Category Archives: Two Natures

On the Hypostatic Union

“Orth.— When we hear the story of the divine evangelists narrating how they brought to God a man sick of the palsy, laid upon a bed, do we say that this was paralysis of the parts of the soul or of the body?

Eran.— Plainly of the body.

Orth.— Then let us make use of this reasoning faculty in the case of our Maker and Saviour, and let us recognise what belongs to His Godhead and what to His manhood.

Eran.— But by doing this we shall destroy the supreme union.

Orth.— In the case of Isaac, of the prophets, of the man sick of the palsy, and of the rest, we did so without destroying the natural union of the soul and of the body; we did not even separate the soulsfrom their proper bodies, but by reason alone distinguished what belonged to the soul and what to the body. Is it not then monstrous that while we take this course in the case of souls and bodies, we should refuse to do so in the case of our Saviour, and confound natures which differ not in the same proportion as soul from body, but in as vast a degree as the temporal from the eternal and the Creator from thecreated?”

Theodoret, The Polymorphus Dialogue III

I’ve rather butchered the above quote. For anyone interested, the whole work of Theodoret is available for free online. I would highly recommend it. I want these few lines, however, only as a possible suggestion on how to think about the Hypostatic union.

The union of the human and divine natures is compared here by Theodoret to that of the body with the soul. The two are somehow united, yet not such that the natures of each are destroyed. It is the body which becomes paralyzed, blind, hot and cold. It is the body which is material, subject to death, existing in space, etc. Yet the soul as such does not have these properties. It may “experience” the paralysis and blindness of the body but it is not itself blind or paralyzed.

Likewise maybe we can use this analogy – which of course is not perfect – to sort of imagine the Hypostatic union of the two natures in Christ.

Short post today.

On the Two Natures

“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.)

On the Trinity, Impassibility and Creation, with Reflections on Aquinas’ Conception of Jesus’ Human Mind

The “traditional” doctrine has always been that the three persons share the same divine nature. Thus all three are omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, etc. But I feel a real difficulty when we get to certain other divine attributes, such as aseity and impassibility. If to be divine is to be impassible, then how can the Son, who is eternally begotten (i.e. eternally receiving his existence), be impassible? To be impassible seems to be equivalent to being purely active and not in any way passive. But would not the Son, since he is derivative, be purely receptive in his being, and therefore passible? A similar point can be made as regards aseity. If to be divine is to be a-se, then how can the Son, who derives his being from the Father, be divine? To be a-se means to be self-existent and not get one’s being from another. It means, in a word, to be unconditioned. But how then can the Son be a-se, since he is only the Son by being begotten of the Father?

Further difficulties emerge when we consider the things we can say of the Son, over against the Father. The Son, for instance, assumed a human nature. Yet the Father did not assume. How therefore can the Father and the Son be equal when you can predicate the property of “assuming a human nature” to one and not the other? Traditionally, theologians have wanted to say that the three persons are identical as regards the divine nature and that they only differ in their relations to each other. But I am having a difficult (impossible?) time in seeing how a relation can be a particular relation without simultaneously implying differences as regards to the nature of the person who possesses that relation. That is, if the Son is related to the Father by way of generation, how then is the Son in his own nature not passible and dependent? I suppose one could say that God considered as a Trinity possesses the full range of the divine attributes, but that each person considered in itself does not, necessarily. But if that is the case, in what sense can “all” persons be divine and equal? That is, just what are the properties that each share that make them all divine?**

Another problem I have is in considering how the Son, considered as impassible, could truly be united to a passible human being. In particular, how could the divine nature in Christ really “know” and be related to his passible human nature? If the divine nature is changelessly, perfectly happy, knowing all things timelessly and fully, how could he unite himself to a changing, suffering, ignorant human body and soul? The traditional doctrine of the Incarnation affirms that the Son was united to both a human body and soul, and thus that he was united to that which is natural to each. It is natural for man to be limited in knowledge and confined in body. How, therefore, could the Infinite and All-knowing unite itself, remaining what it is, to the finite and unknowing?

Aquinas and others have said two things about this, which are worth looking at. The first is that although the human nature really is related to the divine, the divine is not really related to the human. In other words, the divine stays unchangeable, omniscient, etc, and it is only the human nature that changes. But in this case, is there really a union of God and man? If so, where? If it is only the human nature which is becoming divine, and not the divine that is also becoming human, then in what sense can the divine in itself really relate to the human? Second of all, in explaining the human ignorance and suffering of the human nature, Aquinas is driven to say things like Christ, from the moment of his conception, saw the beatific vision of God in the womb. Likewise, when he hung on the cross, he experienced “in the higher part of his soul” inexpressible joy, though in his “lower soul” he experienced torment and pain unspeakable. Aquinas also holds that when Christ expressed ignorance of certain things he was not really ignorant but rather choosing not to reveal things that he already knew. (Doesn’t this just make him a liar? Why not say, as he in fact did say in other places, that such things were not necessary for his hearers to know?) Further, Aquinas holds that Christ had neither faith nor hope, since these virtues only come about because one does not yet have the beatific vision nor perfect knowledge of God. Since he held that Christ from the moment of conception onward held an absolutely perfect knowledge of God (and all things in God), he was driven to hold that Christ neither had faith nor hope.

But how could Christ, who fully assumed human nature, not even be able in principle to have faith or hope? If Christ did not assume some measure of ignorance, some measure of intellectual distance from God, how could he have assumed true humanity? Furthermore, what is one to make of the distinction in Aquinas of Christ’s human soul as regards its “higher” and “lower” parts? (Did he not hold that the soul was immaterial and therefore not composed of parts?) I cannot find this distinction intelligible. It seems to me that a human mind can only contain one conscious experience at a time. They may come and go with great rapidity and evolve and morph in all sorts of ways, but to say that one is simultaneously experiencing inexpressible joy in his higher soul while also experiencing horrible anguish in his lower is a concept I cannot make sense of. This is typical of Aquinas though. He gives us seemingly contradictory statements – without any meaningful analogues in our own inner experience – and just lets them sit there clashing against one another. I have a love-hate relationship with his writings. On the one hand, a man so thoughtful, who put so many questions to himself, must have seen the inconsistency in what he said, or at least the possible ways in which what he said could be interpreted to be inconsistent. Yet there is never a hint of recognition from himself regarding this. He speaks as if he sees things perfectly clearly. It’s like a person who has drawn a picture of a face, but disfigured the proportions, and yet does not admit that the picture itself is imperfect, or even bad in places. At least admit that what you’ve drawn looks horribly mangled. You do see it, right? Surely?

Finally, I’d like to say a few words about creation. I have argued in the past that God did not “need” to create, and that even without creation he could have been God and been perfectly fulfilled. Yet he freely chose to create, not for his own good, but for the good of the creature. Now the classic idea of a changeless and immutable God here brings up problems for me. For God, since he is independent of creation and does not need it to exist, must in a sense never acquire some new experience from creation. He cannot be “more God” in virtue of creation. Nor can he, as it were, “learn” new principles of being, some deeper metaphysical truths about reality. An open theist could argue that he can learn contingencies as they come to be in time, but I doubt even an open theist would conclude that God could learn some new present existential experience simply in virtue of the creation. All experiences must already exist in God, before he creates. For they only exist because they have first of all existed in his own creative mind. To give an analogy, everything in the book must somehow exist beforehand in the author’s mind.

Yet what about pain and evil? These things must have existed in God’s mind prior to creation, else they never could come to be in a world created by him. That would be like saying there was some passage in the book that existed without the hand of the author. Yet how could God, considered in himself, “know” them? This very problem lies at the back of why theologians are driven to assert that the divine does not suffer, even in the crucifixion. But again this has two insurmountable problems. i) If the divine cannot suffer then the assumption of the human by the divine seems impossible, for the divine must assume all that is real in the human, if it is to assume it in its fullness; and ii) just where does the metaphysical reality of suffering come from, if it does not exist beforehand in God’s creative mind? If the author puts something in the book, he must know it, not less, but better than everyone else. Surely the characters cannot know the novel better than he does.

I’m not going to pretend to have nice and tidy answers to these questions. But it does seem to me there are nuggets in the open theist camp that have not been fully mined. The first thing we must think more about is if it is possible for there to be some sort of “becoming” in God’s very being, because if so, we could perhaps better explain the Incarnation and how God “became” man. We must think about if this becoming is something God imposes on himself or takes on from some prior state of being or if he has eternally been existing in such a way. The second thing we must dig more into is God’s existence in himself (ad intra) apart from the world, prior to creation. Does God in this mode of being possess potentiality, and if so, who or what sets such a limit? If it does not come from God’s will, how could it exist? Does it come from his nature? Is his nature different from his will? And if God does in fact possess potentiality, does this mean he can potentially “open” his own experienced inner life of joy and fullness to a self-imposed vulnerability, insofar as he allows himself to be moved by creation? And if so, does this mean that God really does experience some new reality, in virtue of the creation, when he experiences pain and evil?

**In fact, now that I think about it, how could three persons share the attributes even of omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence? The Father does not know himself as the Son, nor is he “in the place of” the Son, nor can he become the Son. Therefore there are things the Father doesn’t know (“I am the Son”, “I was generated by the Father,” etc – all the “I statements” predicated of the Son). There are places the Father is not – he is not in whatever metaphysical “space” the Son occupies. And there are things he cannot do – he cannot BE the Son.