The Dual Nature of Christ
Believers and unbelievers alike have speculated over the identity of Christ for the past two millennia. Jesus asked Peter who men said that He was. Peterís reply evidenced the confusion of Jesusí identity among the populace. Finally Jesus asked Peter who he thought He was. Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:13-16). Jesusí question still rings in our ears today as we consider the man from Galilee who has changed the course of human history. Who was this Jesus?
Was Jesus divine? Was Jesus human? Was He both? If Jesus is both divine and human, how do we understand these two natures to function together? Is there a metaphysical union (ontological) between Christís humanity and deity, or is the union one of function only (behavioral)? Is a metaphysical union logically absurd? These are just a few of the many problems that have surfaced through the centuries by those examining the person of Christ. These questions and others will be examined in this paper. We are not stopping at mere faith in Jesus for salvation, but we are seeking understanding to the nature of His being.
Alternative Interpretations in the Church
There are three strands of historical understandings of Christ. The first category consists of those who deny Christís genuine deity. The second denies Christís genuine humanity. The third category consists of those who confess Jesusí genuine deity and humanity.
Deny Genuine Deity
The Ebionites were a very early Jewish sect who maintained that the Logos was not preexistent. Jesus was a mere man who perfectly kept the Law of Moses. He was the Messiah, but in no sense was He divine. He was born to Joseph and Mary in a normal fashion, but had the Spirit of God descend on Him in a special way at His baptism in reward of His perfect obedience to the Mosaic Law. Jesus was not born divine, but was adopted into divinity, though not the divinity of the Father.
Also known as Adoptionistic Monarchianism, this view of the Godhead attempted to preserve monotheism by denying the absolute deity of Jesus Christ. Jesus was a mere man, but became endowed with the Holy Spirit in a special way at some point in His life (usually attributed to the time of His baptism or birth). Jesus was the logos and was homoousis (of the same essence) with the Father, but in the same sense as a manís reason is homoousios to himself. The logos was not God in the strict sense however, for the same logos was present in all men in degree. The man Jesus merely experienced the operation of this power to such an extent that the logos penetrated the humanity of Christ progressively, resulting in eventual deification.1
The founder of this view was Theodotus of Byzantium. Its most famous proponent, however, was Paul of Samosota. This teaching is akin to Ebionism.
Deny Genuine Humanity
This group of Christians took their name from the Greek word dokew meaning "to seem, appear." They maintained that Jesus was divine, but not human. He only "appeared" to be a genuine human being. His sufferings and death were mere illusions. There was no substance to his humanity, nor any real human nature. This teaching was an early form of Gnosticism.
Gnosticism encompasses many diverse views, but certain teachings common to all veins of gnosticism can be gleaned. Working with a Platonic framework which equated matter with evil and spirit with good, they taught that the material man was evil. Some men, however, had the divine spark of "The Ultimate Death" within them, but were unaware of the divine spark. In order to become aware of their divinity they needed someone to manifest to them this knowledge (Greek gnosis, hence Gnosticism). Jesus Christ is identified as the one who came to bring this awareness to men. Since matter is evil, Jesus Christ could not have had a physical body, but was a spirit body instead. In this respect Gnosticism models Docetism.
Although this teaching had its origin in Lucian of Antioch, its most famous propagator and developer was Arius of Alexandria, from whence it bears its name. Arius taught that because God is immutable, His essence cannot be communicated to any other.2 This being so, the Son could not be considered to be God. Jesus was said to be the first creation of God. In turn, Jesus created everything else. The famous cry of the Arians concerning Jesus was, "There was once when he was not." He was divine, but not deity. Only the Father was eternal and immutable. The Son was not consubstantial, coeternal, or coequal with the Father. Essentially the Son is a demigod, being neither God, nor man. He serves as a buffer between the physical realm and the heavenly realm, belonging completely to neither.
Apollinarius is the father of the theological position named after him. Apollinarius believed Jesus to be one person, both divine and human, but believed that the divine Logos replaced the rational spirit (nous) as the animating principle in the human Christ. In his Christology, then, a human body and soul were joined to the divine Logos. The Logos was the interior of Christ that had been fused to human flesh.3 As a result of the fusion, Christ had only one nature, not two.
Confessed Full Humanity and Deity
The main proponents of this view were Nestorius and Theodore of Mopsuestia. Theodore confessed the full humanity and deity of Christ, but suggested that the union of the divine logos and the humanity of Jesus was not an essential unity, but a moral unity. The union was functional, not ontological. The full humanity of Christ obeyed the full deity of the logos, thus resulting in a behavioral unity.
Nestorius also confessed the full humanity and deity of Christ. He identified each nature of Christ with the Greek prosopon (person), thus splitting Christ into two persons.. He refused to attribute to the divine nature the human acts and sufferings of the man Jesus. He did not see any communicatio idiomatum (a Latin term meaning "communication of attributes) between Christís two natures. The two natures of Christ were only joined by will.
Also known as Monophysitism (mono = one; physis = nature), this teaching was espoused by Eutyches, a monk who lived in Constantinople. Eutyches taught that the Logos had two natures before the incarnation, but after the incarnation Jesus only had one nature which was clothed in human flesh. He maintained the full deity and humanity of Christ, but in explaining the unity of the two natures he denied that Jesusí humanity was essentially the same as all othersí humanity because in the incarnation the Logos absorbed the human nature. The result was that neither nature retained its respective properties, i.e. that which makes each nature (divine and human) what it truly is metaphysically. Rather a tertium quid (third substance) resulted, which was neither purely Logos or human, but something wholly other. In the incarnation then, both the divine nature and human nature fused into one new nature. This new nature was not "not God" because the deity of the Logos subsumed the humanity in the union of the two.
Dynamic Monarchianism must be ruled out because it espouses a personal subsistence (state of existing in reality) of the humanity of Christ apart from deity. The hypostatic union demands that we understand Christís humanity and deity as being mutually interdependent, i.e. Christís person was dependent on His deity for His personal existence. God fathered a child. He did not merely indwell a human being, but He became a human being. The Word was made flesh (John 1:14). There was a metaphysical union between deity and humanity.. According to the Scriptures, Jesus was divine from His birth (Micah 5:2; Luke 1:32-35). There was never a time when Jesus was not God.
Ebionism would follow in this same vain because its views of Jesus Christ are nearly identical to Dynamic Monarchianism. Its view of Jesus Christ is nothing more than that of a moral example for men to follow, not the sinless God-man who accomplished salvation on our behalf as the Scripture teaches.
Docetism fails to account for the numerous Scriptural affirmations to the authenticity of Jesusí humanity. Jesus was not a hologram. John claimed that He could be seen and touched (I John 1:1-3). Scripture also teaches that Christ suffered (Romans 8:17; Philippians 3:10; Hebrews 2:9; 5:8-9; I Peter 2:19; 3:14), which according to Docetism, Christ could not suffer.
Apollinarianism fails to explain the accounts of Jesusí temptation. If Jesus did not have a human mind it would make His temptations meaningless. Jesus also grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52). He learned obedience through suffering (Hebrews 5:8). He had His own will, not just the will of God (Luke 22:42).
Apollinarianism also limits humanity to the physical. In the end we end up having God peering out into the world through a human set of eyes. It makes God into the driver of a taxi-cab; the flesh of Jesus was just the vehicle for God to redeem the world. But human skin is not the essence of humanity. We are much more than skin. If Jesus was a genuine man as the Scriptures speak of Him and portray Him as being, then He must have had a human mind, will, spirit/soul, and emotions in addition to human flesh.
One of the most important deficiencies of this doctrine is soteriological (having to do with salvation). As the Cappadocian maxim says, "What He did not assume He can not heal." What this means is that Jesus can only redeem the aspects of humanity which He Himself took upon Himself in the incarnation. If Jesus did not have a human mind and spirit, then He cannot redeem mankind in their totality because we have a human mind and spirit. Jesus could only redeem that which He became. If He did not have a human spirit/mind, then He cannot redeem this aspect of man.
From a Biblical perspective, if Jesus was to be the last Adam (I Corinthians 15:45) His humanity had to be like Adam's in every respect (Romans 5:12-21; I Corinthians 15:21-22). Paulís argument in Romans is that just as sin entered the world through one man, causing all men to die a spiritual death because of Godís condemnation on sin, righteousness was gained for mankind through the one righteous act of Jesus Christ. Jesus came to reverse the effects of Adamís sin. Whereas Adam brought death and condemnation to man, Jesus brought life and righteousness.
In the Corinthians passage Paul made a similar argument, namely that since death was brought into the world by man, the resurrection from the dead also had to brought into the world by a man. All of those who are born from Adam will die both physically and spiritually; however, those who are in Christ, though they will physically die (except those that are still alive at the resurrection of the dead), they will be resurrected from the dead to spiritual life. The point of both passages is that since death and condemnation was brought on by man, spiritual life, righteousness, and the resurrection from the dead to life everlasting also had to come from a man. Whatever Adam was, the last Adam, Jesus Christ, had to be. Only a man like Adam could reverse what Adam did. If Adam had a human spirit/mind, then Jesus had to have a spirit/mind. This is especially telling since Adam succumbed to temptation with his mind/will. If Jesus was to objectively overcome temptation, He likewise had to resist it with a human mind. God cannot be tempted, but if the divine Spirit/mind replaced the human spirit/mind, then Jesus, as God, was tempted.
If Christ did not possess a human mind/will, then certain Biblical statements about Christ would be rendered meaningless. He could not be tempted, since God cannot be tempted (James 1:13), but we find that He was in fact tempted (Hebrews 4:15). Temptation occurs in the mind of man. If Jesus did not have a human spirit/mind, He could not have been tempted.
It is also said of Jesus that He "increased in wisdom" (Luke 2:52). If Jesus did not have a human mind, then we would have to confess that God was increasing in wisdom. This cannot be true because God is all-knowing and full of wisdom. He gives wisdom to man; He does not receive wisdom from man (Romans 16:27; I Timothy 1:17; James 1:5; Jude 1:25).
It is also said that Christ "learned obedience through what he suffered" (Hebrews 5:8). A moral improvement is not in view here, but Christís increasing capacity which He gained for the fulfillment of His office. What needs to be emphasized is that Jesus learned. There is nothing for God to learn. He knows all things. Only a human mind can learn.
Hebrews 2:11, 14-18 is very clear as the completeness and genuineness of Christís humanity. The author said, "For indeed he who makes holy and those being made holy all have the same origin, and so he is not ashamed to call them brothers and sistersÖ. Ö Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise shared in the same as well, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil), and set free those who were held in slavery all their lives by their fear of death. For surely his concern is not for angels, but he is concerned for Abrahamís descendants. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in things relating to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. For since he suffered and was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted" (NET Bible). The author argues that Jesus shared in the same flesh and blood that all other humans possessed. He is of the same origin. He had to be made like all the rest of humanity in every respect if He was to be able to suffer and overcome temptation, in order to represent humanity as a priest, to help those who are tempted. The phrase in every respect most assuredly includes a human spirit/mind.
Nestorianism is deficient because it makes Jesus into two persons. It is similar to Apollinarianism in that it paints a picture of Jesus as having God peering through human eyes. In contradistinction to Apollinarianism, however, Nestorius did maintain Christís full humanity. He was correct in confessing Christís complete dual nature, but was in error when trying to explain how His two natures functioned together. Instead of teaching a moral (behavioral) union between Jesusí divine and human nature, the Scripture teaches that the Logos became flesh (John 1:14). The Greek word ginomai means "to become." The Logos did not merely assume a human body, but became a human being. The union is metaphysical, not moral. In such a union, whatever can be said of Christ's divine nature, or of His human nature, can be attributed to Christ's whole person. This is known as the communicatio idiomatum. Christ's person is one unified whole, not two fragmented parts.
If Jesus' two natures are only joined by the will-the human nature in Christ always submitting to the divine nature in Christ-then theoretically, the man, Jesus Christ, and the Spirit of God could have existed apart from one another. But in the incarnation, God became a man. When God assumed a human existence, the deity and humanity of Christ became forever inseparable, joined in a metaphysical union in every respect. If this were not so, then Jesus did not truly become a man, but only indwelt a particular man. When one becomes something they cannot be separate from that something. If God truly became a man it would be impossible for divine nature to be separate from His humanity.
If God only indwelt a particular man, then at best, Jesus' sacrifice could only have accomplished a particular salvation, i.e. His own. His death could not have saved all of humanity. It is by virtue that God became a man, identifying with the human race as a whole, that Jesus can be a mediator between God and men. What makes Jesus' death of infinite value is not merely His sinlessness, but the fact that He was God manifest in the flesh. If Jesus was not metaphysically God Himself, then His death could not save us. The infinite God became a man to die for us. This is the reason for the efficacy of Calvary. If the humanity of Christ was separate from His deity, however, this could not be true.
Nestorianism's insistence on the separate natures in Christ fails to provide a satisfactory explanation as to the sense in which Jesus can be spoken of in the Scripture as one person, rather than two. Jesus always speaks of Himself, and is spoken of by others in the singular, not the plural as we would expect if there are two separate persons in one body. Neither can Nestorianism provide an adequate explanation as to how it can be said that the logos became flesh if Christ's divine nature is separate from His human nature. Finally, Nestorianism's portrait of separate natures connected only by will displaces the idea of a true incarnation of God, denegrating it to a mere possession of Jesus' human body. If there is no essential, metaphysical unity between Christ's deity and humanity then Christ cannot be considered God anymore than Spirit-filled believers can be considered God. The difference between the Nestorian Jesus and all other believers is limited only by the fact that Jesus is filled with the Spirit in a special way, and was conceived miraculously.
Eutychianism came close to being the orthodox teaching of the early church. It was so close to the Biblical teaching because it affirmed two complete, authentic natures in Christ, and even confessed that there was a metaphysical union between the two, thus avoiding the soteriological problem that Nestorianism faced. Where this teaching falls into error is in claiming that the two natures blended together to form a third substance, which is neither of the original two. Such a mixture would necessarily produce a confusion of the natures, and thus the individuality of each nature is destroyed. In the end Jesus is no longer God and man, but other than God and other than man. If this were true, Jesus could not identify with the sons of Adam, nor could He identify with Deity. He would be in a class of His own, thus not fit to be a mediator between God and men (I Timothy 2:15).
This teaching also ignores the many Biblical statements that portray Christ as having ministered as a man anointed by the Holy Ghost. The divine nature of Christ did not subsume or overwhelm His human nature. Jesus was metaphysically, and functionally a man. A Eutychian understanding of Christ ignores the Biblical portrayal of Christ as a genuine human being with genuine human emotions and characteristics.
The Incarnation is a Contradiction
Although not proposed as an alternative interpretation in the above section, some have contended that the idea of an incarnation of God is a contradiction. Soren Kierkegaard has proposed this view, saying that God and man are two infinitely different things. The world of God and the world of man are as different as fire and ice.
What must be remembered is that a contradiction is between two propositions; the one denying the claim of the other. For example to say that a man is a spiritual being, and that he is not a spiritual being at the same time is a contradiction. To say that a man is a spiritual being in one sense, and not a spiritual man in another sense is not a contradiction; nor is it a contradiction to affirm that a man is a spiritual and a material being at the same time.
There are many aspects concerning the mechanics of the incarnation that we do not understand, but mystery is not the same thing as contradiction. Godís existence and manís existence are not wholly other as Kierkegaard has claimed. It must be remembered that man is made in Godís image, and therefore resembles God. If Godís image can be found in man, why is it so hard to image that God could assume a human existence while still retaining His Godhood?4 Although we may not have full understanding of the way in which deity could unite metaphysically with humanity in the one person of Jesus Christ, it is not a contradiction to believe such a thing. Rather it is a paradox, or a seeming contradiction that can not be adequately explained, but nonetheless is within reason.
The Scriptures are very clear in their portrayal of Jesus as being both man and God. He plays the role of the divine and of the humanótwo roles which had been heretofore worlds apart, calling for two different actors, and requiring two different stages.5 In Jesus, however, the infinite Spirit united with finite humanity to become the Son of God. These two natures seem mutually exclusive. Deity is infinite in knowledge, power, and presence. Humanity is limited in knowledge, power, and presence. How can the two distinct worlds of God and man come together into one existence? This is the very question Christology attempts to answer.
Although the Bible infers that there is a relationship between the deity and humanity of Christ (called the hypostatic union), no one passage was specifically penned to explain its mechanics. The New Testament writers simply affirmed that it was true. What we must do, then, is meticulously scrutinize all that Jesus said about Himself relating to His identity (His self-concept), and statements made by the writers of the New Testament concerning His dual nature in order to understand in what ways Christís two natures can or cannot relate to one another.
Since Jesus was from the lineage of Abraham and David (John 7:42; Acts 13:22-23; Romans 1:3; Hebrews 2:16), by necessity He received human DNA, genes, and chromosomes. Since Jesusí genetic makeup was received from the lineage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not only was Jesus human, but He was also Jewish because His mother and her descendants were Jewish. Jesus was born to a Jewish woman, in the nation of the Jews, with Jewish customs, habits, and culture. Jesus was a Jew! He looked and acted like any other Jewish person would. Surely Jesus danced in the folk dances, attended social events (John 2:1-2), and played with other boys in His village.
Although His conception was miraculous, Jesus was born like any other human being is born. He grew physically, intellectually, socially, and spiritually like any other man (Luke 2:40, 52). Sometimes we have the concept that Jesus came out of Mary's womb, looked at Mary and said, "Hi mom, I'm God!," then cut off His umbilical cord, and taking off running, He preached to the world. Jesus did not know He was God manifest in the flesh when He was born. His human mind had not come to know or understand that yet. He came to realize this at some point in the future. When and how this occurred is not discussed in the Bible, but we do know that Jesus understood His identity at least by the age of twelve. It was at this time He told Mary, "Do you not know that I must be about my Father's business?" (Luke 2:42, 49).
Jesus lived a childhood like every other Jewish boy. He had to learn and memorize the Hebrew Scriptures, be potty-trained, fed, taught how to speak, learn a trade, walk, and all the other things children must do. Jesus surely drooled on Mary's shoulder, and wet His pants. As a carpenter, surely He received splinters, and when hitting His hand with the hammer of His day He must have yelled because of the pain.
Jesus had a complete human nature, differing only from ours in that He was spared the sin nature by way of the virgin birth and conception by the Holy Ghost. This does not make Him any less human than we, because we know Adam and Eve to be true human beings, and they existed without the sin nature previous to their transgression. If anything, Jesus was more human than we are, because we are tainted by the sin nature. We live an existence that limits our relationship with God. Jesus was not limited by this sin principle or bound by its effects: alienation from God, sickness, disease.
Although He was born into this world like any other man, Jesus was conceived in a very unique way. He did not have a human father, but was begotten by the Holy Ghost (Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:34-35). God was His Father. Jesus received His deity from His Father. He did have a human mother, but she conceived in her womb in a way different from any other (Galatians 4:4). Instead of sexual intercourse and fertilization by the sperm of a male, the power of the Highest overshadowed her (Luke 1:35). It was at that point that God became a human as a fetus in Mary's womb. Jesus received His deity and part of His humanity from the Father, and part of His humanity from Mary (Luke 1:34-35; Galatians 4:4). This will never be fully understood or comprehended, but must be accepted by faith.
Because Jesus was conceived by the Holy Ghost, and not of man, He is called the Son of God. Although we too are called sons of God (I John 3:2), our sonship is different than Jesus'. Whereas we are adopted as God's sons (Romans 8:14-17), Jesus was born as God's Son (Luke 1:35). His very being came into existence by the Holy Ghost. Jesus would have never existed without the contributions made by His Father. Since God physically fathered Jesus through the miraculous conception He is God's Son in a physical sense. We are only God's sons in a spiritual sense. Our existence is not dependent on Him. Our being results from the physical union of two human parents. It is only after this that we can become sons of God through the adoption by His Spirit. The difference between Jesus and us, then, is that Jesus' existence has its dependence on the Father while ours does not. Daniel Segraves expounded on this truth when he said:
The miracle of the virgin conception means that deity and humanity were as inseparable in Jesus as the genetic influence of a mother and father is inseparable in their son or daughter. Just as no human being could exist if all that was contributed to his existence by either his father or his mother were removed, so Jesus could not have existed as the Messiah apart from either His deity (contributed by the Holy Spirit [Luke 1:34-35]) or his humanity (contributed by Mary [Galatians 4:4]).6
This union demonstrates the permanence of the incarnation. Once God assumed humanity at His conception in Mary's womb, He acquired an identity He would retain for the rest of eternity.. Jesus' humanity is not something that can be discarded or dissolved back into the Godhead, but He will always and forever exist in heaven as a glorified human, albeit God at the same time. His humanity is permanently incorporated into the Godhead.7 God did not just live in flesh as a man, but the "Word became flesh" (John 1:14). God is now a man. This does not mean He no longer exists as the omnipresent Spirit, but it does mean that His existence as a man is both authentic and permanent.
Jesus did not merely put on a "robe of flesh" when He came to this earth. He was more than "God with skin on." These types of statements imply a Nestorian view of Christóa separation of natures within Jesus as though He is two separate individuals living in one body. They imply that the flesh was a mere shell that Deity moved within. The humanity of Jesus was not independent of the deity of Jesus. The deity and humanity comprising Jesus' existence should not be viewed as some sort of "room-mate situation" in which two entities exist in the same area, but are separated from one another in reality. In Christ "the Spirit of God was inextricably and inseparably joined with the humanity...."8
An example from chemistry might demonstrate this well. A mixture or blend can be separated into its original substances after being blended. Whereas mixtures (physical compounds) can be separated again, chemical compounds form a new substance of which the original substances can never again be separated from the compound. The two natures in Christ should not be viewed as blended or mixed together. His two natures cannot be separated.
Unfortunately, every analogy breaks down at some point, this one being no exception. This analogy can only demonstrate the permanence of the incarnation, not the metaphysical union of the two natures of Christ. The deity and humanity of Christ did not form a new substance from the two, known as tertium quid (which Eutyches espoused), for each nature retained all of their respective "properties." The deity was uncompromised by the humanity, and the humanity was uncompromised by the deity; both being perfectly preserved in their wholeness and genuineness, yet united in every way. The deity was not obscured by the complete humanity, and neither was the humanity overwhelmed by the fullness of the deity.9 The fullness of God's deity was manifested in every aspect of His genuine humanity; integrated, and not segregated. The nature of God was not changed in the incarnation, but rather that God personally united to Himself a human existence-not by merely adding flesh to His existence, but by the two natures being brought together into a vital union so as to speak of Christ as being one person, yet still having two distinct natures.
The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology sums this up saying, "In the incarnation Ö a human nature was inseparably united forever with the divine nature in the one person of Jesus Christ, yet with the two natures remaining distinct, whole, and unchanged, without mixture or confusion so that the one person, Jesus Christ, is truly God and truly man."10
Common Misconceptions of the Union
It is commonly said of Jesus that He has a "divine side" and a "human side," or that sometimes He acted as God, and at other times as man. It is explained that as a man Jesus prayed, ate, and slept. As God He healed the sick, raised the dead, and calmed the storms. This seems to imply some sort of duality in Jesus as though He is two persons in one body. This is the teaching of Nestorianism. These activities give indication of the reality of each nature, but it must be understood that Jesus' natures never worked independent of one another. His two natures exist "without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the difference of the natures having been in no wise taken away by reason of the union, but rather the properties of each being preserved...."11 The communicatio idiomatum of Christís two natures demands that whatever can be attributed to either the human or divine nature of Christ can be attributed to Christís one person. Whatever is true of either nature is true of the whole person.12 James White commented on this saying that
Öwhen Jesus spoke, He spoke as one Person, not two. One cannot say that, when claiming deity, Jesus' "deity" spoke, or when He referred to His humanity, it was His "human nature" that spoke. It can be seen from this that natures don't speak - only Persons do.. And, since Jesus is one Person, not two, He speaks as a whole Person. Ö He had two natures, but those natures were made personal by only one Person, the Word made flesh. Hence, though Jesus may say things that indicate his two natures, what he says represents His whole being, not a certain part thereof.13
This is important because the communicatio idiomatum is often misunderstood to mean that whatever can be said of one nature can be said of the other. This is not so. The divine attribute of omnipresence alone demonstrates this fact. Jesus' humanity could not be omnipresent because of the nature of the human existence. Humanity is limited by nature. The communicatio idiomatum means that whatever can be said of one nature can be spoken of as applying to the whole of Christ's person. For example, we would not say that the divine nature died on the cross. God did not die, but the humanity which God assumed died. Likewise, the Scripture says that God cannot be tempted (James 1:13), yet Jesus was tempted. If we apply the communicatio idiomatum to mean that whatever can be said of one nature can be said of the other, then we have God's essence being tempted and dying. Such a conclusion is absurd. This is explained by saying that God as He exists in a genuine human existence was tempted. How exactly this could be without splitting up the union of the two natures I cannot adequately explain. This is where our understanding breaks down. Even Chalcedon could not pinpoint the truth; it could only draw a box around it by saying what can and cannot be true, and let the truth lie somewhere inside the box. I am also asserting what must be true, and what cannot be true (insofar as it is knowable), and leaving the rest to the box of mystery.
The typical way of explaining Jesus' natures splits up their unity and integration, insinuating that one could be "operated" apart from the other. It almost reduces Jesus to Superman who is sometimes Kent Clark and other times Superman after a quick change in a telephone booth somewhere. Jesus does not change over from acting in one nature to acting in the other. He is not like the Wild E. Coyote who holds up a sign saying, "Now I'm acting as a man," and at other times He holds up another sign saying, "Now I'm acting as God." Everything Jesus did, He did as God manifest in the flesh (Son of God). There can be no separation of Jesus' natures. "The union of the two natures meant that they did not function independently. Jesus did not exercise his deity at times and his humanity at other times. His actions were always those of divinity-humanity."14 Jesus is unitary being. He is unipersonal, not multipersonal. Whatever can be said of His divine nature or human nature can be said of His whole person. Gordon Lewis explained it this way:
What unites the natures is that both may be predicated of the one actual person. The two natures exist not merely in a functional harmony, nor are they in a nonmetaphysical way merely communicated to each other. The divine nature is not simply the indwelling Holy Spirit as is the case in all Christians. Nor did the human nature lose anything by its assumption into the person of Godís Son. In the God-man we find a complex of two distinct natures, but not a confusion of the two sets of attributes.15
The metaphysical union of Christ's two natures does not mean that we cannot make a distinction between them, but only that we cannot make a separation between them. Because in the union, each nature was preserved in its fullness and not blended into a third substance, we can recognize a distinction between Christ's deity and His humanity, but we cannot make a separation. We may understand that Jesus did certain things because He was a genuine human being, or because He was God, but we cannot say that He only does those things in the respective nature. To do so would be to destroy the metaphysical unity of the two natures, and hence the unity of the person of Christ.
The way in which we can differentiate but not separate Christ's two natures may be compared to the way in which Paul differentiated between our inner and outer man. He said, "Though our outward man perish yet the inward man is renewed day by day" (II Corinthians 4:16). In another place he noted, "For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members" (Romans 7:22-23). Both of these references make a distinction between our spirit-man and our fleshly-man, yet such a distinction was never intended to teach that we are two people. In a similar way we can attribute the cause of certain activities or sayings of Christ to one of His natures, but we cannot say that these only occur in one nature to the exclusion of the other because of the fact that Christ is one whole unified person. Whatever He does He does as God unified to humanity.
A Nestorian understanding of Christ, which divides Christ into two distinct persons dwelling in one body, is also witnessed in the way one defines the Biblical title, "Son." Many attribute "Son" strictly to Jesus' humanity, avoiding any attribution to His deity. Such a use of "Son" is foreign to the NT text. The Bible uses the term to refer to Jesus' whole person, both deity and humanity, never to refer to one-half of Jesus' person. "Son" most certainly originated with the incarnation, and thus does not imply a preexisting divine person of a Trinity, but "Son" cannot be said to refer only to Jesus' human nature. The term "Son" incorporates Jesus' whole person, both deity and humanity conjoined into one indivisible person. To say that "Son" only refers to Jesus' human nature is Nestorian at heart, separating Jesus into two persons in one body. The Scripture, however, presents Christ as one whole person.
It has been common to hear Jesusí dual nature explained as "roles." It is said that in the role of a man Jesus did such and such, and in His divine role Jesus did this and that. Sometimes it is even asserted that Jesus was acting in both roles simultaneously. It must be made clear that roles do not have person-hood. They cannot act in and of themselves. A person can act in a role, but a role has no personal existence. If it is true that Jesus could act in one role and not in another at any one given time, this indicates that only one nature in Jesus was acting. This makes Jesus into two individual persons, one divine and one human dwelling in a physical body simultaneously, which are only unified functionally. Everything that Jesus did He did as God manifest in the flesh. There is no Biblical support to say that Jesus ever acted in a human role sometimes, in the divine role other times, and both simultaneously yet still at other times.
We should not even say of Christ that as a man He was tempted, ate, slept, and felt emotion; and as God He had power over life and death, performed miracles, and forgave sin. Instead we should say that the fact that Jesus was tempted, ate, slept, and felt emotion indicates that He was a genuine human being. It could also be said that Jesus was tempted because of His authentic humanity. Likewise the fact that Jesus forgave sin demonstrates His genuine existence as God, or it could be said that His power over life and death was due to His complete deity. However it is explained, it must not be understood that when Jesus did something that demonstrates His humanity, that it was done strictly in His human nature, but not in His divine nature. Such an explanation is clearly Nestorian, making Christ two persons in one body. If some things Jesus says and does are only in His human nature, and other things He says and does are in His divine nature, then we have two parts of Jesus that are only unified in geographical area, not essence or even necessarily function. God was not in Christ peering through human eyes like a child who peers through the mask of the costume at Halloween, but God became a man in the person of Christ. The Nestorian portrayal of the incarnation is little more than the Spirit possession of a created human being, whereas the Biblical portrayal of the incarnation is that of God becoming the man, Jesus Christ.
The orthodox understanding of Christ's two natures is that in the incarnation the deity and humanity were joined in such a way that they are united into one, and not divided; inseparable, yet distinguishable; the properties of each being present in Christ in their fullness, yet united as one person. The Spirit of God and the human spirit of Jesus were not blended to form a third substance that was not purely God or purely man, nor was either spirit overshadowed by the other so that one was dominant over the other. The deity was not compromised or obscured by the humanity, and neither was the humanity compromised or obscured by the deity; both being perfectly preserved in their wholeness and genuineness, yet united in every way. Neither were His two natures separated in any way, but were unified in every way.
The best analogy to demonstrate this truth is that of grafting. In grafting, a branch is cut from one tree and attached to another. This is done by splicing the recipient branch, and then taping the spliced foreign branch to the area the recipient tree. Various methods are employed to hold the foreign branch on the recipient tree. Over time, the two branches will grow together into one branch. If we were to graft a plum branch onto a peach tree, when they grew together we would have one branch bearing both plums and peaches. It would not produce "pleaches" (the Eutychian view of Christ), for each fruit continues to exist on that one branch unchanged. The one limb would not produce hollow fruit (the Apollinarian view of Christ), and neither could we distinguish the two branches any longer (a Nestorian view of Christ), for the two have come together into one unified branch. Each branch retains its respective properties, continuing to be what it had always been, yet it is essentially united in every way to the other branch (the orthodox under-standing of Christ), and will continue to bear two respective fruits, both unchanged from the time when they existed on two separate branches.
Jesus was both God and man. That this is so, is known from the revelation of the Scripture. How exactly this is so, is a mystery. Mystery, however, is not the same as contradiction! Although the incarnation is the greatest of mysteries, and we will never fully comprehend how Jesus can be both God and man, we can confess that Jesus is both fully God and fully man and yet be one person. The Scripture speaks of Him in this manner, and so must we. Harold O.J. Brown has spoken a fitting word concerning the understanding and explanation of mysteries:
The New Testament message confronts believers with a number of formidable mysteries and at the same time calls upon them to use their minds in the effort to proclaim and interpret them. There is a point in the proclamation of the mystery where human understanding reaches its limit. To stop too soon in the effort to understand and to interpret leaves the believer facing a contradiction or an absurdity; to go too far often leads him into a logical impossibility. One of the greatest challenges to the Christian witness is to explain as much as can be explained, and thus not to leave believers in ignorance where clarification is possible, but to stop when the limits of understanding have been reached, and thus not trespass the mystery of God. 16
We must be careful in our attempt to explain how Jesus could be both God and man that we do not under-explain or over-explain it. Both of these tendencies will lead us into error. We can affirm what we know is true, and affirm what we know cannot be true about Christ's person, but we can never pin our theological tail right on the donkey. We can box in the truth to a smaller dimension of understanding by affirming certain things and negating other things about Christ, but we can never pinpoint the exact nature of the hypostatic union.
The box of limitation which surrounds the exact truth of the union cautions us that we must not deny either the fullness of His deity or the fullness of His humanity, and that we be careful to not explain the unity of His two natures in such a fashion that it makes Jesus into two separate persons in one body, one unified person that compromises either nature, or one person who is some third substance that is neither God or man. Jesus, although both fully God and fully man, is nevertheless one unified person. This is the mystery of the incarnation, and oh what a mystery it is!
1. Louis Berkhof, History of Christian Doctrines (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1937), 78, quoted in David Bernard, Oneness and Trinity: A.D. 100-300 (St. Louis, MO: Word Aflame Press), 99. <back>
2. Gordon L. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology (Grand Rapid: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 252. <back>
3. Alan F. Johnson and Robert E. Weber, What Christians Believe: A Biblical & Historical Summary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 130. <back>
4. Lewis and Demarest, 350-1. <back>
5. Alister E. McGrath, Studies in Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 254. <back>
6. Segraves, 7. <back>
7. Ibid. <back>
8. Ibid., 7. <back>
9. Ibid., 49. <back>
10. Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 540. <back>
11. This is a quote from the Chalcedon Creed adopted in A.D. 451 at Chalcedon. This creed has been the orthodox statement concerning Christology ever since. <back>
12. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 257. <back>
13. James White, "The Trinity, the Definition of Chalcedon, and Oneness Theology," found at http://www.aomin.org/CHALC.html. <back>
14. Millard J. Erickson, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 735. <back>
15. Lewis and Demarest, 343. <back>
16. Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1984), 320. <back>
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