What Are We Supposed to Make of Jesus’ Divine and Human Natures?

What Are We Supposed to Make of Jesus’ Divine and Human Natures?

Section 4: Jesus

Digging Deeper Topic 1: What Are We Supposed to Make of Jesus’ Divine and Human Natures?


Mistaken Views

In the daily readings, we discussed the fact that Jesus has two natures—one human and one divine. That’s a difficult concept for us to wrap our minds around. How can he be human and divine at the same time? The early Church struggled with that concept as well. One way to deal with the difficulty is to sidestep it. We feel a certain tension when we say Jesus is fully God and fully human because those two things seem to pull in opposite directions. You can eliminate that tension, however, if you deny either that Jesus is human or that he is God. That’s essentially what Docetism did. As you’ll recall from our earlier discussions, Docetists denied Jesus’ humanity. They thought of him as a purely divine being who only appeared to be human. The Church, however, rejected any attempt to eliminate the tension in that way because, as we’ve seen, the Bible affirms Jesus’ humanity as well as his deity. Nevertheless, the Church struggled to explain how those two natures could exist together in one person.

Jesus As Less Than Fully Human – Apollinarianism

Overview

Apollinaris, the bishop of Laodicea in the mid-fourth century AD, offered an explanation. He acknowledged Jesus was both human and divine, but he denied Jesus was fully human. Why? Well, if we say Jesus is fully human, that means he has a human soul. And Apollinaris strongly rejected that idea. He rejected it because we typically think one soul equals one person. As far as Apollinaris was concerned, that meant anyone who said Jesus possessed a human soul had a problem. It seemed obvious to Apollinaris that God the Son had a divine soul prior to the incarnation. Now, if the Son added a human soul when he became Jesus, that meant he had two souls after the incarnation—one human and one divine. When Apollinaris did the math, he thought that lead to the inevitable conclusion Jesus was a composite of two separate persons. If one soul equals one person, two souls must equal two persons, right? Apollinaris couldn’t accept that conclusion because the Bible portrayed Jesus as one unified person. But that raises a question. How do we affirm Jesus is both human and divine while insisting that he is one person, not two? Apollinaris thought he had the answer.

One of the recurring bad guys on the show Doctor Who are the Cybermen. The Cybermen were created by a rich industrialist who decided to “upgrade” humanity by downloading human minds into cybernetic bodies. Apollinaris, of course, had never watched an episode of Doctor Who, and, therefore, had never seen a Cyberman. But his image of Jesus was similar. In Jesus’ case though, rather than downloading a human mind into a cybernetic body, the divine mind/soul of God the Son was “downloaded” into a human body. Apollinaris believed this solved the problem because it meant Jesus had one body (human) and one soul (divine). As a result, he was one person, not two.

Problem

A major problem with Apollinaris’ view is that Jesus had to be fully human in order to save us. As we noted in the daily readings, Jesus’ death on the cross was credited to our accounts as a payment for our sins. That wouldn’t have been possible if Jesus weren’t human. God was able to credit Jesus’ payment to our accounts because Jesus was acting as our representative. To serve as our representative, Jesus had to be one of us. If he weren’t human, his representation wouldn’t have been legitimate. Apollinarianism doesn’t deny Jesus’ humanity completely. However, it’s difficult to see how he could be considered one of us if he didn’t have a human soul, and therefore “lacked the most characteristic part of humanity (human will, reason, mind).”[i]

Jesus As a Mixture of Human and Divine – Eutychianism

Overview

Eutyches was the head of a monastery in Constantinople in the mid 440s AD. Like Apollinaris, he saw Jesus as only part human, but in a different way. To stick with the sci-fi illustrations, Spock is a character from the original Star Trek television series and movies. Spock’s father was Vulcan, but his mother was human. As a result, Spock was neither fully Vulcan nor fully human. He was a mixture of both. This is very close to how Eutyches understood Jesus’ divine and human natures. He argued that at Jesus’ birth the divine and human natures combined such that, after his birth, Jesus had one “mixed” nature. He was no longer fully God. He was no longer fully human.

Problem

In connection with Apollinarianism, we noted Jesus needed to be fully human to save us. As we know from the daily readings, our salvation is also dependent on Jesus being fully God. We humans are finite and limited. One of the consequences of this fact is that we exist inside of time. That means no human being would ever be able to pay the penalty sin deserves. God’s wrath against sin is so great there would never be enough time for it to be completely poured out against us. That is why hell is eternal. God, however, exists outside of time. Jesus’ divine nature, therefore, does not experience events one after another like we do.[ii] As a result, he was able to bear God’s wrath all at once, as it were.

That means Jesus needed to be both fully God and fully human in order to save us from our sin. But according to Eutychianism, he was neither.

Jesus as Two Separate Persons – Nestorianism

Overview

Nestorius became the patriarch of Constantinople in 428 AD, and he had yet another view concerning Jesus’ divine and human natures. Around that time, scholars were discussing whether it was appropriate to refer to Jesus’ mother, Mary, as “God-bearer.” Many felt this was perfectly fine. But Nestorius was concerned about the implications of doing so. He was worried that calling Mary “God-bearer” might lead some to be believe Jesus was only God because the title did not refer to his human nature.  At the same time, he was also worried the title might push others in the opposite direction and lead them to conclude that Jesus wasn’t truly God. After all, God doesn’t need a mother because he doesn’t need to be born. He has always existed by virtue of his own power. So if Mary gave birth to Jesus’ divine nature, as well as his human nature, what would that say about his divine status? Nestorius was concerned some would conclude it meant Jesus was less than fully divine.

To get around those perceived problems, Nestorius took a very different position concerning the relationship between Jesus’ divine and human natures. To illustrate, consider Firestorm, a DC Comics character. In a freak nuclear accident, Ronnie Raymond and physicist Martin Stein are joined together in an accident to form a “nuclear man” called Firestorm. Although they are joined in the same form, Ronnie and Martin remain two separate individuals with two separate minds and wills. Ronnie has control of Firestorm’s body, but Martin, as a voice in Ronnie’s mind, provides Ronnie with important information and advice.

Nestorius’ view of Jesus is similar to Firestorm. To avoid the problems we noted above, Nestorius made a point of drawing clear lines between Jesus’ divine and human natures. For example, we know Jesus suffered. But that suffering was something only his human nature experienced. The divine nature didn’t participate in it in any way.[iii] By separating the human and divine natures in this way, Nestorius was able to say that Mary gave birth to Jesus’ human nature, but not his divine nature.

Nestorius made such strong distinctions that he appeared to suggest Jesus was a composite of two separate persons, one human and one divine. If you’ll recall, that was the very problem Apollinaris was trying to avoid. Although Nestorius acknowledged the divine and human natures came together in Jesus, he envisioned this as the joining of two wills in much the same way Ronnie and Martin come together in Firestorm.[iv] One form, but two separate individuals.

Problem

The problem with this view is that the gospels present Jesus as a single unified person. As Grudem explains, “Nowhere in Scripture do we have an indication that the human nature of Christ, for example, is an independent person, deciding to do something contrary to the divine nature of Christ. Nowhere do we have an indication of the human and divine natures talking to each other or struggling within Christ, or any such thing. Rather we have a consistent picture of a single person acting in wholeness and unity.”[v]

Jesus As Letting Go of His Divine Nature – Kenoticism

Overview

A more recent view known as Kenoticism deals with Jesus’ divine and human natures in still another way. It claims God the Son gave up his divine nature in order to become human.  In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Arwen is a half-elf who falls in love with Aragorn, a mortal man. Because she has elven blood, she could be immortal. However, she chooses to give up that immortality in order to marry Aragorn. Some believe God the Son did essentially the same thing. Prior to the incarnation, the Son was fully God. In order to save us from our sin, however, he had to become human. And to do that he had to give up his divine nature so he could take on a human one.

Supporters of this view point to Philippians 2:6-7, which says:

[Jesus,] being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

Problem

As we noted in the daily readings, when Paul says Jesus didn’t consider equality with God something to be grasped, he doesn’t mean Jesus let go of equality with God.  The word the NIV translates with the phrase “something to be grasped” means “something to be taken advantage of.”[vi] Paul’s point in these verses, therefore, isn’t that Jesus stopped being God. His point is that Jesus did not consider his equality with God to be something he would use for his own advantage. Because he was more concerned about what was to our advantage, Jesus was willing to humble himself by taking on human nature and going to the cross for us. Phil. 2, therefore, doesn’t really lend any support to the idea that Jesus let go of his divine nature in order to take on our human nature.

The Chalcedonian Creed

Because there were so many wrong ideas floating around about Jesus, Church officials and scholars got together at Chalcedon in AD 451 to come up with a statement laying out the Church’s beliefs regarding Jesus’ divine and human natures:

“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 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 declared concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.”[vii]

This statement is known as the Chalcedonian Definition or the Chalcedonian Creed. It counters each of the views we discussed above and helps provide the boundaries for a proper understanding of Jesus.

Jesus is Truly God and Truly Human

The Creed affirms both Jesus’ humanity and his divinity: 

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…

By affirming Jesus is truly man, the Creed rules out views such as Docetism that claim Jesus wasn’t really human. Although Kenoticism came along later, it too is ruled out. According to Kenoticism, Jesus gave up his divine nature in order to become human. In contrast, however, the Creed affirms that Jesus’ divine and human natures exist side by side. 

Because He Is Truly Human, Jesus’ Human Nature Includes Both a Human Body and a Human Soul

The creed also rules out any form of Apolliarianism. We noted Apollinaris claimed Jesus possessed a human body, but not a human soul. The Chalcedonian Creed, however, rejects that idea. Because he is truly human, Jesus possesses:

a reasonable soul and body;”

Apollinaris thought of Jesus as having only a human shell. But the Creed insists he has a reasonable (i.e. rational) soul just like you and I do.

Because He Is Truly God and Truly Human, Jesus’ Two Natures Do Not Combine in Such a Way That Either One Dilutes the Other

The Creed affirms that Jesus had a human nature as well as a divine nature. Note, however, it insists the two natures do not mix together in the way Eutyches suggested. Jesus is 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.

Jesus’ Divine and Human Natures Are United in One Person

Although Jesus has two natures, that doesn’t mean he is a composite of two separate individuals as Nestorius thought. Instead, the two natures exist:

in one Person…not parted or divided into two persons…

Conclusion

Of course, none of that helps us understand how God did it. The Chalcedonian Creed doesn’t explain the mechanics of how the divine and human natures came together in Jesus. Nevertheless, the Creed plays an important role in our theology because it provides a framework for our beliefs about Jesus. Our beliefs need to fit with the boundaries established in the Creed because, as R.C. Sproul puts it, “The only thing on the other side of those borders is some kind of heresy.”[viii] Jesus is fully God and fully human, yet one person. We do not exactly understand how that is possible. But as Apollinaris, Eutyches, and Nestorius show us, if we mess with any piece of that statement in order to make Jesus more comprehensible, we wind up losing something important. So in the end, when it comes to the “how” of it, we’re left with a mystery—akin to the Trinity. We cannot fully understand how God can be three separate persons, yet one being because that is so far outside our experience. In much the same way, we cannot understand how the Son of God was able to take on our human nature without altering or diluting either his divinity or his humanity. It simply is beyond our ability to comprehend.


[i] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books 1998), 732.

[ii] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House 1994), 168-173.

[iii] H. Dermot McDonald, “Nestorius” in Introduction to the History of Christianity, rev. ed. (Lion Publishing, 1990; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002),180.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Grudem, 555.

[vi] Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1995), , 206-209

[vii] Grudem, 1169-1170

[viii] R.C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian: An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Sandford: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2014), 137.

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