Apollinarius and the Truncated Humanity of Christ

Virtually all I know about Apollinaris of Laodicea is that his heresy elicited a memorable response from St Gregory the Theologian: “What has not been assumed has not been healed.” So in preparation for reading the letters of Gregory to Cledonius, I thought I’d read up a bit on the heresiarch. Good­ness, I didn’t realize that in addition to being a friend of St Athanasius of Alexandria, Apollinaris was also one of the most erudite, and prolific, theolo­gians of the fourth century. Unfortunately, the large bulk of his writings have been lost to us.

The great Anglican patristics scholar G. L. Prestige devotes a chapter to the bishop of Laodicea in his book Fathers and Heretics. It’s clear that Prestige admires Apollinaris, though regretting the man’s fall into heresy. He was, writes Prestige, “a heresiarch but not as one of the heresiarchs.”1 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.”2 Even the great Athanasius seems to have veered close to truncating our Lord’s humanity.3 Through most of his long career, Apollinaris’s teaching was sound and clear and “probably exercised a very powerful and wholly beneficent influence on Christian thought.”4 But his contributions have long since been forgotten. He is only remembered for his heresy—Apollinarianism.

Apollinaris 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 Apollinaris 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 directly speaks and acts in human form. One cannot but be struck by how close Apollinaris come to a mytholog­ical understanding of the Savior. As Zeus and Athena would often take on human guise in order to interact with human beings, so does the eternal Word. I suspect that many orthodox Christians secretly think the same. Prestige offers two arguments to explain Apollanaris’s adoption of this “extraordinary” christological position.

First, convinced that Jesus must be understood as one personal reality, Apollinaris 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. To posit two principles of action within Jesus would in fact make him into two individuals, 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.”5 Apollinaris thus presents us with the theanthropic Son who never enjoyed a truly human experience, who was never personally touched by the power of temptation.

Second, Apollinaris 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 body and 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.6 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.7

Or as Apollinaris 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, states Apolli­naris: “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 the human soul is sanctified through the body when the body is deified by communion with the holy flesh of Christ.

While Apollinarian christology solves the problem of the personal unity of Christ, it raises critical soteriological problems:

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]).8

St Gregory Nazianzen would famously respond to the Apollinarian heresy in his two epistles to Cledonius.

Prestige offers this final, sympathetic assessment of Apollinaris:

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.9

Doing theology in service to the gospel is a risky endeavor. New questions arise in every generation. The good theologian does not have the luxury of simply reiterating the formulae of one’s predecessors. He or she is summoned to reflect creatively and deeply upon the revelation of Jesus Christ within the Holy Tradition of the Church. Faithfulness to the gospel may require that new ground should be broken. Yet the danger of advancing a position that the Church subsequently determines to be heretical abides. Lord, have mercy.

(30 September 2013; rev.)


[1] G. L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics, p. 195. In recent years scholars have begun to question whether Apollinaris’ christology was misunderstood by his peers. See C. T. Cohen, “In Partial Praise of Apollinarian Christology,” Macrina Magazine 4 (May 2020).

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Christopher Beeley, The Unity of Christ, pp. 124-170.

[4] Prestige, p. 195.

[5] Ibid., p. 228.

[6] Ibid., p. 229.

[7] Ibid., p. 230.

[8] Ibid., pp. 234-235.

[9] Ibid., pp. 241-242.

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3 Responses to Apollinarius and the Truncated Humanity of Christ

  1. Paul Hunter says:

    Bulgakov, of course, also has a very sympathetic take on Apollinaris. He even goes so far as to suggest he the true precursor of Chalcedonian Christology, and really understood the problems of Christology with much greater clarity than his peers. Bulgakov seems to think that Apollinaris’ real problem was a totally inadequate set of terms to express what was a fundamentally orthodox insight into the person of Christ. I confess I don’t have a full grasp of Bulgakov’s thought on this matter, but it’s on my (long) list of questions from Bulgakov to revisit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • George R says:

      In ‘Lamb of God’, if I remember correctly, his discussion about Apollinaris concerns unity in Christology, and Bulgakov considers him to be the first thinker to seriously think about how it is that Christ is a single subject. For Bulgakov the biggest issue in Christology, which he didn’t think had been fully resolved in the Patristic period, was explaining what the principle of unity was in Christ that made Him a single subject without negating one of His two natures or mixing them. Often in Chalcedonian Christology there’s far more emphasis on the duality of Christ, with Patristic attempts to resolve the unity issue usually resulting in inadequate solutions, such as Leontius of Byzantium’s idea of en-hypostatisation. I don’t have the book to hand though and I can’t remember what Bulgakov’s solution was.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Grant says:

    While I understand the polemical tone against heretical positions (and positions believed to be heretical) and understand that it went (and goes both ways), and agree there are situations that arise which call for that tone I think it is a sad in these situations that it is directed not just at the postion, but also at the person. And that to this day involves the denouncing and demonization usually enough of the person deemed to be the source of the heresy (say Apollinaris, or Arius, Nestorius or so on), as if they were dilberately putting forward something they knew to false willfully intending on hurting others.

    I would think perhaps it might be time to at least recognise they argued what they believed in good faith, and worth remembering that being denounced by much of the Church at a particular time doesn’t necessarily mean someone is wrong, just ask St Athanasius or St Maximus, the truth is it’s a risk we all take (and as you say, probably allot of Christians, including Catholic, Orthodox Eastern and Oriental and Assyrian might default have a view something like Apollinarius). Must we cast them out as brothers and sisters, I mean we wouldn’t do this with our blood relations, we would always acknowledge them as our brother or sister even despite their position or deeds.

    I don’t know, perhaps in the nature of the ancient and even medieval world this kind of personal denouncation and demonization with the wider polemical argument was unaviodable, it was part of the way debate was conducted for good or ill, but that kind of personal denouncation could be corrected now with Christian charity and love and good will will still acknoledging where they got themselves wrong or became misguided or confused. I mean focus on the position, not the persons, correct the one in discipleship and liturgy but forgive and embrace the persons. And not just at acedemic levels, afterall such anethemas of persons also affects and keeps in place unecessary divides and anamosities between confessions (for example between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, quite arguably a completely unecessary divide that shouldn’t even exist). It gets people’s backs up that you are attacking ‘one of their own’, someone they have affection for, even venerate to this day.


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