Doctrine of Christ (part 4)

September 10, 2011     Time: 00:29:13

We are talking about the doctrine of Christ, and over the last couple of weeks we have been doing a historical survey of early church Christian thinking about the incarnation. We have talked about the great debate between Monophysitism and Dyophysitism, that is to say, the view that Christ has a single nature, which is a mixture of divine and human elements, versus the view that Christ has two natures, human and divine, each of which is complete in itself. We saw that the church condemned both Apollinarianism, which said Jesus lacked a human mind but had a divine mind with a human body and soul, and also condemned Nestorianism, which was the idea that in Christ there are two persons – two Sons – a human person and a divine person that are somehow united in Christ.

Council of Chalcedon

The debate came to a head in the year 451 at the Council of Chalcedon. I believe, in your outline, you have a copy of the statement that was issued at the Council of Chalcedon. Let’s read this, and then I will make some comments on the significance of this statement.

We confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial [and the word there is homoousios, having the same substance] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial [homoousios] with us according to the Manhood; like us in all things except sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God [theotokos], according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the difference of the natures being by no means taken away because of the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person [prosopon] and one Subsistence [hypostasis], not divided or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ;

What the framers of Chalcedon did was to insist, with the Antiochene school of thinking, that there are two complete natures in Christ – human and divine –, yet to affirm, with Alexandria, that there is only one person in Christ – two natures in one person. So you see in the opening statement of the confession, “We confess one and the same Son,” that is, there is one person, one Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. But then he is “perfect in Godhead and perfect in Manhood.” Both natures are complete and entire – they are not attenuated in any way. Perfect man, perfect God – “truly God and truly man.”

He has a “reasonable soul and body.” That is against Apollinarius – he has both an intellectual soul as well as a body and therefore a complete human nature.1 “Homoousios with the Father according to the Godhead” – this comes out of the Trinitarian debates. You will remember that we saw the climax in the Council of Nicaea, where the Son is the same substance as the Father. They share the essence of divinity. But he is also consubstantial, or homoousios, with us in our humanity. He shares the human nature with us. So he is “like us in everything except sin.”

He is begotten eternally from the Father according to the Godhead. This is also in the Nicene Creed and is the vestige of the old Logos Christology, where you have the Logos begotten of God the Father, and here it is from eternity. But in these latter days he is born of the Virgin Mary. Notice that they adopt the language of the theotokos. She is called the “Mother of God,” but it is carefully qualified – the Mother of God “according to the Manhood.” So they affirm that she is the Mother of God, but with respect to the Manhood, not with respect to the divine nature. With respect to the divine nature, he is eternally begotten from the Father. So eternally begotten from the Father according to the divine nature, but born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood.

He is, then, one person. The same, Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten. He is not more than one Son or person.

Then comes this series of famous adjectives: without confusion (asynchytos), without change (atreptos), without division (adiairetos) and finally without separation (achoristos). Without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. The first two adjectives asynchytos and atreptos – without confusion, without change – refer to the natures. The natures are not confused together – they are not blended into one nature, not into one theanthropic divine-human nature. There is no change in the natures. Each nature is preserved, pristine and unchanged. The second two adjectives seem to apply to the person. The person is “without division” – you do not separate the person into two persons, a human person and a divine person; there is one person – and “without separation.” Again, there is no severing the human person from the divine person because there is only one person. So it says the “difference of the natures is by no means taken away because of the union, but the property of each nature is preserved.” The natures are distinct and unchanged; they are preserved. But they are unified, they concur, in one person and one hypostasis. Again, that is language from the Trinitarian debates, remember, which says that in God there is one substance but three hypostases, where a hypostasis is an individual property-bearer. Here it says in Christ there is one hypostasis – one subsistence, one individual – who is that one person. It is “not divided or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ.”

As a result of the Council of Chalcedon, it became a watchword of orthodox Christology that we must neither confuse the natures, nor divide the person. You must not confuse the natures or divide the person. Now Chalcedon doesn’t explain how this is to be done. It simply sets down channel markers, as it were, where Christological speculation may safely proceed. On the one side of the channel, you must not do anything to confuse the two natures. On the other side of the channel you must not do anything to divide the person. But in between those boundary markers, there is considerable latitude for theologians to speculate and study and reflect upon how you can have two natures which are united in one person.2 I think, personally, it is part of the brilliance of the statement of the Council of Chalcedon that it does not try to explain this. It doesn’t try to explain how the incarnation is possible. It leaves that to the church’s theologians to think about. But what it does do is set down boundary markers for orthodoxy. So long as you stay within those boundary markers, you are at liberty to reflect theologically upon the nature of the incarnation, so long as you neither confuse the natures or divide the person. Any orthodox doctrine of Christ must affirm that there is one person who has two complete natures – human and divine.


Question: Who comprised the Council of Chalcedon?

Answer: Oh, my goodness, you are asking me for the names of the people? Generally, these were bishops of the church. It was an ecumenical council, like Nicaea. So these were people that were from all around the empire, but I couldn’t name the folks who were there.

Question: Would you define “begotten” and “born,” especially in relation to being begotten before the ages.

Answer: Remember our discussion of the Trinity where the church, in response to Arius, said that Christ is not a created thing. When an artisan creates something, he makes something of a different nature than his own. A carpenter might make a chair or a manufacturer might make an automobile, and the automobile and the chair have a different nature than the thing that produced it. So when someone creates something, he creates something of a different nature than himself. By contrast, when something begets an offspring, the offspring has the same nature as the one who begot him. Cats beget kittens, dogs beget puppies, cows beget calves – they have the same nature as their parents. So what the church insisted on – and this came to be enshrined in the Council of Nicaea – is that Christ is not a creature. He is not created by God the Father. That would make him a work and a finite part of the world. Rather, they said, he is begotten from the Father and therefore shares the same nature as the Father. The idea of this being from eternity is that this did not happen at some time in the past. You don’t roll back the scroll of time to a certain point and arrive at this point sometime in the past at which Christ was begotten by God the Father. Rather this is thought of to be an eternal procession of the Son from the Father, and the analogy that the church fathers often liked to use to illustrate this would be the sun and the sunbeam. The sun never exists without the sunbeam. The sun is always shining and giving forth its light. Yet the sunbeam is dependent upon the sun – it comes from the sun. Similarly here, God the Son eternally proceeds from God the Father and shares his nature.

Question: Would that be similar to say that Jesus was slain before the foundation of the world?

Answer: No, I don’t think so. I think what that is talking about is the sovereign decrees of God because Christ’s human nature hasn’t existed from eternity. His human nature did come into being at a point in time. If you scroll back in time to the first century, that human nature had a beginning in Mary’s womb, when the Holy Spirit imparted to her the ability to conceive Christ. Earlier than that, Christ’s human nature did not exist. The idea of Christ slain before the foundation of the world would have to have reference to his human nature, not his divine nature. Since that hasn’t always existed, this would have to be the notion that Christ was predestined from eternity past in God’s sovereign plan to die for the sins of mankind.3 In that sense, it has been eternally decreed, and therefore he is slain before the foundation of the world in that sense. This is a prior decree of God from eternity. I say this on the basis of other passages in Scripture where it talks about how God has revealed in this last time his eternal plan, hidden for ages in God, but now revealed to us. In Acts it talks about how all of this took place in Jerusalem according to God’s foreknowledge and predestination. So that would seem to be the sense in which this phrase should be understood.

Question: In the Garden of Gethsemane, it seems to suggest a separation of sorts when Christ asks for the cup to be passed from him. Also, on the cross when he asks “My Father, My Father, why hast thou forsaken me?” it seems to, at least in teaching I have had, it seems to suggest a human nature taking somehow some type of precedence over the divine nature at that point in time.

Answer: This is a good question. I think it is really important to keep in mind that the three persons of the Trinity are distinct. So in Gethsemane, you don’t have the human nature of Jesus talking to his divine nature. You have the second person of the Trinity, in his incarnate form, talking to his Father. So he is saying “Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me.” So there is no division there of the person of Christ. You do have distinct persons in the Trinity. The incarnate Christ was constantly dependent upon his Father. He prayed to his Father and sought to do the Father’s will. And he was empowered by the Holy Spirit, especially from the time of his baptism, to carry out his ministry. So you see all three of the distinct persons of the Trinity at work during the earthly life of Jesus. Similarly, when Christ dies on the cross, and he says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” this is the Son talking to the Father. It is not the Son talking to himself. He is talking to the Father. And then he says, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

I think what your question does raise is this – and we will talk about this in a little while – how is it that if this is the second person of the Trinity talking, that he exhibits these kind of cognitive limitations? He ought to know all of these things, and so why is he experiencing things like alienation from God and his Father? Why does he feel the need to pray if he is the second person of the Trinity? What this, I think, goes to emphasize is, again, the seriousness with which the church fathers – why they took so seriously – the biblical testimony that Christ had a complete human nature, including a human consciousness that wasn’t like Superman disguised as Clark Kent. This was a real man, a real human being, that had cognitive limitations, that needed to be dependent upon the Father constantly. But the point to keep in mind is that it wasn’t a different person. It wasn’t as though there was a human person, Jesus, in addition to the divine person, the Logos, the second person of the Trinity. How you put that together still remains to be seen. We have still got to talk about that. But at least, I think, I hope you can see from my answer that these passages you cite are not a matter of dividing the person of Christ into a human person and a divine person. There you have a distinction of persons between the Father and the Son.

Question: A picture that I was taught that shows the two natures non-confused with one person is our own body. We have a right hand and a left hand, right leg and a left leg, but you only have one mind and one mouth. That doesn’t mean the fallen nature of it like in a lot of symbolism the Bible refers to the left as being the fallen nature, like the left hand. That necessarily isn’t part of it; but the picture is part of the image we are created in is a picture of that.

Answer: That is an interesting analogy. We have a sort of animal nature that is our bodies, and then we have this self or soul that is different. It is more akin to, say, an angelic nature, a spiritual nature. And yet they are combined in one person. That is an interesting analogy.4

Question: Can we infer anything from the fact that a single personality, two natures – can we take comfort from that with respect to our old nature and our new nature and the fact that we have a personality, but yet we have two natures?

Answer: I think that when the New Testament talks about our having a new nature in Christ as opposed to our old sin nature, this is using the word “nature” in a very different sense than what we are talking about here. We each have a single human nature. We don’t have two natures. That idea of the sin nature means that there is this sinful component in us, that our humanity is fallen, but through Christ’s redemption we have been given his Holy Spirit, we have been regenerated and born again. But it is not as though we have two natures in the sense that we are talking about here. We still have a single human nature that is partly tainted by sin, but partly renewed and regenerated by the Holy Spirit. There is this struggle between them, but they are locked in a struggle that is within one nature. We just have one nature, one humanity. I don’t think it is really analogous in that sense. Also, be careful not to associate the word “personality” too much with the idea of a person. By a person here we mean a substance which is a self-conscious, rational individual endowed with free will. But personality is more of a psychological idea, like someone has an upbeat personality or somebody else has a melancholy personality. We are not really talking about personalities in that psychological sense but more in this metaphysical sense of a self-conscious substance endowed with rationality and free will. We are persons clearly in that sense, but we are human persons with one nature.

Question: Does someone need to affirm the Council of Chalcedon in order to be a Christian? Can he deny this and still be a Christian?

Answer: This is an ecumenical council and therefore is recognized by Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox alike. It is nearly universally recognized as being essential to Christian orthodoxy. To deny the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon would be to be a heretic. Having said that, I must say that Protestants, at least, always bring every statement, even the statements of the creeds, before the bar of Scripture. If someone felt on Scriptural grounds that there was something in the creedal statement that they could not agree with, I do not think that that automatically brands that person a heretic. For example, if someone felt uncomfortable about the language of the theotokos, I would not say that person has forfeited salvation and is a heretic. That is going to depend on what element in it that that person denies. But certainly the idea of two complete natures united in one person seems to be really essential to Christian orthodoxy because this is a summary or an encapsulation, an epitome, of biblical teaching about the person of Christ.

Question: You said that the human Christ as recorded in the Scriptures was born to Mary, but yet all throughout the Old Testament we see incidences of a mysterious figure appearing with Shadrach, Meshach5, also Abraham (I can’t remember, there were three supernatural-like people that appeared to Abraham6), and these are identified by most people as precursors of the human Christ in human form. Who were they?7

Answer: Well, sometimes these persons are identified as the “angel of the Lord,” which could have been an embodiment of Yahweh in some sort of corporeal image or something of that sort. It certainly is not the human nature that was conceived by Mary because that did not exist yet. The only passage that I know of in Scripture where these Old Testament theophanies are identified as visions of Christ would be what John says about Isaiah’s vision in the temple when he says “I saw the Lord high and lifted up and his train filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1). John says that was a vision of the preincarnate Christ – that he saw Christ.8 There would be that, at least, for saying that there could be visions of Christ prior to his conception and incarnation in the world, but it would not be as though the human nature of Christ actually existed prior to his conception by Mary. These would be visions perhaps like the one Moses had when God hid him in the cleft of the rock and God passed by9 and Moses had a vision of God in a sort of human form. But God doesn’t really have a body. So these sorts of visionary experiences of God or maybe angelical appearances, I don’t think, should be thought of as Christ in his human nature that he had assumed in Mary’s womb prior to that time.

Question: One of the questions that I keep trying to figure out is from a classical doctrine. How do they differentiate – you just defined person as a self-conscious individual with free will – how do you differentiate between mind, person, and self-consciousness? How do those play in because it almost seems sometimes like there are multiple minds or multiple self-consciousnesses in one person?

Answer: I think these words do have a range of meanings in different authors. So when somebody uses these words, we need to ask that person, “How are you using these? Are they synonyms or not?” Sometimes people will say that Christ is one person but he has two minds, and by that they would mean two centers of consciousness that are somehow united in one person. The way I use these words in this class is that all of those would be synonyms. I would equate a mind with a person with a spiritual self-conscious substance that has rationality and free will. So at least the way I am using these terms, it is very easy – they are all synonymous. But you are quite right that that isn’t always the case with the way different people use these words.

Followup: So somewhere along the line you will address where one person can have limited knowledge – obviously Christ didn’t know everything, but from a divine nature perspective he should be omniscient.

Answer: Yes, I shall address that question. I think that is one of the most important and nettlesome questions of the doctrine of Christ. But first we will want to complete our historical survey.

What we are going to do now is jump ahead several centuries. Chalcedon completed the early Christological debates in the church. We are going to jump way ahead to the 19th century where a very different non-Chalcedonian Christology began to emerge in Germany and then also in England. We will talk about this – it is called Kenoticism. We will look at that subject next time before we attempt to provide our own model of the person of Christ.


1 5:01

2 10:10

3 15:15

4 20:22

5 cf. Daniel 3:19-28

6 cf. Genesis 18:1-2

7 24:54

8 cf. John 12:41

9 cf. Exodus 33:19-23