Jesus Christ in the Early Church

We cannot understand the overall story of the early church unless we are aware of the theological debates that took place during the seven Ecumenical Church Councils that were held between 325 and 787.

Jesus Christ: Fully God and Fully Man

The focus of these councils of bishops (lead elders) primarily addressed the triune nature of God (the Trinity), and the person of Jesus Christ (Christology). In the early church, the central idea of the Christian faith was the title Immanuel—God with us (Matthew 1:23). The New Testament teaches that Jesus Christ was both fully human and fully divine. John 1:1 reads, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:14 reads, “And the Word became human and lived among us. We saw his glory—the glory of the one and only Son that came from the Father—full of grace and truth.“ Paul writes in Colossians 1:15 and 2:9, “Jesus Christ is the exact image of the invisible God… In Jesus Christ the fullness of the nature of God dwells in a body.” In the early church, any teaching that denied either the full humanity or full divinity of Jesus Christ was declared to be false.

Jesus Christ: Beyond Human Language

Although this understanding concerning Jesus Christ is biblically clear, the precise description of the relationship between his human nature and divine nature is paradoxical and impossible to reconcile in precise human language. By 400, the majority of the early church had agreed on the triunity of God’s nature (the Trinity), and believed that Jesus Christ was fully human and fully God. The first and second Ecumenical Church Councils, held in 325 and 381, affirmed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were fully equal. The council of 381 wrote the final version of the Nicene Creed that established the triune nature of God as the true (orthodox) teaching of mainstream Christianity.

Starting with the Ecumenical Church Council in Ephesus, in 431, the primary theological debate centered on what was the exact relationship between the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ. The primary point of contention was whether he had one nature or two. The Chalcedon Ecumenical Church Council held in 431 concluded that Jesus Christ had two natures—human and divine—fully united in one person, and that these two natures existed without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation.

Jesus Christ: The Chalcedon Definition of the Early Church

Today, the Chalcedon council definition of Jesus Christ remains the accepted understanding for the majority of Christians around the world. However, following the Chalcedon council there were many Christians living primarily in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt who continued to believe that Jesus had only one nature (Monophysite/ Miaphysite). As a result, the early church was divided for several centuries over the theological nature of Jesus Christ. Looking back to the early church today, many Christians agree that these two positions of Jesus Christ were not that different, and that most of the church division was caused by the technical wording and terms that were used at that time in an attempt to explain in precise human language the mystery of the incarnation.

Jesus Christ: Specialized Terminology in the Early Church

Numerous early church theologians attempted to explain with precision that Jesus Christ was both human and divine. In this effort, highly trained theologians—especially the Cappadocian Fathers: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory the Theologian—developed specialized terms and concepts that provided a framework for Christology to be discussed in degrees of union.

These early church theologians established subtle yet critical differences between a number of key words. By the end of the 300s, this vocabulary shaped the ongoing debates of the Ecumenical Church Councils.

Jesus Christ: Four Primary Terms Used in the Early Church

The four primary terms were being, nature, substance, and person. (1) Being (Greek: ousia; Latin: essentia). (2) Nature (Greek: physis; Latin: natura). Physis meant nature, in the sense of “one’s true nature.” (3) Individual reality (Greek: hypostasis; Latin: substantia). (4) Personality (Greek: prosopon; Latin: persona).