Introduction to Two Books Against Apollinaris by Athanasius

Later Treatise of Saint Athanasius, ArchBishop of Alexandria, 1882, pp. 78-82 (Internet Archive)

Apollinarianism is perhaps in one respect less interesting to a modern theological student than the counter-movement of Nestorianism; partly because its propositions seems strange even to repulsiveness, partly because in our day such Christian thought as is not guided by the Catholic definition sets in a direction opposite to that of minimising the human element of the Incarnation of our Lord. And yet Apollinarianism is one of the most melancholy phenomena of Church history, as a heretical reaction against heresy, conducted by a bishop of rare ability, respected and even loved by typical Churchmen for his service to historic Christianity, and animated, even in the speculations which misled him, by a religious zeal for the majesty of Christ; a reaction which not only did fatal mischief by destroying faith in the Redeemer’s real Humanity, but also provoked an equally calamitous revulsion in the direction of a denial of His Personal Oneness. It must never be forgotten that Apollinaris was the rock of offence to Theodore and to Nestorius; that S. Cyril, throughout his struggle with the latter heresiarch, was continually dogged by the suspicion of Apollinarianism; and lastly, that one part of the Apollinarian theory was revived with a modification by the Monophysites.

The namesake and abler son of an able father, Apollinaris made his mark by literary achievements of the most varied kind. He had a singular facility of composition: he was, so to speak, “in omnia paratus;” no work came amiss to him. He was keen logician: in his early years he had taught rhetoric: he afterwards wrote commentaries on several books of Scripture, taking a line of his own as to their sequence, and to the rendering of the Hebrew: he replied, in thirty books, to Porphyry’s treatise “against Christians:” and when Julian forbade Christians to lecture on Greek authors, Apollinaris, in conjunction with his father, adventurously set to work to supply Christian books written in classical style. Both father and son had come into collision with two Arianizing bishops; and the son had accepted exile rather than communicate with the Arians. He hated Arianism with all his heart:he wrote, says Theophilus, against Arians and Eunomians; and it would seem that his versatile and daring mind was attracted by the notion of wresting a weapon from Arian hands, and using it against their own heresy. For several, at least, among the Arians maintained that the “Godhead” which they recognised in Christ was to Him in place of a human soul. It was natural for them to think so; for this “Godhead” was simply titular and unreal, and might well discharge the functions and act under the conditions of the immaterial part in man. Apollinaris, it appears, resolved to utilise this idea with a modification, for the purpose of constructing a Christology on the basis of the Nicene Creed. The modification was this: he would allow ψυχή, or mere animal soul, to exist in the Incarnate; he regarded it as part of the outer man. But the νοῦς, the rational soul, the mind, that could not be recognised in the Divine Christ without a breach in the unity of the Person, because it carried with it a complete human personality: nor without a derogation from His essential holiness, because it involved the possibility of sin. Therefore, argued Apollinaris, it place must be supplied by the Divine Word, who is, in the highest of all senses, Spirit and Mind. He was probably not responsible, except indirectly, for the abandonment of this distinction by some of his followers, who adopted the Arian denial of the human soul, even of a ψυχή, in the Person of Christ, but, of course, with the very anti-Arian aim of making Him as simply Divine as possible: and this notion, mistakenly attributed by Augustine’s friend, Alypius to the church, hindered his advance “towards Christian Faith, until he ascertained that it was the error of the Apollinarian heretics.”

Such was, on the whole, Apollinaris’s peculiar doctrine as to the non-existence in Christ of a “reasonable” human “soul”. The other Apollinarian preposition was a development, which belong rather to the disciples that to the master: but both of them were evidently twin errors of present significance to the unknown compiler of the “Athanasian Creed.” Nothing is said in the Tome of the Alexandrine Council of any strange doctrine as the the Body of Christ: but Apollinarian thought, having received its impulse, went on to speculate on that aspect of the Incarnation. Apollinaris himself taught—not openly, but in a secret circle of hearers—that the body assumed by the Word Incarnate was, as much, “coessential” with the Godhead, to which, in real sense, the sufferings and death must be ascribed. Others proceeded to say what, if we can trust this positive disclaimers, he abstained from saying, that it was not a really a human body, but of heavenly origin, being in fact nothing less that a portion of Godhead “converted into flesh;” whence it followed, either that the Godhead was thus far capable of suffering, or that the bodily condition and sufferings of Christ were “Docetic” and unreal.

In this was a second wound was inflicted on the doctrine which presented to the belief and adoration of the Church a Redeemer who, being very God, had vouchsafed to become very Man, to enter in His unchanged personality into a human sphere of existence, to be “made in all points like unto his brethren, sin apart,” a sympathising High Priest, and Exemplar of human sanctity. Certain texts were adduced by the Apollinarian school in support of their theory; but it was really based on abstract considerations, or on alleged logical necessities, and thus laid itself open to the charge if calling in rationalism to uphold will-worship. Nor can the Apollinarians be acquitted of an equivocal use of terms, which often imposed on the simpler-minded Churchmen. Their energy is disseminating their opinions by a copious array of treatise, by poetry for popular use, by the intrusion of their bishops into Catholic dioceses, was not checked by repeated synodical condemnations, and by willing censures from theologians who could claim to represent existing orthodoxy, and who had the difficulty been persuaded that Apollinaris had fallen out of its path.

We are not here concerned with his alleged inclination to Sebellianism, his ‘carnal” and “Judaic” Chiliasm, the scandals caused by his controversial pertinacity, and the division of his followers into more moderate and the more extreme. As to the dates of the controversy, a passage of Gregory Nazianzus would place the first rise of Apollinarianism ten years before the Alexandrine Council of 362, to which, as we have seen, Apollinaris thought it advisable to send delegates. But this date is somewhat too early, for Basil intimates that Apollinaris was still unsuspected about 355. But the negation of the human soul in Christ came before that council: the further notion as to His body was rife at Corinth some nine years later; about 372, it is thought, Athanasius wrote these two books against the entire theory. In 373, and again in 375, Basil had reason to disclaim all fellowship with Apollinaris: at the the end of 376, Apollinaris openly formed a sect by consecrating Vitalis bishop for the party at Antioch, and in 377 he and his chief followers were formally “deposed” by a Council at Rome. The sect gave great trouble to Gregory, both during and after his sojourn at Constantinople: and he was instrumental in procuring form Theodosius in 385 a general law against the its freedom of worship.

The books called “Contra Apollinarium” were directed against a number of Apollinarian opinions as held by a school or party: and the venerable writer, who seems in some passages to have left his first draft uncorrected, refrains from censuring his former friend by name. Referring to doubts which had been entertained as the genuineness of the work, the Benedictines say that its affinity to the letters of Epictetus, Adelphius and Maximus, is so manifest as to be decisive.

On the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, Against Apollinaris