The Hypostatic Union of Jesus Christ

 

Pictured above is Saint Athanasius: Athanasius is one of the Christian faith’s greatest theologians. His classic work On The Incarnation remains one of the greatest defenses of Incarnational theology to this day.   

Do you believe that Jesus is both God and human? Do you know why you believe this to be true? The following is a seminary paper I recently finished that talks about the history of the doctrine of the Hypostatic Union, as well as the good biblical reasons there are for affirming this doctrine. This is for all you theology lovers out there! Enjoy, Julian Pace

 

The Hypostatic Union, or the doctrine of Hypostasis, is the biblical doctrine that Jesus is both God and man. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines the term thusly “A theological term used with reference to the Incarnation to express the revealed truth that in Christ one person subsists in two natures, the divine and the human.”[1] The doctrine of the Hypostatic Union of Jesus Christ can be compared to that of the Trinity. Although both terms are not explicitly used in scripture they are both reasonably inferred from the relevant biblical data.

Although the church affirmed the doctrine of Hypostasis at the council of Ephesus in 431, and at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the doctrine has caused some controversy within the church. Many different Christological formulas have been proposed in contrast to Hypostasis. Some differ fundamentally from the Hypostasis doctrine and either deny Jesus’s true humanity or true divinity. Some Christians disagree with the specific Christological formula embraced at Chalcedon while still affirming that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man (a notable example is the Oriental Orthodox communion which boasts of nearly 90 million members worldwide.)[2]

One view that stands in stark contrast to the Hypostasis view is Docetism. The term is derived from the Greek word “dokeo” which is roughly translated as “I seem.” The origins of this view are obscure but noted theologian Norman Geisler is convinced that the idea had some adherents as early as the first century.[3] Basically, Docetism denies Jesus’s true humanity. The Docetists argued that Jesus was not truly human but only “seemed” to be. Apollinarianism is similar to Docetism in that it diminishes the humanity of Jesus Christ. Apollinarius (c. 310-390) taught that Jesus had no human spirit, thus fundamentally undercutting the truth of Jesus’s humanity.

Other views have exalted the human nature of Jesus over his divine nature. Perhaps Arianism is the best known Christological heresy that denied Jesus’s full divinity. Norman Geisler defines Arianism thusly “Following Arius (c. 250-336), it’s founder, this heresy denies that Jesus is fully God, allowing Him a created status below God.”[4] Saint Athanasius, perhaps Christianity’s greatest theologian, thoroughly refuted the arguments of Arius in his classic work On The Incarnation. Ultimately, the church condemned the teachings of Arius as the Council of Nicaea in 325. Another view that denies Jesus’s full divinity is the heresy of Adoptionism. This Christological model asserts that Jesus was a normal man until God adopted him on the day of his baptism and made him a partaker in the divine nature. Another view that can serve as something of an umbrella term for heresies that deny the divinity of Jesus is Monarchianism. This view flourished in varying degrees in the second and third centuries.

Any discussion about the doctrine of Hypostasis must consider the views of Nestorianism and Monophysitism. These views do not fit easily into the two heretical paradigms just discussed. The Monophysite view, held by Eutyches (c. 375-454), diminished the humanity of Jesus and stated that the divine nature of Jesus overwhelmed the human nature of Jesus. (The “Miaphysite” view held by the Oriental Orthodox Churches, who were mentioned earlier, is a moderate form of the Monophysite view. Many theologians believe it is amenable to orthodox sensibilities even though its adherents are not comfortable with all the affirmations of Chalcedonian Christology.)[5] The Nestorian view, probably not held by Nestorius (c. 386-450) to whom the view is named after, but by his followers, did affirm that Jesus was truly God and truly man. However, it also affirmed that Jesus was in fact two persons: one divine, and one human. This view presents obvious philosophical and theological problems.

The central problem of the views that either diminish Jesus’s humanity or divinity, is that they simply fail to take into account the richness of the biblical data. Understanding the person of Jesus Christ properly and how his divine and human natures relate to one another, is simply not an either/or proposition. Fortunately, the great theologians of the past agreed with this sentiment and when asked whether Jesus was divine, or human, answered with both/and, and not either/or. Many passages in the Holy Scriptures teach the divinity of Jesus including Colossians 1:13-18 and John 1 to name just a few. For brevity’s sake I will only consider John 1 in some detail.

John 1:1-3 says “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being (NASB).” The broader context of this passage in verses 1-18 clearly identify the “Word”, in the Greek the “logos”, with none other than Jesus of Nazareth. It is notable that in this passage the “Word’ is personalized, identified as preexistent, and the creator of the universe. Not to mention the specific the specific reference to the “Word” being God. Indeed, this passage so clearly teaches Christ’s divinity that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are forced to add “a” (an indefinite article which has no equivalent in the Greek language) before the final word “God” in verse 1 to reconcile this verse with their Arian Christology.

It must be equally emphasized that the scriptures teach not only Jesus’s divinity but his humanity as well. Jesus was born like all other people (Luke 2:1-20), hungered like other people (Mark 11:12), wept like other people (John 11:35), and bled and died like other people (Matt 27:32-56.) To argue for a Docetic belief about Jesus’s humanity, requires special pleading and undermines important theological concepts in the scriptures such as Jesus being the “Second Adam” who takes away our sins (1 Cor 15:45-49). Thus, when presented with the dual realities of the Christ’s divinity and humanity, a good theologian should seek to synthesize the two doctrines rather than exalt one nature over the other. We should avoid the extremes of outright denying either nature of Jesus and be careful not to repeat the far subtler errors of the Monophysites and the Nestorians. The doctrine of Hypostasis is indeed a complex one, but the scriptures do in fact teach both Jesus’s humanity and divinity. These truths are made quite clear in a wide number of passages of Holy Scripture and they have been affirmed by the church at both the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. For these reasons, all orthodox Christians should hold to the doctrine of the Hypostatic Union of Jesus Christ confidently and without apology

 

[1] Pace, The Catholic Encyclopedia, 320.

[2] Ibid, 423-437.

[3] Geisler, Systematic Theology, 552.

[4] Geisler, Systematic Theology, 552.

[5] Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom 600-1700, 37-38.

 

Bibliography

Clarke, Adam, Clarks Commentary: The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments. Nashville: Abingdon, 1977.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983.

Geisler, Norman L. Systematic theology. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2002.

Hall, Christopher A. Learning theology with the church fathers. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Pace, Edward. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700). Vol. 2. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

 

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