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Jesus Christ God, Man and Savior Week Six: God the Son at Nicaea and Constantinople

Peter Brown, Author

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When we sum up the five previous weeks of the course in order to review the very main points of propositional Christology, we might anticipate that the first and most difficult challenge for the early Church by far was in coming up with precise language that could capture how Jesus could be, on the one hand, 1) divine, pre-existent and a co-gerent of the created order and 2) a human being who was distinct from God, sent by God, and thus lesser than God on the other.

It was pretty easy for the early Church to reject the two most extreme solutions—namely, that there were somehow two or three Gods rather than one, or at the other pole, that Jesus was only a man who became son of God through adoption and was therefore reabsorbed as it were into divinity. Divine revelation, not to mention basic philosophy, pretty clearly rules out both options.

Other options to solve the vexing problem were more superficially attractive however. To keep our discussion relatively simple, we will begin by noting that the first and strongest instinct in Catholic theology that arose in the second and third centuries was to insist on the oneness of God. Broadly, this tendency went under the name monarchianism. The term comes from the Greek, monarches, meaning sole ruler or sovereign. Monarchianism was founded on a good reading of the Bible (which really did insist in numerous places on the oneness of God) and on basic Greek philosophy (which had long since reduced to nonsense various polytheistic belief systems). The downside however was that there was such an emphasis on the unity of nature in God that it immediately gave rise to the problem of precisely how to fit Jesus Christ, the Son of God into the oneness of God at all.

Monarchians tended to solve this problem by absorbing Jesus into the divine monarch so closely that he lost any real distinction from God the Father—the very distinction that is expressed repeatedly and in many ways in the Bible. This form of Monarchianism was known as Modalism or sometimes Sabellianism after its chief advocate, Sabellius, a Libyan from Pentapolis in North Africa. This view held that the Son and the Holy Spirit were only modes or phases of the Father. This type admitted only a distinction of functions in God. Hence, God is seen as Father who created the world, as Son who redeemed, and as Holy Spirit who sanctified the world. Another way to view Modalism is in terms of God wearing different “masks”: the one God looks like a Father from the standpoint of creation, he looks like a Son from the standpoint of the Incarnation, he looks like a Spirit from the standpoint of sanctification. These however are all different appearances and manifestations of God for the sake of human beings.
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