Talking Too Long: Apollinarius, Nestorius, and… Heresy


I’ll never forget my first sermon preached at the Inverness Vineyard in Hoover, Ala. I fidgeted my way through the worship time, and felt that icy ball hit the pit of my stomach as I was called forward to begin my time. Just as I started up from my seat, a friend tapped me on the shoulder, and whispered, with a sadistic grin on his face, I might add, “Just don’t deny the Trinity, brother.” It sometimes seems that any attempt to “preach the Gospel, in season and out” is wrought with possibilities for misstatement, misinterpretation, and yes, outright heresy.

That failure is no where seen with all its inherent danger as in the work of the three gentlemen in question here. Within the works reviewed here there are moments of brilliance, flashes of glory; which are often followed or following Homer Simpsonic moments of “do-uhp.” Within Apollinarius’ On the Union of Christ, for example, he wrote that “for humankind is involved in being sanctified, there is sanctification and embodiment as well, and through the two things are distinct, they are one…” (106).To this point what has been mentioned was standard theory. As Tertullian stated there are two natures in one person, and the oneness of these two attributes brought sanctification to the human race. Yet Apollinarius pressed on continuing, “by reason of the flesh with the Godhead…” (106). The remainder of the statement returned to the main of the orthodox theory of theosis (similar to that Athanasius et al).

To be fair to Apollinarius on its own merits the middle statement could be interpreted as standard fare for the Alexandrian Logos-Flesh theology; yet, it is his working-out of this Logos- Flesh merger that presented the oblivious problem. He had stated previously that the “Word contributes a special energy to the whole together with divine perfection” (104). Here he has stated that the Logos takes on a part of the human side in conjuction with the divine side (meaning that some part of the human side of Jesus was not so human). This seemingly bland statement becomes a blaring alarm upon a closer reading. Perhaps no more damning statement is found other than that Christ is “God made manifest in a created garment” (104). The flesh is there but in small part and parcel of the larger and more important divine side. This minor nuance was enough to take the work over the bounds of orthodoxy. It was a small ‘but,” but a ‘but’ that loomed large in closer inspection.

Another example may be found in the writing of Nestorius. His initial address tracked well as he sought to defend the eternal divinity of Christ. Eternal God truly was born as a human, he argued against all comers, “A creature did not produce the creator, rather she gave birth to the human being” (125). To wit this is just good preaching as those in the Logos-Human church might say. He went on preaching and preaching well by his remark that “Christ assumed the person of the debt-ridden nature and by its mediation paid the debt back” (127). This was all well and good, but questions do remain about what all this looked like, and so an explanation was added that this human being was “the instrument of the Godhead…. he was formed out of the Virgin a temple for God, a temple in which he dwelt” (125). Later he would slip into the same mire as Apollinarius by stating that “our nature, having been put on by Christ like a garment, intervenes on our behalf” (128). If not for the prepositional clauses, these statements would have passed muster; however, here it was no more certain that the devil was truly in the details.

This author agreed with Nestorius that “the teaching of true religion is the aim of those in the church who are gifted with insight, and the teaching of true religion is the knowledge of providence” (123). However I can also agree with Cyril that what they said was truly “ill-advised” (131). The words of Cyril loomed large as he proclaimed that “we say that in an unspeakable and incomprehensible way, the Logos… became a human being” which he defined as “flesh enlivened by a rational soul” (133). The words are often unspeakable; yet there are spoken, and there was the rub. The words of my friend often stick with me as I step forward to the lectern. Every time I step forward into the pulpit, those words ring through me as I pray, “Dear God, have mercy on me today. And please do not let me be a heretic today.” Explaining the unexplainable is not a job choice with a long life expectancy, except for that divine providence of which Nestorius talked. We all can and should remember that there but for the grace of God go we all.

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