‘The Doctrine of Christ and Human Salvation’ by Fr. Dr Jossi Jacob

Fr Dr Jossi Jacob. Pic - YouTube

Fr Dr Jossi Jacob. Pic – YouTube

Fr Dr Jossi Jacob – Chief of  COS – 19/04/21

Who is Christ? What is His mission? These are two basic questions continuously echoed throughout the history of Christianity since its advent. The consensus of the second question generally among all Christian Churches is that Christ’s mission was primarily to bring salvation to the whole creation. However, while getting into the details of this answer, different perspectives are visible. Discourses on the first question kept the Churches divided for the last sixteen centuries. The basic reason for the disagreement is not philosophical or political as many of the nonbelievers and believers may think. The real motive behind the rigid positions of the Fathers of the Church was always soteriological,[1] that means related to the question of salvation. Two of the basic concerns constantly visible in the mind of the Church Fathers in developing any Christological[2] doctrine are complete loyalty to the Divine revelation and soteriological justification. In the words of St. Paul, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). This passage can be understood as the true faith in one Lord that leads us to the union with Him through the Holy Baptism and other Sacraments, which is essential for salvation. The truthfulness of the faith is related to the proper content of it that was the major concern of all the polemic efforts of the great Fathers of the Church in the early centuries.

In the context of modernity, the age-old question, “Who is Christ?” has undergone a kind of existential changeover and became “Who is Christ for me?”It has been reduced from a question of soteriological significance to the personal experience of the believer. Metropolitan Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios writes, “The issue in the Christological debate of the fourth and fifth centuries is precipitated by the conviction that Jesus is God. … If that debate appears irrelevant to some of us today, it is not so much because our philosophical outlooks have changed since then as our convictions about the Person of Christ have been fundamentally eroded. … What was at stake in the 4th and 5th-century debate about Christ was the question of the origin and the destiny of humanity…”[3] Orthodox understanding of the Doctrine of Christ is not confined to viewing Jesus Christ on existential grounds, but as the perfect interaction between Divinity and humanity for the salvation of the whole creation. A brief survey of the historical discourses about the person and work of Christ that occurred in the 4th and 5th centuries can clarify the position of the Orthodox Church and its soteriological significance.

Perfect Divinity of Jesus Christ: The Greatest Concern of Nicaea (AD 325)
The council of Nicaea has a unique role in interpreting the revealed truth about the Divinity of Jesus Christ and affirming as an unquestionable truth the foundation of the Christian faith and life. Arius, a philosophically brilliant priest from the Alexandrian region, attempted to reduce the whole content of Christianity, which includes its basic confessions to the common understandings prevalent among the learned men of the time, namely, Platonic and Neo-Platonic philosophy. According to Platonic Cosmology, the ultimate God cannot have any direct interaction or communion with the material world due to the material being quite inferior and evil. For the platonists, the constantly changing world cannot contain God, the absolute and eternal Truth. When Christianity acquired the status of the official religion of the Roman Empire during the period of Emperor Constantine, many highly regarded scholars of the empire were pressured to join the new religion, which upheld the paradoxical belief that the perfect God became perfect Man. Arius’ teachings arose from these pressures, and he argued that God the Son is not the eternal and absolute God, but merely a creation of God the Father, who alone is the perfect and eternal God. For Arius, the Son was the first creation of God the Father, who was entrusted with the power to create everything else and was granted sonship by grace. For Arius, God the Son was a created being adopted into divine filiation. This new doctrine was palatable to the intellectuals of the time but stood diametrically opposed to the truth revealed by God to humanity.

In that tense situation, the Ecumenical Council was invoked in the City of Nicaea[4]in order to evaluate the ideas proposed by Arius. The arguments of the Orthodox party, of which Saint Athanasius of Alexandria became the greatest exponent, focused mainly on emphasizing two principles for any doctrine to be accepted as Christian, namely, scriptural rootedness alongside with soteriological justification. Saint Athanasius argued that if God the Son is not truly God, then He is not capable of revealing God properly and of providing us salvation, which is the complete communion with the uncreated and eternal God. Arius also agreed that being a creation, God the Son also is liable to sin and fall from the communion with the Father. The natural conclusion of the discourse was that He could not be the Savior of the whole creation if the Arian thesis is accepted. If Jesus Christ is not a perfect God, worshipping God will be worshipping God’s creation and that is blasphemy. Therefore, Saint Athanasius affirmed that Jesus Christ being the perfect God is essential for securing the salvation of the whole creation, which is a guarantee we have been given through the divine self-revelation of God. The Council of Nicaea established the doctrine of perfect divinity of Jesus Christ as the essential content of faith through proper understanding and interpretation of the scripture.

Union Between Divinity and Humanity in Jesus Christ
The Council of Nicaea affirmed the doctrine of the perfect Divinity of Jesus Christ, but the question of His humanity, which made His interaction in history explicit, were left unaddressed. So eventually the concern of the Churches turned towards defining the nature of the union between the Divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ. Representatives of two major theological schools of thought, namely, Alexandrian and Antiochene, came up with different ideas regarding the same issue. The understanding of Western Christian tradition was somehow in line with the Antiochene way of thinking.[5]. The Christological conflict occurred mainly between the exponents of Alexandrian and Antiochene theological traditions. The Alexandrian theological tradition was epistemologically more in line with the approach of Plato, a great Greek Philosopher of 4thcentury BC and Antiochenes followed the principles of Aristotle, a Macedonian Thinker of the same era. The platonic approach was more mystical and presented the truth as something ascending from a world existing as higher than the material world. For Aristotle, the production of knowledge is possible only out of human experience in this world. Even while expressing strands of Platonic ways of thinking, the Alexandrian Fathers, especially Saint Cyril of Alexandria, have meticulously presented the doctrine of the union between Divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ with full soteriological justification, which is an essential quality for any doctrine to be accepted as Orthodox. On the other hand, the Antiochenes deviated from guaranteeing soteriological validation of their Doctrine of Christ. This tension is explicit in the doctrinal conflict between Saint Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius, which ended up in the condemnation of Nestorius at the Council of Ephesus (431 AD).

Salvation Motive in the Christology of Saint Cyril of Alexandria
Saint Cyril of Alexandria (+444 AD) has brilliantly explained the mystery of the union between Divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ, providing proper answers to many theological concerns, which were wrongly concluded. He answered the pivotal question in Christology: “Who is Jesus Christ?” with the answer“Jesus Christ is the Logos (Word), Who assumed flesh (humanity) from Virgin Mary, Theotokos (John 1: 14).”According to him the humanity of Jesus Christ began to exist and was united to the Divinity by the single act of assumption of the same by the Logos from Virgin Mary, Theotokos. The Divine Logos became incarnate by the assumption of all human faculties from the virgin Mary. The humanity, which had been assumed, became the humanity of the incarnate Logos. Thus, the person of God the Son became one incarnate person in which perfect Divinity and perfect humanity subsist as perfectly and inseparably united, without losing any of the properties of either of the two. The Cyrillian position is totally reinforced by the Alexandrian way of theologizing.

On the other hand, the Theologians from the School of Antioch attempted to explain the mystery of incarnation from a different perspective. They followed the Aristotelian epistemological system, which demands empirical verification and justification in every stage of the construction of knowledge. Hence, the answer to the question “Who is Christ?” started from a point of historical surety, namely, Jesus Christ was a man who lived in the Palestinian region at a certain period of history and they thus concluded with the idea that “Jesus Christ was a man in whom God dwelt.”For the Antiochenes, the union between Divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ occurred by the indwelling of Logos in the human person. This Christological position of the Antiochene tradition became explicit in the controversy between Saint Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius, which was culminated in the Council of Ephesus (431 AD).

The soteriological discrepancy in the Antiochene position became explicit in answering the question about the real subject of suffering on the cross, namely, “who suffered on the cross?”, the Logos, who assumed flesh, or the man in whom God dwelt? Naturally, the answer from the Antiochene or Nestorian side must be the second one, namely, ‘Jesus, the man in whom God dwelt. Then a crucial question arises from that answer,  “Is salvation possible by the suffering of a man?” It is quite illogical to believe that the suffering of humanity brings salvation to the whole creation. The Antiochene or Nestorian Christology loses its soteriological justification on those grounds. On the other side, Saint Cyril of Alexandria explained the subject of suffering as the Divine Logos, Who assumed flesh. The flesh, which the Divine Logos assumed from Theotokos, became His own flesh and He suffered in that flesh and tasted death in it. Thus Saint Cyril brilliantly established the soteriological dimension of the suffering of Jesus Christ. The suffering, death, and resurrection of the incarnate Divine Logos made salvation accessible to the whole creation. Considering its soteriological correctness, which is a Biblical truth, the holy Church accepts the Christological position of Saint Cyril of Alexandria as her official doctrine. The Nestorian doctrine is rejected because of its incorrect position in answering the question of salvation.“One incarnate nature of God the Son” (Mia physis) is an expression totally affirming the union between Divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ, put forth incompleteness by Saint Cyril. The union never fused the Divinity and humanity into one entity, but both are inseparably united to a level in which the properties of each are not expressed separately, but perfect Divinity and perfect humanity remained in Jesus Christ without any confusion or change.

Christological Confusion in the Council of Chalcedon
The Christological understanding of the undivided Church acquired clarity through the expositions of Saint Cyril of Alexandria and became officially accepted in the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431 AD). The group of believers and hierarchs holding the Antiochene Christological position remain discontented after the condemnation of Nestorius for his heterodox position. The tension that existed between the Orthodox and Nestorian groups resulted in persistent tension even after the Council of Ephesus. In that context, the Emperor Marcianinvokedan Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon in 451 AD, eventually turned into an extremely controversial issue. The Council had good intention to safeguard the Orthodox faith and to settle the Christological controversy, but unfortunately, it apparently deviated from the position of the Church affirmed in the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD and the doctrinal position of Saint Cyril of Alexandria, which was generally accepted Orthodox. Leo – I, then Pope of Rome prepared and sent a Christological document later known as Tome of Leo, to the Council and a majority of the members accepted it without appropriate scrutiny and evaluation. The controversy emerged when Saint Dioscorus of Alexandria disagreed with the content of the Tome. The most Christologically significant and controversial part of the decree of the Council says,

“So, following the saintly fathers, we all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same true God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards His humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from Mary, the virgin God-bearer as regards his humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being…”[6]

Saint Dioscorusand the Alexandrian party vehemently opposed the expressions “made known in two natures” and “the distinction of natures having been in no way abolished through the union.” For them, those expressions stood diametrically against the Christological position of the Church, namely, the “One incarnate nature of God the Son.”The Chalcedonian party explained the so-called two-nature theory as a clarification of the Cyrillian doctrinal position attested by the Council of Ephesus. Even then, the confusions about the new faith formulation continued after the council and are very well reflected in the situations that led to the following councils in the Chalcedonian party. Serious and hopeful attempts to reconcile between two families of Churches, Chalcedonian and pre-Chalcedonian, were done in the twentieth century(the 1960s and 1990s respectively) and now many of the theologians argue that the controversy was caused by terminological differences and lack of proper understanding of each other. The confusion that emerged in the Council of Chalcedon is still not totally eradicated, and one could notice differences in Christological perspectives even in the modern theologians of the Eastern Orthodox (Chalcedonian) family of Churches. It is quite interesting to notice that the Oriental Orthodox Churches still hold the pre-Chalcedonian Christological position of the undivided Church without any confusion and with strong conviction.

Chalcedonian Christology after Council of Chalcedon
Throughout history theologians, of the Roman Catholic Communion, with hardly any exception, consider the Chalcedonian Christological formulations, which is more or less the same as that in the Tome of Leo, to be the definitive end of the early Christological discourses and controversies. They take the Chalcedonian Christological formulation as the infallible doctrinal declaration of the Pope of Rome. It is also to be noted that inclination to the Antiochene position in Christology was a constant undertone in Western Christological orientation.[7]

The situation was different in the case of the Orthodox party on the Chalcedonian side after the council. They had to make constant attempts to defend the faith formulations in order to prove their formula as not being a deviation from the position of the undivided Church. They made constant efforts to reconcile between the Christological positions of the undivided Church and the Chalcedonian doctrine through reinterpretations of their positions in all the three councils held after 451 AD. Aiden Nichols, a prominent Catholic Theologian, comments on the nature of Eastern Orthodox Christology: “The Orthodox regard these seven Councils as internally related, a kind of symphony rendered one by a single major theme. That theme is the affirmation that in Jesus Christ there is one person, who is divine, and in two natures, divine and human.”[8]

In the post-Chalcedonian period, Leontius of Byzantium (485 – 543 AD), a Byzantine monk and a great theologian of the time, brought in a new interpretation to the Chalcedonian Christological position, which is known as the no-Chalcedonian theory or the en-hypostasis theory. According to it, Jesus Christ has the hypostasis (person) of the Divine Logos to which humanity is en-hypostasised. That means the humanity in Jesus Christ never existed or operated separately from the Person of Divine Logos. This approach is very much in line with the Christological position of Saint Cyril of Alexandria. The theory was accepted as the official doctrinal position of the Chalcedonian party in their Council held in Constantinople in 553 AD. Later the question of the operations of will(s) in Jesus Christ became a topic for discussion and a heterodox idea called Monothelitism appeared as a blight upon the Church. Monothelitism argued that there is only the operation of one will in Jesus Christ, namely, the Divine will. It was actually a deviation from the position of Saint Cyril who explained all the operations of Jesus Christ is that of the incarnate Logos, in Whom Divinity and Humanity, have been united in a way where they exchange all the properties with each other. Then one cannot think of a separate operation of the Divine will from that of the human and vice versa. The response from the Chalcedonian side against Monothelitism made them inclined slightly towards Antiochene Christology, namely, the affirmation that two wills (divine and human) are existing in Jesus along with their proper operations. This theory, which can be qualified as moderate Antiochianism, was reaffirmed at the next council, held in Constantinople between 680 – 81 AD. Maximus the Confessor (580 – 662 AD), was the theologian who brought the Christological position again towards accepting traits of the Antiochene position in a milder manner. Possible operations of two separate wills in the person of Jesus Christ cannot guarantee the complete soteriological justification, because the perfect unity between Divinity and humanity are not affirmed there.

It is quite difficult to conclude that the Christological confusion caused by the Council of Chalcedon is totally settled at all. Even without challenging the Council of Chalcedon directly, Georges Florovsky, a prominent Chalcedonian Orthodox theologian of the twentieth century, criticizes the Tome of Leo, which was the basic document used for the formulation of the decree in the council.  He writes, “Pope Leo proceeds from soteriological motives. Only the acceptance and assimilation of our own nature by Him, whom neither sin could ensnare, nor death could imprison, could open the possibility of victory over sin and death… He defines the completeness of union as the unity of a Person. However, he never defines directly and precisely what he means by “person.” This law was not an accidental oversight, and it would be inappropriate to pass this issue over in silence in a dogmatic Tome. But Pope Leo did not know how to define a person.”[9] This lack of clarity in the Tome of Leo made the Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches engage in constant defence of their Christological position, even in the twenty-first century, in order to make sure that it maintains a soteriological justification as an essential quality of doctrinal orthodoxy. Deviation from soteriological motives will make theology head towards a dry, barren end.

Churches in the Oriental Orthodox family holds the Christological doctrines of the undivided Church of the pre-Chalcedonian period with steadfast stability and complete loyalty to the Divine Revelation. The Cyrillian confession of faith, “One incarnate nature of God the Word” and the assertion on the perfect union between the Divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ are not simply expressions of identity for the Holy Church. For her, those are the essential principles to uphold for effective participants in the divine economy of salvation. It is the lamp post illuminating her way in adoring the great mystery of God becoming of man for our salvation.

The act of theologizing without soteriological motive will continue producing dry, philosophical discourses and will never bring forth anything nurturing to the life of the Church. The whole struggle of the Fathers of the Church was to keep theology with its spiritual flavour and soteriological justification. Christological formulations of the Church are not constructed of philosophical vigour, but rather the unfolding of the Divine Revelation through the life of prayer and fecund meditation on the Truth. Any sort of alteration or compromise made on them will result in deviation from the Truth. Theology has developed through unfolding the mysteries through the testimony of the Holy Apostles and the mind of the Fathers of the Church. Belittling the great theological concerns of the Fathers of the Church will result in the deviation of truth and so from “One Lord, and one faith” to which we are united through “one Baptism” (Eph. 4:5). May all the struggles of the Fathers keep us on the correct path of faith in order to lead us to ultimate salvation be fruitful. Let all the Christological disagreements be settled by the working of the Holy Spirit in a way that keeps us in the true faith and leads us to salvation.

[1] The word Soteriological derives from the Greek word Soteria, which literally means salvation. Soteriological implies “related to salvation.”

[2] Christology is a branch of theology which deals with the doctrines regarding the Person and work of Jesus Christ.

[3] Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios, A Human God (Kottaym: MGF, 1992) 56, 57.

[4] It was located in the current city called Iznic in modern Turkey.

[5]V.C. Samuel, The Council of Chalcedon Re-examined (Madras: Christian Literature Society, 1977) 4.

[6] http://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum04.htm

[7]V.C. Samuel, The Council of Chalcedon Re-examined, 4.

[8] Aiden Nichols, Light From the East(London: Sheed  Ward, 1995) 91.

[9] Georges Florovsky, The Byzantine Fathers of 5th Century, http://www.holytrinitymission.org/books/english/fathers_florovsky_3.htm


Special Courtesy – Deacon Logan H. Polk

Fr Dr Jossi Jacob – COS

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