Getting a Handle on the Early Church Councils (Part 1): Heresies, Nicea, and Constantinople

***The next three posts are taken from a Church history unit I wrote as a high school teacher, and they are based on a book I had read entitled, Jesus Wars, by Philip Jenkins, which took a look at the first four Church councils.

Many Christians today assume that many of the most accepted doctrines about Jesus we have today have always been held by all Christians for all of Church history. This may come as a shock, but that has not always been the case. This is not to say that the outrageous claims made in The Da Vinci Code were right—in fact, they were the complete opposite of what really happened in Church history. But what we must learn about is the often tumultuous and shockingly violent events of the 4th and 5th centuries that ended up shaping today what is considered to be traditional orthodox Christian belief regarding Jesus Christ.

What must be said up front is this: what lay at the root of these Christological debates was a failure to recognize a distinct shift in worldviews that happened as Christianity spread throughout the Greek-influenced Roman Empire. There are fundamental differences between the Jewish worldview and Greek worldview’s understanding of God and Mankind. Consequently, when the early Church Fathers attempted to understand and describe who Jesus was, they were attempting to interpret the writings of the New Testament, which were first century documents that were written from a heavily-influenced Jewish worldview, in light of distinctly Greek concepts and paradigms.

In doing so, certain things got lost in translation, and from this the Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries were born. Simply put, the debates centered on certain Greek definitions and categories that were completely foreign to the New Testament writers. It is sort of like when well-meaning Christians today try to use Genesis 1 to address scientific issues and debates like the age of the earth or evolution. Genesis 1, though, wasn’t written to address our modern 21st century issues, and to impose our 21st century categories on the ancient text is inviting a whole lot of confusion.


Another problem that lay at the root of the 4th and 5th century Christological debates is the growing overlap between State and Ecclesiastical realms. Simply put, political power often corrupted Church debates. That being said, we simply cannot make such clear distinctions between the “Church” and “State” at this point in history. Before Constantine, there was a definite distinction, for sure. But once the Roman Empire became officially Christian, oftentimes royal power was used, or sometimes misused, in many ecclesiastical affairs.

The royal/political involvement was not always harmful—indeed, sometimes it was quite helpful—but there were definite times when such power was used in a way that completely went against the teachings of Christ. And the shocking thing is that the villains in such cases were not necessarily always the emperors; oftentimes it was certain Church leaders who manipulated the political environment at the time and used political power to achieve certain ecclesiastical ends.

The Original Patriarchates
To understand the time, one must have a clear understanding of the first four Ecumenical Church Councils: Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451). Within this 125-year period, what was to become the universally accepted Christian faith was hammered out. Now it must be emphasized that there never was a time of “pristine” Christianity—there has always been conflict from the very beginning. Within the first few years of the Church in Jerusalem there was the conflict concerning Stephen, the early outreach to Gentiles, and the early Church’s relationship with its Jewish roots. Within the few couple centuries, as the Gospel spread throughout the Roman world, there were conflicts between the traditional Christian faith and Gnostic influences, and those Gnostic influences, even though they were resoundingly condemned, still managed to affect later controversies.

As the early Church grew, there were two major Christian centers (known as “patriarchates”) that came to have the most influence on Church doctrine and teaching: Antioch and Alexandria. In actuality, there were five major patriarchates throughout the Roman Empire. In addition to Antioch and Alexandria, there was also Rome, Constantinople, and Jerusalem. Jerusalem was relatively small and insignificant; Constantinople held honor because it was the royal city; and Rome held honor because it was the city in which Peter and Paul were martyred. In time, Rome came to dominate in Western Europe, but initially Antioch and Alexandria held sway.

There was an essential difference in how Antioch and Alexandria understood Christ, and it was this difference that eventually led to a whole lot problems and divisions in the Church. Simply put, Antioch focused more on a historical reading of the gospels and emphasized Christ’s human nature—to them, Christ, although having a divine nature, also had a real human nature. Alexandria, on the other hand, focused more on an allegorical/symbolic reading of the gospels and emphasized the oneness of Christ’s nature. This difference of opinion really was philosophical hair-splitting, but nevertheless it was the cause of a lot of turmoil. For Antioch, Alexandria’s position seemed to be saying that Christ was so divine that he really wasn’t human. Therefore, if he wasn’t human, the significance of his death and resurrection was called into question. For Alexandria, Antioch’s position seemed to be dividing Christ and somehow denigrating his divinity.

Early Heresies
There were a number of early heresies in the first three centuries of Church history that had to be addressed and refuted by the early Church Fathers. The easiest way to understand them is to break them up into two general categories: (A) The Ebionites were essentially Jews who accepted Jesus as a great prophet and the Messiah, but who did not believe he was divine in any way—he was a man, pure and simple. (B) The Gnostics were people who saw Christ as a purely divine/spiritual being who had no real relationship with the material/physical world.

Gnosticism really encompassed a variety of similar beliefs. Cerinthus, for example, said that the man Jesus was possessed by a divine force at his baptism. Paul of Samosata had a similar view. He said that Mary gave birth to Jesus, but the Logos descended upon Jesus at his baptism, at which time he became the “adopted” Son of God. Hence, this view became known at Adoptionism—yes, there was a man named Jesus; but he wasn’t the eternal Son of God. He was really just possessed by the divine Logos.

Another version could be seen with Docetism. This view held that the divine Christ literally just “took the form” of a man in order to visit the material world, but he wasn’t really a man—he only seemed to be. Therefore, all the suffering he underwent was just an illusion, for Christ was immaterial and not really human.

Still another take on Jesus could be seen in the work of a man named Saballius. He said that yes, Christ had a real human body, but he didn’t have a separate identity from God. In fact, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were not three persons at all, but only three modes of one reality. Saballius, in effect, denied the Trinity and denied the individual personhood of Christ. For him, Christ was just “God” in a human body; but Christ’s nature and person were certainly not human.

Consequently, by the fourth and fifth centuries, the opponents of Antioch and Alexandria would often caricature the other side with oversimplified accusations. Alexandria accused Antioch of following the heresies of Cerinthus and Paul of Samosata, because they taught that Christ was divided into a “divine” being and a “human” being. Antioch in turn accused Alexandria of following Saballius, because they denied the humanity of Christ.

The Council of Nicaea (AD 325)
The major heresy that brought about the calling of the first Church council was Arianism. Arius was a presbyter in Alexandria who strongly disagreed with the prevailing theological views of the Egyptian church. He taught that Christ was indeed the highest of the Father’s creation and that the Father had created all things through the Son and that the Son shared in the glory of the Father, but the Son was not equal to the Father—he did not share in the Father’s eternal nature. The catch phrase of Arians was, “There was a time when the Son was not!”

The Orthodox position coined their own catch phrase: “There never was a time when the Son was not!” The point—Jesus Christ was co-eternal with the Father. After much debate at the council of Nicaea, the council backed the views of Athanasius who argued that Jesus was “homoousis” (of the same being) with the Father, and rejected the views of Arius who argued that Jesus was “homoiousis” (of like being) with the Father.

This, it could be said, was the major victory for Orthodox Christianity at Nicaea. It condemned Arius’ false teaching. Unfortunately, now that the Church was so intertwined with the Empire, when the political situation changed, so did the situation in the Church change. Arianism made a comeback in the following decades, due to the fact that the new emperor held to Arian beliefs. In fact, it almost took over the entire Church. The Council of Constantinople was called to clarify a number of ambiguities.

The Council of Constantinople (AD 381)
One of the fierce opponents of Arianism was a man name Apollinarius. He was so against Arius’ idea that Christ was a mere human creature (albeit the highest creation) of the Father, that he went in completely in the other direction in his understanding of Christ. Apollinarius wanted to stress the divine nature of Christ so much that he ended up completely rejecting the idea that Christ could have had a human mind. Based on the Council of Nicaea’s declaration, Apollinarius figured that since Christ was of the same nature as the Father, and therefore was divine, that he must have had a divine mind. In other words, Apollinarius argued that although Christ had a human soul and a human body, that Christ had distinctly a divine mind.

According to Apollinarius, Christ was essentially God in a Halloween costume. He was really just God in a “human costume.” Simply put, Apollinarius went too far—and so the Council of Constantinople was convened to address, among other things, a teaching that was so against Arianism, that is ended up rushing headlong to the other extreme. Arianism essentially had denied Christ’s real divinity; Apollinarianism essentially had denied Christ’s real humanity.


The importance of the early Church councils is that they hammered out the major theological doctrines of Christianity. The reality of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit, had transformed the understanding of reality itself. And just as the New Testament writers strove to show how Christ had transformed and revolutionized their understanding of the Old Testament, the early Church Fathers strove to “translate,” if you will, the Gospel message into the language of Greek philosophy. Simply put, they used the philosophical language of the time to delve further into the mysteries of the Trinity, and to wrestle with the implications the Gospel had for understanding all of reality itself—and, quite understandably, it all was centered on understanding the person of Christ.

Now, philosophy can only take you so far, and the early Church Fathers knew this. Ultimately, it is humanly impossible to truly understand how Christ can be fully God and fully man—and so the Church’s doctrine of Christ ultimately rested on the acknowledgment that it is ultimately a mystery beyond human understanding. That is why the Church was so vigilant on addressing teachings like Arianism and Apollinarianism—both attempted to present an understanding of Christ without the mystery. Both attempted to imprison our understanding of Christ within the limitations of finite, human rationality.

But the road to hammering out the Church’s doctrine of Christ was never smooth. In fact, as we will see in the next post on the third Church Council—the Council of Ephesus in AD 431—things often got downright chaotic and nasty.


  1. What I find interesting is that if Jesus is TRULY a mystery, then none of those guys had a clue about the the true nature of Jesus. He could have been fully God with the illusion of being human, or fully human with God’s special blessing, or fully God and fully human, or 50% God and 50% human, or a Betazoid using his telepathic abilities to make people think what he wanted them to think. All that arguing and excommunicating was just an exercise in tomfoolery. If we can actually settle on the truth about Jesus’ nature, then he is no longer a mystery.

    1. Well, I don’t really delve into all the specifics of the argument, but we have to remember that it they were arguing philosophy, or more properly, theology and Christology with the philosophical language and categories of the day. The arguments weren’t really about “factual percentages” per se. The reason why the councils met was because there were those who were trying to say too much, and trying to go beyond what the Scriptures and Church Tradition had always taught. Basically, the councils were saying, “Whoa, Arius, you can’t say the Son was a mere creation of God. The Scriptures and the Church has always taught that the Son is equal to the Father, and that on some level we can’t fully understand, that Jesus Christ is God.” And then, “Whoa, Apollinarius, you can’t say that Jesus was just ‘God in a human costume.’ The Scriptures and the Church has always taught that Jesus was a real human being.”

      Therefore, the Church was intent on maintaining both, even though we can’t ever fully comprehend it: Jesus was a real human being, and he did things that only God could do. This is what the original witness of the apostolic teaching was, and Church Fathers felt their job was to preserve that original teaching.

  2. I read Jenkins’ book, as he’s a favorite author of mine. He has a great way of making complex issues interesting and readable for the average reader. Jenkins’ latest book,*Crucible of Faith,* examines the intertestamental Jewish period and argues that much in the NT came out of this intertestamental Jewish matrix.

    I also like Dr. Anderson’s survey of the Christological debates above.

    Now as for the early Church’s Christology, I think Dr. Anderson is right. They were trying to clarify and make as specific as possible what is implicit in the NT. The gospels and letters take the concept of the Trinity for granted even though that word itself is never used. For example, Jesus describes himself in terms the OT reserved for God alone, as does Paul, and both describe the Holy Spirit in decidedly Trinitarian terms however neither Jesus nor Paul explain specifically how that all works out in a practical way. The gospels and Paul say that Jesus was both fully *human* and fully *divine* but don’t bother to explain the exact details of how that works out. In fact, *nobody* in antiquity except the Ebionites seriously debated that Jesus was somehow also divine; the debate stemmed over whether, as the Gnostics insisted, via his being an “emanation ” from the true God (Gnosticism posited two, the false creator god and the true “high god”) that meant Jesus *couldn’t* be truly human; or, from the Orthodox Christian side, which of his two natures, human or divine, predominated? *Nobody* in antiquity, save the Ebionites, was comfortable with a purely human, non-divine, Jesus (just one of many ways Dan Brown dropped the ball in * The Da Vinci Code*).

    The “Early High Christology Club,” comprised of NT scholars Drs. Richard Bauckham, Larry Hurtado and Martin Hengel have made convincing arguments in their scholarly works of the last 20 years or so that the early Church had a very *high* and exalted Christology; in other words, the NT Church and earliest post-apostolic Church viewed Jesus as more than just a *human* Messiah. Thus that Jesus was both human and divine wasn’t some late add-on as many scholars used to argue fifty or sixty years ago; you can’t therefore “demythologize” the NT as Rudolf Bultmann and others tried to do, and have it make any sense.

    Pax vobiscum.


    1. Absolutely…I haven’t read much of Hengel (at least not that I remember!), but I think Bauckham and Hurtado are great. Another great one is NT Wright.

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