Why Does it Matter that Jesus is God and Man: Christological Heresies and the Truth

Elizabeth Kotelly

Why Does it Matter that Jesus is God and Man: Christological Heresies and the Truth

There is an old saying in horsemanship: so goes the head, so goes the body. Minute misdirection on the front end can lead the whole body astray.  

As Catholics, we know the Christ is our Head and we are His Body, and together we make up one Church. Unlike in horsemanship, the head cannot err; however, we can err in our understanding of the head, Jesus Christ, and when we do the effects permeate throughout the Church as well as the wider culture.  

The first 800 years of Church history presents a deposit of rich theological development and dogma, almost all of which arose in the aftermath of Trinitarian and Christological heresies. Many heresies even sought to remedy previous ones, but overcorrected and muddied attempts to arrive at the truth.  

For the lay person, poor theology manifested (and manifests) in aberrations in the daily living of the faith. For example, Gnosticism restricts expressions of faith to an esoteric mysticism accessible to an elite few.  It also denies the humanity of Christ by way of dualism (spirit good, matter bad). If Christ’s humanity and, thus, incarnation are denied, it doesn’t matter much what comes of our bodies. During the reign of this heresy, Catholics fell into a strict asceticism characterized by severe penances driven by disdain for the body, or a hedonistic lifestyle of debauchery. Both fail to recognize the dignity of the human person, and this failure stems from the Gnostic denial of Christ’s humanity.  

Heresies don’t just lead people astray; they fundamentally undermine and invalidate vital aspects of our faith. Brought to their conclusion, were heresies accurate, they would render impossible salvation because they distort the tenants of the faith to such a degree as to nullify the truth of God’s love for us. The philosophically vague promulgations of past heretics, instead of deepening the faith of the Church, left Her confused and in need of clarification. When considered spiritually, heresy has a particular note of tragedy to it, because it severs the bond between the Bride and the Bridegroom: either His face or characteristics or actions of love are misunderstood, caricatured, or denied, or the Church in Her mission, purpose, structures, and beloved people are misunderstood, caricatured, or denied.  

It's helpful to examine the life, death, and resurrection of our Bridegroom in light of heresies to understand how errors in theology prevent the fullness of love, if brough to fruition. Should heresy prevail, vital aspects of truth vanish and we’re left with spiritual Jenga-collapse.  

Let’s examine three heresies pertaining to Christ’s life, Christ’s death, and Christ’s resurrection, and how these and their theologically sound corrections form us as the Bride of Christ.  

One heresy that touches upon the life of Christ with a certain uniqueness is Apollinarianism, which Apollinaris proposed in the mid-300s prior to its condemnation in at the First Council of Constantinople in 381. This heresy alleged that Christ had a human body and a sensitive soul (human affect and emotions), but a divine rationality. Were this true, Christ wouldn’t have a human mind. Depending on further scholastic developments in theology, one could argue that Apollinaris would have considered Christ’s will to be divine as well. Apollinaris was likely trying to safeguard the rational faculty against the throes of sin; if Christ had a divine mind, then we could know with certitude that His mind was impervious to sin and thus, not liable to destruction. The significance this has for humanity is considerable: if Christ did not assume a human mind (and rational faculties in general) in His Incarnation, then He also did not redeem them on the Cross and in the Resurrection. You and I, under the aegis of this heresy, have redeemed bodies and emotions, but unredeemed minds. Of course, this is not the case as Christ redeems and sanctifies the whole man. Christ has a human intellect. Our rational faculties along with the rest of us play a particular role in the divine economy and God’s salvation plan for history.  

On a deeper level, it is often the case that heretics fail to see the possibilities of grace beyond human limitations. In the case of Apollinaris, the futility of the mind seemed more certain than the power of grace to redeem it. Another heresy makes a similar miscalculation: Docetism. Docetism holds that Christ’s body and Incarnation are illusions, and that He only appeared to take on flesh and die on the Cross. His incorporeal nature made his death impossible.  n this case, Christ did not assume any of humanity, which means that nothing of you and I was redeemed on the Cross. The major confusion herein lies in a misunderstanding of the truth of the impassibility of divinity. It is certainly the case that God in His divinity cannot die; it is just as certain that God in His humanity can. Docetism cannot maintain the paradox of seeming contraries.  

How does this relate to our life as Catholics? God has given us an impossible mission: to be a spotless Bride. We will never be capable of achieving this, but He is more than capable of bestowing on us bridal treasures and lifting our flesh and nature in restorative grace to heaven. He asks us to maintain these contrary but simultaneously true realities as we live the faith. Heresies cannot operate beyond one-dimensional perspectives because they have the character of limited rationality unimbued with the limitless expansiveness of grace. Part of being an “Easter people” is proclaiming the conquest of grace over the purely sensible. Miracles and the resurrection specifically, will always challenge our minds, which seek certain understanding. The beauty of grace is that it tempers us into a sanctified confidence in God who is without measure or limitation.

A final heresy we ought to consider in light of Easter: monophysitism. This heresy proposes that Christ had one nature. According to monophysitism, He had a purely divine nature, but not a human one. While numerous subversions of this heresy arose, they all characteristically maintained that Christ had only one nature. Hence, He was fully divine but not fully human. In John’s gospel account, Mary Magdalene tries to hold onto Christ in the garden after the Resurrection; later Thomas places his hands in Christ’s side; later Christ eats fish on the shoreline. We know that this God is Man, and that His humanity mysteriouly endures despite death on the cross. 

The mystery of God incorporates our humanity into His divinity and sets for us a stage and model of what our life is to image as Catholics. Like a good shepherd, master, and bridegroom, He makes a way for us with His own life and leads us according to His Person. It is essential, then, for us to seek understanding of who He is in faith.