(Part 2) Theologizing the Person of Christ in the Third Century: Logos Jesus as Philosophical Truth

In chapter three of his book, Christ in Christian Tradition, Aloys Grillmeier, details the establishment of Christianity in the third century as a formal cosmological system comparable to other dominant philosophies (e.g. Platonism, Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, and Middle Platonism). The creedal declarations of the Trinity were an attempt to preserve the mystery of Christian revelation while limiting the use of Greek terms to prevent a total Hellenization of Christianity. Thus, the combination of Christian tradition and philosophy, especially Middle Platonism and Stoicism, developed the Logos convention of the ancient church. Thought they believed Christianity was superior to philosophy, this combination allowed the church to hypostatize the concept of a cosmic Wisdom from Hebrew tradition. However, a combination of Middle Platonism and Alexandrian Judaism stressed God’s absolute transcendence, thereby making the divine Logos appear subordinate to the Father.

Linked to this idea was the procession of the Logos, a common expression in the ancient church that described the Son as permanently emanating from the Father. This procession of the Logos was an act of the Father’s will that revealed a new disposition within the Godhead in relation to creation. Because this description was susceptible to pantheistic or subordinationist tendencies, the fathers of the third century had to begin removing these propensities. According to Hippolytus, the invisible procession of the Son became visible to the world by a simultaneous procession from the Father and from the virgin Mary. At this point in church history, the incarnation merely entailed the divine Logos clothing himself with flesh and dwelling in a body. A two natures Christology was still not yet fully explored.

Tertullian, on the other hand, utilized Stoicism to combat pagan polytheism and monarchianism while stressing the unity of the Father and Son in substance. He speculated that the Father has a full divine substance while the Son flows out of this same nature (“an effluence of this one substance”). From the Stoics, Tertullian believed that Christ had a twofold “status” (state of being, condition) because of his twofold substance of Godhead and manhood. Here, use of the term “person” (persona) makes an appearance as a theological description of the incarnation, which capitalized on trinitarian conceptions. Whereas the Trinity was different in person but one in substance, so Christ was one in person but different in substance. The term “person,” at least in Western Christendom, had the implication of individuality, personality, and countenance. Still, Tertullian lacked the full implications of the hypostatic union.

Finally, Clement of Alexandria theorized that the incarnation was the Son’s entrance into the world, making a connection to Jewish-Alexandrian philosophies, Middle Platonism, and Neo-Platonism. Believing that the Logos begat himself, Clement suggested that Christ never digested food. Instead, the Logos transformed Jesus’ physical body to eliminate all frailty. In contrast, Origen saw the Son as giving form to the invisible properties of the Father. However, the influence of Platonism led Origin to conclude that the Logos already possessed a human soul prior to the incarnation, which the Son later divinized in Jesus. Thus, while Jesus possessed a human soul, it was nonetheless a preexistent aspect of the divine Logos.

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