Tuesday, September 25, 2007

What's concerns drove ancient christological controversies?

We are reading about classical Christology this week in the course I'm TA'ing for this Fall. In addition to revisitng the views and arguments, I've also been asking what concerns were driving these debates? What fueled them? What made the debate a live issue and not just an academic reflection? There are at least three that come to mind.

(1) A hermeneutical concern propelled the debate. Throughout the extant documents, there is much discussion concerning the figure of Christ in Scripture. Apollinaris repeatedly argues for the unity of Christ on the basis of his singularity as a character in the Bible. Leo the Great distinguishes between the acts of Christ that issue from his divinity and those befitting his humanity. Such hermeneutical concerns make sense, since the identity of Jesus Christ is encountered in texts that require interpretation.

(2) A devotional concern fueld the debate. This is especially evident during the Nestorian controversy. Not only did Marian piety occasion the debate when he was asked the phrase "God-bearer" in reference to Mary, but the theological basis of the worship of Christ played an important role in Cyril's argumentation. If Christ is divided into two persons, one divine and the other human, then we are idolaters when worshipping him in his humanity. Such a devotional concern makes sense, since the identity of Jesus Christ as God incarnate raises questions about whether and in what sense he can be worshipped. So Christian devotion to Christ necessarily requires Christological clarification.

(3) A soteriological concern drove the debate. This was the dominant concern throughout its many stages. Gregory's famous "what is not assumed is not healed" formula reveals this concern, as does Cyril's argument that Christ can only overcome death if the incarnate Logos himself impassibly suffers. Christological reflection is not independent speculation into the ontological constitution of Jesus Christ, but a necessary inquiry into the conditions for the possibility of Christian redemption.

Any thought?
What other concerns drove the debate?
Are these concerns viable?
Can Christological reflection proceed without sharing these concerns?
If so, how does that change the conversation?


WTM said...

Did you leave philosophical questions to the side for any particular reason, John? I think that this especially holds true with reference to Arius, but it is basically in the water everywhere (even today!).

JohnLDrury said...


Unquestionably! Philosophical assumptions about the divine nature (immutability, impassibility) played a major role in the debate. However, I would see these as framing the debate rather than driving it. In other words, these assumptions set limits on the kind of answer one gives to these more basic concerns. Perhaps that's a distinction without a difference, but it seems that these concerns could be shared by those who do not share the philosophical assumptions which frame the debate.

Does that distinction make sense? Or should all the contributing factors be lumped together?

WTM said...

Your distinction certainly makes sense, but I'm not sure if it holds entirely. I'm thinking specifically of Arius, who seemed (as far as I can tell) to have a serious philosophical (as well as theological) aversion to certain doctrinal formulations. In my mind, if a certain set of instincts (devotional, hermeneutical, philosophical, etc) rules out certain answers to a question, then those instincts can be said to 'drive' the controversies - at least for the specific persons or groups in question.

But, at this point, we're getting too technical with language for such a low-level heuristic, perhaps. ;-)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Do you think since the Church was "in power" at that time in history that the "Church's" agenda of bullwarking that power was of utmost importance? Therefore, philosophical questions were the result of "defending "the faith" (the Church). Without the defense of "Christ", then the Church's
whole definition dissolved, which would be horrifying to those who felt that the Church was absolutely crucial to holding "moral authority" within society. Today's challenge is no less...

Ken Schenck said...

WTM, your pegging of Arius' concerns as philosophical intrigues me. I'm in a study group that has been reading the Cappadocians and we had (certainly from a less informed standpoint than yours) pegged Arius as a "fundamentalist," someone for whom the non-biblical, philosophical arguments of Athanasius and others were a departure from Scripture.

Deliver us from our body of ignorance!

Kevin K. Wright said...

What about ecclesial concerns?: East vs. West. Greek vs. Latin. Who properly bears the mantle of apostolicity, and therefore can speak authoritatively in regards to sacred doctrine?