WHAT THINK YOU OF CHRIST?
Rev. Donald Wuerl
A Biblical Reply
Only a few answers
Who is Jesus Christ? There are only a few answers open to the question. Historically, given the claims of Christ's Church that Jesus is divine, the response to the question "Who is Jesus?" was and is one of several! 1) He was a man, a good man, a holy man, a man in whom God was at work—but, nonetheless, a man. This would include the option that Jesus was the Messiah, a liberator of Israel, a prophetic figure—but not divine. 2) He was a special creation of God—a being better than any human could ever be—an intermediary being between God and man. 3) He was God who took on the appearance of a man so as to seem to be one of us. Yet in this phantom state Jesus was really only an apparition—a type of ghost. 4) He is the incarnate Son of God, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father.
With one of these four choices have men and women answered the perennial query "Who is Jesus Christ?" The question is important because it grows out of an interest in Jesus that can bring one to the verge of faith. On the answer, however, depends much more than individual faith. It involves the Church's whole concept of redemption and the salvation of all men and women.
The question and its answer come from a matrix of faith. Eventually, the correct answer can only be the result of a response in faith. For this reason it is in the living faith community—the Church—that we must look for the answer.
The Church's reply
The Church offers a very clear answer. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, true God and true man. (D. 125). The Church also teaches that this answer is the same as that given by the Apostles and first disciples. However the Church also recognizes that her faith developed and that the wording of this perennial answer had become more clear or precise in the course of history.
We are interested here in looking at this question and answer sequence to see how various answers can be made that proclaim Christ in terms acceptable to the Church's faith in him as the incarnate Son of God, and how other answers fall short of this faith. Yet even a wrong answer has the value of helping the Church see more clearly the correct one by adding another dimension to it. In fact the lucidity that surrounds the present day faith proclamation of who Jesus is, in no small part is the result of the surfacing of wrong answers to the all important question.
Given the nature of the Now Testament writings we can expect to find in them the truth about Jesus. Yet this truth may not always be in the form and words to which we are accustomed. Thus to take only the literal meaning of the words—the various voices—in the New Testament and dehydrate them by boiling off the living tradition of the Church is to produce a shriveled, dry, and altered product. But even more disastrous, it is to come up with answers which, though seemingly supported by certain citations, are, in fact, wrong ones.
In like manner since many currents, influences and cultural emphases were at work in the wording of Sacred Scripture, it is not impossible that incorrect interpretations of those words could, did, and can today abound.
And even if we assume that the correct answer has undergone development and been made more explicit, we do so knowing that essentially the Church's answer today is that of the Apostolic community.
For this assumption is also part of the Church's faith. This is the reason that we begin our study of the question "Who is Jesus Christ?" with a look at the original reply of the Apostolic Church.
At first, the choice seems to have been confined to the rejection or acclamation of Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah. The faith statements made about Jesus and recorded in the New Testament as made before his death, centered on his being the Messiah. It was only after his resurrection that Jesus was understood by his followers to be the Christ, the Lord, who, as such, was also the Son of God.
New Testament record
The books of the New Testament record a gradual development in the disciples' recognition of who Jesus was and is. Yet within the New Testament, Jesus is explicitly called God. This statement is challenged by some scholars today. Yet there seems to be an enormous amount of evidence to sustain that such an explicit declaration of Jesus' divinity is part of the gospel. The teaching tradition of the Church does see in certain terms and names used in reference to Jesus a direct proclamation of him as God. For example, in the prologue of the Gospel of St John, Jesus is identified as the Word of God, a Person who was "in the beginning with the Father". That Gospel proclaims "the Word was God". (John 1:1).
Jesus is also called the "Son" who "bears the very stamp of God's nature" (Heb 1:3). And in the exclamation of St Thomas, recorded in John's gospel, Jesus is addressed as "My Lord and My God!" (20:28). By the sixth century the Church explicitly accepted this as an affirmation of his divinity. The Second Council of Constantinople in 553 said that Christ in this passage is being called God (D. 43).
More often, however, the title "Lord" is given to Jesus. The Risen Jesus is called Lord in recognition of his divine glory (Phil 2:10-11). The acclamation "Lord Jesus!" of the early Christian Community points to the Church's conviction that Jesus is with his people. This is the Christian paraphrase of the Old Testament address to God as Emmanuel, God-with-us. Jesus now bears this divine name. He is the Lord, our Lord with us. The proclamation is of the essence of the Apostolic preaching of which so many examples are found in the Acts of the Apostles. It is this affirmation that is developed in St Paul and St John to release some of its full implication.
The Gospel of St John does not hesitate to put on the lips of Jesus himself the name proper to God. In the book of Exodus, Moses asked God for his name. "God said to Moses", Exodus continues, "'I AM WHO I AM'. And he said, 'Say this to the people of Israel, I AM has sent me to you’" (Exodus 3:14). In St John's Gospel Jesus applies this name to himself. "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58). The response of some who heard him was violent. "They took up stones to throw at him" (8:59). This they were to do again later on when Jesus said "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30). Jesus at that time asked the crowd why they would stone him. They seemed to have got the point of Jesus' declaration without benefit of further reflection, for the gospel continues, "The Jews answered him, 'We stone you for no good work but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God’" (John 10:33).
The Gospels according to Matthew and Mark trace the dimensions of the question and answer in terms of a conversation between Jesus and Peter with some other disciples. It is Jesus who raises the question "Who do men say that the Son of man is?" (Matt 16:13). In Mark, presumably the earlier of these two accounts of the same event, the question is more direct. "Who do men say that I am?" (Mark 8:27).
The structure of both accounts is the same. The setting is Caesarea Philippi. Jesus first asks his disciples who others say he is. He then challenges these same followers to declare who they say he is. Peter answers, apparently for all, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt 16:16). In Mark's account Peter is quoted as replying "You are the Christ" (Mark 8:29). The Matthew account has Jesus' confirmation of Peter's profession of faith. "And Jesus answered him, 'Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father who is in heaven’" (16:17).
The Matthew account of Peter's profession takes us beyond that of Mark's. For the strictly literal interpretation of "You are the Christ" can mean merely a reference to Jesus' Messiahship which does not necessarily mean divinity. The additional title, "The Son of the living God", goes beyond the confession of kingship and shows a more developed understanding of who Jesus is. The primitive Christian community as reflected here professed their belief in the entirely unique relationship of Jesus with the Father. There is no reason, given the other professions in Christ's divinity found in the literature of the primitive Church, automatically to exclude that this is a profession of divinity—a proclamation of the faith—intuition of the ancient Christian community.
Jesus the Messiah
The special relationship of Jesus to the Father is the essence of the revelation of the New Testament. Jesus is the Son. The whole thrust of this revelation came to be summed up in what we now call binitarian (Father and Son) or trinitarian (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) formulae. In the New Testament there are several faith formulae that indicate an effort to conserve in concise phrases the essential elements of the faith. One of the most remarkable of these is found in 1 Cor 15:3 ff. where St Paul reproduces an extract from what he describes as "the gospel which I preached to you and which you received". This gospel, Paul points out, is what he himself received, presumably from the Church. Other such creedal formulae are found in Rom 8:24, 2 Tim 2:8, 1 Pet 3:18 and a most clear one is found in 1 Cor 8:6: "We, however, have one God the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist".
The two most regularly cited trinitarian formulae are found in 2 Cor 13:14: "The grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all", and the baptismal command put by St Matthew on the lips of the risen Lord, "Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt 28:19). Second Corinthians is usually dated around 57 A.D., the Gospel of Matthew about 75 A.D.
It seems from the ease with which the first believers move from "Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah" to "Jesus is the Son of God", to Jesus is "My Lord and My God", that the faith experience of the Church included Jesus' divinity.
In this sense the later tenacity with which the Church held to Christ's divinity makes sense. The Church seems to have equated the proclamation of Jesus as the Christ and Lord with the confession of Jesus as true God.
The Apostolic Church’s Reply
As the Church moved out of the age which saw the Apostles themselves bearing witness to the words of Jesus she carefully preserved her memories of what he said and did. And in the heritage so jealously preserved by the second generation Church we find the formulae that invoked the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There are numerous example of this statement of faith in God One in Three. The same faith is also reflected in the liturgical rites of that day as they are recorded and can be pieced together. The Didache, usually dated at the beginning of the second century (and therefore, within the lifetime of disciples of the Apostles), gives the unmistakable directions for the administration of baptism: "After you have said all these things, baptize in running water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." (no. 7). Clement, in his Letter to the Corinthians, usually dated around 90-95 A.D., brings out a similar formula when he enquires of his readers, "Have we not one God, and one Christ and one Spirit of grace which has been poured out on us?" (no. 46. 5).
The letters of St Ignatius, who suffered martyrdom in Rome about 107, reveal several trinitarian creedal statements. In his letter to the Magnesians, he exhorts the faithful to live "in faith and charity, in the Son and the Father and the Spirit", and later in the same letter he reminds them to be obedient to the bishop and one another as "the apostles to Christ and to the Father and to the Spirit" (no. 13).
Asthe Apostolic era fades into the next generation of believers and into the age of Justin and his Apology we find still additional formulations of the creed of the Church. Here, for example, we find the trinitarian formulae, "To the Father of the universe, through the name of his Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Apol. I, 65, 3) and "the Maker of all things, through his Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Spirit" (Apol. I, 67, 2).
It must have been the continuity with the Apostolic faith of these creedal statements and the constant repetition of them that led Newman to comment that an examination of a chain of pre-Arian writers, from every part of the Christian world, reveals that "there was during the second and third centuries a profession and teaching concerning the Holy Trinity, not vague and cloudy, but of a certain determinate character" (Cardinal Newman, Causes of the Rise and Successes of Arianism, ch. 3, no. 1). Newman continues, "some doctrine or other of a Trinity lies at the very root of the Christian conception of the Supreme Being and of his worship and service" (Newman, ch. 3, no. 1),
What took place from the days of the Apostolic Church down to the Council of Nicaea (325) might be described as a gradual unspecified clarification of the implications dependent on the Church's faith proclamation. The process began with the faith as something given, which is to be reverenced and understood insofar as reason can penetrate the mystery of God's revelation. The process moves from what is given to what is implied. The affirmation of further statements about the faith enable the living faith to develop. It flourishes yet does not change. It grows but is not altered.
Whose Son is He?
To the Council of Nicaea, the gradual, or not so slow process depending on what you consider fast, clarification of the faith continued. There were several aberrations which we shall look at briefly. These elements, alien to the true faith, were soon recognized as such and declared not in keeping with the true faith. Usually these were localized theological, philosophical, or exegetical positions which tended to view the faith from a favoured premise. This in turn put out of focus other aspects of the faith. In answer to the question "What think you of the Christ? Whose Son is he?", several answers came to be voiced that were not in harmony with the Church's proclamation. The first of these erroneous positions is called Docetism.
The Docetists contested the truth of the new faith by claiming that Christ had never been truly human. These people felt that to preserve the divinity of Jesus it was necessary to deny his humanity. They, therefore, maintained that the figure of Jesus was really only a phantasm, a false human, a sort of ghostlike being who only seemed to be a man. The Greek word for "seem" gives this group its name, Docetists. Apparently, this false conception of who Jesus was dates back almost to the beginning of the Church. For in the First and Second Letters of St John we find what many scholars see as a refutation of the Docetist teaching. The First Letter opens with an affirmation that the Lord who "was from the beginning was also corporeal... which we have heard, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands" (I John 1:1). It later warns against the "many false prophets" (4:1). In the Second Letter we are told that "many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh..." (2 John 7).
Another wrong answer
St Ignatius of Antioch, as he made his way to his death in Rome in 107, writes to the Trallians that "some atheists, that is, unbelievers, say his suffering was but make-believe... Avoid these wildlings…" (Letter to the Trallians, 10-11). He states the correct faith in his letter to the Ephesians, "Our God Jesus Christ was brought to birth by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary, of David's seed, according to God's great plan for men" (Epistle to the Epbesians, 18, 2).
The next wrong answer to the question "Who is Jesus?" came from a group known collectively as Gnostics. They got the name from the Greek word for knowledge. The name followed on the fact that they claimed they had the "true story" about Jesus and that their knowledge was quite superior to that of the ordinary, uninformed believer.
Gnosticism is a view of life that borrows heavily from Platonic philosophical conclusions. It is also highly seasoned with the Eastern (Asia Minor and Persia) mystery religions. The essence of the gnostic doctrine is its claim to possess a secret knowledge principle that gives members a deeper insight into the Christian revelation. This "insight" is, of course, a higher "truth" than that held by the rest of Christians.
Applied lock, stock and barrel to the Christian revelation the God of creation became the one divine being. The Word of God, Jesus Christ, became the great emanation from the Father, the Demiurge. Men and women were divided into those who shared the "secret knowledge" that was the Word, and all the rest.
According to this theory God—the one supreme being—could not have been involved in the elements of this corruptible world. The ideal does not get mixed up in earthly shadows and material likenesses. So the conclusion that their philosophical and theological studies arrived at was quite simply—Jesus Christ is not God in the sense of "equal to the Father" nor is he man in the flesh as are other human beings. Jesus is a man, according to this theory, and Christ is the superhuman emanation from the Divine Being. Jesus is not the Christ. It is only correct to say that the superhuman Christ invested or used the human Jesus.
At first the Church did not everywhere react strongly against the gnostic movement. For there is a sense in which the philosophy of the Platonic and later Neoplatonic school could be useful in understanding who Jesus is. Later theology was to derive much from these currents of thought to express how it is that the Father and Son, both God, could be both distinct persons and yet one divinity.
But the day dawned when the Gnostics insisted that their philosophical conclusions take precedence over the faith commitment of the Christian community. Then the battle lines were drawn up, for there are too many aspects of the faith in Jesus Christ that cannot be made to reconcile with the rather narrow tailoring of the gnostic suit made for him.
St Irenaeus as a boy had received the faith from St Polycarp. Sometime around 178 he became Bishop of Lyons in present day France. Before his death in 200 he wrote in defence of the Catholic faith as received, over and against the Gnostics' view of things. His great work Against Heresies is a detailed attack on Gnosticism. Irenaeus understood that the key concept for the true faith was the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The Eternal Word of God was equal to the Father and became man—took on flesh. Jesus Christ is therefore true God and true man.
Irenaeus wrote: "It is not true that Christ then (at the time of the baptism) descended on Jesus. Nor is it true that Christ and Jesus are two distinct persons; but the Word of God, the Saviour of all and ruler of heaven and earth, is Jesus. He took flesh. He was anointed by the Father with the Spirit and became Jesus Christ" (Against Heresies 3, 9, 3).
And so the battle went on; one group claiming to understand the faith according to its new theological and philosophical insights, and the Church defending its received faith while seeking to penetrate further its mysteries.
The term Gnosticism as a general heading fits a very large but divided school of thought that answered the question "Who is Jesus?" in ways the Church found unacceptable. One current of the school concentrated on denying Christ's divinity by turning him into a second class deity who hovered somewhere between God and human beings. Others preferred to accentuate Christ's otherworldliness and rejected his humanity. What both currents of this one philosophical school had in common was the denial that Jesus Christ could be God and man at the same time in the some person. This current of thought included just about every major heresy of the first centuries of the Christian era. How the names strike us as foreign to our concerns! But then the havoc wrought in the Church over these various answers to the question "Who is Jesus?" was devastating. It was to reach its climax in the heresy of Arius.
The forerunners to the great Arian break with the traditional doctrine of the Church came in the form of Gnosticism which accentuated Christ's special dignity as the most excellent of creatures. Yet it fell short of naming Christ God. Its theological premises could only carry it to the point of declaring Jesus Christ an "adopted Son of God"—but not one in nature.
In all this process the Church's understanding of her faith-reply to the question "Who is Jesus?" continually grew. As each interpretation of the answer "Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God" was challenged, the penetration into the mystery of God's revelation and our faith-statement became more fruitful.
What the Church was witnessing was a confrontation between her faith-proclamation as she received, nourished and held it, and individual appreciations of the gospel that, resulted from the inability to sort out philosophical and theological faith-premises and conclusions from the living faith of the Church. In addition, the process of clarification of the faith and a genuine development of it went on during all the confrontations that marked what are called heresies. The two columns that supported the Church in its struggle to keep the faith were a humble acceptance of God's word, as it lives in the Church's tradition, and the teaching office which exists to interpret and guarantee the gospel message. Underlying these pillars was the promise of the Holy Spirit who would not abandon Christ's Church to error and false faith.
Reply of the Councils
The great anvil on which the doctrinal statements about Jesus Christ were worked out in the early centuries of the Christian era were the Church Councils—particularly those from Nicaea to Chalcedon. The hammer brought to bear on the faith-proclamation was human intelligence probing ever more deeply into the mystery of God made man. The process was set in motion, however, by the teaching of Arius, a priest of Alexandria who came on the scene in the early part of the fourth century. It is his doctrine that set the stage for the long century, 125 years, from Nicaea's decrees to Chalcedon's dogma. In that period of time the Church was to move toward a definitive statement of its faith in Jesus Christ. It would put in doctrinally precise terms the gospel answer to the perennial question: "Who is Jesus Christ?"
The ecclesiastical struggles that surrounded Arius are a story in themselves. It is a tale that includes his fights with the bishops of his region, their arguments and his replies, the popular confusion this created and, finally, division within the Church. An equally colourful narrative would be that of the Roman Emperor's part in the life and activities of the Church in that day. We will forego the pleasure of any detailed excursions into those adventuresome aspects of the life of the Church and concentrate here on the answer of Nicaea to the question "Who is Jesus?"
Part of the problem that leads to Nicaea and eventually after it to Chalcedon is the factthat the New Testament does not speak of Jesus in terms of what he is—but rather in terms of what he does, and what is his relationship to us. The realm of philosophy includes the categories of ontology—being and its divisions. Thus while it was natural for the philosophically oriented students of Christianity to seek ontological answers to the question "Who is Jesus?", it was not, on that account, necessary that answers in those precise terms would be found in the New Testament. Rather, Scripture speaks of Jesus as Lord, Son of God, Saviour, Messiah, Priest and Word. It defined these titles in terms of what Jesus did. It is fair to say that the New Testament is more concerned about what is Jesus' relationship to us than in his essence. To see that Jesus is God requires, in addition to the words of the New Testament, the living faith of the believing community to interpret those words.
When Arius asked is Jesus Christ God, he confronted the problem as a specifically philosophical one that admitted of solution according to particular categories of thought. However, as soon became apparent, his appreciation of Scripture was too limited and narrow to yield the rich harvest of truth that could have satisfied even his philosophical categories. On the other hand, men like St Athanasius saw in the Scriptures a realism of the word of God that opened into a much deeper theological appreciation and assessment of what it means to say "Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God". The pages of Scripture for those like Athanasius, who held that the Church could not be misusing them in her traditional proclamation, yielded the wider proposition that what is said of the Father is also affirmed of the Son with the exception that the Son is not said to be the Father. If what is true about the Father is also true about the Son, except that the Son is not the Father, then it follows that the Son is all that the Father is, except for the name of Father.
It was this logic based on the Church's reading of Sacred Scripture that permitted the affirmation in dogmatic terms of the formula of the Council of Nicaea. As some scholars have pointed out, the foundation for such a step was the universal patristic conviction that a realist epistemology and ontology were implicit in the word of God which the Scriptures exhibit. The Word of God is true; therefore it expresses what is.
To summarize a long story of political and ecclesiastical in-fighting as well as theological controversy, we can best start the discussion of Nicaea by viewing the two positions held as that first general council in the history of the Church opened. The position of Arius, which has beendescribed as a "model of dovetailed logic" has as its essential starting point the conviction of the absolute transcendency of God, who was in this case Godthe Father. There could be no other but one God. The being, substance and essence of the one unique God was absolutely incommunicable. If another being shared the divine nature in any intrinsic sense, there would follow a division of divine Being into several. Thus everything else but this one indivisible God must be aresult of God's act of creation.
Logically we are brought to the conclusion from these premises that the Son or Word is subordinate to the Father. The Son was a creature, a perfect creature, "the first begotten of all creation," but nonetheless a creature—made out of nothing by the Father. It also follows in this logical system that as a creature the Word must have had a beginning. Of course, he was not in time as we are, but "there was when he was not".
In this theological system Jesus, the Word, was made Son by the Father in grace. He was an adoptive Son. Thus even though we can use the term Trinity and speak of three distinct persons, they remain three utterly different beings, and do not share in any way the same substance or being as each other. Only the Father is true God. The Son and Spirit are "God" in an almost figurative sense.
The fullness of time
Arius' argument ran thus: there is only one God. He is eternal and completely self-sufficient. The Son of God, therefore, must be a created thing—a creature. Hence he cannot be God. Neither the Son nor the Holy Spirit possess the same being or substance as the Father. Arius put his finger on the very core of the question of the Trinity. How can God be one and three?
The results of the statement that Christ was less than the Father were dramatic. Either Christ was God or he was not. This was the question that the faithful understood—the vast majority of the people. If he wasn't, then his death merited nothing and men were right back where they started out—back with Adam. If, however, as the Church held, Christ was God, then his death was a salvific one, as St Paul says. "But when the fullness of time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman... that he might redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons" (Galatians 4:4).
His sacrifice, as described by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, was that of the divine Mediator between God and man. This Arius did not accept.
The dispute began in Alexandria. It spread like a brush fire, and soon the whole edifice of the Church was in flames. The Emperor Constantine decided that the time had come to put some order into the spreading confusion. He convoked the first General Council of the Church. This was held in Nicaea in 325.
Briefly, the Council of Nicaea decided that the true faith holds, as it held from the Apostolic Church, that Jesus Christ is "God from God, light from light, true God from true God, born not made, one in substance (Homoousion) with the Father …." In this definition, the Church not only set forth the faith in clear and concise terms but also used a specific word with which to state and define the faith, The confusion had been caused by the introduction of specific philosophical systems and the application of their conclusions to the statement of the faith. The Council countered by stating the faith and then using a word that would not lend itself to twisting by proponents of any one philosophical or theological school of thought. The word "homoousion" was to become an expression of the living faith of the Church in the divinity of Jesus Christ.
The Church, with divine authority, can and does state the faith even in words that are not necessarily found in the pages of Sacred Scripture. The word homoousion caused many much trouble. Nicaea used it to establish a touchstone that would state clearly the Catholic faith. It is a word that was impossible to square with any kind of Arian doctrine. Quite simply it means that Jesus and the Father are of the same substance, being, reality. Neither is superior to the other. The living, conscious teaching Church is the guardian of both the message and its very wording. Christ's Church not only must pass on the saving Gospel, but can at times even indicate which words best serve the Gospel. The witness of the Church is not a vague hope or groundless euphoria. It is a clear testimony of precise events, a judgment articulated about certain facts. And, as in any society, the Church has those who are called to speak for it.
Obviously, the Church, as an organic whole, cannot testify. Her spokesmen do. Within the Church some are called to be the official and authentic spokesmen or witnesses for her. These called by the Spirit, for the Church, are those teachers, successors to the Apostles, called bishops. Of their functions in the Church one primary duty is that of official witness or spokesman for the incarnate witness that is the living Church. The bishop for the local church and all the bishops for the universal Church, always with Peter as their head, bear the ministry of witness in a particular manner.
The bishops gathered at Nicaea spoke in the name of' the whole Church. They set forth what is the faith of the Church—the faith that saves. Their principal concern was a pastoral one which was the result of doctrinal confusion among the faithful. So, to carry out their pastoral charge, they had first to exercise their teaching office.
Following the Council of Nicaea there was a series of theological investigations and developments that led to additional clarifications in the statement of the faith. Some of these investigations went wide of the mark and brought fresh doctrinal concerns to the attention of the bishops. Due to the pastoral ramifications of some of the teaching being aired, additional councils were necessary to state exactly what is the Church's true faith.
It is of importance to note that in all this development of doctrine several premises were accepted seemingly by everyone. First, the Church can and does develop in her appreciation of her faith and precision of its expression. Theological pluralism, the varied appreciation of the one faith, cannot properly exist where contradictory positions are held and proclaimed.The primary function of the teaching office is the salvation of the faithful. Thus the clarification of doctrinal differences becomes incumbent on the hierarchy when such divergence of opinion begins to touch the faith life of the believer in a way that can lead him or her to a false understanding of the full Gospel message. It is against this background that there developed the teaching of the Church about the true identity of Christ and his nature.
The first person to take the definition of Nicaea and spin off a corollary that caused concern in the Church was Apollinaris, bishop of Laodicea. He fully accepted that Jesus Christ was truly God and equally man. But in order to explain how the Word of God and the human Jesus were united he developed a theory that eventually the Church rejected. In short, Apollinaris felt that there was only one real source of activity or soul in Christ. That soul, source of truly human, intellectual activity was the divine soul. Thus Jesus Christ was a human body with a divine inner principle or soul.
The difficulty with this theological position was soon evident. If Christ had no soul, no principle of intellectual activity, then he was not a "true man". Further, according to the principle that what Christ did not assume, he did not redeem, if Christ did not take to himself our complete human nature, then we are not entirely redeemed. But the Gospel says we are redeemed in the person of Jesus. Therefore, Christ became whatever we are when we define ourselves as "man".
In 377 A.D. local gatherings of bishops in Rome and Alexandria pointed out the flaw in Apollinaris' theory. Pope Damasus confirmed that the "Son and Word of God did not take the place of the rational and intellective soul in his (Christ's) body, but assumed and preserved a soul like ours... but without sin." (D. 159). Thus another step forward was made. The Church clarifies what it meant when it said Christ was a man. He had a human body and principle of intellectual activity—a soul.
To understand how Christ could be a complete man yet also "true God of true God" requires that we understand the basic and utter unity of the person Jesus Christ. He was one, yet with both a human and divine nature. The clarification of the unity of Christ came with the Council of Chalcedon. In the meantime another important aspect of Christ's reality was clarified at the Council of Ephesus. Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, was indirectly responsible for this council. He taught that Jesus was a man and also God. He failed to accept the intimate union of Jesus the man and Christ the Son of God. Eventually his argument came to centre on the phenomenon of Christ's birth.
Nestorius held that Mary gave birth to the man Jesus. She was therefore justly called the "Christotokos", the bearer of Christ. The Church argued that the union of Christ and the Eternal Word is such that when Mary gave birth to Jesus she also gave birth in Christ, to God. Eventually the Council of Ephesus which met in 431 defined that Mary was truly the Mother of God (D. 251). The unity of the humanity and divinity of Christ in the person of Jesus is such that when Mary gave birth to Jesus she brought forth the Eternal Son of the Eternal Father. She is thus called the "theotokos", Mother of God.
In summary, by the time the Council of Ephesus closed, the Church had made clear that she understood Peter's declaration of faith "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt 16:16), to mean that Christ was one person with two natures, one divine, one human. He was one Lord who was of the same being with the Father and yet one with all men and women in his humanity.
In the years following the Council of Ephesus several interpretations of the words used at Nicaea and Ephesus began to circulate. These versions of what the Councils meant reopened what had come to be considered a closed case, and soon the whole Church was in controversy again. Thus we come to the Council of Chalcedon. This gathering of bishops took place in 451. It undertook to set forth clearly and definitively what the Church's answer is to the question: "What think you of the Christ?"
Pope Leo I wrote to the council an explicit statement of the Church's faith about Jesus Christ. The council concurred. The letter of Leo has come down to us as his Tome. It states, as does the council, that the Eternal Word of God and Our Lord Jesus Christ are one and identical. Jesus Christ is perfect both in his divinity and in his humanity. He is true God and true man with a human body and soul. In his divinity he was begotten of the Father before time. In his humanity he was born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. The two natures, human and divine, are not changed but united in one person. Thus there is one person, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son, God the Word, the Lord, who is God and man.
This formulation of the ancient faith has the advantage of a clarity that answered the theological problems of the day and it makes clear and concise the Church's understanding of the richness of God's revelation to his people. This long struggle within the Church for clarity was not one of theological opinion. It centred on the question "Who is Christ?" and the Church's faith response. The Council of Chalcedon closes with the warning that "as these truths have been formulated with all possible accuracy and care, the holy, ecumenical council has ordained that no one may bring forward or put into writing or devise or entertain or teach to others any other faith." (D. 303).
In this way did the Church reach a clear definition of her primitive faith that Jesus Christ is both God and man, our Saviour. And for well over 1,300 years did this faith endure, in in unbroken line, a living teaching tradition that saw the whole Church accept as true the faith declaration that Christ is true God and true man, even as the same Church had to face all kinds of divisions, disruptions and difficulties with other doctrinal matters. This bedrock of Christian creed and doctrine remained untouched. It survived as the basic absolute Christian belief. It was and continues to be the reply of centuries of faith and millions and millions of believers led by the Spirit to the question "Who is JesusChrist?".
Weekly Edition in English
1 June 1978, page 10
15 June 1978, page 8
10 August 1978, page 6
L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:
The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069