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

Apollinaris the Heretic

Apollinaris was not, I think, a heretic when first he began to propound his views. A heretic is one who teaches doctrines contrary to those which have been officially established by the church as the truth of Scripture.

This may sound somewhat strange, but it must be remembered that it has often happened in the hard work of developing the truth that one of the church’s theologians, in struggling with a difficult theological or exegetical problem, came up with a “solution” to the problem which was wrong. This is not surprising, for all men in the church of Christ have imperfect understanding. And any one of the saints can come up with wrong ideas about theological problems.

Incidentally, that is why we need each other in the church. It is why no one can ever develop theology “by himself.” We need each other because only the church as a whole is guided by the Spirit into the truth, never one individual person. And so the saints are “checks” on each other, necessary correctors, together guardians of the truth who keep the truth running in the channel of Scripture.

But that is by the way.

Apollinaris came up with a solution to the problem of our Lord’s humanity and divinity, and the relation between them, concepts which were not yet understood by the church. It was a wrong solution, and the church as a whole showed him unmistakably that he was wrong. They demonstrated that his views could not be sustained by Scripture.

It was at that point that he became a heretic. If only he had had the grace and humility to admit that he had erred, and that the solution to the problem had to be sought elsewhere; if only he had said: “Yes, I see that. I see that what I proposed will not do. I shall abandon that position and continue to study in the confidence that the church will come to an understanding of the truth”—if he had said something like that, all would have been well.

But such humility is a rarity even in the church. We “discover” our own solution to a difficult problem, and our own solution becomes a kind of “sacred cow” with us, so that anyone who dares to attack our view is considered by us guilty of something profane. Every attack on our view is an attack on us. Such is pride. This is what often happens. It happened with Apollinaris. Sad.

So insistent on his own position was he that when the church officially condemned his views, he still clung to them, left the church of which he had been a part, and organized several congregations of his followers in the area of Laodicea—for every heretic can gain a following if he tries a bit.

We may hope that Apollinaris repented before he died, although there is no evidence of it.

The Heresy of Apollinaris

What was his heresy?

It seems to me that the problem with Apollinaris was that he had spent too much time with and had thought too highly of pagan philosophy. He was something of a rationalist. That was his downfall.

It did not seem rational to him that our Lord Jesus Christ could be wholly God and wholly man at the same time and still be just one Lord Jesus Christ. One cannot, Apollinaris argued, take two wholes which remain two wholes and make of them one whole. That is, on the surface, nonsense. One cannot (the figure is mine) take a whole orange and a whole apple and unite them in such a way that one has just one piece of fruit while that piece of fruit remains both an orange and an apple. It may be an orange so that the apple is gone. It may be an apple so that the orange is gone. It may even become some kind of orange-apple, a third kind of fruit, neither orange nor apple but a combination of both. But it cannot be one piece of fruit which in every respect is an orange, and in every respect is also an apple.

So our Lord Jesus Christ cannot be wholly God and wholly man and still be one Lord Jesus Christ. He may be wholly God without being a man; or He may be wholly a man without being wholly God; or He may be some kind of God-man — as indeed some proposed. But to be both God and man at the same time and remain both is impossible.

So reasoned Apollinaris.

Now that is a rationalistic approach to the question. It is not an attempt to solve the problem by studying the Scriptures. It is an attempt to solve the problem by applying reason to the problem without paying a great deal of attention to what Scripture says.

One may never do that. Apart now from the problem of Apollinaris, the fact is that the doctrine of Christ teaches us that what man can never do, God does. What never entered the heart of man is God’s perfect wisdom. God’s works are great; and no work is greater than the work of Immanuel, God with us. Whatever else one is going to say, that had better be his starting point.

Now it is rather interesting (and we may just as well introduce the whole matter here, although it played a more important role in later controversies) that there was serious division in the church over this question. In an earlier article we pointed out that there were two seminaries of importance in the church: one in Antioch of Syria and the other in Alexandria of Egypt. And these two did not get along very well. They were always at odds with each other, sometimes in unseemly ways.

In keeping with a certain spirit of competition between these two seminaries, they held different solutions to the question of how Christ could be both God and man at the same time. The seminary at Antioch tended to emphasize the notion that this was possible only because Christ was two “persons.” The seminary in Alexandria wanted to solve the problem by going in the direction of some kind of merger of the two natures of Christ so that the human and the divine nature were mixed together to form a third kind of nature.

What I write here is quite a simplification of the views of these two schools, because no one understood very clearly what such terms as “person” and “nature” really meant; and it was quite necessary to understand these terms to come to an understanding of the truth. But the fact is that these two seminaries tended to go in the direction which I described; and, in fact, later would go precisely in those directions.

Apollinaris was more under the influence of Alexandria than Antioch, which is not surprising when one thinks of the fact that his good friend Athanasius was also from Alexandria.

Here, once again, Apollinaris had listened too much to Greek philosophy. He taught that man was composed of three parts: a body; a lower or animal soul, which is the power in man of the baser emotions, instincts, thoughts, and desires; and a higher soul or spirit, which was the power in man of higher and nobler thoughts, more powerful and significant ideas, etc.

Without getting too technical about all this, we can say that Apollinaris taught that in our Lord Jesus Christ, the “Logos,” spoken of in John 1:1-14, who is truly God, took the place of the human spirit in a man. That is, the divine Logos assumed the nature of a man, but did so by eliminating one part of this man, the spirit, and taking its place. So the Lord Jesus Christ was one Savior, but with a human body and lower soul, and a divine higher soul or spirit. Thus Christ was a sort of mixture of human and divine, not wholly human, not really divine.

That notion would never do. It is possible that already in 362 a synod in Alexandria condemned his views. But surely several synods emphatically rejected what he taught: two synods in Rome in 377 and 382; one synod at Antioch, and later synods condemned his followers. Athanasius, his friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa (both of the latter, wonderful theologians in the early church) wrote against him. Yet, though he was so often condemned, these synods did not once mention him by name, nor did those who wrote against his views. He somehow retained the respect of those who opposed him even though he clung tenaciously to his errors.He should have listened to them. But it was too much to expect.

One powerful argument was brought against his views, especially by Athanasius. It was so simple, yet so profound. It struck at the heart of the problem, and, more importantly, it took the problem out of the arena of philosophical speculation and put it right where it ought to have been: in the arena of salvation. The objection was this. Since our sins have corrupted us in body, soul, and spirit, we need to be saved in body, soul, and spirit. And, therefore, if Christ has saved us, He had to be like us in all things except our sin. He too had to be a man with body, soul, and spirit. That is, He who was the eternal Son of God had to have a human body, and a human soul, and a human spirit. If that is not true, our salvation is impossible.

Apollinaris died some time before 392. He is now long forgotten. His story is only one chapter in the long book of the struggle for the truth. But it is an important chapter. It showed so clearly and for all to understand that our Lord Jesus Christ, to save us poor sinners, had to be like us in all things—except that He had no sin. Only then could He be truly Immanuel, God with us, our Redeemer.