(This series was originally given as a talk on Christology for my Lay Dominican chapter meeting. The talk was composed for Palm Sunday, so it began with selections of the agony and passion from the Gospel according to St. Luke )
Let’s keep going with our post from yesterday, where I started presenting a very basic look at Christological questions in the early Church. We had last contended with the Adoptionists, who thought that Jesus was not born the Son of God, but was adopted as Son at His baptism. Then we looked at Arius, who in an attempt to preserve the unity and singularity of God, denied that the Son was divine. Today, we’ll explore how some early thinkers tried to understand how the Divine nature of the Son interacted with human nature.
How Does the Divine Son Mix with Humanity?
A popular way to deal with that question was simply to say: not at all. Or rather, that the incarnation was nothing more than an illusion and that God never actually became man. He just appeared as a man. This was a common belief among many different Gnostic sects (I use this term very loosely) in the first few centuries and the idea became known as “Docetism” from the Greek word ‘dokein,’ “to seem to be.” We as Dominicans should be familiar with this heresy (which was also unequivocally condemned at Nicea), because it was taught by the famous Mani, of the self-titled Manicheans, who held so much influence over St. Augustine in his early life. It was this exact same heresy, with its consequent rejection of all material as evil, which resurfaced in southern France in the 12th century, just with a different name: Albigensianism, or Catharism. The Albigenses believed that the only way to make sense of something as horrific as the crucifixion was to say that God never hung on that cross. They believed that YHWH of the Old Testament was nothing but a demi-god, who polluted Pure Creation by mixing it with matter. The Father of Jesus, therefore, was understood to be the Real God, who stood against YHWH and all his attachment to matter. Thus, the incarnation and the crucifixion were just an elaborate illusion, because God would never actually mix with matter; he just “put on” a body like we would put on a new outfit.
As we have just read Luke’s passion and on Friday we will read John’s account of the death of Jesus, it would do us well to sit and contemplate exactly what it means for the Catholic Church to reject Docetism, to stand firmly and proclaim that God did not merely appear as a man, He actually became man. He sacrificed Himself for us, He who could not die became death for us. He who could not suffer in His own divine nature, took on human nature precisely in order to suffer, to feel the blows of Pilate’s whip, to wince at the piercing crown of thorns, to buckle under the weight of His cross and to experience the pain of being nailed, and suffocating under the weight of his own assumed body. This inexhaustible fount of love, mercy and grace cannot admit a God who merely appeared in flesh. Our Sacramental life could not exist if God was not willing to sanctify matter. What would the point of Easter Sunday be, if God just appeared to die and then appeared to come back to life? You see what is at stake here—Docetism may be attractive because it eliminates some tricky questions about Jesus, but in order to achieve that goal you have to reject a whole lot else.
So if the Church says that the Son must be consubstantial (homoousious) with the Father, and that the Son actually became man and didn’t just appear to be a human, what do we make of this relationship between his Divine and Human natures?
How Do the Two Natures Interact?
Well, that problem was tackled in a few different ways. After Nicea, Nestorius (the patriarch of Constantinople) tried to explain Christ’ dual nature by positing that the Son was one being who was Divine, Jesus was a human, and that the Son dwelt in the same body as Jesus, but they were two totally different people. So Nestorius said: two natures, two persons, one body. This seems to make a lot of sense when you read the agony in the Garden because you can see how two people sharing the same body could have different wills. But the logical next step is to say that God didn’t die on the cross because obviously his nature can’t die and since it’s separate from the human nature, only Jesus the human died on the cross. Also: Mary can’t be “Theotokos” (the God-bearer) because she was a human and couldn’t have been God’s mother, just the mother of the human part of Jesus… you see the problems, here. Nestorius was rejected first at the Council of Ephesus in 431 and again at Chalcedon in 451.
The Monophysites thought that all of this was ridiculous and said that Jesus had one nature: divine. It didn’t make any sense to posit that Jesus had a human nature, because two natures in one body didn’t make sense. So they put forward the general idea that at the incarnation, Divine nature took on human flesh, but that there was no human nature left in Jesus. So: one nature, one person, one body.
Apollinaris was a monophysite, who taught that Jesus had one single nature (which was divine), but that nature was like a hybrid man/God mashup. Jesus’ nature was divine, his body was human and he had some sort of lower soul which was human, but his mind was divine. So at a base level, maybe the Agony in the Garden could make sense for Apolooinarians because what was talking was not really Jesus’ will (which is divine and can’t be different from the Father’s), but his human soul expressing its lower nature, that is—emotions. Jesus was afraid, so his human voice came out, but this apparent problem is resolved when he subjects that emotion of fear to his divine will. I hope you see, that critics of Apollinaris charged him with conjuring up a Jesus who effectively wasn’t fully God or fully Man, which doesn’t sit well with the rest of our Christology.
Eutyches, another monophysite with a different approach, posited that the divine and human natures had blended: one person, one body, mixed nature. The Theotokos is preserved, we can say that God died on the cross, but what of the Agony in the Garden? These complicating and conflicting explanations led to the condemnation of Monophysitism at Chalcedon.
So to summarize everything so far, we have:
- the Son is consubstantial with the Father,
- the Son actually became man, and
- that union was two natures in a single person (the word that we use is hypostasis)
But this begs a further question: does Jesus Christ, who is one person, fully God and fully human, have two wills or one?
Stay tuned for the answer tomorrow!