Sun, Dec 03, 2017
A Consensus and Coherent Christology
by Lee Tankersley
Series: Man, Sin, and Person of Christ (Systematic Theology 2)

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve looked at the biblical data that shows us that Jesus was fully God and fully man.  But putting that together in a way that is coherent can be quite challenging.  But I think it is a challenging task that we need to embrace.  In other words, I don’t think it is enough to say, “The Bible says things that we believe but can’t begin to explain in a way that is not contradictory.”  Mystery is fine, but absolute incoherence isn’t when it comes to formulating our doctrinal beliefs.  But is saying that Jesus is fully God and fully man really incoherent?  Some have claimed so.  For example, consider the following:


1) God is the Creator.

2) The Creator is uncreated.

3) Christ is God.

4) Therefore, Christ is the Creator (3, 1).

5) Therefore, Christ is uncreated (4, 1, 2).

6) Man is created.

7) Christ is man.

8) Therefore, Christ is created (6, 7).

9) Therefore, Christ is both created and uncreated (5, 8).  


Does this mean that we’ve made an error in how we’ve understood the Bible’s teaching about Jesus?  Is Christianity as a whole some ruined project in light of this?  Of course not.  And the great thing is that we can answer this charge and lay out our Christology with the help of the early church.  During the early centuries of the church, the church wrestled with these very issues and articulated the truths we’ve looked at over these last couple of weeks in very helpful ways.  And we happily get to stand on their shoulders today.  


So, the question I want to try to answer is, “How has the church historically answered the charge of incoherence and sorted out an understanding of Christology in a way that both accurately reflects the teaching of Scripture and is a coherent solution?”  And the great thing is that the first six ecumenical (or church-wide) councils of the church focused on this issue.  


Now, let me say something here in case some of us want to immediately put up our defenses against looking to the history of the church as our guide in understanding Jesus.  I want to put you at ease in making clear that Scripture is our ultimate and final authority.  If ever the teaching of any individual, group, council, in the church’s history is at odds with the teaching of Scripture, Scripture wins out every time.  And the teaching of claims of any individual, group, or council in the church is judged in light of the Scripture.  


However, I believe that we should listen to these early church councils and hold to the teaching espoused in them in light of the following realities:


  1. The consensus (or orthodox) view of Christology reflected in these first few councils was the result of “a complex process of debate, discussion, and reflection in the first five centuries of the life of the church.”1
  2. The clear focus of the early church debates were almost entirely focused on who (and what) Christ was and is.  That is, whereas other topics of great importance were worked out in the thought and writings of individuals here and there, the focus of the church over hundreds of years was working on who (and what) Christ was and is.  That shouldn’t be ignored or neglected too easily.  
  3. The councils of the early church have a certain minimalism about them.  That is, they’re not aimed at saying as much as one can possibly say about the identity of Christ but is saying what one must minimally affirm in order to articulate in a coherent way the testimony of Holy Scripture.  In one sense, they were simply seeking to show what arguments should not be accepted in light of Scripture.
  4. Finally, the early councils answered the questions of the day in light of the charges against the church’s understanding of Christ, questions that would continue to linger today if it were not for our fathers in the faith laboring in a painstaking fashion to answer these charges and questions that do indeed arise in any place where we as God’s people are ignorant of the arguments made by the early councils.  


With that said, here’s how I want to walk through the next hour.  First, I want to walk through a brief history of the councils and see what they teach us concerning the identity of the Son of God.  And, second, I want to show us that the conclusions drawn concerning the identity of Christ in the first six councils alone are fitting to provide a coherent understanding of who and what Christ was and is in light of the witness of Scripture.  


The Road to Chalcedon and Beyond


I mentioned a couple of weeks back that that NT authors make obviously clear that they think that Jesus is fully God (God the Son).  It didn’t take centuries before this realization was shared among the church.  But nor did it take too long for challenges to come to this claim.


It’s been said before that heresy precedes stated orthodoxy.  What that means is not that untruth always precedes truth.  It simply means that sometimes a falsehood has to be stated before we realize that we need to state certain truths.  I’ve compared this to the suggestion that two men or two women can be married.  History will show that churches didn’t articulate marriage as the relationship between one man and one woman for life until the early part of the twenty-first century.  But this doesn’t mean that the church didn’t have that view of marriage for the first twenty centuries.  Of course they did.  They simply didn’t realize what needed to be stated until falsehoods were claimed.  Therefore, as we walk through the history of the church articulating truths about how they understand who and what Jesus is, at each point we’ll first begin with a heresy.  And the first of these we’ll look at is Arianism.  


Arius was an elder in Alexandria in within the latter half of the third century, and he began to develop a view that though Jesus was greater than you and me, he wasn’t divine.  It’s as if he was in a category between us and our Creator.  But what Arius made explicitly clear is that what the Son had in common with us and, consequently, not in common with God the creator is that he was created.  Arius famously stated, “There was a time when he was not.”  Arius and his followers said, “We acknowledge one God, Who is alone ingenerate (agenneton, i.e., self-existent), alone eternal, alone without beginning (anarchon), alone true, alone possessing immortality, alone wise, alone good, alone sovereign, alone judge of all, etc.”2


Now, he had a high view of the Son, but he declared that God is one (Deut 6:4), the Son was created, and the Son is, therefore, of a different (although similar) substance than the Father (homoiousios).  


Ultimately the church answered in the council of Nicea, consisting of anywhere from 220 to 318 bishops throughout the church, and affirm what we know as orthodoxy, namely, that though the Son is distinct from the Father, he is of the exact same substance as the Father (homoousios), and is therefore eternal.  The leading voice for orthodoxy was a young man named Athanasius.  And there were only two bishops who voted in favor of Arius’s positions, and they were his two closest friends.  The clear consensus of the church was that the Son is divine.


Therefore, we can say that it was the divine Son, the second person of the Trinity, who acquired a human nature in his incarnation.  In the words of the Nicene Creed, the Son is “of the same essence as the Father, through whom all things came into being, both in heaven and earth; who for us . . .  and for our salvation came down and was incarnate, becoming human.”      


Arianism was condemned, but didn’t die.3  It would actually rage on and find itself condemned again in the Council of Constantinople in 381 (nearly sixty years after the council of Nicea).  And already by this second council, there was another heresy that was being debated as well, one that would be condemned officially in a third and fourth church council.


This other heresy came from a man named Apollinaris.  He was actually a staunch defender of the view of Athanasius and spent much time speaking and writing against the views of Arius.  His problem is simply that he went too far.  He and his followers argued that instead of having a human soul, Christ has a divine soul.  So, instead of taking on a fully human nature (i.e. everything it means to be human), the Son took on a human nature without a human soul, which he supplied with a divine soul.  


The problem, of course, is that if Christ doesn’t have a human soul, then we cannot really say that he is fully human.  Gregory of Nyssa famously said, ‘That which is unassumed is unhealed,” meaning that the Son can only heal and save what he assumes, and if he doesn’t assume a human soul, then he cannot heal and save my soul.  


Ultimately, the church agreed, condemned this heresy that was known as Apollinarianism.  They affirmed the full humanity of Christ.  Thus, the picture of Chalcedonian Christology (or orthodox, consensus Christology) is becoming clearer.  The church has stated what the Scriptures clearly teach, namely, that Christ is God and man.  However, just as Apollinaris reacted strongly against Arius and swung the pendulum too far so that he actually denied Christ’s humanity, another would come along and so strongly stress these two natures of Christ (his full humanity and full divinity) that the pendulum would again swing too far and produce another heresy called Nestorianism, supposedly promoted by a Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople.  


Now, I say “supposedly” because after Nestorius’s views were condemned at the third and fourth ecumenical councils, he claimed that he never believed that heresy, always believed the orthodox position, and was just misunderstood.  Maybe he was, but the heresy he supposedly promoted still bears his name, Nestorianism.4


Nestorius pressed the two natures of Christ (again the divine and human nature) so strongly, that he was understood as saying that Christ had two “persons” (two “he’s”5), a divine person and a human person.  The church gathered and again condemned this view, making clear that Christ is one person; he is the Son, the second person of the Trinity.  


However, it wasn’t long before another heresy had to be addressed.  Where Apollinaris had stressed that Christ had only a divine soul and basically eliminated his human nature and Nestorius had pressed so hard against that and for his two natures that he made the error of arguing for two persons in Christ, a leading monk in Constantinople, named Eutyches thought this whole issue that Apollinaris was driving at probably needed to be revisited.  Maybe he had been on to something with the divine nature kind of usurping the human nature.  


Therefore, that’s exactly what he argued.  Eutyches argued that the divine and human natures of Christ actually conjoined together in such a way to make a third thing.  If Apollinarius had destroyed the human nature of Christ by denying that Christ had a human soul, then Eutyches was guilty of destroying both natures.  He argued that as the divine and human natures came together, they formed a nature that had divine and human attributes.  Thus Christ had neither a fully divine nature nor a fully human nature but one nature that was a hybrid divine-human nature (kind of like a demigod).  


All of this ultimately came to a head in the most important of councils for Christology, the Council of Chalcedon in 451.  In October of 451 something almost miraculous happened.  Over 500 bishops came church-wide (520 to be exact), and they met and discussed and debated and painstakingly considered who and what Christ was and is over five sessions.  And by the end of that fifth session, all 520 bishops agreed and signed a creed that detailed what you and I know as the orthodox, consensus understanding of Christ.  Christ is one person with two natures (one human, one divine).  He is fully human and fully divine.  Or, in numbered form, it is this:


  1. Christ is one person.
  2. Christ has two natures, one divine and one human.
  3. The two natures of Christ . . . are distinct; they are not mixed together or confused, nor are they merged into a hybrid of divine and human attributes.
  4. The natures of Christ are really united in the one person of the Son, that is, they are two natures possessed by one person.


Or perhaps a simpler model for thinking of this is to form a box, as follows:


One Person                                 Two Natures


With regard to Christology, you do not want to think outside of the box.  Stay in there, be caged in by it, and you’ll avoid heresy.  


So, again, this is consensus, orthodox Christology.  This is what the church believes about Christ, and not only is it helpful, but it completely accounts for the biblical witness.  But is it coherent?  If you remember the charge at the beginning of our time together, for example, if God is uncreated and man is created, and Christ is God and man, then don’t we have to say that Christ is both created and uncreated?  Isn’t that like saying he’s married and a bachelor or a circle and a square?  That is, isn’t this just incoherent nonsense? It’s not, and here’s why (and this is where this gets quite fun!).


Answering the Charge of Incoherence


The reason the consensus, orthodox understanding of Christ is not incoherent nonsense is because we’re saying, for example, that Christ was fully human not merely human.  


That’s a big difference.  To say that the Christ is fully human means that he had all the properties that are essential to the essence of humanity.  Thus we rightly note that the Son had a human soul and body, mind and will, for example.  


However, we are not claiming that Christ was merely human.  To say that one is merely human is to say that one has only those properties necessary for humanity and not those properties necessary to divinity.  That is, to say that one is merely human is to say that one is necessarily not divine.  If non-omniscience, for example, is an essential property of being merely human (as you and I are), then one who is merely human (like us) cannot be omniscient.  


But our claim with Christ is that he was not merely human.  Rather, he was fully human, possessing all the essential properties of the essence of humanity in his human nature, and he was fully divine, possession all the essential properties of the essence of divinity in his divine nature.  Remember our position: we believe the Bible asserts that the person of the Son (who existed prior to the incarnation and is fully God), took on a fully human nature so that the one person of the Son, now having two natures, is fully God, fully man, one person, existing in two natures (one fully divine and one fully human).


But there’s another truth we must affirm from Chalcedon and the next two councils that followed (Constantinople II (553) and Constantinople III (680).  And it can be stated in an axiom:


“Christ has one of whatever goes with the person and two of whatever goes with the natures.”7


What this means is that if Christ has a fully divine nature, then we should say he has a divine will, right?  Of course.  And, if Christ has a fully human nature, then he has a fully human will, right?  Of course.  He has a divine mind because he has a fully divine nature, and he has a human mind because he has a fully divine nature.  Moreover, his divine mind possesses the properties of divinity so that his divine mind is omniscient, for example.  And on the other hand, his human mind possesses the properties of humanity so that his human mind is able to grow, learn, develop, and be non-omniscient.   Now, hold fast here and persevere in your attentiveness if this is new to you because this is crucial for understanding the biblical text and the biblical witness to the identity of Christ.  What we’re saying is that Christ has a divine mind and will and a human mind and will because he has a fully divine nature and a fully human nature.  Also, let me give you one more axiom before we turn to the biblical text in order to see why this orthodox, consensus understanding of Christ is so crucial if we’re to understand accurately the biblical witness.  It is this:


Whatever can be affirmed as true of either nature (divine or human)

can be affirmed as true of the person (the Son, Christ).




  1. Jesus can say that not even the Son knows the day or hour (Matt 24:36) because that is true in regard to his human nature.
  2. Jesus can say, “Not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39) because he can speak in regard to his human will.
  3. Jesus can say, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt 18:20)—which he says while standing in front of his disciples—because that is true of his divine nature, which is onmi-present.
  4. Paul can stress that the Son upholds the universe by the word of his power (Col 1:17) and we can confess that he was even doing that while Mary was holding the infant Jesus in her arms because that is true in regards to his divine nature.    




Therefore, we can summarize orthodox, consensus Christology as follows:


  1. Christ is one person.
  2. Christ has two natures, one divine and one human.
  3. The two natures of Christ . . . are distinct; they are not mixed together or confused, nor are they merged into a hybrid of divine and human attributes.
  4. The natures of Christ are really united in the one person of the Son, that is, they are two natures possessed by one person.6
  5. Because Christ is fully human and fully divine (and not merely human or merely divine), he possesses all qualities simultaneously that are essential to being human and essential to being divine.
  6. Therefore, Christ can be said to possess one of whatever goes with person and two of whatever goes with nature.
  7. Finally, whatever can be affirmed as true of either nature (human or divine) can be affirmed as true of the person (the Son, Christ).


Not only will this orthodox, consensus understanding of the doctrine of Christ put you in line with the teaching of the church throughout the ages but (more importantly) is the only understanding of Christology that accounts for the biblical witness concerning who and what Christ was and is in a way that is both faithful and coherent.   


1) Oliver D. Crisp, “Disaderata for Models of the Hypostatic Union” in Christology Ancient & Modern (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 22.  Crisp makes the argument that I lay out for why history is crucial in this chapter.

2) Quoted in J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), 227.

3) One reason Arianism wouldn’t die an easy death is because Arius was clever, and he even wrote jingles and songs for worship that promoted his views (Stephen J. Nichols, For Us and For Our Salvation: The Doctrine of Christ in the Early Church [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007], 63).  One such song that a history professor claims belonged to Arius but I haven’t confirmed it elsewhere goes like this: “Arius of Alexandria, I’m the talk of the town, Friend of saints, elect of heaven, filled with learning and renown.  If you want the Logos doctrine, I can serve it hot and hot: God begat him before he was begotten, He was not.”  I guess this is proof that you can teach (bad) theology through (bad) jingles.

4) I think the lesson here is that his parents should have known better than to name him Nestorius.  I mean, that obviously lends itself to being a name for a heresy.  Had he been named Luke, for example, surely the church would never have labeled a heresy “Lukism.”  There’s just no ring to it.  But Nestorianism, now that’s a great name for a heresy!

5) “Two he’s” is the way that Nichols describes this in his book, 105.

6) This helpful summary is produced in Oliver D. Crisp’s “Disaderata for Models of the Hypostatic Union” in Christology Ancient & Modern (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 29.

7) Crisp, “Disederata,” 32 (Crisp credits Gary DeWeese for noting this axiom).