[Editor’s Note: This article is the third in a series on “The Incarnation of Christ.”]
Few subjects in the realm of theology are more difficult than the definition of the relation of the two natures in the incarnate Christ. Theologians are faced first with the problem of definition. The English word nature is derived from the Latin natura and is the equivalent of the Greek phusis (cf. Rom 2:14; Gal 2:15; 4:8 ; Eph 2:3; 2 Pet 1:4). In the history of Christian doctrine the usage of the term nature has varied, but the word is now commonly used to designate the divine or human elements in the person of Christ. In theology the expression substance from the Latin substantia is also used, corresponding to the Greek ousia. All of these terms are used to define the real essence, the inward properties which underlie all outward manifestation. As this refers to the person of Christ, nature is seen to be the sum of all the attributes and their relationship to each other. Necessarily, such attributes must be compatible to the nature to which they correspond and cannot be transferred to another substance or nature. As applied to the problem of defining the humanity and deity of Christ, nature as used of the humanity of Christ includes all that belongs to His humanity. As applied to the deity of Christ, it includes all that belongs to His deity. Hence, theologians speak of two natures, the human and the divine, each with their respective attributes.
Much confusion arose in the early history of the church on the problem of how such incompatible natures as a human nature and a divine nature could be joined in one person without one or the other losing some of its essential characteristics. The resulting discussion, however, led to the orthodox statement that the two natures are united without loss of any essential attributes and that the two natures maintain their separate identity. Through the Incarnation of Christ, the two natures were inseparably united in such a way that there was no mixture or loss of their separate identity and without loss or transfer of any property or attribute of one nature to the other. The union thus consummated is a personal or hypostatic union in that Christ is one person, not two, and is everlasting in keeping with the everlasting character of both the human and divine natures.
The proof that the two natures maintain their complete identity, though joined in a personal union, is based on a comparison of the attributes of the human nature and the divine nature. It should be clear that divine attributes must necessarily belong to the corresponding divine nature and that human attributes must belong to the corresponding human nature, though the attributes of either the human or divine nature belong to the person of Christ. Because the attributes of either nature belong to Christ, Christ is theanthropic in person, but it is not accurate to refer to His natures as being theanthropic as there is no mixture of the divine and human to form a new third substance. The human nature always remains human, and the divine nature always remains divine. Christ is therefore both God and man, no less God because of His humanity and no less human because of His deity.
Calvinistic theology generally holds that the two natures of Christ are united without any transfer of attributes. Just as any essence is composed of the sum of its attributes and their relationship, a change of any attribute would necessarily involve a change in essence. For instance, infinity cannot be transferred to finity; mind cannot be transferred to matter; God cannot be transferred to man, or vice versa. To rob the divine nature of Christ of a single attribute would destroy His deity, and to rob man of a single human attribute would result in destruction of a true humanity. It is for this reason that the two natures of Christ cannot lose or transfer a single attribute.
A significant variation, however, from this doctrine is the Lutheran teaching of the ubiquity of the human body of Christ. In connection with the Lutheran doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, it is held that while the elements are not transubstantiated into the body of Christ they contain the body of Christ. This concept is considered to be supported by the teaching that the body of Christ is everywhere. In sustaining this doctrine, Lutheran theologians have felt that the doctrine of omnipresence as it relates to the divine nature is properly also an attribute of the human body of Christ. The Lutheran doctrine is challenged by Calvinists principally on the basis of the lack of Biblical evidence for it and the contradiction involved in the concept of a body that is everywhere present. While it is normal for theology to consider Christ in His divine nature as omnipresent, the humanity of Christ always seems to have a local concept, and Christ is revealed to be seated now at the right hand of the Father in heaven.
In the incarnation no attribute of the divine nature was changed though there was a change in their manifestation. This is sometimes referred to as the kenosis doctrine or the self-emptying of Christ. It is clear that Christ, while on earth following His incarnation, did not manifest the glory of God except on rare occasions, but there were no attributes surrendered. Christ was still all that God is even though He had chosen sovereignly to limit certain phases of His activity to the human sphere. Even during the period of humiliation, therefore, there is no need for qualifying the basic doctrine that both the human and the divine natures retain all their essential characteristics.
The two natures of Christ are not only united without affecting the respective attributes of the two natures, but they are combined in one person. This union should not be defined as deity possessing humanity as this would deny true humanity its rightful place. It is not, on the other hand, humanity merely indwelt by deity. Christ did not differ from other men simply in degree of divine influence as sometimes advanced by modern liberals. In His unique personality He possessed two natures, one eternal and divine, the other human and generated in time. The union of these two natures was not one of sympathy alone nor merely a harmony of will and operation. Orthodox theology regards this union as personal and constitutional. As Charles Hodge put it: “The Son of God did not unite Himself with a human person, but with a human nature.”1
One of the difficult aspects of the relationship of the two natures of Christ is that, while the attributes of one nature are never attributed to the other, the attributes of both natures are properly attributed to His person. Thus Christ at the same moment has seemingly contradictory dualities. He can be weak and oninipotent, increasing in knowledge and omniscient, finite and infinite. These qualities can, of course, be traced to their corresponding nature, but, as presented in Scripture, a variety of treatment can be observed. At least seven classifications of this aspect of the truth can be observed in what is called the communion of attributes.
1. Some attributes are true of His whole person such as the titles, Redeemer, Prophet, Priest, and King. As Redeemer, Christ is both man and God, both natures being essential to this function. It is therefore an attribute or characteristic true of His whole person.
2. Some attributes are true only of deity, but the whole person is the subject. In some cases the person of Christ is related to an attribute peculiar to the divine nature. For instance, Christ said: “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). The whole person is the subject, but the attribute of eternity applies only to the divine nature. It is possible, however, to say of the person of the incarnate Christ that His person is eternal even though humanity was added in time.
3. Some attributes are true only of humanity, but the whole person is the subject. In contrast to John 8:58, in some cases attributes true only of His humanity are mentioned but the whole person is in view. On the cross Christ said: “I thirst” (John 19:28). The statement can be attributed only to the human nature, but the whole person is involved. This type of reference disappears after His resurrection and ascension and the resulting freedom from the limitations of His earthly life.
4. The person may be described according to divine nature but the predicate of the human nature. A seeming contradiction is sometimes found when the person of Christ is described according to His divine nature, but that which is predicated is an attribute of the human nature. An illustration is afforded in the revelation of Christ in glory in Revelation 1:12-18 where the deity of Christ is in evidence. Yet Christ is revealed as the One who “was dead” (v. 18 ), an attribute possible only for the humanity of Christ. self-consciousness was as fully operative when He was a Babe in Bethlehem as it was in His most mature experience. There is evidence, however, that the human nature developed and with it a human self-consciousness came into play. In view of the varied forms of manifestation of the divine and human natures, it seems possible to conclude that He had both a divine and a human self-consciousness, that these were never in conflict, and that Christ sometimes thought, spoke, and acted from the divine self-consciousness and at other times from the human.
In view of the complete divine and human natures in Christ, the question has been raised whether each nature had its corresponding will. If by will is meant desire, it is clear that there could be conflicting desires in the divine and human natures of Christ. If by will, however, is meant that resulting moral decision, one person can have only one will. In the case of Christ, this will was always the will of God. Hence, when Christ prayed in the garden of Gethsemane: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt 26:39), here, as in all other cases, the ultimate sovereign will of Christ was to do the Father’s will. It was natural to the human nature to desire to avoid the cross even as it was in keeping with the divine nature to avoid the contact with sin involved in substitution. The will of God, however, was that Christ should die, and this Christ willingly did. It is therefore no more proper to speak of two wills in Christ than it is of two wills in an ordinary believer who has both a sin nature and a new nature. A conflict of desires should not be equated with a conflict of moral choice.
The incarnation of Christ plays such a large part in the doctrine of the person of Christ that it is obviously tremendous in its significance. At least seven important results of the union of the two natures in Christ by the incarnation are revealed.
1. The union of the two natures in Christ is related vitally to His acts as an incarnate person. Though the divine nature is immutable, the human nature could suffer and learn through experience with the result that the corporate person can be said to come into new experiences. Thus Christ learned by suffering (Heb 5:8). In a similar way, the act of redemption in which Christ offered Himself a sacrifice for sin was an act of His whole person. It was traceable to both natures, not to the human nature alone nor the divine. As man Christ could die, but only as God could His death have infinite value sufficient to provide redemption for the sins of the whole world. Thus the human blood of Christ has eternal and infinite value because it was shed as part of the act of the divine-human person.
2. The eternal priesthood of Christ is also based on the hypostatic union. It was essential to His priesthood that He be both God and man. By incarnation He became man and hence could act as a human priest. As God, His priesthood could be everlasting after the order of Melchizedek, and He properly could be a mediator between God and man. Because of the human nature His priesthood could evince a human sympathy (Heb 4:15) and as the divine Son of God He was assured that God the Father would hear Him.
3. Though in ordinary cases a prophet does not need to have a divine nature, it is clear in examining the prophetic office of Christ that it is related to the act of incarnation. While God could speak from heaven as has been done on many occasions in Scripture, it was the purpose of God to reveal Himself through a man, and this required an incarnation. Hence, the eternal Logos, the Word of God, declared the nature of God by becoming man (John 1:18).
4. The kingly office of Christ was dependent on both the divine and human natures, and would have been impossible apart from the incarnation. Though it is possible for God to rule as God, it was a function of Christ to rule not only in the divine sense but as the Son of David fulfilling the Davidic covenant and its promise that the seed of David would sit upon the throne. According to the Davidic covenant, a son of David would sit on the throne of Israel forever (2 Sam 7:16), and David’s house, kingdom, and throne are declared to be established forever (cf. Luke 1:31-33). To fulfill His kingly office, therefore, it was necessary to have a human birth which would link Him with David and He had to have a divine nature that would assure Him the everlasting quality of His government and throne.
5. The incarnate person of Christ is worshipped as the sovereign God. In the period of His life on earth, He was worshipped even when His eternal glory was hidden, and it is now all the more fitting that He should be worshipped as the glorified God-man. The recognition of His deity and sovereignty is related to His dominion as the second Adam. In the original creation dominion was given the first Adam, and it was God’s declared purpose that man should rule creation. Though this prerogative was lost by Adam because of sin, it properly belongs to the incarnate Christ who will rule the earth, especially in the millennial kingdom.
6. In the ascension of the incarnate Christ to heaven, not only was the divine nature restored to its previous place of infinite glory, but the human nature was also exalted. It is now as the God-man that He is at the right hand of God the Father. This demonstrates that infinite glory and humanity are not incompatible as illustrated in the person of Christ and assures the saint that though he is a sinner saved by grace he may anticipate the glory of God in eternity.
7. The union of the two natures in Christ, while not affecting any essential attribute of either nature, did necessarily require certain unique features to be manifested such as the absence of the sin nature, freedom from any act of sin, and lack of a human father. This also of course was true of Adam before the fall and therefore is not a contradiction of the essential humanity of Christ. Though these elements find no parallel in the race after the fall of Adam, they do not constitute ground for denying the true humanity of our Lord.
Much necessarily remains inscrutable in the person of Christ. The problem of the theologian is not to understand completely, but to state the facts revealed in Scripture in such a way as to do full honor to the person of Christ. The portraits of Christ provided in the four Gospels as well as additional revelation provided in the rest of the New Testament fully support the orthodox theological statement of the person of Christ and the relation of the two natures. They justify the believer in Christ in worshipping the Son of God as possessing all the divine attributes and encourage the child of God to come to Him in full assurance of sympathy and understanding arising in His human nature and human experience.
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
1 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, II, 391.