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Conciliar Definitions About Christ

General Audience — March 9, 1988

"We one Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, the only begotten of the Father, that is, of the Being of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not created, one in Being with the Father, through him all things were made, both in heaven and on earth. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; he became incarnate; he was made man; he suffered death and rose again on the third day; he ascended into heaven and will come to judge the living and the dead" (cf. DS 125).

This is the text of the definition in which the Council of Nicaea (325) expressed the Church's faith in Jesus Christ: true God and true man, God the Son, one in Being with the Eternal Father, and true man, with a nature like ours. This conciliar text was adopted almost literally in the profession of faith which the Church repeats in the liturgy and on other solemn occasions, in the version of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381; cf. DS 150). The whole series of our reflections is based on this.

The text of the Council's dogmatic definition reproduces the essential elements of the biblical Christology which we have reviewed in the previous reflections of this series. From the very beginning they constituted the content of the living faith of the Church in apostolic times, as we saw in the previous reflection. Following the witness of the apostles, the Church believed and professed from the beginning that Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and therefore true man, crucified and risen, is the Son of God, the Lord (kyrios), the only Savior of the world, given to humanity in the "fullness of time" (cf. Gal 4:4).

From the beginning the Church guarded this faith and transmitted it to successive Christian generations. She taught and defended it, seeking—under the guidance of the Spirit of Truth—to study it in depth and to expound its essential content contained in the data of revelation. The Council of Nicaea (325) was a milestone on this path of knowledge and formulation of dogma. It was an important and solemn event which from then on indicated to all of Christ's followers the way of the true faith, long before the divisions of Christianity which occurred later. This Council was held shortly after the Church (in 313) had acquired freedom of action in public life throughout the Roman Empire. This indicates the will to remain in the one faith of the apostles when new ways of expansion were opening up to Christianity.

In that era, the Council's definition reflects not only the truth about Jesus Christ inherited from the apostles and fixed in the books of the New Testament, but also the teaching of the Fathers of the post-apostolic period. This was also the period of the persecutions and of the catacombs. For us it is a pleasant duty to name here at least the first two Fathers who, with their teaching joined to holiness of life, decisively contributed to handing on the Church's tradition and permanent patrimony. We mean St. Ignatius of Antioch, given as prey to the wild beasts at Rome in 107 or 106, and St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who was martyred, probably in 202. Both were bishops and pastors of their churches. Of St. Irenaeus we wish to recall here that in teaching that Christ is "true man and true God," he wrote: "How could people attain salvation if God had not accomplished their salvation on earth? Or how could man have gone to God, if God had not come to man?" (Adv. Haer., IV, 33, 4). This is a soteriological argument, as is obvious, which in its turn found expression in the definition of the Council of Nicaea.

This text of St. Irenaeus is taken from his work Adversus Haereses. Its purpose was to defend the Christian truth against the errors of heretics who, in that case, were the Ebionites. The apostolic Fathers in their teaching often had to defend the authentic revealed truth in the face of errors which were continually presenting themselves in different guises. Arius was famous at the beginning of the fourth century. He originated a heresy which was named after him, Arianism. According to Arius, Jesus Christ is not God; even though existing before his birth from Mary, he was created in time. The Council of Nicaea rejected this error of Arius, and in so doing, it expounded and formulated the true doctrine of the Church's faith which we quoted at the beginning of this reflection. Affirming that Christ, as the only-begotten Son of God, is of one Being with the Father, the Council expressed, in a formula suited to the Greek culture of the time, the truth which we find in the whole of the New Testament. We know that Jesus spoke of himself as being one with the Father ("I and the Father are one," Jn 10:30). He asserted it before his hearers who, on this account, wished to stone him as a blasphemer (cf. Jn 10:31). He affirmed it again during his trial before the Sanhedrin, and this resulted in his condemnation to death. A more detailed list of the biblical passages on this theme is found in the previous reflection. From all these taken together it clearly follows that in speaking of Christ as the Son of God, "one in Being with the Father," eternally "begotten not made," the Council of Nicaea merely confirmed a precise truth contained in divine revelation, one which has become a truth of the Church's faith, a basic truth of all Christianity.

When it was defined by the Council, everything was already mature in the Church's thought and awareness for such a definition. It can equally be said that the definition does not cease to be relevant today in the face of tendencies, both old and new, to see Christ merely as a man, however extraordinary, but not as God. To admit or support them would destroy the Christological dogma and, at the same time, it would imply the annulment of the entire Christian soteriology. If Christ is not true God, he does not transmit divine life to humanity. Therefore he is not the Savior of humanity in the sense set out by revelation and Tradition. If this truth of the Church's faith is denied, the entire edifice of Christian dogma collapses. The integral logic of the faith and Christian life is nullified, because the keystone of the whole construction is eliminated.

However, we must immediately add that by confirming this truth in a solemn and definitive way in the Council of Nicaea, the Church has simultaneously maintained, taught and defended the truth about the true humanity of Christ. Even this truth had become the object of erroneous opinions and heretical theories. In particular, we must mention here Docetism. This theory denied Christ's human nature, holding that he did not have a real body, but only an appearance of human flesh. The Docetists held that God could not have been really born of a woman, nor could he really have died on the cross. From this position of theirs it follows that, in the whole sphere of the Incarnation and redemption, we are dealing merely with an illusory body. This is in open opposition to the revelation contained in the various texts of the New Testament, among which are those of St. John, "Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" (1 Jn 4:2); "The Word was made flesh" (Jn 1:14); and of St. Paul, according to whom Christ in the flesh became "obedient to death, even to death on a cross" (Phil 2:8).

According to the Church's faith derived from revelation, Jesus Christ was true man; for this very reason his human body was animated by a truly human soul. The testimony of the apostles and evangelists is unambiguous on this point. The teaching of the primitive Church corresponds to it, as does that of the first ecclesiastical writers, such as Tertullian. He wrote, "In Christ...we find soul and body, that is, a human soul and a human body" (De carne Christi, 13, 4). However, there were contrary opinions even on this point, in particular, those of Apollinaris, Bishop of Laodicea (born about 310 at Laodicea in Syria, and died about 390), and of his followers (who were therefore known as Apollinarists). According to them Christ did not have a real human soul, because its place was taken by the Word of God. It is clear that they also denied Christ's true humanity.

Pope Damasus I (366-384) in a letter to the bishops of the East dated around 374, pointed out and at the same time rejected the errors of both Arius and of Apollinaris, "These (i.e., the Arians) posit in the Son of God an imperfect divinity, while the others (i.e., the Apollinarists) falsely affirm that the humanity of the Son of Man is incomplete. If the Son of God did not become fully man, then God's work is imperfect and our salvation is imperfect, because the whole man has not been saved! We, who know that we have been saved in the fullness of the human being, profess according to the faith of the Catholic Church that God in the fullness of his being has assumed human nature in its fullness."

This letter of Damasus, written fifty years after Nicaea, was directed principally against the Apollinarists (cf. DS 146). A few years later the First Council of Constantinople (381) condemned all the heresies of the time, including Arianism and Apollinarism. It thereby confirmed what Pope Damasus I had declared about Christ's humanity, which has by nature a real human soul (and therefore a real human intellect and free will) (cf. DS 146, 149, 151).

The Council of Nicaea explained the Incarnation with a soteriological argument, teaching that the Son, one in Being with the Father, was made man "for us men and for our salvation." This found a new expression in the defense of the integral truth about Christ, both against Arianism and Apollinarism, made by Pope Damasus and by the Council of Constantinople. In particular, in regard to those who denied the true humanity of the Son of God, that soteriological argument was presented in a new way: in order that the whole man could be saved, the entire (perfect) humanity had to be assumed in the unity of the Son: "quod non est assumptum, non est sanatum" (cf. St. Gregory Nazianzen, Ep. 101 ad Cledon.).

The Council of Chalcedon (451), in again condemning Apollinarism, completed the Nicene Creed in a certain sense by proclaiming Christ "perfect in his divinity and perfect in his humanity, true God and true man, (composed) of a rational soul and body, of the same Being with the Father by his divinity, and of the same being with us by his humanity, 'like to us in all things except sin' (cf. Heb 4:15), begotten of the Father before time began according to his divinity, and in these last times begotten for us and for our salvation of Mary, Virgin and Mother of God, according to his humanity, one and the same Christ the Lord only-begotten..." (Creed of Chalcedon, DS 301).

As can be seen, the careful elaboration of the Christological dogma carried out by the Fathers and the councils always brings us back to the mystery of the one Christ. He is the Word who became incarnate for our salvation, as it is made known to us by revelation, so that believing in him and loving him, we may be saved and have life (cf. Jn 20:31).