St Gregory the Theologian and the Apollinarian Nonsense

gregory-of-nazianzus_zpsbc53c98bA God-man without a human mind—that appears to have been the view advanced by Apollinarius in the late 4th century. I suppose it makes some kind of sense. If the divine spirit effectively substitutes for the human mind in Jesus of Nazareth, then the kinds of questions that have bothered theologians for over two millennia are resolved: How is Jesus united to the eternal Word? No problem. He simply is the Word, cloaked in mortal flesh. Was Jesus truly tempted to abandon his divine mission? How could he have been? His divine mind was, and is, beyond all temptation. With one stroke the Apollinarian christology resolves all the problems of how to unite Jesus to the Creator, without any appeal to mystery or paradox. To those acquainted with the stories of Zeus and the other Olympian gods disguising themselves in human forms, it would have seemed an attractive position.

But to St Gregory the Theologian, it was shocking nonsense, hardly worthy of serious response: “Whoever has set his hope on a human being without mind is actually mindless himself and unworthy of being saved in his entirety,” he writes to Cledonius (Ep. 101.5). That Jesus was fully and completely human was simply obvious to Gregory. Who could think otherwise? But this was not just a matter of historical judgment. Gregory knew that Jesus needed to have been fully and completely human if God’s soteriological purposes were, and are, to be fulfilled:

The unassumed is the unhealed, but what is united with God is also being saved. Had half of Adam fallen, what was assumed and is being saved would have been half too; but if the whole fell he is united to the whole of what was born and is being saved wholly. They are not, then, to begrude us our entire salvation or to fit out a Savior with only bones and sinews and the picture of a human being. … If he has a soul, but if he has no mental consciousness, can he be human? Man is not an animal without mind! The form, “the tabernacle,” must have been human, but the soul might be a horse’s soul or a cow’s or some other unintelligent beast’s. That, at any rate, will be what is being saved! (Ep. 101.5)

If humanity is to be saved, then it is necessary that God unite himself to human nature in its totality. “‘But the Godhead made up for the mind,’ they say. So what is that to me?” God walking around disguised in physical flesh is of no interest to Gregory. Half an incarnation is little better than no incarnation at all, for it fails to redeem that faculty of mankind which is most essential. Gregory continues: “Godhead with only flesh, or even with only soul, or with both of them, is not man if lacking mind which is the even better part of man” (Ep. 101.6). Here he touches on the crucial difference between himself and Apollinarius. For Gregory the healing and deification of humanity depends upon God’s assumption of human existence. Why this must be so he does not really explain in his letters to Cledonius. One would need to read his orations to get a better grasp of Gregory’s thinking; but it all has to do with the transformation and deification of humanity. As Donald Winslow puts it: “The unity of Christ’s person, for Gregory, is theosis” (quoted in Christopher A. Beeley, Gregory of Nazianzus, p. 147).

Gregory is astounded that Apollinarius does not see the salvific necessity of God uniting to himself the human mind. Not only did the human mind fall “in Adam,” but it was the faculty that was responsible for Adam’s fall and is responsible for continuing human sin. “The very thing that had accepted the commandment,” Gregory states, “did not keep the commandment. The very thing that did not keep it ventured its transgression. The very thing that transgressed stood in special need of salvation” (Ep. 101.9). Gregory is not imposing his own logic upon the gospel. He is, rather, arguing from the experience and reality of the gift that the baptized have already received: “The very thing that needed salvation was assumed. Therefore mind was assumed” (101.9). By exempting the human mind from deifying union, Apollinarius cuts out that constituent of human nature that is in most need of healing. How could God not have assumed a human mind, Gregory asks? Would a doctor heal an injured foot yet ignore a damaged eye? If God could have accomplished the redemption of humanity by merely assuming a physical body, as Apollinarius claims, then he could just as easily have accomplished the redemption without any incarnation at all—a mere decision of will would have sufficed (Ep. 101.10).

Gregory then zeroes in on the presupposition underlying the Apollinarian argument—namely, the belief that the assumption of a human mind by the Word is impossible. The divine spirit and the human spirit cannot cohabit the same body. If Jesus is truly the divine Son, then his interior life and consciousness must be divine:

“But he does not have room for two complete things,” they say, well, no, since you are looking at them from a bodily point of view. A pint-sized pot does not have room for a quart, and space for one body will not accommodate two or more bodies. But if you are looking at them as things ideal and incorporeal, notice that I myself have had room for soul, reason, and mind, and Holy Spirit as well, and that before me the cosmos, this structure, I mean of visibles and invisibles had room for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is the nature of things ideal to be mixed with one another and with bodies in an indivisible and incorporeal way. After all, one person’s hearing can accommodate several sounds, several people’s eyes the same sights, several noses the same smells, without the senses being cramped or squeezed by one another or the things “sensed” being diminished by the amount of perception.

Why is there a human or angelic mind that is so complete a thing in comparison with the Godhead’s mind that the presence of the greater squeezes out the other? (Ep. 101.6-7)

In other words, argues Gregory, it is the radical difference between the infinite existence of the transcendent Deity and the finite existence of creatures that makes possible both the divine immanence and the Incarnation. God’s intimate involvement in the world does not entail any kind of displacement, as if creatures need to be pushed aside to make room for God’s presence. Nor does divine agency entail competition with human agency. The human mind is a complete thing, the Theologian writes, “governing the soul and body, but not absolutely complete; it is God’s servant and under his control, neither a partner in government nor an equal in worth” (Ep. 101.7). The true and living God is not an object within the universe; he is the transcendent and creative source of all that exists. We may not be able to comprehend what it means for God to be infinite Being nor understand what it means for God to be intimately present within his creation nor what it means for God to providentially guide the decisions and actions of his creatures—and we certainly cannot comprehend what it means for God to become a human being—but perhaps we can at least “see” that it is precisely God’s radical transcendence that makes possible his assumption of a human mind in deifying union.

Ultimately, Apollinarius is refuted by the Christian understanding of God.

(Go to “To See God Crucified”)

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One Response to St Gregory the Theologian and the Apollinarian Nonsense

  1. Nicole says:

    I know in Matthew 4-10 when Jesus healed the paralyzed man it says, ”
    But when the multitudes saw it, they marvelled, and glorified God, which had given such power unto men.” Jesus did not seem to contradict this. He was man showing us the way to the divine (which he also was). Or at least it seems that way to me.

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