The Origin Of Hypostatic Union in Early Church History

God-inspired Scriptures (i.e., John 1:1,14; John 20:28, Philippians 2:6-7, Hebrew 1:3; 2:17; 4:15 et cetera) explicitly portrays Christ Jesus as being perfect in his Divinity and perfect in his Humanity(see ). How Christ’s natures should be correctly understood saw numerous disputes. Looking at the origin of hypostatic union in the early church, I selected four[1] most important ecumenical councils that progressively penciled an orthodox understanding of the two natures of Christ Jesus.[2]

Council of Nicaea

Nicaea I is the first ecumenical council summoned by the Emperor Constantine in A.D.325, near Constantinople[3] to first and foremost address the teachings of Arius (b. ca. 256 – d.336), a presbyter in Alexandria, who denied the full Divinity of Christ Jesus. Arius argued that there was time in which Son of God did not exist. Pre-existent Logos, according to Arius, is indeed supernatural being. He is though a creature. The first perfect creature created by God the Father.

All 318, except Theonas and Secundus (Schaff: 1994: 623-9), bishops anathematized the teachings of Arius as heresy and affirmed by subscribing to Christ’ full Deity viz.: the Son of God is true God from true God[4], begotten not made and of one substance with God the Father.

Council of Constantinople

Constantinople I is the second ecumenical council summoned by the Emperor Theodosius I in year 381, an epoch which saw Athanasian group, led by Athanasius of Alexandria[5](c.295-373), triumph Arianism, which continued to prevail in the middle decades of the fourth century despite it being condemned in the first council.  In this council the Cappadocian fathers reaffirmed the Council of Nicaea[6] and anathematized all forms of Arianism, doctrines that taught that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or ousia, and Apollinarianism[7], doctrines that taught that “Christ had a human body but a divine soul”(Bloesch 1997: 59) as heresies.

Against an earlier form of Apollinarianism [8], Athanasius wrote: “[Christ Jesus] takes unto Himself a body, and that of no different sort from ours. For He did not simply will to become embodied, or will merely to appear.”(Schaff & Wace 1892: 40). Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 330–389) secured the full humanity of Jesus by arguing that: “What is not assumed is not healed.” (Hardy 1954: 218) and condemned Nestorianism as a heresy since for Christ Jesus to redeem the all of us He must have both human body and soul. Perfect human nature and perfect divine nature.

Council of Ephesus

The third ecumenical council, summoned by Cyril of Alexandria (370-444) in Ephesus in A.D. 431, was a response to Nestorianism[9], a doctrine that made a rigorous distinction between the two natures of Christ to the point were there are two wills.

Nestorius refused to accept Mary as Theotokos, God-bearer but Christotokos, Christ-bearer “on the grounds that she gave birth only to a man, who then became both an instrument and a vessel of divinity” (Douglas, Comfort & Mitchell 1992: 187) Bloesch argued that Nestorianism’s logic necessarily led to Christ Jesus being of “two persons”.  (Bloesch 1997: 60)

Grudem concurs with Bloesch in his definition of Nestorianism. He explained that “ Nestorianism is the doctrine that there were two separate persons in Christ, a human person and a divine person, a teaching that is distinct from the biblical view that sees Jesus as one person. (Grudem: 1994:555)

Cyril charged Nestorius of dividing Christ’s natures and argued that the Christ’ two separate and perfect natures are hypostatically united. His argument, despite it being modified, played a great role in the forth council that anathematized Nestorius’ teachings and affirm two natures coexisting without division and without separation.

Council of Chalcedon

In the year 451, the fourth ecumenical council was summoned to address the extreme Cyrillianism, the monophysitism[10]. This doctrine was a hyper anti-Nestorianism to a degree that it mixed the two natures of Christ Jesus into one new nature.

Eutyches (c.378-454), the main champion of monophysitism, taught that the human nature of Christ Jesus was absorbed, as a drop of ink in a water, into the divine nature giving forth a new nature which is neither perfect human nor perfect divine. Thomas Aquinas observed that a new mixed nature couldn’t be said of the mystery of the Incarnation because the human nature and divine nature of Christ  “has its specific perfection.” Moreover Christ would cease to exist as truly human and truly divine (Aquinas: 2009: ed.) Thus “he could not truly represent us as a man” argues Grudem, “nor could he be true God and able to earn our salvation.”(Grudem 1994: 556)

The bishops in the Council of Chalcedon arrived at an orthodox understanding, which I believe is true and faithful to God’s-inspired Scriptures, of the two natures of Christ in one person that safeguarded the church from false teachings i.e., Apollinarianism, Nestorianism and Monophysitism.

In this fourth council, the bishops adopted and subscribed to the Creed of Chalcedon, which stated that:

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [coessential] with us according to the manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.[11]

Sanders correctly observe that “ [a]t the center of the open space marked out by the boundaries of Chalcedon are two things: the apostolic narrative of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; and the confession that this person in the gospels stories is an eternal person distinct from the Father, yet fully divine”(Sanders & Issler 2007: 25)

Summing Up the Ecumenical Councils:

“[A] precise understanding of how full deity and full humanity” argues Grudem, “could be combined together in one person was formulated only gradually in the church and did not reach the final form until the Chalcedonian Definition in a.d. 451”(Grudem1994:554).

Congruent with Grudem, Philip Schaff writes of the Creed of Chalcedon, “While the first Council of Nicaea had established the eternal, pre-existent Godhead of Christ, the Symbol of the Fourth Ecumenical Council relates to the incarnate Logos, as he walked upon earth and sits on the right hand of the Father. It is directed against the errors of Nestorius and Eutyches, who agreed with the Nicene Creed as opposed to Arianism, but put the Godhead of Christ in a false relation to his humanity.” (Schaff 1983: 29-30)

I will seal the origin of hypostatic union in Early Church History with Sander’s wonderful “Chalcedonian Box” figure (Sanders & Issler 2007: 24) that captured the essences of all four councils:

 

Questions: Do you also affirm and subscribe to Creed of Chalcedon? Give reasons to why you do(or don’t)  affirm this doctrine?


Footnotes:

[1]  The firth council in 553 A.D.(Constantinople II)does not postulate new information that is not covered in the fourth but group together the Christological and Trinitarian terminology through a long redemption narrative that prioritized the person of Christ.

[2] I have left out Tertullian against gnostic Marcion’ Docetism, Pontus, and  Apelles in De Carne Christi, a robust defense of the real human nature of Christ. I did not also touch on Ebionites; a group of Greek-speaking Jewish Christians who rejected the virgin birth, opposed Paul “the messenger of Satan” and his teachings, and viewed Christ Jesus not as God-man but a unique human who assumed the role within the divine plan at his baptism.

[3] Now Istanbul, Turkey

[4] The main argument given by Athanasius of Alexandria to refute Arius’ teaching could be summarized as “God alone can save. Jesus saves. Therefore Jesus is God.”

[5] Athanasius was a theological adviser of the Bishop of Alexander during the first council. After the death of the bishop of Alexander, Athanasius succeeded him in 328.

[6] They revised the first creed slightly by extending the part of the Holy Spirit.

[7] The main argument given by Gregory of Nazianzus was that could be summarized as what Christ Jesus is not assumed is not healed.

[8] Named after Apollinarius (c. 310–390).

[9] It is questionable if Nestorius was a Nestorian

[10] This view is also known as Eutychianism

[11] Historic Creeds and Confessions. 1997 (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.


Bibliography:

Schaff, Philip (1994), History of the Christian Church, Vol. III; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

___________ (1983) The Creeds of Christendom, Volume 1: The History of Creeds. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Bloesch, D. G. (1997). Jesus Christ: Savior & Lord. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Hardy, Edward R. (1954) Christology of the Later Fathers. Gregory of Nazianzus, “To Cledonius the Priest Against Apollinarius,” LCC Philadelphia: Westminster.

Grudem, W. A. (1994). Systematic theology: An introduction to biblical doctrine. Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

Thomas Aquinas, S., & Fathers of the English Dominican Province. (2009). Summa theologica (Complete English ed.). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Cyril Letter To John Of Antioch: A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Volume XIV: The Seven Ecumenical Councils. 1900 (P. Schaff & H. Wace, Ed.) New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

 

Sanders, F., & Issler, K. (2007). Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective: An Introductory Christology. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group.

Douglas, J. D., Comfort, P. W., & Mitchell, D. (1992). Who’s Who in Christian history (187). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.

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