches, however, a presbyter of Constantinople, one of the most strenuous advocates of the views of Cyril and an opponent of Nestorius, who became the representative of this doctrine which has since gone by his name. He was accused of heresy on this account, and condemned in a Council called by the Patriarch of Constantinople. Eutyches admitted that before the incarnation there were. two natures, but afterwards only one. Ὁμολογῶ ἐκ δύο φύσεων γεγεννῆσθαι τὸν κύριον ἡμῶν πρὸ τῆς ἑνωσεῶς, μετὰ δὲ τῆν ἕνωσιν, μίαν φύσιν ὁμολογῶ. But what was that nature which resulted from the union of the two? The human might be exalted into the divine, or lost in it, as a drop of vinegar (to use one of the illustrations then employed) in the ocean. Then Christ ceased to be a man. And as the union of the two natures commenced from the beginning, the whole of Christ’s human earthly life became an illusion, or empty show. Where then are his redeeming work, and his bond of union or sympathy with us? Or the effect of the union might be to merge the divine into the human, so that the one nature was after all only the nature of man. Then the true divinity of Christ was denied, and we have only a human saviour. Or the effect of the union of the two natures was the production of a third, which was neither human nor divine, but theanthropic, as in chemical combinations an acid and an alkali when united, produce a substance which is no longer either acid or alkaline. Then Christ instead of being God and man, is neither God nor man. This being contrary to the Scriptures, and placing Christ out of the range of human sympathies, was opposed to the intimate convictions of the Church.

The condemnation of Eutyches at Constantinople greatly incensed Dioscurus, bishop of Alexandria, and his associates. Through his influence a general synod was convened at Ephesus in 449 A.D., from which the opposers of Eutyches were forcibly excluded, and his doctrine of one nature in Christ formally sanctioned. The Council proceeded to excommunicate those who taught a contrary doctrine, and Eutyches was restored to office. The doctrines of the Council (known in history as “the robber council”) were sanctioned by the emperor Theodosius. But as he died in the following year, his successor being hostile to Dioscurus, 404summoned another general synod, which met at Chalcedon, A.D. 451. Here Dioscurus was deposed, and the letter of Leo of Rome to Flavian of Constantinople was adopted as a true exposition of the faith of the Church. Agreeably to the distinctions contained in that letter the Council framed its confession, in which it is said,314314Acta Quinta, Binius. Concilia Generalia, vol. ii. part I. p. 253, e. f. “We teach that Jesus Christ is perfect as respects Godhead, and perfect as respects manhood; that He is truly God, and truly a man consisting of a rational soul and a body; that He is consubstantial with the Father as to his divinity, and consubstantial with us as to his humanity, and like us in all respects, sin excepted. He was begotten of the Father before creation (πρὸ αἰώνων) as to his deity; but in these last days He, for us, and for our salvation, was born of Mary the Virgin, the mother of God as to his humanity. He is one and the same Christ, Lord, only begotten, existing in two natures without mixture, without change, without division, without separation; the diversity of the two natures not being at all destroyed by their union in the one person, but rather the peculiar property of each nature being preserved, and concurring to one person, and one subsistence.” This was one of the six general Councils in whose doctrinal decisions all Protestants, at the time of the Reformation, professed their agreement. The Latin Church received this confession of the Council of Chalcedon cheerfully, but it met with great opposition in some parts, and especially in Palestine and Egypt, and therefore did not bring the controversy on this subject to an end. This conflict resulted in great disorders and bloodshed in Palestine and Egypt, and in Constantinople even in revolution; one Emperor was deposed, and another enthroned. After nearly two centuries of controversy, the Emperor Heraclius endeavoured to effect a reconciliation by getting both parties to admit that there are two natures in Christ, but only one will and operation, μία θεανδρίκη ἐνέργεια. This effort was so far successful that a portion of the Monophysites assented to this modification of the creed of the Council of Chalcedon; but the more determined of that party and the great body of the orthodox refused. The controversy turned after this specially on the question whether there is one only, or two wills in Christ. If only one, then, as the orthodox asserted, there could be but one nature, for will is one of the essential elements or faculties of a rational nature. To deny Christ a human will, was to deny that He had a human nature, or was truly a man. Besides, it precluded the possibility of his having been tempted, and therefore contradicted the 405Scriptures, and separated Him so far from his people that He could not sympathize with them in their temptations. The effort of Heraclius therefore proved abortive, and the controversy continued with unabated acrimony, until finally the sixth general council held at Constantinople, A.D. 681, authoritatively decided in favour of the doctrine that in the one person of Christ, as there are two distinct natures, human and divine, there are of necessity two intelligences and two wills, the one fallible and finite, the other immutable and infinite. Christ was tempted, and there was, therefore, the metaphysical possibility that He should have yielded. According to this Council the person of Christ was not only formed,315315Binius, Concilia Generalia, 1618, vol. iii. part I. sect. i. pp. 230, 231. ἐκ δύο φύσεων, but consists since the hypostatic union ἐκ δύο φύσεσι, and it says in the name of the Church that there are δύο φυσικὰς θελήσεις ἤτοι θελήματα ἐν αὐτῳ, καὶ δύο φυσικὰς ἐνεργείας ἀδιαιρέτως, ἀτρέττως, ἀμερίστως, ἀσυγχύτως κατὰ τὴν τῶν ἁγίων πατέρων διδασκαλίαν ὡσαύτως κηρύττομεν. The Monothelites being thus condemned were persecuted and driven eastward, where they have perpetuated themselves in the sect of the Maronites.

With this council the conflict on this doctrine so far ceased that there has since been no further modification of the Church doctrine. The decision against Nestorius, in which the unity of Christ’s person was asserted; that against Eutyches, affirming the distinction of natures; and that against the Monothelites, declaring that the possession of a human nature involves of necessity the possession of a human will, have been received as the true faith by the Church universal, the Greek, Latin, and Protestant.

During the Middle Ages, although the person of Christ was the subject of diverse speculations on the part of individual writers, there was no open or organized opposition to the decisions of the above named councils.

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