“Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge…one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person…” The “Definition” of Chalcedon, 451 AD
Who or what is Jesus Christ? Almost all Christians without thinking will reply: the God-man. He is God in the flesh; God incarnate. He is at once both fully man and fully God. That is what most will say. Yet very few stop and think about what this idea actually means. What does it mean to say that Christ is both God and man?
The early Christians hashed this question out over the first 700 years. While the particulars were settled in the later part of this span, most agree that the fundamental definition of the Incarnation was proclaimed at the 4th ecumenical council in 451 AD in Chalcedon. What came to be proclaimed as “Orthodox” was the idea that in the one Person of Christ there existed – and still exists – two individual natures, and that the union of these natures did not itself result in some third nature or the consequent dissolution of the individual two. Rather, the union was itself such that both natures existed as fully existent and fully distinct. As the creed declares, they are held together “without confusion, change, division, or separation.”
What does this mean? And how are we thus to think about the union – that is the hypostatic union – in Christ’s person of both the divine and human natures?
The first thing we need to notice is the reason why the Fathers thought it necessary to preserve the integrity of both natures in Jesus. Every heresy regarding the Incarnation really boils down to one of two teachings: i) that Jesus was fully God but not fully man; or ii) that Jesus was fully man but not fully God. One kind of heresy sees Jesus as simply God, walking around in human flesh as a kind of “garment,” though not really possessing a human soul or mind, and so therefore not being subject to the fullness of the human condition. And the other kind of heresy sees him as simply human, not uniquely united to the Word such that the second person of the Trinity could say “this is my human body and soul.”
Now, obviously no one would intentionally be a heretic. Furthermore, no one would intentionally discount the plain reading of the Gospels – at least no one would have back then – when they taught both divine and human things about the one person of Jesus. What, then, was the problem? Why not just accept both things? Why did anyone champion an heretical opinion?
The problem, which was and still in many ways is most acute, is this. Insofar as Jesus is said to be divine, this entails, if it means anything at all, that he possesses the properties of a divine nature. That is he is uncreated, unlimited, omniscient, omnipotent, impassible, immortal, etc. However, insofar as Jesus is said to be human, this entails that he also possesses a set of properties appropriate to a human nature. He was created, limited in body, knowledge, power, and subject to suffering and death. Therefore, the problem really is precisely this: Jesus is said to possess properties that are mutually exclusive and self-contradictory. How can one thing be both uncreated and created, impassible and passible, immortal and subject to death? How can the same “Person” be both visible and invisible, finite and infinite, equal to the Father and subject to the Father?
So you have there the problem. What the early church realized however is that whatever the solution it is not to deny a particular set of properties to Christ – say those of omniscience, uncreatedness, impassibility, etc. For in doing so you also do away with the nature that those properties are pointing to. If to be God means having all these things, then it follows that if Jesus is God he likewise has all these things. Just as it is necessary for a human to be a rational animal or else it ceases to be a human, so likewise whatever are the essential properties of divinity these must be present in a thing or else it cannot properly be Divine. Insofar as what you are describing is not uncreated, infinite, omnipotent, timeless, etc. you do not have God being described but at most a very powerful creature.* And, of course, the same point works the other way on the human nature. If you want to take away some of the things that necessarily make a human a human, such as a rational soul capable of emotion or a mind capable of learning things or of a body capable of feeling sensation, then whatever else Jesus is he cannot be said to be fully human.
Thus, for Jesus to be God and man he must really be God and man – meaning he must possess both a divine and human nature, and in the Incarnation he cannot ever cease having them, for having these things is just what it means for a thing to be what it is. Since Jesus is the God-man, therefore he must be both divine and human. Nor is it possible for both natures to come together to form some new, third thing – some tertium quid as the ancients called it. This is because, again, in such a case you would not have in the incarnation a person who is both fully God and fully man but some unique third thing that had the attributes of neither. When you combine the colors of red and blue you no longer have two separate colors but one: purple. On top of that if the divine nature was united to the human in such a way that a “new” thing came about – as if some addition could be made to the divine – then the divine nature itself would be changeable. This is also unacceptable, for it implies that the infinite and unlimited divine nature was somehow limited such that it could take on a new form and change from existing like such and such “first” and then to existing as such and such “after.” But there can be no movement – no going from – in a timeless being.
Moving from the idea of mixture there is another idea you must steer clear from when trying to understand the Incarnation. You can’t imagine the human nature being, as it were, swallowed up by the divine, such that the humanity was annihilated in being united to the Godhead. We are not to think of the human nature as a drop of ink that falls into the ocean of divinity and is thereby consumed. Christ’s sufferings on the cross as man were no less intense because he was also God. (In fact many argue that due to the perfect wholeness of Christ’s body and soul his sufferings were far more profound.) The trick for understanding the union of the two natures lies in holding both of them intact. Hence the particular wording in the creed: without confusion, change, or division. Thus either mixing them or having one being subsumed by the other simply won’t work.
We know then what ways lead to errors when talking about the Incarnation. But what about the logical problem touched on above? What are we do to with statements that seem self-contradictory when said of one Person? What are we to do with statements like the following, found in the ancient writings:
“Consequently, the Son of God entered into these lowly conditions of the world, after descending from His celestial throne, and though He did not withdraw from the glory of the Father, He was generated in a new order and in a new nativity. In a new order, because invisible in His own, He was made visible in ours; incomprehensible [in His own], He wished to be comprehended; permanent before times, He began to be in time; the Lord of the universe assumed the form of a slave, concealing the immensity of His majesty; the impassible God did not disdain to be a passible man and the immortal [did not disdain] to be subject to the laws of death.” (Tome of Leo 449)
“Can. 4. If anyone does not properly and truly confess according to the holy Fathers, two nativities of our one Lord and God Jesus Christ, as before the ages from God and the Father incorporally and eternally, and as from the holy ever Virgin, Mother of God Mary, corporally in the earliest of the ages, and also one and the same Lord of us and God, Jesus Christ with God and His Father according to His divine nature and , consubstantial with man and His Mother according to the human nature, and the same one passible in the flesh, and impassible in the Godhead, circumscribed in the body, uncircumscribed in Godhead, the same one uncreated and created, terrestial and celestial, visible and intelligible, comprehensible and incomprehensible, that all mankind which fell under sin, might be restored through the same complete man and God, let him be condemned.” (Lateran Council 649)
“We also know that the seventh, holy and universal synod, held for the second time at Nicea taught correctly when it professed the one and same Christ as both invisible and visible lord, incomprehensible and comprehensible, unlimited and limited, incapable and capable of suffering, inexpressible and expressible in writing.” (8th Ecu. Council in 869.)
Now, one could of course dismiss such writings. Although I won’t labor the point, that doesn’t seem a good idea for two reasons: a) you are still left with the task of articulating the union in a way that does coherently maintain both natures of Christ; and b) you are cutting off your strongest link to the tradition and therefore perhaps your greatest hope of a solution. For after all it was the tradition itself that brought to light and battled these ideas. Were it not for them we would likely be holding contradictions we were not sharp enough to spot on our own.
But anyway, back to the dilemma. Look at that last quote from the 8th council. There you have blatantly self-contradictory statements being attributed to the same person: invisible and visible, comprehensible and incomprehensible, capable of suffering and incapable, etc. And so we come back around to the problem that has given rise to all the theological frustration: how do we predicate such attributes of one and the same person at the same time?
Do you see it? As Lewis said somewhere, the whole “sting” of the contradiction lies in the words “at the same time.” But here’s the catch: God and man’s existences are not exactly parallel – they do not exist on the same timeline. The two are not commonly inhabiting the same spatio-temporal world, like two creatures who get together and make physical contact. In fact traditional theology has always held that God’s divine being is absolutely timeless. Quite literally tensed predicates cannot logically be attributed to him. I’m not claiming to fully grasp such an idea or comprehend it, but recognizing the fact that the divine nature is essentially timeless does avoid the logical contradiction in attributing to his Person two conflicting modes of being existing at the same time.
What you have then in the case of the incarnation is conflicting attributes being applied to two natures. However, the natures themselves are not inhabiting a common world which would cause a true contradiction to arise. What this leads to is the idea of the communication of idioms: that we can say such and such things about Christ’s human nature and opposite things about divine nature without contradicting ourselves. Christ in his divinity is impassible, omniscient, invisible, immortal, etc. However in his human nature he suffers, learns, is visible, dies, etc.
How can the divine nature assume or “take on” a human nature? Would that not change it? How could an omniscient nature be united to one that had to learn? How could a nature that could not suffer be joined to one which was tortured on the cross?
Again the key is in first snuffing out all the wrong ways to picture the union, and then letting the mystery materialize with whatever in the mind is left over. We aren’t to imagine two things existing first and then them moving together to join some third thing – like an egg and a sperm coming together form a zygote or a log being put in a fire and then turning to ash. The divine nature is timeless and changeless. What it does it does timelessly and changelessly as well. Therefore, there was no “time” at which it had not assumed a human nature. Not because it was always joined to a human nature but because it was not in time at all such that it could possibly exist with or without one.
The truth is that, strictly speaking, all the change in the incarnation is on the side of the human nature of Christ – his body and soul, which were created. Not on the side of the divinity, which both timelessly created and assumed that which it created.
When viewed at this way – with all the mutation and change being on the side of the created human nature – we get a clearer idea of how to understand how the impassible, omniscient nature could be united to the passible, limited-in-knowledge human nature. Insofar as we are talking about the divine nature, we could say that the second person of the Trinity timelessly knows that “in 6 A.D. my human nature is learning how to read” or “in 12 A.D. my human nature is learning how to make a table out of wood.” The humanity assumed by the Son is such that the divine nature itself can say “my” of the human nature, without this implying ignorance or change on the part of the divine. For what is the divine nature qua divine ignorant of? How does it follow that because the human nature changes therefore it, being timeless, does as well?
Furthermore, in the case of impassibility, we could say that, since the Son’s will is totally united in every respect to the Father’s, and since in such a perfect union there cannot be possibly anything other than absolute joy and bliss, the Son, in assuming a human nature and even in contemplating in his divine nature the suffering that was occurring at various times of his human life, would still be filled with undiminished and unspeakable joy in that divine nature. For any sort of suffering in the divine nature could only come from some sort of disruption or shrinking or frustration in the union of wills of the Trinity. But in God’s triune relations such a thing could not occur, since all three Persons are maximally good and in perfect relation to each other.
(I am aware many of the classic attributes or properties of God are not accepted by theologians today, in particular omniscience and impassibility. But I’ll save that debate for another time. Suffice it to say, the point still stands regarding natures. The essential properties of divinity, whatever they may be, must have been present in Jesus or else he could not have been said to be truly God.)