Lesson 5: Controversies and Creeds: Nicaea to Ephesus



The Word that became incarnate is a semi-divine super-creature. The Word is the first of created realities and all other creatures were created through him. When he became enfleshed as a man, he merely assumed a human body, without a rational soul. The Word replaced the rational soul in Christ. Later heresies will develop this idea by denying a truly human will, which is part of the rational soul, to Christ. Arius held so strongly to the impassibility and utter transcendence of God, that it seemed impossible that the true God could have become incarnate, joined to creation. The Word as a semi-divine super-creature bridges the infinite gap between the Creator and creation. There are many individual passages from the New Testament that could support this view.

John 13:3, ". . . the Father had given all things into his hands."
Col 1:15, "He is the first-born of all creation."
John 1:3, "All things were created through him."
John 14:28, ". . . for the Father is greater than I."
". . . the Father who sent me . . ." (I Jn 4:14; Mk 5:37, 8:16, 12:49, 14:24, Jn 6:57)

Arianism perhaps was the most successful heresy in the early Church. St. Jerome quipped that he "woke up to discover that the whole world was Arian." Arianism held that the Son was homoiousios (of a similar nature), but not homoousios (of the same nature) with the Father since the Word, or the Son, was not the eternal God. The main slogan for Arianism was, "There was when He was not," indicated that the Son was a creature and not the Creator.

The Catholic Response to Arianism: St. Athanasius contra mundum (against the world)

Athanasius and the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. taught that the Son was homoousios (of the same nature) as the Father. Read over the creed from the council here.

We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance [ek tes ousias] of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of the same substance with the Father [homoousion to patri], through whom all things were made both in heaven and earth; who for us men and our salvation descended, was incarnate, and was made man, suffered and rose again the third day, ascended into heaven and cometh to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost. Those who say: There was a time when He was not, and He was not before He was begotten; and that He was made out of nothing [ex ouk onton]; or who maintain that He is of another hypostasis or another substance [than the Father] or that the Son of God is created, or mutable, or subject to change, [them] the Catholic Church anathematizes.

This is very similar to the so-called Nicene Creed professed as part of the Sunday Liturgy of the Mass. The Creed we now profess is actually the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed that came from the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D, which added the fuller statement declaring the full divinity of the Holy Spirit against Macedonius who denied the full divinity of the Holy Spirit. We now profess to believe in the Holy Spirit who is worshiped with the Father and the Son (qui simul adoratur).

Why did the Catholic Church find it necessary to condemn Arius's views so strongly? Athanasius argued for the full divinity of the Word in his magisterial, On the Incarnation of the Word. He looks back at the creation of man from nothing (ex nihilo) and in the image of God (imago Dei). Thus when we turn from God, in whose image we are made, in sinning, we begin falling back into the nothingness from which we were created. The only one who could restore us in the image of God is the true Image of God, the Word of God. The true Image of God fully shares in the nature of God. If he did not, he would not be the true image and thus would not be able to restore man in the image of God. The true Image of God cannot be a creature made from nothing or else he would not have the power to bring man back from falling into nothingness. Man's salvation as communicated in the Gospel depends upon the fact that the Word who became incarnate in Jesus Christ is the eternal God who created man. Simply put, if the Word was a creature (made from nothing) made in the image of God, the Word would be nothing more than man and as such would not have the power necessary to re-create man. Christ is "one in being" with the Father and so shares in full identity as the eternal Creator.

St. Athanasius here articulates what can be called the first axiom of orthodoxy: "Only God can save." St. Gregory Nazianzen provides the second one later in his debate with Apollinarianism.

Athanasius used even simple examples to show how Christ could have two natures, divine and human, yet remain one without either nature being obscured or compromised by the other. One example: an iron bar placed in fire. It retains the solidity of iron proper to the nature as iron and also now has the heat and fire inducing capacity proper to the nature of fire.

St. Augustine devotes much of his On the Trinity (c. 421) to defending the full divinity of Christ against Arianism.

III. Jesus: Not really the God-man

Many of the subsequent heresies accept the full divinity of Christ but in different ways deny Christ as one Person in two natures.


God is the Eternal Word who becomes incarnate by assuming a human body, but replacing a human rational soul with the Word itself. A favorite text was John 1:14, "The Word became flesh," in which they interpreted "became flesh" to mean that the Word only became the flesh of man and not the soul of man. As the soul is the form of the body, the Word here became the form of the body of Jesus. Views Christ as a Logos-sarx (Word-flesh), instead of the Logos-anthropos (Word-man). Here we have a Jesus who is fully divine, but not fully human. Apollinarianism was hesitant to recognize a fully human personality to Jesus with human passions and a human will. The Apollinarian Jesus is psychologically simple because the Word replaces all of this. The unity of Christ is defended at the price of the integrity of the human nature. This heretical tendency to deny the full human activity to Christ has a long life in Monophysitism, Monergism, and Monotheletism which we will study in the next lesson.

Catholic Response:

Christ is the Eternal Son is pure spirit and cannot be changed to be the form of the human matter. As human, Christ is a composite of soul and body. Logos-anthropos, not Logos-sarx.

St. Gregory of Nazianzen attacked this heresy since it turned the human nature of Christ into a sub-human animal lacking a rational soul that was inhabited by God. He provides what can be called the second axiom of orthodoxy: "What has not been assumed has not been healed." If there is any aspect of humanity that has not been included in Christ's becoming human, then that aspect has not been redeemed. Gregory and many other orthodox theologians insisted that the flesh in John 1:14 meant the whole human person including soul and body. They pointed to passages such as Psalm 65:2 which reads, "To thee [God] shall all flesh come on account of sins." "All flesh" here stands for all human beings who will come to God, not to all bodies without souls.

St. Gregory provided an early form of the basic distinctions that will guide all theology of Christ and the Trinity. He said that in the Savior we have allo kai allo (this and that), but not allos kai allos (this one and that one). This is reversed for the Trinity. There we have allos kai allos (this one and that one), but not allo kai allo (this and that). Later this will be rendered as in Christ there is one person (hypostasis) and two natures (ousia) and in the Trinity there are three persons and one nature.


If Apollinarianism falsely insisted on the extreme unity of Jesus (i.e. no rational soul competing with the Word), Nestorianism erred in the direction of falsely insisting on the distinction of the natures at the price of the unity of Christ. Nestorius taught that Christ is a real human person, soul and body, indwelt by God as in a temple. The human person of Christ is united to the divine person of the Word by the unity of each will for the other -- a bond of affection, not a bond in one person. This allowed Nestorius to divide the actions of Christ in the Gospels into two sets: those of the human person and those of the divine person. Since the persons are distinct, Nestorius denied that Mary was the Mother of God or God-bearer (theotokos), and insisted that she should only be called the Mother of Christ (Christotokos). She was the Mother of the human person, but not the divine person. According to this view, we cannot really say that the eternal Son was born, suffered, died, etc. Note that the fact that Nestorius is forced to deny Mary as the Mother of God because there is already a long-standing liturgical practice of invoking the intercession of Mary as the Mother of God.

Catholic Response:

Christ is one Person with two natures. St. Cyril of Alexandria, Nestorius' chief foe, wrote: ". . . the same Person is both God and man." The Council of Ephesus (431) re-affirmed Mary as the Mother of God (following as well such New Testament passages as Mt 1:16; Lk 1:31, 43; Gal 4:4). You give birth to a person not to a nature. Mary thus gives birth to the eternal Son who now has assumed a human nature. The Council also declared anathema anyone who held that "one of the Trinity did not suffer on the Cross." It is thus proper to say that the eternal Son suffered and died and rose again for the salvation of man. Nestorius' two-person Christology puts our salvation in jeopardy since God would not have suffered for us and as the first axiom holds, "Only God can save."

Affirmed a communicatio idiomata -- a communication of properties. This means that whatever is predicated of the one nature can be attributed to the other nature since both share the same divine person. Thus the Church says that "God was born of Mary" and "the Word died on the cross."

Reading Assignment

Roch Kereszty, O. Cist., Jesus Christ: Fundamentals of Christology, 190-201 (Part II Historical Christology, Ch.2 (middle part))
CCC 465-466

Writing Assignment

Write a two-page essay in which you analyze how Arianism, Appolinarianism, and Nestorianism all miss the mark regarding the true person of Christ. Include the orthodox response.

Suggested Reading

Norris, Trinitarian Controversies. Norris, Christological Controversies.


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