The Christological Heresies: Apollinarianism

During the first five centuries after its conception, the church was forced to deal with several different heresies concerning Christ. In fact, the church was forced to formulate a concise universal statement about the nature of Christ (Nicene Creed), because of the many differing heresies proposed during its infancy.

Most of these heresies centered around the nature of Christ, his humanity and divinity. How divine was Christ, really? How human was Christ, really? And how do these natures interact with one another?

In the next few blog posts, I want to consider a few of the more famous Christological heresies. In this post, I want to consider what is called the Apollinarian heresy:

By the fifth century, it became orthodox to believe that God in Christ had assumed a full human nature for our redemption. The eastern church had coined a phrase which is still prominent today: “God became man that man might become God” — and by that, they meant that God became fully man, that we might participate fully and redemptively in His very life. The thought was that if God wanted to assume and redeem mankind back into fellowship with him, he needed to become fully human in the incarnation to raise us back to glory.

One bishop name Apollinaris (after whom was named this heresy), however, was uncomfortable with affirming that God the Son became fully man. To him, to become fully man was to taint the divine nature.

Allister McGrath explains:

Apollinaris of Laodocia had anxieties about the increasingly widespread belief that the Logos (God the Son) assumed human nature in its entirety. It seemed to him that this implied that the Logos was contaminated by the weaknesses of human nature. How could the Son of God be allowed to be tainted by purely human directive principles? The sinlessness of Christ would be compromised, in Apollinaris’ view, if he were to possess a purely human mind. Was not the human mind the source of sin and rebellion against God? Only if the human mind were to be replaced by a purely divine motivating and directing force could the sinlessness of Christ be maintained. For this reason, Apollinaris argued that, in Christ, a purely human mind and soul were replaced by a divine mind and soul: “The divine energy fulfills the role of the animative soul and of the human mind” in Christ. The human nature was thus incomplete. (Historical Theology, 47)

Apollinaris thus promoted the view that the divine nature of Christ “replaced” the human soul and mind, protecting him from the corruption of human sin. One can almost picture the human nature of Christ like a puppet. The problem with this view of course, was that it made Christ not fully human. He merely appeared to be human, but was in fact only outwardly human, not having a human mind or soul.

The early church rejected this notion for one massively important reason: if Christ was not fully human, he could not fully redeem the human race! If the goal of redemption was to welcome fully humanity back into fellowship with the Godhead, how can a half-human Christ redeem whole humanity?

Gregory of Nazianzus, theologian of the fourth century, replied famously to Apollinaris by saying: “what has not been assumed has not been healed”. If Christ did not assume a “fallen” human mind, or soul, how can the mind and soul be redeemed? The answer is that it cannot!

McGrath explains:

For Gregory, only aspects of human nature which have been united to divinity in the incarnation are saved. If we are to be saved in the totality of our human nature, that totality must be brought into contact with the divinity. If Christ is only partly human, then salvation is not possible.(ibid, 49)

The biblical record of course agrees with this. Hebrews 2:17 says that Christ…

had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people”.

Christ had to be made like his brothers “in every respect”. What this means is that while God the Son had a fully divine nature, he also had a fully human nature. For this reason, Christians affirm that God the Son is one person with two natures. When asked who was acting in the person of Christ, we answer the eternal Logos. But when we ask about the what, we must reply: full divinity and full humanity.