Grace and Christology in the Early Church

It is fitting that a blog called “On First Principles” should deal with such principles. This blog has been in existence for almost a decade and I have never figured out what to do with it. But today will perhaps bring some much needed clarity. The first principle of Christian life is JESUS CHRIST. Over the past 10 years I have moved away from some of the basics my old professor at Seminary (Archpriest John Behr) taught me. One thing, however, remains. Maybe even two things.

Christian theology is an answer to the question posed by our Lord “He [Jesus] saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?” (Matthew 16, 15) The answer is to be found in the Scriptures which testify of Him (the Bible). Three creeds can be found which enshrine “The Rule of Faith” of the earliest Church that gave us the Scriptures and taught us how to read them. They are the Apostles Creed (recited multiple times per day), the Nicene Creed (recited at least weekly at the Sunday Mass), and the Athanasian Creed recited monthly in the Book of Common Prayer, but almost daily in St. John Mason Neale’s Breviary Offices).


Christological and Anthropological Grace

In a tightly argued and well researched book Donald Fairbairn has investigated the answer to our Lord’s question above. He does not so much answer the question, as investigate the answer given to it by the early Church. He does so by focusing his attention on three main figures of Church history: 1. Theodore of Mopsuestia, 2. Cyril of Alexandria, and 3. John Cassian. The result of this research is this 288 page tour de force of Christology.

In the first of seven chapters Fairbairn sets the stage for his topic. He first needs to look at grace a bit differently than we are used to. We are introduced to two kinds of grace: anhtropological and christological:nativity

By christological grace, I mean the issue of what (or whom) God gives people through the incarnation and atoning work of Christ. By anthropological grace, I mean the issue of how God leads us to receive and to retain this gift.

~ Donald Fairbairn, Grace and Christology in the Early Church, p. 13.

Anthroplogical grace, as Fairbairn says, has to do with the gift of freedom bestowed upon human beings at their creation and how this relates to the gifts of faith and perseverance that God gives in salvation. Here we enter the debates between – for example – Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants concerning synergism and monergism. In this book this aspect of grace is left to one side in order to focus on what we have called christological grace. The latter is concerned with what or whom Jesus Christ actually gives the Christian what we call salvation.

Thus there was a question of whether grace consisted of Christ’s giving the Christian power, aid, and assistance in reaching that perfect human condition, or whether God gave the believer participation in his own immortality and incorruption.

~ Fairbairn, Grace and Christology, 14.

As we shall see in a moment these two ways of looking at (christological) grace are related to what Fairbairn calls “the structure of salvation” as well as to who or what a particular author thinks Jesus Christ really is.


Cyril, Cassian, & Theodore

It is not hard to see why Fairbairn has chosen Cyril for a study on the Christology of the early Church. If you do have difficulties seeing it perhaps you ought to stop reading here and brush up on your knowledge concerning the “Nestorian Controversy.” Without a basic grasp of this conflict in the early Church much of what this book will argue is going Johncassianto go way over your head.

St. Cyril of Alexandria has been the subject of a great many studies and his importance in the christological debates of the early Church is indisputable. Whether one finds him an attractive character or whether one agrees with him or not is another matter. For Cyril’s thought on the matter of christological grace – even if he did not know the term – Fairbairn asserts that it can be argued that for Cyril “Christ is grace (p. 15).” It is also a fact that Cyril’s teaching on the person and nanture(s) of Jesus Christ are the touchstone of orthodox and catholic theology East and West. He is a doctor of the Church in both traditions primarily for his christological teaching. It is quite fitting therefore that the first axis of the book is St. Cyril of Alexandria.

The second axis of the book is St. John Cassian and Fairbairn admits this may be a bit more difficult to justify. It would seem that the great teachers of the Church in the West to turn to would be St. Augustine and perhaps especially St. Leo the Great whose Tome was read and accepted at Chalcedon as conveying Cyril’s doctrine. So, why Cassian? For three reasons: 1. Cassian is the only one in the West to have contributed a work against Nestorius during the Nestorian Controversy. He was asked to do so by St. Leo the Great. Though it would, perhaps, have been a more evident course of action for Leo to have commissioned such a polemics from St. Augustine since the much respected Bishop and doctor was still alive at the time. 2. Cassian is not an Augustine, lacking the Augustinian orginality and thus more lilely to represent what “the choir was singing rather than the soloist (p. 16).” Bringing Augustine into this study may overwhelm other voices. 3. There has been no serious engagement of Cassian’s christological work in the twentieth century and is therefore long overdue.

The third character to play a major role in this study is Theodore of Mopsuestua. Again some justification may be necessary since, after all, we are chiefly dealing with what has been called “the Nestorian Controversy” and not the “Theodoran Controversy.” Nestorius is famous for having denied that the Blessed Virgin Mary is Theotokos (Mother of God). The logic behind such denial is that God cannot be born from His creature. Nestorius is also known to have written a lengthy – if repetitive – tome in defense of himself and his doctrine. It is also against Nestorius that Cyril and Cassian address their polemic.  It would seem that Nestorius is a much more natural place to look for the christology opposed by both Cyril and Cassian.

All of this can be granted readily. Yet Nestorius is mostly repeating the doctrine taught to him by Theodore without really explaining the depth of it. That is to say Nestorius writes a lot about prosopic union but remarkably little about how this relates to grace (though he does presuppose it). To understand how Nestorian christology relates to grace in its christlogical sense one needs to consult the writings of his teacher: Theodore of Mopsuestia. The purpose of Fairbairn’s study is after all to study christological grace.


Two Structures of Salvation

The final major theme mentioned by Fairbairn in the first chapter concerns salvation. Salvation can be construed in two basic ways: 1. as an act of restoration, or 2. as an act of elevation. The first way of thinking about salvation presupposes – as it were – salvation to be a play consisting of three acts. The first act is that of the creation of humanity in a “state of grace.” The second act in this play is the fall from grace into sin and its consequences. The third act, salvation as such, is the restoration of fallen humanity into its original condition. Fairbairn summarizes:

This way of understanding salvation, then, sees the key acts or movements as creation, fall, and restoration.

Fairbairn, Grace and Christology, p. 18.

The second way to conceive of salvation is as a play consisting of two acts. The original condition of humanity is not so much perfection (state of grace) as it is a condition of imperfection demanding development and completion. Or as Fairbairn says “opportunity.” Humanity is created to attain a state of perfection – state of grace – and it will do so under the guidance of God. There is growth from imperfection to perfection so as to almost exclude any notion of a fall and restoration. Again in the words of Fairbairn:

This scheme sees the key acts as creation and elevation.

Fairbairn, Grace and Christology, p. 18.

The contrast between these two views of salvation has now become clear. These views have a direct impact on how its adherents view Jesus Christ. In other words the way a patristic era author conceives of salvation is directly related to his christology. As the study proceeds it will become clear that those authors tending toward the three act scheme of salvation tend to have a Cyrillian christology, and those who conceive of salvation as a two act play tend toward a Nestorian christology. Once the study begins to treat Cassian it will become clear that – in spite of appearances – Cassian’s soteriology is very much a three act play impacting his christology so as to be basically Cyrillian. Grace and Christology are closely related.

Fr. Gregory Wassen