Chalcedon

A reader writes in with the following questions concerning the Incarnation:

1. Since Jesus was a Jew (born of a Jewish mother, Mary), and Jesus Christ is one of the 3 persons of the Trinity, is God a Jew? But God is spirit. I am not sure if there is a difference between the Son (before creation) and the Son who later took human form in a Jew named Jesus. In other words, the Son was eternal (part of the Trinity) but Jesus was not. The Son – who is neither male nor female but spirit being God – became flesh, a Jewish rabbi.

2. In Matthew 24:36 Jesus says: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.” Why wouldn’t the Son know if he’s an equal person in the Trinity? Again, I’m tempted to think this is Jesus the man who is speaking, and not God the Son (who must know when he would return, or else is not omniscient).

I do realise the Trinity is ultimately a mystery in the Christian faith, but I’d like to hear what you think about these two questions. Aside from these questions, I have no problem with the Christian understanding of a personal God in the life of Jesus..

You're in good company. This is actually the exact question of Christology which started being controversial in the 400's, the century following the adoption of the Nicene creed by the Councils of Nicea and Constantinope (known as the 1st and 2nd Ecumenical Councils). Once it was settled that Christ is God (contrary to the heretical teaching of Arius), the next question to work out is the relationship between the divine and the human in Christ.

Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians are all agreed about the answer, which is that Christ has two different natures (divine and human) but these natures are united in one person and one being, the Christ.

The controversy started as a result of Nestorius, who claimed that there were two separate persons in Christ, a divine person united to a human person.  He was unwilling to say that Mary was the Theotokos (God-bearer) but preferred the term (Christ-bearer). This was condemned as heretical by the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus.  Nestorius went over to the Assyrian Church of the East (which exists to this day and is neither Catholic nor Protestant nor Orthodox).

Then later there were the Monophysites/Miaphysites who said that Christ had just one nature, which was both human and divine. This was condemned at the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon [pronounced with a hard "Ch", like "Christ"] in the year 451 AD.  However, the Coptic Church and others didn't agree with this, and so there was a schism between them and the (not-yet-divided) Catholic/Orthodox church, which exists down to the present day.

In retrospect, it is not so clear that these other groups were quite so heretical as they were made out to be.  Unlike the controversy with the Arians, it is a bit hard to be sure when the two groups actually disagree, and when they were just using different language for the same thing. But I believe that the Chalcedonian language is, at the very least, the most clear and accurate way to describe the union of the divine and human natures in Christ.

The complete Chalcedonian Formula is as follows:

"Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer [Theotokos]; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us."

Applying this to your question, we see that Jesus possessed BOTH the attributes of divinity (eternal, omniscient, sexless, etc.) and the attributes of (a particular) human nature (Jewish, born of Mary, male, limited, etc.), but without sin, having a complete human body and soul. Since the divine nature is eternal, immutable and cannot change, we cannot say that God was transformed into a human being, but must instead say that he assumed or took on human flesh.  "Not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood by God", says the (so-called) Athanasian Creed.

However, there is just one person—the divine Son of God, Second Person of the Trinity—who is and does both of these sets of things.  (Without this, the Atonement wouldn't work, because in order to be saved we need for God to have fully shared in our human afflictions.) As a result, it is also correct to say that God was Jewish, and that he suffered and died on the Cross, or that Mary was the Mother of God, or (going in the other direction) that the human being Jesus pre-existed, so long as we remember that that we are speaking of the experiences of the united person who has both natures, and not attributing properties of one nature to the other nature.  This way of speaking is called communicatio idiomatum, i.e. the "communication of attributes", and you can find articles by both Catholics and Protestants online, explaining it.

Your second question was about Christ's knowledge.  The divine nature of God the Son is omniscient and eternal, and therefore the divine nature of Christ must know when he will return.  However, his human nature started out ignorant and could learn things, as we know from Luke 2:52: "Jesus grew in wisdom and stature", and also from Hebrews, when it says that Jesus was made like us in every way (sin excepted).  But we cannot divide the human and divine natures, so it is also true that "God the Son", the divine person, experienced what it is like to possess human ignorance.

Thus God the Son could both know and not know the same thing at the same time. How is this possible?  I think it helps to remember that any time we know something, we know it in a particular way. For example, you can know something intuitively but not logically, or vice versa, or both ways simultaneously.  The divine nature knows things by being the perfect being, the human nature knows things by forming neural connections in the brain that somehow represent or imitate the behavior of the things we know.  Jesus did both.

One analogy I find a bit useful is that of roleplaying where you pretend to be a character in a fictional universe.  It is possible for a situation to arise when the person playing the game knows something the character doesn't know.  But now imagine that the universe the character lives in is real, not pretend and that you experience fully everything the character experiences (including what it feels like to be ignorant).  That would be a little like what happened with the Incarnation, I guess.

The Trinity and the Incarnation are great mysteries, so our language and analogies must necessarily break down in certain ways. But that doesn't mean we can't make an effort to make our language as un-misleading as possible.

About Aron Wall

I am a postdoctoral researcher studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my first postdoc at UC Santa Barbara.
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18 Responses to Chalcedon

  1. Hi Aron,

    I enjoy your blog but I can't help feeling a little wary of some of your explanation here. Saying Jesus' divine nature was omniscient but his human nature was able to learn seems very doubtful to me. For a start, it's saying that the two natures were somehow divisible and secondly, I think it's claiming far more than we can understand and is building speculation on theological speculation.

    Jesus said he didn't know when he was returning, so we should believe him. And Philippians 2 says he emptied himself when he came to earth. I think we should believe that also, and thus believe there are some things (many things!) he knew and could do before he came to earth that he couldn't do or know when he was here. These are Biblical passages and better follow them than speculation about the Trinity, which is not scriptural in the form in which it is commonly stated (I accept it as a good guide, but I wouldn't want to build too much on it!).

    That's my thoughts on this.

  2. Aron Wall says:

    Hi Eric,

    Thanks for your comment. The Chalcedonian view denies that the two natures are divisible, but asserts instead that they are distinguishable (see the formula above). One and the same personal entity possessed both natures at the same time.

    I understand your concern to make sure that we should stick close to the text of Scripture, but I think that there are other scriptures which are relevant to the issue being discussed, which point towards something like the Chalcedonian view. For example, in John 8:58 Jesus says "Before Abraham was, I am". He does not say, "Before Abraham was, I was." This implies that Jesus' divine nature exists timelessly. But if so it doesn't make any sense to say that God the Son could cease to possess his divine character traits, since he has them tenselessly. "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Heb 13:8).

    We also know that everything that exists was created through him. "For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Col. 1:16-17; cf. John 1:3, 1 Cor. 8:6)

    Now I don't see how this could possibly work on the model of the Incarnation you are describing. If Christ emptied himself of divine knowledge and power during the years 4 BC - 30/33 AD, then who created all things during that time period? Did God the Father create them without the aid of the Son? That would contradict the New Testament. Or did the Son create them unconsciously, without any knowledge of doing so, despite being the very Word and Wisdom of the Father? That makes no sense. So the divine Son existed and acted in creation in exactly the same way during those years, it's just that he also existed in addition as a human being, with human limitations.

    (Not that the Son ceased to be human after 30/33 AD, but his humanity was glorified after the Resurrection and Ascension, and it's harder to know what limitations glorified humanity might have.)

  3. TY says:

    Hi Eric,
    I look up your Blog (Is there a God) from time to time and I like your writings.

    I'd like to get your thoughts on those 2 questions, and I thought I'd communicate with you through St. Aron's Undivided Looking, rather than through your Blog for convenience. This way, the conversation can continue for the benefit of Christians who are trying to make sense of the Nicene Creed, as well as non-Christians.

    On this subject of the Trinity, you wrote in one of your Blog posts (What Christians believe):
    "The Christians of the first few centuries grappled with how to explain that there was one God, yet Jesus and the Spirit were both divine. Building on clues in the New Testament, they came up with the doctrine of the Trinity - there is truly one God, but there are three "persons" (Father, Son and Spirit) within the Godhead. Not easy to understand."

    The Trinity is certainly "Not easy to understand." And it is one of the mysteries of Christianity. Still we need to try to understand what we believe. Belief is certainly not blind faith, so that inevitably requires interpretation of Scripture. At the same time, I agree with your cautionary note that such interpretation does not amount to heresy.

    TY

  4. Steven Jake says:

    Aron,
    This question will seem completely off topic, but I promise you that it has relevance. Is it logically possible for there to exist a square-circle?

  5. Aron Wall says:

    Steven,

    I don't know. You'll have to define "square" and "circle" for me first. Is a circle a purely abstract shape within the context of Euclidean geometry? Or do you mean an actual, round physical object? Or do you mean some unknown entity which is described in some respect by the equation x^2 + y^2 = r^2? What are we talking about here?

    One thing I know for sure: if a square-circle exists, then it is also logically possible. My primary reason for believing that it is logically possible for a being to be both God and Man, is that it appears to have actually happened.

  6. Steven Jake says:

    Aron,

    Yes, I mean a simple abstract shape in Euclidean space. Or, to utilize a better example, can there exist a married bachelor?

    The point, which you obviously have picked up one, is that that which is logically contradictory cannot exist. A square-circle and a married bachelor cannot exist. So, for me at least, saying that Jesus was both man and God at the same time is logically contradictory. And retreating to "mystery" seems to be no more reasonable than retreating to mystery with regards to affirming a married bachelor.

  7. Aron Wall says:

    Steven,

    The Principle of Noncontradiction states that an assertion cannot be both true and false concerning the same thing, in the same respect. For example, it is not a contradiction that one and the same human being (me) was both a bachelor (prior to June 23, 2012) and married (afterwards), because the propositions are true about me at different times. Christian theology involves making similar distinctions, but involving other modalities besides time.

    For example, the doctrine of the Trinity does not commit us to the belief that 3 = 1. That's because the thing that God is three of (persons) is distinct from the thing God is one of (substance or essence).

    Similarly, the formula of Chalcedon allows us to express the truth that Jesus was both divine and human in a way that involves no logical contradictions, by making a technical distinction between persons and natures. Any given proposition about Christ is asserted about either the person, or one of the natures, and there is no proposition X such that X\,\wedge \sim\!\!X (a strict logical contradiction) is true, where X is stated in the exact same way on both sides. Simply by properly distinguishing terms, you can express almost arbitrarily weird theological propositions in a way which involves no contradictions. So I don't think there's any way to deduce a contradiction from Chalcedon, plus the Propositional Calculus. I don't think you can do it.

    Not, at least, without smuggling in additional metaphysical assumptions about what it means to be a "person" or a "nature", explicating these concepts in terms of some other concepts. In the case of squares and circles, we have a precise definition in terms of primitive geometrical concepts, in a formal geometrical system where we can check whether propositions are true or false. So we can re-express the terms "square" and "circle" in terms of more fundamental concepts, and then check whether they contradict at that level.

    Even in the case of bachelors, we have a fairly solid, if less perfect, grasp on the meaning of the term. Since we know what a human being (or a marriage) is by experience rather than a mathematically precise definition, there is still a bit of wiggle room for us to not fully understand the implications perfectly. But however we define the term, it is clear that the term "bachelor" is intended to exclude marriage by definition.

    But when we deal with metaphysical concepts such as "person" or "nature", or still more with "God", I submit that we have a much less clear idea what types of things we are talking about. We know something about these concepts by experience, but there is a lot of room for debate about their exact meaning, and what is really going on metaphysically at the deepest level. So actually "retreating to mystery" is a much more reasonable thing to do in this context. It's harder to tell for sure whether it is a contradiction to say that an X is a Y, if you aren't quite sure what X's are, or what Y's are!

  8. Steven Jake says:

    Aron,
    The nature of God necessitates that he is omniscient. That is to say, if God was not omniscient then He would not be God. Now, we know from the gospels that there were things that Jesus did not know, and even that he grew in wisdom. So we have here a blatant contradiction. Jesus cannot be both omniscient and not omniscient, for this would indeed contradict the law of noncontradiction. There seems , at least to me, to be no room to retreat to mystery here. Either Jesus had limited knowledge, in which case he could not be God at the same time, or Jesus was omniscient, and the Gospels are wrong.

    Let me articulate that I am a Christian, however I find the incarnation to be logically incoherent.

  9. TY says:

    Hi Steven and Aron,
    I’m enjoying this discussion because it’s the kind of question that the Christian journey entails. As I have learned since I was a young boy, at the heart of Christianity are the two great mysteries:

    1. The incarnation; and
    2. The Trinity

    Not easy to grasp -- even as I got older. God knows! Aron’s blog post "Chalcedon" is a good exposition and summary, and I find William Craig’s “Trinity and Incarnation” also good material. http://www.reasonablefaith.org/trinity-and-incarnation

    Steven: May I make one observation: if the incarnation is logically incoherent then the Doctrine of Atonement is logically incoherent because the Atonement is founded on the Divine Incarnation. See Aron Wall’s Does the Atonement make ethical sense?” in:
    http://www.wall.org/~aron/blog/does-the-atonement-make-ethical-sense/; and the Doctrine of Atonement in:
    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02055a.htm

    Keep the Faith!

  10. Aron Wall says:

    Steven,
    I suppose you also don't think that a photon can be a wave and a particle at the same time...

    The whole point of the Chalcedonian formula is that, when speaking with maximal precision, you should not say "Jesus was omniscient" nor should you say "Jesus was not omniscient"! Because neither of these statements are sufficiently precise to have a well-defined meaning. By formulating the Incarnation in this way, as a "blatant contradiction", you are not yet grappling with the actual statement that was made at Chalcedon. Instead you ought to say "Jesus had a divine nature which was omniscient" and "Jesus had a human nature which was not omniscient". These two statements are not so obviously contradictory, at least not without doing additional work by asking what "nature" means, and whether it is actually possible for a person to have two of them. Since the word "nature" appears in your post only once, in the first sentence (and is used there in a way that elides the distinction between person and nature, without commentary), and "person" appears zero times, I think that you are not actually refuting the Chalcedonian view of the Incarnation at all, but rather some other view. You can't refute a view without first taking it on its own terms.

    Suppose we simplify everything into abstract letters. It is manifest that there is no contradiction in the following logical form: "There exists a P which has two N's, N_1 and N_2, such that N_1 has property O and N_2 does not have property O." For example, one poet can have two names such that one name is odious and the other is not-odious. Or one pig could have two nannys such that one nanny is oblivious and the other is not-oblivious. The Chalcedonian formula is of this same logical type. So there is no blatant contradiction here. If there is a contradiction, it has to be buried in the definitions of "person" or "nature", and therefore it is not blatant. So if you wish to argue that there is a contradiction you need to present an argument which is actually expressed in the Chalcedonian language.

    Let me articulate that I am a Christian, however I find the incarnation to be logically incoherent.

    What, to you, is the meaning of the word "Christian"? And what is your answer to Jesus's question, "Who do you say that I am?"

  11. David says:

    Aron,

    I just discovered your blog this morning, and I am binge-reading through your posts. I can't tell you how excited I am to have discovered this treasure of critical thought and genuine faith! All I can say is Thank You!

    The topic of Christ's humanity and divinity had been one that has captivated me for some time. If I may be so bold as to offer an analogy that has been helpful to me in getting my head around this apparent paradox.

    When God entered the world in the incarnation of His Son, He 'humbled' Himself in the sense that He necessarily entered into the timestream (and spacestream?) of humanity.

    Imagine an artist painting the canvas of his creation, a 2-dimensional world with 2-dimensional beings. Now imagine he wished to (and was able to) enter into his own creation, and become one of these beings in the fullness of time and space. To do so, he gives up a full dimension of his being - in this case depth - in order to be born and live inside his creation as the 'son'. But the 'son' remains connected to the 'father', the creator.

    Now, the son knows 'of' the third dimension, but he can no more visualize it than his peers. However, being connected to the father, he is able to tell the beings certain truths about the canvas on which they are painted which exceeds his own knowledge and perception, but which he trusts because he is connected to the father and obeys and trusts him fully.

    In a similar way, Jesus incarnate is God reduced to human constraints, the fullness of the Creator expressed in human time and space, limited to human flesh but still the fullness of divinity.

    Again, I offer this simply as a metaphorical device, as this does not fully deal with the fact that it was through the Son that all things were made. But the purposeful limiting of God to enter into time and space helps me get a tiny handle on which to cling to the ultimate mystery.

  12. Aron Wall says:

    Welcome, David, and thanks for your kind comments.

    Your analogy for the Incarnation is helpful in many respects. But as you point out, it has difficulty dealing with the fact that the Son pre-existed as the Word of the Father, before becoming Incarnate as Jesus. Some of your language seems to suggest that God would only have been one person (or two?---it's not entirely clear where the Holy Spirit fits in...) had he not become Incarnate. But I'm sure that was unintentional.

    Thus we have to puzzle out not only the relationship between the Father and the Son, but also the relationship between the Son's existence as the eternal Word of the Father, and his coming to Earth as the incarnate Son of Man. But these two problems are presumably connected: what makes the only-begotten Son unique is his relationship to the Father. And from this relation the Holy Spirit is poured out, not only eternally but also in time, into human flesh, as a result of the Incarnation.

    The doctrine of the Trinity reveals that God is Love in his very Being, even before he created.

  13. Charles says:

    Aron,
    One question, do you think it is plausible that Jesus had two natures in a materialistic view of the human mind

  14. Aron Wall says:

    Charles,
    I think that the important thing for Christology is that Jesus had a complete human nature that is just like what we have, whatever that turns out to be. When the Creed says that he consisted "also of a reasonable soul and body" I don't think the point was to make a clear metaphysical distinction between body and soul, but to say that Christ took on the entire human nature that we have, in order to save it all. The main target here is the heresy of Apollinaris, who taught that Christ had the divine Logos instead of a human soul. Thus Jesus would not really have shared in our human psychological experiences fully, nor is the divine nature fully identified with his body.

    As St. Gregory of Nazianzus said, "That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved". The fact that God came in both the flesh and the mind means that he saves both of them from sin and death; what the precise relationship is between the two is not really to the point, as long as it is the same in Jesus and in us.

    But it is relevant, on any Christian view, is that our bodies are a part of our identity, just like our mind is. That is why our bodies will also be resurrected like Jesus' was. The Cartesian view that our minds are who we really are and our bodies are just the robots we drive around, is psychologically and spiritually dangerous, since it causes us to dissociate with our bodies which are part of who God created us to be. That is why, in another thread, I gave St. Dennis Jensen a hard time concerning Gnosticism when he suggested that our bodies aren't an essential part of who we are, and we could have been born to different parents.

  15. Charles says:

    What's your opinion about this article by William Lane Craig
    http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-2-podcast/transcript/s10-07
    discusses the materialism of the mind in a Christian vision

  16. Aron Wall says:

    Charles,

    So before we were discussing the compatibility with Christology, but (aside from his point #4) St. Craig's main concern seems to be with other issues such as the afterlife.

    The two points which I take to be of faith are that a) when I die I will go to be with Jesus, and b) eventually (no later than the return of Christ to earth) God will provide me with a resurrected body like his. (Note that the New Testament treats (b) as a much more important fact than (a), although it affirms (a) in a couple places.) There is the issue of the "intermediate state" if 1 occurs before 2. I agree with St. Craig that this poses certain difficulties for a materialistic view of the human soul (in addition to those problems which I identified here which even the nonreligious must deal with).

    Yet we ought to be very careful when discussing Heaven because our earthly concepts of time and material/spiritual may not apply in the way we normally conceive of them. We are after all discussing something none of us have seen. The one thing we know for sure about Heaven is that it can contain bodies: since Christ's resurrected body went there at the Ascension.

    I find it striking that most of the biblical passages about the afterlife attribute it to God's faithfulness rather than a fact about human nature. For example, in Luke 20:37-38 Jesus appeals to a fact, not about human beings, but about God, to show that Sts. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob continued to exist after their deaths. In any case, the conditions of the afterlife don't necessarily imply anything about what we are now, in this life. We do have to die to get there, after all.

    Although St. Craig makes some good points in his introduction, I strongly dissent from each of his arguments 1-4:

    #1 The distinction between the Creator and the created is not ad hoc, it is an absolutely fundamental aspect of Monotheism! To treat God and human souls as being two species of the same genera is absolutely wrong (Isaiah 55:8-9). (This is related to a view known as theistic personalism in which God is viewed just as a soul but minus all the imperfections.) We are indeed created in the image of God, but we must not conclude that God is the image of us.

    #2 I think I said the relevant points here.

    #3 I don't think there is any difference between an exact duplicate of me and me; I would go through the Star Trek transporter (discounting its high frequency of malfunctions, some of which seem useful enough to be worth turning into new technology and patenting, by the way).

    #4 This is the heresy of Apollinaris, already mentioned above, with which St. Criag has sympathies, but his view is critiqued here and here. It is not the Chalcedonian view. The Chalcedonian view is that Christ assumed a complete human nature, identifying himself with both a human body and soul equally. It is not the view that the Logos took the place of a human soul and thereby acquired a body. Thus St. Craig's supposed problem does not arise on the Chalcedonian view.

  17. Mactoul says:

    "The divine nature knows things by being the perfect being, the human nature knows things by"

    I find this way of putting things unclear. It is the person that knows and not the nature. So the objections that were raised in questions, I do not think are answered.

  18. Aron Wall says:

    Mactoul,
    How do you know it is the person and not the nature who knows things? If Jesus is the only example of a person with two natures, then the situation has never arisen before. But perhaps it would be better to say, the person knows things by means of the nature, and there were situations where Jesus knew something by his omniscience, yet not by his growing and changing human experience or knowledge.

    Perhaps it would be better to say, we believe that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God, who is the Word and Wisdom of God, and also that (as part of his human experience on earth) he was sometimes ignorant. The terms "person" and "nature" are just human attempts to find words to describe this situation in a way that makes sense of all the theological data.

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