Advent Series – Eutychianism (5)

This week, albeit a bit late, we close our Advent series on the Christological heresies. Last week we observed what happens when we draw too much distinction between the two natures of the single person, and recognized that it results in not only Christological error, but also soteriological problems. This week, we see a similar problem in the other direction.

To close our series, we will explore the heresy which facilitated the final of the great ecumenical councils of the 4th and 5th centuries.


Eutychianism – It’s History and Development

As I mentioned previously, the primary orthodox prosecutor and hero of Christological orthodoxy was Cyril of Alexandria. He aggressively attacked the error of Nestorius (as well as Theodoret) and it was largely through his work that orthodox Christology found its language.

However, Cyril’s language was confusing at times. This was, in large part, a result of some linguistic confusion that mirrors the confusion between the first two councils. The specific word in question was physis. This word, like all words, has a range of meanings. It could range to mean something akin to “fundamental substance” or “universal substance” which is synonymous with the clarified use of Ousia in the fourth century. However, it could also mean “personal substance” which is synonymous with Hypostasis as it was clarified by the Cappadocian Fathers. This is why, somewhat ironically, Cyril is on record asserting that Christ is of a single physis while Nestorius argued that Christ was of two physeh. They were both using the word as a rough synonym for Hypostasis.

This lead to the, somewhat unfortunate, Eutyches and the controversy which bears his name. Eutyches was the archimandrite who lead a rather large monastery outside of Constantinople. Believing that he was following in the tradition of Cyril, he argued that although Christ did indeed have two natures, that the two natures were so completely unified within the singular person of Christ that in effect they were a single nature. The analogy he used to describe this hybrid nature was a drop of vinegar in an ocean. While it is true that the vinegar is present and part of the ocean, the amount of vinegar is so minute that it is completely swallowed up and not discernible. His argument proceeded to say that the finite human nature of Christ was subsumed by the infinite divine nature, such that the human nature was an infinitely small component of the singular person.

This presents three distinct problems. First, what are we to make of the clear biblical data that presents Christ’s human nature as not only a part of what he is, but as a defining part of what he is. Attributes like local presence, non-omniscience, and susceptibility to hunger, thirst, and death do not seem to be an infinitely small presence in the life of a Christ who delayed going to Lazarus, did not know who it was his power healed in a crowd, and ultimately succumbed to the power of death (albeit, temporarily). In what way is it true that Christ was made like us in every way (Heb 2:17) if the nature that is our entirety is only an infinitely small part of his very existence? Related to and dependent this point is the soteriological question: How can such a Christ save us? The previously referenced passage makes clear that Christ’s full human nature is what enables him to serve as our Mediator and Representative before the Father. If he is fundamentally unlike us… then in what way can he fulfill that role? If he is fundamentally unlike us… then in what way can he die in our place? Finally, even if the fusion between the divine nature and the human nature of Christ represents an infinitely small change in the divine nature, is a change in the divine nature. This means that the single ousia that is shared by the Father, Son, and Spirit was changed. Furthermore, since there is only one nature it means that in some real sense the Father and The Spirit were also unified with the human nature of Christ.

Modern Examples

Now, I want to be clear. I don’t think that Lutherans are Eutychian any more than I think that the Reformed are Nestorian. However, just as I was honest about the fact that Reformed theology (both structurally, and in particular instances) leans toward an over-distinction of the natures, I also want to note that I think that Lutheran theology (more structurally than Reformed theology) leans toward an under-distinction of the natures. It is important to say, although I won’t be focusing on it much, that Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology shares the same tendency (for largely the same reasons).

The primary point of contention, and this along with Baptism was the primary point of contention between the various Protestant positions in the Reformation, was the Lord’s Supper. Roman Catholic theology (and to some degree, although with less definition, Eastern Orthodox theology) argued that the Bread and Wine took on the human ousia of Christ without taking on its attributes. This is how the elements were literally flesh and blood, without tasting like flesh and blood. Wanting to preserve the real presence of Christ, Luther and those following him affirmed that Christ’s body and blood was really present with, under, and in the elements. However, he dismissed the Aristotelian categories which Rome employed. However, the Reformed position questioned this, arguing that Christ’s human nature was necessarily finite in terms of quantity and location. Thus, it was not possible for Christ’s body to be present in every Christian Church on the Lord’s day as it was locally present in, and only in, heaven. Furthermore, if you were to combine and weigh the consecrated bread, it would be much more matter than an average adult human male.

The response by the Lutheran camp was that the omnipresence and infinite quality of Christ’s divine nature was communicated to the human nature such that the human body could be present in multiple places, and could be quantitatively greater than Christ’s human body actually was. The Reformed, rightly I think, argued that this was a violation of the Chalcedonian Definition in that it confused and combined the natures. Although they are not Eutychian, they are not Eutychian simply by manner of fiat. They deny being Eutychian, but I think that their theology bears dangerous affinity with Eutyches in this area.