Apart from the doctrine of the Trinity, the tenet of the faith that has also attracted much controversy and debate is Christology (the doctrine or study of Christ). In this series, we have briefly examined Ebionitism (p13 MM May 2013) and Arianism (p11 MM Dec 2013), two Christological heresies that in their own ways registered a profound dissatisfaction with the orthodox account of the person of Jesus Christ.
In some ways, the controversial teachings of Apollinaris that we will be examining in the final article in this series are more closely linked to the concerns of the Ebionites than those of the Arians. Like the Ebionites, Apollinaris and his followers were exercised on the question of how the incarnate Son can be said to be both very God and very man. The “solution” that Apollinaris offered to this metaphysical puzzle is much more sophisticated than Ebionitism.
There can be no reason to doubt either Apollinaris’ sincerity or his commitment to orthodoxy. He was not only the Bishop of Laodicea (in Syria) but also a firm supporter of Athanasius and a respected member of the Nicene party.
Although he fought faithfully alongside Athanasius and Basil against the Arians, Apollinaris was vexed by the question posed by his opponents: if the Word is joined to the human body, it must be mutable (subject to change), since a human body is mutable. How, then, can the Word be said to be God and consubstantial with the Father, who is immutable? In his attempt to meet this challenge, Apollinaris departed from orthodoxy and developed a Christology that was later called Apollinarianism.
In his attempt to formulate his theory, Apollinaris chose to begin with a certain understanding of human nature that received its inspiration not from Scripture, but from Platonism. According to Plato, a human being is a composite of body, soul and spirit (or reason). The soul is an impersonal and unconscious vital force that animates the body. For the Greek philosopher, then, it is the spirit (mind or reason) that is the centre of consciousness and the seat of personality.
Following this trichotomous (three-part) anthropology, Apollinaris developed his theory of the Incarnation, according to which Jesus Christ possessed a human body and soul but not a human spirit. The divine Word or Logos has replaced the spirit of the man Jesus.
In this way, Apollinaris believed that he had ingeniously met the challenge of the Arians and resolved the metaphysical conundrum they presented. By postulating that the Word occupied the place of the spirit in the man Jesus, Apollinaris maintained that its immutability is preserved. At the same time, Apollinaris thought he was able to affirm the orthodox view that Christ was both divine and human by this formulation. Christ was human because his body and soul are human. He is God in the sense that the most important aspect of his person, his reason, is the very Word of God.
In his eagerness to stress the unity of Christ which orthodoxy deemed so important, Apollinaris began to speak of Christ as possessing “one nature”. What could Apollinaris possibly have meant by such an assertion? Justo Gonzales is probably correct to suggest that Apollinaris merely sought to emphasise the unity of Christ in the strongest possible way. In so doing, Apollinaris simply wanted to be faithful to the Alexandrian tradition to which he belonged.
It is pertinent to note that Apollinaris and his followers were not condemned as heretics because of their assertion that in the incarnation Christ possessed only one nature. The Council of Constantinople condemned Apollinarianism because, in insisting that the divine Word has replaced the human mind of Christ, it has compromised the humanity of Christ. And if in the incarnation the Son did not take up our full humanity, then human salvation is jeopardised.
Gregory of Nazianzus explains: “If anyone has put trust in him [Jesus] as a Man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation. For that which He has not assumed He has not healed … If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole.”
… Apollinaris chose to begin with a certain understanding of human nature that received its inspiration not from Scripture, but from Platonism.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.