Defining Jesus: Voting on Christ’s divine and human nature in the Ecumenical Church Councils

Although Christianity had finally been given state approval, Constantine soon saw that as a movement Christianity was deeply divided among itself in virtual all areas. In order to stifle disagreements and unify the empire under one, simplified religion, Emperor Constantine summoned the first Church Council. In the summer of 325, the bishops of all provinces were summoned to Nicaea (now in modern-day Turkey), a place easily accessible to the majority of delegates by Emperor Constantine, who presided. He was present as an observer, and did not vote; however it would be false to say he was not influential in the proceedings. Constantine organized the Council along the lines of the Roman Senate. One of most popular “heresies” at that time was Arianism, which maintained that Jesus was a created being, and hence, different than God. This was the main threat to be dealt with.

Council of Nicaea (325)

Church tradition maintained that Jesus was the divine Son of God – but how could this be reconciled with strict monotheism? If God is one, where does Jesus fit in? These ruminations led a popular presbyter named Arius to conclude that Jesus (as the Logos or Divine Word) could not be exactly equal to God; nevertheless Jesus was God’s first creation, and everything else was created through Jesus. He was “like the father” (homoios); as a created being, however, Jesus was not eternal. So, according to Arius, Christ is neither fully god nor fully man. Jesus was human, promoted to divine status.

Against this position, St. Alexander and Athanasius argued that Jesus was a divine being in the same way as God the Father: “of the same substance” (homoousios); equally divine and co-eternal. Both sides could use scripture to support their argument and there was no way to settle the dispute. As Armstrong points out, “At the beginning of the controversy, there was no orthodox teaching on the nature of Christ and nobody knew whether Athanius or Arius was right. Discussion raged for over two hundred years (Armstrong118). This was the debate that Constantine was determined to settle once and for all at Nicaea. As Eusebius described, Constantine

himself proceeded through the midst of the assembly, like some heavenly messenger of God, clothed in raiment which glittered as it were with rays of light, reflecting the glowing radiance of a purple robe, and adorned with the brilliant splendor of gold and precious stones[D1] .

The two sides argued for about two months. Much of the debate hinged on the difference between being “born” or “created” and being “begotten.” Arians saw these as essentially the same; followers of Alexander did not.

According to some accounts, debate became so heated that at one point, Arius was slapped in the face by Nicholas of Myra. Nicholas was stripped of his robes and put in chains for the offence, but later visited by Jesus and Mary, who vindicated him. The St. Nicholas Center (who claim that this is the same St. Nicholas who would later become Santa Claus) gives the following account of this miraculous intervention:

Nicholas was ashamed and prayed for forgiveness, though he did not waver in his belief. During the night, Jesus and Mary his Mother, appeared, asking, “Why are you in jail?” “Because of my love for you,” Nicholas replied. Jesus then gave the Book of the Gospels to Nicholas. Mary gave him an omophorion, so Nicholas would again be dressed as a bishop. Now at peace, Nicholas studied the Scriptures for the rest of the night. When the jailer came in the morning, he found the chains loose on the floor and Nicholas dressed in bishop’s robes, quietly reading the Scriptures. When Constantine was told of this, the emperor asked that Nicholas be freed. Nicholas was then fully reinstated as the Bishop of Myra[D2] .

The Council of Nicaea finally agreed with Nicholas’ views, deciding the question against Arius. The primarily solutions were these:

1.        Jesus Christ is described as “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” proclaiming his divinity.

2.        Jesus Christ is said to be “begotten, not made,” asserting his co-eternalness with God.

3.        Jesus is defined as “from the substance of the Father,” in direct opposition to Arianism. Eusebius of Caesarea ascribes the term homoousios, or consubstantial to Constantine who, on this particular point, may have chosen to exercise his authority.

Incidentally, also established at the Council of Niceae was the calculation of the date of Easter, and a prohibition of self-castration (showing that many Christians continued to follow this specifically pagan act).

Although the council solved the immediate concern of Arianism, the definitions did not solve all problems. Jesus was equal to the Father, but not the same as the father; and yet of the same substance as the Father. And comes “from” him but was never made or created (only “begotten”) so he is co-eternal and there is no time he was not. And still, this definition did not satisfy everyone.

It was Constantine who demonstrated how a State Religion was to be run: everyone who refused to endorse the creed would be exiled and excommunicated. The works of Arius were ordered to be confiscated and burned, while all persons found possessing them were to be executed. And yet even this did not stop the controversy.

Nicaea created a great rift in the church, and there were many who felt that the creed established had flaws. The Council of Antioch (341) was the first of several 4th-century councils that attempted to replace orthodox Nicene theology with a modified Arianism. Attended by the Eastern emperor Constantius II and about 100 Eastern bishops, the council developed four creeds as substitutes for the Nicene, all of them to some degree unorthodox and omitting or rejecting the Nicene statement that Christ was “of one substance” (homoousios) with the Father. According to Frend, “the bishops were kept in cramped quarters through a stifling Italian summer until their morale collapsed. They signed. Christ was ‘like the father’ (homoios) without any attempt to define how. ‘The world,’ wrote Jerome some twenty years later, “awoke with a groan to find itself Arian’” (Frend 541).

Julian the Apostate (355-363)

The expansion and success of Christianity was momentarily checked by Emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus, a successful general and from the Constantinian dynasty (nephew to Constantine I) who ruled Rome after Constantius II. Julian despised Constantine and considered Helena not a saint but a “wicked stepmother” (Frend595).

Julian was a philosopher and hoped to restore the Empire to its classical heritage through a kind of mystical Neoplatonism. There was a single, unknowable supreme being, which emanated a creator-power which is identified with sun – a pure and undefiled and immaterial substance – midway between the created world and the supreme being. He was the giver of life, the creator, the harmony of universe, intelligible in mysticism. In his Oration upon the Sovereign Sun, Julian associates this figure with Serapis:

One Jove, one Pluto, one Sun is Serapis… We must conclude that the sovereignty of the Sun and of Jupiter amongst the deities that are objects of intellect is held in common, or rather is one and the same. For this reason Plato seems to me to be right in calling Pluto a provident deity. The same god we also name “Serapis,” that is “Invisible,” clearly because he is the object of the intellect alone: up to whom (it is said) that the souls ascend of such as have led the best, and most righteous lives. We must not suppose him (Pluto), the terrible being that Fable describes him; but a mild and benevolent one, who completely frees souls from the trammels of Birth; far from nailing them down to new bodies, and punishing and exacting retribution from souls already released from the body: but on the contrary, he directs them in their upward course, and carries them aloft to the Intelligible World[D3] .

Under this benevolent being were local deities; Athena for Greeks, Attis for Phrygians, and Jehova for Jews. The traditional pagan myths could be interpreted as allegories of the single great drama of creation” (frend597). In 355 Julian restored the Eleusian mysteries at Athens, and claimed that his ministry would include “honest and reasonable men, intelligent and entirely capable,” (Frend 601).

Julian was staunchly opposed to Christianity. According to him, not only was Christianity inferior to classical spiritual traditions, it was a deliberate fiction:

Greeks who had become Christians had not only chosen a culture inferior to their own, which lacked the moral virtue of Hellenism, but a religion that combined the worst features of Hellenism and Judaism in the worship of a pathetic failed revolutionary. Their religion was based on a fabrication, a fiction concocted by evil men. ( Contra Julianum, PG 76.560C, qtd. frend?597)

Although we can’t be sure of the basis for Julian’s claim that Christianity was “a fiction concocted by evil men,” it fits the hypothesis that Christianity was, like the cult of Serapis, a deliberate construction – although he might just be referring to the more recent fantastical history created for it by Eusebius.

In his text Against the Galatians, Julian contrasts the jealous, exclusively “particular” (μερικός) Hebraic God with the universal Hellenic gods who do not confine their attentions to small and unimportant portions of the world[D4] . “Though it has in it nothing divine,” Julian writes, “by making full use of that part of the soul which loves fable and is childish and foolish, it has induced men to believe that the monstrous tale is truth[D5] .” In another place he continues, “Christians are like a disease, turned aside from the gods to worship corpses and relics” (qtdFrend 606,Julian Letter XLI.438B)

At the same time Julian refused to persecute Christians – they were to be left alone. According to Gregory of Nazianzus, the common people welcomed Julian’s reforms (Gregory Oration, IV 75.) Julian was viewed as the “liberator of the Roman world, restorer of temples, re-creator of the common wealth and destroyer of the barbarians” (Frend 602). Unruly pagans, seizing the opportunity to right past offences, set upon the Christians. Bishop George in Alexandria was lynched by mob. Justin admonished the Alexandrians, scolding that such behavior was unbecoming to Hellenes, and ordered George’s library preserved.

In the Tolerance Edict of 362, Julian decreed the reopening of pagan temples, the restitution of confiscated temple properties, and the return of dissident Christian bishops and clergy whom Constantius had exiled, in the cynical belief “that no wild beasts are such enemies to mankind as are most Christians in their deadly hatred of one another” (Ammianus Marcellinus, 22.5.4). The last had significant consequences: the Donatists swept in and “reconverted” Catholics. In the summer of 362, with only 21 bishops in Alexandria, Athanasius (back from exile) held an important church council and again pushed the terms “like in all respects” and “of one substance.” The vote passed, so after 36 years, The Creed of Nicaea was firmly accepted. For managing to proselytize in favor of Christianity and holding this council, Athanasius was once more exiled as a “bad man.”

However the tide towards Christianity would not be dammed. With Julian’s death on June 26th, 363 in the Battle of Ctesiphon (believing himself a reincarnation of Alexander the Great, he’d not worn any armor) the last formal opposition to Christianity ended. One historian records the tale of a bishop who had appropriated a pillar from the famous shrine of Asclepius in Aegae, Cilicia to build his own temple. Although Julian told him to put it back, it was too heavy for the Greeks to move; therefore they left it and went away. When Julian died, “the bishop again easily lifted it up and restored it to its own place” Qtd Frend, 421[D6] . This story aptly portrays Julian’s unsuccessful attempt to halt the progress of Christianity.

Between 375 and 383 Emperor Gratian confiscated temples and abolished privileges for heathen priests. In 380 Christianity was declared the official religion of the empire by Emperor Theodosius I, who forbid heathen religious observances from 379 to 395. By 435, Theodosius II commanded that all temples be destroyed or turned into churches. Emperor Justinian prohibited heathenism on pain of death, and abolished the 900 year old school of Athens in 529. The ancient temple of Alexandria, with the world’s largest collection of academic books and scrolls, was burned to the ground during this period. According to one ancient testimony, the Christians were overzealous in their destruction of paganism

There was a bronze statue in the city of Beroea – Ascelpius in the form of the beautiful son of Cleinias; and the work of art imitated the work of nature. Of such youthful beauty was it that even those who were able to behold him daily still longed for the sight of it. No one (of the Christians) was so shameless that he would dare to say that sacrifices were offered to this statue. Even such an image as this, O King, perfected as was fitting with great care as well as with bright genius, has been broken to pieces and is gone, and many hands divided up what Phidias’ hands had put together. Because of what sacrificial blood? Because of what sacrificial knife? Because of what illegal service to the gods? Just as here, then, although they could mention no sacrifice, still they cup up Alcibiades, or rather Asclepius into many parts, disgracing the city in respect to the statue, in the same way must we believe the matter stands with them in regard to the happenings in the country. (Libanius, Oratio XXX, 22-23,350)

After Julian’s failed Hellenism, the restored Christianity focused once more on defining the central aspects of its beliefs. With the final acceptance of the Nicene Creed settling the matter of Christ’s divinity, the controversy shifted towards the other end of the spectrum. In what sense was Jesus a human being? Did Jesus have a physical body like ours? Did he have a mind and a soul? Did he sin? These difficulties arose from trying to equate the eternal, divine Jesus (who was of the same substance with the father) with his earthly ministry. In 381, Theodosius I called the second ecumenical council of the church, called the First Council of Constantinople, to resolve these challenges.

First Council of Constantinople (381)

One of the controversies debated at the First Council of Constantinople concerned Jesus’ humanity. A bishop of Laodicea named Apollinaris, who had fought Arianism around 360, was accused of falling into another extreme. Against Arian, he proclaimed that Jesus was fully God. As a consequence, however, it seemed to him impossible that Jesus could undergo moral development: if Jesus was the same as the father and eternal, then how could he have matured in his ethical wisdom? Therefore, Apollinaris posited a Christ who was human in body and soul, but in whom the human mind had been completely replaced by the Logos – hence his Jesus was only 2/3 human.

The problem with this view, according to other church leaders, was that a Christ without a human mind couldn’t truly share in our sufferings, and there is no real possibility of his sinning or being tempted. This kind of Christ was never truly human, and if not human, it was argued, he could not redeem us. The Cappadocian father Gregory of Nazianzus stated, “Only that can be saved (in us) that has been assumed (by Christ).” Thus the full humanity of Jesus Christ had to be affirmed.

Keep in mind that this is now several centuries after the fact, and the church is voting on whether and to what extent Jesus Christ was human based on theological need rather than historical evidence. The choice of what Jesus Christ had to have been would be made first, and the theological consequences worked out later, no matter how convoluted. Based on these two councils, the Church arrived at a Christ who was fully God (of the same substance of the father; begotten but not made) and also fully human. But how could Jesus’ humanity be reconciled with his divinity? Did he have two separate natures? How did that work? These issues would be addressed in the next ecumenical council.

Council of Ephesus (431)

At the Council of Ephesus, Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, was accused of dividing the two natures of Jesus in a way that made the Virgin Mary the mother of Christ, but not of God. Nestorius taught that Jesus had two natures, which were, in a sense, switched on and off at different periods of his life.

According to Nestorius it was impossible that the Logos, the divine son of God, suffered in the passion; hence, only Jesus’ humanity suffered in the passion[D7] . Likewise, Nestorius claimed that the Logos (that is, the pre-existent second person of the Trinity) had not been born of a woman; only Jesus’ humanity was born of a woman. He refused to use the title Mother of God (Theotokos) – the most beloved title the East could give the virgin mother – for Mary. She is not the mother of God, he said, only of Christ (Christotokos).

The leader of the enemies of Nestorius, Cyril of Alexandria, accused him of creating not just two natures but two persons of Jesus. Cyril, while acknowledging that Jesus had two natures, argued that they were not separated. According to Cyril, they are like light and heat in a flame: thus it is legitimate to say that “God died” or “Mary gave birth to God,” because it was impossible to separate the human and divine natures in Christ. Cyril was the first to use the term “hypostatic union” about the joining of the two natures.

Cyril drew up and presented at Ephesus 12 statements, called “anathemas,” condemning Nestorius. After a great deal of political maneuvering, synods and counter-synods, Cyril’s views triumphed, won the support of the Roman pope, and the Nestorian party was condemned. The Council defined that Christ had two natures (Divine and human), but only one Person which is Divine.

Another issue resolved at this council was the condemnation of Pelagian heresy. Pelagian (ca. AD 354 – ca. AD 420/440) was an ascetic who denied the need for divine aid in performing good works; consequently he refused the more specific doctrine of original sin as developed by Augustine of Hippo.

While the Peligius taught that each person was completely free to heed the call of God, Augustine claimed that, through the original sin of Adam, we were born sinners. According to Augustine (who was, by the way, reading Jerome’s recently translated Vulgate Bible rather than the original Greek) sin was no longer an action that stirred the lake of the soul but a birth defect, which we had no way of repairing. No one was capable of redeeming themselves, or of even choosing to break with sin. Humanity was irreparably humbled in sin, and it was only through God’s actions that we were saved.

In Pelagius’s eyes, reliance upon redemption by Christ should be accompanied by individual responsibility and efforts to do good[D8] . The church, however, sided with Augustine: salvation is entirely in God’s hands, we are slaves to our flesh and sin and can’t do anything for ourselves, but some of us will be saved through grace. The Pelagian heresy was condemed at the Council of Carthage held in 416, and this decision was affirmed at the Council of Ephesus.

Council of Chalcedon (451)

In an extreme reaction against Nestorianism, another conception of Christ arose wherein Jesus had only one nature, “the incarnate Word.” This has been called Monophysitism, and is at the forefront of the controversy underlying the Council of Chaldedon.

Eutyches, presbyter and archimandrite at Constantinople, declared that Christ was “a fusion of human and divine elements[D9] .” Although eternal and divine, during the incarnation the Divine Logos was fused together with the Human Jesus. The difficulty is in positing when the incarnation took place; was Jesus born human first? Or did the incarnation take place at the very moment Christ was conceived? Further, if you teach one divine nature in Christ, rather than two, then you invite the belief in a docetic Jesus, a God who walks around with a cloak of humanity. There is also the danger of the Apollinarian conception that Jesus didn’t have a human mind, but only the body and soul.

Leo I, the Pope of Rome, attacked Eutyches for this “one-nature” belief. The council concluded that Jesus had two natures, which were separate; and yet Jesus Christ was to be regarded as one and the same person. The actual wording is “one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” According to Chris Armstrong (Ph.D., Duke University), these four “withouts” are referred to as the “four fences of Chalcedon.” They can be understood “not as a precise definition of the relationship between the divine and human in Christ, but rather as limits to orthodoxy, beyond which Christians cannot stray and remain in the truth. What lies within those fences is still mysterious[D10] !” The definition of Chalcedon is worth sharing:

Therefore, following the holy Fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance [homoousios] with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us man and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer [Theotokos]; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized IN TWO NATURES, [en dyo physesin] WITHOUT CONFUSION, [asynchytos] WITHOUT CHANGE, [atreptos] WITHOUT DIVISION, [adiairetos] WITHOUT SEPARATION [anchoristos]; 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 substance [hypostasis], not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the Fathers has handed down to us[D11] .

Continuing Controversies

And still the debates continued. The Council of Constantinople II, (553) was divided between the Antiochene theology, emphasizing Christ’s humanity, and the Alexandrian theology of their opponents, emphasizing Christ’s deity. The Council of Constantinople III, (680) condemned monothelitism (that Christ had a single will), affirming that Christ had both a human will and a divine will that functioned in perfect harmony. This is over 600 years after the historical Jesus is claimed to have walked the earth, and his followers continue struggling with the basic logistical problems and fundamental philosophical difficulties with their faith in the human-and-divine Christ. Whenever a believer tried to explain the mystery of Jesus, following the nature of Jesus Christ to its rational implications, it was repudiated as a heresy. Concerning the nature of Jesus Christ, if you go too far in any direction you reach error. The role of the Church councils was to freeze rational inquiry before it went too far, by declaring what was to be believed.

The only truth, it was decided, is that which is mysterious and impossible; what cannot be understood but only believed. Moreover this theology (ignoring the claim of Church infallibility and the guidance of the Holy Spirit) has never relied on who or what Jesus Christ was originally. Rather than from one early idea to many, as we would expect a historical founder to produce, in fact the tradition goes from many ideas to one.

Council of Nicea II (787): Iconoclasm and Idolatry

One finally controversy was settled at the Council of Nicea II in 787, which is of particular interest; in a sense its ruling closed the book on the early movement of Christianity, which became something altogether different.

As we’ve seen, one of the most severe differences between Christianity and its pagan surroundings was its refusal to worship idols. The anti-idolatry stance comes from the Old Testament section commonly viewed as the 10 Commandments. Many people are familiar with an abbreviated form of the second commandment, which is clearly against any representation of – not just God – but anything:

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments (Exodus 20: 2-7).

The Bible has many terms for idolatry, and the horror of the biblical writers towards idolatrous practices. Pagan idols were described as being made of gold, silver, wood, and stone; they are only the work of men’s hands, unable to speak, see, hear, smell, eat, grasp, or feel, and powerless either to injure or to benefit (Ps. 135:15-18).

In stark contrast to paganism, the early Christian church, like the Jews, were exceedingly careful not to trespass against this one central rule: many were persecuted or martyred on exactly this point. In addition, the Christian God had no need of sacrificial offerings. Many Christians, such as the apologist Marcianus Aristides, distinguished their beliefs as rational and wise in contrast with the foolishness of Greek idolatry. In a letter to the emperor from the early-mid second century, Marcianus argues,

But it is a marvel, O King, with regard to the Greeks, who surpass all other peoples in their manner of life and reasoning, how they have gone astray after dead idols and lifeless images. And yet they see their gods in the hands of their artificers being sawn out, and planed and docked, and hacked short, and charred, and ornamented, and being altered by them in every kind of way. And when they grow old, and are worn away through lapse of time, and when they are molten and crushed to powder, how, I wonder, did they not perceive concerning them, that they are not gods? And as for those who did not find deliverance for themselves, how can they serve the distress of men? But even the writers and philosophers among them have wrongly alleged that the gods are such as are made in honour of God Almighty. And they err in seeking to liken (them) to God whom man has not at any time seen nor can see unto what He is like. Herein, too (they err) in asserting of deity that any such thing as deficiency can be present to it; as when they say that He receives sacrifice and requires burnt-offering and libation and immolations of men, and temples. But God is not in need, and none of these things is necessary to Him; and it is clear that men err in these things they imagine (Marcianus Aristides[D12] ).

Around 170 AD, Melito, bishop of Sardis (considered a saint by both Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox), also argued against worshipping the invisible and omnipresent God in the form of an idol.

There are, however, persons who say: It is for the honour of God that we make the image: in order, that is, that we may worship the God who is concealed from our view. But they are unaware that God is in every country, and in every place, and is never absent, and that there is not anything done and He knoweth it not. Yet thou, despicable man! within whom He is, and without whom He is, and above whom He is, hast nevertheless gone and bought thee wood from the carpenter’s, and it is carved and made into an image insulting to God. To this thou offerest sacrifice, and knowest not that the all-seeing eye seeth thee, and that the word of truth reproves thee, and says to thee: How can the unseen God be sculptured? Nay, it is the likeness of thyself that thou makest and worshippest. Because the wood has been sculptured, hast thou not the insight to perceive that it is still wood, or that the stone is still stone? The gold also the workman: taketh according to its weight in the balance. And when thou hast had it made into an image, why dose thou weigh it? Therefore thou art a lover of gold, and not a lover of God[D13] .

Early Christian communities stood out for having “no altars, no temples, no acknowledged images?” (Minucius. Octavius. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 4. Edited by Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. American Edition, 1885. Online Edition Copyright © 2004 by K. Knight). They assembled in houses appointed for the purpose, and, in times of persecution, in solitary places (Gieseler, Johann Karl Ludwig[D14] .

New converts who had previously worked as artisans servicing pagan religions were forced to quit their trade and find new means of employment. Hippolytus of Rome commands, “If someone is a sculptor or a painter, let them be taught not to make idols. Either let them cease or let them be rejected[D15] .”

According to Frend, the second commandment forbidding Israel to make any graven image was accepted by Christian leaders in East and West alike, including Tertullian, Clement and Eusebius. The early Church showed rare unanimity in considering this prohibition absolute and binding on Christians. “The principal crime of the human race, the highest guilt charged upon the world, the whole procuring case of judgment, was idolatry” (Frend 415).

In the early third century, Origen tries to explain the tenacity with which the Christians followed this central doctrine:

Christians and Jews have regard to this command, “You shall fear the Lord your God, and serve Him alone;” and this other, “You shall have no other gods before Me: you shall not make unto you any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: you shall not bow down yourself to them, nor serve them;” and again, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.” It is in consideration of these and many other such commands, that they not only avoid temples, altars, and images, but are ready to suffer death when it is necessary, rather than debase by any such impiety the conception which they have of the Most High God (Origen. Contra Celsus, Book VII, Chapter 64, 01/23/07).

The third century Catholic theologian Arnobius confirms that his faith did not have statues or images of any god, did not offer incense of libations of wine, slew no victims in sacrifice, and built no temples for ceremonies of worship[D16] . For this Christianity was often charged with impiety (atheism). In defense of his faith, Arnobius is harshly critical of pagan idolatry:

We worship the gods, you say, by means of images. What then? Without these, do the gods not know that they are worshipped , and will they not think that any honour is shown to them by you? (…) Those images which fill you with terror, and which you adore prostrate upon the ground in all the temples, are bones, stones, brass, silver, gold, clay, wood taken from a tree, or glue mixed with gypsum. (…) Blush , then, even though it is late, and accept true methods and views from dumb creatures, and let these teach you that there is nothing divine in images, into which they do not fear or scruple to cast unclean things in obedience to the laws of their being, and led by their unerring instincts[D17] .

With the growing popularity of Christianity among pagans, however, notably after being appropriated by Constantine and his mother Helena, keeping the pagan practice of idolatry out of the movement became impossible. When Eusebius was asked for an image of the Savior by Constance, the sister of Constantine, he told her that painting holy images was a pagan custom[D18] . He also tells Empress Helena directly that “such images are forbidden by the Jewish law and should not be found in churches.” He continues:

Some poor woman brought me two painted figures like philosophers, and ventured to say that they represented Paul and the Saviour – I do not know on what ground. But to save her and others from offence, I took them from her and kept them by me, not thinking it right, in any case, that she should exhibit them further, that we may not seem idolaters to carry our God about with us[D19] .

Constantine, appointed his mother Helen as Augusta (Empress of the World), and gave her unlimited access to the imperial treasury in order to locate the relics of Judeo-Christian tradition[D20] . She set out in the year 324 with great zeal and fervor to build churches, to restore and adorn older ones and to find precious relics… (Cruz JC. Relics.  Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 1984, p. 255). Around 405 A.D. images of saints and martyrs began to appear in the churches to be worshiped. The adoration of the Virgin Mary was substituted for the worship of Venus and Diana (Hurlbut, JL. The Story of the Christian Church. Zondervan, 1967, p.62).

But the debate wasn’t yet settled. In 599, Bishop Serenus of Marseille, shocked by the cult of images in his diocese, ordered their destruction. Pope Gregory (reigned 590-604) wrote him that he was correct to prevent their adoration, but should preserve them as “books for the illiterate[D21] .” For the general public, the stories of the gospels would be unapproachable without visuals.

The controversy reached its peak in 726 when Leo the Isaurian, Patriarch of Constantinople, issued his first edict against the veneration of images[D22] . On one side of the debate were the Iconoclasts, also called “icon-smashers.” They were suspicious of any art depicting God or humans and demanded the destruction of icons because they were forms of idolatry. On the other side were the Iconodules, or “venerators of icons.” They defended the place of icons in the Church. It is worth pointing out that just prior to the iconoclast outbreak Muslim Caliph Yezid ordered the removal of all icons within his territory; the decisions made regarding idolatry may have been conditioned by the desire for Christianity to differentiate itself from Islam.

The controversy was more than just a struggle over different views of Christian art; in fact it concerned the primary distinction between flesh and spirit that had always troubled Christian doctrine. Was matter, including the flesh, inherently evil (or at least distracting) compared to the glory of God? Could material components be used to reflect or reveal divine presence? What was the true meaning of Christian redemption and the salvation of the entire material universe? The answers to these questions were tied to the character of Christ’s human nature.

Crucial to the discussion was the work of St. John of Damascus (AD 759-826). Housed in Muslim-controlled lands and therefore outside the reach of the Empire, he addressed the charges of the iconoclasts concerning the charges of idolatry:

Icons are not idols but symbols, therefore when an Orthodox venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry. He is not worshipping the symbol, but merely venerating it. Such veneration is not directed toward wood, or paint or stone, but towards the person depicted. Therefore relative honor is shown to material objects, but worship is due to God alone.

We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross… When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them. —St. John of Damascus [D23]

Icons were “open books to remind us of God.” Those who lacked the time or learning to study theology needed only to enter a church to see the mysteries of the Christian religion unfolded before them[D24] . Further, icons were necessary and essential because they protected the full and proper doctrine of the Incarnation. While God could not be represented in his eternal, he can be depicted simply because he became human and took flesh; in so taking a material body, God proved that matter can be redeemed. He deified matter, making it spirit-bearing; and if flesh can be a medium for the Spirit, so can wood or paint, although in a different fashion.

I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation[D25] .

The seventh and last Ecumenical Council (which, like the first, was convened at Nicea) upheld the Iconodules’ postion in 787 AD. Icons, it was proclaimed, are to be kept in churches and honored with the same relative veneration as is shown to other material symbols, such as the “precious and life-giving Cross” and the Book of the Gospels. From 815AD through 843AD Empress Theodora stamped out the attacks against icons permanently.

Conclusions and Summary

During nearly seven hundred years of disagreement, mostly concerning the divine and physical nature of Jesus Christ, a church doctrine was established for the Catholic Church – which did not include the sects who refused the mantle of Rome. The importance of this final chapter was to show that the history of the Church is a human history – demonstrated again and again by lack of consensus, the political power struggles, the violent definitions that were constructed and enforced (and sometimes later revoked) concerning divine matters, not to mention the incalculable evils done in the name of God under the protection of the Church. A more recent example of the fallibility of the Roman Catholic Church is Pope Benedict XVI’s confusing treatment of human sexuality and the use of condoms; which are still off-limits to straight couples seeking to halt unwanted pregnancies but can be used by gay sex workers to prevent the spread of HIV. Recently, however, he’d stated that condoms should not be used because they could worsen the spread of AIDS[D26] .

Can the history and existence of the church prove that Jesus was historical? No – in fact it reveals that the theology regarding Jesus did not come from a historical founder but was the result of centuries of theological development, based on controversy with popular “heresies.” The final result, rather than a clear and understandable vision of Jesus, is a walking impossibility and eternal mystery: a divine-but-human godman with two natures that are distinct but totally unified, two wills that are separate but always in agreement, two bodies that are flesh and not flesh, who has existed eternally but was begotten of God and born in the flesh.

(citations have been removed due to a conflict with the server.)