A few years ago, a friend wrote to me from Jakarta. His pastor taught that Christ’s humanity is uncreated, which bothered him, because he had always believed that Christ has a human soul that is created. However, he was unsure about his own view, for logically it would lead to the conclusion that Christ has two minds—one divine and the other human—which worried him because it sounded like a heresy known as Nestorianism (the false doctrine that Christ is two persons rather than two natures in one person). In my response, I assured my friend that according to the Definition of Chalcedon, Christ does indeed possess a creaturely, “rational soul” in his humanity. It was instead the denial of Christ’s possession of a creaturely soul/will/mind that was condemned by Ecumenical Council in the Seventh Century. This kind of heresy is known as “monothelitism” (from the Greek prefix for ‘one’ and word for ‘will’: Christ has only one will—the divine will).
Apollinarianism, named after Apollinaris, bishop of Laodicea in the Fourth Century, is a proto-monothelitism denying that Christ has a rational soul in his human nature. This article will demonstrate how Apollinarian patterns of thought are reflected through various aspects of the life of contemporary Chinese churches. By “Apollinarian patterns of thought” I mean a tendency to stress the deity and transcendence of Christ’s person at the expense of his true and full humanity consubstantial with us.
Apollinarism and Its Implications
As mentioned, Apollinarianism is a kind of monothelitism denying Christ’s possession of a creaturely mind (in what follows, I will use the word ‘mind’ synonymously with the term ‘rational soul’). Positing that the human mind is the seat of sin and is necessarily sinful while attempting to uphold Christ’s sinlessness, Apollinaris argues that Christ’s humanity consists only of a physical body and a non-rational soul (that is, the lower parts of the soul, including emotions and instincts). Thus Apollinaris practically rejects Christ’s full and true humanity, denying that Christ is of the same nature or substance with us in his humanity (what Apollinaris practically negates is an important dogma known as ‘consubstantiality,’ or, in Greek, homoousion: Christ is of the same substance with us in his humanity, like unto us in all things, except without sin; and of the same substance with the Father in his deity, possessing the fulness of divine nature).
One scholar from the last century observes that Apollinarism “destroys [Christ’s] representative capacity as Man before God. Hence worship of God cannot be through Christ.” Furthermore, if Christ did not possess a creaturely mind, it would have been impossible for our creaturely sins that sprang forth from our minds to be counted as Christ’s. This would mean that Christ could not have taken on our sins and suffered God’s punishment in our place. There thus remains a “considerable gap” between God and humanity, and without our union with Christ, “worship of God does not take place in Christ.” This implies that Apollinarism is unable to deal with the problem of sin because according to it Christ “did not take up into himself without sin that which had sinned intellectually, namely the soul.” Thus, Apollinarism divorces “worship of God from the redemption of the human soul where it is so deeply in need of salvation within the depth of its struggle with sin.” In fact, the salvation of the whole human person through the “reconciling exchange of Christ” would be impossible if Christ did not have a human mind. In dissolving our mental union with Christ, “worship cannot be thought of as taking place with Christ.”
In short, Apollinarism destroys the saving significance of the incarnation by cutting off the only possible bridge between God and humankind, namely, the true and full deity and humanity of Christ. As a result, Apollinarism “had no place for [Christ’s] priesthood or human mediation in our worship of the Father, and by the same token it took away the ground for any worship of God with our human minds.”
Note that this twentieth-century critic of Apollinarism consistently points out that this heresy cannot lead to true worship of God. This is of utmost significance, because, in the dear words of my beloved master, good old J. I. Packer, “the purpose of theology is doxology.” If a brand of theology does not lead to true worship, it is false theology.
Cyril of Alexandria
One definitive rejoinder to Apollinarism in the Early Church came from Cyril of Alexandria (late Fourth Century into the Fifth Century A.D., who died just years before the Council of Chalcedon). According to Patristics scholar J. N. D. Kelly, Cyril thought it most necessary to oppose Apollinaris (contra Roger Olson who mistakenly thinks that the two theologians stood on the same line simply because they were both Alexandrians), though, unlike Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril did not write any major treatise to refute Apollinaris.
Cyril’s basic starting point is the understanding of the incarnate God as creaturely man: the Son of God assumed true and full humanity that is consubstantial with ours, creaturely as ours, with a rational soul just like ours except without sin, and in this one incarnate person the one and the same Son acts from two sides: from the side of God towards humankind and from the side of humankind towards God, as he is at once God and human.
Cyril insists that Christ worships God as a human being with a human mind, and not as a subordinate deity. One Jakarta-based Chinese church leader of our day has argued that no part of Christ, not even his humanity, is created, because Christ is our object of worship, whereas no creature may be worshipped. Cyril would flip him on his head and ask: were Christ not truly and fully a creature while being truly and fully the uncreated Creator, how could he have been our High Priest, that is, one who worships the Uncreated? The Uncreated cannot be a worshipper; only the creature may worship the Creator. Thus, the biblical description of Christ as both the worshipped and the worshipper implies that he is both uncreated Creator and created human being. It is in this way that his mediatorial role in worship is fulfilled: as creaturely human he offers up worship on our behalf, with himself as both High Priest and sacrifice, and by our union with Christ through the Holy Spirit, we participate in his worship of the Father.
Our “union with Christ in worship” of which Cyril speaks includes a “mental union.” One scholar comments: “Christian worship is offered in and through the [human] Mind of Christ.” He identifies this as “the essence of our worship of the Father through the Son,” for “it is only on the ground of this mental union between us and Christ that He can be said to carry up the mind of believers into God.” The ground of this “mental union” with Christ is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit—an important notion in Reformed theology—hence the phrase “in the Holy Spirit” in the Athanasian formula: Christ sends his Spirit to indwell us as the “bond of unity” between Christ and us, such that Christ is in us and we in Christ through the Holy Spirit. It is in this way that our theology, that is, our knowledge of God in, through, and with Christ by the Holy Spirit, may lead to true worship of the Triune God. Apollinarianism, as we have seen, cannot achieve this because of its practical denial of Christ’s true and full humanity.
Apollinarian Patterns of Thought in Chinese Churches Today
Many Chinese churches in our day exhibit implicitly Apollinarian patterns of thought by exalting Christ’s eternality and deity at the expense of his true and full humanity. The recent doctrinal confusion denying the creatureliness of Christ’s humanity that came into the spotlight through the aforementioned Jakarta-based Chinese church leader is an example—it echoes Apollinaris’s claim that Christ does not possess a creaturely mind.
Upholding the deity of Christ at the expense of his humanity in such an Apollinarian spirit would create a gulf between Christ and the rest of humanity. According to Nicene-Chalcedonian orthodoxy and historic Reformation theology, the Mediator between God and humankind must be the union of full and true deity and humanity in one person, for if the Mediator were wholly God but not wholly human, then the divine-human “ontological divide” (as one contemporary theologian likes to put it), let alone the gulf of sin, would persist between humankind and the Mediator himself, and this gap would need to be bridged by yet another mediatorial agent.
That is, if Christ were fully and truly God without at the same time being truly and fully human, then there would still be an infinite gulf between Christ and us, requiring us to be mediated to Christ by yet another agent such as, say, the Virgin Mary. This explains why at some point in history, what is now called the Roman Catholic Church began seeking some kind of a mediator to Christ in agents such as the Virgin Mary and the intercession of the saints: this, too, exhibits Apollinarian patterns of thought that somehow found its way into the Latin churches during the Middle Ages.
In many Chinese churches today, the same Apollinarian spirit has led to an opposite result. When we undermine the full and true humanity of Christ, neglecting or even denying his possession of a creaturely and rational mind, we have also come to forget the truth that Christ in his creaturely humanity offered up himself as sacrifice, so that in and with him we may also come to worship God. We forget that the gulf of sin still separates sinners from God, that we are still sinners, and that only by Christ’s mediation can we come before God. Thus in our churches we sing praises to God without sufficiently high regard for the Lord’s Supper, which is the spiritual sign and seal of our participation in the Mediator Jesus Christ. (In the good old days, John Calvin used insist that the Lord’s Supper be observed at least every Sunday, if one could not receive it every day). In an average Chinese church today, usually the Lord’s Supper is observed only once a month—for Calvin that would have been horrendous.
Similarly, Word and Sacrament, as well as preaching and worship, in many conservative Evangelical Chinese churches, especially ones that identify themselves as Reformed, have grown into disproportion, partly because of implicit—and in some cases explicit—Apollinarian patterns of thought among these churches. Recall that for Cyril, the rational, creaturely soul of Christ is so crucial because it ensures that our human, creaturely reason can be united to Christ in worship. Put another way, theology as a rational activity can lead to worship precisely because our creaturely reason is united to the creaturely mind of Christ. Conversely, to emphasise our participation in Christ’s creaturely mind is to stress that the purpose of theology is doxology. Yet, in conservative Evangelical Chinese churches today, it is often the other way around: doxology often becomes subservient to theology. The standard length of a sermon in an average Evangelical Chinese church would range from 45 minutes to an hour—longer than even the notoriously lengthy Presbyterian sermons in the West today—and usually it is the case with Evangelical Chinese churches that the purpose of worship, usually just 15 to 30 minutes in length, is to prepare the congregation for listening to the Word of God preached. This one-sided emphasis on the centrality of the Word is part and parcel of the marginalisation of sacrament and liturgy in the vast majority of conservative Evangelical Chinese churches today: doxology is no longer the purpose of theology, but rather theology has been made the purpose of doxology.
There are, of course, many Chinese churches today—not just Charismatic ones but also the less conservative among Evangelical churches (in Chinese usage, the terms ‘Charismatic’ and ‘Evangelical’ often tend to be mutually exclusive)—that exhibit an opposite tendency to marginalise the Word and fill their worship services with emotional “singspiration” or “praise and worship.” I would venture to posit that this also has to do with implicitly Apollinarian patterns of thought characteristic of a vast majority of Chinese churches: as the mind of Christ is undermined in worship, one twentieth-century theologian observes, “the noetic character of the liturgy as ‘rational service’ progressively faded into the background,” and a “detachment of worship from theology” occurs.
Contemporary “praise and worship”—not just in Chinese churches but in the West as well—often tends to seek to overcome the lack of Christ’s mediatorial role in their worship services by undermining God’s utter transcendence. That is, they tend to think that the Most Holy Place is not such a dreadful place to enter without a High Priest.
The lyrics of a praise-and-worship song popular in both East and West today make the point clear:
When the music fades, all is stripped away,
And I simply come; longing just to bring
Something that’s of worth, that will bless Your heart.
I’ll bring you more than a song,
For a song in itself is not what You have required.
You search much deeper within, through the way things appear;
You’re looking into my heart.
These lyrics betray a widespread Evangelical attitude in worship today, namely, the notion that believers themselves are offerers of worship, and the content of offering is not Christ but human emotions. Several points can be observed here. First, the mediatorial role of Christ is scarcely found in Evangelical “praise-and-worship” songs today (there are exceptions of course, such those wonderful songs written by Keith and Kristyn Getty). Second, the rational element—the “mind”—in worship is lost: the centrality of the worshipping mind of Christ is replaced by human emotions. Third, this style of worship is detached from the overall conservative theology of Evangelicalism, which stresses the transcendence and wrath of God, and the penal nature of Christ’s substitutionary atonement.
The implicitly Apolliniarian patterns of thought that I have identified thus far is reflected not only in various, and often conflicting, liturgical practices among many Chinese churches today, but also shown in a more rational-theological attitude among many Chinese Christians. At the beginning of the article I mentioned a Chinese-Indonesian Christian from Jakarta. This good Christian, friend and brother of mine, is well in line with Nicene-Chalcedonian orthodoxy in his belief that Christ’s human soul was created. However, he was uncertain about this belief, because he was brought up in a church in which believers are unintentionally trained to be afraid of emphasising Christ’s true and full humanity. In particular, my friend was afraid that his belief in the creatureliness of Christ’s human soul might lead to the conclusion that Christ has two wills and two minds, one divine and one human.
For many Chinese Christians, their religious instinct is to find such a conclusion unacceptable. They fear that it might tear apart Christ’s one divine person, rendering him schizophrenic, as it were. But, one may ask: is this note precisely one of Apollinaris’s fears? Apollinaris wanted to ensure that Christ is fully and truly God, and, in an effort to steer away from the heresies of Arianism, which emphasised Christ’s humanity by compromising His deity, Apollinaris went too far in the opposite direction, denying Christ’s possession of a creaturely mind, the “rational soul” in his human nature. One might ask, are those Chinese Christians who deny the creatureliness of Christ’s human nature not akin to Apollinaris’s one-sided concern to safeguard the deity of Christ at the expense of his humanity?
In response to my friend from Jakarta who expressed his worries in holding to the belief that Christ’s human soul was created, I offered the following reassurance—and herewith I conclude this rather lengthy article:
Indeed your position would lead to the conclusion that Jesus has two souls/wills/minds—but that is exactly the position that the Nicene-Chalcedonian Fathers decided to adopt! And no, it does not lead to Nestorianism or any other heresy. Quite the contrary, there was a heresy known as “monothelitism,” which holds that Jesus only had one soul/will/mind, divine and not human. Ecumenical Council of the Seventh Century decided that this was a heresy. One form of proto-monothelitism that became prominent early on was Apollinarianism, named after Apollinaris, bishop of Laodicea in the Fourth Century. Apollinaris was a staunch opponent of Arianism, and had a high view of Christ’s divine nature. However, Apollinaris exalted Christ’s divine nature at the expense of His human nature, asserting that Christ’s humanity did not include a rational soul, but only a lower soul (emotions and instincts).
You mentioned Nestorianism. Interestingly, one great Nicene Father who was a staunch opponent of Nestorianism was Cyril of Alexandria. While Cyril opposed Nestorius’s Antiochene emphasis on Christ’s humanity, however, the Alexandrian Father had another theological opponent, and that was his fellow Alexandrian, Apollinaris. For Cyril, Apollinaris compromised Christ’s full humanity to the extent that Christ was without a rational soul and thus, implicitly, was not consubstantial with us. Cyril agrees with Apollinaris that the rational soul is the “seat of sin,” but unlike Apollinaris, Cyril argues that without a rational soul, Christ could not have imputed unto himself our sins as a true human being, and thus could not have been our Mediator. According to the Definition of Chalcedon that relied heavily on Cyril’s Christology, Christ possesses a “rational soul” in His humanity. Therefore, rest assured, your position is well in line with the historic orthodoxy of the holy universal Church.