Christology and Ascetic Theology

From 428 to 431, the Bishop of Constantinople was a man named Nestorius who got the heresy “Nestorianism” named after him. To what degree Nestorius was actually “Nestorian” is immaterial for what follows. When I look at the literature surrounding this controversy, three anti-Nestorians stand out in particular: St John Cassian, St Mark the Monk, and St Shenoute of Atripe. Although my actual research into their anti-Nestorian tractates remains to be done, their existence serves as the inspiration for this post, for all three of these opponents of Nestorianism are much more famous as ascetic writers than as theologians.

What is the relationship between ascetic theology and Christology? It is easy enough to see how a monk might object to either Pelagianism or Augustinianism. But what about Christology?

Sound Christology, I believe, lies at the heart of ascetic theology, and therefore of ascetic practice. We have to recall the purpose of the ascetic life, whether lived by a hermit, a monk in community, or the devout Christian today: participation in the life of Christ and an encounter with God, the Most Holy Trinity. In Eastern terms — and all three of the aforementioned monks had their faith nourished in the sands of Egypt — it is theosis, in the beautiful passage from Cassian I keep linking back to.

Asceticism is not just about cultivating a pure heart; seeking purity of heart or apatheia or hesychia is simply … getting the house ready for meeting with God.

Nestorian Christology undermines this. Nestorianism (again, not necessarily Nestorius himself) teaches that Jesus Christ exists as two persons, one human and one divine.

It turns out that the Protestant Reformation has something to say here. One aspect of English Reformation thought I have encountered in the last year (first in Oliver O’Donovan’s On the Thirty-Nine Articles) is the idea that from eternity, God’s good pleasure upon us, upon the elect, is a direct result of God the Father’s loving embrace of God the Son. We are mystically united to Christ through baptism and Eucharist; we are His mystical body. Thus joined to Him, when God the Father looks at love upon God the Son, he looks upon the Church as well.

I have probably expressed that poorly and without full justice to the idea. But that’s how I grasp it, anyway.

In the past month or so, I have been spending time with Richard Hooker and his contemporary interpreters. For Hooker, Chalcedonian Christology was part of the necessary apparatus of our sanctification and union with God, as Ranall Ingalls discusses in a book chapter about Sin and Grace in Hooker. Recall the Chalcedonian Definition of the Faith (which I have translated here), that Jesus Christ exists in two natures but as a single person, without separation and without mixture/confusion. One of the theological results of the explication and elaboration of Chalcedonian Christology is the adoption within Chalcedonian circles (that is, Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox) of St Cyril of Alexandria’s concept of the communicatio idiomatum (I’ve written about this before and also here) — what can be said of Christ as God is also said of Christ as man. Richard Hooker makes a clear articulation of this doctrine in Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V.53.3.

An outworking of Chalcedonian Christology in Richard Hooker, then, is that we are able to be united to God the Holy Trinity through the human nature of Christ, fully united to his divine nature to that full extent laid out in the communicatio idiomatum (implied by his teaching at Laws V.50.3. Thus we read (I modernise the spelling):

Christ is whole with the whole Church, and whole with every part of the Church, as touching his person which can no way divide itself or be possessed by degrees and portions. But the participation of Christ imports, besides the presence of Christ’s person, and besides the mystical copulation [union] thereof with the parts and members of his whole Church, a true actual influence of grace whereby the life which we live according to godliness is his, and from him we receive those perfections wherein our eternal happiness consists. Thus we participate Christ partly by imputation, as when those things which he did and suffered for us are imputed unto us for righteousness; partly by habitual and real infusion, as when grace is inwardly bestowed while we are on earth and afterwards more fully both our souls and bodies made like unto his in glory. -Laws V.56.10, quoted in Ingalls, p. 174

The -ism associated with Nestorius, by breaking the indissoluble unity of the communicatio idiomatum makes this impossible. The union of two persons is not full enough a union to allow for theiosis, essentially. The hypostatic union — which is to say, union according to person — of the reigning Christ, bringing together the fullness of humanity and divinity as one is what allows the end goal of asceticism. If the humanity and divinity are not fully united according to hypostasis, according to person, then the fullness of the human has not been drawn upward into the Godhead.

Therefore, we cannot be united to Christ our God through ascetic effort, maybe not even through pure grace. After all, as St Gregory of Nazianzus said, what has not been assumed has not been healed. The hypostatic union is the result of the full assumption of humanity by God the Word.

This is the entire theological — true theology, true thinking upon and contemplation God Himself — basis of mysticism, and things mystical are the entire point of asceticism. We wish to be pure of heart so that we may see God.

Nestorianism makes sitting on a pillar, praying all night, fasting, wearing uncomfortable clothing, watching one’s thoughts carefully, eating plain food, getting rid of earthly possessions meaningless. It is just ethics, not a pathway to God.

No wonder the monks reject the teaching associated with Nestorius.