Who Do You Say That I Am?
Jesus once asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" They answered that all sorts of stories were circulating — that he was a prophet, perhaps Elijah or John the Baptist come back to earth. "But," he asked, "Who do you say that I am?" Over the past two thousand years, Christians have formulated many different answers to this question. Yes, most believe Jesus was a human being, but at the same time he was also God, one of the three persons of the Trinity. He was both God and man.
But when we have said that, we have raised more questions than we have answered, as the basic belief in Jesus Christ demands combining two utterly different categories of being. Such a transgression of boundaries puzzles and shocks believers of other faiths, especially strict monotheists such as Muslims and Jews. But even those Christians who accept the basic concept probably could not explain it with anything like the precision demanded by early church councils. By those rigorous standards, virtually all modern nonspecialists (including many clergy) would soon lapse into grave heresy. . . .
So was Jesus a Man-bearing God, or a God-bearing man? Between those extreme poles lay any number of other answers, which competed furiously through the first Christian centuries. By 400, most Christians agreed that Jesus Christ was in some sense divine, and that he had both a human nature (Greek, physis) and a divine nature. But that belief allowed for a wide variety of interpretations, and if events had developed differently — if great councils had decided other than they actually did — any one of these various approaches might have established itself as orthodoxy. In the context of the time, cultural and political pressures were pushing strongly toward the idea of Christ-as-God, so that only with real difficulty could the memory of the human Jesus be maintained. Historically, it is very remarkable that mainstream orthodoxy came out so strongly in favor of asserting Christ's full humanity.
And yet it did just that. When most modern churches explain their understanding of Christ's identity — their Christology — they turn to a common body of ready-made interpretations, an ancient collection of texts laid down in the fifth century. At a great council held in 451 at Chalcedon (near modern Istanbul), the church formulated the statement that eventually became the official theology of the Roman Empire. This acknowledges Christ in two natures, which joined together in one person. Two natures existed, "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."
We cannot speak of Christ without declaring his full human nature, which was not even slightly diluted or abolished by the presence of divinity. That Chalcedonian definition today stands as the official formula for the vast majority of Christians, whether they are Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox — although how many of those believers could explain the definition clearly is open to debate. But as we are told, Chalcedon settled any controversy about the identity of Christ, so that henceforward any troublesome passages in the Bible or early tradition had to be read in the spirit of those powerful words. For over 1,500 years now, Chalcedon has provided the answer to Jesus' great question.
But Chalcedon was not the only possible solution, nor was it an obvious or, perhaps, a logical one. Only the political victory of Chalcedon's supporters allowed that council's ideas to become the inevitable lens through which later generations interpret the Christian message. It remains quite possible to read the New Testament and find very different Christologies, which by definition arose from churches very close to Jesus' time, and to his thought world. In particular, we easily find passages that suggest that the man
Jesus achieved Godhood at a specific moment during his life, or indeed after his earthly death.
In political terms, the most important critics of Chalcedon were those who stressed Christ's one divine nature, and from the Greek words for "one nature," we call them Monophysites. Not only were Monophysites numerous and influential, but they dominated much of the Christian world and the Roman Empire long after Chalcedon had done its work, and they were only defeated after decades of bloody struggle. Centuries after Chalcedon, Monophysites continued to prevail in the most ancient regions of Christianity, such as Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. The heirs of the very oldest churches, the ones with the most direct and authentic ties to the apostolic age, found their distinctive interpretation of Christ ruled as heretical. Pedigree counted for little in these struggles.
Each side persecuted its rivals when it had the opportunity to do so, and tens of thousands — at least — perished. Christ's nature was a cause for which people were prepared to kill and to die, to persecute or to suffer martyrdom. Modern Christians rarely feel much sympathy for either side in such bygone religious wars. Did the issues at stake really matter enough to justify bloodshed? Yet obviously, people at the time had no such qualms and cared passionately about how believers were supposed to understand the Christ they worshipped. Failing to understand Christ's natures properly made nonsense of everything Christians treasured: the content of salvation and redemption, the character of liturgy and Eucharist, the figure of the Virgin Mary. Each side had its absolute truth, faith in which was essential to salvation.
Horror stories about Christian violence abound in other eras, with the Crusades and Inquisition as prime exhibits; but the intra- Christian violence of the fifth- and sixth-century debates was on a far larger and more systematic scale than anything produced by the Inquisition and occurred at a much earlier stage of church history. When Edward Gibbon wrote his classic account of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he reported countless examples of Christian violence and fanaticism. This is his account of the immediate aftermath of Chalcedon:
Jerusalem was occupied by an army of [Monophysite] monks; in the name of the one incarnate Nature, they pillaged, they burnt, they murdered; the sepulchre of Christ was defiled with blood. . . . On the third day before the festival of Easter, the [Alexandrian] patriarch was besieged in the cathedral, and murdered in the baptistery. The remains of his mangled corpse were delivered to the flames, and his ashes to the wind; and the deed was inspired by the vision of a pretended angel. . . . This deadly superstition was inflamed, on either side, by the principle and the practice of retaliation: in the pursuit of a metaphysical quarrel, many thousands were slain.
Chalcedonians behaved at least as badly in their campaigns to enforce their particular orthodoxy. In the eastern city of Amida, a Chalcedonian bishop dragooned dissidents, to the point of burning them alive. His most diabolical scheme involving taking lepers, "hands festering and dripping with blood and pus," and billeting them on the Monophysite faithful until they saw reason.
Even the Eucharist became a vital component of religious terror. Throughout the long religious wars, people were regularly (and frequently) reading others out of the church, declaring formal anathemas, and the sign for this was admitting or not admitting people to communion. In extreme episodes, communion was enforced by physical violence, so that the Eucharist, which is based upon ideas of self-giving and self-sacrifice, became an instrument of oppression. A sixth-century historian records how the forces of Constantinople's Chalcedonian patriarch struck at Monophysite religious houses in the capital. Furnished with supplies of consecrated bread, the patriarch's clergy were armed and dangerous. They "dragged and pulled [the nuns] by main force to make them receive the communion at their hands. And they all fled like birds before the hawk, and cowered down in corners, wailing and saying, 'We cannot communicate with the synod of Chalcedon, which divides Christ our God into two Natures after the union, and teaches a Quaternity instead of the Holy Trinity.'" But their protests were useless. "They were dragged up to communicate; and when they held their hands above their heads, in spite of their screams their hands were seized, and they were dragged along, uttering shrieks of lamentation, and sobs, and loud cries, and struggling to escape. And so the sacrament was thrust by force into the mouths of some, in spite of their screams, while others threw themselves on their faces upon the ground, and cursed every one who required them to communicate by force." They might take the Eucharist kicking and screaming — literally — but once they had eaten, they were officially in communion with Chalcedon and with the church that preached that doctrine.
Reprinted from Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years by Philip Jenkins. Copyright 2010. With permission of the publisher, HarperOne.