Some Comments on Christology

There have been a couple of posts over the last two days pertaining to Christology over at Triablogue. Yesterday Steve Hays linked to some stuff about Reformed Christology (which I’ve yet to check out) and said:

The Orthodox routinely accuse Calvinists of being Nestorians. Now, our primary concern ought to be with NT Christology, not patristic or concililar Christology. But for those who take a keen interest in historical theology, here are some useful discussions regarding traditional Reformed Christology:

Two comments:

  1. Lutherans accuse Calvinists of being Nestorians as well, so the Orthodox are in Protestant company on that one.
  2. But more to the point, patristic and conciliar Christology’s primary concern was with biblical (OT & NT) Christology. The debates that took place in the 3rd to 5th centuries were exegetical debates.

Today, another Triblogue contributor, John Bugay, linked to some posts on another blog about Christology. He also agreed with Hays that NT Christology should be our primary concern, but again, it was the primary concern of the Fathers and the Councils. We’re not doing anything differently than they were in exegeting the texts. But one of the posts Bugay links to says:

Charges of Nestorianism are floating about with rather alarming looseness.

Folks, one isn’t Nestorian unless one believes in Christ having two separate persons. And it isn’t Nestorian to say that something can happen to one nature and not the other, any more than it is Nestorian to say that Jesus sometimes acts according to one nature, and sometimes acts according to the other nature. What is true for the activities of Jesus is also true of the passivities, especially since Jesus actively took upon Himself the suffering.

One must make a distinction, if you will pardon the pun, between the distinction of Christ’s two natures (which is Chalcedonian!), as opposed to the separation of the two natures (which is Nestorian). But again, here we must say that just because something happens to one nature and not the other does not mean that we are separating the two natures. That is a definite confusion I am seeing in some of the comments. Just because one does not scrape one’s violin bow across the tuning pegs of a violin does not mean that one has separated the violin strings from the tuning pegs. Now, every analogy will break down, of course. My only point here is that positing suffering of only the human nature of Christ does not constitute Nestorianism in any way, shape, or form.

I’ve not read the 150 (!) comments on the post, so I’m probably repeating something that has been said, but the issue is this: One needn’t say that Christ is two persons outright for that to be the logical conclusion of what they do say. When people relegate Christ’s activities to this or that nature then they treat the natures as personal. The logical conclusion is that there are two persons in Christ. Whether we say that one nature does something and another nature does something else, or something happens to one nature while nothing happens to the other, the conclusion is still the same, there’s a fundamental separation, contrary to the protestations of this author (who’s name I don’t see attached to the post). Whatever happens to Christ happens to Christ. Not to one nature or the other. Christ suffered and died on the cross, was buried, and three days later rose from the dead. This happened to Christ, not one of his natures, which are inseparable from his person.

And the issue of Nestorianism is often misunderstood anyway. Forget about the language of “two persons” for a moment and consider Nestorius’ fundamental issue, which was the language of Mary as theotokos (Mother of God). Many Protestants would agree with Nestorius’ main point, which was that Mary couldn’t be said to be the mother of God since God preexisted Mary, but rather she was the christotokos, the mother of Christ’s human nature. But therein lies the problem; God became incarnate in the womb of a virgin. That virgin carried the incarnate God to term and delivered him into the world as an infant. Unless one separates the natures of the incarnate God, as Nestorius’ Christology logically forced him to do (and keep in mind that from what we know, Nestorius never actually affirmed that there were two persons in Christ, this was the polemical description of the logical outcome of his position) then they should have no problems with calling Mary the mother of God or saying that God was crucified and resurrected.

Alright, so that’s that. To recap: Patristic and Conciliar Christology is primarily exegetically driven biblical (OT & NT) Christology, and if it looks like a Nestorian, walks like a Nestorian, and quacks like a Nestorian, then it’s a duck.

B”H

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5 thoughts on “Some Comments on Christology

  1. Well said, Nick. There is some slippage in the language (be it polemical or merely descriptive) of “Nestorian.” One’s Christology may be Nestorian, strictly speaking — i.e. in agreement with the ‘two persons’ view condemned by the Synod of Ephesus and the Council of Chalcedon. Or one’s Christology may be “Nestorian” in the broad, adjectival sense of leaning toward that position. It may have Nestorianische qualities which critics may (fairly or unfairly) suggest implies, or inevitably will lead to, a full-blown separation of Christ’s person.

    I wrote a related post on the strategy of reduplication — attributing certain actions or qualities to Jesus strictly according to one of his natures — which readers can find at Out of Bounds.

  2. Nick, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the real issue between what constitutes a “person” versus what constitutes a “nature”? The Divine Person of the Son cannot experience death except through a nature that has the ability to die (the same goes for learning, being hungry, thirsting, etc.). Hence, the Divine Person can only experience death through His human nature, not His divine nature, even if both natures are united in His Person. I’m not sure then how it logically follows that if one says Christ can only experience death through His human nature that this somehow means that He must have two Persons? Can you clarify this for me?

  3. Tom: Thanks!

    Darren: Good point. I’ll check out your post in a moment.

    Hodge: I can try to clarify; I can’t promise I’ll be successful! The issue isn’t that the incarnate God (or divine Son if you prefer) acts according to one nature of the other; it’s that it is the person acting rather than the natures acting. Natures don’t do anything; persons do. You recognize this in the way you phrased your comment saying, “the Divine Person…” It’s the divine person who experiences death, or hunger, or learning as the very same person who became incarnate. The natures don’t do this. I think a simple question will illustrate the point:

    Did the person of the Son become incarnate or did the divine nature become incarnate? I’m sure you’d answer with the former; the Son became incarnate as Jesus. If one were to answer with the latter then we’d be forced to ask if the Father and Spirit also become incarnate? How could they not have given that they share the same nature? But they didn’t become incarnate. Why? Because natures don’t do what persons do. The same person that preexisted his humanly existence is the person who became incarnate, suffered, died, and rose from the dead.

    So we should ask the question: Did the divine Son die on the cross and rise from the dead? Or, did God incarnate die on the cross and rise from the dead? The answer is YES! We should not ask, “did Jesus’ human nature die while his divine nature stayed alive?” That’s to bifurcate the person in a way that non-Nestorians shouldn’t be comfortable with. What the person did, the person did.

    Hope that was clearer. If not I can try something else.

  4. Thanks Nick. I appreciate that clarification. What I’m confused about is why the Reformed are accused of this. I’d be willing to bet that most Reformed may say something like, “Jesus’ human nature died,” but what they really mean is that the human nature enabled the Divine Person of the Son to die, whereas the divine nature could not enable Him to do so. So I wonder if it is simply a matter of their imprecise language that gets them into trouble, or am I missing the specific reason the Reformed are accused of this? I’ve heard this claim by EO quite a bit, and have chatted with a few of the more sophisticated ones, but never understood what the fuss was about other than language (but maybe I’m more Chalcedonean in my Christology, as some Reformed guys I’ve spoken with may not understand that the Son is always a Divine Person acting with whatever nature(s) He has at the time.

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