What is Apollinarianism, and what’s really wrong with it?
Apollinarianism is a well-known Christological heresy; a way of understanding the person of Christ that historic Christianity rejected. The orthodox Christian way of thinking about the person of Christ is summed up in the chalcedonian definition. In brief, it is that Christ is one person who is fully human and fully God. He has everything necessary for a complete human nature, and he additionally has everything necessary for a divine nature. Is Jesus a person? Yes. Is that person divine? Yes, because a person with a divine nature is a divine person. Is that person human? Yes, because a person with a human nature is a human person. But we are still only talking about one person, something possible because Christ has two natures, not just one.
Since the writers of the Chalcedonian formula were dualists about human beings (i.e. they believed that human beings consisted of a human body and a rational human soul, namely an immaterial soul), they said that Jesus had a human body and a rational soul. And because he is also divine, he had the divine Logos (that is, the eternal second person of the Trinity who had become incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth). I don’t think of human beings as consisting of a body and an immaterial soul, but I’ll set that aside for now, because all of the positions I’m discussing in this article are dualist positions.
Some Christological heresies denied that Jesus was fully divine (like Arianism). But there were two main Christological heresies that accepted the divinity of Christ. One was Nestorianism, the view that Jesus Christ is really two persons – the divine Logos and a human person. This undermines the unity of Christ. The other was Apollinarianism, a view that undermined the orthodox claim that Christ, although one person, had two natures.
[According to Apollinarius,] what came together in the incarnation, then, was the divine Logos and part of a human nature (a body).
According to Apollinarianism (named after the bishop Apollinarius), Christ did not have a complete human nature. He did not have a human body and soul, only a human body. The mind of Christ was the divine Logos. What came together in the incarnation, then, was the divine Logos and part of a human nature (a body). Without realising it, many Evangelical Christians, I think, hold to an Apollinarian view of Jesus, where the physical part is man and the immaterial part is God (whereas we mere humans, they would say, have an immaterial human soul). This is not just a view held by laypeople without realising it either. Apologist William Lane Craig openly holds this view, maintaining that from all eternity the divine Logos already had all the necessary features of a human mind, so that when the incarnation occurred, Jesus of Nazareth had a human body as well as the Logos – which doubled as the human mind, because it is the same as a human mind (and then some, being divine). Dr Craig thinks that Apollinarianism, historically, was misunderstood as teaching that Christ’s human flesh existed prior to the incarnation, which is probably not what Apollinarius really thought. Really, Apollinarianism only needed to maintain that the human mind or soul existed beforehand, namely within the divine Logos itself, in order to achieve a genuine incarnation in which Jesus is fully God and fully man, having a human body, a human mind or soul (which is in the Logos), and the Logos (which is doubt double duty as the human mind and the Logos), as follows:
In Jesus, the divine Logos took the place of the human nous and thus became embodied. As a result, in Christ God was constitutionally conjoined with man. Just as the soul and the body are essentially different but in man are combined in one human nature, so also in Christ there exists one nature composed of a part coessential with God and another part coessential with human flesh.1
I will assume here that this is the right way to construe Apollinarianism.
Orthodox Christology has always maintained that the human and divine natures in Christ cannot be peeled apart.
So what’s wrong with Apollinarianism? Firstly, it has a number of strange implications when combined with other aspects of Christian orthodoxy. Orthodox Christology has always maintained that the human and divine natures in Christ cannot be peeled apart. The unity of the person is essential. So when Jesus died on the cross and – on a dualist view – his soul left his body, what survived was not merely human or merely divine. His divine “part” did not become unattached from his human “part” and survive by itself. If his human soul survived the death of his body, it stayed “with” the divine Logos. From an Apollinarian point of view, this means that the Logos survived, and that is how his human nature survived as well, since the divine Logos contains within it the human mind. This has a striking implication. If the Apollinarian view is correct, then God did not become human in the incarnation, because the divine Logos had always been human. If the Apollinarian wants to deny this, then they will need to deny that the surviving mind of Christ after his death was human (since this is ontologically the same thing as the Logos prior to the incarnation), thereby claiming that the divine and human natures can be separated after all. But then Craig would have to acknowledge that his model does not satisfy the criteria of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. If he is to make the attempt to remain within the requirements of Orthodoxy in terms of the two natures, then, he will have to deny that Christ became human in the incarnation, a claim that itself flies in the face of what orthodox Christianity has always said.
It is one thing to think that God exists necessarily, but it is another to think that humanity exists necessarily!
It looks to me as though Apollinarianism has a second curious implication. The nature of the divine Logos, at least according to the theologians of Chalcedon, is not accidental. It is not as though it could have been some other way, but as chance would have it, the Logos turned out to be what it is. Rather, the Logos has its nature necessarily. And the Logos is “the archetypal man” on Craig’s view, because he “already possessed in his preincarnate state all the properties necessary for a human self.”2 It is one thing to think that God exists necessarily, but it is another to think that humanity exists necessarily! This, however, appears to be an implication of Apollinarianism. This implication, naturally, need not be a show-stopper. It does not present an obvious reason for an orthodox Christian to think that Apollinarianism must be false, but it is an unexpected and unusual implication nonetheless.
But whatever quirky implications Apollinarianism might have, some more problematic than others, it remains – even in its more sympathetically interpreted form – vulnerable to what was always the most serious objection. Apollinarianism is a disaster for the story of human redemption and that is the main reason why it should be rejected. Gregory Nazianzen explained that objection as follows:
If anyone has put his trust in Him as a Man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation. For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole. …
Further let us see what is their account of the assumption of Manhood, or the assumption of Flesh, as they call it. [I]f it was that He might destroy the condemnation by sanctifying like by like, then as He needed flesh for the sake of the flesh which had incurred condemnation, and soul for the sake of our soul, so, too, He needed mind for the sake of mind, which not only fell in Adam, but was the first to be affected, as the doctors say of illnesses. For that which received the command was that which failed to keep the command, and that which failed to keep it was that also which dared to transgress; and that which transgressed was that which stood most in need of salvation; and that which needed salvation was that which also He took upon Him. Therefore, Mind was taken upon Him. [emphasis added]3
The objection is often summed up with one short excerpt: “That which he has not assumed he has not healed.” If Christ brought the larger part of human nature with him into the world, assuming only a partial human nature in this world, then only that which Jesus assumed – the human body – is redeemed. The human mind was never assumed, for the Logos, on Apollinarianism, always had the only mind or soul he would ever have and it certainly did not need to be healed or redeemed. In a strange twist, this model results in a redeemed body but an unredeemed mind.
In the Incarnation, the Son of God takes to himself that which is in need of redemption, he takes it to the cross where it is put to death and it is restored in the resurrection. Apollinarianism makes this impossible. Indeed it offers no assurance that the human will is not going to turn again against God and fall back into sin in the world to come, because the human will – the human mind – has never been assumed and redeemed by Christ. While Bill Craig may have done well to call us back to a more sympathetic understanding even of those whom the Church has branded heretics, he has not redeemed Apollinarianism from the principle flaw that made it heresy in the first place.
That is what is really wrong with Apollinarianism.
- William Lane Craig and James Porter Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 599.
- Craig and Moreland, Philosophical Foundations, 608-609. I am aware that Dr Craig is on record denying, as some other theologians do, that all of God’s attributes are necessary. Some, he maintains, are accidental. But being the archetypal man surely cannot be an accidental attribute.
- Gregory Nazianzus, “To Cledonius the Priest Against Apollinarius,” Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers part 2, volume 7 (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.), 648.