Sharpening Christological Vernacular

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Subsequent to the Incarnation, it is correct to describe Christ as one Person consisting of two distinct natures. While this is an accurate description of Christ, the terms “person” and “nature” are sometimes used without much specificity, leading to confusion in Christological discussions. Therefore, it is helpful to sharpen these definitions in order to more accurately understand what happened at the Incarnation.

1. Definition of  “Nature”

First, let me note what I am not speaking of when I use the word “nature” here. I am not using the word “nature” as a synonym for “tendencies” or “inclinations” (i.e. it is human nature to sin). Rather, I am using the word “nature” to denote a set of attributes or qualities. 1

Norman Geisler and William Watkins define “nature” as ,”… the qualities, attributes, or properties of a thing which are necessary to it.” 2 Similarly, JP Moreland and William Lane Craig define nature as, “…essential properties that make things what they are.” 3 So then, the word “nature” can be viewed as a placeholder for the necessary parts of a whole. Thus, “nature” can be defined precisely as, a set of properties, attributes and/or qualities of x, such that if x ceased to have them, then x would no longer be x.

A human nature for example, would include all those attributes that serve to constitute a human being (a physical body, a mind, etc…). Likewise a divine nature would include every attribute necessary for divinity (transcendence, omnipotence, etc…)

2. Definition of “Person”

Although the meaning of “person” is easily understood, it too can be more precisely defined. Alfred J. Freddoso offers a good definition, when he defines a “person” as, “an independently existing ultimate subject of characteristics.” 4 So, while a “nature” is an impersonal catalog of attributes, a “person” is the conscious subject of those attributes – while a nature is a “set of properties,” a “person” is a property bearer.

3. Incarnational Synthesis

Now, having properly understood these definitions, one will understand that, at the Incarnation, Christ did not add an additional person (a subject of properties) to Himself. Synthesis1Rather, at the Incarnation, Christ added an additional nature (a set of properties) to His Himself.

In an extremely lucid article, John Breck writes, “…the expression ‘hypostatic union’ refers not to the ‘union of two hypostases,’ [persons] one human and one divine. It refers rather to the union of two natures within the one hypostasis of the pre-existent Son…” 5 Geisler and Watkins make the same point when they write, “…the Son did not conjoin himself to a human nature in which a person already subsisted…On the contrary, the pre-existent, uncreated Son united to himself a created human nature of which he became its subject.” 6

At this point, one may see a problem with the logic of the Incarnation, for in order to be by possessing a human and divine nature, it would seem that Christ possessed contradictory attributes. That is, He would be weak yet omnipotent, ignorant yet omniscient, finite and yet infinite at the same time. Thus, some have charged the Incarnation as a logically incoherent doctrine. Herein lays the apologetic challenge to which to which an answer must be given.


Notes:

  1. Samuel A Dawson, “Is There a Contradiction in the Person of Christ? the Importance of the Dual Nature and Dual,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 9, no. 1 (Fall 2004): 165.
  2. Norman Geisler and William Watkins, “The Incarnation and Logic: Their Compatibility Defended,” Trinity Journal 6, no. 2 (Fall 1985): 189.
  3. J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 598.
  4. Alfred J, Freddoso, “Human Nature, Potency and the Incarnation,” Faith and Philosophy 3 (January 1, 1986): 27-53.
  5. John Breck, “Reflections on the ‘Problem’ of Chalcedonian Christology,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 33, no. 2 (January 1989): 147-57.
  6. Geisler and Watkins, “The Incarnation and Logic”, 194.

Boundaries of Christological Speculation

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The biblical teaching concerning the Person of Christ can be captured in four essential affirmations: 1) Christ possesses a complete human nature 2) Christ possesses a complete divine nature 3) These natures are united in Christ 4) Christ is one Person. These affirmations serve as the boundaries within which Christological speculation can safely proceed.

1. The Human Nature of Christ

As a man, Jesus possessed all the essential elements of humanity. The Gospels attest to His ordinary birth (Luke 2:7), physical and mental development (Luke 2:40, 52), experiences of exhaustion (John 4:6), thirst (John 19:28), hunger (Matthew 4:2),  ignorance (Mark 13:32), suffering (Matthew 27: 26) and finally His death (Luke 23:46).

Furthermore, many of Jesus’ contemporaries viewed Him as a mere man and they were therefore (although indignantly so) astonished at His extraordinary wisdom and deeds (Matthew 13:53-56). Finally, Paul indicates that Jesus continued in His manhood even after His ascension; “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). So then, Scripture affirms the humanity of Christ.

2. The Divine Nature of Christ

Although Jesus was indeed a man, He was not merely a man. Jesus revealed that He is the eternally existent God (John 8:58; cf. Exodus 3:14), who is equal with (John 5:18) and specially commissioned by the Father (Luke 4:16-22).

The New Testament authors also affirm Jesus’ deity by referring to Him as God (theos). Paul writes that Christ is “God over all” (Romans 9:5). Likewise, Peter refers to Jesus as “our God and Savior” (2 Peter 1:1). 1 Finally, Jesus is referred to as Lord (kyrios), 2 and the “fullness of deity in bodily form (Colossians 1:15-20; 2:9). Thus, Scripture clearly affirms the deity of Jesus. 3

3. The Hypostatic Union

In that ever-famous passage, John tells us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1 cf. 14). Here, John discloses what took place at the Incarnation. Incarnation1That is, the 2nd Person of the Trinity (the Word) united a human nature (flesh) to Himself while remaining God at the same time (Colossians 1:19; 2:9).

This does not entail the diminishing of Christ’s deity, but rather, the addition of humanity to His inherently divine Person. Subsequent to the Incarnation then, it is accurate to speak of Christ as one Person possessing two distinct natures – the divine nature being inherent in virtue of Son’s participation in the Trinity, and the human nature being contingent upon the Incarnation. This union of natures in the Person of Christ is commonly referred to as the Hypostatic Union.

4. Chalcedonian Orthodoxy

Throughout the first five centuries of the church, many insufficient theories were constructed in attempts to explain this Biblical data. These ancient theories ultimately failed as they either assaulted Christ’s humanity (Apollinarianism), assaulted His deity (Adoptionism), divided His Person (Nestorianism), or blended His natures (Eutychianism).

In the wake of this varying Christological opinion, the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) was convened in order to resolve differences on what exactly the Scripture teaches concerning the Person of Christ. The final outcome of the council was The Chalcedonian Creed which ratified following four affirmations regarding Christ: 1) Christ has a complete human nature 2) Christ has a complete divine nature 3) These natures are united in Christ 4) Christ is one Person.

The Chalcedonian Creed is very valuable as a summary as it offers  boundaries within which Christological speculation can biblically proceed. This has been often referred to as The Chalcedonian Box. Any Christological opinion which seeks to adhere to the biblical testimony will keep within the boundaries of this box.

5. Application

I believe the doctrine of the Incarnation is one of the richest truths found in Scripture. That Christ was truly human, means that He can intimately relate to our temporal struggles. The author of Hebrews writes, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are…” (Hebrews 4:15). Christ is not some transcendentally removed divinity – He actually knows what it is like to live and die.

Furthermore, Jesus honored the Father by increasing in wisdom, growing in faith, and resisting temptation – and He did this all as a man through the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, Jesus serves as the perefect paradigm for the way we ought to live our lives  as we are led by the Spirit.


Notes:

  1. see also John 1:1, 18; 20:28; Titus 2:13; Hebrews 1:8.
  2. Matthew 3:3; Matthew 22:44; Luke 2:11;  1 Corinthians 8:6; Hebrews 1:10.
  3. see also  Don N. Howell Jr. “God-Christ Interchange in Paul: Impressive Testimony to the Deity of Jesus,” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 36, no. 4 (1993): 467.