The Early Christological Controversies: Introduction

I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed. For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.

But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ. For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: and profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers. But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus.”

  • Epistle to the Galatians 1


At the beginning of the third year of my commerce undergraduate degree I used up two elective slots to take two courses offered by my university’s religious studies department. One was a course on medieval theology, mostly centred around Aquinas, and the other was a course on the Reformation, mostly centred around Luther. They were both taught by the same professor. At the time I had left Christianity almost entirely about 5-6 years prior, shortly after going through the motions of a Roman Catholic confirmation. I had become interested in Christian theology recently though, partly from encountering Paul Tillich, but mainly because I could not escape the image of the crucified Christ that I found so compelling. So on the first week the professor offered office hours I walked into his office and asked him, “what does it mean to be a Christian?” After a short pause and with a twinkle in his eye, he replied, “to confess that Jesus Christ is the Lord.” The years following that meeting were spent in a struggle to understand what it means to say that “Christ is the Lord,” constantly wrestling with this professor. Unsurprisingly, I have become a thoroughly Christocentric thinker.

Christian dogmas regarding the person of Jesus Christ are, without much doubt in my eyes even now, by far the strangest aspect of the Christian faith for those outside the Church. Today this is even so for many Christians, as I had the chance to see intimately when I saw a middle school student go bug-eyed when I was teaching a group of young teenagers at my mother’s Baptist church some introductory doctrines about Christ. The basic revulsion to the idea of this itinerant Jewish rabbi being God incarnate in human flesh is frankly all too understandable, and an inability to appreciate why our Jewish and Muslim neighbours find this central Christian belief bewildering and absurd would reflect our inability to take thought seriously. For if we as Christians took our Jewish roots seriously, which is to mean that we claim continuity with the transcendental monotheism that was received by the Apostles and in which Jesus of Nazareth spoke in, then the figure of Christ must raise serious theological questions. If God is one, and if God is transcendent in such a way that not even the Prophet Moses could see his face, then what are we to do with this figure of Christ who not only appears divine but even claims himself to be divine in a way that is far greater than the prophets? How are we supposed to square monotheism with the way the Apostles called Christ “Lord”? If Christ is God, then how can there only be one God? These are the questions that serves as the central problems for Christian thought from the Apostles themselves all the way to the Council of Constantinople (381), and of course, is the heart of the single most influential council of Christian history after the age of the Apostles—the Council of Nicaea (325).

Up to the Council of Constantinople the preoccupation of the “orthodox” was to stress and preserve the divinity of Christ in theological proclamation. But after the divinity of Christ has been accepted and dogmatically enshrined, the central Christological concern takes a noticeable shift into the problem of understanding and preserving the humanity of the Christ who is God. This new problem will be the central Christological preoccupation for the orthodox from the Council of Ephesus (431) to the Council of Constantinople III (681). These councils are in continuity with each other because they are coherent developments upon each other, and these developments occurred over the centuries as the thinkers of the Church became aware of the full implications and shortcomings of their predecessors as they began to digest their work. This is what makes the Christological debates of the early Church so fascinating to me, and why they are still so important for us. Of course there is value in learning about what the dogmatic proclamations state, but it is more interesting and more valuable to understand why the Church understood what they enshrined as dogma to be true, and how the Church even arrived at their conclusions. In our age, where not only Church history but even the basic literality of dogma are both simply forgotten and intentionally rejected, the developments of Christology are positively novel for most of us, as it was for myself and my fellow undergraduate colleagues that found our way into the strange world of Christian theology, guided by a theologian in exile teaching under the roof of a secular research department.

What I hope to do with this Christology series is to try and unpack, even if in a bit of a generalized way, the Christological debates of the early Church up to the Council of Constantinople III. My main desire is to demystify as much as I can what often appears to us as little more than incomprehensible and arcane theological gobbledygook, and a necessary part of that will be to take the heretics of the early Church seriously. And by doing this I hope to provide where I think a lot of popular talk about the councils drop the ball a bit. For one, it’s rather common to see talk just about the Council of Nicaea, as if everything was somehow either “solved” at Nicaea or completely corrupted by it (like the Restorationist/Primitivist mythos of the “Constantinian shift”). This sometimes expands a little further to the Council of Chalcedon, but then all history stops right there as if nothing comes after the year 451 AD (as is all too common in Mainline Protestant historiography). Now, this isn’t completely unwarranted given that Nicaea and Chalcedon really could be seen as the two most definitively important councils, but even then the popular discourse is lacking because it fails to fully appreciate the concerns of the heretics. We have to remember that many of the central heretics of Christian history were pious Christians. Many of them had serious reasons for having the opinions they argued and defended, and we can only fully appreciate what became enshrined as orthodox dogma in relation to the great heretics.

To make this series possible I will have to make the parameters fairly narrow. I wish to only look at things that I think are directly relevant to the line of Christological development encompassed by the councils up to the Council of Constantinople III. So, I will, unfortunately, not be looking very closely at people like St. Augustine of Hippo (my own patron!) who, while not irrelevant, is a bit tangential to the story. I will also try not to talk about modern theology.  And while I of course will be talking about things relevant to the modern dialogue between the Chalcedonians and the Oriental Orthodox (and the Church of the East), I won’t comment on it. I wish to only look at the content of the Christological dogmas and the debates surrounding them, and I will talk about the historical context and the characters involved. I will also try not to talk too much about Trinitarian doctrine proper except for where it is directly relevant and necessary. But this is a purely personal project, and it is a series that I am writing for a particular community in mind, so directions could change and things swerve off into tangents that are of interest for the readers. I will leave things fairly open-ended in that regard.

So what does it mean for Christ to be the Lord? For the first section, I will make a preliminary sketch of the historical background leading up to the Council of Nicaea, stopping at the appearance of a renowned ascetic who was a student of St. Lucian of Antioch and a popular and influential priest during his life: the great arch-heresiarch, Arius.

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