One of the major problems facing Christians in the fourth century was the question of who Jesus was. That, you might say, is clear from Scripture, except for the fact that it quite clearly was not so. The Word was in the beginning with God, and the Word was God, but in what sense? And if the Word was God, what did it mean to say Jesus was the ‘Son of God’ and would sit on God’s right-hand? How did that work then, was God going to sit on his own right hand; if so, how?
Arius (c.250-336), a priest in the Egyptian Church showed, from Scripture, that Jesus was indeed the only-begotten Son of God, which, in his view, meant that there was a time when Jesus was not; it might have been a time before time began, but nonetheless, in Arius’ view, Jesus was a creature, not God; he took seriously and literally the idea that Jesus was God’s son; sons are begotten by their Fathers, and therefore, logically, the Father preceded the Son. His views were rejected by the COuncil at Nicaea in 325, but continued to be held by many who called themselves Christians for many centuries afterwards, although by the fifth century they had been decisively rejected by Rome, Alexandria and Constantinople. Jesus, it was decided, was of the same substance as the Father (and the Spirit) and therefore not a creature, and not born after the Father.
That answered, the question still remained as to how a man could be both a man and God. There had long been those who had argued that Jesus was a man into whom the HolY Spirit had entered, but that on the Cross the Spirit had departed. THis view became associated with the theological school at Antioch, as I have shown here and here. In this sense, Jesus was a son ‘by adoption‘. All these readings can be, and indeed were, supported by readings of Scripture, and the reason that Bishops responded unfavourably to them was just that – that these were not the terms in which they were used to hearing Our Lord discussed.
There was an instinctive mistrust of what we should now call ‘minority readings’. But there was far more to it than a theological dispute – as St Cyril made clear in his arguments against the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, over the question of whether the Virgin Mary was ‘Theotokos’ – that is the mother of God. Cyril’s own words sum it up well:
I was completely amazed that certain people should be in any doubt as to whether the holy virgin ought to be called the Mother of God or not. For if our Lord Jesus Christ is God, then how is the holy virgin who bore him not the Mother of God? The divine disciples handed on this faith to us even if they did not make mention of the term. We have been taught to think this way by the holy Fathers. Our Father Athanasius … composed a book for us concerning the holy and consubstantial trinity where, throughout the third discourse, he calls the holy virgin the Mother of God… the exact words are these: ‘This, then, is the purpose and essential meaning of the divine scripture, as we have said many times, that it contains a two-fold statement about the Saviour; firstly that he is eternally God,and that he is the Son being the Word, the Radiance, and the Wisdom of the Father, and secondly that later for our sake he took flesh from the virgin Mary the Mother of God and so became man’ (Contra Arianos 3.29).
In all of this, the question of our salvation was intimately tied up, for, as St Gregory of Nazianzus wrote:
For that which He [Christ] has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. 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. Let them not, then, begrudge us our complete salvation, or clothe the Saviour only with bones and nerves and the portraiture of humanity (Epistle 101).
But if Christ were human, how could he be divine, and if he were divine, how could he also be human, for surely the divinity would overwhelm the humanity? The best answer to this was provided by St Cyril of Alexandria, and it is to this we shall now turn.