The Patristic Debates on Christology
The Arian Controversy – Christ as God
Arius (c.250-c.336) in Alexandria actualized the Christological debate in the fourth century. He believed that Christ is a creature because He was once created by God. He is begotten by God, as Logos, the Word, and creation takes place through Him, but He is still created, albeit before other creatures and thus foremost among them. But the Christ is not divine and does not share in God’s being or status. He is called Son as an honorific title bestowed upon Him not because of His own nature but because of God’s will. Arius draws this conclusion from God’s transcendence and immutability. The Son had feelings etc. and that was, for Arius, heretical to say of God. He also thought it unwise to speak of Christ as though He was like a second God, disturbing monotheism. He did this, partly with apologetics in mind, since the Greek philosophical monotheism held that God, being changeless, cannot, on principle, become incarnate. Thus Arius put Christ on the level of creature in the sense of being dependent on the grace of God for everything, but above all other creatures in that He is the channel of God’s creation.
Athanasius of Alexandria (c.293-373) considered Arius to be incoherent with Arius own Christian faith. Arius too believed strongly that Christ is the one who redeems humanity and Athanasius said that if Christ is a creature, He cannot save anyone, since only God can save. Arius was unable to refute that. Athanasius also pointed out that if Christ is a creature and not divine, Christians have been guilty of idolatry ever since the time of the New Testament. Arius refused to agree with him on that point.
The debate was settled in Nicaea in 325 AD. There it was established that Christ is homoousios, “of the same substance” as the Father, not homoiousios, “of similar substance” (notice an “i” inserted), as some were suggesting as a compromise, and definitely not non-divine as Arius was suggesting. Thus the raging debate that threatened to dissolve the church ceased.
Alexandria vs. Antioch – Christ as divine and human
Theologians in fourth century Alexandria considered that in order to deify humanity, Logos, the Word, assumed human nature. The Word who was without flesh united with a body, inconceivably and without change, and became a human being for all eternity, thus enabling humanity to become divine by sharing in His divinity. Some (like Apollinarius) panicked at this, thinking that it made Christ susceptible to sin, and thus held that He accepted everything but the human mind, thought to be the source of sin. Others (Gregory of Nazianzus) countered that if the mind had not been assumed by God it had not be purified and thus our salvation would be only in part. To summarize the Alexandrian school: God became human and thus human nature was purified by becoming part of God’s nature.
The theologians of Antioch thought differently. They wanted to keep the different natures apart and thus held that Christ is the name of a perfect conjunction of the divine and human natures in one specific individual, Jesus. By the will of God they are held together, but can never be mixed, a little like water and oil. Thus the difference was upheld, but costing salvation as the Alexandrian school believed it to happen: by divination. It seems that the Antiochene school established that salvation is continuing to be offered only by the will of God, while the Alexandrian school held it as a permanent change, unalterable even by God, forevermore.
At the Council of Chalcedon (451) the dispute over Christ’s two natures was calmed. However, the debate could not be settled so a compromise was reached. It was established that Jesus Christ is both truly divine and truly human and as long as this was upheld, the discussion was allowed to go on. And go on it did.Source: McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology – An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell 2011, pages 274-285.
Please stay tuned for subsequent parts!