Christian Paradox

         Faced with Jesus’s self-identification as both God and human in the gospels, the church established doctrines to reconcile God’s diverse identities with his inherent unity.  This leads to a complex and sometimes contested account of the economy of God’s salvation of humanity from sin.  The two doctrinal texts, “Gregory of Nyssa-Ad Graecos” and “Definition of Faith of the Council of Chalcedon,” articulate doctrines emerging from the Council of Constantinople (381 A.D.)[1] and the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.),[2] respectively.  Their authorship occurred near the time of the councils; they likely provide an accurate account of the statements established at each.[3],[4]  The context of these two texts is of a church evolving into a ally of the Roman state after the Edict of Milan (313 A.D.).  The authors are establishing a system within which clergy wield and vie for power by establishing boundaries between orthodoxy and heresy.  In this framework, the authors of “Letters of Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius of Constantinople” and “Life of Severus of Antioch” rhetorically attempt to persuade the reader of the Scriptural and logical validity of their doctrinal positions.  Nestorius (381-451 A.D.) was deposed in 431 A.D., suggesting that the series of letters between him and Cyril predate the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.).[5]  If authentic, the letters directly report the authors’ opinions.  The “Life of Severus of Antioch (465-538 A.D.)” provides insight into post-Council of Chalcedon disputes between those deemed to be within or outside orthodoxy.  Since Severus was born approximately 15 years after the Council of Chalcedon, the document suggests that the Chalcedon statements were controversial many years after ratification.  Lastly, the “Inscription of the Monument of the Church of the East at Xian” dates from 781 A.D.  Christianity adapted to a distinct culture as the word “Void” is placed where the word “God” might be found in a Mediterranean text, suggesting Taoist influence.

Gregory of Nyssa in “Ad Graecos” carefully explains God as three “Persons” united in one “essence” within the concept of the Holy Trinity.[6]  He explains how the three Persons of the Trinity, “Father, Son, Holy Spirit,” are by analogy similar to the human persons, “Peter, Paul, and Barnabas,” distinct individuals possessing unique relational traits.[7]  Since complete insight of God is mysterious and beyond human understanding, the Holy Trinity establishes a cognitive model for the “mind” of a faithful Christian to approach an understanding of how God can “exist” as both transcendently infinite and immanently finite.[8]  God’s “essence is the Cause underlying the entire universe” that is intimately involved in human affairs as it “holds sway over human affairs by a certain appropriate and inexpressible word.”[9]  Building upon the Platonic view of God as “eternal and unknowable,” the first Person of God, “Father,” symbolically embodies the omnipotent and omniscient nature of God.[10]  The second Person of God, “Son,” presents in the mind of the faithful a representation of God’s humanity.[11]  As will be further elaborated, the Son is a unity of two natures, divine and human, that during the earthly life of Jesus Christ was incarnate as a living human being.  The third Person of God, “Holy Spirit,” relates the infinite nature to the finite nature of God serving as a bridge between the seen and unseen attributes of God’s complete essence.[12]  The Holy Trinity is an essential, widely spread doctrine of Christianity reaching as far east as China.  This was due to the missionary work of East Syrian Christian monks where the phrase “Three-in-one Lord” was found engraved upon a stone dated to the T’ang dynasty.[13]  The self-communicative relationship between the three Persons of the Holy Trinity can be understood by analyzing the analogous dual infinite-finite natures of the Son.

The “Definition of Faith of the Council of Chalcedon” evolved out of a bitter Christological dispute within the church about the unity and distinction of the divine and human natures of the second person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ the Son.  It is a carefully worded statement that establishes a “middle-of-the-road settlement” between the fully unified and fully distinct extremes of the divine-human binary opposite.[14]   “The one and the same Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son [of God] must be   confessed to be in two natures, unconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably [united], and that without the distinction of natures being taken away by such union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature being preserved and being united in one Person and substance, not separated or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten, God the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ.”[15]  This is a paradox that combines contradictory statements to establish a proposition which when investigated may lead to a conclusion that seems logically unacceptable, but upon further analysis may simultaneously prove to be true. As with the concept of the Holy Trinity, the Chalcedon statement is a cognitive model written to help the faithful Christian understand how God’s essence is both transcendently infinite and immanently finite.

The Chalcedon statement emerged out of a debate about the divine and human natures of the Son between various churches in different locations of the Roman Empire.[16]  Faced with the paradox that Jesus Christ is both God and human, the “Letters of Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius of Constantinople” debate the unity of Christ’s divine and human natures which lead to contradictory accounts of the economy of God’s salvation of humanity from sin.[17]  The immutability (God cannot change) and impassibility (God cannot suffer) of the Son is at stake in the resolution of this argument.  Cyril contends that Christ’s divine and human natures are fully united for all the time and that Christ was on earth beginning at the instant of his conception and continuing though to the moment of his death.  Nestorius holds that these two natures are subordinate to each other at different times.  Nestorius relegates the Virgin Mary from the “Mother of God” to the “Mother of Christ” implying that at Christ’s conception that he was fully human before he was fully divine.[18]  At the time of Christ’s death, Nestorius states that only the human nature of Christ was “passible” (capable of suffering) thereby separating his divine nature from his human nature.[19]  Cyril’s[20],[21] and Nestorius’s[22] well-reasoned statements about the nature of God from Scripture each point to the nature of God’s ultimate reality.  Jesus Christ’s fully human and fully divine nature is a paradox that is beyond thinking and transcends reason.  Only by leaping to another mode of comprehension, that is faith, can God’s nature be fully grasped.  The resolution of tension in this dispute of the interpretations of Cyril and of Nestorius can only come about if a Christian accepts on faith that God’s salvation of humanity from sin transcends logical or conceptual thinking.

The differing positions articulated by Cyril and Nestorius regarding the divine and human natures of the Son continued to be discussed well after the proclamations of the Council of Chalcedon.  A fraction of the church resisted the full adoption of the statements of faith drafted at the Council of Chalcedon, and doctrinal disputes over the Son’s nature were often a reflection of internal power disputes between factions of the church.[23]  For example, as described in Zacharias the Scholastic’s “Life of Severus of Antioch,” the monk Nephalius “stirred up the people of his land … out of zeal against the synod that had been convened in Chalcedon” on “account of a union” between Peter of Alexandria and Acacius of Constantinople.[24]  In this document, Zacharias describes how Nephalius later “turned around and accepted the synod [Chalcedon] that he had previously denounced” in an attempt to arrest power from “God-loving Severus.”[25]

The central argument in all of these texts is that God possesses diverse identities within a unified essence, which leads to a complex and sometimes contested account of the economy of God’s salvation of humanity from sin.  The arguments were made at a time of church and state unification.  By constructing a single faith system, the church sought to unite all members under a single ecclesiastical authority.  The arguments made in the Mediterranean texts heavily rely on Hellenistic and Jewish philosophical language, especially pertaining to the concepts of divinity to articulate Trinitarian and Christological doctrines in the mind of the Judeo-Hellenistic faithful individual.  Analogously the Chinese text, through the use of language from Taoist and Buddhist philosophy, presents the same two doctrines to an East Asian Christian.  The same principle of adapting the philosophical language of a time to the doctrine is relevant today.  For example, in the wake of “The End of Western Metaphysics” (e.g. Nietzsche and Heidegger), Paul Tillich adapted Heideggarian philosophy to his theology of Being.  As an early twenty-first century Christian, these texts highlight the church’s responsibility to articulate universal and timeless truths about God in the language of post-modern individuals.  As the pace of scientific, political, and technological change increases each year the church continues to struggle to keep pace with the times.  However, the task of remaining relevant to a specific time must be held in close tension with the necessity to maintain theological integrity.


[1] John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk, eds., Readings in World Christian History Volume I: Earliest Christianity to 1453 (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2004), 119.

[2] Ibid., 175.

[3] Ibid., 119.

[4] Ibid., 175.

[5] Ibid., 165.

[6] Ibid., 120.

[7] Ibid., 120.

[8] Ibid., 121.

[9] Ibid., 121.

[10] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 213.

[11] Coakley and Sterk, 120.

[12] Ibid., 120.

[13] Ibid., 246.

[14] MacCulloch, 226.

[15] Coakley and Sterk, 176.

[16] MacCulloch, 222.

[17] Coakley and Sterk, 165-174.

[18] Ibid., 168.

[19] Ibid., 167.

[20] Ibid., 165-167.

[21] Ibid., 169-174.

[22] Ibid., 168.

[23] MacCulloch, 232.

[24] Coakley and Sterk, 179.

[25] Ibid., 179.

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About kayaerbil

I am a Berkeley educated chemistry Ph.D. who is moving into the area of working on developing appropriate technology for communities that are subjected to socio-economic oppression. The goal is to use simple and effective designs to empower people to live better lives. Currently, I am working with Native Americans on Pine Ridge, the Lakota reservation in South Dakota. I am working with a Native owned and run solar energy company. We are currently working on building a compressed earth block (CEB) house that showcases many of the technologies that the company has developed. The CEB house is made of locally derived resources, earth from the reservation. The blocks are naturally thermally insulating, keeping the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Eventually, a solar air heater and photovoltaic panels will be installed into the house to power the home and keep it warm, while preserving the house off the grid. A side project while in Pine Ridge is a solar computer. I hope to learn about blockchain encryption software for building microgrids. In addition, it is an immediate interest of mine to involve local youth in technology education.
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