I spent all day Wednesday scouring my systematic theologies on the doctrine of the two natures of Christ, the hypostatic union, and what can be said about it. Most of them were not terribly helpful. Three, however, stand out as the very best on the topic: Schaff, Hodge and Murray, Hodge more so than Murray. I found Hodge a model of lucidity and carefulness that I have not seen in any of the commenters on the blog on this particular subject. This blog post will be my final word on the subject. I have come to a place of comfort in what Hodge says, ALL of what Hodge says, mind you, the qualifications being as equally important as the statements they qualify. Hodge will be supplemented by Schaff’s notes and Murray’s insight.
The difficulties that I have had with statements like “God died” have to do with the fact that such statements are simply not qualified enough. They are too slippery. If you screw up your face and look at them cross-eyed, they can be orthodox. But they can just as easily be understood in a heretical direction. What to do? We will start with the Chalcedonian definition, which I find very helpful, when related in full. Here it is in full, as translated by Phillip Schaff in Creeds of Christendom, volume 2, pp. 62-63:
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 [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [coessential] 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.
Several grammatical points need to be made about this formulation. Firstly, the phrase “according to the Manhood” modifies the noun in the genitive “God-bearer” (theotokou). Schaff comments on this that “Mary was the mother not merely of the human nature of Jesus of Nazareth, but of the theanthropic person of Jesus Christ; yet not of his eternal Godhead…but of his incarnate person, or the Logos united to humanity…In like manner, the subject of the Passion was the theanthropic person; yet not according to his divine nature, which in itself is incapable of suffering, but according to human nature, which was the organ of suffering” (p. 64). I like this care and precision. Furthermore, Schaff notes that it was the Monophysites who “taught only one composite nature of Christ…making his humanity a mere accident of the immutable divine substance, and using the liturgical shibboleth ‘God has been crucified’ (without a qualifying ‘according to the human nature, or ‘the flesh,’ as the theotokos is qualified in the Symbol of Chalcedon)” (p. 65). In other words, it is Chalcedonian to utter the qualifying “according to the Manhood.” It is Monophysite to say “theotokos” without the qualification.
Hodge adds a level of sophistication that is quite helpful. I recommend everyone read it. The sections I am going to highlight (with quite a few ellipses: I encourage everyone to read the original, so that they can see that I am quoting him entirely in context) are located in volume 2, pp. 390ff:
No attribute of the one nature is transferred to the other…the properties or attributes of a substance constitute its essence, so that if they be removed or if others of a different nature be added to them, the substance itself is changed…The union of the two natures in Christ is a personal or hypostatic union. By this is meant, in the first place, that it is not a mere indwelling of the divine nature analogous to the indwelling of the Spirit of God in his people…it is intended to affirm that the union is such that Christ is but one person…the personality of Christ is in the divine nature…It was a divine person, not merely a divine nature, that assumed humanity, or became incarnate. Hence it follows that the human nature of Christ, separately considered, is impersonal…To personality both rational substance and distinct subsistence are essential. The latter the human nature of Christ never possessed. The Son of God did not unite Himself with a human person, but with a human nature. The proof of this is that Christ is but one person…the person is the koinonos, or partaker of the attributes of both natures; so that whatever may be affirmed of either nature may be affirmed of the person…it is on this principle, that what is true of either nature is true of the person, that a multitude of passages of Scripture are to be explained. These passages are of different kinds…Passages in which the person is the subject, but the predicate is true only of the human nature (Murray says the same, as does a’Brakel and a number of others, LK). As when Christ said, “I thirst;” “My soul is sorrowful even unto death…” There are two classes of passages under this general head which are of special interest. First, those in which the person is designated from the divine nature when the predicate is true only of the human nature. “The Church of God which He purchased with his blood.” “The Lord of glory was crucified…” The forms of expression, therefore, long prevalent in the church, “the blood of God,” “God the mighty maker died,” etc., are in accordance with Scriptural usage. And if it be right to say “God died,” it is right to say “He was born.” The person born of the Virgin Mary was a divine person. He was the Son of God. For, as we have seen, the person of Christ is in Scripture often designated from the divine nature, when the predicate is true only of the human nature…It is instructive to notice here how easily and naturally the sacred writers predicate of our Lord the attributes of humanity and those of divinity, however his person may be denominated…his person may be denominated from one nature when the act ascribed to Him belongs to the other nature…Such being the Scriptural doctrine concerning the person of Christ, it follows that although the divine nature is immutable and impassible, and therefore neither the obedience nor the suffering of Christ was the obedience or suffering of the divine nature, yet they were none the less the obedience and suffering of a divine person…It is to this fact that the infinite merit and efficiency of his work are due.
Now, some of my readers will be saying, “But we’ve included these qualifications all along.” I have not seen it. I have seen many unqualified statements being bandied around as shibboleths. I have felt that if I was not willing to say what they wanted me to say (and without the careful qualifications of Hodge), then I was a Nestorian, or bordering on being one. Interestingly, and a slight side-note here, the work of Harold Brown (entitled Heresies) is fascinating here. He argues that although Nestorius the person was condemned by the council (which was due largely to political and Machiavellian machinations), it was actually Nestorius’ doctrine which is more comfortable with the Chalcedonian formulation than Cyril’s was.
Murray adds something which I felt was very helpful when one is considering the relationship of the divine nature to the human nature in the suffering of Christ, and especially in His death. He writes, “The death meant separation of the elements of his human nature. But he, as the Son of God, was still united to the two separated elements of his human nature. He, as respects his body, was laid in the tomb and, as respects his disembodied spirit, he went to the Father. He was buried. He was raised from the dead. He was indissolubly united to the disunited elements of his human nature” (from the collected works, volume 2, p. 139).
I agree with these formulations of Schaff, Hodge, and Murray. Read carefully, and then re-read carefully so that ALL the qualifications are firmly fixed in your mind. I agree with (especially) Hodge’s qualified way of saying these things, not the commenters’ unqualified way of saying them. In particular, the way Hodge speaks of the biblical way of writing (actions and effects of one nature are often attributed to the person which can be designated by either nature) is so carefully thought out and helpful. It reminds me of how sacramental union works: there is a union between the sign and the thing signified whereby the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other (WCF 27.2). It doesn’t mean that the effects of the thing signified actually belong to the sign itself (as the WCF goes on to carefully qualify). Rather, because of the union, one can be spoken of in terms of the other.