This is a short piece I wrote recently for my Intro to Christian History & Thought class. It’s a summary of some important heresies concerning the nature of Jesus and the ecumenical councils that combatted them. I conclude with a reflection on my Christian tradition. Personal application is always fun because at my school (Regent U) I’m usually the lone Anabaptist voice crying in the wilderness. Or shouting from my soapbox. Depends on perspective.
Christology and the Councils
In intellectual pursuits, truth demands effort, at times even conflict. While generally seen as negative, the Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries demanded a clear and unified answer from the Church concerning the nature of Christ.
Arianism challenged the deity of Jesus by advocating a monotheistic theology in which God the Father alone possessed deity. Jesus was a created being who did not share deity with the Father. Arius drew his inspiration from ambiguous Old Testament passages like Proverbs which talks about wisdom (hence, Jesus) being created at some point in history. He also drew from the phrase “only begotten” to argue for the creation of Jesus. Logically, if Jesus was created, he is not eternal; therefore, he is not God.
Like Arius, Apollinaris challenged the nature of Jesus, but instead of denying Jesus’s deity, Apollinaris denied his humanity. Since humans are souls within bodies, he taught, then the essence of Jesus was the Word dwelling in a human body. Thus, Jesus possessed no human will or mind, and by extension, minimal humanity. With its emphasis on the soul within body as the ultimate identity, Apollinarianism was obviously an extension or expression of Gnosticism.
Nestorius was bishop of Constantinople who distinguished between Jesus Christ the man, and God the Word in what came to be known as the “Word-man” approach. In Nestorius’s teaching, Jesus Christ was a man in which God the Word dwelt. Although Jesus Christ and God the Father are unified in purpose, they remain separate in essence. By extension, the Virgin Mary could not be known as the “God-bearer.” At the heart of Nestorius’s teaching is his denial of the incarnation of Christ; he simply could not believe that an infant could be the true God.
Where most other heresies stirred up controversy for emphasizing a particular element of Christ’s nature at the expense of others, Eutychianism was condemned for mixing his natures to the point of them being indistinguishable. According to Eutychus, Jesus was neither fully God or fully man, but a sort of hybrid between the two. While this perspective was an honest attempt at avoiding the extremes of the other perspectives, it ultimately confused more than elucidated the issue of Christ’s divinity.
The first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicea, convened in 325 A.D. and focused on Arianism, eventually condemning it as heresy. The Council adopted a creed that clarified the nature of Christ’s divinity. Particularly important is the creed’s use of the Greek term homoousios to capture the concept of Jesus being “of one substance” with God the Father. From the Council of Nicea emerged two major opposing groups: the Western or Nicene group which emphasized the deity of Christ, and the Eastern or Origenist group which emphasized the Trinitarian nature of God. While the Origenists were not Arians, they were suspected of the heresy because of their emphasis on the distinctiveness of Christ.
The Council of Constantinople in 381 continued to focus on the problem of Arianism but also addressed Apollinarianism. The Nicene Creed developed at this council, remains the most widely accepted of all creeds in the contemporary church. Against Arianism the creed maintained the full deity of Jesus, and against Apollinarianism it confirmed his full humanity. However, as theologians like Nestorius and Eutychus tried to understand the function of Christ’s unified humanity, they caused additional controversies which led to yet another ecumenical council.
The Council of Chalcedon in 451 continued its treatment of Arianism and Apollinarianism while addressing Nestorius’s “Word-man” Christology and Eutyches’s tertium quid, or “third something” idea. In the “Chalcedonian Definition” that emerged, Jesus is defined as “perfect in God and also perfect in manhood…born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God…to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly.” While not everybody agreed with it, this definition established an orthodox, Christological framework by negation as much as definition.
I grew up and remain in the Anabaptist Christian tradition. Unlike the Magisterial Reformers who focused on sola Scriptura, the Radical Reformers tended to draw their primary inspiration and direction from the teachings and life of Jesus. This does not mean that they devalued Scripture. Rather, Jesus (as revealed in Scripture) became the lens through which the rest of Scripture came into focus. Although my current church does not use creeds in any sort of systematic way, we adopt the central tenets of the Nicene Creed, namely that Jesus is both fully God and fully human.
The Anabaptist emphasis on the emulation of Christ in life—nachfolge Christi—has shaped our understanding of salvation. More recently, Anabaptism has drawn much from Protestant evangelicalism in its understanding of affective salvation by grace. Nonetheless, we tend to understand salvation as more of a life-long process of following Christ than a significant, grace-infused moment. Our missions tend to focus more on establishing church communities than on winning large numbers of people to Christ.
Of course, the danger of Anabaptist Christo-centrism lies in its tendency to veer toward a Marcion-like rejection of God as revealed in the Hebrew scriptures. We find the non-violent practices and teachings of Christ difficult to square with the apparent violence of God in the Old Testament. Even as we emphasize Jesus Christ as the one in whom the fullness of God dwelled, we risk distinguishing too strongly between their natures.
Practically, Anabaptists and mainstream evangelical groups tend to confuse the nature of Christ, much like Eutychus did. Since we do not encounter questions concerning Christ’s nature on a regular basis, we either equate him with God the Father, or we discuss him as some separate deity altogether. Although we need not remake all the decisions of the ecumenical councils, we ought to be aware of the issues at stake. Because sooner or later, most early heresies reappear as modern controversies.
 Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 28.
 D. Jeffrey Bingham, Pocket History of the Church (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002), 46.
 Lane, 39.
 Ibid., 53-4.
 Ibid., 58.
 Ibid., 29.
 Ibid., 30.
 Ibid., 40.
 Ibid., 41.
 Hugh T. Kerr, ed., Readings in Christian Thought, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), 76.
 Lane, 61.
 Colossians 1:19