How is Jesus fully God and fully man, yet one person? For the past three weeks my family and I have been considering this question in our family Bible reading time, guided by Wayne Grudem’s discussion of it in Chapter 26, “The Person of Christ,” of his Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994). In previous posts I’ve shared from what we read in the chapter about Jesus’ virgin birth, his humanity, and his deity. In this post I’ll share from what we read about his incarnation, the combining of deity and humanity in one person.
The full deity of Christ and the full humanity of Christ have been accepted since the beginning of church history. However how they could be combined together in one person was formulated slowly and didn’t reach final form until the Chalcedonian Creed of 451 A.D. Before then several other views were proposed and rejected, some of which I’ll describe briefly before giving and commenting on the Chalcedonian Creed. I’ve always found this topic interesting and used my writing of this post as an excuse to reread these two accounts of it:
– Gregg R. Allison. Historical Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2011. “Views of Jesus Christ in the Early Church” in Chapter 17 (pages 366-377).
– J. N. D. Kelly. Early Christian Doctrines. Fourth Edition. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1968 (First Edition, 1958). Chapters IV-VI and IX-XII (pages 83-162 and 223-343).
Arius held that God the Son didn’t always exist but was created by God the Father at a point in time. Thus, although the Son was created before and was greater than the rest of creation and could be even described as like the Father, he was not of the same substance as the Father. Arians focused on Bible passages which called Jesus Christ the “only begotten” Son of God, reasoning that if Jesus Christ were “begotten” by God the Father he must have been brought into existence by Him. Their views were condemned at the Council of Nicea in 325, which affirmed that Jesus Christ was “begotten, not made” and insisted that he was “of one substance with the Father.” For more on Arianism see my November 2, 2013, post, “The Trinity – Arianism – Part 1.”
Apollinarius taught that Christ had a human body and a divine mind and spirit. However church leaders realized that our minds and spirits as well as our bodies need salvation and thus that Christ had to have a human mind and spirit as well as a human body to save us. Hebrews 2:17 says, “He had to be made like his brothers in every respect.” Thus Apollinarius’ views were rejected by several church councils from the Council of Alexandria of 361 to the Council of Constantinople of 381.
Nestorianism is the doctrine that there are two separate persons in Christ, a human person and a divine person. Although Nestorius himself probably didn’t teach the doctrine, he was removed from his position as a bishop and his teachings were condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431. The church could not accept the doctrine because there is no indication in the Bible of Christ’s human and divine natures being independent. Instead it portrays Jesus as a single person acting in wholeness.
Eutyches taught that Christ had only one nature, his human nature being taken up and absorbed by his divine nature resulting in a single new nature. Eutychianism or monophysitism (monos, “one,” and physis, “nature”) concerned the church because by it Christ was neither truly God nor truly man.
The Chalcedonian Creed
A council was held at Chalcedon in 451 to deal with the controversy over the person of Christ. It issued the following statement, which is accepted by Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches as expressing the Bible’s teaching on the person of Christ:
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial 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 Mother of God, according to the manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; 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 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 declared concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has passed down to us.
Clearly rejecting Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, and Eutychianism, the Chalcedonian Creed teaches that Christ has two natures, a divine nature the same as that of the Father and a human nature the same as ours (yet without sin), united together in one person.
Distinction Between Jesus’ Divine and Human Natures
Following Grudem’s discussion of the rejected views and of the Chalcedonian Creed, he considers various related topics under the heading “Combining Specific Texts on Christ’s Deity and Humanity.” I’ll refer to just a two of them here.
In my February 25 “The Humanity of Christ” post I noted that in Grudem’s discussion of whether or not Jesus could sin he suggested that although Jesus’ divine nature could not be tempted his human nature could be. Here he refers to several Bible passages that are understandable only by similarly distinguishing between Jesus’ divine and human natures. I’ll cite just one, one which Grudem describes as “particularly striking” (page 558), the incident on the Sea of Galilee in which Jesus was asleep in the stern of the boat, presumably because he was tired, and when awakened by the disciples calmed the wind and the sea (Mark 4:35-41). Jesus’ being tired points to his human nature, and his calming the storm points to his divine nature.
Jesus’ having two distinct natures implies that he had two wills and two centers of consciousness or intelligence. Grudem suggests that this helps us understand how Jesus could learn things and yet know all things. With his human nature he had limited knowledge (Mark 13:32; Luke 2:52), but with his divine nature he knew all things (John 16:30; 21:17). Although we can’t understand how Jesus could have two wills and two centers of consciousness and yet be a single person, “to adopt any other solution could create a far greater problem,” claims Grudem, explaining, “it would require that we give up either the full deity or the full humanity of Christ. And that we cannot do” (page 561).
Grudem concludes his discussion of the person of Christ by observing that God’s uniting with man in a single person is “the most profound miracle and the most profound mystery in all the universe” (page 563). I agree.