Early Christianity was rife with controversy, debate, and strife over the fundamental question, “Who is this person, Jesus Christ?” While St. Peter had declared Jesus to be the Christ, the exact understanding of what that meant had to be worked out. Some of the basic tenets of Christian doctrine, things we now take as obvious about Christianity, were up for debate and argument. From the earliest Apostolic Fathers a range of ideas about how to answer this ultimate question emerged. Over time, the sources and writers the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, determined to be the true answers formed the canonical tradition of Orthodoxy. Other answers deviated from the true, Orthodox answers and were labeled heretical—a departure from the truth that would lead Christians astray. Many of our earliest Christian sources are the attempts to work out the true and right doctrine and to respond to and refute incorrect—heretical—answers to the question, “Who is this person, Jesus Christ?”
In these formative early centuries of Christian thought and doctrine, there are few defenders of Orthodoxy as celebrated as two Patriarchs of Alexandria, St. Athanasius, who lived between 296 or 298 and 373, and St. Cyril of Alexandria, who lived between 376 and 444. These two battled the respective heresies of their day, writing tracts that laid out their positions and which refuted heretical ideas. Together, their works are the clearest sources of Christian orthodoxy about the person of Jesus Christ. Athanasius definitively established the divinity of Christ and Cyril offered a compelling way to understand the relationship between the divine and human aspects of Jesus that has been a foundational source for Christology—the subset of Christian theology and doctrine grappling with the question of the nature of Jesus Christ. It is their combined answer to the question, “Who is this person, Jesus Christ?” and their role as major sources for all subsequent Christian thought that leads the Armenian Apostolic Church to commemorate them together this Saturday.
First and foremost among the debates about Christ concerned his divinity. All those who called themselves Christians followed St. Peter in his confession of Jesus as the Christ, but what exactly that entailed was up for debate. We see in the Gospels themselves that many Jews expected the Christ to be a political figure who would throw off Roman domination. Even within Jewish thought, then, it wasn’t explicit that the Christ was divine, but rather could be considered an important or unique prophet. St. John the Evangelist is often simply called “the Theologian” in patristic writings because his Gospel, through the famous opening chapter and the declaration that Jesus Christ was the Word of God, hence God, who had become flesh. Yet even this wasn’t enough to preclude early thinkers from arguing that Jesus Christ wasn’t exactly God. Most notorious among those early thinkers was another Alexandrian, Arius, a priest there who died in 336 and who taught that Jesus Christ was created by God, a kind of semi-divine being who nonetheless was created and therefore not God. Our most basic Christian conception of the Trinity, of a single God in three persons (the technical Greek term that came to be uses was hypostasis) had not been clearly articulated and needed a defender!
Enter Athanasius, who was a deacon when the priest Arius first came into conflict with the bishop of Alexandria, one of the major centers of the Christian Church. Alexandrian Christian thinking at the time was heavily influenced by Origen, who remains an important source for Christian methods of interpreting the Bible, but whose views on Christology which were influential to Arius have kept him from sainthood. Arius taught a variation of subordinationist Christology, which recognized Jesus as the Christ, both the Son of God and Word of God, but held that the Word of God was a creature subordinate to God the Father. Subordinationist Christology was quite popular throughout the late Roman Empire, and Arius found many followers. In answer to this position that denied the full divinity of Christ, St. Athanasius began a decades-long defense of Jesus Christ as the fully divine Son of God and of the concept of the Trinity.
Since some powerful figures, bishops and sometimes emperors, espoused Arianism, Athanasius had an embattled public life. Accompanying Patriarch Alexander to the Council of Nicaea in 325, he was instrumental in the adoption of the orthodox term homoousios, “of the same substance” or “consubstantial” to describe the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son of God. The same council condemned Arius and Arianism, a major victory for Athanasius and leading churchmen of what would be recognized as the orthodox position. His text On the Incarnation is one of the most important and succinct explanations of this orthodox position. He served as Patriarch of Alexandria starting in 328, though he was exiled several times, some of which he spent with the early monastic ascetics in the Egyptian desert. Due to this encounter he also wrote The Life of Anthony, a hagiography of the great Desert Father. Athanasius’ writings became some of the most enduring and foundational sources in all of Christian thought and theology.
|On the Incarnation||Athanasius’ classic account of the Incarnation, of God becoming human in the person of Jesus Christ. It unequivocally argues for the divinity of Jesus Christ.|
|Athanasius: The Life of Anthony and the Letter to Marcellinus||From the Classics of Western Spirituality series, this book includes Athanasius’ hagiographic biography of the Desert Father and great monastic, St. Anthony.|
|The Way to Nicaea||By Father John Behr, a detailed and careful account of the theological debates around the question, “Who is this person, Jesus?” that led to the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea.|
Though Arianism survived the Council of Nicaea and caused continued rifts and debates within the Church, eventually the orthodox position of the divinity of Christ triumphed. However, the doctrine of Jesus Christ as God the Son, one of the three persons of the Trinity, led to a new and vexing question: if Jesus is God become human, how exactly do we understand these two aspects of Christ? What is the relation between the human and the divine in the person of Christ Jesus? Many different answers were proposed in the years following the Council of Nicaea. In reaction to the already condemned Arianism that denied the divinity of Christ, several possible answers in the years after Nicaea overemphasized the divine to the detriment of the human. Apollinarism, the idea that Jesus had a human body and soul but a divine mind, that his mind could not have been human, was one suggestion, ultimately deemed heretical by the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381.
Another possibility was Adoptionism, the idea that Jesus was born as the human Christ who later in life, at his baptism by John, had the Spirit of God dwell within him. A variation of this, fully separating the human and divine aspects of Jesus Christ, such that the divine came to dwell in the human person, was propagated by the Patriarch of Constantinople from 428-431, Nestorius. For many people, the Bishop’s solution was elegant and seductive. Yet others recognized that the position was ultimately a denial of the Incarnation as laid out by Athanasius and made Jesus Christ more like a prophet inspired by God than the Son of God who was one with the Father. In other words, Nestorianism separated the Word of God from the person of Jesus Christ, suggesting that the Word of God was consubstantial and coeternal with God the Father, and this Word of God inhabited the human person Jesus well after his birth.
Cyril of Alexandria, a successor of Athanasius as Patriarch of Alexandria, most vehemently opposed Nestorius and his position. Cyril, a careful reader of Athanasius, recognized that if the divine and human aspects of Christ were separated and that Jesus Christ was not born the Son of God but somehow later became divine, then God did not really become human. Nestorianism, according to Cyril, was a denial of the Incarnation, and as such, a denial of the economy of salvation, God’s plan for the redemption of all humanity and creation. The battle between Cyril and Nestorius was theological as well as political—the See of Constantinople, as the new imperial capital, was gaining prominence over the other ancient centers of Christianity like Alexandria. It raged throughout the Christian world, with bishops and priests taking sides.
Over the course of his life, Cyril wrote many important tracts against the Nestorian position and laying out his own Christology. Against Those Who Would Deny the Theotokos confronted Nestorius’ refusal to call St. Mary “the Mother of God.” Given that Nestorius separated the divine and human aspects of Christ, it was consistent with his position to say that Mary was the mother of Christ but not the mother of God. The seemingly insignificant question of the appropriate epithet for Mary actually contained the entirety of the Nestorian heresy. Cyril recognized this and argued that Mary was rightly called the Mother of God. We can see the Armenian Church’s emphatic agreement with Cyril in our own term for St. Mary, Asdvadzadzin, one of the most common names for Armenian churches.
Eventually, Cyril’s Christology would triumph, with the condemnation of Nestorius at the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431. Like Arianism, the Nestorian position continued to attract followers even after its condemnation, especially in the Persian Empire. For most Christians though, Cyril’s Christology, most clearly set out in his mature work On the Unity of Christ, is the foundational formula for how to think about the relation between the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ. Cyril proclaimed one person Jesus Christ, both human and divine, without mixing, such that Godhood and humanity came together in Christ “in a mysterious and incomprehensible union without mixing or confusion.” Later writers would debate exactly how to interpret Cyril’s position, but it is a testament to the force of his answer that both Chalcedonian and Miaphysite Christological positions see their Christologies as consonant with Cyril’s. The Armenian Apostolic Church relies heavily on Cyril of Alexandria as a major source for its Miaphysite Christology. We will have occasion later to develop that position and to inquire into the differences between the Armenian Miaphysite Christology and that adopted by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which the Armenians eventually rejected. Today, we recognize these two titans of Alexandria, Athanasius and Cyril, as champions of orthodoxy against heresy and as profoundly important sources for Armenian Christology and theology in general.
|Against Those Who Are Unwilling to Confess that the Holy Virgin is Theotokos||Cyril of Alexandria’s anti-Nestorian explanation of why St. Mary should be called the Mother of God. At St. Nersess|
|On the Unity of Christ||Cyril’s most mature and concise statement of his Christological position. It declares Jesus Christ as one person, God and human, without confusion or mixing.|
|Does Chalcedon Divide or Unite?: Toward Convergence in Orthodox Christology||A collection of essays reevaluating the differences between the Chalcedonian and Miaphysite Christological positions. Both Christologies rely heavily on Cyril of Alexandria.|
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