Christology in the Seven Ecumenical Councils
Basic Christian Doctrines: The Trinity and the Person of Christ
From a Lecture by Lay-Brother Michael


Abstract: Since the days of the New Testament, Christians have understood Christ to be both God and Man, the Word made flesh for our Salvation. In the history of the Church through the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Fathers have developed the Orthodox Doctrine of Christ with this central truth as their guiding light.

Throughout the many vicissitudes raised by the temptation to stray from the understanding of Christ as both God and Man, the Church always returned to two central ideas:
1) Mankind found himself in such a state, spiritually, that only the power of God, that is, only if Christ were God could He truly save mankind.
2) Granted that Christ our God affected our salvation, He could only do so if He assumed all that we are and became fully man.

In essence the danger of heresies was not that they simply had or presented an unclear or incorrect understanding of God or Christ, rather, they had the effect of spiritually calling into question in the heart of the Christian whether God had really affected our salvation. (or, as in the case of some, if salvation was really necessary!)

In fact, heresies about Christ invariably had the effect of diminishing the full truth of the redemption of mankind and the salvation of each individual soul.

As we sketch the doctrinal issues of the seven Ecumenical Councils, we will see that behind the theology was this great spiritual concern of the Fathers for the salvation of every Christian.

FIRST ECUMENICAL COUNCIL (AD 325):

Heresy: Arian taught that Christ was not God, but rather a creature.

Arian Salvation: Christ taught us the way to, like Himself, become morally and spiritually like God. He does not save by Grace, but by example and teaching.

Teaching of the Council:
1) Doctrine: Christ is fully God, of 'one substance with the Father', 'begotten not made’, begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, true God of true God.
2) Salvation: Only God can truly save man in his fallen state, therefore if Christ were only a creature, however exalted, He would not have the power necessary to truly bring mankind out of sin and into fellowship with God. God Himself in Christ is calling mankind into fellowship with Him, and He gave His life on the Cross to affect the reconciliation.

SECOND ECUMENICAL COUNCIL (AD 381):

Heresies: Various heresies, the main ones being the Macedonian or Pnumatomachian, various Arian divisions, the Anomean, and the Apollinarians.

Doctrine: The Holy Spirit is also fully God, Who proceeded form the Father, and with the Father and Son is worshipped and glorified; He is the giver of life.

Also, the truth of the First Council of Nicea regarding the full divinity of Christ was reaffirmed, and the whole theology of the Trinity given greater depth by the Cappadocians, Athanasius and Hilary.

The heresy of Apollinarius was anathematized, and, although it did not significantly play any part in the Creed itself, the teaching behind the rejection of Apollinarius was to play a great role in the history of the Christological controversies.

Apollinarius, a defender of the position of Nicea and a supporter of Athanasius, taught that Christ, although fully God, was not fully a man in the same sense that we are. He taught that Christ the Logos occupied the part of the soul in mankind.

He argued that, as Logos, He was already in charge of the governing of Creation, since through Him all things were made, then He would have no trouble operating and animating a human body. He interpreted 'flesh' from the New Testament in such a way that it meant the body only.

One of the prime motivators for his thinking this way was wanting to safeguard Christ from the effects of the fall as He joined himself to humanity. He felt that if Christ had indeed assumed the rational soul of man, then with it would have come the rational free will, and therefore the possibility to sin.

Since, as The Epistle to the Hebrews states, that Christ is without sin, Apollinarius concluded that He must have taken over the part of the rational soul and will in the body He assumed from Mary, and thus was safeguarded from the possibility of sin.

He also saw the joining of Christ, as the pre-existent Logos, to His human body as forming a 'nature' that is, one concrete unified being.

The Orthodox reply to his teachings, first by Athanasius, and later by the Cappadocians, was summed up in the famous statement of Gregory of Nyssa: 'That which is not taken is not healed, but whatever is united to God is saved'.

If Christ had no human soul, then the human soul is not redeemed.

In their understanding, it was precisely because the seat of sin is in the will that Christ has to have assumed a human will, thus a human soul, in order through His perfect life, and His death on the Cross, to raise and restore the will of mankind to a godly state.

He could not do this if He himself, in becoming 'man' became only part of a man. In Apollinarius' view, Christ was in effect neither God nor man, but a hybrid combination of a God clothed with flesh.

In addition, the Eastern view of redemption was held to have taken place from the moment of the incarnation, when Christ joined to a human nature. Thus, the joining of God to mankind made possible the influx of the divine life into mankind.

This is the physical-mystical view, whereby in virtue of the solidarity of all human nature with the 'particular' nature Christ assumed, when He assumed our nature, it was restored to the state before the Fall, and, further, after the Resurrection and the Ascension, we are all given the possibility of being a new creation of Christ in the general resurrection, whereby we will be raised a spiritual body. Thus, every person on earth is called to in the universal salvation offered by Christ.

Thus, although He was truly God and therefore had the power of God to save mankind, the great insight of Athanasius at the First Ecumenical Council, Apollinarius inferred that He lacked the second corresponding part of that power, to Himself be fully joined to our human nature.

THIRD ECUMENICAL COUNCIL (AD 431):

Came about through the controversy raised by Nestorius of Constantinople and the reaction of Cyril of Alexandria, over whether Christ as God was truly given birth by Mary the Theotokos.

They both had the same basic doctrine of the Trinity, and each in his own way was trying to safeguard some of the fundamental principles of the Trinity, such as the immutability of God, while developing a theology of God made Man.

Nestorius, in denying that Mary gave birth to God, but only to the son of David, that is, the humanity of the Lord, then he in effect held Christ as the pre-existent Lord so separate from the historical humanity he was 'joined' to, that for Cyril the unity of Christ was in danger, and, therefore, the possibility of a true salvation of humanity.

Doctrine: The Third Council, Ephesus 432, declared Mary to be truly the Theotokos, and the subject of Jesus Christ to be none other than the pre-existent Logos, the Son of God, who joined Himself to our humanity for our salvation.

FOURTH ECUMENICAL COUNCIL (AD 451):

Brought the best insights of both the Alexandrian and the Antiochene Schools and the mediating influence of Pope St. Leo in his Theological Tome into a balance.

This gave a solid outline and form to the question of Christology for the history of the Church.

It gave it in its declaration of faith:
1) The Person of Christ is the Second Person of the Trinity.
2) Christ, after the Incarnation, is consubstantial with both the divine nature and human nature.
3) He is fully both natures, that is, both Man and God, without 'confusion, division, separation, mixture'.
The Fourth Ecumenical Council helped to bring about a reconciliation in spirit between the hitherto opposing theologies of Alexandria and Antioch, which had different starting points for their understanding of Christ.

It tried to define the limits within which one could think about Christ in Person and nature, so that His great work of salvation would not be undermined by incorrect thinking about Him.

FIFTH ECUMENICAL COUNCIL (AD 553):

After the Fourth Ecumenical Council, there was a reaction in Egypt against the declaration of the council, which was viewed as a triumph of Nestorianism.

This grew into the scope of a national policy in opposition to the Byzantine Empire, who unsuccessfully tried to suppress it.

Justinian and the Orthodox theologians before him tried to effect a reconciliation between the 'Monophysites and the 'Orthodox' by putting forth a declaration of faith that showed:

1) That Orthodox doctrine understands the Son to be the sole subject of the historical Christ to the extent that it can be declared that 'One of the Trinity suffered in the flesh' - the Theopashite formula.
2) That Orthodoxy does not condone or agree to the teaching of Nestorius and his followers and therefore certain of his writings and of others, originally condemned by Cyril of Alexandria, has the support of the Council in proclaiming their error, and they are post-humously condemned.
3) More consideration has to be given to the manner in which Christ assumed humanity, to more fully understand what is 'person' in Christ and 'humanity' (man) in Christ.

The theological foundation of the 'hypostatic union' is given a more precise expression through theological reflection on the nature of the Divine Persons of the Trinity and the Person of Christ, and the function of the Divine 'Hypostasis'.

SIXTH ECUMENICAL COUNCIL (AD 680-681):

The reaffirmation of the orthodoxy of Chalcedon after the spiritual crisis raised by the imperial attempts at reconciliation with the Monophysites by the Monothelite heresy, which believed that Jesus Christ had only one will.

The imperial theologian and patriarch Sergius and others had felt that the pronouncement of Chalcedon divided the two natures of Christ to such an extent that there was again the possibility of separation into two 'persons', as in the Nestorian view. They felt that the Fifth Ecumenical Council had created a kind of generic abstract humanity of the Lord, which failed to take into account the living breathing humanity disclosed in the Scriptures.

Therefore they declared that although in Christ there is indeed two natures, both divine and human, there was only one will and energy, the will of the Person of the Son, which concretely acted in and with the whole being of Christ.

Since there was one subject in Christ, one Divine Person, joined to human nature, then there was also one Person acting concretely in the Person of Christ.

If there were indeed two wills then what would safeguard either the harmony of the two wills or the splitting of the person of Christ into virtually two willing and acting persons?

There is a sense in which the Monothelite heresy hit upon a true insight, in that AS Christ acts, His actions are always the actions of one concrete person. There is only one subject, therefore there is only one actor. This is the Christ that is revealed in the pages of the New Testament, a living historical Person.

To discuss two wills in Christ, was to the Monothelites, to abstractly discuss the separate aspects of His Being as if they weren't really one, or were formed into a concrete unity.

As far as the insight that the acts of Christ are concretely one, they were correct. But to go from there and postulate that the human will of Christ was taken over or activated by the divine will of the Son was in effect to deny Christ a human will. And thus in a more subtle form the heresy of Apollinarius was resurrected.

This brought about, in the meantime, by the great theologian Maximus the Confessor, and Pope St. Martin, the theological understanding of the nature of the rational will, and the nature of the person.

Again Maximus looked to the theology of the Trinity to see where will, energy, being, essence, hypostasis, and person were related, then to the same set of realities in the God made Man- Christ.

A distinction was made between the rational free will of human nature, which was seen to be part of the soul, part of the human nature itself, and the ability to choose, i.e. the manner or mode in which this free will was exercised by a concrete human person. The human person, it was understood, could not itself be composed of anything specific to the nature.

Free will belonged to each and every human being, and so therefore could not be a part of the uniqueness of a person, his 'hypostasis'. What belonged to each person was the manner in which he exercised this faculty of free will.

In the case of Adam before the fall, this was to express in any manifold number of ways consonant with his personality his fellowship with God and the living of his life in the Garden.

His personal choice to disobey did not issue from the nature itself, from the free will, itself only knowing a life of goodness in God, but rather in the personal choice of Adam to exercise this free will in opposition to what God intended it for, to find completion and fulfillment in Him, not in the world.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, i.e. of possibility of expressing free will outside of the realm of Goodness and fellowship with God, became Adam's fall into sin and eventual death, making necessary mankind's redemption.

Maximus, therefore understood both in each and every human being, so also in Christ, the free will to be part of the human nature.

Therefore Christ, in assuming the complete human nature, and being, as Chalcedon taught, fully consubstantial with us, has to be consubstantial not only in substance, but also in energy and will.

This means that Christ has a fully rational free will.

Does that mean that Christ could have sinned?

No, because that free will is always exercised by the Divine Person of Christ, which is God, and in addition the human will in the humanity Christ assumed is restored to the state of Adam before the Fall, so that His concrete human will is exercised always with its true purpose- to be in obedience to God's will.

Maximus also, by focusing on the will of Christ, that is the particular human energy and will of a particular nature, made Christ less abstract because He had a particular will, in a particular body and soul, which was expressed by the Person of Christ the Son of God in the most dynamic personality the world has ever seen.

He also showed more fully in the restoration of human nature the participation of each and every Christian in the body of Christ through baptism and the sacraments, which makes possible our 'deification' or participation in the very life of Christ, partaking of the divine grace of God.

Thus the theological science of spiritual growth was given a christological foundation through the work of St. Maximus and the Sixth Ecumenical Council.

SEVENTH ECUMENICAL COUNCIL (AD 787):

This council, and the theology before and after it up to the triumph of Orthodoxy in 842 underscored the truth in actual practice of the Christology of the previous six councils.

The Iconoclasts (who condemned prayers before icons or paintings of Jesus, the saints, etc.) accused the veneration and depiction of the icon of Christ as being either Nestorian or Manifested. The council affirmed that the Icon of Christ underscores the Orthodox truth of His Person as the unity of the natures, and the icons of the saints reveal the truth of salvation in Christ, as the deification of the entire humanity and transformation by the divine energy, life, grace of God.

Thus the icon links both the theological truth of the incarnation and the spiritual salvation offered to all humanity through His saving work. Further, it illustrates the actualization of the life in Christ of those who have followed His way, and been baptized into His life.

Doctrine and Spirituality are linked in the Icon, and their veneration gives witness in the life of the Christian to the greatness of Christ and the reality of His salvation.