How your Christology affects your Spirituality

The Church experienced significant theological developments in its theology concerning Christ, or Christology, during the first two centuries of its existence. At that time, the two main centers of the Church were in Alexandria and Antioch. Alexandria was mostly influenced by Greek thinking while Antioch was predominantly Hebrew/Jewish. Naturally, Greeks and Jews had their particular worldviews that affected the construction of their theologies as faith seeking understanding. On one side, Greek thinkers hailed from a Hellenist tradition that was highly philosophical, speculative and conceptual. It was a type of theology done from above. On the other side, Jews appropriated faith as a way of life. For them, theology implied practical living, which made their approach less philosophical or metaphysical, making it more holistic and constructed from bellow.

One of the early Christological positions to originate from the highly philosophical and speculative Hellenistic worldview was Docetism. The term Docetism is rooted in the Greek dokeo, which means “to seem” or “to appear”. Among some of the earliest docetic sects were the Gnostics. Characteristic to Gnosticism was a dualistic view of matter and spirit. Gnostics believed that all matter was evil, since it was bound to corruption, degradation and sinfulness. They therefore viewed the body as a temporal prison of the spirit, which in turn was eternal and pure. In Docetism, if Jesus were indeed divine, he could not have been fully incarnate, which would have made him prone to corruption. Instead, Jesus was immaterial. The Docetics believed that Jesus’ bodily form was only an apparition, where his life, suffering and death were merely an appearance.

Whereas Docetism emerged as a Christological heresy among the Greeks, in the Jewish camp Adoptionism was gaining popularity. Among some of the groups who adopted such view was the Ebionites, who subscribed to a strong Jew/Hebrew worldview. Consequently, their theology of God was essentially monotheistic. Yahweh was the one true God of the Old Testament. Nevertheless, Jesus was a remarkably righteous and wise man who became Messiah through the baptism of the Holy Spirit and rigorous obedience to the law. The Ebionites viewed Jesus as a second Moses, to whom sonship was given through adoption for the sake of carrying out God’s purposes in the world. So the term “Son of God” referred only to his political office as Messiah. Therefore, the term Adoptionism came to describe Jesus’ relationship to God. In the Adoptionist view, Jesus was not fully divine, eternal and co-existent with the Father. In Adoptionism Jesus did not share God’s divine nature and was never fully divine,  whereas in the Docetic view, Jesus was solely divine and never fully human.

As these heresies began to gain popularity, bishops of church gathered in two ecumenical councils in order to resolve the issue. The first to be convened was the Council of Nicea in 325, which focused on the divinity of Christ and how to precisely define his relationship with the Father. A resolution was found through the arguments of Athanasius who placed Christ’s deity as equal to the Father. The Nicene Creed affirmed the Christ was “Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” Once the divinity of Christ was established, a second council was convened in 451 in Chalcedon in order to define how the two natures of Christ, human and divine, related to each other. Their main goal was to find a middle ground between Nestorianism, which divided the two natures, and Eutychianism, which saw no distinction between the two. By use of apophatic theology, the council was able to declare “Christ as truly God and truly man, consubstantial with the Father in his Divinity and consubstantial with humankind in his humanity.”

Docetism and Adoptionism represent two extremes which are silently still alive today. Christians in Western societies often struggle with the place of religion in the totality of their lives. Secularism in the West restricted faith to the private realms of society. The tendency is then to think of faith as something highly speculative that deals only with the metaphysical, or spiritual things. Faith is then something someone “chooses to believe in” as encouraged by expressive individualism. It’s a personal and private belief and should not affect the rest of society. Faith is between the person and God in heaven. On the other hand, flavors of Adoptionism are predominantly found in the Global South where faith from folk religions is seen as something highly pragmatic, confined mostly to the material reality. Folk religions from the Global South often focus on the spiritual realm as a means to manipulate the natural reality. The spirits are there to heal, ensure a good harvest and even deal with a person’s enemies. In the folk setting, Christ then becomes a more powerful entity that will bring a solution to my problems, making faith only useful to this life alone.

Given this scenario, you can probably now place yourself somewhere in this spectrum. Our view of Christ, our Christology, affects who we are as Christians, our spirituality. What the two councils affirmed was a yes to these two extremes. By doing so, they mashed Christ’s divinity and humanity in the same person, whereby Christ is fully in touch with our own humanity and capable to understand everything we go through, all the while remaining fully aware that creation will only reach its wholeness in the resurrection. A healthy spirituality is one that sees Christ in all of the created realm and understands that he has a mission in the world, all the while worshiping him in reverence as God and the Sovereign Creator of the Universe.