The Christological Controversies


Before the three-score years of struggle with Arianism had come to a close, another controversy arose, involving still more prolonged agitations, --indeed, invading the peace of the Church more or less for the space of three centuries. This was the controversy concerning the person of Christ, concerning the presence and the relation of the divine and the human in Him. Apollinaris, Bishop of Laodicea in Syria, introduced the first stage in this long contention by his teaching that the pre-existent Logos took the place of the rational soul in Christ, so that His incarnation involved no assumption of this part of human nature. The theory of Apollinaris was denounced in different quarters, and finally received an authoritative condemnation from the council of Constantinople in 381.

It was not, however, till the early part of the fifth century that the more turbulent era of the Christological controversy was introduced. The strife which then arose, so far as it was not the product of mere personal rivalries and ambitions, had its source in the diverse spirit and tendencies of the Antiochian and the Alexandrian schools. The former, which counted among its exponents Diodorus of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia, was distinguished by its bent to sober and critical exegesis. This naturally made them observant of the extent to which the New Testament ascribes to the Redeemer the purely human as well as the divine. They accordingly gave emphasis to the human factor, and distinguished broadly between the two natures in Christ. The Alexandrian school, on the other hand, had a leaning toward mysticism, was disposed to emphasize the divine in Christ, and dwelt rather upon the thorough union of the human with the divine than upon the distinction between the two natures. Neither of these tendencies necessarily involved positive heresy, but it was easy for either to pass on to an heretical extreme.

These two schools came to a collision in the persons of Cyril Bishop of Alexandria, and Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople. To neither of these can an unqualified sympathy be awarded. In personal character Nestorius was doubtless superior to the ambitious, unscrupulous, vengeful Cyril; but he, too, was a very self-assertatory and unfair disputant. Each placed the worst construction upon the statements of the other; and, pursuing this method, each had about equal ground for casting the odium of heresy upon the other. If the worst construction of some of the sentences of Nestorius involves him in the error of compromising the unity of Christ's person, no less does the worst construction of some of Cyril's sentences involve him in the error of confounding the two natures in Christ.

Cyril, in the third of his Twelve Anathemas, speaks of the divine and the human in Christ as being combined in . In Epist. xl., Ad Acacium, after remarking that ideally, or in conception, we may speak of two natures having been united in Christ, he adds, "But after the union, as if now the division into two were taken away, we believe that there is one nature of the Son," --

Cyril may have made some statements which modified the natural significance of these expressions. But his phraseology was decidedly objecetionable, and the art of the interpreter is quite as much needed to save his orthodoxy as it is to rescue that of Nestorius.

If Cyril ought not to be charged with this error, equally well may Nestorius be acquitted of consciously entertaining the heresy charged against him. No doubt he had not arrived at the most finished and guarded statement of the subject of Christology. But, on a question so little developed as was this at that time, the intent of a man is not to be judged by the extreme of the consequences toward which his position might be regarded as tending. Defective statement and lack of complete mental consistency are quite different from a clear and decided apprehension and advocacy of an heretical tenet. That Nestorius was guilty of the latter, is unproved. Certainly his disinclination to apply to Mary the term theotokos (Mother of God), which was the grand occasion of the crusade against him, is no adequate proof against his orthodoxy. For, as Nestorius explained, his objection to this tenn lay in the unseemly heathenish assumption which it might convey respecting the parentage of Deity. Moreover, he expressed himself as willing to accept the term on condition that it should be guarded from the obnoxious sense. But the crusade had been begun. Cyril was supported by the Roman bishop, and was determined that Nestorius should be humbled. In the council convened at Ephesus in 431, he secured the emphatic condemnation of Nestorius, though at the expense of an unseemly haste in anticipating the arrival of the Oriental bishops. This slight occasioned a schism in the council. The coveted vengeance upon Nestorius was also delayed by the reluctance of the Emperor to sacrifice the patriarch with whom he had held friendly relations; but at length, in 435, Cyril was gratified by the banishment of his hated rival. Two or three years before, a supplement had been made to the unfinished work of the council of Ephesus by the adoption of a creed designed to reconcile contending parties. This creed, which was signed by Cyril among others, affirmed the term theotokos, but at the same time was careful to affirm two natures in Christ. It was a creed which, as Neander and Gieseler state, could have been signed by Nestorius without the sacrifice of a conscientious scruple.

Nestorius died in exile. But the victory over him had its offset. A schism arose that has never been healed. While denied tolerance under Christian emperors, the sect of the Nestorians found refuge in Persia. They were quite flourishing for several centuries, but suffered greatly from the terrible ravages of Tamerlane, near the end of the fourteenth century. A branch of them, known as the "Thomas Christians," became established in India.

The bent of the Alexandrian school toward the opposite of the heresy with which Nestorius was charged was revealed soon after his condemnation. The doctrine of Eutyches, a monk of Constantinople, that there is only one nature in Christ (the human in Him being assimilated to the divine, and His body being of different substance from that of ours), though condemned in Constantinople, met with a sympathetic response in Alexandria. Dioscurus, the successor of Cyril, was the leading spirit in the synod of Ephesus in 449, and that synod asserted the orthodoxy of Eutyches.

Two years later the council of Chalcedon was convened. This was the most important council of the early Church which passed decisions upon the subject of Christology. Its creed, based largely upon the epistle of Leo the Great to Flavian, marked an era in the development of the doctrine of Christ's person. On the one hand, it repelled the error of separating too widely between the two natures of Christ; on the other, it repudiated the error of mingling and confounding the two natures. It asserted that the human and the divine are each entire in the Redeemer, and that each retains its distinctive nature, while yet the two belong to one and the same person. The natures are two, the personality is one.

The Monophysites, as the advocates of the doctrine of only one nature in Christ came to be called, were by no means satisfied with the creed of Chalcedon, or disposed to acknowledge its authority. In Egypt the malcontents formed a numerous body. They had also a considerable representation in Palestine, Syria, and some other regions. Various attempts were made to bring about their reconciliation. The Emperors Zeno and Justinian manœuvred, to a conspicuous degree, for this end. Under the latter a new ecumenical council was convened, that of Constantinople, in 553. This council paid a species of tribute to the Monophysites, in that it reflected upon these most hated by them, passing anathemas against the person of Theodore of Mopsuestia and certain writings of Theodoret and Ibas. It had no perceptible effect, however, toward the pacification of the Monophysites, and they settled into the condition of permanent schism. The principal branches or sects of the schismatics were the Jacobites (in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Babylonia), the Armenians, the Copts of Egypt, and, in close relation with these last, the Abyssinians.

The Jacobites are so called from their distinguished leader and episcopal head, Jacob, surnamed Baradai or Zanzalus, whose extraordinary activity, in the sixth century, saved the persecuted Monophysites of Syria from threatened extinction. The schismatic position of the Armenians was assumed about the middle of the sixth century, shortly after their country passed under Persian rule. For a long time they have occupied the first rank among these sects, in point of numbers and influence. One branch of the Armenians, since the union effort put forth at the council of Florence, in the fifteenth century, has been connected with the Church of Rome. The Egyptian Monophysites, or the Copts, too numerous to be repressed, and persistent in their opposition to the council of Chalcedon, had their own patriarch and separate ecclesiastical organization after the year 536. The Mohammedan conquest in the next century, which their hatred of the Catholics much facilitated, resulted in a great reduction of their strength. They have survived, however, till the present day. One peculiar feature of this communion is its strong Jewish tinge. Circumcision is practised, and the Mosaic distinction of meats observed. An equal or even greater affiliation with Jewish custom characterizes the daughter-church of Abyssinia, which confesses its subordination in receiving its episcopal head by the choice of the Coptic patriarch. By the Abyssinian Christians the Jewish sabbath, se well as the Lord's Day, is observed. The ark has a prominent place in their worship. Among the Monophysite sects they probably represent the extreme of ignorance, ceremonialism, and superstition, though all of these bodies are in sore need of a spiritualizing and vitalizing reform.

The Maronites, dwelling in the Lebanon region, were an offshoot of the closing era of the Christological controversies in the seventh century.