Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christological Hearsay: Three Heresies in Summa Contra Gentiles

It is sadly not uncommon for the average Catholic to encounter Christological heresy, whether it is of the New-Age, Gnostic sort (that Jesus was an ascended being that realized the godhead available to all of us) or of that materialistic type that denies any divinity to Him at all. As with the poor, history shows that we will always have these heresies with us. While certainly it would be an overstatement to claim that every Christological heresy has roots in the old, one can certainly find the familiar taint of the modernist skeptic in the heresiarchs of old. St. Thomas describes many of these early Christological heresies in Book 4 of Summa Contra Gentiles. Of these, three in particular had a tremendous impact on the early Church: Valentinianism, Arianism, and Nestorianism. In striving against these heresies, the early Church defined much of its Christological thought.

Valentinus was a Gnostic of the early second century. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, he was reputed to be a student of Theudas, a follower of St. Paul. Both Tertullian and Ireneus of Lyons wrote extensively on the false teachings of Valentinus and his followers.[i] St. Thomas, in Book IV of Summa Contra Gentiles, addresses primarily the errors in Valentinus’ understanding of the Incarnation. Despite the clear teaching of the Church that Christ became man, Valentinus taught (as did the Manicheans) that Christ only became man in appearance: “For he said that Christ did not have an earthly body, but brought one from heaven; that He received nothing from the Virgin Mother, but passed through her as through an aqueduct.” The Angelic Doctor addresses the same issue in Question 5, article 2 of Summa Theologica, part III. The root of the problem with Valentinus, as with the Manicheans, is their mistaken identity of the material world as a work of the devil (SCG 4, 30, 2).

He outlines several passages from scripture used by Valentinus to support this belief on the Incarnation, particularly John 3:13 and 1 Corinthians 15:47. Yet the Valentinian position leads to numerous contradictions. First is the direct conflict with scripture. Christ Himself says in Luke 24:39, “[F]or a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Likewise, in the letters of St. Paul, Christ is said to be born of the seed of David (Romans 1:3) and to have taken flesh from a woman (Galatians 4:4). Yet, if Christ did not have an earthly body, it could not be a body of flesh and bone like ours, in direct contradiction to scripture (SCG 4, 30, 3), nor would a heavenly body be passible and susceptible to suffering (ST III, 5, 2). By making Christ only appear to be man, Valentinus detracts from God’s truthfulness by seeming to be rather than actually being man, and we cannot be legitimately called His brethren (SCG 4, 30, 8). Clearly, Valentinus’ non-Apostolic positions caused the shipwreck of the faith of many.

A little over a century later, an Alexandrian priest by the name of Arius would spark a controversy that split the Church. Arius, a follower of Paul of Samasota, Bishop of Antioch, taught that the Logos was less than God but more than man[ii] and not of the same substance as God (animoios).[iii] The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that while the Gnostic heresies such as Valentinus never really had much influence in the West, Arianism had much more broad exposure and came about at a time when the technical language of Greek philosophy was being adopted more and more for the fine distinctions being developed in orthodox doctrine.[iv] The heresy spread so quickly that, in the words of St. Jerome, “The whole world groaned and marveled to find itself Arian.”[v]

Unlike the Valentinians, Arius taught that Christ was a creature. Rather than denying Christ’s human body, Arius denied that Christ had a soul and that the Word (Logos) took the place of the soul, a position he held in common with Apollinaris. As St. Thomas explains,
[H]e wanted to maintain that the Son of God was a creature and less than the Father, and so for his proof he picked up those scriptural passages which show human infirmity in Christ. And to keep anyone from refuting him by saying that the passages he picked referred to Christ not in His divine, but in His human, nature, he evilly removed the soul from Christ to this purpose[.] (SCG 4, 32, 2)

He challenges this doctrine on both philosophical and theological grounds. First, St. Thomas notes that, because the soul is the form of the body, that the Divine cannot replace the soul in a human nature (SCG 4, 32, 3). What’s more, to deprive a man of a soul would be to change his nature: “Take away… what is of the essence of man, and no true man can be” (SCG 4, 32, 5). Just as Christ could not be man without true flesh, He could not be true man without a human soul. St. Thomas continues to note that scripture includes specific references to Christ’s throughout the gospels and also speaks of Christ feeling emotions and bodily appetites, all of which belong to the sensitive soul.

Arius’s primary concern was with preserving the unity of God, as Jaroslav Pelikan notes: “The point at which the Arian understanding of God called forth a controversy was, then, not in the doctrine of God as such, but in the doctrine of the relation between God and the divine in Christ.”[vi] Arius attempted to make the Logos that divine element in the man Christ, but clearly as St. Thomas demonstrates, such an arrangement would not do. One has to hold that the soul of Christ and His Divinity are two distinct things (SCG 4, 32, 9) and the Divinity of Christ to be consubstantial with the Father, the position affirmed by the Council of Nicaea.

Not long after the dust had settled on the Arian question, another controversy arose stemming again from the school of Antioch. Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, espoused a teaching taught by two anti-Arian bishops, Diodorus of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopuestia.[vii] What really seems to have brought this errant Christology to the forefront were Nestorius’ sermons concerning the title Theotokos given to the Mother of God.[viii] However, this aspect of his teaching was symptomatic of other severe distortions of Christian doctrine.

Whereas the earlier Christological heresies focused on whether Christ was God or man in nature, Nestorianism denied neither of these but addressed the union of natures in Christ. St. Thomas describes this proposed union as the indwelling of God in a true human body with a true human soul. Yet the problem with this notion of indwelling is that it is meant in precisely the same way as God’s indwelling in all holy men by grace (SCG 4, 34, 2). In this indwelling, Theodore and Nestorius saw an affective union between man and God. Yet, the Person of the Son of God and the person of the man Christ were two coincidentally.[ix]

St. Thomas makes note of numerous texts that make Nestorian Christology plainly unscriptural. First, he notes that the words of the gospel and the words of Christ Himself nullify the possibility of two distinct supposita in Christ (SCG 4, 34, 5–6). Clearly, if “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), the simple meaning of the text does not support indwelling. Likewise, St. Thomas adds,
“[T]he man called Jesus says about Himself: ‘Before Abraham was made, I am,’ and ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 8:58; 10:30), and several other things which clearly pertain to the divinity of the Word. Therefore, the person and hypostasis of the man speaking is plainly the very person of the Word of God.” (SCG 4, 34, 6)

The Angelic Doctor continues on to address the matter of predication of titles and actions to one or the other nature, which he also addresses in Summa Theologica part III, Question 16. Whereas the Nestorians posited that human and Divine activities could only be attributed to the human or Divine natures discretely, St. Thomas affirmed that to Christ must be attributed both Divine and human activities, which is the teaching of the Council of Ephesus (reaffirmed at Chalcedon) also known as the communication of idioms. It follows that Mary could be truthfully titled Theotokos and the Mother of God, rather than the Mother of Christ as the Nestorians would have it. Sadly, this heresy was to result in one of the earliest major schisms of the Catholic Church.

Today, we still see remnants of these heresies among various denominations and movements. The fascination with Gnostic Christianity is evident enough if one turns on the History Channel[x] or peruses the stacks of New Age books at the local bookstore. Arianism has influenced numerous sects, including Islam, Unitarianism, the Christadelphians, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the Assyrian Church of the East we see the legacy of Theodore of Mopuestia and Nestorius. There are few new heresies, but rather restatements of the old. Even the best of us are occasionally tempted to respond as St. Nicholas of Myra is reputed to have done to Arius at Nicaea. Yet each of these controversies when reborn gives us an opportunity to witness to the truth and to clarify the teachings of the Church. As the Holy Father has demonstrated in the last few years, sometimes what is needed most is a frank discussion of the Truth rather than a “false irenicism” that papers over real differences.

Works Cited

Aquinas, T. (2009). Summa Contra Gentiles, Book Four: Salvation. (C. J. O'Neil, Trans.) Notre Dame, Indiana, USA: University of Notre Dame Press.

Aquinas, T. (2000). Summa Theologica, Tertia Pars. Retrieved September 18, 2010, from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4.htm.

Barry, W. (1907). Arianism. Retrieved December 10, 2010, from The Catholic Encyclopedia: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01707c.htm.

Chapman, J. (1911). Nestorius and Nestorianism. Retrieved December 11, 2010, from The Catholic Encyclopedia: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10755a.htm.

Healy, P. (1912). Valentinus and Valentinians. Retrieved December 10, 2010, from The Catholic Encyclopedia: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15256a.htm.

Pelikan, J. (1971). The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition: The Christian Tradition (Vol. 1). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


i. Patrick Healy, (1912), Valentinus and Valentinians, retrieved December 10, 2010, from The Catholic Encyclopedia: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15256a.htm
ii. Jaroslav Pelikan, (1971), The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition: The Christian Tradition, Vol. 1 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), p. 198.
iii. William Barry, (1907), Arianism, Retrieved December 10, 2010, from The Catholic Encyclopedia: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01707c.htm.
iv. Ibid.
v. Ibid.
vi. Pelikan, p. 195.
vii. John Chapman, (1911), Nestorius and Nestorianism, retrieved December 11, 2010, from The Catholic Encyclopedia: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10755a.htm.
viii. Ibid.
ix. Pelikan, p. 252.
x. I often refer to it as the Heresy Channel.
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