Essay / Theology

The Second Person, in Person

Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God. That means he is God the Son, and that, in turn, means that he is the second person of the Trinity which consists of first the Father, second the Son, and third the Spirit. The one God has always been tri-personal, but in the fullness of time, the first person send forth the only-begotten second person (Galatians 4:4, John 3:16). That second person, the Lord Jesus Christ, dwelt among us (John 1:14). He lived out a life of perfect sonship here below as he has eternally lived out the life of perfect sonship there above: on earth as it is in heaven.

These are the first few steps in the theology of the incarnation and the doctrine of the Trinity. They jump off the pages of Scripture at you, and down through the centuries, generations of Christians have delighted in discovering them there.

But the next couple of steps are harder. They require a little more thought from a believer, just as they required a few centuries to be fully realized in the early church. It wasn’t until the fifth ecumenical council, in the year 553, that theologians managed to see further into the fullness of what was revealed to us in Christ. I believe the insights of the fifth council are ultimately as simple and biblical as those of the earlier, more familiar councils, but that they run one level deeper.

If the eternal person who is the Son took to himself a perfect and complete human nature, what is the status of that human nature? Normally, any instance of human nature that we come into contact with is also a human person. Is the human nature of Christ, therefore, also a human person? The christology we are considering gives a twofold answer. On the one hand, the human nature of Jesus Christ is in fact a nature joined to a person, and it is therefore personal. To use the Greek term, it is en-hypostatic. But the person who personalizes the human nature of Christ is not a created human person (like all the other persons personalizing the other human natures we encounter); rather it –that is, he— is the eternal second person of the Trinity. So the human nature of Christ is personal, but with a personhood from above. Considered in itself, on the other hand, and abstracted from its personalizing by the eternal person of the Son, the human nature of Jesus Christ is simply human nature, and is not personal. The human nature of Christ, therefore, is an-hypostatic (not personal in itself) and en-hypostatic (personalized by union with the eternal person of the Son).

Modern theology has usually viewed this doctrine as a problem, and concluded that this is exactly the kind of unacceptable logical blunder one would expect to get into by taking Chalcedon seriously and trying to reconcile it with trinitarianism. In other words, the unacceptable conclusions of the fifth council (caricatured as “the impersonal humanity of Christ,” or “Christ is a human being but not a human person,” or “Christ is man but not a man”) are taken as evidence that the Chalcedonian categories were always a bad fit for the Christian message.

But medieval theology, from John of Damascus on, actually counted it as a strength and a confirmation of the fruitfulness of the Chalcedonian tradition. One obvious strength of the anhypostatic/enhypostatic christology is that it banishes forever the old tendency to find two somebodys inside of Jesus. Because we know that Jesus is fully God and fully human, we often fall prey to the unintentionally Nestorian error of fiding in the incarnation, alongside the second person of the Trinity undergoing human experiences, another person who is simply human.

This shadowy crypto-Nestorian figure lurks at the back of much modern christology, a man descended from David and born to Mary –we could call him Adam Davidson Ben-Miriam— who somehow had to get out of the way when the eternal Son of God took over his personal existence. Having never existed, this character is stubbornly hard to eliminate from the conceptual fringes of any christology that doesn’t follow through Chalcedonian categories in light of the Trinity. Adam Davidson Ben-Miriam is the person Jesus would have grown up to be if he hadn’t been the Son of God. Volumes of otherwise laudable historical Jesus research are dedicated to him. Yet no such person ever existed or ever could, because the human nature of Jesus Christ was nobody until the eternal Logos took it on as his own, personalizing (or em-personing or en-hypostatizing) it and making it a real man.

Jesus Christ is human, and Jesus Christ is a person. It is also true that Jesus Christ is a human person, but what the fifth council makes clear is that “a human person” cannot mean “his created human nature is personalized by a created human personhood.” Instead, we can and must think in terms of the human nature of this divine person, the humanity of the hypostasis of the Son. After the powerful two-natures thinking honed at Chalcedon, it would be easy to imagine that the key to christology is double everything according to the logic of two perfect natures unconfused, unchanged, undivided, and unseparated. But at the center of the incarnation is the hypostasis of the hypostatic union, and no parallel thinking can apply to that hypostasis. The person involved in the incarnation is not derived by adding above and below, but comes down from above and takes to himself what is below. The parallelism appropriate to two-natures christology only functions properly within a zone marked out by trinitarian thought. To say it in terms of the development of the last few councils: This one divine person (Ephesus) who is fully divine and fully human (Chalcedon) is the second person of the Trinity (Constantinople II). In one of the best recent defenses of this ancient doctrine, Dennis Ferrara summarizes the way the fifth council develops the prior councils,

In simple terms: did Chalcedon pull back from and even ‘correct’ the stark dogma of Ephesus or only specify it further so as to preclude the monophysite misunderstanding? More precisely: are we to read Ephesus’ identification of Christ’s divine person in the light of Chalcedonian diphysitism, or Chalcedonian diphysitism in the light of Ephesian identification of Christ’s person? It was precisely this question that was decided in favor of Cyrillian orthodoxy by II Constantinople, a decision that would not have been possible without the theological breakthrough of Leontius of Jerusalem’s doctrine of enhypostasis, which provided a theoretical basis for subordinating, without disavowing the advance made at Chalcedon, the duality of natures to the unity of person, and, most particularly, the humanity to the divine person….

Ferrara goes on to specify that the doctrine of the anhypostatic/enhypostatic human nature of Christ enables us to affirm that Jesus Christ is a divine person, and “that Christ’s humanity has no independent, personal existence of its own; that, despite its consciousness and freedom, this human nature is not a personal ‘who,’ but exists precisely as the humanity of this divine subject. It is to acknowledge, accordingly, that Jesus Christ is not a human but a divine person, ‘one of the Holy Trinity,’ as II Constantinople says.”

The anhypostatic-enhypostatic christology is not without its own difficulties, and precisely because it makes such large claims across the whole range of central Christian doctrines it sets other concepts into motion whenever it is articulated, and thus requires caution. The fifth council has always been suspected of being a covert return to the Apollinarian error, because it seems that the human nature is missing something that it takes to be fully human: human personhood. H. R. Mackintosh called it simply “a finer species of Apollinarianism,” but to be fair to the fathers of the fifth council, they anticipated this charge in the fourteenth and final anathema of Constantinople II, directed against anyone who “accuses holy Cyril of writing opinions like those of the heretical Apollinarius.” Anathematizing is not the same as winning an argument by actually demonstrating that Cyril is not Apollinarius, but the anathema at least shows that the fathers were alert to the charge and believed they did not fall prey to the error.

I think this classic christology is especially congenial to evangelical theology and should become part of the basic conceptual equipment for thinking about Jesus Christ in trinitarian perspective. Most of the objections to it in the modern period have come from theologians located in the liberal tradition, who have rejected the doctrine for reasons driven by a strong historical-critical agenda, an anti-metaphysical outlook, or a program of demythologization. Theologians who do not share these presuppositions would do well to re-investigate the doctrine.

In a recent attempt to rehabilitate and recommend the “somewhat notorious” anhypostatic/enhypostatic christology, Ivor Davidson reports on the modern bias against it: “At first glance, such theology appears anything but congenial to the affirmation of Jesus’ humanity. Does it not go out of its way to deny that Jesus is a human ‘person,’ and reduce his humanity to the level of a ‘nature’ only –whatever that may mean post-Darwin, Marx and Freud?” Here is an opportunity, it seems to me, for theologians who have not given up on such things as natures in general to get to work and see if they can overcome the other objections.

Any Christian thinker who has somehow made it into the twenty-first century as an unreconstructed essentialist (guilty!), or even as an unblushing substance dualist (double guilty!), will be able to engage patristic thought on a shared metaphysical presupposition inaccessible to much modern and postmodern theology. Davidson goes on: “A Christology which renders Jesus a union, conjunction, synthesis (or whatever) of static ‘natures’ guaranteed more or less constant stability by virtue of divine subjecthood surely trades … on mythological descent-ascent motifs detached form the gritty realities that are there in the gospels’ own witness.” This, it seems to me, is the place where evangelicals and the fathers of the fifth council are able to communicate directly with each other, because for the most part we share an inability to be very embarrassed by the “mythological descent-ascent motifs” which we make use of in confessing that one of the Trinity came down from heaven and became human for us and for our salvation. We love to tell the story, as so many of our hymns attest in an irresistible rhyme, of how a savior came from glory. The long narrative arc –from pre-existence in the Trinity, through virgin birth, death, resurrection, and ascension –is a scriptural motif which the fifth council’s “Cyrillian Chalcedonianism” makes possible.

I have argued that Chalcedonian categories, the guidelines of classical orthodox christology, are helpful and even necessary for giving a theological account of the gospel. In some ways, persuading contemporary Christians of that is not very difficult, since some residual version of Chalcedonian two-natures christology is always lurking just under the surface of evangelical faith. I have also argued that the anhypostatic/enhypostatic christology of the fifth council should be embraced, and that is a more difficult case to make because the conceptual framework of the fifth council is more demanding, and includes more elements which generate tension with the unreflective commitments held by most Christians. However, I believe that it is the christological development of the fifth council, the anhypostatic/enhypostatic account of the perfect humanity assumed by the Son of God, which has even deeper connections to the core commitments of Christian faith in the gospel. If the two-natures schema of Chalcedon runs the risk of being static, the fifth council throws it back into motion by affirming identity between the second person of the Trinity and the person who is the subject of the incarnation. If Chalcedon runs the risk of putting too much emphasis on the natures, the fifth council restores the Cyrillian focus on the person of Christ. If Chalcedon runs the risk of sounding more like a description of component parts, the fifth council restores the plot line of the one who came from heaven above to take on human nature. It is a powerful, evangelical statement of the Christian claim “that our lord Jesus Christ, who was crucified in his human flesh, is truly God and the Lord of glory and one of the members of the holy Trinity.”

This is the eighth in a series of posts on the christology of the ecumenical councils. Here are the others:

The value of conciliar christology
The Council of Nicaea in 325
The Council of Constantinople in 381
The Council of Ephesus in 431
The Council of Chalcedon in 451.
One Step Beyond Chalcedon
The Fifth Council in 553.

Share this essay [social_share/]