Virtually all I know about Apollinarius of Laodicea is that his heresy elicited a memorable response from St Gregory the Theologian: “What has not been assumed has not been healed.” (If I knew anything more—like back in seminary days—it was long ago forgotten.) So in preparation for reading the letters of St Gregory to Cledonius, I thought I’d read up a bit on Apollinarius. Goodness, I didn’t realize that in addition to being a friend of St Athanasius of Alexandria, he was also one of the most erudite theologians of the fourth century, as well as one of the most prolific. Unfortunately, the large bulk of his writings have been lost to us.
The great Anglican patristics scholar, G. L. Prestige, devotes a chapter to Apollinarius in his book Fathers and Heretics. It’s clear that Prestige admires Apollinarius, though regretting the man’s fall into heresy. He was, writes Prestige, “a heresiarch but not as one of the heresiarchs” (p. 195). Although he departed from the orthodox faith with regards to the full humanity of Christ and founded a small sect, “there was another side to him which deserves far greater credit than it usually receives, and even for his errors there is some excuse” (p. 195). Even the great Athanasius seems to have veered close to truncating our Lord’s humanity (see Christopher Beeley, The Unity of Christ, pp. 124-170). Through most of his long career, Apollinarius’s teaching was sound and clear and “probably exercised a very powerful and wholly beneficent influence on Christian thought” (Prestige, p. 195). But his contributions have long since been forgotten. He is only remembered for his heresy—Apollinarianism.
Apollinarius forthrightly asserts that the spirit or mind of the eternal Son took the place of the human mind in the person of Jesus Christ:
Christ, together with soul and body, has God for spirit, that is to say, mind. (frag. 25)
Christ is not a man, but like man, because He is not of one substance with mankind in respect to the highest directing principle of His existence. (frag. 45)
The directing principle in the constitution of the God-man is divine spirit. (frag. 32)
Jesus is not a human being in the way we are human beings. When Apollinarius says that the divine Word assumed human flesh, he means exactly that, no more, no less. Jesus Christ is most accurately described, therefore, as the God-man, for it is God who quite directly speaks and acts in human form. One cannot but be struck by how close Apollinarius come to a mythological understanding, yet I suspect that many orthodox Christians secretly think the same.
Prestige offers two arguments to explain Apollanarius’s adoption of this “extraordinary” christological position.
First, convinced that Jesus must be understood as one personal reality, Apollinarius deemed absurd the proposal that a divine mind and a human mind could cohabit in a single living being. There can only be one directing faculty in a human person. To posit two principles of action within Jesus would in fact make him into two people, a schizophrenic monstrosity. He would be “not a man but a man-god.” As Prestige explains, “Apollinarius clearly denied the human mind of Christ primarily because he could not find a place in his psychological scheme into which he could fit it” (p. 228). Apollinarius thus presents us with the theanthropic person who never enjoyed a truly human experience, who was never personally touched by the power of temptation.
Second, Apollinarius judged that the human mind was incapable of serving as an instrument of the Word because of its subservience to the flesh in a fallen world. From the moment of its creation the human soul is shaped and corrupted in its moral development by its communion with the body and the world. “A new type of mind, incapable of such subservience, had therefore to be grafted into the stock of human flesh in order to redeem mankind,” explains Prestige (p. 229). By the union of the divine spirit and the human mind, the incarnate Son avoided the deforming influence of his surrounding environment.
The incarnate consciousness of God the Son is thus clearly conceived as wholly unconditioned by the terms of His incarnation: He takes His physical envelope and orders its progress under the complete control of the indwelling deity, by this means securing its entire conformity to God and producing a human being—if we could agree with Apollinaris that the result was in any true sense a human being—both free from sin and capable of acting as the vehicle of redeeming grace to mankind. Union with a human mind could not have brought about this blessed consequence. (p. 230)
Or as Apollinarius puts it: “Every man is a part of the world, and no part of the world takes away the sin of the world, under which the world itself lies; but Christ does take it away, therefore Christ is not a man” (anaceph. 2).
How then is humanity saved by this enfleshed God? By sharing in his flesh, says Apollinarius: “His flesh quickens us through the deity embodied in it … it saves us, and we are saved by partaking of it as food” (frag. 116). Just as the human soul is corrupted by its communion with its body, so, Apollinarius suggests, the human soul is sanctified through the body when the body is deified by communion with the holy flesh of Christ.
While Apollinarius’s christology solves the problem of the personal unity of Christ, it raises critical soteriological problems. Prestige elaborates:
There can be no true salvation of human beings from within, through the regeneration of their own nature, when the Saviour Himself has no genuine human experience. If the power of Christ’s life is to be the means of re-creating our lives, by implanting in our impaired and shattered human nature the virtue of a perfect and integrated humanity, then that life of His must be fully human. We moral cripples cannot be made whole through a cripple more absolute than ourselves. The two Gregories were entirely right on that point. The elder, of Nazianzus, with clear insight and splendid rhetoric put the matter into three Greek words: “not assumed means not healed”; a half-human Saviour is only useful for a half-fallen Adam (ep. 101. 7). Indeed, the mind of man needed redemption even more than his body, for it was the mind which first consented to temptation and fell: Adam’s mind received the commandment of God and broke it, the mind therefore it was which transgressed, and consequently stood in sorest need of redemption (ib. 11). Gregory of Nyssa, dealing with a theory similar to that of Apollinaris, evokes an image not from Genesis but from St. Luke. The Good Shepherd came to seek and to save that which was lost, and carried home on His shoulders not the fleece only, but the entire sheep! (c. Eunom. 2 [vulgo]. 175 [Migne 45.545c]). (pp. 234-235)
St Gregory Nazianzen would famously respond to the Apollinarian heresy in his two epistles to Cledonius.
Prestige offers this final, sympathetic assessment of Apollinarius:
Theology, like other branches of human activity, has its tragedies, of which the story of Apollinaris affords a singularly poignant instance. For, in the main, Apollinaris was magnificently right. Jesus Christ was God and was doing God’s work; and the fact that He did it is more important than the question how. … Apollinaris devoted his life and even sacrificed his orthodoxy to the effort of defending this central and vital truth of the Gospel. He was no pagan-hearted logician, no speculator in intellectual stocks and shares, no hierophant of mystical obstinacy. He expounded with clearer penetration than any one before him the precise form of doctrine necessary in his day, and indeed for all time, to set forth the true and absolute deity of God the Son; and he first saw the greatness of the need for such a doctrine of Christ’s incarnation as should proclaim the truth of that deity in the sphere of Christ’s redemptive work and under the human form of His humiliation. Apollinaris in sober fact conferred far greater advantages on theology by his splendid orthodoxy than he caused damage by his tragic heresy. (pp. 241-242)
Doing theology in service to the gospel is a risky endeavor. New questions arise in every generation. Often one does not have the luxury of simply reiterating the formulae of one’s predecessors. The good theologian is the one who reflects creatively within the Holy Tradition. And sometimes he ends up on asserting a position that the Church subsequently determines to be heretical. Lord, have mercy upon us.