A Call to Christology

Jesus’ person and his gospel-work for sinners have been joined together by God himself. And what God has joined together, let no man separate.

Assault on Christ’s person is an assault on the gospel. A compromised Christology inevitably will wreck the salvation of sinners.

Stephen Nichols gets this connection with crystal clarity. His just-published For Us and For Our Salvation: The Doctrine of Christ in the Early Church (Crossway, 2007) points time and again to the vital union between Christ’s person and the gospel. Jesus is one person with two natures. And the reason he took on the second nature was “for us and for our salvation” (in the words of Athanisus).1

Not only does Nichols correctly highlight the weight of getting our Christology right, but he also makes the first five centuries of Christian history enjoyable and memorable. This is the ideal book for those (most of us!) who wish that they knew the church’s early centuries better but never found the time and guidance to work through the early church fathers.

Nichols is an excellent guide from Christ to Chalcedon. Along the way, he clearly identifies and refutes early heresies, identifies the bad guys, and holds up the heroes.

In the first and second centuries, according to Nichols, the humanity of Jesus was the main issue. In the third and fourth centuries, it was his deity. In the fifth, it was the relationship between the two.

Contending for Jesus’ Humanity

The first and second centuries brought the errors of:

  • The adoptionists, who believed that God adopted Jesus as his son after his birth—either at his baptism or at his resurrection.2 Theodotus the Cobbler (second century) was an influencial adoptionist.
  • The Ebionites, named after Ebion (late first century), who denied Jesus’ deity and then stressed keeping the law for salvation.3
  • The docetists, who thought that Jesus only seemed to be human, denying his humanity. Valentinus (136-165) was a key docetist leader.
  • The Marcionites, after Marcion (died in 160), who denied Jesus’ humanity, among other related and significant errors.
  • The Sabellians, named for Sabellius (third century), who held that Jesus was not a distinct person but a mere manifestation of the Father, thus rejecting the three distinct persons of the Trinity. Noetus and Praxeas (third century) were influential proponents of Sabellianism.

Contending for Jesus’ Divinity

In the third and fourth centuries, Jesus’ divinity was the issue.

  • The Arians, named for Arius (about 260-336) said that Jesus was a created being—only similar in substance (homoiousios) to the Father, not the same in substance (homoousios) as the Council of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381) would maintain.
  • The Eunomians, named for Eunomius (325-395) took Arianism to an extreme and claimed that Jesus was different in substance (heteroouisios) from the Father.
  • The monophysites argued that Jesus has one nature (mono physos) instead of two
  • The Eutychians, named after Eutyches (about 378-454), belonged to the previous group (monophysities) and saw Jesus as neither truly divine nor truly human, but as a new third nature.
  • The Apollinarians, named for Apollinarius (315-392), swung the pendulum away from Arianism and compromised the full humanity of Christ.
  • The Nestorians, after Nestorius (381-451), stressed Christ’s two natures and compromised the unity of his one person.
  • The monotheletists believed Jesus has one will (mono thelos), instead of two, denying his two distinct natures.

The Heroes

Nichols recounts and quotes from (often at length, helpfully) the heroes who argued rightly that Jesus is forever fully human and fully divine in one person and paved the road to Chalcedon in the fifth century:

  • Ignatius died a martyr around 110 (some have reported October 17, 108).
  • Irenaeus (about 130-202) was discipled by Polycarp, who was discipled by the Apostle John,4 and was martyred in 156; Irenaeus labored to keep Valentinus and docetism at bay.
  • Tertullian (about 160-220) battled Marcion and helped to move the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity forward significantly.
  • Hippolytus (170-236), discipled by Irenaeus, took up an optimistic task in his magnum opus titled Against All Heresies.
  • Athanasius (295-373) poured out his life battling Arianism.
  • Ambrose (339-397) preached orthodoxy, refuted Arianism, and influenced Augustine (354-430).
  • Eusebius (260-339) was the first church historian.
  • “The Cappadocian Fathers”—Basil of Caesarea (329-379), his brother Gregory of Nyssa (335-395), and their good friend Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390)—took up a hefty mantle in the fourth century on the way to Chalcedon.
  • Cyril of Alexandria (375-444) lead the charge in the first half of the fifth century.
  • Flavian (martyred in 449) was beaten to death for combating Eutyches, then vindicated at Chalcedon in 451.
  • Leo (died 461), bishop of Rome, stood for Christ’s one person in two natures and wrote a letter to Flavian (known as “Leo’s tome”) that succinctly summarized orthodox Christology and proved useful at Chalcedon.

Extras

Nichols also has some extras. “Leo’s tome” is printed in full on pages 123-133. He has a useful list of the seven ecumenical councils (56). He even tosses in a brief primer on Platonism (23-26), along with very helpful charts on Roman Emperors (72) and how the bishop of Rome became “Pope” (100). Tracking all the terms is made easy with an eight-page glossary at the end.

Two Criticisms

My criticisms are small and few—just two. There are some discrepancies in the dates. When was Athanasius born—295 or 297? When did Ignatius die—107, 110? When was Irenaeus born—115 or 130? Was Arius born in 250 or 260? Granted, we don’t know these dates for sure, but at least standardizing the dates used throughout this one book would be nice—especially for those making detailed notes in preparing to review the book!

A second and final criticism: On page 100, Nichols, almost in an aside, states that the human and divine natures are “natures that are diametrically opposed.” This is probably just an uncareful phrase. Adding the adverb “seemingly” would suffice for me. I don’t find that the human and divine are diametrically opposite. They are often at odds in our present post-Fall context, yes—but not diametrically opposed. The Word became flesh—divine and human with no diametric opposition. The Scriptures are simultaneously human and divine. And all reality—including sin—comes to pass under divine sovereignty yet without the compromise of human accountability. The divine and human (made in the divine image) aren’t diametrically opposed, even if they sometimes appear to be such.

A Call to Christology

Was The Da Vinci Code a unique and singular challenge to Christology? Or might it be a shot across the bow with more assault to come? Nichols and I think the latter and want to call you to familiarity with biblical, Chalcedonian Christology—which is both fuel for worship and a fortress against the coming charges.


1Nichols is correct to write, “[W]ho Christ is has everything to do with the gospel” (13), and emphasize for every Christian “the importance of getting the person of Christ right” (13-14). Nichols contends, “The early church was right in spending so much time and effort on the doctrine of Christ” (15). Commenting on the heretical Ebionites, Nichols says, “Their faulty view of Christ led to a faulty view of Christ’s work on the cross. Their misunderstanding of the incarnation led to a misunderstanding of the atonement. They did not grasp the fact that Christ is the God-man who is for us. This fact makes all the difference for our salvation” (21).

2Nichols adds that adoptionism is a type of monarchianism which puts all the emphasis on God’s oneness, denies the distinct persons of the Trinity, and leads to patripassionism (the belief that the Father is the one who suffered on the cross).

3Adoptionism and Ebionism anticipated the third- and fourth-century debates about Jesus’ deity, but the influence of Platonism and its negative view of human flesh made Jesus’ humanity the dominant first- and second-century discrepancy.

4Interestingly, Irenaeus then discipled Hippolytus (below) marking a direct line of discipleship from the Apostle John (through Polycarp, through Irenaeus, through Hippolytus) into the third century.

David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor at desiringGod.org and an elder at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis. He has edited several books, including Thinking. Loving. Doing., Finish the Mission, and Acting the Miracle, and is co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary.