The Human & Divine Natures of Christ
From the second to the fifth centuries, the relation of Christ’s human and divine natures was a major focus of debates within the early church. These debates were of such magnitude that they would be the major driving force behind the resulting first seven Ecumenical Councils. Although it took many centuries to work out the exact Christology of the nature and relation of the Logos to the Father, the basic christological teaching that the person of Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully divine can be reasoned implicitly from Scripture. Scripture makes numerous references to Jesus as God, but most clearly in John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, and in Matt. 1:22-23 when he is called “Immanuel,’ which means, ‘God With Us’”, and John 20:28-29 when Thomas declares ‘My Lord and My God!’ Jesus declares Himself that He is inseparable from the Father: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30, John 10:37-38, John 14:7-10).
Jesus is also given the same titles as God the Father. Both are called the first and the last (Isa. 44:6, Rev 22:13). In John 8:58, Jesus refers to Himself as “I Am.” During the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2:1-12, Jesus says he has the power to “forgive sins.” The scribes, in the secret of their hearts, charge him with blasphemy, saying “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:6). Jesus then displays another divine power by reading their hearts (Jeremiah 17:10, 1 Kings 8:39). In response, He affirms the scribes’ thoughts and identifies himself as the “Son of Man” and even validated it with a miracle.
Scripture repeatedly supports Christ’s claim to divinity. In Matt. 11 :27 and John 8:54-55, Jesus says He has total and absolute knowledge of the Father. Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God (Col. 1: 15, Heb. 1: 1-3). He is to be given the same honor and glory as the Father (John 5:22-23, John 17:5, Rev. 5:14). Jesus also establishes the new covenant with humanity (Luke 22:20).
There are no direct discussions in the New Testament regarding the dual nature of the Person of Christ as both divine and human and thus the early Church relied upon the Traditions of Apostolic Teaching as well as the Authority of the Magisterium to resolve early theological debates. Most of the earliest heresies were Christological in nature. Some examples were Adoptionism (Jesus is human and the adopted Son of God), Modalism (God is one person with 3 “modes”), Docetism (claimed that Jesus was pure spirit and only appeared to have a body), Arianism (Jesus is an ordinary mortal infused by the Divine), Nestorianism (human and divine completely distinct, the divine “inhabiting” a human form), Monophysitism (the divine usurped the human nature after the incarnation), and Miaphysitism (divine nature and human nature are united in a compound nature). These controversies were resolved by various Church Councils, which denounced as heretical any views that the larger Catholic Church agreed upon as unorthodox and not of Apostolic origin.
These Councils led to the earliest schisms within the Church, with the Assyrian Church rejecting the Council of Ephesus and the Oriental Orthodox Church rejecting the Council of Chalcedon. In recent times, leaders from the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches have signed joint statements in an attempt to work towards reunification. Likewise the leaders of the Assyrian Church of the East have signed a joint agreement with leaders of the Catholic Church acknowledging that their historical differences were over terminology rather than the actual intended meaning. Lutheran, Anglican, and Reformed Churches all recognize the first four Councils and most Protestant denominations believe in the dual natures of Christ, but there is a growing number of denominations that reject this view.
Modern Rationalist critics will point out that in John 14:28, Christ says, “The Father is greater than I” and argue that this shows the Son to be subordinate to the Father. However, the doctrine of the Incarnation states that, in regard to His Human Nature, the Son should be less than the Father, but that this in no way diminishes His Divine Nature. Rationalists will also point out that the Incarnation implies a change in God’s nature. God cannot change and did not change in the Incarnation. The explanation offered by the Church lies in it’s definition of the term ‘hypostatic union’. In the Incarnation, the second person of the Trinity acquired a human nature, taking flesh from His human mother, Mary. The second person of the Trinity thus possesses two natures, one divine, and one human, subsisting within the one divine person. To clarify, there is no “mixing” of natures as both the divine and human natures of Christ are absolutely distinct. Yet they are “joined” in the hypostatic union—a created union “within” the one hypostasis (person) of Christ. Because the hypostatic union is a “created union,” it cannot be “in God”, but is rather “in the person of Christ,” as the human nature assumed by Christ now has as its subject the divine person of Christ. God, therefore, did not change in his divine essence since the only real change that took place was in his human nature, which received infinite dignity in and through the hypostatic union.
The Athanasian Creed, used by Christian churches since at least the sixth century, states; “He is God from the essence of the Father, begotten before time; and he is human from the essence of his mother, born in time; completely God, completely human, with a rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father as regards divinity, less than the Father as regards humanity. Although he is God and human, yet Christ is not two, but one. He is one, however, not by his divinity being turned into flesh, but by God’s taking humanity to himself. He is one, certainly not by the blending of his essence, but by the unity of his person. For just as one human is both rational soul and flesh, so too the one Christ is both God and human.”
The Historical Development of the Doctrine:
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
“My Lord and my God!” (Greek: Ho Kurios mou kai ho Theos mou—literally, “The Lord of me and the God of me!”)
Church Father Quotes:
Ignatius of Antioch
“Ignatius, also called Theophorus, to the Church at Ephesus in Asia . . . predestined from eternity for a glory that is lasting and unchanging, united and chosen through true suffering by the will of the Father in Jesus Christ our God” (Letter to the Ephesians 1 [A.D. 110]).
“For our God, Jesus Christ, was conceived by Mary in accord with God’s plan: of the seed of David, it is true, but also of the Holy Spirit” (ibid., 18:2).
“[T]o the Church beloved and enlightened after the love of Jesus Christ, our God, by the will of him that has willed everything which is” (Letter to the Romans 1 [A.D. 110]).
Aristides of Athens (Died 133 A.D.)
“[Christians] are they who, above every people of the earth, have found the truth, for they acknowledge God, the Creator and maker of all things, in the only-begotten Son and in the Holy Spirit” (Apology 16 [A.D. 140]).
Tatian the Syrian
“We are not playing the fool, you Greeks, nor do we talk nonsense, when we report that God was born in the form of a man” (Address to the Greeks 21 [A.D. 170]).
Melito of Sardis
“The activities of Christ after his baptism, and especially his miracles, gave indication and assurance to the world of the deity hidden in his flesh. Being God and likewise perfect man, he gave positive indications of his two natures: of his deity, by the miracles during the three years following after his baptism, of his humanity, in the thirty years which came before his baptism, during which, by reason of his condition according to the flesh, he concealed the signs of his deity, although he was the true God existing before the ages” (Fragment in Anastasius of Sinai’s The Guide 13 [A.D. 177]).
Irenaeus of Lyons
“For the Church, although dispersed throughout the whole world even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and from their disciples the faith in one God, Father Almighty, the creator of heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them; and in one Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became flesh for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who announced through the prophets the dispensations and the comings, and the birth from a Virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus our Lord, and his coming from heaven in the glory of the Father to reestablish all things; and the raising up again of all flesh of all humanity, in order that to Jesus Christ our Lord and God and Savior and King, in accord with the approval of the invisible Father, every knee shall bend of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Against Heresies 1:10:1 [A.D. 189]).
“Nevertheless, what cannot be said of anyone else who ever lived, that he is himself in his own right God and Lord . . . may be seen by all who have attained to even a small portion of the truth” (ibid., 3:19:1).
Clement of Alexandria
“The Word, then, the Christ, is the cause both of our ancient beginning—for he was in God—and of our well-being. And now this same Word has appeared as man. He alone is both God and man, and the source of all our good things” (Exhortation to the Greeks 1:7:1 [A.D. 190]).
“Despised as to appearance but in reality adored, [Jesus is] the expiator, the Savior, the soother, the divine Word, he that is quite evidently true God, he that is put on a level with the Lord of the universe because he was his Son” (ibid., 10:110:1).
Tertullian of Carthage
“The origins of both his substances display him as man and as God: from the one, born, and from the other, not born” (The Flesh of Christ 5:6–7 [A.D. 210]).
“That there are two gods and two Lords, however, is a statement which we will never allow to issue from our mouth; not as if the Father and the Son were not God, nor the Spirit God, and each of them God; but formerly two were spoken of as gods and two as Lords, so that when Christ would come, he might both be acknowledged as God and be called Lord, because he is the Son of him who is both God and Lord” (Against Praxeas 13:6 [A.D. 216]).
Origen of Alexandria
“Although he was God, he took flesh; and having been made man, he remained what he was: God” (The Fundamental Doctrines 1:0:4 [A.D. 225]).
Hippolytus of Rome
“Only [God’s] Word is from himself and is therefore also God, becoming the substance of God” (Refutation of All Heresies 10:33 [A.D. 228]).
“For Christ is the God over all, who has arranged to wash away sin from mankind, rendering the old man new” (ibid., 10:34).
Cyprian of Carthage
“One who denies that Christ is God cannot become his temple [of the Holy Spirit]” (Letters 73:12 [A.D. 253]).
Gregory the Wonderworker
“There is one God, the Father of the living Word, who is his subsistent wisdom and power and eternal image: perfect begetter of the perfect begotten, Father of the only-begotten Son. There is one Lord, only of the only, God of God, image and likeness of deity, efficient Word, wisdom comprehensive of the constitution of all things, and power formative of the whole creation, true Son of true Father, invisible of invisible, and incorruptible of incorruptible, and immortal of immortal and eternal of eternal. . . . And thus neither was the Son ever wanting to the Father, nor the Spirit to the Son; but without variation and without change, the same Trinity abides ever” (Declaration of Faith [A.D. 265]).
Arnobius of Sicca (Died 330 A.D.)
“‘Well, then,’ some raging, angry, and excited man will say, ‘is that Christ your God?’ ‘God indeed,’ we shall answer, ‘and God of the hidden powers’” (Against the Pagans 1:42 [A.D. 305]).
“He was made both Son of God in the spirit and Son of man in the flesh, that is, both God and man” (Divine Institutes 4:13:5 [A.D. 307]).
“We, on the other hand, are [truly] religious, who make our supplications to the one true God. Someone may perhaps ask how, when we say that we worship one God only, we nevertheless assert that there are two, God the Father and God the Son—which assertion has driven many into the greatest error . . . [thinking] that we confess that there is another God, and that he is mortal. . . . [But w]hen we speak of God the Father and God the Son, we do not speak of them as different, nor do we separate each, because the Father cannot exist without the Son, nor can the Son be separated from the Father” (ibid., 4:28–29).
Council of Nicaea I
“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father. Through him all things were made” (Creed of Nicaea [A.D. 325]).
“But those who say, ‘There was a time when he [the Son] did not exist,’ and ‘Before he was born, he did not exist,’ and ‘Because he was made from non-existing matter, he is either of another substance or essence,’ and those who call ‘God the Son of God changeable and mutable,’ these the Catholic Church anathematizes” (Appendix to the Creed of Nicaea [A.D. 325]).
Patrick of Ireland
“Jesus Christ is the Lord and God in whom we believe, and whose coming we expect will soon take place, the judge of the living and the dead, who will render to everyone according to his works” (Confession of St. Patrick 4 [A.D. 452]).
“If Christ was only man, why did he lay down for us such a rule of believing as that in which he said, ‘And this is life eternal, that they should know you, the only and true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent?’ [John 17:3]. Had he not wished that he also should be understood to be God, why did he add, ‘And Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent,’ except because he wished to be received as God also? Because if he had not wished to be understood to be God, he would have added, ‘And the man Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent;’ but, in fact, he neither added this, nor did Christ deliver himself to us as man only, but associated himself with God, as he wished to be understood by this conjunction to be God also, as he is.” (Treatise on the Trinity 16 [A.D. 235]).