Saturday, August 18, 2012

From Geneva to Wittenberg: Christology 1

I am as much an accidental Lutheran as I was an accidental Reformed Christian. When I realized my convictions were no longer Baptist and that I would find myself sooner or later in a liturgical and sacramental church, I did not at all expect I would start that life in a Presbyterian church. This was due to some uncomplimentary and false preconceived notions I had about Calvinism, but I gradually and blessedly overcame those objections by listening to what the tradition actually had to say about them. While it was not due initially to any major change in conviction about Christian faith and practice that led me to consider exploring Lutheranism as had been the case when I stumbled into Presbyterianism, I did have the similar experience of having to reevaluate false preconceived notions about what a group of Christians actually believed and practiced. My understanding of the Lutheran take on Christology and their related teaching on the Lord's Supper required just such a treatment.

My story with Lutheranism began when I returned to my hometown from college and began considering from within which church community I should live out the sacramental and liturgical convictions I had arrived at during college and had begun nourishing there at a confessional Presbyterian church. I did not consider one of the local Lutheran churches for, among other reasons, their teaching of the "ubiquity," or omnipresence, of Christ's body after his ascension into heaven. Well, a few years later and with a trying experience in my hometown Presbyterian congregation behind me, I gave the Lutherans the look they deserved right from the start and discovered very quickly I did not have the whole picture on their Christological teaching. I'll sketch a broader picture of the Lutheran Christological concerns in a minute, but first a word on the "so what?"

Wherever the truth may happen to be on the particulars of this question, is an issue as seemingly speculative and tangential to the Gospel as the properties of Christ's body ascended to the right-hand of the Father important enough for it to be a deciding factor in whether or not to join, much less investigate, a church community or tradition? It would seem in today's context that this would be an example of the worst kind of divisive, doctrinal nitpicking, but there is actually something quite central to the Christian faith at stake here. We are dealing with Our Lord Jesus Christ and his divine and human natures united in his one person–the Incarnation by which God the Son assumed our flesh, suffered, died, rose again, ascended into heaven, reigns at the right hand of the Father, and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. On the basis of the witness of the Holy Scriptures, the Church throughout history has understood that the work of freeing us from the bonds of sin, death, and Hell required that the Savior be at once both fully and truly God and fully and truly man; therefore, our thinking or speaking about the person of Christ must fall within the boundaries set forth in the Chalcedonian formulation of the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in one person, neither mixing, confusing, nor separating his two natures, if we are to present him as God-in-the-flesh who by his Incarnation, death, and resurrection is our Savior.

Furthermore, the Church has understood that the work of salvation Christ accomplished for us on the cross and in the resurrection is communicated and guaranteed to us in and through the flesh He shares with us to eternity. The salvation Christ provides, of which the Incarnation is both the necessary means and the very reality itself, is not the kind of thing that once he has died as the ransom for our sins and risen again for our justification, he would then relinquish his flesh and consider his work on our behalf over and done with. No, in addition to offering himself as a sacrificial victim for us, Christ continues the work of redemption in his body by the high priestly ministry he carries out on our behalf in the heavenly tabernacle. Our salvation is guaranteed by this work and by the fact that Christ wears our flesh eternally and has seated it forever in heaven.

The issue of the properties of Christ's body now that he has ascended into the glory of his Father relates to these concerns in that it has broader implications for understanding the Incarnation. From passages such as Colossians 2:9, "in Christ all the fullness of deity dwells bodily," the Lutherans understand that the union between Christ's divine nature and human nature is most intimate and exhaustive. As Christ is one person, the natures work inseparably, the divine nature giving itself fully to the human nature, andthe human nature being filled with the divine nature. If this is so, as Scripture indicates it is, then Christ wills to, can, and does utilize all of the properties of his deity in, with, and through his humanity in communicating his salvation to us, especially now that he has been exalted to God's right hand and rules on high. From the Lutheran perspective, however, to deny this consequence of the union of the two natures in one person, is to implicitly separate the natures and thus have a God who has not become fully incarnate in Jesus Christ. If Christ's assumed humanity is not united to the fullness of his deity in his one person, then we have no guarantee that we are in union with the Holy Trinity through his flesh.

For the Reformed, on the other hand, they reason that if in the Incarnation the two natures of Christ retain their natural properties, it is improper to speak of the divine nature communicating properties to the human nature that are beyond or even contrary to its natural properties, for to do so would be to mix the natures and have a God who has not assumed a human nature like ours and who thus has not redeemed us. Calvin, for instance, reasoned that if Christ's body was now omnipresent, it implied a body of infinite substance and thus no body at all. The result of such a teaching would be that Christians would lose the confidence of salvation that comes from having Christ in a body like ours seated at the right hand of the Father, performing his ongoing work of intercession for us and serving as a guarantee that we are at peace with God and will one day be in heaven with him. The Reformed, therefore, take the position that Christ's body, because of the natural limits of his humanity, is unable to be everywhere present and so is physically present only in heaven at the right hand of the Father.

This in short is why Lutherans have accused Calvinists of Nestorianism (i.e., separating the two natures) and Calvinists have accused Lutherans of Monophysitism (i.e., mixing the two natures). As I have indicated, these are serious charges, and, admittedly, one can easily see how each tradition would level the charge at the other. That being said, the charges are most likely due to clumsiness in expressing the actual teachings of each tradition by both its proponents and opponents than it is to true Christological heresy. One also can see the reasonableness of the arguments of either tradition in regard to the question and how they are each concerned to safeguard essential matters of life and salvation by their teachings and to defend these core concerns in relation to the teachings of the other tradition.

So how do we sort this out? Are the Lutherans really flirting with or outright adopting Monophysitism in understanding the person of Christ? I once thought so, but I now see very clearly that the answer is no. How did I change my mind? One of my first discoveries when I turned to the Book of Concord, was that, contrary to what has been understood by the Reformed and other Christians, the Lutherans do not teach that Christ's body is now omnipresent in the sense that it possesses an infinite substance. The Lutherans maintain a distinction between the two natures in the abstract, and the two natures as they are joined together concretely in the hypostatic union as one person. Calvin's characterization of the Jesus of Lutheran Christology as a phantasmal Christ thus has more rhetorical force than it does basis in reality. Lutheran Christologians are far too careful, orthodox, and familiar with the conciliar formulations of the ancient Church to posit a communication of properties by a mixing of the substances. In keeping with the Chalcedonian formula they have always taught that each nature maintains its essential properties.

If Christ's human nature retains its essential properties of being circumscribed in time and space, then how can he present his body everywhere, if not by mixing it with his infinite divine nature? We must look to the kind of union that Christ's two natures have with one another and to the teaching of the communication of properties. Zwingli conceived of biblical statements that attributed human properties to God, such as dying and shedding his blood, to be merely a figure of speech, a verbal alloiosis, because the divine essence cannot by nature die. As a result, he attributed Christ's death only to the human nature. Of course, Zwingli was correct that the divine nature, being impassable, could not suffer death, but his position that the communication of properties was merely verbal implied that the divine nature simply sat idly by while the human nature alone participated in death—something that comes very close to the two boards glued together, human person united to a divine person Christology of the Nestorians. A more orthodox understanding, however, is that the divine person of the Son of God died in his assumed human nature, the divine nature communicating the power of life to death and overcoming sin, death, hell, the devil, and damnation through it.

While the subsequent Reformed tradition has associated the two natures far more closely, for instance, the Westminster Confession attributing death to the divine person, Zwingli's clumsy early formulation perhaps still casts its shadow on Reformed Christology in the tradition’s rejection of the third genus of the ancient Church's teaching on the communication of properties. In the Book of Concord, Luther is quoted as saying that when the distinctions within the communication of properties are neglected and that it is reckoned as being of only one kind, "the doctrine becomes confused and the simple reader is easily led astray" (Solid Declaration VIII.35). The history of the understanding of this doctrine in parts of the Church where the third genus is less well known bears this out.

The first genus of the communication of properties pertains to the predication of the properties of each nature to Christ's one person. This is not merely a verbal predication but expresses a real communion between the natures, the Greek Fathers speaking of it in terms of perichoresis, or interpenetration. This is intended to communicate the idea that the two natures are united as one person and thus that the properties of each nature are predicated of the whole person and thus of each other. The Church has utilized a member of analogies to show how this communication occurs without the mixing or confusion of the natures, including the union of body and soul and the glowing and burning of iron placed in fire with the light and heat of fire. The soul, for instance, communicates its powers of life and activity to the body without the soul becoming the body and the body becoming the soul. In like manner, iron submerged and heated in fire glows with its light and burns with its heat without substantially becoming fire or losing its essential iron-ness.

Building on the first genus, the second genus pertains to the predication of a single work or property to both natures, for instance Christ's offices of Mediator and Redeemer or his work as High Priest, these works being proper to both natures. The third genus, as mentioned above, enters into more controversial waters for the Reformed. It expresses the communication of properties above and beyond the ordinary properties, dimensions, and limits of human nature to Christ's assumed humanity. The Reformed do teach a communication of miraculous finite, created gifts given to Christ according to his humanity, but the Lutherans, following Cyril of Alexandria and the Greek Fathers, go further, predicating the highest prerogatives of deity to the human nature, including omnipotence and omnipresence.

Dealing with the erroneous idea that the Lutherans teach an infinite substance for the ascended body of Christ is the most important place to start for Reformed seeking to understand Lutheran Christology. The ancient teaching of the communication of properties also shows that the omnipresent humanity of Jesus is not an innovation of the 16th century. It is not the idiosyncratic doctrine of dubious orthodoxy and dangerous tendency I had thought it was but it faithfully buttresses the Incarnation. As one divine person, Christ exercises in perfect unity the prerogatives of immeasurable divinity and the tangible humility of human flesh, without either mixing or confusing the two natures. I've sought to clear up misunderstandings about Lutheran ubiquity in this first post, to express the importance of the issue for understanding the person and work of Jesus, to make a rudimentary comparison between Calvinist and Lutheran Christological discussions, and to establish the building blocks for a fuller explication of the doctrine. I will dive deeper into the doctrine and deal with further Reformed critiques in my next post.

1 comment:

Jason said...

Insofar as the Lutherans do agree with the ancient Church (rendering the Reformed critique off-point) they may be borrowing from St. Thomas Aquinas,--and of course disagreeing in parts--but as I recall, his treatment side-steps this entire argument. I'm going to review what he said specifically about these points, and I'll get back to you.