What's In A Name?

I’ve been reading some more church history for the period beyond 451 CE (the Council of Chalcedon, which marks a natural end to ‘early’ church history for lots of reasons).

Nestorian Priests

Nestorian priests in a procession (courtesy of Wikipedia) - Nestorius was the most vocal proponent of the two-natures, not intermingling, view of Christ.

The period from the early 4th century CE was marked by a power-struggle among Christians to determine what was orthodox and what was heresy. This was overlaid onto political struggles as different bishoprics fought for pre-eminence against the backdrop of the fading glory of the Roman empire. One of the biggest struggles for orthodoxy was on the question of who Christ was.

It had been decided in 325 CE that Jesus was of one substance with God. The battle ground moved off from ‘substance’ to whether Jesus had one or two ‘natures’, or ‘persons’. Arguing over ‘substance’ was not allowed, but arguing over ‘nature’ particularly was definitely in fashion. One faction claimed Jesus had just one nature, another that he had two separate natures, yet another that he had two intermingled natures, and yet another that his divine nature entirely subsumed his human nature.

What has been interesting to think about is the extent to which these factions coalesced on linguistic grounds. If your language, for example, doesn’t make a clear distinction between your ‘substance’ and your ‘nature’ (and very few languages do distinguish in the way Greek did), you are likely to find it baffling how anyone can say Jesus and God are the same substance but different natures. Even today in English it is very difficult to really convey the so called orthodox picture of Christ. It just doesn’t make much sense in our language and culture.

What I find deeply tragic is the effects of this linguistic dispute. At points open war broke out between the factions. And when non-Christian invaders arrived (the mostly understanding Muslims, and the often murderous Mongols) the internal divisions meant that whole states disappeared, church traditions were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost. It is almost inconceivable the human suffering that resulted from a curious peculiarity of the Greek language.

This kind of violent wordplay is still with us, unfortunately.

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1 Comment

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One response to “What's In A Name?

  1. I think a similar think stalled Greek philosophy for 500 years. Vaguely in my memory (though it may be apocryphal) the problem was this: Just as in English, in Greek the word “is” in sentences (A) and (B) means different things: (A) “The man is big” and (B) “The man is home” . But since the word was the same, they assumed it must then operate the same and thus made for philosophical knots that took 500 years to see through.

    In Japanese, this would never have occurred.

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