Apollinarianism: An essay on the Christology of the early Church pp. 212ff

It is likely that the terms in which Apollinarius described the consequences of the Communicatio may have first led to his enemies to the idea that he taught either the consubstantiality of the Godhead and the body or at least the body was from heaven. Such a belief was certainly accepted and taught by one of his pupils Polemon1 and with less clearness by his companion in misfortune, Timothy of Berytus. Both Apollinarius himself expressly anathematised it with an emphasis which leaves no room for doubt in his letter to Jovian2 and in the Tomus Synodalis3, and denied it in the second letter to Dionysius4 and elsewhere5. He is repeatedly at pains to explain that such phrases can only be used, if used at all, on account of the completeness of the union; and from the whole tenor of his theology it is obvious that a “heavenly flesh” would vitiate all the deeper aspects of his thought. Yet there is unquestionably a certain amount of language in the Apodeixis which countenanced the second if not the first of these beliefs: and as this gave occasion to his enemies to assume that he was reviving the Gnosticism of Valentinus, and also regard the Ad Epictetum and similar documents as directed against him, it is advisable to examine it in some detail.6

The most striking and most familiar statement of this accusation is to be found in the letter of Gregory of Nazianzus to Nectarius of Constantinople7 in which Gregory declares that a pamphlet of Apollinarius as fallen into his hands and quotes from it the words “The flesh was not acquired (ἐπίκτητος) by the only-begotten Son for the purpose of His sojourn on earth or assumed in order to change the rudiments of our nature, but from the beginning this flesh-like nature existed in the Son.” Gregory continues: “Further he puts forward a phrase in the Gospel perverting it so as to make it to testify to this folly: the words are ‘No one has ascended into heaven except He who came down from heaven, the Son of Man’: so that even before He descended He was Son of Man, and He descended bringing with Him flesh which He always had in heaven pre-existent and united (συνουσιωμένη) with Him.” This passage deserves especial notice because part of it is exactly what Apollinarius could and did say, and can be paralleled in passages quoted by Gregory Nyssa from the Apodeixis. The first is, “The man Christ is pre-existent: the spirit—that is, God—does not exist as distinct from Him, but the Lord is the divine spirit in the nature of the God-man;8” and from it Gregory9 infers that “the very Godhead of the Son is from the beginning man” and that “He has made the nature of God and man one.” The second is, “The divine Incarnation did not take its beginning from the Virgin, but was before Abraham and before all creation;10” Gregory comments: “So it always was what it appeared to the disciples to be, solid and a model of our own, furnished with flesh and bones.11” The third is, “The flesh was not acquired by the Godhead for our benefit, but was united into a single personality and has grown into one with it (συνουσιωμένη καὶ σύμφυτος);12” which Gregory contrasts with his own view that “the glory veils itself for the purpose of a sojourn on our earth.13” The fourth is, “The God in flesh14 existent before the ages was afterwards born of a woman and came by the necessity of His nature to the test of suffering.15

These quotations and criticisms are obviously similar in character to the passage in the Ad Nectarium and make it highly probable that the sentence from the pamphlet is genuinely Apollinarian. The quotation from St John is also doubtless correct; for it is used twice in the De Unione, first to prove that “there was a descent from heaven not merely a birth from a woman,” and secondly, to prove that “though he has descended yet He is called heavenly man lest anyone deny the attachment of the Godhead of a body from earth.” The final clause quoted from the letter, although printed by Lietzmann as a quotation from Apollinarius, is obviously Gregory Nazianzen’s deduction from the previous quotation. We have, therefore, five sentences from the heretic which were supposed by the two Cappadocians to imply Valentinian teaching. Is the charge just?

The first quotation from the Apodeixis taken by itself does not do more than assert that the divine spirit of Christ pre-existed and was the same spirit which with earthly soul and body constituted the Incarnate. With the second we may compare two brief remarks from other fragments, “Wherefore He who was before Abraham, Son of God, was no other than He who was after Abraham, but He is one, perfect, the only-begotten of God,” and “How is that which is from Abraham before Abraham? By being united to that which was before Abraham.” The earliest quotations form the Apodeixis seem therefore to be both assertions that the Godhead of the eternal Son was verily and indeed the same as that which became flesh, and that the potentiality of Incarnation was always a characteristic of His nature16. The quotation, which is almost identical with the words in the Ad Nectarium, reveals Apollinarius’ true meaning and intention by its use of the term “acquired”—ἐπίκτητος. This had been a word specially employed by the Arians to describe the Godhead of the Son as an addition made later in time to that of the Father. As such it is attacked by Apollinarius in his confession of faith. But ἐπίκτητος had been used in the same sense and as a regular part of their technical theology by Eustathius and Diodore17, the latter of whom had applied it to the Incarnation as a remedy specially devised by God in consequence of the Fall. According to Diodore, God’s original purpose had been thwarted by man’s sin, and therefore in order to repair the disaster as additional and acquired manhood had to be assumed by the Son of God. Apollinarius felt that this unforeseen alliance between a man and God involved the idea of mutability, not perhaps in the Incarnate, but in the Creator: the Eternal could not be thus treated as a bungling workman who had to adopt a sudden change of method: the Incarnation in time and space must be the expression and sacrament of a potentiality inherent in the very nature of deity, a condition of the life of God. Like Origen, Apollinarius is not content solely with history; the appearance of Christ on earth must illuminate the whole attitude of God towards his creatures. In the attempt to interpret his thought he was driven to the use of crude and questionable language; for the difference between the abstract and concrete, potential and actual, was always difficult for a Greek with his limited vocabulary to express. But when he speaks of the nature of God as always incarnate, and says that it is following the necessity of His nature that He accepts the Cross, these phrases, taken in connection with his attack upon the Antiochene doctrine and with is repeated denial of the idea that Christ’s body is of itself heavenly, ought never to have been so misunderstood. He has realised and is stating that although the actual union took place only in the womb of the Virgin-mother, such union was the fulfilment in history of an eternal yearning for men, a yearning characteristic of the inmost essence of the divine. He has transcended, for a moment, his traditionally Greek conception of God as the Absolute Power and unqualified Being, and risen to the nobler and more Christian belief of St John, “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son.”

To prove this was Apollinarius’ position we need only refer to the specific disavowals of belief in the “heavenly flesh.” “We condemn the utter madness of those who say that the flesh is consubstantial with God18” had been his comment in 359 upon the Gnosticism attacked in Athanasius letter to Epictetus. In 363 he appended certain anathemas to his own letter to Jovian19 in which the Antiochene and the Gnostic position are alike repudiated, “If anyone teach contrary to this from the Holy Scriptures, and say that the Son of God is one and the man from Mary, adopted Son by grace as we are, is another, so that there are two Sons, one by nature Son of God who is from God, and the other by grace, the man from Mary; or if any say that the flesh of our Lord is from above and not from the Virgin Mary, or that the Godhead has been changed or confused or altered into flesh, or that the Godhead of the Son is passible, or that the flesh of our Lord as being flesh of a man must be worshipped as the flesh of him who is Lord and God; such persons the Catholic Church anathematises obeying the Apostle’s words, ‘If any preach to you a gospel contrary to that which ye have received, let him be anathema.’ ” In spite of this express statement he has to return to the same subject in both his letters to Dionysus, protesting against those who “blaspheme us as if we said that the flesh was from heaven, when we read the words of Scripture which speak of Him who is from heaven as Son of Man20,” and claiming that “it is manifest from what we have always written that no one can bring against us these charges that are made against some: for we do not say that the flesh of the Saviour was from heaven, nor that the flesh is consubstantial with God inasmuch as it is flesh and not God, but only God insofar as it has been united into one person with God21.” And in his letter to Terentius22 who came as Comes to Antioch in 375, he again anathematises “anyone who says that the Son is two persons, or that His flesh is consubstantial with God and not with ours, or that it has come down form heaven and not that it has been assumed by Him who is from heaven.” Evidently by this time there were some who assumed that the crude errors condemned in the Ad Epictetum were derived from Apollinarius, and principle of the transference of attributes was being misrepresented as it was by the Gregories. Polemon had already begun to develop the exaggerated Monophysite doctrine which led him into conflict with the Apollinarians, and to the formulation of a seperate sect. And so in the formal confession of the Apollinarian Synod23, which is perhaps the last writing of the Bishop of Laodicea, he returns to the anathema of the letter to Jovian, and closes his life’s work with the words, “Flesh consubstantial with our flesh, has the living Logos assumed from Mary in union with the Godhead from His first conception by the Virgin; and so He became man . . . . Anathema therefore be he who denies that the flesh is from Mary and says that it is of the uncreated nature and consubstantial with God; and also he who says that the Godhead is passible and that the sufferings which come from the soul (τὰ πάθη τὰ ψυχικά) come from it.”

And if his own words are not enough we have the testimony of one who was a member of the Antiochene party and supporter of Nestorius, Theodoret the critic of Cyril and the enemy of Eutychainism, a man who had the best of reasons for disliking Apollinarius and for seeking to prove that the Monophysites were repeating his heresy. If there had been any truth in the charges made by the Gregories, Theodoret would have found them an invaluable weapon against the errors of his own generation. We should expect to find him setting out a catena of passages to prove that the arch-heretic of Laodicea had been the fount from which Eutyches had drawn his venom. In stead we find him quoting and saying after saying from the Contra Diodorum to demonstrate not the the Eutychians are Apollinarists, but that Apollinarius himself condemns them. Although a man of no great brilliance, the Bishop of Cyrrhus was a careful and honest student: unlike the Cappadocians, he had read Apollinarius, and was quick to recognise and employ the truths that he found so well expressed by him. In consequence, when he undertakes in his Dialogue to prove that the divine nature of Christ is immutable, unconfused, and impassible, his proof is supported in every case by a string of quotations from the very man who is commonly regarded as the father of Monophysitism.


1. Other Apollinarians attacked Polemon vigorously for misrepresenting their master. Eg. Valentinus, in his Capita Apolog., Lietzmann, pp. 287-91, accuses Timothy of following not Apollinarius but Polemon whom he always calls πολίμος—a pun parallel to the use of σκοτεινός for Photinus and ὁ μανείς for Manes. Timothy himself in his letter to Hominus quoted by Leontius Adv. Fraud. (Migne, PG. 86. 2. 1947-75) and by Leitzmann, pp. 277-78, quotes many passages to prove that Apollinarius taught this—but is singularly unsuccessful. His failure is convincing evidence that this was never Apollinarius belief.

2.  Ad Jovian 3, Lietzmann p. 253

3. Lietzmann p. 263

4. Lietzmann Fr. 164

5.  Syllog. Lietzmann Fr. 112Ad Serap., Lietzmann Fr. 159Ad Terent., Lietzmann Fr 162

6. This subject is admirably treated by Voison, l.c. pp. 297-301. He proves that the language of the Apodeixis does not imply the pre-existence of the flesh of Christ but is used in virtue of his theory of Communicatio Idiomatum.

7. Ep., 202

8. Lietzmann, Fr. 32

9. Antirrh. 13

10. Lietzmann, Fr. 34

11. Antirrh. 15

12. Lietzmann Fr. 36

13. Antirrh. 17.

14. θεὸς ἔνσαρκος is a stronger phrase: but it is the obvious counterpart of the ἄνθρωπος ἔνθεος of Antioch, criticised in the next fragment, and as such is used as a title. Here the sentence does not mean “God, who was in flesh before the ages.”

15. Lietzmann, Fr. 50

16. This second consideration, emphasised by Dorner, I.ii. 372, Voisin rejects, because he refuses to acknowledge any Platonism in Apollinarius. But it seems probable that both this idea and the Commun. Idiom. influenced him.

17. Cf. above, p. 120

18. Ad Serap., Lietzmann Fr. 159

19. §3 Lietzmann p. 253

20. §7 Lietzmann p. 259

21. Lietzmann Fr. 164

22. Lietzmann Fr. 163

23. Tom synod.,Lietzmann, pp. 262-3. The De Fid. et Inc.,also apparently a synodal confession, contains a similar statement, denying that the body is in itself consubstantial and that the flesh is form heaven §3 Lietzmann p. 194. Either of these, but clearly not both, may emanate from the Synod which Gregory Naz., Carmen de Vita sua, mentions as held in 378 or 379