A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

“On When Christ was Called Such”

The Son of God, coeternal and consubstantial with the Father, took human nature to himself, died, and rose again.

Who is the person who did all this, this person we are talking about? Jesus Christ.

But if you say a few more sentences about him, you quickly find yourself needing to use names or titles that make distinctions. You need to pick out this one same person, but from different perspectives, or in different aspects, or at different moments. For example, if you say “let me tell you something Jesus did,” your listeners will expect, perfectly reasonably, to hear about something the son of Mary did. If you then go on to say, “he became incarnate,” they will have a moment of disorientation. Wasn’t he not yet the son of Mary, but about to become the son of Mary? Similarly, we can easily get confused if we say “Jesus made the heavens and the earth.” We are referring to the same person, of course: no other one did this set of things in this way. But we can get our claims needlessly tangled up if we refuse to draw distinctions between them at all, or if we make the opposite error of drawing so many distinctions that they confuse us or fail to refer clearly.

John of Damascus deals with this issue in chapter 79 of On the Orthodox Faith, entitled “On When Christ was Called Such.”

He begins by saying (p. 233) that it is an error to think that Christ was called Christ before taking human nature. John blames Origen for this error,1 and moves on quickly to correct it by making his own point: “But we say that the Son and Word of God became Christ and was called such from the time that he came to dwell in the womb of the holy ever-Virgin and became flesh…” (234)2

So John offers a helpful rule for how to speak about this person in two different contexts of discourse. To put the rule more elaborately: He is eternally and by his own inherent nature the Son of God and the Word of God, so we can call him those titles when considering him in this way. But for us and our salvation, by grace and by the assumption of our nature, he became Christ, and we could also say Jesus, in the course of the history of salvation.

The ancient church worked with a distinction between what God is in himself by nature, and what God does toward us by grace. John introduces this distinction very early in On the Orthodox Faith, among the foundational precepts of chapter 2.. He says that anyone who wishes to speak or hear about God must grasp the distinction between “what belongs to theology and what to the economy.” [τά τε τῆς θεολογίας τά τε τῆς οἰκονομίας] (Russell p. 60.)

What we have here in chapter 79 is a proposal to inscribe the theologia-oikonomia distinction into the titles of Christ, and use that larger framework to guide our usage when we find that we need to speak precisely. “Son” and “Word’ belong to theologia, “Christ” to the economy.

John then makes his way forward with a series of quotations from authoritative sources. First he quotes Cyril of Alexandria:

For I myself hold that one should give the name of Christ Jesus neither to the Word from God without his humanity, nor to the temple born from a woman but not united with the Word. For the Word from God is understood to be Christ once he has been united ineffably to the humanity by the economic union [καθ’ ἕνωσιν οἰκονομικὴν]. (234)

And again from Cyril:

Some say that the name of Christ is given correctly only to the Word begotten from God the Father, to him alone as conceived of separately by himself and existing in his own right. But we have not been taught to think and speak in this way. For it was when the Word became flesh that we say he was called Christ Jesus. (234)3

Notice how difficult it is, and how many awkward words it takes, for Cyril to pick out and distinguish who he is talking about and how he is talking about him: “him alone as conceived of separately by himself and existing in his own right.” It would be a lot easier to call this person Jesus! But one of John’s points here is to make a distinction, to remind us that Jesus Christ is the name that picks out the incarnate savior. Cyril of Alexandria certainly knows that the eternal Son and the incarnate Christ are exactly the same person: Cyril is famous for making this point. But we should speak of him in a way that doesn’t blur the theologia-oikonomia distinction.

And finally, from (pseudo-)Athanasius:

He who existed as God before his appearance in the flesh was not a human being, but being invisible and impassible was God in relation to God [θεὸς ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεὸν]. Therefore neither is the name ‘Christ’ applicable to him without the flesh [δίχα τῆς σαρκὸς], since the passion and death follow upon the same [ἀκολουθεῖ τῷ ὀνόματι τὸ πάθος καὶ ὁ θάνατος].4

So, when was Christ called such? The names Jesus and Christ apply to him in his incarnation. To apply these names to the pre-incarnate Christ (“without the flesh”) is to invite confusion about the comprehensive framework within which we speak about God’s being and actions.

Vigilant readers with a strong sense of theological history might be thinking something like, “the last guy to come around here saying we should be extremely careful about how we call Christ Christ and how we call him God was …Nestorius!” It’s an understandable objection; thank you. My response is that, formally, this blog post is a tissue of quotations from John of Damascus and, via him, Cyril & some early pseudo-Athanasius. So it’s an extremely conservative riff on Cyrilline neoChalcedonianism; hardly Neestorian. Materially, I’m not even addressing the nature of the hypostatic union itself or suggesting a revision to the traditional conciliar account of it, but arguing for how to teach it effectively. Nestorius’ recommendation to say Christotokos was apparently (according to Cyril) based on an actual reconfiguration of how the divine and human are present in the incarnate one.

It seems obvious to me that there are times and places, when speaking about God and the gospel, that no name will make our sentences complete and our minds and hearts full except the name of Jesus. Christians speak this way, and we shouldn’t be afraid to keep speaking this way. Arguably, even Paul the apostle uses the name Jesus to take in the full scope of the story of the one who made himself nothing and took on the form of a servant, even to the point of death on a cross (Phil 2). Paul certainly doesn’t start that story by referring to “the Word separate from the flesh” or “the second person of the Trinity,” and he wouldn’t have done so even if those phrases were on is table. The author of Hebrews is also wonderfully judicious and effective in deploying the savior’s name (I invite you to do a quick study of the occurrences of the name Jesus in Hebrews; it’s really something else). But there are also times and places when we risk sowing real confusion if we insist on using the same word, title, or name to pick out all the phases or aspects of who the Son is and what the Son does. That’s when we’ll be grateful that John the Evangelist gave us categories like “The Word was in the beginning… the Word became flesh.” We’ll also be grateful that John of Damascus gave us an exact exposition of “when Christ was called such.”


1Normal Russsell’s editorial footnote points to “the second of the anti-Origenist canons of 543,” which “anathematized anyone who held that the Lord’s soul pre-existed before the incarnation.” So Origen had (as usual) complex reasons for saying what he said, and John has eighth-century reasons for name-checking the third-century author. We’ll need to set that aside to get to the key point. We also need to bracket the issues raised by the fact that “Christ” means anointed, and that often when early Christian writers explore our question about referentiality, they are also interested in the questions “when was the Son anointed, in what sense, and in which nature?” These are well worth pursuing! And even on the page I’m quoting from, John engages the question, and cites Gregory of Nazianzus on it. But I’m only pursuing a narrower question of what to call the Son at various points in theological discourse, and for my purposes the name Jesus, or the combination Jesus Christ, is sufficient.

2But see the the bottom of this post for how I’ve corrected this text.

3 This line from Cyril makes my point so precisely that I’ll share the Greek: Τινές φασιν, ὅτι τὸ Χριστὸς ὄνομα πρέπει καὶ μόνῳ καὶ ἰδίᾳ καθ’ αὑτὸν νοουμένῳ καὶ ὑπάρχοντι, τῷ ἐκ θεοῦ πατρὸς γεννηθέντι λόγῳ. Ἡμεῖς δὲ οὐχ οὕτως δεδιδάγμεθα φρονεῖν ἢ λέγειν· ὅτε γὰρ γέγονε σὰρξ ὁ λόγος, τότε καὶ ὠνομάσθαι λέγομεν Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν. TLG

4The Athanasius work in question, probably not genuine but nevertheless influential by way of quotations, is On the Incarnation Against Apollinaris. As Russell helpfully notes, John is taking these Cyril and Athanasius quotations from the florilegium known as the Doctrina Patrum. I have the late Lionel Wickham’s personal copy of the Diekamp edition of the Doctrina Patrum, but, you know, I’m not bragging or anything.


Chapter 79 has some hard constructions, and Russell’s translation (the wonderful SVS edition in two languages) is uncharacteristically hard to use at this point. Here is Chase’s older Fathers of the Church translation of two especially hard bits:

Opening sentence: Where Russell has “The mind was not united with God the Word before taking flesh from the Virgin, and was called Christ from that time, as some falsely declare,” Chase has “Not as some falsely hold was the mind united to God the Word before the taking on of flesh from the Virgin and from that time called Christ.” (Chase, p. 340, IV:6) Whew! I blame John of Damascus for this sentence. TLG: Οὐχ, ὥς τινες ψευδηγοροῦσι, πρὸ τῆς ἐκ παρθένου σαρκώσεως ὁ νοῦς ἡνώθη τῷ θεῷ λόγῳ καὶ ἐκ τότε ἐκλήθη Χριστός·

and a few lines down from that, Russell has:

“we say that Christ became the Son and Word of God and was called such from the time he came to dwell in the womb of the holy ever-Virgin and became flesh without undergoing change and that the flesh was anointed by the divinity.”

But this is an impossible statement for John to make! I’ve bold italicized the problem. Here’s how Chase translated it:

“We say that the Son and Word of God became Christ the instant that He came to dwell in the womb of the holy Ever-Virgin and was made flesh without undergoing change, the instant that the flesh was anointed with the divinity.”

The text from TLG:

Ἡμεῖς δὲ Χριστὸν γεγενῆσθαί τε καὶ κεκλῆσθαί φαμεν τὸν υἱὸν καὶ λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ, ἀφ’ οὗ ἐν τῇ γαστρὶ τῆς ἁγίας ἀειπαρθένου ἐσκήνωσε καὶ σὰρξ ἀτρέπτως ἐγένετο καὶ ἐχρίσθη ἡ σὰρξ τῇ θεότητι·

About This Blog

Fred Sanders is a theologian who tried to specialize in the doctrine of the Trinity, but found that everything in Christian life and thought is connected to the triune God.

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