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Picking their way among the heresies

26 February 2016

Far from being world-denying, Christianity is profoundly celebratory and hopeful, argues Ben Quash

THE collect for Trinity Sunday asks God “to keep us steadfast in this faith [that is, faith in the Trinity] and defend us from all adversities”. Its author apparently thought that the two things were related, but what sort of adversity could possibly result from getting the Trinity “wrong”?

This is a sharp question to put, not just to the doctrine of the Trinity, but to any doctrine. What does it matter what you think about God? What actual effect could it possibly have in the real, day-to-day business of getting on the world?

Mind-forming issues in theology, about how to think of God, or the world, or their relation, do actually have huge effects. They influence what we hope for; how we avoid worshipping idols (those gods of our own construction whom we ask to give us only what we want, and who therefore let us down); and how we treat other creatures.

And, although I don’t mean to suggest that if everyone simply became an orthodox believer everything would be all right in the world, I do think that being an orthodox believer offers remarkable resources for avoiding despair, idolatry, and abuse of others.

In this supplement we are looking at Christological belief, which the early Church defined in terms of what it did believe, by contrast with what it didn’t. This sounds like a negative process — of the condemnation and exclusion of ideas that were uncomfortable or unwelcome to the orthodox. With our modern tendency to criticise motives (a “hermeneutics of suspicion”), anything like that tends to lead to suspicions of foul play.

We need to look more closely. In the first centuries of the Church’s life, Christology consistently took the tougher route, not the easier one. It made itself work exceptionally hard to seek maximum coherence within the complex network of affirmations about Christ that were its legacy in scripture and liturgy.

There was nothing intellectually lazy or complacent about this process, and the findings were often demanding — even mind-boggling. They were more demanding, usually, than the heresies that were eventually rejected, which frequently have the virtues of apparent reasonableness, and a lower paradox-threshold.


CHRISTOLOGY stands in the engine-room of early Church theology. Questions about salvation are presupposed by it, and Trinitarian questions are consequent upon it, but the whole Christian enterprise stands or falls with Christology.

The first Christians knew that they had been saved, and they knew that they had been saved in some way by Jesus Christ, in his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. But how?

Four key doctrinal decisions, honed in dialogue with four rejected alternatives, set the terms for an answer. They come in two pairs. To appreciate the first, we may be helped if we imagine a sort of horizontal line, with God above the line and the created universe below it. The Hellenistic world in which Christianity was born had many attitudes to where to put this line; ideas of “demiurges” and angelic beings of various kinds would hover around it, sometimes above and sometimes below.

Occasionally it wasn’t so much a line as a shaded continuum. Refusing the view that God and the world can merge, Christians had the particular challenge of deciding whether Christ straddled the divide between God and humanity in some way, or was to be placed firmly on one side of it.

The first of our four heresies, Arianism, broadly said that Christ should be placed below it. As ever, we probably do injustices to the losers of doctrinal battles by believing too readily what the victors say about them, and Arius probably had more subtlety than the caricatures allow; but by saying that “there was when Christ was not” he implied that, like creatures, Christ had a beginning.

The second major Christological heresy is Docetism. This placed Jesus Christ above the line. He was wholly God, and had only the appearance of a human being. The key problem with the Arian outlook had been that only God saves; a Christ who is less than God cannot raise us to God. The problem with the Docetic outlook was that, unless God is bound to us (rather than looking at us across the fence), then we cannot be elevated to God either.

So, orthodoxy affirmed, Christ is fully God and fully human.

The second pair of Christological heresies requires us to imagine (or unimagine) a vertical line. They ask how Christ is fully God and fully human; how to think about what might seem to be the dividing line between Christ’s divine and human natures.

Nestorianism was suspected of overplaying the division, suggesting a human and a divine nature sufficiently distinct that you could speak of them separately. But the Church decided that, although there are two natures, there is one person: one subject to whom Christ’s words and deeds must be attributed — “you” singular, not “you” plural.

Eutychianism removed the vertical line altogether and let the divine and human natures meld. In other words, Christ ended up neither divine nor human, but something in between; his humanity subsumed, his divinity compromised. But this is no basis for union with God since it simultaneously leaves us behind and falls short of the level of God.

Christ exists in two natures, without confusion, without change, without separation, and without division. While this doesn’t fully solve the problem of how the two natures relate, it does close some precipitous wrong turns — so said the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

All this talk of avoiding problems and errors, however, misses what is perhaps the most important point of all about these fine-tuned orthodoxies. They are fundamentally affirmative, not negative. They are forms of exclamation, worship, and praise. They undergird some glorious hopes about humanity and our created world that show up as a travesty the claim that Christianity is world-denying and hates the body.

Marcion, Apollinarius, and the Gnostics (whose views must wait for another time) were the deniers of human dignity and destiny. To understand what is so marvellous about the Church’s rejection of Docetism or Eutychianism, for example, we shouldn’t see it as just a clampdown on a difference of opinion; it is, rather, a daring invitation to think far more highly of our human natures (body and soul) than the heretics do.

Individual human beings, when united with God, do not need to be subsumed facelessly into some blob. And the Almighty does not regard eternal union with our humanity, in Christ, as demeaning. There could hardly be a higher doctrine of humanity than that — nor a better warrant for treating every other human with maximum honour. What a creed that is.


The Revd Dr Ben Quash is Professor of Christianity and the Arts at King’s College, London.

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