Apollonarianism: The First Christology


I am reading through the Russian Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov’s seminal work The Lamb of God. And I decided that I would (try to, at least) blog through this work. The work itself is Bulgakov’s Christology, or what he calls the divine-humanity. The question he asks throughout is: how is the divine humanity possible? Or, put another way: how is the union of God and man in Christ in reality even a possibility?

I want to begin with a few posts outlining Bulgakov’s highly important introduction. This introduction, which is quite long — a whopping nearly 90 pages — is a captivating survey of the patristic Christology. He surveys how the earliest church understood Christ’s divine humanity, which he understands as a long process of positive and negative development. He is surprisingly critical of much of the early fathers of the church, particularly of Cyril of Alexandria and the great Athanasius. I must admit that I was a bit put off by some of his negativity, especially of Cyril; but I must also admit that much of his critique was quite valid.

Bergakov begins the introduction by surveying Apollonarius’ theology. I want to devote this first post to Bulgakov’s recommendation of Apollonarius as the first theologian to actually articulate a Christology. That Bulgakov recommends Apollonarius may seem surprising by some, especially because his Christology is historically deemed as heretical. However, he starts there because, as he says, Apollonarius “was the first to pose the problem of divine-humanity” (p 3). Bulgakov goes so far as to say that the epoch of Christology “originates with his problematic” (p 3). What he means here is that Apollonarius was the first to pose just how God and man, by definition two differing beings, can fit together in the one person of Jesus Christ. Bulgakov explains:

Apollonarius was the first to consider a fundamental problem of Christology: What is the divine-humanity? Or, how is the incarnation possible? What does it presuppose? Apollonarius went beyond the naive physical notions of his predecessors, who were satisfied with the soteriological postulates of the incarnation and the affirmation of the fact of the latter. He began to analyze this fact, and from this analysis, Christology was born (p 4)

Bulgakov makes an important point: Apollonarius was the first to ask how it is that Jesus is God and man at the same time. How do they fit together in a unity which makes logical sense? Strictly speaking, before Apollonarius, the Fathers were content with saying things like “God assumed a human nature” or “the divine Son became a man”. This is Bulgakov’s problem with many of Athanasius’ schematics. While Athanasius was a great defender of the faith against Arianism (that the Son was a lesser demi-god), he still did not articulate how the Son was both God and man. And, while the Chalcedonian definition is creedal and therefore a “non-negotiable”, even that is minimal in its affirmation: the Son is consubstantial with God the Father and man. But, again, what does that mean? Apollonairius was the first to posit a solution to the problem.

Bulgakov explains this problem more in depth:

What meaning an we attach to this becoming (genesis) of the Word, who in himself possesses divine unchangeability but who assumes flesh, “becomes incarnate and is in-humanized” (these two notions being equated according to the Nicene Creed)? The flesh denotes the body and thus refers to man’s creaturely corporeality, which is opposed to the noncreaturely spirituality of Divinity. The in-humanization is thus defined, first of all, as the assumption of a body. We find this doctrine in  particular in St. Athanasius: to express the doctrine of the incarnation, he is content to use the notions of soma (body) and sarx (flesh). Strictly speaking, there is no Christology here. (p 8)

What Bulgakov means here is that this isn’t really a postalizing about how the Son is incarnate: it’s just stating the matter! Apollonarius, whether for ill or good, was the first to give some sort of explanation.

But what was Apollonarius’ Christology? Before explaining, it is first important to note that Apollonarius’ intention in his Christology was to protect the unity of the God-man. Christ, as Apollonarius says, “is not two persons, as if one God and the other man” (p 5). Christ is one person somehow containing two natures. Another thing Apollonarius set out to do was to protect the unchangeability of the divine nature. God does not become anything, nor can he. So how can the unchangeable God become man? With these two boundaries set, Apollonarius set forth a Christology. Bulgakov explains:

According to [Apollonarius’] theory, the Logos [the Son] replaced, in the human essence of the God-man, the supreme principle of man, which Apollonarius calls (in the language of Hellenistic philosophy) pneuma or nous and which corresponds to the hypostatic spirit in man’s nature. (p 8)

Put another way, when the divine Son became united to the human nature, the divine nature replaced something within the human nature, thus “fitting” together in one person. To the historically astute, this articulation inevitably paves the way for monophysitism, the thought that the union of God and man in Christ creates a third single nature. This is not how Apollonarius understood it, however. In his mind, this articulation protected the unity of the God-man and the unchangeability of the divine nature.

It is also important to acknowledge that it is unclear what exactly Apollonarius meant by the terms pneuma or nous. In some places in his writings it seems like he means man’s soul or spirit. But in other places it seems like he means man’s intellect: “How does God become man without ceasing to be God if God does not take the place of the intellect of man?” (p 11). Bulgakov also notices importantly that Apollonarius believed man to be composed of three parts: body, soul, spirit. This means that Apollonarius almost certainly still understood Christ to have a human body and soul. So then, what part of the human nature did the divine replace, and how does it all fit together into a unity? There is confusion on this, but Bulgakov explains:

Apollonarius’ conception is …interpreted to mean that Christ assumed an incomplete human essence, namely body and soul, but without the human reason, which is replaced by divine reason. That is precisely how Apollonarius’ theory was interpreted by his contemporaries and his opponents, by St. Gregory the Theologian and in part even by St. Gregory of Nyssa. (p 13)

Bulgakov argues that this is not necessarily how Apollonarius meant it. His language was very imprecise, and he could have meant nous to be another part of the human person. In any case, the early church rejected Apollonarius’ Christology because they understood him to mean that the divine Son assumed a human nature devoid of human intellect or the human mind. If that was the case, it meant that the Son assumed an incomplete human nature. And this is of course where St. Gregory of Nazianzas’ famous saying came from: “Whatever is not assumed is not healed”. If Christ had not assumed a complete human nature — including the human mind — than the human nature as such is not fully regenerate, and thus salvation is not possible for mankind.

While agreeing with the church on this, Bulgakov makes this general observation before moving on in his introduction:

[Apollonarius’] errors did not find adherents in dogmatics; on the contrary, it was the positive aspects of his doctrine that were adopted and endure in dogmatics. In this sense there is an essential difference between Apollonarius and Arius, with whom he is sometimes compared with reference to Christology: Although Arius did awaken the dogmatic consciousness, gave rise to the homoosian movement, and was indeirectly responsible for the Nicene Creed…, his proper doctrine represents a direct rejection of the truth, pure falsehood without any ambiguity. In contrast, in Apollonarius’ doctrine everything has a double meaning; everything is a mixture of truth and error. In this respect he does not greatly differ from certain fathers who are honored as teachers of the Church…

But the access into historical dialectic Christology lies through Apollonarius’ theological doctrine, and this constitutes his enduring historical significance and, of course, his great achievement in behalf of the church. (p 18-19)

It is a bit odd to find Bulgakov speak so highly of this heretical Christology; and yet, I cannot disagree with Bulgakov. Apollonarianism was the first achieved Christology. Apollonarius meant to makes sense of Christ as one person, as a unity, yet being composed somehow of two natures. In the next post we will move to St. Cyril of Alexandria and his opposition to Apollonarius.



The Role of Tradition in the Early Church

Above, St. Irenaeus of Lyons

If the scriptures are the Word of God, how does tradition play a role in the church without undermining the uniqueness of the scriptures? How does it benefit the church without undermining biblical study? Many Protestants today take the approach of rejecting altogether any extra-biblical tradition. But is this healthy or safe?

Tradition has always been around ever since the conception of the church. And in fact, it was very important during the first five centuries of the early church. To understand the importance and role of tradition, it’s important to get a glimpse of how the early church fathers understood tradition.

Alister McGrath, in his Historical Theology, says this about the early church:

A movement known as Gnosticism emerged as a major threat to the Christian church during the [first century], partly on account of the fact that its teachings were similar to those of Christianity itself.Many Gnostic writers argued that salvation was achieved through access to a secret teaching, which alone ensure that believers would be saved. The “secret knowledge” in question, for same Gnostic writers, was almost like a form of “cosmic password”. When someone died, their spirit was liberated from its physical prison, and it was free to begin its long and complex journey to its final and glorious destination. To get there, it needed to get past series of potential obstacles, for which the “secret knowledge” was required.

Some Gnostic writers argued that this secret oral teaching had been passed down from the apostles, and that it was to be found in a “veiled” form in the Bible. Only those who knew about the Bible in a certain way would gain access to this knowledge, which was not publicly available…. (pg 37)

So within the first few decades of the church, Gnosticism had emerged which threatened orthodox teaching. And the problem was that they claimed to have a secret interpretation of the scriptures which they had received from the apostles. Something which was novel and different from the teaching of the other churches. How was the early church to combat this?

McGrath explains:

In response to the threat from Gnosticism, a “traditional” method of understanding certain passages of the Scripture began to develop. Second-century patristic theologians such as Irenaeus of Lyons began to develop the idea of an authorized way of interpreting certain texts of Scripture, which he argued went back to the time of the apostles themselves. Scripture could not be allowed to be interpreted in any arbitrary or random way: it had to be interpreted within the context of the historical continuity of the Christian church. The parameters of its interpretation were historically fixed and given. “Tradition” here means simply “a traditional way of interpreting Scripture within the community of faith”…

[Specifically], Irenaeus…argues that the living Christian community possessed a tradition of interpreting Scripture which was denied by heretics. By their historical succession from the apostles, the bishops ensure that their congregations remain faithful to their teachings and interpretations (pg. 38)

Irenaeus’ argument was that there was an historical, orthodox interpretation of the scriptures that went back to the apostles, and was passed down to the bishops of that time. One cannot simply have their “own interpretation” of scripture. Novelty is no friend of the church. It must go back to the traditional interpretation of the apostles and bishops. In this way, “tradition” is seen as a historically “verified” interpretation of scripture, passed on to the bishops and so on from the apostles. An interpretation which could be trusted.

And Irenaeus wasn’t the only which argued this. McGrath also cites Tertullian, saying:

A similar point is made by the Roman theologian Tertullian, in an early third-century analysis of the sources of theology dedicated to demonstrating the weaknesses of the heretical position. Tertullian here lays considerable emphasis upon the role of tradition and apostolic succession in defining of Christian theology. Orthodoxy depends upon remaining historically continuous with and theologically dependent upon the apostles. The heretics, in contrast, cannot demonstrate any such continuity (pg 39)

McGrath quotes Tertullian who says,

If the Lord Jesus Christ sent out apostles to preach, no preachers other than those which are appointed by Christ are to be received, since “no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son has revealed him”, and the Son appears to have revealed him to no on except the apostles who he sent to preach what he had revealed to them. What they preached…ought, by this ruling, to be established only by those churches which those apostles founded by their preaching and, as they say, by the living voice, and subsequently through their letter (pg. 39)

Tertullian says that only teaching which proceeds from the Father, to the Son, to the apostles, and to those sent by the apostles, is to be accepted as orthodox. That is, only biblical interpretation which follows this historical line is to be considered orthodox. Again, tradition is this historically verified interpretation passed on by the apostles.

As time went by, into the fifth century, another theologian Vincent of Lerins developed this thought on “apostolic tradition”. McGrath says:

Writing in the aftermath of the Pelagian controversy, Vincent of Lerins expressed his belief that the controversies of that time had given rise to theological innovations, such as new ways of interpreting certain biblical passages…But how could such doctrinal innovations be identified? In response to this question, he argues for a triple criterion by which authentic Christian teaching may be established: ecumenicity (being believed everywhere), antiquity (being believed always), and consent (being believed by all people). This triple criterion is often described as the “Vincentian canon”, the word “canon” here having the sense of “rule” or “norm”…

The problem that Vincent hopes to resolve is: how are authentic Christian teachings to be distinguished from those of heretics? (pg. 40)

So Vincent had this triple criterion: believed everywhere, always, and by everyone. One cannot simply just come up with a novel interpretation. It must find itself in line that rule of faith.

So then, tradition was the historical interpretation of the scriptures passed from the apostles down throughout the centuries. And when verifying a correct interpretation of scripture, all one need do is ask: is this believed everywhere, always, and by everyone?

In this light, tradition is not in competition with the scriptures, but actually protects them! But even more important, no Christian should approach the scriptures a-historically. Meaning, Christians today find themselves in this big saga called the Christian church, with smarter and godlier men and women before us. We must approach the scriptures, standing on their shoulders, depending on the apostles and the churches after them.