The “official” formula of Chalcedon is that Christ has Two Natures, human and divine, united in One Person, thus, the eternal Son of God, the Divine Logos, is the same person as Jesus Christ the Son of Man and born of the Virgin Mary, but fully God and fully Man.

To this “official” formula there are two rival positions. Roughly, Nestorianism, which says that the Son of God and the Son of Man are sort of “loosely” united together in one person, but no real “communion” between the human and divine natures; Monophysitism on the other hand says that the divine and human natures are united to form a sort of divine-human nature alloy.

I would argue that this dispute is more or less meaningless and that it is a mere shuffling around of antiquated and barely intelligible ancient Greek metaphysical concepts which has very little meaning or coherence today.

Can a Man…?

Consider the following propositions:

(1)    It is contrary to the nature of human bodies to be able to occupy the same space at the same time as another physical body.

(2)    Christ has a human body

(3)    Christ could walk through walls.

Clearly the three statements are incompatible. Let’s have another example before discussing it in detail.

(1)    It is contrary to the nature of human bodies to be able to travel between two points in space without travelling through a connected region of space between them.

(2)    Philip has a human nature

(3)    Philip could instantly travel from the road in Jerusalem to Azotus without needing to traverse any connected region of space between the two places.

Now supposed we accept premise (3) in both examples. What would it mean to reject either premise (1) or (2)? If we reject premise (1), then what constitutes human natures becomes ambiguous. While most ordinary human natures seem to not be able to occupy the same space as another body or be incapable of instantaneous teleportation, but yet somehow defying “ordinary” or “standard” human natures seems to be completely compatible with that. Can a human body then occupy multiple places at the same time? Not according to Aquinas and the Reformed it can’t, but then we can legitimately ask why they would arbitrarily restrict human natures from multispatial locations but not multibody occupancy.

More relevantly for Christological disputes however is that if there is really no fixed or set meaning as to what constitutes human or bodily nature, then the entire dispute becomes meaningless and unintelligible. Are human nature necessarily bound to our present laws of physics? Can it exist in alien physics? Various kinds of non-euclidean spaces? Who is to say? Does it even need a spatio-temporal space to exist? Maybe it exists in something more like logical or mathematical space. Here’s a fun question. Can Christ’s body be in immediate bodily communion with billions of his worshippers in heaven at the same time? Or do you need to “travel”, even in heaven, to meet Christ?

What about premise (2)? It is clear that in some sense Christ and Philip are human, capable of various human actions and physical empirical effects in our spatio-temporal universe (acts such as, making sounds by talking, producing visual impressions and sensory effects, walking, eating, etc.) One can of course bite the bullet and say that any being who can instantaneously teleport or walk through walls simply isn’t human or at least isn’t fully human.

Denying option (2) then becomes merely a verbal disagreement. All one is saying therefore is that “human nature” should be very narrowly defined according to the characteristics we observe here in this world and that any divine or miraculous amendment would therefore render it “superhuman” and not fully or strictly human.

Is there a Human Nature? A Nominalist Solution

I think what this little exercise shows is that whatever our verbal disagreement about “persons”, “natures”, “unions”, etc, there are really is no rigid fixed conception as to what exactly constitutes “human nature” and therefore the discussion as to the “full humanity” of Christ becomes a moot question. The central premise for my arguments is that in the union of the human and divine nature would in fact result in significant modifications to what we would ordinarily characterise as “human nature” and therefore render the question of “humanness” a question of degrees.

This leads to two central intuitions in which all sides in fact accept.

  1. The Son of God does possess some human characteristics and can act in human ways.
  2. The human nature of the Son of Man is such that it doesn’t conform to standard human natures or bodies.

Thus, both monophysites and Nestorians would accept both (A) and (B).

Monophysites, no matter how glorified and divinised the human body of Christ is, or how absorbed the human nature is into the divine nature, still retains significant parts of its humanity such that it can continue to speak and have empirical effects and human-like actions upon our spatio-temporal world.

As for Nestorians, no matter how loosely connected they think the human nature is to the divine nature, will accept that the human nature of Christ is in fact very different from our ordinary human natures and has undergone some modifications such that it is no longer conforms to what we ordinary think about human natures.

The only real question therefore isn’t so much as to whether Christ possess both divine and human characteristics, of course he does. The only question is to what degree Christ’s human nature conforms to our standard human nature.

This is simply the good ‘ole nominalist insight that the application of common terms to various objects is not because they all possess some innate “human essence” or universal form but simply because these various particular objects resemble each other to a high degree or magnitude. And of course resemblances, unlike clearly demarcated binary universals, comes in degrees. Maybe human nature would be so radically transformed at the resurrection that we would become “like angels” and possess “bodies” so alien from bodies in standard physics that there would be little resemblance between our risen state and our former state in this world to be considered “human”. But these are ultimately verbal disputes and the more interesting question is in the actual particular details where we would be like or unlike our glorified state rather than in binary questions of the retention of some rigidly defined “human nature”.

The exact same logic therefore holds for the Incarnation of the Son of God. In taking on human nature, the human nature would be both like and unlike ours in various way and that meaning of human nature is more like a Wittgensteinian “family resemblance” than the possession of some necessary and sufficient properties.

Concluding Speculations: What is the Nature of the Union of Christ’s Human and Divine Nature?

Despite the ferocity in which the discussion of the union of the human and divine nature has been conducted, there has actually been very little spoken about what does this union actually mean in empirical concrete terms. Most of the disputes concern mostly the shuffling of various obscure and abstract macro-metaphysical concepts.

Consider this interesting question. Can the Christ calculate instantly what 92184092387402 x 429384092023 is? Note, I said calculate not know. Computation power and speed of course is essentially a physical process to do with how well connected one’s synapses are. Thus on a standard human biology, few humans can calculate that quickly (except for some math geniuses or savants with unusual brain structures).

But suppose you want to say that Christ can in fact “know” the answer to this problem immediately. How would that work? Here are two possibilities. (1) Christ could simply by a fiat “call up” the answer from his omniscient divine mind and know the answer instantly, (2) Christ could simply use his divine powers and will a miraculous modification to his brain structure to increase his brain’s computation powers by a zillion magnitude and calculate the answer immediately.

The key element in both answers is that what bridge between the two natures is that of the will. There is a perfect harmonious coordination between the divine will and the human will of Christ and the human nature of Christ is what it is by virtue of a divine fiat or will. By a fiat or will Christ can simply be modify his human nature whenever and however to meet the circumstances demanded. Thus, by a fiat, Christ could walk through walls, teleport to various location, respond to a zillion prayers simultaneously, etc.

I shall call this the “coordination theory of the incarnation”, that is in the incarnation, the human and divine natures of Christ are united by a perfect coordination of the human and divine will, the only “divine” element about Christ’s human nature is its access at will to the infinite divine resources and nature, otherwise his human nature simply remains what it is, while the divine will has unlimited power over the human nature to be able to make infinitely plastic modifications to Christ’s human nature.

This account unashamedly leans towards the “Nestorian” side of the Chalcedonian dispute, in that the union of the human and divine natures of Christ are somewhat “loosely” tied together only by a harmony or coordination of will without any substantive or “deep” union of the human nature and divine nature. The human nature is not “united” in any real or substantive sense to the divine nature; it is merely subject to the divine fiat and has potentially infinite resources for its modification and adaptation at its disposal. Although it is not also quite Nestorian because it postulates that Christ’s human nature is capable of very significant modifications by a divine fiat, etc.

In the end, I would call this a “voluntarist” account of the Incarnation, perhaps dangerously leaning close to classical forms of adoptionism. To speak of the “incarnation” of the Son of God is to speak of the will of the Son of God enfleshed in our world, which flesh exists and lives in perfect harmony with the divine will of the Logos under the supreme will of the Father.

5 thought on “Do Ancient Christological Disputes Mean Anything? A “Coordination of Will” Account of the Incarnation”
  1. I still follow the Cappadocians in regards to redemption, in that “What has not been assumed, has not been redeemed.” If Jesus lacked a human will, our human will is not redeemed. IF Jesus lacked a human mind, our human minds are not redeemed etc…

    1. Well, I certainly assumed that Christ, erm, assumed all that. It is not as if Christ’s body lacked any limbs or vital organs, etc. We however do agree that Christ’s body doesnt quite conform to bodies in our standard space-time physics, especially his glorified body, etc.

  2. I’m not sure you’re in quite so radical disagreement as you think ;).
    You chose an element of humanity, the will, that was actually in dispute after the Chalcedonian controversies. In particular, the dispute was whether the “will” belonged to the person (so Christ has one divine will) or the nature (so Christ has two wills, one human and one divine).
    The final decision was made at the sixth ecumenical council in favor of dyothelitism, and it included the clear implication that this followed from the requirement for two natures; of course this would not follow unless the council believed that the will must be an aspect of the nature.
    Additional events confirm this, for example the anathema against Pope Honorius.
    I find this puzzling, but I think the Eastern Orthodox concept of the Gnomic Will helps explain it. Essentially, Maximus the Confessor says that God’s will is to be understood as _fixed_ on goodness; God does not make choices and decisions that He assesses as externally good, nor does He make decrees that force things to be good. In contrast (says he), man’s will swings about like an unmagnetized compass needle (AKA a “gnomon” or pointer).
    In Jonathan Edwards’ book (“Freedom of the Will”), you can see that Edwards defined the will very differently (in line with more western definitions), but there’s a basic connection if you change the will from being (as Edwards claims) the POWER of choosing, to being instead the basic set of desires that a person has at any given moment. Edwards’ reasoning actually flows fairly smoothly from there on. (I’m not saying that the conclusions remain valid — reading that text takes more will than I possess now.)

    1. Haha, nonsense, no one will be more pleased than me to learn that my disagreement is not as radical as I think. It would help get certain more orthodox than thou Eastern Orthodox off my back. 🙂

      Actually despite what I write here, I am not very fixated on the question of one or two wills of Christ. I’m reading through some of Isaac Newton’s religious notes and among them he argues that Christ didn’t have a soul in himself since the Word is effectively the soul of Christ’s body, etc. I am actually sort of inclined towards this view.

      8 There is no where made mention of a humane soul in our saviour besides the word, by the mediation of which the word should be incarnate. But the word it self was made flesh & took upon him the {form} of a servant.

      9. It was the son of God which he sent into the {world} & not a humane soul that suffered for us. If {there} had been such a human soul in our Savour it would havebee{n} a thing of too great consequence to have been wholly omitted by the Apostles.

      I guess my core thesis would be that whatever “human nature” Christ possesses is not a “fixed essence” or form but is subject to the will of Christ and maintains its form by that will alone (whether that will is one or two is another secondary matter). Thus this “human nature” can be as glorified and magnified as might please any monophysite or as human and ordinary as might please any Nestorian, the key idea being that the point of contact between the human and the divine in Christ is the will.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *