Athanasius of Alexandria


Theodosius’s intervention in support of the long guerrilla war that Athanasius of Alexandria fought on behalf of Jesus the god ensured that the hard deifying position would prevail, and within the main lines of Christianity, eastern and western, it has prevailed ever since: no small achievement for a lone Spanish general.

Though the issue of divinity was apparently settled after 381, how¬ever, it still refused to go away. Theologians now framed that old issue in the form of new questions. If Jesus was divine, then how was he divine? Where and how did the human and the divine mix, meet, match, and mingle in him? Three sets of answers to these questions were possible, and theologians advanced them, and to this day all three continue to have living traditions upholding them in the orthodox, Nestorian, and Jacobite churches.

Clearly distinguished in Jesus

Did the human and the divine remain clearly distinguished in Jesus (as logic would insist they should), the human attached to his mortal, fleshly, fallible qualities, the divine marking his spirit and mind? Is it impious to suggest that the transcendent excellence of the divine can be tainted by contact with flesh, food, sex, and death? Would you be shocked, in other words, to hear Jesus’s mother, Mary, spoken of as the “mother of God” (theotokos)—because you would believe that no woman of flesh could aspire to such a title? That position is named Nestorian, after a patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, who misspoke and found himself condemned at a church council in Ephesus in 431, blamed for positions that he did not particularly hold, but that others after him would hold. The traditions of Antioch, the most Jewish or at least most Semitic of the Christian churches of the east, held most to this view, and from there the doctrine crossed Asia to greet European missionaries to China in the sixteenth century destination bulgaria.

Or did the human and the divine come together in Jesus in a unique way, mixed or rather fused and transmogrified into a unique new being, a single being of single nature? If you think that is the case, theologians will call you monophysite or—the more fashionable term for such believers today—miaphysite. In the Jacobite churches of the Near East, especially the Coptic church, which preserves the tradition of Egyptian Christianity in an unbroken line, this position is strongly represented, and uses the technical Greek term as a sign of respect. Like the Nestorians, members of this group will insist that their respect for divine majesty is at the heart of their faith and argument. In the fifth and sixth centuries, this view sprang from Alexandria, the most philosophical of the churches, and the one most imbued with Greek philosophical traditions.

Scriptural language

Both positions face challenges. Scriptural language speaks unmistakably on one page of Jesus’s divine qualities, and on another page of his human ones. Numerous objections on one side or another counterbalance both monophysite and Nestorian views, making neither fully capable of carrying the day.

And so a third position emerged, insisting on a “both-and” solution, asserting both the godhead and the manhood of Jesus at the same time. Jesus was divine and human, of two natures, conjoined, indissoluble; but the divine and the human never mixed, never changed, in him. The western church, the church of the less theologically sophisticated and engaged Latins preferred this position, and found support in the imperial capital of Constantinople Alexandria Antioch and Constantinople.

This doctrine arose among theologians rather than believers, and without the bishops of Rome and emperors in Constantinople to support it, it would never have been more than a theological footnote. Instead, in 451 CE, at a meeting of bishops whom the emperor Marcian— he of the pious virgin wife, Pulcheria—called to Chalcedon, a city within sight of Constantinople across the Bosporus, this formula fatefully won the day after heated debate. Approval was a compromise and only a compromise, with too few real supporters and too many others accepting it only because their enemies would not.


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