The Christology Debate

Byzantine JesusThe Early Christian Church spent hundreds of years seeking a definitive answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” The answer to this all-important question formed the basis for much of Christian theology and practice. Who is Jesus? Is He God? Is He Man? How does Jesus save us? These are the questions that early theologians had to wrestle with and answer in the first centuries of the Christian faith.

The major debates concerning the person of Christ took place in the fourth and fifth centuries. However, prior to this Christians held certain beliefs concerning the person of Christ and how He saved man from his sins. The earliest Christian beliefs concerning the person of Jesus were that he was “Lord” (kyrios), and that He was “fully divine and fully human.” Many of the earliest Christian writings that we have are refutations of such Christological heresies as Ebionism (Jesus only a prophet), Adoptionism (Jesus adopted as divine, usually at his baptism), Docetism (Jesus only appeared to be human), Gnosticism (wide variety of knowledge-based claims), and Marcionism (God of Jesus different than Yahweh) which denied, each in their own way, that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man. The continued debates with such heresies in the early Christian world further developed Christology, and it was not long before the principle that Jesus, in order to be the savior of the word, necessarily needed to include in His being aspects of divinity and aspects of humanity.

Tertullian of Carthage
Tertullian of Carthage

The Western Christian Church was quicker in coming to what was seen as a solution to the Christological problem, due mostly to the insights of Hippolytus and Tertullian. Tertullian summed up his Christology by professing: “We observe a twofold condition, not confused but conjoined, Jesus, in one Person at once God and man… Side by side in that indivisible Person can be seen Godhead and manhood, divine spirit and human flesh, immortality and mortality, strength and weakness.” Here one can see the important concept of Jesus as fully God and fully man expressed in a manner that leaves little room for discussion, though almost without explanation.

For further support of the doctrine that Jesus was fully God and fully man, the Fathers turned to the sacraments. Irenaeus wrote of the importance of Christ as divine God and physical man in the Eucharist. In general the early Church  placed emphasis on the rites of Baptism and Holy Communion not merely as signs concerning the Christian faith, but as events which actually conferred salvation and grace upon those who partook of them. Baptism concerned the Fathers with many questions, especially those with regard to issues of post-baptismal sin and the purpose of the rite. Yet there was a universal importance placed upon baptism for the Christian believer, demonstrating the importance placed on the words of Christ in the Great Commission to make disciples and baptize them in the name of the Holy Trinity as a rite of entrance into the family of Christ and the Church.

CommunionThe Eucharist was of even more Christological importance. As early as the early second century, Ignatius of Antioch writes against those who “do not allow that the eucharist is the flesh of our saviour, Jesus Christ.” For him, those who did not see the eucharist as the flesh of Christ did not see Christ as having flesh at all, thus denying His humanity. Further Christological emphasis was placed upon the Eucharist by “the Antiochenes, who insisted so strongly on the co-existence of the two natures, divine and human, in the one Christ, speak similarly of the double nature of the eucharist, at once bread and wine and body and blood.” To the Early Christian Fathers then, the sacraments were a strong support for their Christology, both concerning who Christ was and the implications of His work.

While the Sacraments and the Western Church quickly pointed towards a unified God-Man, the Eastern Church had a much more drawn out discussion of Christology. The story of the Eastern Church essentially hinges upon two centers of theological belief: Antioch and Alexandria. Beginning with the Arian debate at Nicaea in 325 AD and continuing even beyond the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, the differences in theology between these two sees led to a great many controversies. Yet the debates that raged help us come a greater understanding of who Christ is and how He saves mankind.

Athanasius of Alexandria
Athanasius of Alexandria

The great Arian controversy that led to the Council of Nicaea and ultimately the Nicene Creed was based primarily upon Christology: Was Jesus of Nazareth fully God or was He God in some lesser sense? Arius professed that Jesus, while God, was created and therefore not truly eternal and was clearly subordinated to the Father; this theology was opposed by Alexander and Athanasius, who professed that the Son was fully God and not created. Athanasius’ belief in an eternal Christ won the day at Nicaea, and is professed in the Nicene Creed: Jesus is “begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.” Yet before the Arian issue had been fully resolved, another debate arose, this time from Apollinarius, who, while holding to the Nicene belief that Jesus was God and man, exemplified Alexandrian Word-flesh Christology and denied that Christ had a human soul, thereby denying Christ’s full humanity. Apollinarius was refuted and condemned as a heretic by the Cappadocian Fathers and by 381 the Council of Constantinople had declared that “true Christian orthodoxy necessarily includes belief that Jesus Christ was and is both truly God and truly human –consubstantial with both God the Father and humans.”

Perhaps the most decisive debate concerning Christology involved Nestorius and Cyril of Alexandria’s confrontation concerning the natures of Christ. Nestorianism was the heresy that split the God-man into two distinct persons. Cyril reacted strongly to this idea, seeing Nestorianism as claiming Christ as “merely an external association between the Word and an ordinary man.” To Cyril, Christ had one nature–He was not ‘bi-personal’–but within this single nature there was a distinction between his two ‘parts’: God and man. From this time until the Council of Chalcedon, the historical aspects of the Christological debate become too varied and muddled for the purposes of this essay. However, the settlements reached at Chalcedon went a long way in not only resolving Antiochene-Alexandrian conflicts, but firmly established a firm basis for Christology for the Orthodox Catholic Church.

Jesus with BibleAt the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) several important conclusions where reached. The Chalcedon Definition included the representation of viewpoints from the Western Church, Alexandria, Antioch, the Orthodox Nicene confession, the writings of Cyril, and a tome written by Pope Leo concerning the personhood of Christ. The Definition distinctively codified as orthodox the belief in the unity and duality of the God-man Jesus. From Chalcedon forward, the position of the Christian church has been that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, “the same rational soul and body, consubstantial with the Father in Godhead, and consubstantial with us in his manhood… made known in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the difference of the natures being by no means removed because of the union, but the property of each nature being preserved and coalescing in one prosopon and one hupostasis –not parted or divided into two prosopa, but one and the same Son” (Kelly, 339-340). This definition has been the basis from which all future Christological considerations have been based. How then do we consider Christology today?

Even now, the question arises: Who is Jesus and how does He save us? The answers to these questions are perhaps the most important answers that we will ever find. In The Making of Christian Doctrine, Maurice Wiles suggests a critical approach to the development of Christological doctrine and its confession today. Looking at scripture critically, the person of Jesus Christ is clearly seen as both the Son of Man and the Son of God, a paradox that can only be adequately resolved if He is both divine and human. Soteriologically, the Fathers assert that ‘what is not assumed is not healed’–why? In order for Christ to be capable of redemption He must be fully God. Similarly, for Christ to be able to redeem man, He must become the Second Adam that Paul writes of in Romans, the man who lives the perfect life before God to redeem humanity. The Early Fathers clearly saw these tenants as necessary for salvation and redemption, and there seems to be no reason to now reject such logic. If the writer of Hebrews is correct in saying that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8, ESV), then Christological arguments for who Christ is must also hold true.

Early Church FathersWhat then can be concluded concerning the person of Jesus? The Chalcedon Definition still maintains its intellectual integrity: Jesus is fully God and fully man in his nature, and by this paradox, there is sufficient warrant for the Christian doctrine of redemption. Yet the question of how this occurs still remains. Should one conclude with the modern Eastern tradition that faith in the mystery of the person of Christ is the answer? Or perhaps the answer lies with Western faith, which continues to seek explanations through philosophy which have become even more confusing and politicized than those surrounding the Christological debate in the fifth century? C.S. Lewis once wrote that “To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact thought it has become)… The one is hardly more necessary than the other.” The decision is that of the middle path, that choice of both critical evaluation of the claims and arguments of theologians and philosophers alike, and the faithful acceptance of the seemingly paradoxical truth of the Christological claims that Christ is fully God and fully man.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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