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Christological Predication: Natures Do Not Act

August 5, 2011

In this post I’d like to propose two theses for the use of christological language of ‘persons’ and ‘natures.’ Apologies to all that this post is long and rather technical, but writing it has helped me to sort it out a bit for myself, and hopefully the one or two of you out there who are also interested in Christology will find it of some use. I don’t think either point is particularly controversial, although both challenge the way that theologians tend to speak about what Christ has done as Mediator, one who is fully God and fully human.


One of the more ‘metaphysical’ insights in the doctrine of the incarnation that the Protestant scholastics clued in on is what I will call the functional distinction between the Chalcedonian categories of persons and natures (or essences). In short: only persons are acting subjects, who perform acts (like healing a blind man) and have acts done to them (like being crucified).

A corollary to this is that only persons may properly be the object of adjectival predication. For example: strictly speaking, Christ’s divine nature is not “eternal,” but rather having a divine nature means that Christ himself has the attribute of being eternal. (There are exceptions here, in that some predicates are fitting to natures — such as ‘assumption.’  But I’d wager that all such examples we could come up with would have direct reference to the person in whom that nature subsists.)

Natures, on the other hand, do not act and may not properly be objects of verbal (in the grammatical sense) predication.  It is not proper to the metaphysics of Chalcedon to say that divine nature ‘creates,’ or that human nature ‘sleeps.’ A nature is, generally speaking, a summation of all attributes essential that that sort of being — a dialogical shorthand for talking about one kind of being in distinction from others.  (One may, therefore, predicate an adjective of a nature — “divine nature is eternal” — since what we are doing here is effectively calling out one attribute that is important to the description of that nature as a representative of the whole construct.)

Let’s call this the ‘formal logic‘ of Chalcedon. Persons, not natures, act.

Now this rule for theological grammar gets pushed aside all the time by the fluidity of the way we use language, in conversation but also in more precise works of theology. My point is that we should be attentive to the fact that such use is improper to the way in which the historic confessions have defined persons, natures, and the relationship of subsistence. Activity is located on the level of personal subjectivity, not on the level of the attributes that describe the subject.

The result of being careful with this distinction is that Christian theology may say, for example, that “Christ died” but not that “Christ’s human nature died.” It is metaphysically impermissible to predicate the verb ‘to die’ of a nature, because natures are themselves predicates.


Grunewald's Christ (Isenheim Alterpiece Detail)

This restriction on the use of ‘nature’ language is critical when it comes to applying the doctrine of the two natures of Christ to the biblical narrative and working out the complex problems of his ‘theanthropic’ (divine-human) life. The church has rightly insisted that when Jesus Christ does something — whether it is a divinely-colored miracle, such as walking on water, performing a healing or an exorcism, or multiplying the loaves and fishes; or a very mortal-looking activity, such as walking, sleeping, weeping, or dying — he does it in his full, theandric unity. His humanity is not watching from the sidelines when he works a miracle; divinity doesn’t take a timeout when he is nailed to the cross. Jesus Christ, vere Deus vere homo, is the subject of all of these acts.

What do we make, then, of Chalcedon’s basic insistence that the two natures of Christ are united yet distinguishable? The Council teaches that humanity and divinity are united “without division or separation” but also “without confusion or change.” In other words, though the unity obtains ‘all the way down,’ the two natures don’t lose their distinctives or alter one another, nor are they combined into a third thing. Likewise, what is rightly predicated of one nature (e.g. mortality) is not therefore rightly predicated of the other nature. It is, however, rightly predicated of the theandric person. So, for example, if we say that Jesus’ human nature is mortal we can (and must!) also say that Jesus (simiplicter) is mortal. (We do not, however, invoke some transitive property and say that his divine nature is mortal.)

This is the ‘material logic‘ of Chalcedon, which we should note applies the formal logic of what ‘persons’ and ‘natures’ are, and how they may be interrelated viz. the language of predication.

A too-common mishandling of this principle of unity-in-distinction is to use it as license to predicate acts of Christ to his existence according to just one nature — as if, functionally, for the sake of that act Christ has only one nature and not two. An example can be spotted in James Anderson’s post this week at the Gospel Coalition blog. Addressing the question of whether the incarnation brought about a change in God’s being, Anderson writes:

According to the Definition of Chalcedon, Jesus Christ is one person with two natures, a perfect divine nature and a perfect human nature, and while those natures are united in one person they must nevertheless be distinguished. The properties of each nature can be ascribed to the one person, Jesus Christ, but not necessarily to the other nature.

So, for example, we’re told that Jesus was omniscient (John 16:30) but also that he increased in wisdom (Luke 2:52). To be precise, however, we should say that Jesus was omniscient with respect to his divine nature and gained wisdom with respect to his human nature. On this basis, it seems natural to say that God the Son is timeless and unchangeable with respect to his divine nature but temporal and changeable with respect to his human nature. Since Jesus’ death and resurrection pertained to his human nature, this standard Christological distinction suggests a way to reconcile the events of Jesus’ life with the immutability of God.

On the surface, this approach seems to adhere to the formal rule that natures do not act, arguing instead that the person of Christ acts in one nature or according to one nature (and, by implication, not the other). This is an extremely common way of speaking about the incarnation (so apologies to Dr. Anderson for picking on him). Its pedigree begins with none less than Leo the Great, whose Tome is a seminal document from the Council of Chalcedon. Leo writes:

Each ‘form’ [nature] does the acts which belong to it, in communion with the other; the Word, that is, performing what belongs to the Word, and the flesh carrying out what belongs to the flesh; the one of these shines out in miracles, the other succumbs to injuries.

In my doctoral thesis I hope to demonstrate in more depth just why I think such ‘prepositional’ language (in, according to, with respect to) is problematic.  It merely pushes the activity predicated of a nature back under the shield of the ‘person,’ in order to cohere with the rules of Chalcedon’s formal logic. In doing so, however, it runs the risk of transgressing the material logic of the confession — that what is true of the person with respect to one nature is also true of that person simpliciter (or, in his divine-human unity).

When used well, what prepositional language does for us is to specify that Jesus is able to do this or that by virtue of an attribute which is proper to one of his natures. Omniscience is proper only to his divine nature, so what Anderson ought to have in mind in the quotation above is that Jesus knows all things because this is an attribute of divine nature, which he possesses.  But the emphasis in this affirmation ought to be on Jesus, the acting person (who also has another nature, one that happens to lack the attribute of omniscience), and not on the divine nature. Otherwise we’ve slipped subtly back into the idea that natures act, only camouflaged under an apparently right use of formal logic. In my experience, the strong use of prepositional language does tend to emphasize the nature by which “Jesus” is being qualified — particularly with respect to the difficult questions of his suffering and death, which challenge our understanding of deity.

When we specify that “Jesus is omniscient with respect to his divine nature,” are we uncomfortable also saying “Jesus is omniscient” without qualification?


In sum: To say that the theandric person of Jesus Christ ever acts according to one nature but not the other in fact sacrifices the formal logic of Chalcedon, with appeal to the material logic (“without confusion”) as justification.  It divides the person of Christ either by predicating an act of a nature but not of the person simpliciter, or (less likely) by speculatively positing that Jesus has the unique ability to exclude one of his natures from an act.  The use of the language of predication here is simply all wrong.

A set of examples illustrates the various distinctions I am drawing:

  • Good:  “Jesus died.” (person as subject)
  • Bad: “Jesus’ humanity died.” (nature as subject)
  • Good: “Jesus died with respect to his human nature.” (nature provides the person with the predicate of ‘able to die’)
  • Bad: “Jesus died only with respect to his human nature.” (divides the unity of natures and, ultimately, really only wants to predicate death of the nature and not the theandric person)
  • Bad: “Jesus died with respect to his divine nature, too.” (‘able to die’ is improper to divinity)
  • Good: “Jesus (simpliciter) died.” (without the qualification of either nature, this is still true of the theandric person)
  • Good: “The God-man died.” (still accurate — doesn’t predicate death of the divine nature itself, but of the one who has a divine nature)
  • “God the Son died.” (Good or Bad? I’ll leave that up for the comments thread.)

To recap, I’ve offered two theses for your consideration:

  1. According to the metaphysics of classic orthodoxy, persons and not natures are acting subjects. Natures are linguistic constructs by which we summarize essential attributes, and of themselves can neither act nor be acted upon. Natures subsist in persons; and persons can act with respect to natures. This is the formal logic of Chalcedon.
  2. The two natures of Christ exist in a relation of unity-in-distinction, “without division or separation” and “without confusion or change.”  What is true of one nature is therefore true of the person in whom that nature subsists, but not of the other nature. However, this distinction of natures does not give us license to predicate acts of the person with respect to only one nature and not also to the person simpliciter. This is the material logic of Chalcedon.

And that, my friends, is far more technical than anyone should be on a blog. I won’t blame you for not commenting, and next week I’ll write something about worship music or the effects of My Little Pony on our daughters.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2011 3:47 am

    Well-said. The formal/material split is entirely apt to the metaphysical system, and I think you’ve made it well. And as I read the post, I think you gave me a key to the “why” of distinguishing the natures, so I’m going to riff on the material a bit in hopes of adding useful clarification.

    First, we’re speaking in terms that require that natures — I don’t quite want to say “exist” — that there simply are natures, forms, essentia, back of existent being. That existence is the subsistence of a nature in some material, as informed matter. Persons therefore exist according to their natures, but the nature has a sort of ontological priority in determining the character of the person.

    I wish to assert Thomas here for a moment, because I think he clarifies a point that derives from this whole mess: that in the Christian use of this metaphysic there is one God, and so one divine nature which subsists in three personal beings. Which is simply to say that the divine nature is the nature of God, the nature by which God is as pure form. It is the nature by which the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God; it is the essential unity of their personal existences. No other existent thing shares in this divine nature.

    The nature of created beings is different from this divine nature. We may talk about human nature in the specific; I’m personally more inclined to talk about created or creaturely nature in the generic.

    So: when we say that the two natures are united in Jesus Christ, it becomes necessary to say that there remain two distinguishable natures. This is simply to say that the divine nature and the created nature have not generally merged, as though after the incarnation there were a generic theandric nature in which God and human beings both participated. It is *not* to say that we must divide them in Christ, as though he performed some acctions according to one, and others according to the other. That leads to the classical mistake, and you nailed it, I think. We are best off speaking of Christ simpliciter, and of his abilities as occasionally predicated on one or the other nature. (I see nothing wrong, on this reading, with speaking of his existence as also being greater than the sum of the two natures — indeed, I think we must.) The existence of the theandric person of Christ is the unity of the two natures in one substance — but it is a unique unity. That Christ is the sole mediator is the driving necessity of keeping the natures distinct, precisely as natures prior to their personal embodients. And so the communicatio idiomatum applies within the incarnate theandric person, because he is one and his natures are united. But it does not apply from the divine nature into general created nature — even if we say that the human nature of Christ as the unique theandric person is taken up into the godhead. And that is therefore not to say that God becomes a human creature, except in persona Christi. We keep the natures distinct to remember that this is not something that has become possible except for the Lord of creation. That Christ is not an existential possibility for us, as though God beat the boss at the end of the level and unlocked a superpower for all creation.

    IOW, Christ is a vessel into which both natures have been poured — not a space through which the two natures slosh over into one other.

    And I’m too tired to be absolutely sure that all of that is clean, but it doesn’t look wrong to me.

  2. August 5, 2011 4:03 am

    As to “God the Son died,” I’m left to wonder: Can we speak of “God the Son” as the second person of the Trinity in personal, existential separation from the incarnate Son Jesus Christ? If we can, we are then speaking of the second person as purely participating in the divine nature, and it is wrong therefore to say that God the Son died except as he first became the incarnate person of Jesus Christ. We are then left to wonder whether the human, created nature in Christ is indeed separable from his divine nature. But if in eternity the procession of the Son is the incarnation into time and creaturely being, then the statement is perfectly correct, because there is no Son who is not incarnate, no Word which is not Christ. We are then referring correctly to the theandric person, though by reference to his divine nature.

    I’m inclined to say “Good.”

  3. August 5, 2011 6:43 am

    A good post. And if you haven’t already done so, you might want to check out R. Helland, ‘The Hypostatic Union: How Did Jesus Function?’, Evangelical Quarterly 65 (1993), 311–327.

  4. August 5, 2011 8:46 am

    Okay, a couple points:

    1) I’m surprised at how much work the “person” of Christ is doing in your scheme (per our conversation the other day). What is this thing you call “person” (e.g., your constant references to “Christ himself” or “Christ simpliciter”)? The way you use the concept, it seems to be fully abstractable from any nature at all – i.e., you’re telling me that the “person” of Christ has *this* experience according to the flesh, and *that* experience according to divinity – but where does this person “live,” so to speak? It seems like, for you, nature plays no role whatsoever in defining the contours of the particular personhood of Christ, either before or after the hypostatic union. This confuses me – especially since I gather you’re ultimately wanting to propose an extremely strong kind of union b/w the divinity and the flesh – one in which, for example, talk of the logos asarkos is rejected (i.e., b/c it is considered incoherent to speak of Christ without the flesh – but this is what you sort of seem to be doing by abstracting person from nature). One way out of this would be to make “person” the ground level ontological category, a la Zizoulas and company, but then you’d lose the ability to speak of a union of natures via personhood. Anyways – I guess what I’m saying is, I would have thought your solution would have been much more radical than it is.

    2) Not quite sure how you’re distinguishing yourself from Anderson – since he and you alike seem to view this abstract “person” as the thing which holds in common the two natures. This enables both of you to predicate human experiences/acts to the self-same “person” who also possesses a divine nature. Both of you are also trying to avoid a ludicrously real communicate idiomata, that is, one where the divine nature, via the hypostatic union, literally picks up the human property of “having skin” (or something). So what’s the difference?

    3) As I see it, the issue of person #2 of the Godhead literally being the subject of a human life is uncontroversial and generally intuitive from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy – which is why I think you and Anderson actually are not that far apart in your views. What is more controversial is the nature of the communicatio – but where I thought you would have had less concern to insulate the divine nature from certain human properties (e.g., temporality), you seem to be upholding this kind of insulation through appeal to personhood. What gives?

    Your move, Sumner (winky face).

  5. August 5, 2011 8:51 am

    Also, with your list of “good” and “bad” descriptions of Christ, you seem to be doing something similar to Calvin, which is to say that you can talk of the divine nature doing/experiencing human stuff only “improperly.” So, Calvin says in his commentary on Acts 20:28: “…because again two natures are so united in Christ, that they make one person, that is improperly translated sometimes unto the one, which doth truly and in deed belong to the other, as in this place Paul doth attribute blood to God; because the man Jesus Christ, who shed his blood for us, was also God.” You would agree with Calvin, then, that predication of human stuff to the divine nature is grammatically permissible, but ontologically “improper”?

  6. August 5, 2011 11:57 am

    @Justin (and at the risk of preempting Darren),

    1) I’m surprised at your question, “what is this thing you call ‘person’?” Keep the Aristotelian frame here: person is not abstractable from nature; natures are abstractable from persons. If you resolve that basic error, I think most of your complaints should disappear.

    2) The person of Christ *is* Christ. There can be no “abstract” personhood. To speak simply of Christ as Christ without speaking of his natures is to speak of Jesus who is the incarnate Son of God, of whom the New Testament speaks. To speak of his natures is to engage in an attempt to make this faith intelligible, to explain *how* Jesus the Christ is capable of what he has obviously been and done.

    3) At least here, I think you’re on to something: the Chalcedonian question *is* exactly about the nature of the communicatio idiomatum. And personally, I’m still going to argue that what is said here is nothing more than an effort to insulate the general natures from one another, as God and creatures independently have them *outside* of the person of Christ in whom they are alone united. This is the reason for the appeal to (this one unique) personhood as the unity of the natures.

    4) From 3, I think the point remains correct, even if Calvin may fall into the standard error of separating them even in Christ (I’m not sure if he actually does or not). God does not have blood; Christ does. Man does not have omniscience; Christ does. And so it is improper to apply divine attributes to *us*, and equally improper to apply human attributes to the Father or the Spirit. The natures are not changed, though this one person has both of them.

  7. August 5, 2011 12:13 pm

    Put differently: the human nature is not divinized. Human nature is saved, justified, reconciled, redeemed, sanctified, etc — but it does not participate in the divine nature. We participate relationally in the life of God as God participates relationally in human life — but the possibility of this relationship itself excludes the possibility of essential identity. The relationship between God and creation is (and remains, after Christ) qualitatively different from the relationships between the divine persons, on the one hand, and the relationships between human persons and other creatures, on the other.

    The tricky question for me is how to talk about God taking up humanity in Christ. Certainly, Chalcedon dictates that we remember there are two natures, one divine, and one created. But if Christ is taken up again into the divine life at the ascension, having two natures as this precise person, the trick is to speak equally precisely of the humanity of God.

  8. August 5, 2011 12:54 pm

    Right-o – but remember that Darren wants to reject all kinds of instrumentalizing – he wants to say that person #2 *became* a human, in a strong sense, which I gather has to mean more than that he simply acquired a human body/soul which consequently enabled him to experience/do things humanly on our behalf. In other words, *who* person #2 is, literally *is* Jesus Christ (not talking about a confusion of natures here, but the Son’s irreducible identity as the God-man). Again, according to actualism, we have no recourse or authorisation for thinking about the logos outside of the flesh – which means that the Son has no personal identity except as Jesus Christ. But once you say this, you lose your ability to posit subjectivity/personhood as a third thing alongside the two natures, since this presupposes that some kind of identity precedes the union (or at least stands above the union as its principle).

    Now, to be clear, I’m not saying Darren’s argument is bad or incoherent or something – I’m just trying to understanding how what he’s saying fits with other things that I had assumed he was committed to.

  9. August 5, 2011 12:59 pm

    Matt: Thanks very much for the riffing. On the whole I’m pleased with what is in your posts, insofar as it further describes the “theological grammar” of the Chalcedonian tradition I’m trying to pin down here. Two points:

    1) You’re right to observe that the logical relation of ‘person’ and ‘nature’ in Christology doesn’t translate 1:1 to the doctrine of God. The tradition wants to say that God “is” His essence, in a way that Christ “is” not his natures (but rather the subsistence of his natures). Because the oneness there is located on the side of essence and the multiplicity on the side of personal individuation, much of this would have to be reversed or tossed out. On the other hand, we don’t want to imply by this that the divine essence is behind or more basic than Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Though these share the one divine essence, it would be more appropriate to say that God “is” His relations of procession. (But this is a rather different topic than today’s post.)

    2) I think the tradition walks a dangerous line when it yields to the temptation to speak of natures in substantialist terms — i.e. as if they are ‘things’ (rather than, as I have it here, shorthand for a list of predicates). I don’t mean that I see that in your post necessarily, but something like “poured into Christ” makes me think of this point. There is a tendency (and perhaps it is only a minority report) to think of a nature as a seed, which when planted yields as its fruit the person and all her acts. The tree (to keep the analogy) has its treeness born from that acorn in the ground, and branches out and sways in the breeze by virtue of the sort of tree the seed brought it about to be.

    In short, substantializing natures can suggest that natures are more ontologically basic (which is something you said) — in an originating sense. My suggestion is that persons have priority here, and natures conceptually describe existent persons.

    I’m just riffing here, myself, and am happy to have you push back on me.

    Terry: Thanks very much for the reference — I’ve already added it to my bibliography and look it up in our library catalog. Any other important sources related to the “timeless God” discussion, e.g. Brian Leftow, Douglas K. Blount, et al, would be helpful to me at this stage.

  10. August 5, 2011 1:30 pm

    Justin: Thanks for the thoughtful engagement — you bring up several issues. It’ll help to clarify, first off, that this post was not meant to present my own constructive, Barthian approach to these issues but rather to nail down the logic of the Chalcedonian tradition and make sure I’m getting it right — and, by extension, caution where I think those who would consider their Christology to be more classically Chalcedonian aren’t uploading the logic as rigorously as they might think. That’s why you’re (rightly) seeing dissonance here. I would (and will) approach these problems in a somewhat different way, though one still faithful to Chalcedonian orthodoxy.

    1) I use ‘person’ here in Chalcedonian terms. His name is Jesus, and he lived in Nazareth. 😉 This is the starting point of the New Testament witness, and from this proper starting point theologians can then proceed to describe him and cobble together the attributes we think he has. This does “define contours of the particular personhood of Christ,” but it regards the person as more basic — because it would be a formal mistake to begin by defining ‘divine nature’ and then taking this construct to the person whose life is narrated in Scripture (though the tradition is certainly guilty of this at points, too).

    2) I’m not necessarily distinguishing the Chalcedonian position I outlined in this post from what Anderson wrote, but rather using him (and I could have picked from a hundred other authors) as an example of ‘prepositional’ language of predication (e.g. “Jesus is omniscient with respect to his divine nature“). As the post outlines, such predication isn’t wrong in itself. But we have to exercise great care with it, let we be tempted to shy away from making the same predication of the person Jesus, simpliciter (i.e. of Jesus in his divine-human unity). To say that Jesus is omniscient with respect to his divinity cannot mean that the one who is divine and human is not omniscient.

    3) “But where I thought you would have had less concern to insulate the divine nature from certain human properties (e.g., temporality), you seem to be upholding this kind of insulation through appeal to personhood. What gives?”

    Very keen skills of observation you have there. Speaking for myself, I would indeed cast some of this rather differently. I hesitate to have that aspect of the conversation on this thread. My desire here is to talk about the logic of Chalcedon and make sure I’ve got it right (to later serve my own constructive aims).

    4) (Calvin) “You would agree with Calvin, then, that predication of human stuff to the divine nature is grammatically permissible, but ontologically ‘improper’?”

    The Chalcedonian tradition certainly agrees (for the most part) that the NT authors speak improperly when they make statements like “God shed his blood.” On the other hand, as the doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum was further worked out in the fifth century, the orthodox position came to be that the communication of attributes from the two natures to the person of Christ is not merely figurative but realiter. So it is entirely proper to say that Jesus, the Son of God, shed his blood.

    Note here that we’re still talking about predication from a nature to the person. This has to be proper, since a nature is nothing but the attributes fitting to the person. If Calvin means that the NT is predicating a human attribute of the divine nature itself, I’d say that this way of speaking is not only improper, but incoherent. It’s a substantialist construal of a nature as if it is a thing of which something can be predicated.

    Hope this clarifies more than it clouds.

  11. August 5, 2011 4:29 pm

    @Darren, you’re quite right: I lean too heavily on linguistic constructions of being for things that aren’t being — even in the basic “there is”/”there are”. (Es gibt?) It’s a classic error, and an easy one, but it does make us sloppy. The natures do not subsist outside of persons. Perhaps better to say that we understand natures in this system to be logically prior to ontology, even though to derive them we have walked the chain backwards from ontology to logic. (Very like Barth’s/Anselm’s procedure in FQI.) It is “shorthand,” as you say, what in comp sci we’d call a pointer or a handle. We can treat it as an object, but it has nothing in it — all it does is refer to a data structure.

    I like your “minority report” — at least in part because it builds on to the substance metaphysics with the potentiality-actuality problem. That in this construct “nature” we point to the superset of possibilities for existent beings of this type. The perfection of a being is the fulfillment of the possibilities of its nature. The joy of the acorn is that it has, in nuce, all the possibilities of the full and stately Oak, and on its virtuous path into actuality fulfills them. But we’re starting to believe in the priority of natures again — very sticky stuff.

    What I was trying to get at with the “poured into vs. sloshing across” analogy was the persistent differentiations of the domains. Perhaps the mundane Venn diagram is better, if not as pretty as fluid dynamics. 🙂 There is a sole intersection of the two sets of attributes, one existent being who lives into the fullness of both domains.

  12. August 5, 2011 5:02 pm

    @Justin, I hear Darren rejecting the instrumentalization of natures, not instrumentalization as such. I’m not sure that Chalcedon is interested in speaking of the logos asarkos, of — as my wife just complained about in the Exercises — the idea that the trinity was just sitting around prior to the incarnation, distraught at the situation of human sin and death and eternal condemnation. And then they had a great idea — they hatched the atonement scheme, and sent the Son off to git ‘er done. (Aren’t you ashamed at what you made God do?)

    Part of the problem with Chalcedon is that it must follow Nicaea and all the controversies since. And so, starting from the declaration that Jesus Christ and the Father are God, of the same ousios/substance, we wind up in a different context saying that they are of the same nature/essence. And then we have to argue Cyril, that Christ is one physis/person — but bend that language so that we can still answer the either/or of the God/man problem. Because Jesus Christ was not two, and yet to say that he is one or the other is also wrong. And so the Chalcedonian definition says, “Yes.” Eternally begotten of the Father and temporally born of Mary. One physis/person with two natures, wholly divine and wholly human. As such in no way blurring the boundaries between the two natures, but being the perfect union of them. The following statement that he is monogenes is not only a seal of Christ’s unique place in faith, but a metaphysical guarantee holding up the boundaries between the natures — because this isn’t the sort of thing that just generally happens.

    And so for Chalcedonian logic to be read as speaking of the eternal begetting and the temporal birth as two events is to ask for both a logos asarkos and a sarkos alogos, and to bang ’em together at some point. Which can’t possibly resolve the Chalcedonian problem.

  13. August 5, 2011 5:30 pm

    I actually meant to suggest the acorn/tree analogy negatively, as if nature (seed) was the originating source of the person (tree). But one could certainly spin the analogy in a positive way. You’re right, though, that the risk is convincing ourselves that the nature is ontologically prior or more basic, something which we come along and instantiate when we are born (i.e. universals and particulars).

    It is useful, on the other hand, to recognize that those attributes I refer to as ‘my human nature’ are, in fact, universal and applicable to other human beings, too. But (just to reiterate the point) moving from the universal to the particular is going about things the wrong way. I’m inclined to start with narrated history / revelation and then describe persons (Christ, Peter, or myself) according to the grammar of ‘attributes’ and ‘natures.’ On the epistemological register, we know that Jesus has the ability to die (or the attribute of mortality) because he dies, and not because he belongs to the class ‘human.’

    And so, rather than saying “Jesus died with respect to his human nature” I would rather say something like “Jesus died, which is a human thing to do.” The former suggests a causal link from the nature to the person: Humans are mortal, therefore insofar as he was human Jesus was able to die. The latter sticks with the subject simpliciter in an attempt to avoid an implied split between the natures in the theandric act. Of course mortality is an attribute that belongs to one nature and not the other; but let’s not pretend that this changes or delimits the subject of the death in any real way.

    Edit: (This line of thinking is, of course, simply what George Hunsinger refers to as Karl Barth’s methodological “particularism.” Let’s derive our conclusions from what we see in Christ, rather than imposing our reasoning — even if it’s right — upon the NT.)

  14. August 5, 2011 9:17 pm

    I have nothing to add to this esteemed conversation; other than I like Hunsinger’s edit 😉 . And that you, Darren, and the interlocutors have provided some fruitful things to contemplate; thanks.

  15. Matt Crawford permalink
    August 6, 2011 4:57 pm


    Thanks for the post. It’s an interesting discussion. From my reading of fifth century Christology, I think you’re spot on. The one thing I would add is that Chalcedon was indebted significantly to Ephesus and the writings of Cyril of Alexandria. Cyril provides a strong emphasis on the unity of Christ’s ‘person’ (though he lacks a consistent technical term for it), while also acknowledging that the one, united person of Christ can act ‘insofar as he is man’ or ‘insofar as he is God’. Part of the reason that his Christology won over Nestorius’ is that it provides a much more straightforward reading of the gospels than Nestorius’ dualist Christology. The evangelists did not pause to tell us that at one point the ‘humanity’ was acting, while at another time the ‘deity’ was acting. They present a person. Cyril realised this, argued for it at Ephesus, and passed it on to Chalcedon, where the gathered bishops declared the the Tome of Leo was in keeping with Cyril’s theology.

    Thanks again!


  16. August 12, 2011 9:42 am

    Matt, thanks for visiting and posting! I’m gratified that you experts in fifth century thought are responding positively to my account of predication. You’re certainly right about Cyril as the prevailing background for Chalcedon’s most important decisions.

    One of my suggestions (which may or may not be clear in the original post) is that I fear Leo’s Tome in fact oversteps the bounds of Chalcedonian logic at this point (if only slightly — later out-workings were far more guilty. And of course this wasn’t perceived at the time). The task of the day was to specify the way(s) in which it is proper to speak of Jesus as one and the way(s) in which it is proper to speak of Jesus as two. The immediate challenge of Nestorianism pushed the council to rule out twoness talk with respect to Christ’s person. Since the twoness talk was rightly relegated to the natures, it wasn’t evident that twoness can be applied to nature talk in a way that still divides the person. To say that Christ does some things with respect to one nature and others with respect to the other nature does just this.

  17. Michael Gibson permalink
    August 14, 2011 2:25 am

    Very good post, Darren. I would also highly recommend the writings of Maximus the Confessor, who sorts out Chalcedonian logic in a similar manner.

  18. Ross permalink
    August 16, 2011 2:32 am

    If the person and not the nature acts, can we continue to maintain two wills in Christ? Two wills seems to imply that there be acts of Christ’s human will (e.g. that he not be crucified) and acts of his divine will (that he be crucified)? Or am I equivocating on the term “acts” here?

  19. Reality Checker permalink
    August 21, 2011 10:44 am

    I followed your comment over from your enquiries to James Anderson on the Gospel coalition Blog. I thought your questions were very good concerning John 1:14. Please correct me if I’m wrong, It would appear that you would take issue with certain of classical theism’s incommunicable attributes (Divine immutability and timelessness, perhaps Simplicity too, Yes?) if relating to the incarnation. if this is not true then I’m very interested in finding how you correlate the Incarnation with these. I should wait for your thesis, right?

    I believe your current post is right on target; a nature exemplifies a person or thing, a nature does not exemplify a nature. I’m not sure of your opinion of Canadian apologist Randal Rauser, but he had a terrific blog regarding reduplicative sentences on his ”The Tentative Apologist” blog on Dec 14, 2009 entitled “Was God the Son merely close friends with Jesus?” Also you will enjoy Systematic theologian Buswell’s theology discussing the issue of Natures, if you haven’t read it before.

    Your tying in the mindset of Chalcedon was quite apropos to your blog. It seems that Chalcedon stated it consistent with this but theologians like Leo whose writings weighed so heavily on the debate got it wrong. Chalcedon appears to support nature as a set of attributes sort of an ontological blueprint, but noted theologians surrounding this issue seem to have thought of human nature which Christ exemplified as a reified, individual concrete nature. Whether they realized it or not, that seems to walk in the spirit of Nestorianism.

    I’d appreciate your input regarding the reduplicative sentence which was used at the start of the discussion of 2 natures in the Chalcedonian creed. Notice the important phraseology borrowed from Nicea to allude to the creedmakers coherence with Nicene Doctrine:

    “Consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin;”

    The words homoousios hemin appear to refer to Jesus manhood as a universal, otherwise if a different understanding of these words was taken, wouldn’t this lead unrealistically to thinking that our own being/ousia was being considered part of the numerically identical concrete human nature of christ? That’s how it appears to me. The fact that this was written to show how the hypostatic union effected salvation to humankind, by it’s unification with God through the incarnation appears consistent. If Jesus had an individual reified human nature, not connected universally to mankind in general what soteriological benefit is there from the incarnation? (I don’t mean to sound like athanasius). Also correct me if I’m wrong, it was widely believed that the human nature that Jesus exemplified was taken from his mother Mary, hence unless Mary had a reified, concrete nature separable from her person –then Jesus had a universal human nature like his mother, a human ontological blueprint. As a side point, notice how this translation of Chalcedon says “the manhood” versus “his manhood”. I’d surely welcome your critique of the understanding of this chalcedonian phrase as it relates to the human nature which.I’ve laid out.

    You made the critique:

    Good: “Jesus died with respect to his human nature.” (nature provides the person with the predicate of ‘able to die’)

    This appears to need some tweaking. it appears IMHO the possessive ‘his human nature’ leads the minds eye directly into what you may hope not to lead hearers or readers into, namely an individualized, perhaps reified human nature that was a possession of his alone, that could be predicated of. Perhaps instead one could say “Jesus died with respect to human nature” if they wanted to resort to a reduplicative sentence?

    Please forgive the ramblings of a hopeful student who never had two dimes he could scrape together for a formal theological education. BTW can I sign up for notification when your thesis is complete so that I may obtain a copy?


  20. August 22, 2011 7:38 pm

    Michael: Thanks very much for posting. I’ve read a bit of Maximus thus far, but have gravitated to John of Damascus as providing the more comprehensive, post-conciliar restatement of Maximus’ contributions to the landscape of Christology.

    Ross: Sorry your post didn’t make it up immediately (I found it in the WordPress spam filter).

    I think the trick with dyothelitism in a contemporary context is that we tend to associate will with mind or identity — i.e., there is a subject behind the will who is willing. In other words, under the conditions of modern psychology and philosophy of mind it’s tough not to equivocate act and will (as theological terms). The very point of the dyothelite argument in the seventh and eighth centuries, of course, was that will is properly fitting of natures rather than of persons — so there is one person with two wills, and those two wills in no way signal two agents. That’s Maximus’ genius.

    The conciliar statement (at its best, at any rate) doesn’t speak flatly of “what his human will did” and “what his divine will did,” which would be semi-Nestorian at best. Again, on such a reckoning a two-subject Christology has simply been concealed under dyophysitism by predicating action of natures. Instead, the Council spoke of Christ’s two wills as agencies (or, less confusing, operations); both contribute their operations to the one act of the person. Thereby there is no act of Jesus that is only divine or only human; both contribute their fitting operation to everything that he does.

    RC: Wow, lots of great stuff here! I don’t take issue with the classic divine attributes themselves so much as the way in which they are derived (a-christocentrically). I still want to maintain things like constancy and immutability, but I get to them by a different route.

    In the phrases “consubstantial with the Father according to the godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the manhood” I don’t see the same reduplication taking place. It seems to me that in this the councils are simply stating “vere Deus, vere homo.” Whatever it means to be God, he was that; whatever it means to be human, he was that. The phrases aren’t predicating activity.

    I think that eliding “the” from my example, as you’ve done, does make it a bit more accurate — at least as I construe human nature as (in some sense, but not without further qualification) a universal. “Jesus died with respect to human nature.” With “the” in there it’s still correct, of course, but as you say one should be careful not to conclude that Christ’s human nature is reified. You’re definitely onto something with “numerically identical concrete human nature.” Oliver Crisp has a helpful discussion of natures as concrete realities (body+soul+mind) versus abstract collections of predicates (as I’ve defined ‘nature’ in this post) in Divinity and Humanity (ch. 2). I’d like to write more on this another time.

    If you’d like to keep up on my professional comings and goings, you can bookmark and/or subscribe to the RSS feed there.

    Thanks for the feedback, everyone!

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