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The Dummies' Guide to Early Church Christological Disputes!

Word Count: 1,000

Inspired by a recent tongue-in-cheek history of the Reformation I read recently*, I decided to unleash my inner history/theology nerd and write the following! Enjoy :)


Have you ever been reading your Bible and wondered how this whole Father, Son, Holy Spirit malarkey fits together? Ever pondered over the philosophical implications of 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God'? Well, look no further, because the early Church has got your back! Indeed, just exactly who…was…is…could be…Jesus was something that early Christian theologians loved to debate! So, buckle in and get your hypostases and ousias firmly mastered, as we set off on a tour of early Christian Christological dispute for dummies!

Now, first of all, you’ve got to start with your basics. First we have the Docetists. Now for them, Jesus was divine and merely appeared to be human, and so none of that crucifixion stuff actually happened but was just illusion. Then you’ve got your Adoptionists who come along saying, “Nah bruv, you Docetists have got it all wrong. Our main man Jesus was fully human, but the Old Man Upstairs adopted him as his Son.” So, to be clear, we’ve got a non-human divine Jesus who does human things but none of its real versus a human but then divine through adoption man Jesus. Following it all so far? Excellent.

Now to bring on our two heavyweights: ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the two biggest theological knuckle crushers, Arius and Athanasius! Now, these two bishops met for a little chinwag at a place called Nicea**—though there was nothing ‘nice-a’bout’ their discussion let me tell ya! ;). Arius was like, “Ain’t no way J-Man can be begotten but also eternal. Don’t get me wrong, Old J is cool stuff. He’s almost as sweet as Big G, but he’s just not quite so swag.” Meanwhile, our man Athanasius was like, “Slow down, Arius. J-Man can be eternal if he is ‘eternally begotten’”…(yeah I’m not quite sure how that works either, but hey!) And so ensued a discussion of timey-wimey conceptual debate and nitpicking. What matters though is that, then our real big man, Emperor Constantine was like, “I like this Athanasius guy,” and so it was 1-0 Athanasius. However, since most Christians were largely sensible, most bishops returned from this little chinwag and continued teaching whatever it was they taught before as most weren’t bothered about the Christological small print. Ironically, then Arianism has largely continued to this day in various non-mainstream Christian groups—you could even say that, unlike their conception of Christ, Arianism in the history of the church has been rather eternal!

Now, I hope you’ve been paying attention in your New Testament Greek lessons, because you’re about to read a lot of pretentious prefixes and suffixes. First, on the scene is Nestorius, coming along to talk about his hang up with calling Mary Theotokos ('Bringer Forth of God'). You see, Nestorius had a new favourite word: Dyoprosopism! In simple terms, this just meant the ousia (essences) of Christ are fully distinct into two: divine and human. You can’t have an eternal Word and an un-eternal Flesh coming together into one ousia; rather, you need some sort of prosopic duality with two ousia in one prosopon ('person')...duhhh!! However, Nestorius had to ruin everyone else’s fun by being really pernickety to those who liked saying Theotokos and instead suggesting that Christokos ('Bringer Forth of Christ') was much more accurate. Now though, you thought the old Docetists were finished stuff didn’t you? But there aint no Docetist like a Monophysite/Eutychianist Docetist! You see, some thought that Nestorius over here was sounding a bit too Adoptionist for their liking, stressing J-Man’s man-ness a bit too much. They rather liked the idea that Mary gave birth to God. So instead, these homies believed that Christ’s divinity and humanity were so united in one nature (can I hear you say ‘hypostasis’) that the human was overwhelmed by the divine nature like a drop of vinegar in the ocean. But the ‘sitism’ doesn’t even end there—que Miaphysitism. Now these guys are more ‘mono’ then ‘dyo’, but not so ‘mono’ that they become like our Monophysite friends. Rather they just feel that there’s no reason why our pre-Incarnate divine hypostasis (nature) and human hypostasis can’t get along just fine in one happy human/divine compound nature (can I hear you say a physis) once their Incarnation comes along. In the end, a bunch of our old-time episcopal dudes gathered round at Chalcedon and opted for Dyophyisitism, which was basically that old lawyer trick of condemning Nestorius, while for all intents and purposes pretty much agreeing with him without making it too obvious they were doing so. They said Christ was one prosopon with two ousia (sound familiar?), but to placate our mono friends, these natures formed a hypostatic union, and so were “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation”…that’s mono enough isn’t it? Well, it obviously wasn't and the Monophysite and Miaphysite Churches of Egypt and Syria never really played ball with the Orthodox Church of the Eastern Roman Empire after this.

Last but not least, our final two isms! Now, that everyone had sorted out (but not really) that Jesus was two ousia in one prosopon, it was time to work out what this Father, Son, Holy Spirit stuff meant about the one mono that remained: Monotheism! With all these two ousias and three prosopons flying about, how could God still remain as numero uno? Well, the Sabellians argued that Father, Son and Holy Spirit were three different aspects of one monadic God as perceived by the believer. Thus, all these prosopons were just plural in appearance rather than reality. However, ultimately, because all of this was left largely to a bunch of Greek philosopher theologians to sort out, mainstream Christianity ended up with a rather paradoxical solution: God is three persons who share one nature. Yay, Trinity!***

So folks, there you have it! Our brief tour of roughly 500 years of downright confusing, pernickety, squabbling with plenty of heretics to blame things on by the end of it! Hope you enjoyed!****

*A Nearly Infallible History of the Reformation, by Nick Page

**I've since been informed by a party-pooping theology studying friend that although Arius was alive at the time of the Council of Nicea, and although Arianism was a prime topic of debate at the council, Arius was himself not actually present though his supporters were. However, in this case, if it comes to presenting historical fact or a clever pun, I'm afraid the pun has to win the day.

***A friend of mine has pointed out that the Christological story doesn't end at Chalcedon. To complete the story you need to cover Zeno's Henotikon, Justinian, the Second Council of Constantinople, Heraclius, monoenergism, monotheletism, Maximus the Confessor, and the Third Council of Constantinople.

***Seen any other historical/theological inaccuracies in the above presentation? Feel free to post them in the comments below :)

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