23 July 2010

DIY Christology

by Phil Johnson

This is kind of a follow-up to Monday's post.




ack in the 1990s, I was an active participant in several e-mail forums devoted to theological discussion. I especially loved a couple of open forums where lay people, pastors, and seminary professors mingled—much like the combox of our blog. It was a helpful exercise in learning how to frame difficult concepts in simple terms. I loved the rookie participants, because they were full of good questions, eager to learn, and not afraid to challenge anything that seemed unclear or unbiblical.

But there were always a few lay participants who seemed to come to every discussion with the attitude that theology is (or ought to be) a dialectical exercise done mostly for recreation. They evidently thought the tools of the sport are nothing more than one's personal feelings, speculations, and inventiveness. Discussing doctrine was purely a diversion for them; nothing serious. But it seemed the more serious the topic under discussion, the more eagerly they jumped into the fray with their frivolous and half-baked ideas.

This was especially irritating when some difficult question about Christology, the Incarnation, or the two natures of Christ would come up. You could always count on several of the forum's theological tyros to crawl out of the woodwork and start shooting from the hip. "The hypostitic union? Get real. That doesn't mean anything. I think Jesus simply set aside His deity. How could he be human just like you and me if he retained the attributes of deity?" Or, "Well, I think He kept His deity and took on a human body. 'Two natures' is nonsense. He had a divine nature in a human body. And so on.

The Incarnation, of course, is one area of Christian theology where orthodoxy is meticulously defined and has been accepted by all major traditions without serious challenge since the fourth century. Why anyone (much less a total novice) would want to enter the fray now with a "Well, I think this: [your novel idea here]" kind of argument is mystifying.

The reason these issues were hashed out so carefully in the early church is that they are absolutely foundational. And on such matters it behooves us all to study not only Scripture, but also historical theology and the major creeds before launching into homebrew hypotheses or stupid speculations.

Here's a simplified synopsis of how the church grappled with and finally settled the major questions about Christ's two natures:

Several early heresies arose in the early centuries of the church. Among them all, they pretty much covered every possible heresy regarding the Person of Christ. You think you have a new way to explain the incarnation? It's no doubt already been done.

For example, the Ebionites insisted that Jesus was a mere man—the holiest of all men, but no more than that. The Apollinarians acknowledged His deity but denied that He had a human soul. The Nestorians made Him both God and man, but in doing so made Him two persons in one body—a man in whom the divine Logos dwelt rather than a single person who was both human and divine. The Eutichians, the monophysites, and the monothelites went to the opposite extreme, fusing the divine and human natures of Christ into one new nature. The Arians claimed He was not God, but the highest of all created beings. (That, of course is precisely what modern Jehovah's Witnesses believe.) And the Docetists denied that Christ was really human. Most docetists taught that Jesus' human body was only an illusion.

Several Church councils convened to examine Scripture and decide between these differing views. As soon as one issue was settled, however, another would surface and need to be dealt with. In 325, the council of Nicea condemned Arianism and proclaimed that Jesus is fully divine. But within 60 years, the Council of Constantinople had to deal with Apollinarianism, which went overboard on the side of Christ's deity and was not doing full justice to His humanity. In 381 the council of Constantinople condemned Apollinarianism as heresy.

This war against Christological heresies continued until the council of Chalcedon in 451 issued a statement about the Person of Christ that has stood as the definitive test of orthodoxy from that time until now. The statement is brief. It is all one very long sentence:

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; very God and very man, of a rational soul and body; coessential [homousios, identical in nature] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial [homousios, identical in nature] 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 God-bearer [Theotokos], according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation; 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 spoken of him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.



The genius of that statement—the element that put an end to incessant heresies on the nature of Christ—is found in the phrase "two natures without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation." Those four negative statements forever defined and delimited how the person of Christ is to be understood. G. C. Berkhouwer called those four negatives "a double row of light-beacons which mark off the navigable water in between and warn against the dangers which threaten to the left and to the right."

Virtually every heresy that has ever surfaced with regard to the person of Christ either fuses or separates the deity and the humanity of Christ. Chalcedon declared that the two natures can be neither merged nor disconnected. Christ is both God and man. Truly God and truly man.

There is no terminology outside the Council of Chalcedon's statement that has ever been accepted as orthodox by any major branch of Christianity. So anyone who denies any element of that formula—whether it's the two natures, the union of the two natures, or whatever—is unorthodox on the doctrine of the incarnation. It's as simple as that. And this is not something to treat lightly. The doctrine of Christ is not a theological sandbox for children to play in.

Incidentally, the technical term for the distinctive relationship between Christ's two natures is the hypostatic union. It's a doctine anyone who wants to discuss theology intelligently ought to be familiar with.

Phil's signature

28 comments:

recreatedinchrist said...

Nice post. Here's two more related terms for folks to consider:

Anhypostasis and enhypostasis — anhypostasis refers to the fact that the humanity of Jesus had no independent reality of its own apart from the incarnation of the Son, while enhypostasis refers to the fact that the humanity of Jesus did have real personal being in the person of the Son as a result of the incarnation (Gk, an-hypostasis, literally ‘not-person’, ie. with no personal being except in the Son; en-hypostasis, literally ‘in-person’ or ‘person-in’ [the person of the Son]‘, ie. having real personal existence in the person of the Son). (taken from T.F. Torrance, "Incarnation")

These are two terms and concepts I heard much after I first heard and learned of hypostatic union. I wished I would've heard them sooner, and contemplated what they mean (which takes time, at least it did for me). But I thought I would share them here; given their proximity to what you're talking about in this post, Phil.

Phil,

A question: how does union with Christ theology (like Calvin's unio mystica) impact the soteriology articulated at Grace Community Church? In other words, is union with Christ the ground upon which our justification pivots; or is it the decree, then union?

I'm not trying to lead you anywhere; I am sincerely curious about how you and the ministries of Grace To You think this through.

And if this comment is not where you're wanting to go with this thread; then delete it, I don't want to hijack.

recreatedinchrist said...

Phil,

Forget my question; the more I've thought about it, the more I think it won't be fruitful. And that it isn't on point, totally, to the intent of this thread. So forget it, thanks!

John Bugay said...

Phil, I'm glad you're pointing these things out, but I have one small correction to make.

You said, The Nestorians made Him both God and man, but in doing so made Him two persons in one body—a man in whom the divine Logos dwelt rather than a single person who was both human and divine.

I would suggest that "Nestorianism" is a concept made up by Cyril of Alexandria in the midst of some heated political tensions surrounding the Council of Ephesus (431), and that Nestorius was anathematized for a position he did not hold.

In history, Nestorius himself has been cleared of the charge of "Nestorianism." (see this video: http://www.oltv.tv/id518.html -- it's a conference among Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Mar Bawai Soro, who was a bishop from the "Nestorian" church. The initial voice on the tape is the Eastern Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware, introducing Soro. In his introduction, Ware emphasizes that "Nestorius was not guilty of the Nestorian heresy.") Pelikan, too, in his "History of the Development of Doctrine," vol 1, says that Nestorius was vindicated at the Council of Chalcedon, as his "two natures, one person" language was captured in the Definition.

Nestorius followed the theology of Theodore of Mopsuestia, who himself was responding to Apollinarianism, which, as you say, acknowledged His deity but denied that He had a human soul.

Theodore, in the school of Antioch, was concerned to use Scriptural terms to defend not only the Deity of Christ (which had been established at Ephesus (431) and confirmed at Constantinople (381), but also to defend the concept that he was "fully God, fully man."

In Soro's work on "The Church of the East" (that is, the church farther east than the Eastern Orthodox -- those that separated after the council of Ephesus (431) on the false charge of "Nestorianism"), he cites heavily from Theodore's work "On the [Nicene] Creed" and also his exegesis on Philippians 2:8-11:

Theodore maintains that it is not true to say that the gift of adoration--"every knee shall bow and every tongue confess"--will be granted to the divine nature. Indeed, while this (adoration) already belongs to [the Divine nature]; however, [this adoration] will be granted to the "form of a servant" by virtue of the union. Though this is "clearly and obviously said of human nature [Paul] referred [it] … to Divine nature." In other words, though there are two natures, what is technically specific to one is referred to the other and there is but a single subject of adoration in Christ. (Soro, pg 220-221)


It should be noted that Theodore and Nestorius held to an anthropology that was more aligned to Pelagius than Augustine. But it was for their Christology that they were condemned, and it should be clear that this false condemnation accounted for a tremendous rift and schism in the church -- a separation which led to the virtual annihilation of these separated churches, "The Churches of the East" by Islam.

If anyone wants to see some further discussion on all of this, check out these threads at Puritanboard:

http://www.puritanboard.com/f18/nestorius-council-ephesus-53817/
http://www.puritanboard.com/f18/nestorius-council-ephesus-53817/index2.html
http://www.puritanboard.com/f121/nestorius-councils-53749/
http://www.puritanboard.com/f18/brief-note-cyril-alexandria-54116/

Jonathan Moorhead said...

Amen, Phil. This is one of the top ten reasons why I believe studying church history glorifies God.

Slim said...

Hey Phil!!

Your participation in the theology forum back in the 90's was an education and an encouragement for me! Thanks for being there. I miss those discussions. A lot of water under the bridge since then.

Werner

donsands said...

"Christ is both God and man. Truly God and truly man."

What an awesome truth to believe, and understand. Tremendous, and infinite depth in the truth that the eternal Son of God, who has never been anything but the etrenal Son of God, became the Son of Man.

There is one Mediator between God and men, The Man, Christ Jesus.


"God was manifested in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory." 1 Tim.

Thanks for a fine lesson to get me started this morn.

Raymond Nearhood II said...

@ John Bugay

One of the oddest councils ever.

I was once told that when reading church history, Cyril can make you frown - right before he drop kicks you in the face.

Sounds about right, I guess.

To, Phil's defense though, there were Nestorians that held to the Nestorian heresy - Nestorius just happened not to be one of them.

John Bugay said...

Thanks Raymond -- I just think it's helpful to be aware of all those things when studying church history.

I've come across Orthodox folks on the web who are just simply enamored with Cyril's theology. And to some degree, that factored into Chalcedon. But there was some "back-channel" negotiations with John of Antioch (I think) in which Cyril really backed down from Ephesus. (Meanwhile, Cyril's more strident followers in Egypt became the Monophysites, who are still the separated Coptic church there).

There were some bad times, and the success at Chalcedon at coming up with a good definition was not the norm for the other councils.

We should not go around asking ourselves, "were the councils infallible?"

Phil Johnson said...

I just noticed I used a horrific mixed metaphor: "crawl out of the woodwork and start shooting from the hip." Conjures up the image of a cowboy cockroach.

Sorry.

DJP said...

And that's...bad?

DJ said...

This post was very convicting for me, as I sometimes have a habit of being a sandbox theologian. All too often I approach theology as a hobby or past time. This was a good reminder that this is serious business not to be taken lightly.

Del Ward's Journal said...

Phil:

Great article! I would also point out that I think when some "theological children" think of nature they don't even know how to define nature. Nature is defined as "a complex set of attributes." Also, they think of "personality" when they say "nature." I was taught that Jesus had two natures as Calcedon defines them but that He has an impersonal human nature. His personality resided in the Logos. Meaning Jesus Christ's personality came from the Logos and His human nature was impersonal. I think some well-meaning and some sloppy theologians confuse nature and personality.

Frank Turk said...

re: cockroach cowboy --

I envisioned a RAID commercial from the 1970's

evangelicalcalvinist.com said...

John Bugay said:

I would suggest that "Nestorianism" is a concept made up by Cyril of Alexandria in the midst of some heated political tensions surrounding the Council of Ephesus (431), and that Nestorius was anathematized for a position he did not hold.

Even so. Nestorianism has become a technical term for a known christological heresy. It's an unfortunate misnomer for Nestorius, himself; but this is what it is.

I would see it akin to renaming the epistle of Jacob to James; a misnomer indeed, but has become an accepted "technical" emendation.

So in this sense, then, I don't think Phil erred in his usage.

Father of Eleven said...

Well Phil I seldom comment here, but it always bothers me that posts like this get very few comments. This is the one where all of your interlocutors who claim to be concerned about pure doctrine and you not having it ought to pipe up with agreement. Sadly, they only seem to want to correct you on their particular hobby horses. When you say good solid things that all Christians ought to agree on, they fall suddenly silent. Reminds me more of a sports forum where opposing fans won't even agree with you when you same something true because they don't want to give any credit to their rivals.

That said, good post. It is can be truly seen that any heresy, cult, or ism starts with a shift from the Biblical doctrine of the person or work of Christ. Get that right, and it is hard not to get most of the rest, at least basically, right.

John Bugay said...

Evangelical Calvinist: I probably should have just said "clarification" instead of "correction."

But I would nuance your response, too, and suggest that it was not only unfortunate for Nestorius, but the whole "Church of the East" (which was named "Nestorian") was cut off from the rest of the church. That became a major catastrophe for the church in that part of the world. And for the world in that part of the world.

Rachael Starke said...

Cockroach cowboys aside, am I the only one who read all those -ites and -ians and thought "Who knew that so many of the Star Trek script writers were closet church history buffs"? :)

Rachael Starke said...

And on a (slightly) more serious note, if me and my church history lovin' and teachin' husband had to pick our favorite council decree/statement/declaration/thing, it would be Chalcedon. It's a thing of theological and syntactical beauty.

John said...

Great, great post. A reminder that Christianity has a LONG history of theology - you can't just believe whatever you want and call it Christian. Which, you know, apparently Brian McLaren didn't get the memo...

Jacob said...

"Between them all..."

I believe grammar requires that be "Among them all..." :D

Zaphon said...

Here's part of why I love Pyromaniacs-they prove that you can wear a cool ATHANASIUS-ORTHODOX GANGSTA shirt and be theologically astute like ATHANASIUS both at the same time :-)

Johnny Dialectic said...

Lloyd-Jones advocated knowing the ancient heresies, because then you can recognize them when they pop up in the present in disguise. Wise counsel.

evangelicalcalvinist.com said...

@John,

In spite of that, the problem for the "East," they developed many insightful and helpful theological loci. Ironically it has been the West (post-Reformational) who have developed a Nestorian-like theology relative unpacking a soteriology (but fodder for another time).

John Bugay said...

@evangelicalcalvinist -- I'm delighted that folks are talking about it and understanding it.

Jeff said...

While I agree with Phil that those who come to matters of faith with flippant spirits and insincere hearts are off-putting, I do not agree that all foundational matters of faith are settled just because generations of scholars from various sects agree. The only thing that establishes Truth is God’s Word as expressed in the 66 books of His Holy Word. It is a Roman Catholic notion that Truth is established by the Bible AND other writings and traditions. And Phil, of all people, should recognize this. John MacArthur estimates that 50% of the people of Grace Community Church came out of RC backgrounds.
Furthermore, there is a tone of condescension towards lay people, particularly lay people with fresh, new ideas -- or maybe very old ideas born of the church before it was corrupted by the traditions of men. Only in the OT were lines drawn between lay and clergy. Paul instructed Timothy not to “…rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers…” (1 Tim 5:1 ESV) and neither lay nor clergy were in Paul’s hierarchy laid out in 1 Cor 11:3. Terms like “novice” or “rookie” are applied to those who do not know scholarly terms like “hypostatic union” but who may have lived far more life and read the Bible many more times than most “pastors”.
I exhort Phil and others not to “…be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is… submit[…] to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph 5:17–21 ESV)
The seminary is NOT the beginning of knowledge. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Pr 1:7 ESV)

Zaphon said...

Jeff said
"there is a tone of condescension towards lay people, particularly lay people with fresh, new ideas "

I didn't read that in Phil Johnson's post. He stated expressly:

"I loved the rookie participants, because they were full of good questions, eager to learn, and not afraid to challenge anything that seemed unclear or unbiblical."

He clearly appreciated lay involvment.
He then pointed out that there were a FEW careless lay souls out there who mishandle doctrine.

So the problem for Phil is not lay people per se, it's CARELESS laypersons who speak without knowing.

That anecdote reflects a larger reality about the dismal situation in the pews where theological knowledge is concerned.

Lay people who distort Sola Scriptura so as to reject the wisdom of the church councils, creeds, scholarship, etc. in helping us understand doctrine are simply ignorant.

I think Dan Phillips also tangentially deals with this problem of lay doctrinal immaturity and ignorance in this post.
http://teampyro.blogspot.com/2010/05/baby-man-sad-sermon-illustration-come.html

Phil is right on.

Stan McCullars said...

Profile Not Available, how did I ever guess?!

stratagem said...

But there were always a few lay participants who seemed to come to every discussion with the attitude that theology is (or ought to be) a dialectical exercise done mostly for recreation. They evidently thought the tools of the sport are nothing more than one's personal feelings, speculations, and inventiveness.

What? You carried on an email forum with Rob Bell? Wow!