The Theological Refinement of the Early Church
Course: Church History I
Father, thank you for all the many things you give us and bless us, we pray, this day as we work and as we study together. Help us in all that we do to grow to be more like our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, for whose name's sake we ask it. Amen.
What I want to look at this morning and I'm afraid we have to do it in a rather short space of time but is nevertheless a very significant period in church history; it is the seventy years which separated the first council of Constantinople in 381 from the council of Chalcedon in 451. This was the period in which the theology of the early church fell into place, you might say, in which the various loose ends which had been thrown up in the fourth century - loose ends concerning Trinitarian theology, how are we going to define the person of Christ, the person of the Son of God in relation to the Father, the whole question of the Holy Spirit, where does he fit into the overall Trinitarian pattern - and at the same time, of course, the question of the incarnation of Christ. What does it mean to say that Jesus is God in human flesh? How are we going to work this out? And gradually over time as it took a long time to work this through, but people began to realize that these two questions could not be discussed independently of one another. They were really two sides of the same coin, and that because they had to be discussed together, a common solution sort of worked out. What this in effect meant was that a common vocabulary, a common terminology, had to be devised which could then be used in either case. Talk about the Trinity, talk about the incarnation of Christ, but you're using the same vocabulary, the same technical terminology, so that people understand that you're on the same page.
And basically what this means is that these seventy years saw the emergence of what we today would call systematic theology. Now it was not systematic in the sense that, say, Karl Barth is systematic. I mean, it's not a modern style of systematic theology. But it is systematic in the sense that it is coherent and that it realizes for the first time that you cannot discuss one doctrine in isolation from the others. And this is a very important point, you see, because one of the problems we have today in the church - and people sort of question this doctrine or that doctrine or some other doctrine - is that they don't see that if you question one, there's a kind of knock-on effect for the whole, that you can't just change one thing in Christian doctrine and expect that it won't affect anything else. You see, you can't atomize Christian doctrine like this because it is a body of truth. It is something coherent, and if you take away one thing or change one thing, it will likely affect many other things.
And it was only at this time - it's in the late fourth and early fifth centuries - that the church as a whole came to realize this, came to understand this. Now the council of Constantinople, the first council of Constantinople held in 381 was the first council of the Christian Church held after the establishment of the Christian Church as the official state religion. That had taken place the year before in the year 380. Therefore, the decisions taken by this council became the law of the land. I mean, they were integrated into the law of the state and enforced accordingly. So we find that the condemnations which were put out at this time in 381 were enforced which meant that Arianism, for example, was suppressed because Arianism was clearly condemned by the council but also - and this is a more delicate question - Apollinarianism, because Apollinaris was ruled out as well at this time and anybody who was caught holding his doctrine could be prosecuted for this. I mean, it was something that was now illegal to think in this way.
Now that in itself, of course, need not affect very many people. I mean, Apollinaris and a few people who followed him might be the only ones who would be directly affected by that. But what you have to remember is that Apollinarianism was regarded as latent in the theology of Alexandria by the people from Antioch so that it came to be thought that everybody who comes from Alexandria is Apollinarian whether they are or not. I mean, you know how you get tarred with the brush of this kind of thing. And this has happened to me. I remember some years ago I made the very foolish mistake of driving from here to Chicago, and I was driving around in Chicago and there was this car that came up and started honking. People sort of making rude gestures out the window and all this kind of thing. And I thought, well, what's going on, you know. So I sort of rolled down the window and they rolled down the window and they shouted out, "Go back to Alabama, you redneck!" No, really, that was what was wrong, you see. So I hadn't thought about this. I hadn't realized that, yes, because I had an Alabama tag on the car that this was sufficiently infuriating to these people, to lump me in with the rest. But this is the sort of thing. You see what I mean? They kind of made an assumption because you see this and you sort of draw the conclusions.
So this is what you have to expect, you see, in the fourth century. Anybody coming from Alexandria is going to be thought to be Apollinarian whether they were or not. You see, that was the sort of line that was taken, you might say, in that way.
The other thing which is associated with this council is what we now call the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed, of course, I’ve said this many times, has nothing to do with the council of Nicaea. You must forget that altogether. But it seems to have emerged either at or shortly after the first council of Constantinople in 381. We don’t really know. It’s one of these problematic things because it’s not in the records of the council which have survived, but later generations believed that it had been composed at the council somehow, and it’s possible that it was composed in a kind of committee or something but never actually got official approval or something of this kind.
Anyhow, the creed represents, of course, an attempt to systematize Christian teaching as it had developed up until that time and we can more or less assume that it is the basis for further theological development after 381. Where was this theological development going to take place? It was not very likely to take place in Alexandria because Alexandria was on the defensive. Alexandria was trying to protect the theology of Athanasius which, of course, had suffered from the attacks made against Apollinaris, and they were just going to keep their heads down as much as they could, really, until the whole thing blew over.
Antioch, of course, was in precisely the opposite position because Antioch realized that this was their opportunity. This was the time to start developing a theological alternative, and it was in these years that people like Theodore of Mopsuestia started developing their version of the incarnation of Christ. Theodore, however, was made a bishop in 392 and so he went off to Mopsuestia and was never heard of again. Well, I suppose he was heard of again but he stopped teaching in Antioch just about the time when a young man called Nestorius would have been entering the theological school there. We don’t really know when Nestorius was born. People think he was born about 381. We don’t know how old he would have been when he went to the school, but he could have been 12 or 13, something like that.
Anyhow, whether he ever met Theodore of Mopsuestia personally or not is uncertain, but what is quite clear is that he absorbed Theodore’s Christology. He took on board what Theodore had to say about the incarnation of Christ, and this is the key thing, that the teaching of Nestorius is really a recycling of the teaching of Theodore of Mopsuestia. That in itself needn’t cause anybody too much trouble except that Nestorius grew up to become a professor in the theological school at Antioch, and in the year 428 which is the year that Theodore of Mopsuestia died, Nestorius was chosen to become patriarch or bishop of Constantinople. This was politically an extremely important position to hold because, of course, to be head of the church in the capitol of the empire meant that he would have close access to the emperor, close access to the government, and therefore his theological views would likely be favored by the authorities because he would be there to sort of be the advisor, you see, and interpretation of one kind or another.
Now this was bound to upset Alexandria, of course, and one of the things that you find from 380 onwards – from the time when Christianity was made the state religion onwards – is that the church of Alexandria was forever trying to destabilize the church in Constantinople because they were afraid that the theology of the church of Constantinople which was basically taken from Antioch would be used as a weapon against them politically. This was always the great fear, and the Alexandrian church authorities did what they could to discredit whoever was in charge in Constantinople. You see, if somebody came along who was a real personality and possibly an influential figure, they would work behind the scenes to get rid of them and this had already been done two or three times, and so when Nestorius was appointed, there was a tradition of this kind which was already in place.
Now nothing need have happened. I mean, there’s no reason why anything should have happened particularly, except that Nestorius had gained a reputation during his years as a teacher in Antioch of being fanatically anti-Apollinarian. It was normal for people in Antioch to be anti-Apollinarian, of course, but Nestorius was rabidly so. He made it a cause of his own. And he was determined when he got to Constantinople to root out Apollinarians in the city, to go looking for them, to sort of start a witch hunt against Apollinarians.
Now no one could object to this in theory because, of course, Apollinarianism was illegal. But, of course, the Alexandrian Church regarded this as a smokescreen for an attack on them because they fully understood that in Nestorius’ point of view, from his way of thinking, everybody in Alexandria was Apollinarian. You see, the line was not very clearly drawn there and so the Alexandrian Church got very upset indeed at the thought of Nestorius having so much power and being prepared to use it because they felt that sooner or later they would come under attack. And so Nestorius became the target. He had to be got rid of. He had to be discredited one way or another.
Now the bishop in Alexandria at this time was a man called Cyril – Cyril of Alexandria – who had been elected as bishop there in the year 412. So in 428 he was well and truly established. He had been there quite a long time, and he was a very clever politician. I think it would be fair to say that Cyril was a nasty piece of work. I mean, if he were alive today, he would almost certainly be president of some major denomination, having got there by stabbing all sort of decent Christians in the back on the way and risen to the top.
I mean, he comes across with this sort of person, very much a defender of orthodoxy as he understood it, of course, but nevertheless rather unscrupulous in terms of the methods he was prepared to use to defend his position. And so this was a clash of opposites, you might say, or actually opposites in a way because probably Cyril and Nestorius were very similar to each other. I mean, they were both pretty nasty and determined to get their way and so on, but it’s just that the way they wanted to get was quite different. And so a clash was almost inevitable and this is what occurred.
At Easter in the year 429 Nestorius circulated a letter – which this was quite common for people to do at this time – but a letter which was designed to explain something which he had been asked. Somebody had gone to him in Constantinople and asked him whether Mary was the mother of God or not. Now we don’t know who asked him this or why, but over the years people have generally suspected that whoever it was, was planted by Cyril because of what happened subsequently, you see, that no sooner had the question been asked and answered than Cyril jumped on the answer because the answer was just what he wanted to hear. In other words, wrong. So Cyril sort of jumped at it rather too quickly by the standards of the ancient world. You know, it usually took a while for these things to happen, but he was obviously waiting to pounce and this was the time when he did.
What did Nestorius say in answer to this question? Well, he said, first of all, yes, Mary is the mother of God in the sense that God dwelt in her womb, but Mary is also the mother of a man, and you must hold these two things together in tandem because the nature of the incarnation – remember I said the other day – is that of a conjunction between the humanity and the divinity, and therefore if you call Mary the mother of God, you are talking about the divinity but not the humanity, and this is unbalanced. So you really can’t do this. If you’re talking about Mary as the mother of God, you must add Mary the mother of man as well in order to get the balance. But, says Nestorius, that’s very awkward having to say all that, so you’re better off saying that Mary is the mother of Christ, because it is in her womb that the conjunction takes place and that the person of Christ – remember the praying hands – the person of Christ emerges as someone who is in a sense greater than the sum of his parts.
Now when Cyril heard this, of course, he realized that as far as he was concerned Nestorius had fallen straight into heresy, because Mary had long been recognized especially in Alexandria but more generally around the world as the mother of God – not in the sense that she was the source of the divine being, of course not. That’s not what this term means. In fact, it’s perhaps better to just look at what the Greek term is, because the Greek word for this is theotokos, and technically if you wanted to say Mary is the mother of God, there would be another word for that – theometor, would be “mother of God,” literally. And this term was not used of her. Theotokos implies someone who carried God in her womb. The God-bearer, you might say. You see, someone who had God in her womb. And this, of course, from the Alexandrian point of view, you had to say. There was no way you could not say this because Jesus was the Son of God come to earth. If the Son of God had not entered the womb of Mary, Mary would not have had a baby. And so this becomes the issue, you see, that if you say that you cannot call Mary theotokos without at the same time calling her anthropotokos, you see, bearer of a man in her womb, if the two things must go together in order to make sense. The question then arises, you say, well, where is the unity? Where does the unity of Christ come from? You see, it’s all very well to say that they’re side by side like this but how do they get like that? I mean, who initiated this process? Why is this the case and is it possible to say if Mary is anthropotokos – the bearer of a man – how is she different from any other woman? Because, of course, every woman who has a child in her womb is anthropotokos. I mean, there’s nothing miraculous about that. And Cyril said what’s the point of confessing that when this would just be perfectly normal, you see, as far as any woman is concerned?
Now if you drop both of these terms – if you say, well, we’re not going to call her theotokos and we’re not going to call her anthropotokos because these are not adequate terms; we are going to call her instead Christotokos, you see, the bearer of Christ – then you are implying that there is something in the term Christ which is not the same as God. And if you say, well, if Christ is the combination of God and man in the womb of the Virgin Mary, does this in some way compromise the Trinity? Because is this Christ the second person of the Trinity or not? Well, clearly not because how can the second person of the Trinity be formed in the womb of the Virgin Mary? You see, the second person of the Trinity must have existed in eternity and therefore the God bit which enters Mary cannot simply be regarded as a thing, as a substance of some divine power or something like this, but this God bit in Mary must either be the Son or else not God – you know, the second person of the Trinity or else not God. I mean, how could it be otherwise?
Now Cyril sort of wrote all this down and said, you know, this doesn’t work; this isn’t going to function and so on. We cannot have this, and sent it all off to Rome, asking the Pope in Rome, a man called Celestine, to ratify Cyril’s analysis of this. Now this was a very clever move because, as I pointed out the other day, Rome and Alexandria had a kind of tacit alliance. Rome and Alexandria tended to stay on the same page as much as they possibly could. By sending it off to Rome for ratification, Cyril could claim that he had the support of the wider church; it wasn’t just a personal thing or something of his own church of Alexandria was complaining about for particular reasons, but it went wider than that. And if Rome were to agree with what Cyril was saying, of course, Rome would also be committing itself to taking action against Nestorius if Nestorius failed to go along with it.
Now the Pope apparently didn’t realize that Cyril was setting a trap for him. This is hard to imagine except that you have to remember these people never met each other. They were a long way away and therefore it was difficult to gauge the temperature and the actual feel of the situation. Cyril’s brief sort of reached Rome and said this is what’s going on. He did send a copy of Nestorius’ letter which evidently proved that Nestorius thought these rather strange things, so the evidence seemed to be fairly clear from that standpoint. And so the bishop of Rome called together a council, a synod of his own church. They examined the evidence. They came down on the side of Cyril and wrote back to Cyril saying, yes, we agree with what you have to say. We think you are right. You sort this out with Nestorius. You write to Nestorius and tell him we’re on your side. A very stupid thing to do, and as I say, probably only explicable because the Romans at the time just didn’t realize what the underlying political currents were. They didn’t fully grasp the situation.
Anyhow, Cyril was, of course, only too glad to write to Nestorius and condemn him, but not only did he forward the judgment of the Roman synod, but he added to this twelve anathemas of his own condemning particular points of Nestorius’ teaching, sent the whole package to Constantinople giving the impression, of course, that this was agreed between Rome and Alexandria, even though Rome at this point had no knowledge of these twelve anathemas.
When Nestorius got this, he appealed to the emperor who was very annoyed about this as you can perhaps imagine, and the emperor ordered a council to be held in Ephesus in the year 431. The council duly met but it was deadlocked because the Alexandrian party and the Antiochian party were both there. Alexandria had Jerusalem on its side because Jerusalem was always close to Rome and so on, and Antioch had Constantinople, but they sort of faced off against each other and it was two on one side and two on the other. The deadlock was not resolved until the Roman delegation arrived. The Roman delegation assessed the situation, realized that it was committed to supporting Alexandria – you understood that much at least – and this weighed against Nestorius, and Nestorius was forced to resign as bishop in Constantinople in 431. He wasn’t persecuted. In fact, it’s not entirely clear what happened to him, but he was still alive 20 years later when the council of Chalcedon was summoned. So wherever he was and whatever he was doing, he was okay. He was safe at least, which was not a bad thing really for that particular time.
Nevertheless, the council of Ephesus in 431 came down very strongly on the side of Cyril against Nestorius supporting what Cyril had to say about the incarnation of Christ. Now Cyril meanwhile, of course, had not just sat back and let it all happen. Cyril had developed a theological position which he naturally believed was the position of Athanasius, the true position of Athanasius, in which he assumed what the council would ratify. The council would simply accept what his particular views were. Things never quite reached that point. They kind of let it lie as far as making official declarations were concerned, but Cyril went home from Ephesus believing – and indeed his church believed also – that his views had been upheld. Now the condemnation of Nestorius was in effect an affirmation of Cyril which it turned out twenty years later it was not. That was not really what had happened. But anyhow, that’s what Cyril thought and so that’s why we have to look at this with some degree of consideration.
What was it that Cyril was talking about? Cyril was talking about Jesus Christ, saying that what had happened in the womb of Mary was that two natures had become one nature. What were these two natures? The first was divinity, the nature of the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. This was key. This was absolutely essential, that the person of the Son of God had gone into the womb of Mary, had to dwell in her womb and thereby in the womb of Mary to take on human flesh.
It is the second nature which is the one which is more questionable. We would naturally say that it must be humanity – divinity and humanity – but the question was of what does this humanity consist? I mean, what is the nature of this humanity? What is it like? In the case of the divinity, there’s no question. There’s no question because, first of all, divinity can only be one thing anyhow. There’s only one God. And secondly, because the divinity of Christ was manifested in the person of the Son of God – in other words, the person of the Son was the hypostasis of the divine nature – so that the hypostasis meaning the subject, the manifestation, or whatever you want, the identity. So that the person doing the thinking, the person doing the talking and so on, this is the Son of God - the Son of God who is manifested in, who has this divine nature which he can’t get rid of. I mean, that defines his character, if you like, in that way.
Now the humanity although it is a different nature – human nature, the flesh – of course, in Mary’s womb does not come ready packaged. It doesn’t come already formed. The divinity is clearly the eternal Son of God, the Son of God who has been in eternity with the Father and who is fully God and always has been fully God and fully conscious and everything else. But the humanity does not exist until the Son of God comes into the womb of Mary and takes from her flesh. He starts to work on Mary’s flesh, and out of Mary’s flesh creates or produces some kind of human nature.
Now is this human nature produced by the Son of God a hypostasis in its own right, what we would call a person in its own right? And the answer that Cyril gives to this is no. Because in Christ there is only one hypostasis and that hypostasis is the hypostasis of the Son of God. So what happens in the womb of Mary is that the Son of God with his divine nature clothes himself in humanity – it’s like putting clothes on. He clothed himself in humanity but the humanity has no independent existence of its own.
Now I suppose you can compare this, I mean, with us. We sort of dress up, we put clothes on and so on. I mean, the clothes make some kind of sense, but if you just lay the clothes out on the bed without the body inside them, that’s all you’ve got is a set of clothes. And the question may then arise, well, is it a complete set of clothes or is it just enough to be going on with for the time being or can you add more? I mean, what is going on here? You see what I mean? And this question Cyril never really addressed, at least not at this particular point. He simply said this is what the Son of God does. He comes and he takes to himself, he unites to himself a human nature, elements of humanity.
Now if these elements of humanity have no hypostasis of their own – in other words, they have no independent functioning existence of their own but are only attached to the Son, to the Logos – in what sense are they human? Where is the integrity of the humanity? And, of course, you get back here to the basic problem of Alexandria, the reason why Alexandria was accused of Apollinarianism all the time, because it had no way of making the humanity of Christ work except by saying that it was God working through these elements of flesh, so that if God wanted to work through a human mind, all right, he’d take a human mind and work through the human mind. If God wanted to have a finger, well, he’d pick up a finger and have a finger – this kind of thing. But these different elements of humanity have no integrity of their own, you see, no conscious existence of their own, and so questions like could they sin become in a way un-askable because, well, obviously not, because the being who is functioning through who’s using these things, is working through these things, is a sinless being. And so although you could say the human mind is limited and finite, nevertheless, you have an infinite power using it, and so if an infinite power is using it, that infinite power will use the finite mind in a way which precludes fallibility and so therefore precludes sin and so on. So this is the kind of way in which this is all headed. And Cyril believed that it was essential to maintain this. I mean, it wasn’t just that he believed this; he said it’s necessary to believe this because if you don’t believe this, you will lose the unity of Christ.
His great complaint about Astorius and Theodore and all the Antiochian tradition was that the unity of Christ was a façade. It was just a picture presented to the world. It was not a reality. The conjunction – remember the conjunction of the two hands – is only for the sake of form; it’s not something which cannot be undone nor is it real in itself. The divine and the human sort of rub against each other but they don’t actually join in any very definitive way, whereas – this is what Cyril’s trying to avoid all the time – he’s saying that the humanity of Christ cannot exist independently of the divinity. It makes no sense to say this. The humanity is a vehicle through which the divinity functions on earth. And this is what Cyril basically proclaims in the wake of the council of Ephesus in 431.
Well, of course, there were a lot of people who were very upset by this. They didn’t necessarily think Nestorius had the answer, but they weren’t prepared to see this kind of interpretation, the interpretation of Cyril, take its place because they thought that Cyril was too far towards the other extreme, that he was in effect denying the fullness of Christ’s humanity. And it seems that for once in his life Cyril actually understood what the objection was to his way of thinking. You know, he entered into a kind of dialogue with some of the people in Antioch to try and meet their concerns. It was all very political, you know. How can we kind of adjust what we say so to keep you happy, sort of thing. And when he realized that the people in Antioch were concerned about the fullness of Christ’s humanity, the completeness of it, he agreed to modify his position – or at least perhaps modify is not – to clarify his position by saying that the humanity which the Logos acquired, which the Logos assumed, was a full and complete humanity. In other words, it was not just bits and pieces of human nature as it suited the Logos but that every aspect of human nature was taken on board. There is nothing about human nature which was not assumed by the Logos, but the Logos remains the constituted element. In other words, there is no organizing principle in the humanity of Christ which is independent of the Logos, no hypostasis of its own. And this Cyril seemed to think was going as far as he could to meet the concerns of the people from Antioch and for a while at least the controversy seems to have died down. They seem to have assumed that, all right, we’ll live with that for the time being.
Could this be the definitive solution of the problem? The answer to this was given really accidentally after Cyril’s death. Like so many people, Cyril managed to die before his theology fell apart. It was a common feature of the period, so be warned. Cyril died in the year 444. Four years after that, one of his disciples, a man called Eutyches, went to Constantinople and gave a series of lectures there on Cyril’s Christology, endeavoring to explain it to people who did not otherwise fully understand what it was all about. And Eutyches seems to have taken the line that the problem really was one of definition. How are we going to define what a nature is? What does the word nature mean?
And Eutyches went through various possibilities. Is a nature equivalent to being, “being” being in Greek ousia. Can you say that there were in Christ before the incarnation is Cyril’s doctrine the belief that there were two ousiai and that after the incarnation these two became one. Is that a possible way of explaining it? Eutyches said no, that doesn’t work because you cannot turn two beings into one being without either suppressing one of them or creating a third being. And so the question becomes, you see, do we see the incarnation like that? Is the incarnation a process by which one of the beings swallows up the other? Well, clearly not, because the human would not be capable of swallowing up the divine. The only possibility would be for the divine to swallow up the human, and if the divine had swallowed up the human, the incarnation wouldn’t have happened, because there would have been no flesh to incarnate. You see what I mean? If Jesus had been fully and totally divine, he would have been invisible. So the incarnation couldn’t have occurred in that way.
So the only option you’re left with really is to say that Jesus Christ is somehow a third being, a combination, a chemical compound of divine and human, who in fact is neither one nor the other but a third being, some sort of compound of these two. That doesn’t really work either. And so Eutyches sort of moves on from there and says, well, can we say that what has happened in the incarnation is that two hypostases become one hypostasis? Is that how we understand the incarnation?
Well, what is a hypostasis? A hypostasis is an identity. Of course, this doesn’t work because, as Eutyches realizes, according to Cyril there was no identity in the humanity – the humanity does not have an identity before the incarnation. If the humanity of Jesus had an identity of its own, then the incarnation would have been a kind of adoption. Back with adoptionism here. And of course, the only way you could turn to hypostases into one is again by suppressing one of them somehow. And how do you do that? You see, it’s very hard to imagine that you can merge them into a third thing. You could merge the being, if you like, but you can’t really merge the identity, the hypostasis, in this way. So this doesn’t seem to work either.
And so Eutyches, you see, in trying to explain all of this is left in a position where if he is going to say that the two natures become one nature the word nature cannot be interpreted either as being or as identity because if to do so is to end up either with a third thing – neither God nor man – or losing one of the two by suppression, and it’s obvious that the only one you could lose would be the humanity. So either way you have an unsatisfactory solution here.
The patriarch of Constantinople, a man called Flavian, realized that Eutyches was mixed up – Eutyches didn’t know what he was talking about - and did what he could to sort of come up with some solution of his own but wasn’t too sure how to go about this. And so he referred the whole matter to Rome. It was referred to Rome not from Alexandria this time but from Constantinople. And from Rome came back an answer because the bishop of Rome at this time was a brilliant theologian by the name of Leo. We call him Leo the Great. Leo sent back a long answer in a book which is called today the Tome of Leo. And the Tome of Leo was officially adopted at the council of Chalcedon in 451 which was called to sort out the problems raised by Eutyches. How are we going to explain the true nature of the incarnation? And Leo solved this problem in a brilliant way by taking a completely different line from what had been the case before.
You see, Leo realized that the fundamental problem that was dividing Alexandria and Antioch was that they were talking in terms of substances, in terms of natures, in terms of things. How can a divine thing unite with a human thing? If I divine thing touches a human thing, is the human thing not distorted or deformed or abolished or something else because a human thing cannot stand up against the divine. They are completely unlike in nature and so on. How is such a combination possible?
So what Leo does is he says there is no such combination. The divine and the human natures in Christ do not mix or mingle. They don’t unite with each other. The divine nature and the human nature remain always what they were from the beginning. They each have their own integrity. But this is possible, says Leo. It works when you realize that the divine being, the divine nature, is not absolute and supreme in itself as a thing, because if you look at the doctrine of the Trinity – and this is where the Trinity comes to bear on the subject – there is one divine nature which is possessed by three equally divine persons. The three persons of the godhead – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – are not characteristics of the divine nature. They’re not part of the divine nature. They are owners of the divine nature. They possess a common being.
But the miracle of the incarnation is possible because the persons of the Trinity are not limited to their divine being. In other words, they are not bounded or governed by their nature. Their nature does not prevent them from doing things which are not compatible with it. And this is in fact what happens at the incarnation because in the incarnation the divine person of the Son of God steps outside his divine nature, goes beyond his divine nature, in order to acquire a second nature in the womb of the virgin Mary so that what comes into the womb of Mary is not the divine nature – which, of course, couldn’t be contained in her womb – but the divine person of the Son of God who incarnates himself, who takes on flesh, becomes a human being in the womb of Mary, and as a person becomes the hypostasis of this human being. So that if we talk in terms of person, the second person of the Trinity is also the person of Jesus Christ. They are one and the same, so that to meet Jesus Christ is to meet the second person of the godhead. All right? There’s no question about that. But you are meeting him not in his divine nature, which would be impossible, of course, but in the human nature which he has acquired.
Why has he acquired a human nature? He has acquired a human nature because the Father has willed him to come to earth to pay the price for your salvation and for mine. The Son of God is not capable of suffering and dying for you and me as God in his divine nature, not because he doesn’t want to but because the divine nature cannot do those things. The divine nature does not suffer and does not die. In other words, in order to be able to suffer and die, the second person of the Trinity has to acquire a human nature so that suffering and death become possible for him. And it is in his human nature, the human nature which he has acquired in this way, that the Son of God suffers and dies for you and me. And in that way, a person of the godhead has been able to experience death which, of course, God in himself cannot. I mean, that’s impossible for God because God is immortal. But by acquiring the human nature, the second person can do this.
The unity between the divine nature and the human nature in Christ is therefore established by the person, not by some kind of conjunction or absorption or something between the natures. All right? It is the person who is now seen as a distinct category, and remember the whole problem was that nobody in Antioch or Alexandria had this category. This term did not exist, or if it existed, it was used in a different way, certainly not as the agent of the incarnation. But the concept of the person comes in to be used in this way in order to provide a means whereby the Son of God can be one of the Trinity and yet the man Jesus Christ at the same time, because in his person, which is divine, he is capable of having more than one nature.
Now this may seem very strange to you and me, but I think we just have to make a few applications here to ourselves because, of course, human beings are persons, and indeed by calling the Son of God a person and the Trinity three persons, this word “person” establishes a link not only between God and Jesus but between God and us, because the other thing which comes out of all of this is the realization that to be a person is to be related to God, that human personhood is not just human identity, the identity of individual blobs of flesh, but something more than that. It is the affirmation of a relationship with God, what the Bible calls being created in the image and likeness of God. The difference can be seen between, say, a dog and a human being because a dog has individuality. I mean, a dog is a hypostasis, you can say, of "dogness" or whatever substance of "doggery" or whatever. And so you have dogs wandering around but dogs are not people. Why not? Because there’s something about human beings which is fundamentally different from an animal, and this something, however you define it, is what we call being a person.
Now it is a very important distinction because as I often point out to people, if you have a choice between being bitten on the leg by a dog or being bitten on the leg by me, if you think entirely in terms of pain and suffering, then by all means choose me over the dog because I can’t bite you with anything like the degree of ferocity that a dog can, and a bite from me would be a lot less painful. All right? So at that level, that would be better. But, of course, if I say this, you immediately react and laugh and so on. See, it’s an absurdity. Why is it an absurdity? Because I ought to know better. A dog just does what a dog does, but a human being is supposed to be responsible for his actions or her actions. This is what being a person is all about. This is what makes the difference between a human being and an animal. But this is something which is God-given and God-related.
Now to understand what it means to be a person is only possible if you understand this in the context of being related to God, so that Jesus when he comes in human flesh – the Son of God comes as a man in human flesh – is not doing something which contradicts his humanity. It is merely doing something which reveals the true nature of humanity which is that humanity only has meaning in relationship to God. And, of course, this is how we connect with God. We have a person to person relationship with God, a personal relationship with him, which is possible because we are persons; otherwise it would be meaningless like the relationship of a dog to God. Dogs don’t have a relationship. They don’t pray and so on. You see what I mean? There’s something there that’s missing in the dog which is present in us, and it’s this thing which you can’t really pin down. I mean, you can’t sort of go on the operating table and extract it or something like that and sort of hold it up and say, well, here we are; this is my personhood. It’s a spiritual gift. It’s a spiritual quality which is given to us as human beings and which establishes in us a relationship with God which is innate. It’s congenital. It’s built in from the start.
So the answer to some evangelist who comes along and says do you want to have a relationship with God is to say I already have one because I'm a human being. I mean, I know it sounds funny but the point is it's not whether you want to have a relationship with God or not, it's whether you want your relationship with God to be the right one or not. And you see this. You have people who come along and say I have no relationship with my parents. This is false. What they mean is I have a bad relationship with my parents. It depends who it is, of course, what you're talking to. It may well be that the parents have actually dared to say no to their precious offspring and that is such a traumatic experience for the child that the child rejects any knowledge of such being as parent. But you know what I mean. You see what I'm saying? If you say this, if I say I have no relationship with my father, this could mean that I never had any idea who my father was. That's possible. But it's more likely to mean that my father and I didn't hit it off very well, not that we didn't have a relationship. And this is certainly true of you and me before our conversion. It's not that we don't have a relationship with God; it's that our relationship with God is the wrong one and it needs to be put right.
And, of course, when you say that, when you start thinking like that, you start realizing that your relationship with God involves things like responsibility, and because you haven't lived up to your responsibility, it involves things like guilt and sin and other things that people don't like talking about because they're not nice but which belong to our personhood. And to take away guilt, to take away sin, is to take away responsibility which is to take away our humanity, you see, being created in the image and likeness of God. So although it's not nice to face up to this, it's vitally important because if you are not responsible for what you do to God, then you're like a dog. Everything you do is just instinctive, has no spiritual meaning, and you're no more connected with God than a dog is. All right? You're a creature but you don't have a relationship. So we have to resist, you see, all these nice people who come along and say, oh, you don't want to talk about things like guilt because it's so nasty. You have a complex and everything else. You need to say to people, yes, it is nasty but it's essential because if we don't do this, we are actually denying something about ourselves which we need to affirm. All right? Because if we don't affirm this, we lose our identity. We lose the meaning of our life.