Christmas & Apollinarianism

Speaking of the past, it has been an old habit of mine at this time of year to read something in keeping with this season that emanates from the past. This year it was Gregory of Nazianzus’ First Letter to Cledonius, also known as Letter 101. Gregory Nazianzen (c.330-390)—or Greg Naz as my Doktorvater, John Egan, used to call him—has long been a favourite theologian. He could be a bit waspish at times—witness his On His Life. But what profoundity of theology he penned. His letter to Cledonius was written in 382 and addresses a then-growing controversy surrounding how best to understand the Incarnation. How exactly are the two natures one in Jesus Christ? In some ways, it is a more difficult theological issue than the doctrine of the Trinity. Gregory is writing against Apollinaris, a long-time defender of Nicene Trinitarianism. Apollinaris seems to have regarded the deity within the person of Jesus Christ as serving instead of a human mind. Gregory rightly rejects this position. For, as he argues, what has not been assumed cannot be redeemed, or, in his own words: “the unassumed is the unhealed” (Letter 101.5) The Incarnation must involve the assumption of all that entails genuine humanity—including mind—otherwise redemption cannot come to that aspect of humanity.

It is rich theology and is a salutary reminder that there is far more to Christmas than even we believers often think! By the way, the translation I was reading is that of Lionel Wickham, St. Gregory of Nazianzus: On God and Christ. The Five Theological Orations and Two letters to Cledonius (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002). Frederick Williams, now teaching at Queens University Belfast, translated one of the theological orations; Wickham did the rest.