16 February 2013

More Than a Feeling: the Hypostatic Union

We're launching right into our third post in this series:

First Theorem (§96): the Hypostatic Union

The Definition of Chalcedon (451 AD) set the parameters for what Christians believe about the person of God’s Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. This symbol of faith lays out several affirmations revolving around what is true of him. It made no attempt, however, to resolve its “apparent contradictions,"1 that is, to explain how the affirmations can be understood all together. The challenge for subsequent Christians with respect to christology has been to work out in a theologically consistent way how the antinomies of the creed can simultaneously be true.2

The doctrine of the hypostatic union immediately comes to mind: how can the divine (usually construed in infinite terms) be a (finite) human being at the same time? Before engaging this most crucial creedal proposition, Schleiermacher notes his intent:
The task of the critical process is to hold the ecclesiastical formulae to strict agreement with the foregoing analysis of our Christian self-consciousness, in order, partly, to judge how far they agree with it at least in essentials, partly (with regard to individual points), to inquire how much of the current form of expression is to be retained, and how much, on the other hand, had better be given up, either because it is an imperfect solution of the problem or because it is an addition not in itself essential and harmful because the occasion of persistent misunderstandings.3
Never mind for the moment that it’s the ecclesiastical formulae that are weighed and found wanting in every instance. The method itself is laudable. “If theologians are to reflect at all, and are not merely to repeat the definitions of the past, they must be free to suggest language that is technically heterodox (not heretical!) but may in time become orthodox.”4

In Jesus Christ the Divine Nature and Human Nature
Were Combined in One Person

Schleiermacher launches into his criticisms after noting that while he’s in complete agreement with the sentiment laid out in the various creedal passages he lists, “there is almost nothing in the execution of this aim against which protest must not be raised, whether we regard the scientific character of the expression or its suitability for ecclesiastical use” (ibid., 391). Those protests may be summarized as follows:

First, in the Scriptures the name “Jesus Christ” (as does “Son of God”), which are often taken to allude to both the human and divine natures of the one person, actually refers only to the subject of the hypostatic union (qua man and thus “not of the divine element in it before the union,” p. 392).

Second, use of the term nature in reference to both the divine and the human is confusing to the point of being unhelpful. “For how can divine and human be thus brought together under any single conception, as if they could both be more exact determinations, coordinated to each other, of one and the same universal?” (ibid.). Moreover, divine and nature commonly refer to opposite conceptions: Nature denotes the contingent and manifold phenomenal world in contrast with the unconditional and the absolutely simple world of the divine. “Always we use [the word nature] solely of a limited existence, standing in opposition to something else . . . active and passive . . . revealed in a variety of appearances.” The term thus cannot be used in conjunction with God. To do so betrays a polytheistic “heathen influence” (p. 393).

Third, the creedal formulae also implies a relation between nature and person opposed to common usage: while several persons can indeed have the same nature, here the formulae insist that one person has two entirely different natures. Person denotes a unity of life, but nature indicates the content of a person’s unity-of-life modes of action (which vary depending on one’s life). How can there be a unity of life with a duality of natures, unless one gives way to the other, especially since one of those natures (the divine) has a large sphere and the other a small? The Ego is lost altogether in this construct. The outcome is either the melting of the two natures into a third, which is neither divine nor human, for the sake of maintaining the unity of the person (e.g., monophysitism); or the separation of the natures at the cost of neglecting the person (e.g., Nestorianism); or the subordination of one nature to the other (e.g., adoptionism or docetism).
The attempt to make clear this unity along with the duality naturally but seldom results in anything else than a demonstration of the possibility of a formula made up by combining indications out of which it is impossible to construct a figure. On the other hand, as soon as the same writer avoids this formula of two natures, he not seldom says something which one can follow, and of which the figure can be drawn. (pp. 393–94)
Fourth, the question of two wills is inevitably raised. If Jesus Christ had two wills, the unity of the person would be unreal (“even if we try to conserve it by saying that the two wills always will the same thing,” because that only leads to agreement, not unity, p. 394); and, further, since understanding (i.e., reason) and will cannot be conceived as independent, the question of the duality of the understanding is involved, which brings us back again to the division of the person of Christ (i.e., it’s rehashed Nestorianism, or worse, it creates a schizophrenic Christ who wills one way one second, and another way the next, or wills in two ways simultaneously). In short, it’s unthinkable that a divine reason, “which as omniscient sees everything at once, should think the same as a human reason, which only knows separate things one after the other and as a result of the other” (ibid.).

Fifth, the formulae itself does not harmonize with the creedal formulae on the Trinity, which abandoned the unity of person for the sake of unity of essence. And when we ask how the divine “nature” of Christ relates itself to the divine “essence,” no answer is possible. If the doctrine of Christ involves dual natures, then the question “inevitably arises . . . whether each of the three Persons, outside their participation in the Divine Essence, has also a nature of its own as well, or whether this is a peculiarity of the Second Person” (p. 395). Furthermore, if we apply the usage of the word person in the doctrine of Christ to the doctrine of the Trinity, “then the three Persons must have an independent anterior existence in themselves; and if each Person is also a nature, we come almost inevitably to three divine natures for the three divine Persons in the one Divine Essence” (in other words, tritheism. Ibid.).

Thus we see, argues Schleiermacher, that the doctrine of the hypostatic union carries us far away from religion into hair-splitting, speculation, and confusion. Its practical use in the church is of little value.

What's next: Schleiermacher's restatement of the hypostatic union as well as my (hopefully helpful) response to it.

1 Kelsey, Thinking . . ., 69.

2 Indeed, according to Wolfhart Pannenberg, the Definition accomplished “no theological solution for the controversies preceding Chalcedon. It only indicates the criteria that must be unconditionally observed in every Christological theory” (Jesus, God and Man [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1968], 292).

3 Schleiermacher, Christian Faith (§95), 390.

4 B. A. Gerrish (vi of the Foreword), summarizing Schleiermacher’s thought in The Christian Faith (§25), 108–11.


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