NATURE OF CHRIST
Christian churches are split into two groups regarding the union of the divine and human nature in Jesus Christ. The non-Chalcedonian, including the Coptic, Syrian, Armenian, Ethiopian, and Indian Orthodox churches, reject the decisions of the Council of CHALCEDON (A.D. 451); the Chalcedonian churches, including the Roman Catholic, Greek, and Protestant churches, accept the council’s decisions.
The firm position of the Coptic church, with other non- Chalcedonian churches, is that Christ is perfect in His divinity and in His humanity, which is different from saying that He is both God and man, as this statement implies a separation between His divinity and His humanity. He is the incarnate God, and in Him divinity and humanity are fully and perfectly united in essence, hypostasis, and nature. Ever since the Logos (the Word of God) dwelt inside the blessed Virgin Mary, the second hypostasis of the Holy Trinity, that is, the Son, acquired human flesh with a human soul, and was united with the humanity taken from the Virgin Mary.
Thus He Who was born of the Virgin Mary is the incarnate God, one essence, one person, one hypostasis, one nature. The union of divinity and humanity in Christ is not a form of combination, commingling, or joining, but a union in the fullest sense of the word. It would then be erroneous to say that in Christ there were two natures, which is not compatible with real or genuine union. In this one nature of Christ, as a result of this union, there are human attributes and divine attributes, together without mingling, confusion, or change.
There is nothing innovative in the Coptic church’s stand regarding this fundamental point, nor is there any departure from the teachings of the fathers, such as ATHANASIUS I, CYRIL I, and BASIL THE GREAT, who had formulated their views long before the subject was discussed in Chalcedon.
Until at least the middle of the fourth century, the church of Rome held the same view as the church of Alexandria, as is evident from the letters of Pope Julius (341-352) to Bishop Dionysius of Cyprus. Relying on various testimonies from the Gospel and the Epistles, he confirms that He Who was born of the Virgin Mary, and called the Only One by Whom everything was, is of one nature, one person, and adds that divinity and humanity are one, indivisible into two natures.
While the New Testament is abundantly clear on the issue of the one nature of Christ, nowhere can we get a genuine clue to the duality of His nature.
The Gospel of Saint John speaks of the Word becoming flesh (Jn. 1:14). The verb “become” is the most unambiguous term denoting real union between the divinity and humanity of Christ. Hence He Who was born of the Virgin Mary has one nature, that of incarnate God.
The words of Jesus Christ, “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven” (Jn. 3:13), do not have the slightest hint of duality.
“Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn. 8:58). The purport of these words, spoken by the human Christ, indicates divine eternity. “I am” is evidence of the unity of nature in the incarnate Logos.
Speaking to the elders of the church who met him in Ephesus, Saint Paul says, “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you guardians, to feed the church of God which He obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). If there is any sense of duality in the nature of Jesus Christ, how then can Saint Paul refer here to the blood which redeemed the church as God’s blood?
To the Corinthians, Saint Paul writes, “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8), which is further confirmation that Christ, had one nature, that of the incarnate God. The Epistle to the Hebrews states, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Heb. 13:8). The name Jesus was given to the Logos after the Incarnation, yet the divine quality of immortality is a prerogative of the incarnate Logos.
In Revelation (1:17,18) we read, “I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold, I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.” The pronoun “I” used here cannot refer to any duality, but to real oneness, the one nature of the incarnate Son of God.
If we were to separate Christ’s divinity from His humanity, the whole basis of Christianity, that is, the idea of expiation and redemption, would surely collapse. Christ’s redemption is divine, not human. Hence Saint Paul’s words, “who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).
It cannot be denied that “divinity” cannot die or shed blood, but “humanity” can and did. But because of the union of divinity with humanity, such a death was divine, and such blood was divine. So was Christ’s redemption.
According to the doctrine of the Coptic church, and other traditionalist churches, the Virgin Mary is the Mother of God, as defined by the holy fathers in the third Council of EPHESUS (431). This appellation can only hold good on the basis of non- Chalcedonian teaching: the perfect union of Jesus Christ’s divinity and humanity, as the Virgin Mary would not be considered to have given birth only to Christ’s humanity, to the exclusion of his divinity. The Virgin Mary is rightly named Mother of God, as Elizabeth said, “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk. 1:43).
Some church historians believed that the doctrines held by Pope DIOSCORUS I (444-458) and EUTYCHES the heresiarch were analogous. The confusion arose from the fact that Dioscorus presided over the second Council of Ephesus (449), which acquitted Eutyches after his admission in writing that he concurred with the views of the traditional fathers of the church. It is possible that Eutyches reneged after his acquittal and reversed his stand.
Dioscorus had consented to the acquittal only after all the other members of the council, including the bishop of Jerusalem, had acquitted him. Further evidence of the position of Dioscorus on this matter is later given by his statement in the Council of Chalcedon that if Eutyches, who had renounced the Orthodox teaching as incorporated in the document he submitted to the second Council of Ephesus, was now propagating some new ideas concerning the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ, he deserved not merely to be punished, but to be burnt alive.
Whereas Eutyches maintained that Christ’s manhood “vanished” into His divine nature and that the two became one after the union in the incarnate Christ, Dioscorus believed in the union of His divinity and humanity throughout, without mingling, confusion, or alteration. Eutyches evaded giving a clear admission that Christ was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary—a belief that Dioscorus vigorously defended.
Eutyches denied that the humanity of Christ was consubstantial with ours. Dioscorus not only firmly acknowledged His incarnation of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary but also reiterated his views in a letter sent from his exile.
In the Council of Chalcedon, which ended by deposing him, Dioscorus spoke of his unshakable belief in the doctrine of the holy apostolic church, of his thoughts being all focused on his Creator, and of his being concerned with one thing only: safeguarding the upright faith of the church.
The deposition of Dioscorus, however, occurred not because of direct theological differences, but because he had excommunicated Pope LEO THE GREAT of Rome. In his work Histoire des Conciles (1907, p. 53), the historian K. J. Hefele states that the archbishop of Constantinople said that Dioscorus had not been deposed because of his faith but because he had excommunicated the pope.
Nevertheless, the Coptic church held fast to its deposed patriarch who so adamantly defended its faith, not choosing a successor for Dioscorus until after his death. TIMOTHY II (458-480), the new pope, fought equally valiantly, and met with a similar fate. He was exiled by Marcian again to the island of Gangra where he remained until he was restored to his see by the new emperor, Basiliscus (475- 477).
He traveled to Constantinople to offer his thanks to the emperor, and there he held a council, convened by imperial summons and attended by 500 bishops. It repudiated the Council of Chalcedon and the Eutychian heresy, and reaffirmed the faith as established by the previous Councils of NICAEA, CONSTANTINOPLE, and EPHESUS.
The Coptic church has thus remained faithful to the principles that were established by the early fathers, unwilling to relinquish any of their teachings, and in the words of G. Krüger (1926, p. 814) trying “to keep to the lines marked out in the theology of Cyril. This was the case, e.g., with Timotheus Aelurus, and, above all, with Severus of Antioch.”
[See also: Monophysitism.]
- Gregorios, Bp. The Christological Teaching of the Non- Chalcedonian Churches. Cairo, 1963.
- Gregorios, P.; W. H. Lazareth; and N. A. Nissiotis. Does Chalcedon Divide or Unite? Towards Convergence in Orthodox Christology. Geneva, 1981.