Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.

Writing for Faith & Culture

We welcome the submission of articles of between 600 and 1,500 words on topics related to Catholic faith and culture. Articles should be emailed as Word attachments to Joseph Pearce.

Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ

Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ

An erudite, sophisticated work of immense scholarship for the serious or advanced student of theology, this book examines the early Ecumenical Councils (Ephesus, Nicaea, Chalcedon, Constantinople I, Constantinople II, Constantinople III, Lateran IV) in a meticulous and comprehensive way. It explains with precision the Christological controversies surrounding the nature and person of Christ that were finally resolved at the Council of Nicaea and Council of Chalcedon but never to the satisfaction of many theologians. While the words of The Nicene Creed sound familiar as they are recited at Mass (“I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ”), the controversies on Christ’s nature as true God and true man caused many divisions in the early Church and produced many heresies. Christ became incarnate in a human body and the Word became Flesh and Jesus was born from the Virgin Mary, but he also remained God, one of the Holy Trinity, and the only begotten Son of the Father. While Christ has two “natures” (human and divine), He is one person. This mystery or paradox of the Incarnation, the union of two natures in one person called “the hypostatic union” provoked great controversy in the fifth century between the two schools of thought that ultimately distinguished between orthodoxy from heresy.

The book carefully documents the tradition that upheld the indissoluble unity of Christ’s humanity and divinity against its many opponents with their ingenious, subtle, and complex philosophical arguments and objections. The integrity of Christ’s unified being—not a God appearing or hiding as a man—refuses to be compromised or reduced to any simplistic formula that attempts the slightest introduction of division, change, or confusion of Christ’s unique identity. As the author writes, “And so truly to behold the man Jesus . . . is to behold the true God.” The human birth and real death of Jesus of Nazareth “is made possible only in the divine unity of the Logos.” This simple declaration, however, meets great opposition from Nestorius and his many followers throughout the ages. They see a contradiction in the incorruptibility of God as opposed to the mortality of man. They dissolve the inviolable union and propose the notion of “homo assumptus” (God clothing Himself by donning a human nature not intrinsic to his true identity). The Nestorian idea of Christology seeks differentiation, division, and separation so as not to confuse Godhead with humanity— what Professor Riches calls “a dualistic dissociation of divinity from the human fact of Christ.”

The early orthodox expression of Christ’s undivided unity finds its greatest apologist in St. Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, who upholds the resolution of the controversy formulated in the Council of Chalcedon (451). He writes, “If anyone does not confess that the Logos of God suffered in the flesh, was crucified in the flesh, and tasted death in the flesh . . . let him be anathema.” Riches explains that while devotion to the Marian doctrine of the Holy Mother as “Theotokos” (God-bearer) was a traditional belief transmitted from the Church Fathers since the Council of Nicaea, Nestorius found the idea irrational and contradictory: he found it impossible for a mere mortal creature to give birth to God because God as pure spirit and eternal being, in Riches’ words, “can neither be born nor die.” Nestorius’s objection to the title of Theotokos provoked the ire of Cyril who blamed Nestorius for separating the unity of Christ and rejecting the Credo of Nicaea that settled this question: “Therefore, we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord,” Cyril responded.

The school of Nestorius, however, attracted many followers like the famous Theodore of Mopsuestia who introduced the term the “indwelling” of divinity in an “assumed man.” He preferred the notion of the “conjunction” of God and man than the unity of divinity and humanity. This idea of mixture or “mingling,” however, undoes the Nicene Creed because it implies, as Riches explains “a third thing,” a being “no longer truly divine or human, but something else.” Theodore also objected to the words in the Creed “descensus de caelis” (descended from heaven) because it depicted God as an anthropomorphic deity from Mount Olympus. The notion of the Logos as “becoming” (“And the Word became Flesh”) also made no sense to Theodore and his teacher Diodore of Tarsus because God does not change or “become.” To resolve these inconsistencies, Theodore resorted to dualism, the eternal Son remaining in heaven while the human Jesus assumed a human body. Once again the indissoluable hypostatic union of God and man decided at Nicaea and Chalcedon suffered what the author describes as another kind of separation or division that compromises the divine mystery of the God-Man.

The followers of Nestorius found the birth and death of Christ contrary to their idea of divinity, God lowering his spiritual and eternal being to adopt an inferior human mode of being born from the flesh and suffering in the body. Cyril, once again championing orthodoxy, never deviates from the inviolability of Christ’s unified human and divine nature, which makes possible a Divine Savior who dies for the redemption of the world. The author summarizes Cyril’s reasoning: “the one who is himself the Life . . . the one who is impassible to death nevertheless died . . . and in dying transformed death into the womb of life . . . . By dying, he conquers death by death, in order that he might be in truth ‘the life-giving one’.” As the book carefully explicates, the perennial tendency of the educated is to doubt the wonder of a mystery and to approach it with rationalism or skepticism—a temptation that continually persists, even as recently as “The Quest for the Historical Jesus” with its Nestorian overtones.

The defenders of orthodoxy like Athanasius, Cyril, John Cassian, and later St. Thomas address all of these objections and problems. Athanasius explains that the Word becoming Flesh effects no change in God but rather, in Riches’ words, “a true communication of eternity and impassibility”—a kind of communication known in the early Church as “communication idiomatum,” meaning that God becoming man uses a unique way to acquire “the frailty and contingency of a concrete human life to himself” which involves no mutation of His true nature. God’s oneness does not suffer any violation as Cyril forthrightly declares: “It is truly God the Son who is man.” John Cassian’s argument against the Nestorians accuses them of fabricating “two christs,” the first Christ a mere man born of a woman who exemplifies the perfect sinless man and wise teacher who instructs man how to live and the second Christ the Son of God and the Lord. This simplistic division, once again, reduces divine mystery into inappropriate constricting categories. Cassian identified the far-reaching implications of Nestorius’s rationalistic approach to divine mystery: “The Nestorian Christ is a fitting savior of the Pelagian man,” man without original sin in need of redemption.

Cyril’s response to the heretics who struggle with the idea of God lowering himself to human status and sacrificing immutability and incorruptibility for a life of birth and death in the flesh presents the opposing idea of gain rather than loss. The Incarnation makes possible the divinization of man, a discovery of the fullness of his humanity nurtured by his participation in the Eucharist and the other Sacraments and fortified by “the body of him who is Life by nature.” For Cyril, the Incarnation means man’s union with Christ rather than God’s diminishment in man. A number of times in his replies to the heretics Cyril repeats that “the Lord’s flesh is life-giving.” As Riches deduces from these quotations from Cyril, “Only insofar as God receives the possibility of human flesh does he become crucifiable and sacramentally givable”—an incisive observation that cuts the Gordian knot.

Therein lies the crux of the matter and the heart of the mystery. A God who is born of Mary (Theotokos) acquires a human nature in the flesh inseparable from His divine nature, a human nature capable of suffering and dying. But God is Life and cannot die. The crucified Christ lives in the Holy Eucharist to nourish man’s spiritual life and give eternal life to fallen man. Christ is “crucifiable” because He is true man, and He is “sacramentally givable” because He is true God. If one comprehends the Incarnation in the light of the Crucifixion and God’s plan of salvation history, all the objections and doubts of the skeptics and heretics lose their validity.

This book illuminates the importance of Christology and gives it the weight it deserves for a fuller comprehension of the mystery of God’s eternal plan for man’s redemption. If indeed lex credendi, lex orandi (what one believes determines how one prays), any misinterpretation of Christ’s nature as true man and true God will detract from the meaning and purpose of the Annunciation, Incarnation, and Crucifixion as God’s profound acts of love for man’s salvation and eternal life. Indeed God became man so that man might become divine—a fundamental teaching of the Christian faith that rests upon Christ’s indivisible human and divine nature.

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