The Doctrine of Christ in the Early Church
Stephen J. Nichols
Crossway Books, Illinos, 2007
I bought this book on the strength of one effusive review. I wasn’t disappointed.
For many Christology and the early church is a boring topic – there are too many –isms (or should that be –wasms) to get confused with. If that is your view then a read of Nichols's book will be an ideal antidote. He has a habit of making complicated ideas and theories accessible and fascinating – boring it’s not. Church history can be fun!
The book comprises six chapters. Chapters 2, 4 and 6 consist of selected key documents from the proponents and advocates for the views he discusses in the odd numbered chapters.
The first chapter looks at the early centuries. The baddies here are the Ebionites, Marcion, Valentius, Theodotus the Cobbler, Paul of Samosa, ‘Praxeas’ and Sabbellius; the goodies: Ignatius, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Hippolytus. During this period the issue was the divinity of Christ (denied by the Ebionites, the adoptionists such as Paul of Samosa and Theodotus aka the Cobbler)) and the humanity of Christ (denied by the docetists such as Valentius and Marcion).
I particularly appreciated the placing of these heresies within the cultural milieu. The ground motive of Platonism has much to answer for. As Nichols puts it:
The docetists, imbibing too much Platonism for their own good, simply could not allow for a human, fleshly Christ. (p 33)Before 312 AD the enemies of orthodoxy were largely without, since then the enemies of the church have also been within. Chapter 3 looks at the issues surrounding the ‘battle at Nicea’ (325).
Here the hero is Athanatius and the villain Arius. The debate seemingly over the inclusion or not of a single letter i: homoousias (Athanasius) or homoiousias (Arius).
Contrary to Dan Brown and the DaVinci Code the vote at the council of Nicea was not close – only three voted against, when between 250 and 300 bishops voted for. It did not mean that Jesus’ divinity was established by a vote; it confirmed and strongly affirmed what the vast majority of church fathers knew anyway.
The Council of Nicea didn’t fully settle the issue it was six decades before the Arian influence declined and orthodoxy triumphed. Fortunately Athanasius had some allies: the Cappodocians, Gregory, Basil and Gregory. Jesus' divinity and humanity was affirmed; this however led to a new set of problems which leads us to Chalcedon.
Chapter 5 looks at Leo the Great and Chalcedon. The Chalcedon Council brought together ' the two natures of Christ, his full humanity and his full deity, into one undivided, unconfused and unmixed person' (p. 99): two natures in one person. Leo was no stranger to danger - he faced Attila the Hun and came out unscathed. More intellectual enemies were the Appollinarians, who he faced in the lead up to the Council of Chalcedonin 451. Apollinarius (d 392) and his subsequent followers maintained that Christ has one nature and one person, 'a God-man without a clearly defined and distinct humanity and deity' (p. 103). The Cappodocian Fathers had battled with Apollinarianism, but despite that Apollinarius's teachings still found a stronghold among some. The Council of Chalcedon was to deal a death blow to the Apollinarians and Leo's formulation of two natures in one person' was to prevail. The story is well told by Nichols, who manages to make it live.
This is an excellent primer on the early Christians creeds and Christology. I highly recommend it as a great place to start. The addition of primary sources is an extra treat and this provides an accessible way into the Church Fathers.
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