Monday, January 30, 2012

Why the Reformed Tend to be Nestorian and the Lutherans Monophysite: The Degeneration of Christological Language in Incarnation-Talk

Something I wrote up for an online class:



The goal of this paper is to explore what Evangelicals should think about the Incarnation and argue that we should think about it in terms of a hypostatic union. My main thesis is that much confusion and argumentation over the Incarnation could be avoided by a proper understanding of the Incarnation as hypostatic union rather than some other form of union. This is extremely important since a proper understanding of the Incarnation as hypostatic union preserves the orthodox Christian viewpoint that the person of Christ is identical with the Divine Person of the Eternal Word of God and that this Divine Person has become human. Otherwise, various difficulties occur, which push one either in the direction of Monophysitism or Nestorianism.

In the course of my paper, I will first examine the views of Eutyches and Nestorius who each have an understanding of the Incarnation as a composition of Christ out of the two natures. I will then show how a common way of speaking about Christ’s two natures encourages this viewpoint and that this tendency, when coupled with different assumptions, has led to Monophysite tendencies among Lutherans and similar-minded thinkers and Nestorian tendencies among Reformed thinkers. A common way of stating the communicatio idiomatum is involved in these tendencies. Following this, I will show how the ancient, traditional Christian notion of the Incarnation as hypostatic union avoids these negative tendencies, affirming unity and yet maintaining the integrity of each nature.

I. The Problem: Incarnation as Composition

I.1. The Early Heresies: Nestorius and Eutyches

In much discussion throughout Christian history, both the divine and human natures of Christ have had a tendency to be spoken of as if they were subjects of attribution in their own right and the unity of Christ has similarly thus often been spoken of as if it was a matter of combining of the two natures to form one person out of this combination. This tendency, of course, derives from the early church and such a tendency was taken to its logical conclusion in the theologies of Eutyches and Nestorius, where the person of Christ was seen as a result of a combining of divine and human natures, understood as distinct entities and subjects of attribution. On such a view, Christ is said to be divine because he is partly produced out of divinity and he is said to be human because he is partly produced out of humanity.

The difficulty of attaining a unified person out of this combination was resolved by mingling the natures in some way. Nestorius does this not by an actual mingling of the two themselves but, following Theodore of Mopsuestia, by a mingling of their respective appearances, that of God and that of man, so as to produce the appearance of a single person, Christ. Because of this, human predicates could be applied to the divinity and divine to the humanity, but this was only in appearances, a matter of words only. Strictly speaking, the divine only applied to the divinity and the human to the humanity, but because of the single appearance of Christ, they could both be applied to Christ.[1] So one could say, for instance, “Christ died on the cross” or “The man died on the cross” in virtue of Christ being partly compounded out of the human, but not “God died on the cross”, even though one could also say “Christ is God” in virtue of being partly compounded out of the divinity. The subjects of the divine properties and human properties, respectively, however, remain the divine nature on the one hand and the human nature on the other.

Eutyches, on the other hand, took the same starting point – Christ as the result of the combination of the two natures – but when he gained unity for Christ through the exchange of properties, it was not merely a matter of words as with Nestorius. Instead, this was a real exchange of properties for Eutyches, resulting in a kind of Monophysitism as the distinction between the two natures was blurred or lost. If this was understood as the Word actually changing by taking on human attributes, it would result in a loss of divinity. If, on the other hand, it was understood as the humanity being overtaken by divinity, it would result in a kind of Docetism and a loss of full humanity.[2]

Considering Christ a result of the compounding of the two natures, then, requires finding a tight unity between the natures, the tightest on this picture being a blending of the two, anything less failing to account for the unity of the person in Christ. If one takes this blending as merely notional, we have Nestorius’s view. On the other hand, if one takes this blending as a real, metaphysical blending then we have Eutyches’s view, some form of Monophysitism which renders Christ either not fully human or not fully divine, with either both natures being destroyed or one taking backseat to the other. A more Docetist version would uphold the divinity at the expense of the humanity, whereas a Kenotic view would uphold the humanity at the expense of the divinity. In either case, Christ ends up a third thing in addition to the two natures, composed out of the two.

I.2. Modern Turns: Reformed and Lutheran

In modern times, people still often speak as if the two natures were themselves the subjects of the divine or human attributes, giving at least the appearance or tendency because of this way of speaking, even if it is not meant literally, of a notion of Incarnation as a compounding of the two natures to form a single person out of them. This tendency, unchecked, gives rise to precisely the Nestorian and Monophysite troubles enunciated above: Christ is seen as unified in virtue of an exchange of properties between the natures and the key division between those holding to this is whether to opt for a mere verbal exchange or a real one.[3]

In the Reformed tradition, one sees the tendency towards composition-talk resulting in a distinctly Nestorian tendency as Reformed thinkers tend, in contrast to Lutherans, to speak of an exchange of attributes between the two natures as a merely verbal one. John Calvin, for instance, could speak of some things as attributed to one nature, some to the other, and some to the composite whole, as if Christ was this third, composite thing just as a man is an additional thing dependent on and composed out of body and soul. Being combined into one thing, the attributes of one nature could be spoken of as if they belonged to the other, even though in reality they did not.[4]

On the Lutheran side, there is the opposite Monophysite tendency either in a Docetist or Kenotic direction. There is here a tendency to speak of a real exchange of attributes between the two natures rather than a merely verbal one. Diverse writers, for instance, have accused Martin Luther himself of believing that the person of Christ is the result of the union of the two natures – the unity of the person results from the unity of the natures rather than vice versa.[5] Lutheran Jan Siggins, for instance, both holds that Luther’s early work treated the two natures as sometimes too distinct[6] and also speaks as if for Luther the union of the two natures results from the fact that we can attribute the properties of one nature to the other and that this is so since “we can understand how Christ’s human properties can be predicated of God, or divine properties of man […] because the human nature shares in the glory of all the properties which otherwise pertain to God, ‘to worship this man is to worship God’”.[7] That is, worshipping the man Jesus is worshipping God since God’s properties have been bestowed upon the man. Or at least that is what Siggins’ language suggests, whether that is what he intended or not. It certainly seems that we have two subjects: the human nature, “Jesus,” and the divine, “God”, and that by an interchange of properties they form a single unit.

Because of this Incarnation-as-composition tendency, we also have the tendency to speak of the communicatio idiomatum – the fact that we can say things like “God the Son suffered and died” and “The man Jesus created the world” – as an exchange of properties between the two natures since these themselves are viewed as the subjects of these respective kinds of properties. Hence “God the Son suffered and died” could mean that the divine nature, understood as the subject of the properties, suffered and died, and “The man Jesus created the world” could mean that the human nature, again understood as subject, created the world. “God” then is understood as referring to the divine nature, being the subject of divine properties, “Jesus” as referring to the human nature, being the subject of human properties, and the union of the two “Christ”, resulting from some kind of exchange of these properties between the two. Hence, the frequent claims that followers of Calvin make the communicatio merely verbal and the uncomfortableness of some Reformed thinkers to say that things like “God died” go beyond something merely verbal.[8] From this we get claims such as that of G. C. Berkouwer, that “the man Jesus Christ has his existence immediately and exclusively in the existence of the eternal Son of God”,[9] appearing thereby to give separate referents to “the man Jesus Christ” and “the eternal Son of God”. Hence also the felt need of many Lutheran thinkers to combine or mix the properties in some way to come out with a single person as result, so as to be able to truly say things like “Jesus created the world.”

While the Reformed tendency is clearly Nestorian, then, the Lutheran tendency is towards either a Docetic or a Kenotic Christ.[10] By tending to speak of the Incarnation as if it was by a compounding of the natures, there is the obvious danger of getting a third thing, neither God nor man but a mixture or compound of the two. If one tries make sure the person so compounded is fully God, the humanity must thereby suffer – we have a Docetic Christ, the divinity pushing out the human. On the other hand, if one tries to make sure the person is fully human, the divinity must somehow suffer or be put in check – we have a Kenotic Christ, the humanity pushing out the divinity.[11] Moderate Kenoticist Millard Erickson, for instance, considers it obvious that in order for Christ to be fully human, he must give up “the privilege” of exercising his divine attributes.[12] Tellingly, he speaks of the attributes of one nature being added to the other, the divine attributes being restricted to their exercise through the humanity.[13]

The respective Nestorian and Monophysite tendencies of the Reformed and Lutheran camps, then, seems to arise largely as a result of the tendency to see and speak as if the two natures, as subjects of attribution, are compounded together in the Incarnation so as to form a single Christ. One need only look back to the church’s history, however, to see that the view of the Incarnation taken by the Church Fathers as it was developed in the great Christological controversies provides a very different take on things, one which avoids these tendencies and indeed was meant to combat them.

II. The Solution: Incarnation as Hypostatic Union

Evangelicals should avoid the heretical-seeming tendencies of both the Reformed and Lutheran camps. To do this requires abandoning seeing or speaking of the natures as subjects of attribution or of Christ as being a compound out of these. Otherwise, the natures invariably come to be seen as opposing one another and something must be done resolve that tension – either by making the union more a verbal one or by restricting or modifying one of the natures. The traditional, orthodox view, however, defended and developed in the Ecumenical Councils, treats the Incarnation not as a compounding of one person out of two other entities but rather as hypostatic union. That is, the unity of Jesus in the Incarnation is not founded on any special relations between two independent subjects but rather in the single hypostasis or person of the Divine Word who assumed a human mode of being (i.e., became human).

This is Incarnation as a coming to be a man, not a metamorphosis into one, a single person possessing two natures by first being divine and then being human as well. The two natures are not the subjects of the divine or human attributions but the Word Himself is that subject, who has both divine and human characteristics. Rather than the unity of the person resting in the unity of the natures, the opposite is the case, one person possessing both natures as hypostatic or personal modes of being, one subject of attribution existing as both human and divine.

The Divine Word in the Incarnation did not change in regard to his atemporal divinity but rather from eternity assumed temporal humanity to himself as an additional way of existing.[14] Rather than requiring some restriction or alteration of one nature or the other, this version of the Incarnation is both real, not merely verbal, and yet without conflict between the natures as the Word has two modes of existence and there is no need to try to smash or assimilate them together in order to get a relation of unity between them, since the unity comes via the one Person who exists in both manners. In fact, it is precisely because the Word in his divine nature remains unchanging and omnipotent, unrestricted and unchanged in his divine attributes, that God here is able to become man – that is, to take on a new mode of existence.[15] And this can happen without any restriction or alteration of either of the two natures since it is not they who are the subject or grounds of unity but rather the Divine Person of the Word Himself.

Hence, strictly speaking, the communicatio idiomatum which allows us to say “God the Son suffered and died” and “The man Jesus created the world” is, contrary to how it is often formulated, not a matter of one nature trading attributes with the other – the natures are not the subjects of attribution, nor are they referred to by “God” or “Jesus”.[16] The only referent and only subject of attribution here is the Divine Second Person of the Trinity. Hence, since this person created the world in his divine nature and suffered and died in his human nature and is the referent of both “God the Son” and “the man Jesus”, both “God the Son suffered and died” and “The man Jesus created the world” are literally true and not merely verbally so and this is the case even without the two natures exchanging properties since it is one person who is in possession of both the divine and the human properties and hence who is both God and man.

The communicatio idiomatum, then, is not about an exchange of properties between natures but rather the possession of both sorts of properties – having both natures and being the subject of their respective attributions – by a single hypostasis existing in both ways. Much confusion can be cleared up by this point alone – some attributes are indeed only human and hence are only had by the Word in virtue of having a human nature (that is, in virtue of being human), but it is still the Divine Word who possesses them (and all that without the divine nature changing or being restricted in any way).[17]

III. Conclusion

Against Stanley Grenz, then, the ancient notion of Incarnation as hypostatic union in no way involves a mythological god transforming into a human, any implicit Docetism, or a conception of the Word apart from Jesus.[18] On the contrary, it is precisely the hypostatic union which guarantees the falsity of these pictures by guaranteeing the integrity of the two natures and the singleness of the person who is both fully human and fully divine[19] – it is Jesus the man who is eternal God who takes upon himself a temporal, human life without any change in his divinity. Grenz’s criticisms, instead, find a target only in the ancient misunderstanding of the Incarnation as composition.

In sum, then, there is a common mistaken way of speaking to the effect the natures are the subjects of divine or human attributions and this leads to a mistaken view of Incarnation as composition and hence to a view of the communicatio as sharing of properties between natures, which in turn leads to grave difficulties with Nestorianism or Monophysitism and all the problems attending these. To avoid this, we should speak only of Jesus Christ as the single subject of these attributions, the Divine Person who took on humanity. We should not speak of “God the Son” or “Jesus” any differently, since these are not two natures, but one and the same person existing both fully divinely and fully humanly. Doing this will hopefully then resolve some of the difficulties between Reformed and Lutheran thinkers as we think more clearly about the Incarnation.

[1] J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Fifth Edition (New York: Continuum, 1977), 315-316; Thomas Weinandy, Does God Change?: The Word’s Becoming in Incarnation (Still River, Massachusetts: St. Bede’s Publications, 1985), 43-44.

[2] This, at least, was how the consequences of Eutyches’s views were seen – his own thoughts are widely thought now to be rather more muddled and inconsistent. See J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 331-335; Thomas Weinandy, Does God Change?, 61-62. In keeping with common usage, however, I will continue to attribute these views to Eutyches in the interests of brevity.

[3] Cf. Thomas Weinandy, Does God Change?, 105-106.

[4] See, for instance, John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. J. Allen (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Education, 1936), 527-529.

[5] E.g., Yves M.-J. Congar, Dialogue Between Christians: Catholic Contributions to Ecumenism, trans. P. Loretz (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1966), 394; Thomas Weinandy, Does God Change?, 104-105.

[6] Jan D. Kingston Siggins, Martin Luther’s Doctrine of Christ (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 219.

[7] Jan Siggins, Martin Luther’s Doctrine of Christ, 231-232.

[8] For this distinctly Nestorian phenomenon in Calvin, see John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 529.

[9] G. C. Berkouwer, The Person of Christ, trans. J. Vriend (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1954), 309.

[10] It is no accident that some Reformed thinkers have also ended up with a Kenotic Christology, since the underlying Christological tendency in thinking of the Incarnation as a union by composition is the same.

[11] Cf. Thomas Weinandy, Does God Change?, 106. For a criticism of strong versions of Kenoticism, see Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994), 307.

[12] Millard Erickson, The Word Became Flesh: A Contemporary Incarnational Christology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1991), 549-550.

[13] Millard Erickson, The Word Became Flesh, 555.

[14] See, for instance, Donald Bloesch, Jesus Christ: Savior and Lord (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 54; Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), 104; and the discussion of Cyril of Alexandria in Thomas Weinandy, Does God Change?, 54-55.

[15] Weinandy quotes Karl Rahner to this effect in Thomas Weinandy, Does God Change?, 174.

[16] Veli-Matti Kärkäinen, Christology: A Global Introduction: An Ecumenical, International, and Contextual Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 77-81 assumes precisely this confused manner of speaking of Incarnation and the communicatio in his exposition of Christological history and the Lutheran-Reformed debates. Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of the hypostatic union.

[17] Cf. John McGuckin, St. Cyril of Alexandria: The Christological Controversy: Its History, Theology, and Texts (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 202; Thomas Weinandy, Does God Change?, 98. Note that the truth of the Lutheran view of the acquisition by the human nature of the divine attributes occurs in the belief of the Church Fathers that Christ’s human nature was divinized in its union with the Divine Person. That is, Christ was the original subject of theosis, a process we too can undergo without any injury to our human nature, this process being understood as a perfection or completion of human nature rather than its transformation into something else (which Lutherans have a hard time avoiding). Theosis was seen, after all, as a participation in God’s energies or operations, which indwell us, not as a taking on of God’s essence. See J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 321-322; John McGuckin, St. Cyril of Alexandria, 133-134; Michael Pomazansky, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology: A Concise Exposition, trans. and ed. S. Rose (Platina, California: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994), 184.

[18] Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 309.

[19] On the issue of a divine being leaving heaven to become human, see Thomas Weinandy, Does God Change?, 86.

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