Thursday, October 14, 2021

Historical Theology: How Can Jesus Be Both God and Man? - The Chalcedonian Debates

Question: Our faith teaches us that Jesus is “fully God and fully man”—but why is it necessary for Jesus to be fully man? Does that mean that Jesus had two complete “persons” in one physical body, or was he some kind of mixture of the two? And what are the dangers of over-emphasizing one aspect of Jesus’ being to the detriment of the other?

After the full deity of Christ was affirmed at the Council of Nicea (325 AD) and re-affirmed at Constantinople (381 AD), the Christian church faced a new set of disputes. This time the stakes were not quite so high, since all of the parties agreed that Jesus was both God and man. The disputes were about how those two elements went together. Both sides of the argument saw spiritual dangers in the other side’s positions, so it behooves us to be aware of those dangers. Ultimately, these disputes led us to the final definition of Christ’s makeup, given by the Chalcedonian Creed (451 AD). This creed’s description of Jesus is accepted by most Christians today, but the scars of these disputes still remain—this was the point at which the Coptic Churches, the “Nestorian” Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Churches, and the Armenian Orthodox Church broke off their communion with the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics.

The New Testament Evidence

On top of the evidence that Jesus is fully God (which we reviewed last week), there are passages in the NT that point to him regularly being able to call on greater-than-human powers in addition to his miracle-working ability. For instance, he seemed to have the ability (at least when he chose to use it) to know the unspoken thoughts in the hearts of those around him (Mark 2:8; Luke 6:8). But on the other hand, there were also limits to his knowledge (Mark 13:32).

At the same time, the NT clearly shows that Jesus shared our most basic human needs and emotions: he could be hungry (Matt. 4:2), thirsty (John 19:28), tired (John 4:6), sleepy (Mark 4:28), indignant (John 2:12-17), sad (Matt. 26:37-38), impassioned in prayer (Heb. 5:7), and maybe even lonely (Matt. 26:40). He was born and grew up, physically and mentally, just as we do (Luke 2:32).

Other passages make it clear that Jesus was, indeed, a flesh-and-blood human being just like us: Hebrews 2:14-17 says that he “shared in [our] humanity” and was “made like his brothers in every way.” Hebrews 4:15 reminds us that he was “tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.” And 1 John 4:2 says, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”

The Problem

But how can anyone be “fully man and fully God”? In some respects, the two are contradictory: it would require the same person to be both omniscient and limited in knowledge, omnipresent and confined to a physical body, unchanging and yet always changing.

Two Rival Schools of Thought Develop

In the 300s and 400s, two answers to these questions started emerging, represented by the two great Christian scholastic centers, Antioch and Alexandria. The Antiochene Christology, represented by figures like Diodore and Theodore of Mopsuestia, preferred to think about Jesus as a dual being—a union of two completely separate natures and minds in one body. Jesus Christ was a being who had within him both a completely human nature and on top of that the eternal divine nature of the Son of God, and in all things the human side obeyed and submitted to the divine will. Ultimately, this position was made public in a more radical form by Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople.

Cyril of Alexandria
The rival school of thought, the Alexandrian Christology, led by Cyril of Alexandria and, more radically, Eutyches, preferred to think of Christ as a completely unified nature, in which the human part had been effectively “absorbed” into the divine part. So the human part played into the nature of Christ, but it was not fully present in the way that the Antiochenes suggested.

The dangers of the Antiochene position, according to the Alexandrians, were (1) that it made Christ look rather like someone with multiple-personality disorder, which runs against the Scriptural image of Christ as a fully unified person, (2) that it tended toward a debatable position wherein only the human part of Christ suffered and died (since the nature of God can neither suffer nor die in Greek theology), and (3) that it neglected the Scriptural teaching that even we Christians are not completely separate from God, but are, in fact, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), though not of course of his essence.

The dangers of the Alexandrian position, according to the Antiochenes, were that (1) it downplayed Christ’s humanity to the point where it became almost meaningless. The Antiochenes reminded the Church that Jesus Christ had to be a full, authentic human being all the way up through his crucifixion and resurrection, because only a true human being could make valid atonement for humanity’s sins (“That which was not assumed cannot be restored”). (2) The Alexandrian position also seemed to run against the Scriptural paradigm of God choosing to work alongside humanity, choosing instead a model wherein God takes over and does everything himself. (3) Finally, the Antiochenes were not quite sure what it meant to say that the eternal God suffered (even died?) on the cross.

The Chalcedonian Compromise

After a series of bitter debates, another church council came together at Chalcedon in 451 AD. Essentially, the church fathers decided that it was better to live with the “mystery” of Christ’s human and divine natures. They agreed with Phil. 2 that Christ had willingly limited his divine nature in order to join with a human nature. They then affirmed “two distinct natures” along with the Antiochenes, but in one “person” along with the Alexandrians (making it more unified than the Antiochenes’ position of two natures in one “body”). In the Chalcedonian Creed, they don’t tell us how this works, but they do put down some boundary lines against other positions: the two natures are “inseparable” but, at the same time, “unmixed.” This became the accepted position of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches, but the Coptic church stuck with the Alexandrian position and the Church of the East stuck with the Antiochene position.

The Chalcedonian Creed

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent,
teach men to 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 [rational] soul and body;
consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead,
and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood;

in all things like unto us, without 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, according to the Manhood;
one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten,
to be acknowledged in two natures,
inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably;
the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union,
but rather the property of each nature being preserved,
and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence,
not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son,

and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ;
as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him,
and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us,
and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.