(I had such fun with my final exam that I thought I’d post it here. Click on the diagrams to open them in a new window, then zoom in so you can see them better, or print them and connect up the whole timeline.)
The development of Christology through early Christianity can be roughly divided into three stages: initial development out of Judaism; clarification of the nature of God and Jesus’ relationship with that God; and clarification of Christ’s own nature. The focus of the accompanying diagram is the schematic illustration of various christologies that emerged and were debated during these stages. Although time runs from left to right across the diagram, the illustrations are not to temporal scale; dates and occasionally sequence are approximate, and christologies are generally labeled by primary proponent. Vertical space on the diagram is used to indicate the space between the human and the divine; names for the divine and related concepts are shown across the top of the diagram in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin (in the West) as Christian thought is shaped by these changing understandings of the divine. Most of the diagram illustrates understandings that were ultimately rejected as heterodox; the contemporaneous orthodox views culminated in the formula of Chalcedon, which brought together key elements of the Athanasian and Antiochean christological schools.
The earliest Christians were monotheistic Jews. Their God was the one God who created everything that exists; had covenanted with the people of Israel through Abraham, Moses, and David; and had both spoken through prophets and directly acted in history. First century Jewish thought provided a variety of ways in which to think about Jesus’ relationship to this God. He might be a prophet, or he might be one whose coming the prophets had foretold: a king, or apocalyptic figure, an anointed one in whose person God was making another covenant, an angelic messenger, or, somehow, the very presence of God come to dwell among God’s people as God had done during the Exodus and in the First Temple.
The New Testament writings develop some of these possibilities. In Paul’s liturgical language and scriptural allusions, we see evidence that he has, as N. T. Wright puts it, somehow found Jesus to be on the inside of the God of Israel. The christological hymn in Philippians depicts Jesus emptying himself of divinity, taking on a shameful form, dying a shameful death, being raised up and given “the name above all names,” arguably the name of the LORD. The gospels contain adoptionist imagery, at Jesus’ conception/birth, baptism, or resurrection. They associate Jesus with God’s word, or spirit, or glory: all images which were strongly associated with various manifestations of God in the Tanakh. John most clearly identifies Jesus with God, picking up on the deific connotations of Logos in Greek philosophy that will soon become more important. Other early texts from the first century show a similar variety of thought. In this period, Christianity resembles a movement within Judaism: christological discourse is structured by the Tanakh/Septuagint and portrays a variety of ways in which Jesus is associated with the God of Israel.
When the second century apologists began to write, they found the theological framework of certain schools of Greek philosophy congenial to Christian ideas, as Paul had before them. Christianity was now dominated by Gentiles, not Jews; many of the apologists whose letters survive had come to the faith as the culmination of their philosophical (wisdom-loving) search for truth. Justin Martyr, who followed this path, held that Jesus was the incarnation of the Logos. In this period, Christianity resembles a Greek philosophical school founded by Jesus Christ: christological discourse is structured by the cosmological framework shared by the educated class and concerns the relationship between Jesus, the Logos, and the supreme, eternal God (theos) who created everything that exists, a God whom Christians associated with the LORD (Kyrie/Adonai/YHWH), the God of Israel.
The hierarchical nature of this framework led Origen to posit the Logos as a necessary mediator between God and creature, and the person of Jesus Christ as the locus in which Logos and flesh came together, necessarily mediated by Jesus’ human soul. A more direct adaptation would later lead Arius to conclude that Jesus, while closer to God than any other creature, and more akin to God than to the rest of creation, was nevertheless himself a creature. Arianism would persist as a viable Christian tradition for centuries: it protected both the monotheistic nature of God, and Christ’s unique status as mediator between God and creation, in a more straightforward manner than the trinitarian formulation of Nicaea that was supposed to settle the issue.
But this was not the only theological schema present in Greek thought, and rival christological interpretations emerged that associated Jesus with other kinds of divinities: either a complex theological ecology of divinities balanced by number or gender or abstraction, or in a dualistic cosmology in which a good God created spirit (“invisible things”) and an opposing evil God created matter (“visible things”). The first of these is exemplified by Valentinus and other Christian gnostics against whom Irenaeus wrote derisively that their teachings were mere mystic babble intended to beguile the credulous. These schools were scotched relatively easily, but the dualism that associated matter with evil was a more persistent challenge. Docetism held that Jesus only appeared to have a body; his flesh was illusory or phantasmal. Marcion, blending anti-Judaism with dualism, identified the Jewish God, portrayed in Genesis as directly creating the material world, with the evil Demiurge; Jesus was sent by the good God, to combat this evil.
Although some writers describe the period of the trinitarian controversies as a time when christology was put on hold, it is more accurate to describe the christological focus of this period as clarifying the nature of the God to whom Christ was uniquely related, and of certain divine-facing aspects of that relationship. The most explicitly christological of these might be patripassianism: a form of modalism which held that God the Father suffered everything that Jesus suffered. This was rejected not only because of its modalism, but because of its incompatibility with the Greco-Roman understanding of impassibility as virtue, and therefore as an essential attribute of the divine. This would be significant during the next stage of the debate: now that Christ was established as fully human and fully divine, what exactly did that mean?
These discussions drew heavily upon a common understanding of the nature of a person, and of attributes that were proper to divinity and to humanity. Apollinaris proposed that Christ possessed the divine Logos in place of a human soul (or mind or spirit, depending on translation), prompting Gregory of Nazanzius’ memorable aphorism that “what is not assumed is not redeemed.” Nestor argued that Christ was a voluntary union of two persons whom we worship as one, provoking outrage and condemnation for his assertion that Mary could not properly be called the Mother of God, but only of Christ’s human nature. Eutyches reasoned that the divine and human natures must be combined in Christ into a single nature: while this monophysite position is held to this day by certain oriental churches, it was rejected at the Council of Chalcedon by the western (Latin-speaking) and much of the eastern (Greek-speaking) church as nullifying, rather than preserving, Christ’s dual consubstantiality. Leo the Great’s letter against Eutyches, which was affirmed by that council, taught a “unity of person, which must be understood to subsist in a twofold nature,” and contains stirring language juxtaposing the divine and human attributes as he marveled, “[In this union] both natures retain their own proper character without loss . . . One of them sparkles with miracles, the other succumbs to injury and insult.”
The formula of Chalcedon blended key elements of the Alexandrian and Antiochean schools (emphasizing the unity of Christ’s person and the distinction between his natures, respectively) whose members had engaged vigorously with Apollinaris, Nestor, Eutyches, and their supporters. It affirmed Christ’s dual consubstantiality and its implications without defining its internal structure any more precisely than
…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.
This did not immediately end all discussion, of course, but it was essentially the final word. The eastern church eventually split into orthodox (chalcedonian) and oriental (monophysite) churches; in the west, the Quicunque or Athanasian Creed gained popularity for its explication of this teaching. For most Christian traditions, Chalcedon’s formula stands as the definitive resolution of the Christological debates.
For further reading, check out the Know your Heretics series offered by the Resurgence ministry of Mars Hill.
Also, Larry Hurtado periodically blogs about some of his important work on the emergence of Jesus devotion in the very early church.