In this series we take a look back at some of the most notorious errors and
heresies that have threatened the church over the centuries, as well as the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in
which those false teachings continue to haunt 21st century thought and theology.
Several weeks ago, we journeyed in spirit to a Bethlehem manger to worship the newborn King. In a few more weeks, we will begin a similar journey, but this time it will be with penitential tears to a Jerusalem hill to watch the King breathe His last.
Whether at manger or cross, it is a marvel to see Jesus because of who He is and what He came to do. He is the eternal Word made flesh (John 1:14) Who humbled Himself to be a servant of sinners and to destroy the works of the devil.
The marvel, truth, and salvation are all lost if Jesus is anyone less than true and fully God while at the same time also true and fully man. Human reason cannot comprehend this union of God and man, so it contrives something more “reasonable.” Monophysitism is just such an error. It robs Jesus of His true identity and sweeps away the marvel of the gospel, leaving only worthless crumbs of human reason behind.
The early Church councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) settled disputes concerning Jesus’ divinity. Then new controversy arose and two opposing factions formed. At issue was the person of Christ; both sides agreed that Jesus was divine and human, but they did not agree upon what that meant.
One position asserted Jesus’ divinity, even if it meant compromising His humanity. The other position emphasized the fact that Jesus had to be fully human to be the Savior from sin (true!), but downplayed His divinity so it wouldn’t overshadow the humanity. This disagreement arose in the Eastern Church, centered in Constantinople. The Western Church, centered in Rome, affirmed the truth that there are two natures uniquely joined in one person—the personal union of Christ.
Emperor Theodosius II called for a Council at Ephesus in 449 to address the dispute. Unfortunately, the council was controlled completely by one side, the other side was silenced, and the doctrine of two natures was declared to be heresy. The council solved nothing.
The status quo changed when Emperor Theodosius suddenly died. He was succeeded by Marcion, whose wife was Theodosius’ sister Pulcheria. Pulcheria had great influence in the church, and she viewed the position of the Western Church more favorably. She called for a new council to be held in Chalcedon in 451. This Fourth Ecumenical Council produced a clarification of what was true concerning Christ’s person. It rejected the extremes of both positions in the Eastern Church and affirmed what had been done in the three previous Councils—Nicaea, Constantinople, and Ephesus.
“We all with one voice teach . . . that our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same God, perfect in divinity, and perfect in humanity, true God and true human, with a rational soul and a body, of one substance with the Father in his divinity, and of one substance with us in his humanity. . . . The union does not destroy the difference of the two natures, but on the contrary the properties of each are kept, and both are joined in one person.”
When we turn to Scripture we find the truth concerning Christ’s person in passages such as, “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9), and “Without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh.” (1 Timothy 3:16)
The errors concerning the wondrous union of God and man in one person—one Christ, one Savior—still echo loudly in the world, but the truth of God’s Word drowns them out. This leaves us in awed silence as we stand at the manger and at the cross marveling at the wonder.
Wayne Eichstadt is pastor of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Spokane Valley, Washington.