On the Unity and Suffering of Christ: Lessons from the Early Church for Modern Day Arians and Followers of “Nouvelle Théologie”

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The following was a college essay written by Ben Duphiney. It has been edited and approved by Paul Gillett. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Ben Duphiney, The Catholic University of America

For the past few months or so, I have been in dialogue with a Jehovah’s Witness. While the conversations have been enjoyable, there is one point that I never back down on: the divinity of Jesus. During the early years of the Church, Arians denied the divinity of Jesus. This position, which claims that he is merely “God’s spokesman to humans on earth,” just as modern day Jehovah’s Witnesses do, denies true salvation for humanity.[1] Jesus was not simply a spokesperson, because he was the “the Word was God” and “became flesh and lived among us.”[2] To err about the union of Christ is to follow a path into confusion, darkness, heresy, and falsity. Similar to Jehovah’s Witnesses, other misunderstandings have sprung out of errors about Christ, such as the suffering of Christ. Sr. Elizabeth Johnson claims God eternally suffers, and thus God’s nature is one of suffering and pain. Believers must return to the roots of the Church to purify and elevate theology about Christ. This ressourcement is crucial for drawing closer to the mystery of God incarnate.

In the fifth century, the main heresy that St. Cyril of Alexandria fought against was Arianism. Arianism denies the divinity of Christ, stating that Jesus was a man (i.e. creature) who was elevated by God. While this was addressed at the Council of Nicea, it bred many other offshoots, such as Nestorianism and Monophysitism. The former heresy, inspired by Nestorius, subjected scripture to a literalist lens and concluded that Christ had two entirely distinct natures. The latter heresy stated that Christ only had one nature, a divine one. Cyril of Alexandria, on the other hand, sought to reconcile the apparent problem of the two natures of Christ.

According to Cyril, “[Arians and Nestorians] reduce [Christ] from equality of God the Father by denying his consubstantiality and refusing to crown him with a perfectly identical nature.”[3] The problem with such a position is that human nature merely touches the divine nature, but no change occurs; thus, human nature is unable to be elevated, restored, and saved. It fails to recognize the unity of Christ, whereas Monophysitism states that Christ is strictly divine. Furthermore, the Gospels would be subject to a certain dualism, wherein “Christ as man” did ordinary, natural things and “Christ as divine” did miracles and other supernatural acts. A problem of this heresy is that God eternally suffers, or it only seemed that God suffered; this is expressed in the docetism heresy. Cyril of Alexandria implicity answers the question, “How did the impassible God became passible?” He answers this by seeking to examine the relationship between Christ’s divine and human natures, finding the middle ground between Nestorianism and Monophysitism.

The union between the two natures is referred to as henosis.[4] Derived from the Greek word meaning oneness or unity, it is the key to understanding the mystery of Christ. It is only through kenosis––total emptying––that this union (henosis) is made possible, for Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death…on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him.”[5] Through emptying himself, Christ became equal with man, only for God to raise humanity: theosis. In the words of St. Athanasius, “God became man so that man might become God.”[6]

The hypostatic union of Christ is the perfect union where human and divine nature subsist. Through the economic kenosis––which is particular to the Second Person of the Trinity––temporarily entered into humanity with a specific purpose: to restore and save humanity. The eternal essence of God did not change when Christ entered into flesh. Cyril, addressing those that believe that God’s essence changed, states that “[Jesus Christ] was God in an appearance like ours, and the Lord in the form of a slave. This is what we mean when we say that he became flesh.”[7] In entering into the flesh, “[Jesus] took what was ours to be his very own so that we might have all that was his…when [people] say that the Word of God did not become flesh…they bankrupt the economy of salvation.”[8] God’s own nature has touched human nature through the mission of Jesus Christ. Through the incarnate mission, God temporarily was limited in order to fully enter into union with his creation. Jesus “did not cease to be God when he became man, nor did he regard the economy as unacceptable by disdaining the limitations involved in the self-emptying.”[9] Like the Burning Bush in the third chapter of Exodus, Christ did not destroy human nature; rather, he miraculously bound himself to creation, thus unifying himself to humanity in order to elevate, perfect, and restore it. Just as the fire engulfed the bush, it did not destroy it. The Incarnation “was a type of mystery, of how the divine nature of the Word supported the limitations of the manhood; because he chose to. Absolutely nothing is impossible to him.”[10]

The Cry of Dereliction is when Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[11] It is one of the most thought provoking events in the Gospels. “New” theologies and orthodoxies began claiming that the Cry of Dereliction reveals that God the Father eternally suffers with the God the Son. Similar to Karl Rahner who conflated the economic and immanent Trinity, Theopaschitism arose in the wake of the Holocaust, Nietzche, and Hegel. Many theologians such as Daniel Day Williams, Ronald Goetz, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer all believed that God suffered totally with humanity. Jürgen Moltmann, a Protestant, goes a far to say that the Cry of Dereliction is the death of God. Rather than restoring humanity, God suffers with humanity eternally. Because the suffering of humanity touched all Three Persons of the Trinity, “the suffering God is with us in the here and now. God must answer in the here and now before one can make any sense of the by and by.”[12] Rather than a Savior, Christ and his divine, eternal nature “is a fellow sufferer who understands not because God cannot be otherwise, but because God wills to share our lot.”[13] Goetz’s view is that “the death of God’s Christ is in part God’s atonement to his creatures for evil. Only on the basis of God’s terrible willingness to accept responsibility for evil do we have grounds to trust God’s promise to redeem evil.…it seems apparent that comprehensively to affirm the almighty sovereignty of the self-humbled God requires a drastic rethinking of traditional doctrine.”[14]

 From this abandonment and radical denial of traditional doctrine, many more heresies are inspired. Otto Piper, another German theologian, explained that God is only revealed through human history. This understanding of God’s essence, also known as Process Theology, subjects God to his own creation, making God dependent upon his creation. Sr. Elizabeth Johnson––inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s phrase “Only a suffering God can help us”–– writes that only after the horror of the Holocaust, “pathos…is a central symbol of the prophets’ understanding of God.”[15] While God is revealed through human suffering, “to call God a God of pathos is…a theological [claim]. Like all theological language, it is inadequate.”[16] Johnson’s appeal to Apophaticism keeps God unknowable; we can only know God through negation.

While these “new” theologies and orthodoxies are appealing, they are dangerously misleading for the faithful. Rather than “rethinking traditional doctrine” theologians must return to the rich sources of the Church––a ressourcement to the Church Fathers. St. Cyril of Alexandria states that “God…has come into the likeness of those who were in danger, so that in him first of all the human race might be fashioned to what it was in the beginning [before the Fall]. In [Christ] all things became new.”[17] Christ does not enter into his fallen creation and remain fallen with it; if this were to happen, would humanity even be redeemed? Johnson, Piper, and other theologians who attempt to reinvent the wheel of salvation miss out on the divine nature, which is love itself. This love is not merely an emotional feeling; rather it is a love that enters into humanity, suffers, and restores. When Christ entered into humanity, he “did not change even when he assumed flesh endowed with a human soul.”[18] If he did not restore humanity while remaining divine, Christ is “a falsely-named son, a saved savior…[who] contradicts what the blessed Paul wrote: ‘For the grace of God which is salvation of all men has been revealed so that, renounce unrighteousness and worldly desires, we might live soberly and religiously in the present age, waiting for the blessed hope and revelation of of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.’”[19]

Christ is a beautiful mystery and “the world itself could not contain the books that would” record his life, miracles, and parables.[20] Through revelation and natural reason, man can come to know God, rather than passively accepting Apophaticism, or merely finding God in the evil and suffering of the world. Christ entered into humanity to sanctify his creation that once fell. The words of St. Cyril of Alexandria are still relevant today, especially for the new wave of theology that views traditional doctrine as outdated. The truth lies within the heart of the Church, and one must not attempt to appeal to crowds or get carried away by his own thoughts––lest he were to start his own reformation.


St. Athanasius, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei

St. Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ

New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version

Ronal Goetz, The Suffering God: The Rise of a New Orthodoxy; https://www.religion-online.org/article/the-suffering-god-the-rise-of-a-new-orthodoxy/

Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, Quest for the Living God


[2]John 1:1, 14; NRSV

[3]Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ; p. 50


[5]Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ; p. 55; Philipians 2:5-11, NRSV

[6]St. Athanasius, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei

[7]Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ; p. 55

[8]Ibid., p. 59

[9]Ibid., p. 76

[10]Ibid., p. 78, cf. Mark 10:27

[11]Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34; cf. Psalm 22, NRSV

[12]Ronal Goetz, https://www.religion-online.org/article/the-suffering-god-the-rise-of-a-new-orthodoxy/



[15]Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, Quest for the Living God, p. 56

[16]Ibid., p. 58

[17] Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ; p. 88

[18]Ibid., p. 89

[19]Ibid.,  p. 89-90; cf. Titus 2:11-13, NRSV

[20]John 21:25, NRSV

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