Father Steve reviews the new Philip Jenkins book,
Jesus Wars, in which Jenkins analyzes the early Church's zealous battle to properly define the relationship of the divine and human natures in the person of Christ.
Philip Jenkins is that rare scholar who is able to communicate apparently complex ideas and complicated concepts in a manner that preserves their integrity and at the same time renders them accessible to a wide audience. I have been a fan of his books for some time, and for this reason I welcomed his latest: "Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the next 1,500 Years.” That’s quite a title. It denotes an ambitious survey of the historical intricacies that surrounded the theological debates of the fifth through eighth centuries that explored the nature and person of Christ.
Most believers are unaware of this particular time period, and I would also hazard to guess that many Christians are like the character Rex Mottram from Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” who, while receiving instruction in the Catholic Faith, is asked by the priest how many natures there are in the person of Christ. Rex’s response is “just as many as you want Father.” Christians believe that the Lord Jesus is divine and human but how this is so remains baffling and most are willing to consign it all to an unfathomable mystery. We take it on faith that those in authority have it all figured out for us and as such we can focus our spiritual efforts on matters close at hand, likely assuring ourselves that the issue of greater importance is what Christ taught. However, such an ease and disinterest in accepting this fundamental mystery of our Faith without serious inquiry into its meaning would have perplexed Christians who lived during the earliest centuries of the Church’s life. The identity of Christ was, above and beyond anything else, the issue. Is he God? Is he human? Was he some kind of combination? The resolution of these kinds of questions was not just serious business, it could at times be deadly business, the occasion even for riots in the streets.
Jenkin’s provides an engaging survey of the principle actors and themes of the great drama that enveloped the Church as it clarified what it believed about Christ’s divinity and humanity.The distinguishing elements of this controversy would likely be off-putting to many Christians who might be surprised to discover that the Church didn’t have all this figured out from the beginning and that Christians were willing to inflict violence on those who held positions that were contrary to their own. This is not a world familiar to the defanged and declawed Christianity of the post enlightenment period. However, if the ancient Church can be faulted for taking all this way too seriously, the contemporary Church can be faulted for taking much of what the Church believes with little seriousness at all. We are pretending if we tell ourselves, as many modern Christians have, that the claims that we make about Christ do not really matter. The tired excuse of a Christianity accommodated to its modern cultured despisers which asserts that it is all really just about Christ’s teachings doesn’t hold up against the weight of Christ’s own emphasis on his person. We might admonish our ancient forebears for their methods, but their passion has something to teach us about the absolute priority the revelation of Christ is for the Church- and that his revelation is about who he is
The text identifies the conflicts as emerging from two ancient centers of the Church, Antioch and Alexandria, both having a particular emphasis on how Christ can be precisely who he reveals himself to be: both God and man. It seems that neither of these theological schools are willing to deny that he can in some way be both, but their resolution of the “how” reaches very different conclusions, with Antioch placing much more emphasis on Christ’s humanity and Alexandria placing much more emphasis on Christ’s divinity. All this theologizing reaches a fever pitch with the emergence of the episcopal sees of Alexandria and Constantinople as rivals for power and prominence. Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria and Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople literally went at each others throats over the conclusions that they had reached in regards to the “how” of Christ’s divinity and humanity. That conflict ends with Nestorius in exile and the resolution that Christ is mysteriously both God and human, and to deny either is out of bounds. The lesson learned from this is what mischief is produced when personality and power drive the energies of the Church. It seems that in the end, at least according to Jenkins, the conflict was not so much about the relationship of divinity and humanity in Christ, but about rival personalities, clerical and lay, who had something to prove about their own sense of authority and influence. That might be, and likely is, part of what was going on, but this as the sole explanation seems just too neat.
The resolution of the conflict between Cyril and Nestorius was supposed to have come about after the Council of Ephesus in the year 431. However, the debate continued, necessitating even more councils, the last taking place in Nicea in the year 787. These councils, while not dispelling much of the theological rancor at the time, did impart to the Church a language by which the mysterious relationship of divinity and humanity in Christ could be expressed and taught. But Jenkins is clear that more than just a theological grammar was at stake. The fortunes of an empire were tied to the winners and losers in these debates and what emerged in its aftermath were institutions such as the papacy and a new religion that we know as Islam.
If pressed to identify a deficiency in Jenkins' telling of these debates it is that his text gives far too much gravitas to the human actors in this drama. Modern history limits events and circumstances to human motivation and influence and positions God at a distance. While acknowledging that believers might see in these events the workings of Providence bringing to light the truth of revelation out of the midst of a great deal of darkness, Jenkins can only tell us what Cyril did or what Pulcheria said and speculate as to their motivations. The story he tells is only a human one, the divine story exorcised to the realm of the unknowable.
At its heart, the Christological controversies were not just about personalities and power, but about a revelation that, if accepted with the seriousness that it deserves, is bound to beguile and provoke a strong, passionate response. This revelation is Christ himself, who presents himself as both God and human. The revelation of Christ as divine and human is what the Apostolic Faith professed; that faith provided its earliest templates for understanding Christ's revelation in the four Gospels, in the writings of St. Paul, and the rest of the scriptures that would come to be known as the New Testament. Early on, the Christians realized that as important and privileged as this testimony was, it was not enough in itself to illuminate the full implications of the mystery of Christ. Even a careful correlation between the faith of the Old Testament and the transformation of this same faith in the New Testament did not in itself seem sufficient to express the best answer as to how the Lord Jesus could be both God and human. The Church was compelled by its faith to go deeper and speak a language that while not directly scriptural, would still be authoritative. It may shock us that the development of this language, a grammar that remains normative for the majority of Christians, happened amidst an intrigue and violence that seems to contradict the nature of the One whom the language intends to describe, but while we can fault our earliest forebears in the Faith for their zeal, one wonders why so startling a revelation as God taking for himself a human nature and living a real, human life, seems to provoke such a dispassionate response from so many Christians today.
Father Steve is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.