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§ 117. History of Adoptionism.


The Adoptionist controversy is a revival of the Nestorian controversy in a modified form, and turns on the question whether Christ, as to his human nature, was the Son of God in essence, or only by adoption. Those who took the latter view were called Adoptionists.644644    Adoptiani, Adoptivi; in English Adoptianists or Adoptionists (from adoptio) They taught that Christ as to his divinity is the true Son645645    Filius proprius or verus. of God, the Only-Begotten of the Father; but as man he is his adopted Son,646646    Filius adoptivus or nuncupativus. the First-Born of Mary. They accepted the Chalcedonian Christology of one person and two natures, but by distinguishing a natural Son of God and an adopted Son of God, they seemed to teach two persons or a double Christ, and thus to run into the Nestorian heresy.

The orthodox opponents held that Christ was the one undivided and indivisible Son of God; that the Virgin Mary gave birth to the eternal Son of God, and is for this reason called “the mother of God;” that sonship is founded on the person, not on the nature; and that Adoptionism leads to two Christs and to four persons in the Trinity.

Both parties displayed a degree of patristic learning which one would hardly expect in this period of the middle ages.

The history of this movement is confined to the West (Spain and Gaul); while all the older Christological controversies originated and were mainly carried on and settled in the East. It arose in the Saracen dominion of Spain, where the Catholics had to defend the eternal and essential Sonship of Christ against the objections both of the Arians and the Mohammedans.

The Council of Toledo, held in 675, declared in the preface to the Confession of Faith, that Christ is the Son of God by, nature, not by adoption.647647    “Hic etiam Filius Dei natura est Filius, non adoptione.” But about a century afterwards Elipandus, the aged Archbishop of Toledo, and primate of that part of Spain which was under Mohammedan rule, endeavored to modify the orthodox doctrine by drawing a distinction between a natural and an adopted sonship of Christ, and by ascribing the former to his divine, the latter to his human nature. He wished to save the full humanity of Christ, without, however, denying his eternal divinity. Some historians assert that he was influenced by a desire to avoid the Mohammedan objection to the divinity of Christ;648648    So Baronius, Gfrörer, Baudissin; but Hefele (III. 649) objects to this for the reason that the Adoptionists very strongly asserted the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, which were so offensive to the Mohammedans. but the conflict of the two religions was too strong to admit of any compromise. He may have read Nestorian writings.649649    So Neander and Jacobi; see his ed. of Neander’s Dogmengesch. II. 26 sqq. Jacobi tries to show a connection of Adoptionism with the writings of Theodor of Mopsueste. Gams (Kirchengesch. Spaniens, II. 2, p. 261 sqq.) conjectures that some Eastern Nestorians settled in Spain under Moslem rule, and suggested the Adoptionist theory. Hefele (III. 646) and Möller (Herzog2I. 159) are inclined to the same view. Enhueber, Walch, and Bach hold that Elipandus was led to his view by opposition to Migetius, who made no distinction between the Logos and Christ, as if the second person of the Trinity had not existed before the incarnation.—The reports on Migetius are vague. Elipandus charged him with teaching three corporeal persons in the Trinity who became incarnate in David (the Father), in Jesus (the Son), and in Paul (the Holy Spirit). He probably fell into the error of the Priscillianists, which was confounded with Sabellianism (hence his name magister Salibanorum, which is a corruption for Sabellianorum). See on this mysterious phenomenon Henrique Florez, España sagrada, T. V. 543 sq., and Hefele, l.c. III. 629-635 and 657. At all events, he came to similar conclusions.

Having little confidence in his own opinions, Elipandus consulted Felix, bishop of Urgel650650    Urgelis, Urgela, Orgellis, in the Marca Hispanica. It formerly belonged to the metropolis of Tarracona, but since the middle of the eighth century, to the province of Narbonne. in Catalonia, in that part of Spain which, since 778, was incorporated with the dominion of Charlemagne. Felix was more learned and clear-headed than Elipandus, and esteemed, even by his antagonist Alcuin, for his ability and piety. Neander regards him as the originator of Adoptionism; at all events, he reduced it to a formulated statement.

Confirmed by his friend, Elipandus taught the new doctrine with all the zeal of a young convert, although he was already eighty years of age; and, taking advantage of his influential position, he attacked the orthodox opponents with overbearing violence. Etherius, Bishop of Osma or Othma (formerly his pupil), and Beatus, a presbyter, and after Alcuin abbot at Libana in Asturia,651651    He is still honored in Spain as San Biego, but Elipandus called him a disciple of Antichrist,“heretical, schismatical, ignorant, and devoted to carnal lusts, and the very opposite of what his name Beatus (Blessed) would suggest. took the lead in the defence of the old and the exposure of the new Christology. Elipandus charged them with confounding the natures of Christ, like wine and water, and with scandalous immorality, and pronounced the anathema on them.

Pope Hadrian, being informed of these troubles, issued a letter in 785 to the orthodox bishops of Spain, warning them against the new doctrine as rank Nestorianism.652652    Hadrian is also reported to have written to Charlemagne, and called the Synod of Narbonne, 788; but the acts of this Synod (first published by Cattell, 1633) are rejected as spurious by Pagi, Walch, and Hefele (III. 662 sq. ). But the letter had no effect; the papal authority plays a subordinate role in this whole controversy. The Saracen government, indifferent to the theological disputes of its Christian subjects, did not interfere.

But when the Adoptionist heresy, through the influence of Felix, spread in the French portion of Spain, and even beyond the Pyrenees into Septimania, creating a considerable commotion among the clergy, the Emperor Charlemagne called a synod to Regensburg (Ratisbon) in Bavaria, in 792, and invited the Bishop of Urgel to appear, that his case might be properly investigated. The Synod condemned Adoptionism as a renewal of the Nestorian heresy.

Felix publicly and solemnly recanted before the Synod, and also before Pope Hadrian, to whom he was sent. But on his return to Spain he was so much reproached for his weakness, that, regardless of his solemn oath, he yielded to the entreaties of his friends, and re-affirmed his former opinions.

Charlemagne, who did not wish to alienate the spanish portion of his kingdom, and to drive it into the protection of the neighboring Saracens, directed Alcuin, who in the mean time had come to France from England, to send a mild warning and refutation of Adoptionism to Felix. When this proved fruitless, and when the Spanish bishops, under the lead of Elipandus, appealed to the justice of the emperor, and demanded the restoration of Felix to his bishopric, he called a new council at Frankfort on the Main in 794, which was attended by about three hundred (?) bishops, and may be called “universal,” as far as the West is concerned.653653    See a full account in Hefele III. 678 sqq. He calls it the most splendid of all the synods of Charlemagne. It was held apostolica auctoritate, two delegates of Pope Hadrian being present. But Charlemagne himself presided. The number of members is not given in the sources, but Baronius and many others after him say 300. As neither Felix nor any of the Adoptionist bishops appeared in person, the council, under the lead of Alcuin, confirmed the decree of condemnation passed at Ratisbon.

Subsequently Felix wrote an apology, which was answered and refuted by Alcuin. Elipandus reproached Alcuin for having twenty thousand slaves (probably belonging to the convent of Tours), and for being proud of wealth. Charles sent Archbishop Leidrad of Lyons and other bishops to the Spanish portion of his kingdom, who succeeded, in two visits, in converting the heretics (according to Alcuin, twenty thousand).

About that time a council at Rome, under Leo III., pronounced, on very imperfect information, a fresh anathema, erroneously charging that the Adoptionists denied to the Saviour any other than a nuncupative Godhead.

Felix himself appeared, 799, at a Synod in Aix-la-Chapelle, and after a debate of six days with Alcuin, he recanted his Adoptionism a second time. He confessed to be convinced by some passages, not of the Scriptures, but of the fathers (especially Cyril of Alexandria, Leo I., and Gregory I.), which he had not known before, condemned Nestorius, and exhorted his clergy and people to follow the true faith.654654    Hard. IV. 929-934; Alcuin, Epp. 92, 176; and the Confessio Fidei Felicis in Mansi, XIII. 1035 sq. He spent the rest of his life under the supervision of the Archbishop of Lyons, and died in 818. He left, however, a paper in which the doctrine of Adoptionism is clearly stated in the form of question and answer; and Agobard, the successor of Leidrad, felt it his duty to refute it.

Elipandus, under the protection of the government of the Moors, continued openly true to his heretical conviction. But Adoptionism lost its vitality with its champions, and passed away during the ninth century. Slight traces of it are found occasionally during the middle ages. Duns Scotus (1300) and Durandus a S. Porciano (1320) admit the term Filius adoptivus in a qualified sense.655655   6 See Walch, Hist. Adopt., p. 253; Gieseler, Church History, 4th Germ. ed vol. II., part I., p. 117, note 13 (E. tr. II. 78). The defeat of Adoptionism was a check upon the dyophysitic and dyotheletic feature in the Chalcedon Christology, and put off indefinitely the development of the human side in Christ’s Person. In more recent times the Jesuit Vasquez, and the Lutheran divines G. Calixtus and Walch, have defended the Adoptionists as essentially orthodox.



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