“The distinction between the two natures in no way being annulled by their unity, but rather the properties of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and one hypostasis.” The dual nature of Christ. We’ll come back to that definition.
I’m fortunate to be talking about this icon in our series. First, it’s a beautiful painting, and I’ve enjoyed looking at it since I first saw it. But more important, I think that the meaning is pretty clear. Over the past six weeks, we’ve seen some paintings that, while very beautiful, have made me squint or cock my head to try to figure out how the image is related to the subject. Maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking about this one more, but here I don’t have any difficulty imagining what the artist was thinking — we see white, for God, coming down from above. Red, looking like blood, comes up from below. The colors crash together in a double-helix of divine-human dual nature DNA. Gold is strewn throughout. It’s beautiful. And, to me at least, it’s clear. If only the doctrine were so clear.
We’re going to do something a little bit unorthodox, and not very Mennonite, today. We’re going to take a trip back — not to the sixteenth century but to the fifth century. Stay with me. I wanted to do this because we often think of these kinds of doctrines as having come down chiseled in stone like the ten commandments. But as Michelle reminded us a few weeks ago with the trinity, that’s not how it works. Our doctrines and definitions have been hashed out over time by real people and real conflicts.
Here’s what we need to know for our story. In the fifth century, there were four centers of Christian power in one church. There were Rome and the new Rome, Constantinople. The cities were vying to be the most important in the church. Then there was Antioch in Syria and Alexandria in Egypt. These were the intellectual centers of Christian thought at the time. Each city had a patriarch.
When we enter the story in the 420s, Antioch and Alexandria had been engaged in a nearly century-long dispute over the nature of Christ. To put it simply, Antiochene thinkers focused on the humanity of Christ and Alexandrian thinkers focused on Christ’s divinity. Everyone agreed that Christ was God, but how many natures were they and how did they interact? The Alexandrians accused the Antiochenes of dividing Christ between divine and human by focusing on the human nature. The Antiochenes accused the Alexandrians of making Christ purely diving, making Christ’s human nature into an illusion.
The conflict came to a head when an Antiochene named Nestorius became the patriarch of Constantinople. The dispute didn’t arise over Christ, it actually had to do with Mary. Nestorius said that Christians should stop calling Mary the Theotokos — literally the bearer of God, often translated as the mother of God. Instead, we should call her the Christotokos — the bearer of Christ. After all, God does not have a mother. God cannot be born. And God is perfect and cannot suffer.
The Alexandrians threw a fit. How can Mary be the bearer of Christ but not of God? they asked. Did Christ become God at some point? If so, when?
A church council was called at Ephesus in 430 to settle the dispute. As often happens, the side that brings the most people to a church meeting wins the votes. And this time, the Alexandrians brought more people. Nestorius was declared a heretic, anathematized, and banished to exile at a monastery in the desert. And the council issued statements that sounded very Alexandrian about the nature of Christ.
This was supposed to end the dispute, but it only made it worse. The emperor’s wife took one side while his sister took the other. Generals weighed in, and the empire neared civil war. There were riots, churches were destroyed, people were kicked out of the church. There were even stories of nuns being dragged through the streets into rival churches where their mouths were pried open and the bread and wine of communion stuffed inside. Everyone agreed that this put them literally in communion with the rival faction.
Another church council was called at Ephesus in 449 to resolve the simmering dispute. This time the Alexandrians, having tasted victory once, went even further. The patriarch of Constantinople, named Flavian, tried to ride the fence. A fight broke out at the council, and a group of Egyptian monks got hold of him and beat him to death. The council produced a statement that was even more strongly Alexandrian.
This time, they had gone too far. The Pope and other church leaders sought out a middle position. Pope Leo wrote his Tome — an influential work that laid out the position on the dual nature that would become standard for the entire church. In 451, two years after the last council, another council was held in Chalcedon. It anathematized some figures on both sides and approved the Chalcedonian definition.
Here’s what it said:
“As regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and one hypostasis, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ.”
There. That’s simple. Now we can all go home.
Not quite. The type of language in this doctrine will sound familiar to fans of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch and the instructions for its use:
“Thou shalt remove the holy pin. Then thou shalt count to three, no more, no less. Three is the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Thou shalt not count to four, neither shalt thou count to two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out.”
You notice that unlike the ancient creed, I have the Monty Python bit memorized. But seriously, it’s no coincidence that the holy hand grenade was from Antioch. The members of Monty Python, being the products of good Anglican prep schools, were very familiar with the ancient creeds. Their language was meant to deliberately mock the style.
So what do we do this definition? I don’t know to be honest. This wasn’t even the end of the dispute. Several churches refused to accept the compromise, and there are still churches in the east such as the Syrian, Egyptian, and Ethiopian churches that revere the Antiochene or Alexandrian position. Only now, fifteen hundred years later, are some of these churches being reconciled to the Chalcedonian churches, as statements are released saying that the ancient disputes were more about language than substance.
I tried to find answers in the Mennonite statements of faith that form the basis for our icon series. Honestly, they were pretty vague. The oldest even said that we leave it a mystery exactly how Christ was human and divine. The others talked of Christ being fully human and fully divine. But how can someone or something be “fully” two things at once?
I said earlier I was going to do something non-Mennonite. Now, we’ll do something very Mennonite and look to the scripture that was read earlier — Philippians 2. This is one of the longest passages in the New Testament on the nature of Christ:
You should have the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus.
Christ, being in the image of God, did not deem equality with God something to be clung to. But became completely empty, taking on the image of oppressed humankind. Being born into the human condition, and found in the likeness of a human being. Christ became humble, being obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God has exalted Christ and given Jesus a name that is above every name.
Think of the themes we see there. Most people think this was actually a hymn that predated the writing of Philippians. It’s not about nature or being. Instead we see emptiness and servanthood.
That’s why we spent so long on the story of the doctrine. It’s a cautionary tale. Think about it. A doctrine of unity between divine and human became a doctrine of division between christians, between churches, between sisters. A doctrine of beautiful mystery became a doctrine of certainty that led to exclusion. A doctrine of humility and likeness with the oppressed became a doctrine of oppression, strife, and violence.
I don’t know how Christ could have two natures that coexisted without division or separation. But I do know that when we think of the dual nature of Christ, whether we think of it spiritually or physically, in time or eternally, the union between divine and human happens in the context of humility, servanthood, and unity. From there, God raised up Christ. And as we also know from scripture, Christ was the firstborn among many. The first to be raised up.
Let this mind be in us which was also in Christ Jesus. Amen.