Further Comments on the Hypostatic Union

In the first paragraph of his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton (who’s other book Heretics I am currently writing a review of, which should be posted this weekend), explained that he wrote the book as “an answer to a challenge,” which challenge “was perhaps an incautious suggestion to make to a person only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation.” Well, I am no G. K. Chesterton, and I do not yet have the means to write actual books, but in the same vein I will say that I am only too ready to write papers upon the feeblest provocation, which provocation was indeed delivered in response to my brief previous article on the logical fallacies one Anthony Buzzard happened to make in a conversation which took place on twitter.

It was, in retrospect, perhaps too forceful of me to make the main point of my previous article an accusation of logical fallacy. For while I maintain that Buzzard’s argument did indeed contain the fallacies, that is not the real issue. The real issue is the question behind the argument: did God die when Jesus died?

For unitarians such as Buzzard, the answer is obvious. No, of course God did not die when Jesus died, because Jesus is not God. This is then presented as a problem to trinitarians, who do hold that Jesus is God. While Buzzard did not formulate it as thus, his implicit argument can be drawn out in a logical syllogism:

  1. Jesus died
  2. God cannot die
  3. Therefore, Jesus is not God

My article in response claimed that this argument commits the informal logical fallacies of a straw man and a false dilemma, because it forces us to choose between several options while leaving out further logical possibilities. But my real problem is not with the logical fallacies; rather my real problem is with the underlying assumption which Buzzard’s question contained, that trinitarians have not proposed any possible solutions to the issue. In fact, trinitarians have been discussing this very question for nearly two thousand years, and have proposed a number of possible solutions, some deemed “orthodox,” others not so much.

Today, another twitter user named Sean Holbrook also engaged in the conversation. Here is his initial tweet:

I’d like to point out that the issue at hand is complicated, and has been debated fiercely throughout church history. The twitter user referred to above (Sean Holbrook) seems quite knowledgeable on the subject, most likely much more so than myself. I am currently in the process of researching this subject, so I still have a lot to learn. But I’d like to make several comments directed towards Holbrook, here, rather than on twitter, simply because here there is much more room:

First, in my article I did not intend to, nor do I think I actually did, “split the hypostatic union.” The hypostatic union is the doctrine that Jesus is one person, but with two distinct natures, a divine and a human nature. This doctrine holds that Jesus is fully human, AND fully God, not “half human” and “half God.” These two natures, though distinct, are joined together in a perfect union, which is indeed inseparable and indivisible. Now, in my previous article, I claimed that the doctrine of the hypostatic union entails that Jesus’s human nature could have died, while his divine nature did not, thus resolving the conflict of how the immortal God could die. Again, I must restate that my article was not by any means an attempt to defend the hypostatic union, at all. It was simply to point out that Buzzard’s statement left out viable and popular options. Now, the debate here is about terms which are subtle and easily confused. Jesus, according to the hypostatic union, is ONE PERSON, with TWO NATURES, which are distinct and yet united together.

Holbrook then stated that I do not know what either the hypostatic union or Nestorianism are:

Nestorianism was actually a doctrine created in large part to deal exactly with the question at hand. It states that Jesus exists as two separate persons, a divine person, and a human person, co-dwelling in one body; and thus that the human person died while the divine person did not. Now, it is easy to see why my claims in the previous article could be confused with this. The only difference, and it is subtle, is that I said Jesus’s human nature died, while Nestorianism holds that Jesus’s human person died. Holbrook says that my article “split” the hypostatic union, which seems to imply that Holbrook believes the doctrine of the hypostatic union to entail that on the cross both of Jesus’s natures died, because the single, whole person of Jesus died, in which the two natures are united.

His further tweets:

So Holbrook holds that, on the doctrine of the hypostatic union, if Jesus died, both natures must have died, and the argument could be updated:

  1. If the hypostatic union is true, Jesus as one person has a fully divine nature, and a fully human nature
  2. The whole person of Jesus died, including his divine nature
  3. God cannot die
  4. Therefore Jesus cannot have a divine nature, and the hypostatic union cannot be true

I sent Holbrook an article from Ligonier Ministries which can be found here. In it, R. C. Sproul explains that the divine nature did not perish when Jesus died, and saying that it did actually amounts to heresy. He gives the examples of theopassianism and patripassianism, both of which thought that in one way or another, God suffered and died on the cross, and both of which were condemned as “heresies” by the church. Those who supported the hypostatic union, then, were very adamant that God did not, and indeed cannot, die; neither then, could Jesus’s divine nature have died (Sproul).

Is it splitting the hypostatic union to say that one of Jesus’s natures perished while the other did not? I do not see why that must be the case, although we must be careful with our terms–that is, indeed, another major flaw in Buzzard’s original argument, that it confuses or ignores the different senses with which certain terms might be used. For if we say that a human being “died,” what we say is that their physical body ceases to operate as a living, functioning organism. But since God has no materiality or corporeality in the first place, to say–impossible as it surely is–that God “died” would mean that God has ceased to exist, not that his nonexistent physical body has ceased to operate. So if what we mean by saying that Jesus’s divine nature “died” is that Jesus’s physical body ceased to operate, and thus his divine nature, for that time, was no longer instantiated in the body, then I guess it could be true that Jesus’s divine nature died, but only in that limited sense. But if what we mean by saying that Jesus’s divine nature “died” is that Jesus’s divine nature actually ceased to exist, then surely we could not say so.

An article by philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig helps us to further understand how, on the hypostatic union, Christ’s two natures can be distinct and yet united. I repeat again for clarity: I am not here attempting to defend the truthfulness hypostatic union. I am here only explaining what would be the case if we assume the truthfulness of the doctrine. Given this, the doctrine entails that Jesus did not always exist as one person with two natures. Before the incarnation, Jesus was the divine Word, the second person of the Trinity, but he had only a divine nature, with divine properties. When Jesus was conceived by the Spirit in the womb of Mary, the divine Word “took on flesh” and assumed a human nature, in addition to the divine nature which he had eternally. In the incarnation, the two natures united in the one hypostasis, or person, of Jesus. As I discussed very briefly in my third Prime Mover article, in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, which can be of some service here, “personhood” consists of intellect and will. Thus saying that Jesus is one person means that Jesus has one intellect and will, or one “center of consciousness” as another writer puts it here. A nature, on the other hand, consists of attributes or abilities. Thus a being with a “human nature” has human attributes and properties such as corporeality, rationality, etc. What it means to say that Jesus is one person with two natures is just to say that Jesus has one intellect and will, but he has both the attributes of humanity, and the attributes of divinity.

Craig writes: “To avoid…inevitable misunderstandings it is helpful to speak of what Christ does or how he is relative to one of his two natures” (Craig). So, for example, omniscience is not an attribute which humans have. Omniscience is an attribute which God has. So whenever Jesus exercises omniscience, he can be said to be omniscient relative to, or “with respect to” (Craig), his divine nature, but not his human nature. On the other hand, he also at times is unknowing of certain facts, which means he is “ignorant…with respect to his human nature” (Craig). This does not “split” the hypostatic union as Holbrook claims, because Jesus always acts as one person, with one intellect and will, but he sometimes acts relative to his human nature (or attributes/features/abilities), and sometimes relative to his divine nature (attributes/features/abilities). Jesus’s human nature certainly does not have the attribute of omnipotence; his divine nature certainly does. The one person Jesus, then, can act either with omnipotence, as when he heals the sick or calms seas; or with weakness, as when he requires food and sleep. In the same way, having a human nature entails the attribute of mortality, while having a divine nature entails the attribute of immortality. How can immortality die? It cannot. So when Jesus died on the cross, he died relative to his human nature, not his divine nature. Now keep in mind the distinction between the senses of “dying” mentioned above. When Christ died, his physical body ceased to function as a living biological organism. But it is not accurate to say that the person of Jesus, his intellect and will, “ceased to exist.” Because his person had assumed forever a human nature, it is not even accurate to say that his human nature “ceased to exist.” If we said that his human nature ceased to exist while his divine nature did not, that might constitute a “split” in the hypostatic union. But what we are saying is that Jesus’s physical body ceased to function as a living biological organism, but his Person, and his natures, continued to exist, albeit having been separated from his body. Thus, when God resurrected Jesus, his person, with both his natures, were re-instantiated in his renewed body. There was never a split of the hypostatic union; and this is squarely in the traditional thinking of “orthodoxy.”

Notice how this is very different from Nestorianism. Nestorianism would hold that in one body there exist two persons, or two intellects and wills. So Jesus the divine person would have its own intellect and will, and his human person would have a completely different intellect and will, but both would operate in one body.

But notice also that it doesn’t matter whether we take Nestorianism or the hypostatic union, because both are options that Buzzard completely ignored in his original tweets. If we take the hypostatic union, saying Jesus died is not equivalent to saying God died, because Jesus only died with respect to his human nature, in the relevant sense explained above. But even if we take Nestorianism, saying Jesus died still is not equivalent to saying God died, because only the human person Jesus would have died, not the divine person. So, after a large amount of complicated theological dabbling, the initial point still stands.

Holbrook claimed that my view was unorthodox; I have explained why it is certainly “orthodox.” He also claimed that it is illogical; that is another issue, but I hope that some of my explanation might have served to show that it is a thoroughly thought out position with no apparent logical contradictions or metaphysical impossibilities. But again, not relevant.

Finally, Holbrook suggests that I “should check out gnosticism,” because apparently I’m close. In fact, I have studied gnosticism a good bit, both as a theological matter and a historical one, and I can honestly say I have no idea what Holbrook is talking about here. I cannot see any real sense in which gnosticism is at all related to the topic at hand, and certainly not how my own views are anywhere near to it. The christology of gnosticism held that Christ was divine, but not really human; and I certainly have never said anything to that effect. Perhaps Holbrook will explain his comment in another tweet, and I can respond again with another article.

 

 

Sources:

Most of my general knowledge of the hypostatic union and other related matters is due to a theology course I took with Oxford Summer Courses at the University of Oxford, in which I studied patristics, using J. N. D. Kelly’s famous Early Christian Doctrines.

Specific sources quoted above, in the order in which they appear:

Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. 1908. Nashville: Sam Torode Book Arts, 2008. Print.

Sproul, R. C. “Did God Die on the Cross?” Ligonier Ministries. Ligonier Ministries, 23 Mar. 2016. Web. 27 May 2016.

Craig, William Lane. “The Death of God and the Death of Christ.” Reasonable Faith. Reasonable Faith, 1 Feb. 2010. Web. 27 May 2016.

Other sources for additional information:

Nestorianism: http://www.theopedia.com/nestorianism

Hypostatic Union 1: http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-is-the-hypostatic-union

Hypostatic Union 2: https://carm.org/dictionary-hypostatic-union

Hypostatic Union 3: http://www.theopedia.com/hypostatic-union

Hypostatic Union 4: http://www.gty.org/resources/questions/QA137/i-heard-john-use-the-term-hypostatic-union-what-does-that-mean-and-where-did-it-come-from

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