DEFINING THE DOCTRINE OF THE GOD-MAN

The touchstone of theological orthodoxy is the person of Christ. Both His deity and His humanity must be affirmed, or the entire doctrine of salvation is affected. Only a Jesus who is truly God and truly man can provide a complete salvation for humanity.

A problem in the early church was explaining how Jesus’ deity and His humanity related. At any given point in His earthly life, how did His two natures blend? Was He more God or more man? How should we view the union of these two natures in the one person? The debate over Jesus’ two natures troubled the church for more than 300 years, at least until 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, when the definitive statement about Jesus’ two natures was written.

As one studies the early church, it becomes clear that the emergence of error usually prompted the church to seek a more satisfactory explanation of a theological question. This was true of the doctrine of Christ. Throughout the period from 325 to 451, major interpretations emerged, often heretical, that challenged the church to think more precisely about defining the relationship of Jesus’ two natures.

The Alexandrian School

Two schools of theology, one in Antioch and the other in Alexandria, Egypt, framed the debate on the nature of Christ. The Alexandrian school claimed such luminaries as Athanasius and the great Origen. Influenced by Greek philosophy, especially Plato, the Alexandrians tended to elevate the spiritual—Christ’s deity—at the expense of His humanity.

Following logically from the Alexandrian position came the heresy propagated by Apollinarius. He was a friend of Athanasius and Basil the Great as well as a teacher of the great Jerome. However, he taught that Jesus was fully God but that His “rational soul” was supplanted by the divine Logos. This meant that Jesus was not completely human.

The Council of Constantinople in 381 condemned Apollinarius as a heretic because his view affected the doctrine of salvation. How could Christ sufficiently die for humans if He was not totally a man Himself? The council thus concluded that Jesus had to be completely human and completely divine.

The Antiochene School

The second major school of theology, in Antioch, was influenced by Aristotle, who saw man as a unity of soul and body, not a dichotomy. This school gave far more importance to the unique distinction of Jesus’ two natures than did the Alexandrians. The Antiochene emphasis logically produced the heresy Nestorianism, named after Nestorius, who further challenged the church’s thinking about Jesus.

As Patriarch in Constantinople in 428, Nestorius held a powerful position in the early church. For several reasons he was uncomfortable with the way the Alexandrians were using certain phrases about Jesus, all of which he thought amounted to a dangerous mixing of the human and divine natures of Christ. His solution was to maintain an absolute distinction of the two natures to such an extent that the only connection between them was the will.

The best analogy of how Nestorius viewed Christ was as a Siamese twin. Because the patriarch could not imagine deity being involved in human suffering or change, he insisted that the two natures were artificially joined. Even though some modern scholarship doubts whether Nestorius actually taught this, this teaching was condemned as heresy at the Council of Ephesus in 431.

It was clear that neither the rigid two-nature model of Nestorius nor the careless one-nature theory of Apollinarius corresponded with the biblical data. In Jesus’ confrontation with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, His two natures seemed to be in perfect communion. At any given moment in time, He was both God and man. Thus a position was needed that would combine the strength of both proposals.

A monk from Constantinople named Eutyches proposed a model for understanding Christ that attempted to reconcile Apollinarius and Nestorius. He refused to maintain a clear distinction between the two natures of Jesus; instead, he argued for a mixture of the natures such that a third confused mingling was the result. The analogy of dropping a few drops of oil into a pail of water illustrates the point—both the oil and the water are present, but the distinction between the two is not clear. The result of Eutyches’ teaching was a confused mixture, not fully God or man.

The Council of Chalcedon

To settle this critical matter of how to view the two natures of Jesus, a major council of more than 400 church leaders was called at Chalcedon in 451. After much debate, these leaders affirmed a statement rooted in Scripture that has singularly remained the most important declaration about Jesus Christ in the history of the church.

The statement proclaimed Jesus to be both God and man in one person. It declared that both natures are joined in a miraculous way so neither nature is damaged, diminished, or impaired. His two natures are joined “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably” (Leith, 36). Salvation is thus secured for those who profess faith in Jesus because His sacrifice was as both saving God and identifying man.

From Chalcedon, then, the church taught that Jesus is undiminished deity plus perfect humanity united in one person, without any confusion of the two natures. In the absolute sense of the term, He is the God-man!

We live in a world where religious cults are threatening orthodox truth at every turn. If church history teaches us anything, it is this—precision of language in doctrinal matters is imperative. Any choice of words when describing Jesus that diminishes His deity or His humanity is incorrect and heretical.

The miracle of the Incarnation stretches our finite minds to the limit. The great legacy of the Council of Chalcedon reflects a consensus on the language that preserves both the complete deity and humanity of Jesus in His person. A complete salvation demands it; faith in the God-man, Jesus Christ, procures it.

Eckman, J. P. (2002). Exploring church history (32–35). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway.

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