Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


After a long and bitter struggle in the early Christian church over the heresy of Arianism, the truth of the absolute divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ had been established. This truth had been established and incorporated into a creed of the church by the Council of Nicea which met, under the auspices of the emperor Constantine the Great, in the year 325. The doctrine had been reaffirmed by the Council of Constantinople in the year 381. From that time it has been confessed by the church of Christ in every age, even though, throughout the centuries, others have risen who have denied it.

But these decisions did not mean that the controversies over the truth of Christ were at an end. It is true the church had declared that it was the teaching of Scripture that our Lord Jesus Christ was divine, very God of very God. But nothing had been said about the fact that He was also like us in all things, except for our sin.

There were specific questions which the church was forced to face. How was our Lord like us? It could hardly be denied that the Scriptures describe the life of Christ as One who was born just as we are; who ate, drank, grew, walked the roads of Palestine, talked with many; who did the same things we do. How could that be, when He was very really God?

Further, the church also emphatically agreed that the divine nature could not suffer. And yet our Lord, who was God, suffered. How was that possible?

But the questions did not end here. Perhaps more importantly, all knew that only God can save us from our sins, and salvation by the power of the One who was truly God was obviously sound doctrine. But the church had also a clear understanding of what our Heidelberg Catechism later set down as truth: He who saves us from our sins must be truly man, for “God will not punish any other creature for the sin which man has committed” (Lord’s Day 5).

It was, of course, easy to answer these questions by simply saying that our Lord Jesus Christ was both God and man, which, in itself, is true. But the fact remains that such a statement could not be satisfactory, for one must still find some answers to the burning question: How could one be both God and man at the same time? And, in what way was Christ God and in what way was He a man?

The questions were many and difficult, and the church did not immediately see how they could be answered.

Other questions arose as well, questions which had to do chiefly with the worship of the church. We can mention a few of them here. One such question was: How was Christ present in the Lord’s Supper? Was He present as divine or was He present as a human? When the saints partook of the Lord’s Supper, did they partake of Christ’s divinity, and/or of His humanity?

Another question involved the worship of Christ. If Christ is divine, and He is, surely we must worship Him. But if He is human, may we nevertheless worship Him, for it is wrong to worship a man.

By this time in history, many monks were present in the church. They had a special knack for complicating things. Especially the monks in Egypt, where the whole idea of asceticism arose in the first place, developed a rather elaborate doctrine of Mary. Perhaps because they themselves had taken vows of celibacy, much attention was given to Mary, the mother of the Lord, and many great and wonderful things were said of her. In fact, the whole Romish doctrine of Mariology really arose among the monks in Egypt.

In their veneration of Mary, they exalted her as “the mother of God,” and applied a term to her which gave her that honor. The term was a Greek term, theotokos, which literally means, “mother of God.” While it is not now the time to go into the term and its proper or improper use, the fact is that that term was to cause almost constant grief in the church for over 100 years. Monks had a way of doing that.

But the term theotokos added confusion to an already confusing situation. If Mary was the “mother of God,” was she also the “mother of a man,” the man Jesus? If so, how could she be the mother of both at the same time?

All these questions came down to one great question: How could our Lord Jesus Christ be at the same time both God and man?

These were the questions that triggered the great Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries, and were finally settled by the creed of Chalcedon.

This article on Apollinaris is only one chapter in the long and involved story. Nor does this chapter bring us to the final answer of the church. It is the story of one man’s solution to the problem, and the story of the church’s rejection of that solution as an answer insufficient and inadequate to do justice to all that Scripture says concerning our Savior.

God’s Greater Wisdom

I must mention one other aspect of the controversy which I want to talk about in this article. It is really an aspect, not just of this controversy, but of all the controversies which followed. It has to do with what strikes me as an amazing display of God’s wisdom.

In an earlier article, written quite long ago, I mentioned the fact that while heresy in the church was certainly to be explained as Satan’s way of destroying the truth and the church which needed the truth to survive, God used heresy to goad the church to develop the truth. A striking demonstration of this is to be found in these controversies over the doctrine of Christ.

Let me state that truth now. The truth which the church confessed concerning the Lord Jesus Christ since the time of Chalcedon is this: Our Lord Jesus Christ united in His one person, the person of the Son of God, both the divine nature and the human nature. He was, therefore, personally, the eternal Son of God, the second person of the holy Trinity. He united in His one person the whole of the divine nature, so that he was indeed, as Nicea confessed, very God of very God, and a complete human nature, so that He was like us in all respects, except for our sin.

Now, before that truth was confessed and set down in creedal form by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, this solution was preceded by every possible heresy which one could imagine. One taught that the humanity of Christ was not real, but had only ghost-like characteristics (some Gnostics, whom we discussed earlier). Another said that Christ had one person, a divine person, and had only one nature, a kind of mixture of divine and human. He was a sort of God-man. Another said that Christ possessed two natures, a divine nature and a human nature, but that this was possible only because Christ also was two persons, a divine person and a human person.

Interestingly, it was not all that long ago that I heard a radio minister teach this latter error. He was trying to explain how Christ could be tempted. He solemnly assured his listeners that the temptations of Christ were real only because Christ could have fallen into sin. But then he rightly considered the question how it was possible for God to sin. His answer was that, while it was not possible for God to sin, Christ was also a man, and therefore, as a man, could sin.

But more of this later. I do not want to run ahead of my story. Now I am interested only in showing that every possible denial of the truth was considered by the church before the truth itself was finally discovered and set down in a confession.

When I was still teaching Catechism classes in “The Essentials of Reformed Doctrine” and came to that lesson in the “Essentials” book which deals with the person and natures of Christ, I would first lead the young people through a brief history of these controversies before teaching them the biblical doctrine concerning Christ. It helped them to understand something of the great mystery of God become flesh.

What I am saying is this. God led the church to consider every possible mistaken idea concerning the relation between the two natures of Christ before guiding the church by His Spirit into the truth. Only by considering what is wrong could the church finally see what is right.

This is a wisdom of God to help us poor mortals who are so hard of hearing and dull of understanding that we find it almost impossible to know the great mysteries of the works of almighty God.

The Life of Apollinaris

It is almost embarrassing to write about the lives of these early men. If one is expecting an interesting and exciting biography one is bound to be disappointed, because so little is known that one has difficulty filling one page with the actual facts of their life.

But history has provided us with a few interesting details of the life of Apollinaris, the man of whom we write.

He was born somewhere around 310. He was 15 years old when the great Council of Nicea was held. His father must have named him after himself, because the father is known as Apollinaris the Elder, and the one in whom we are interested was called Apollinaris the Younger.

They were apparently very close and in fact collaborated for many years in various writing projects of one sort or another. They were both Christians, and Apollinaris the Elder served as presbyter (elder) in the church for many years.

Apollinaris the Younger received a classical education and went on to teach rhetoric in the city of Laodicea. In that city was a church, the bishop (minister) of which was Theodotus.

Now that in itself was interesting. You will recall that around the end of the first century, when the apostle John was banished to the island of Patmos, a church already existed in that city. Laodicea was one of the seven churches of Asia Minor to which our Lord wrote letters, which letters are recorded in Revelation 2 and 3. These seven churches were all in the western part of Asia Minor, in the province called Asia. It is quite probable that they were all organized while Paul was working in Ephesus, when laborers in the gospel went out into all the area to bring the gospel. Laodicea was most likely one of those churches.

Over the space of less than 50 years that church had become all but apostate and, in His letter to them, the Lord threatened to spew them out of His mouth. But here, 300 years later, a church was in that city. It may have been that the church of Laodicea repented of its sin in obedience to the command of the Lord and thus continued to exist as a church; or it may be, and this is more likely, that the faithful in this apostate church heard and obeyed the call of Christ, who was standing at the door of the church knocking and calling His faithful out. After leaving a church which had become the false church, the faithful reorganized the church; and that was the one which is mentioned here in our story of Apollinaris.

Apollinaris the Younger also became a presbyter (elder) in the church of Laodicea, which would seem to indicate that both father and son were men of exceptional ability.

But both had one flaw: they were deeply involved in the reading and study of pagan philosophy; they both loved pagan learning; and they both gave themselves too much to it. About this time, both were very closely associated with and became friends of some pagan philosophers in the city who were Sophists. As a result they were excommunicated by their church; but they repented of their sin and, after confession, were received back into the fellowship of the church.

They never, however, shook free from their love of pagan culture, and in the course of the years, they collaborated in the writing of a great deal of secular prose and poetry. Their gifts of writing were so great that they gained something of an international reputation among scholars and authors.

Eventually Apollinaris the Elder died and Apollinaris the Younger became bishop (minister) of the church in Laodicea. It was about 346 that Apollinaris the Younger met and became a lifelong friend of the great Athanasius, the powerful defender of Nicean orthodoxy who suffered so much because of the truth. From that time on, Apollinaris joined forces with Athanasius and was himself an influential defender of the truth of the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ.

But he was by no means one who stood in the shadow of the great Athanasius; he acquired a superb reputation by his own accomplishments. We can mention only a few here.

He was a gifted Hebrew scholar, mastered that language, and became a skilled exegete who put the books from Genesis to I Samuel into poetry and drama. His exegetical abilities shone brightly in the firmament of the church, for he was known everywhere as a sober and sensible expounder of the Word of God who avoided that dreadful allegorizing which was so characteristic of so many preachers in his day. He was famous as a theologian, and some claimed that his theological abilities were greater than those of Athanasius himself. He was a prolific writer and penned some thirty books which defended the Christian faith against various heresies. He was one of the great theological writers of all time—although, sad to say, almost none of his works have survived the destructive forces of time. He was a wise and respected minister in the church where God had placed him.

For all these accomplishments and more, he was held in high esteem by friend and foe alike. And, in fact, when he began to teach various erroneous views of Christ’s person and natures, those who attacked his views, and synods which condemned his views, rarely, if ever, mentioned him personally and by name.

But he became a heretic in spite of all these accomplishments. And that is sad.

… to be continued.