The Person Of Christ in the Early Church

by William Cunningham

The subjects which we have been considering, in connection with the Arian controversy and the Nicene Creed, come under the head of Theology, in the most restricted meaning of the word, as descriptive of that branch of divine truth which treats directly of God, or the Divine Being; and, accordingly, they are often discussed in the older systematic works under the head De Deo Uno et Trino. It is an important feature of the information which God in His word gives us concerning Himself, that in the unity of the Godhead there are three distinct persons, the same in substance, and equal in power and glory; and men who know not or who deny this, cannot be said to know the true God as He has made Himself known to us. The topics involved in the controversies, to which we now proceed very briefly to advert, come under the head of what, according to the modern divisions generally adopted upon the continent, is called Christology, as distinguished from Theology in the most restricted sense of the word, and were usually discussed in the older systems under the head "De persona Mediatoris." They respect the constitution of the Saviour's person, not as He existed from eternity with the Father, but as He was when on earth working out the salvation of sinners, and as He now is in heaven at God's right hand.

So far as the Socinians are concerned, the controversy is virtually terminated by the proof of Christ's true and proper divinity. Though some ancient heretics denied Christ's humanity, and though one or two modern Arians have held that the super-angelic creature whom they regard as the Son, or Logos, informed or dwelt in Christ's body, and thus served as a substitute for a human soul; yet it may be said, practically and substantially, to be universally admitted that Christ was truly and really a man, possessed of a true body and a reasonable soul. It is right that we should dwell upon the abundant evidence which Scripture affords of this position, in order that we may realize the great truth, that He was a partaker of flesh and blood, —a true and real man like ourselves. But this evidence is now scarcely ever produced for controversial objects, except when the Socinians descend to the artifice of marshalling it for the purpose of insinuating, or conveying the impression, that, because He was man, therefore He was not God. Of course, the question whether He was God or not, is not to be disposed of in so summary a way, but by a full and impartial examination of the scriptural evidence bearing upon this point itself, conducted in the manner and upon the principles which have been already described. It is impossible to prove, a priori, the impossibility of a union of the divine and human natures, or of a divine person taking human nature into union with Himself, —just as impossible as it is to prove that there cannot be three persons subsisting in the unity of the Godhead; and if so, there is no reason why we should not receive and hold in combination both the doctrines, each of which can be conclusively established by its appropriate evidence, —viz., that Christ was from eternity God, possessed of true and proper divinity; and that when He appeared on earth He was a true and real man.

But the Scriptures not only teach us that Christ was God, and that He was man, —they further distinctly and explicitly assert the fact of His incarnation, of His being made flesh, of His becoming man, —i.e., of His assuming human nature into union with the divine. The Socinians, of course, apply to those passages that assert His incarnation, the same process which they apply to those that make known His proper divinity, with the same object, —viz., to pervert them from their natural obvious meaning; and with the same result, —viz., in their failure, when tested by the rules of strict and impartial criticism; and while they attempt to accumulate additional improbabilities and difficulties, on abstract grounds, on the doctrine of His incarnation, as distinguished from the doctrine of His divinity, the fair conclusion is, that the explicit assertion in Scripture of His being made flesh, or of His becoming man, greatly confirms the evidence of His having previously existed in the possession of a higher nature. There have been some controversies among those who believed in the divinity and incarnation of Christ, as to what the assumption of the human nature by a divine person, and the consequent union in some sense of the two natures, implied or involved; and to these it may be proper to advert, in order to complete the scriptural view of the constitution of Christ's person.

This subject was fully discussed in the fifth century, in connection with the Nestorian and Eutychian controversies; and the decisions, then pronounced by the church regarding it, have been ever since generally received by the churches of Christ. The Nestorians and Eutychians both professed to receive the decrees of the Council of Nice and Constantinople, and, of course, to believe in the\incarnation of the Son of God, —i.e., to believe that the second person of the Godhead, eternally begotten by the Father of His own substance, did assume human nature so as to become a man. This incarnation of the eternal Word— this assumption of human nature by the Son of God — is the great fundamental truth upon the subject, clearly taught in Scripture, and clearly declared in the Nicene, or rather the Constantinopolitan, Creed; and in comparison with this great truth the topics involved in the Nestorian and Eutychian controversies sink to the somewhat lower platform of being questions about the exact nature and precise results of the incarnation, and the mode in which it was effected. But though the doctrine, that the eternal Son of God assumed human nature so as to have thereby become a man, is the fundamental truth upon this subject, to which all others are in some sense subordinate, it does not by any means follow that the ulterior questions as to what this general truth, more precisely examined, involves or implies, are unimportant. When the question is put— and it is of course one of fundamental importance — what is Christ? the direct and proper answer to it is, —That He is God and man, —i.e., that having been from eternity God, He in time assumed human nature, so as thereby to become man. But when the mind dwells upon this great truth, with the view of more fully comprehending and realizing it, the questions almost immediately arise, whether, after this assumption of human nature, by one who had been from eternity possessed of the divine nature, the two natures still continued to retain each its own entireness or completeness; and whether, if so, each of the two natures did not form or constitute a distinct person, so that in Christ there should be two persons as well as two natures. And these are just the topics involved in the Nestorian and Eutychian controversies. The great doctrine of the incarnation cannot be very distinctly understood, and it cannot be very clearly explained, unless these questions be kept in view, and unless the words employed in explaining it virtually contain a deliverance regarding them. Accordingly, we find that, even in works intended to convey instruction in the elementary and fundamental doctrines of Christianity, it has been felt to be necessary, in describing the person of Christ, to make statements which contain a deliverance upon these controversies, —controversies which were at one time discussed with so much heat, and which, from the mode in which they were discussed in the fifth century, appeared to involve points of the most unprofitable, the most obscure, and the most perplexing description. In our Shorter Catechism for instance, it is said, "that the only Redeemer of God's elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who being the eternal Son of God became man, and so was and continues to be God and man in two distinct natures and one person for ever,"— a statement which manifestly embodies the sum and substance of the decrees of the third and fourth ecumenical Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon in the fifth century, and which cannot be explained and defended without a knowledge of those scriptural grounds applicable to the subject on which the decisions of these councils were professedly based.

Assuming that the general doctrine of the incarnation of the eternal Word, as it has been declared by the Councils of Nice and Constantinople, was generally received in the church, as it certainly was, it might have been expected that the next question which would arise, as that which most naturally and obviously presented itself to the minds of men in the progress of exposition or speculation, would be that which concerned the continued distinctness and entireness or completeness of the two natures— the divine and the human— after the incarnation. And this reasonable expectation seems to be contradicted by the fact that the Nestorian heresy which divided the person, preceded the Eutychian, which confounded the natures. It should be remembered, however, that the heresy of Apollinari, which preceded that of Nestorius, turned in substance upon the completeness of the two natures in Christ; that Nestorius, if indeed he was really a Nestorian, about which many competent judges have entertained great doubts, seems to have been led into error by going into the opposite extreme in opposing Apollinaris; and that Cyril, the great opponent of Nestorius, was charged by some with leaning towards Apollinarianism, and what was afterwards called Eutychianism, or the heresy of the Monophysites.

I. The Eutychian Controversy

We shall first advert to the continued distinctness and completeness of the two natures in Christ, in opposition to Eutychianism; and then to the unity of the person of Christ, notwithstanding the continued distinctness and completeness of the two natures, in opposition to Nestorius, or at least the Nestorians; following the order of the Catechism, which teaches that "Christ was and continues to be God and man in two distinct natures," or as the Larger Catechism, with a more explicit reference to doctrinal controversies, expresses it, "in two entire distinct natures and one person for ever." The whole scriptural truth upon the subject is thus stated in the Confession of Faith:"The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fulness of time was come, take upon Him man's nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, —the Godhead and the manhood, — were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man." This statement, so far as concerns the point with which we have at present more immediately to do, is given almost in the words of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which, in condemning Eutyches, gave an explanation of the whole doctrine of the incarnation, or the constitution of Christ's person, in opposition to the Nestorian as well as the Monophysite extreme. The general doctrine explicitly taught in Scripture upon this subject is, that the Logos, the eternal Son of God, was incarnate, or assumed human nature, or became man. Of course He could not cease to be God, to be fully possessed of the divine nature, with all divine perfections and prerogatives; and accordingly, all who admit that He was from eternity possessed of the divine nature, and that He became incarnate in time, believe that He continues to be very God, to possess the divine nature entire and unchanged. The question, therefore, respects only the entireness and completeness of the human nature after its assumption by the Logos; and really amounts in substance to this: Did the assumption of human nature by the eternal Son of God, leave that human nature entire and complete, so that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, —the manhood as well as the Godhead, — were still to be found joined together in Christ?

The considerations which most obviously occur as bearing upon the settlement of this question, are these: First, that we have no indication whatever in Scripture of the disappearance, absorption, or extinction of the human nature in the divine; secondly, that the fair and natural import of the scriptural statements, which declare the great fact of the incarnation, leads to the conclusion that the human nature, though assumed into union with the divine, continued to exist in its proper character as human nature, retaining all its essential properties; and, thirdly, especially and above all, —for this is the direct and conclusive proof, —that Christ is uniformly represented to us in Scripture, during His abode upon earth, and of course after the incarnation, even from His birth, as being truly, properly, and in all respects, a man, or a partaker of human nature, with all its necessary constituent elements and essential properties. It is on this position mainly that the question hinges, —it is by this chiefly that it is to be decided. Christ had been from eternity God over all; He assumed human nature into union with the divine. The divine nature of course continued unchanged, because it is unchangeable. Did the human nature also continue unchanged, distinct from the divine, though inseparably united with it Christ is uniformly represented to us in Scripture as being prima facie a man— a full partaker of human nature in all its completeness. If it be asserted that He had not human nature in its entireness and perfection, or that anything essential to human nature was wanting in Him, the onus probandi must he upon those who make this assertion; for the obvious import of the general declaration of the incarnation, and the general bearing of the representation given us of Christ during His abode upon earth, plainly lead to an opposite conclusion. There is no evidence whatever in Scripture that Christ wanted anything whatever to make Him an entire and perfect man, or possessor of human nature in all its completeness; and, on the contrary, there is direct and positive proof that he had every essential property of humanity.

The distinctive constituent elements of a man, of a human being, of one who is possessed of perfect human nature, are a body and a soul united. Christ took to Himself a true body and a reasonable soul, and He retained, and still retains them in all their completeness, and with all their essential qualities. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, "of her substance," as is said in the Confession of Faith and Larger Catechism; these words, "of her substance," being intended as a negation of an old heresy, revived by some Anabaptists after the Reformation, to the effect that He was conceived in Mary, but not of her; and that He, as it were, passed through her body without deriving anything from her substance; and being intended to assert, in opposition to this notion, that she contributed to the formation of Christ's human nature, just what mothers ordinarily' contribute to the formation of their children. Having thus taken a true body, formed of the substance of the Virgin, He continued ever after to retain it, as is manifest in the whole history of His life, of His death, and of the period succeeding His resurrection; and He has it still at the right hand of God. He took also a reasonable soul, possessed of all the ordinary faculties and capacities of the souls of other men, including a power of volition, which is asserted in opposition to the error of the Monothelites. We see this clearly manifested in the whole of His history, both before and after His death and resurrection; and the proofs of it might very easily be drawn out in detail in a survey of the whole record which God has given us concerning His Son. The denial of perfect and entire manhood, as well as Godhead, in Christ, rests upon no better foundation than a vague and confused notion, that the divine must, somehow or other, have absorbed or extinguished and swallowed up the human nature; so that the human could not, after its union to the divine, continue to exist in its entireness, and in the possession of all its own essential properties. But this is a mere imagination or conjecture, which has no solid foundation to rest upon. We must not imagine or conjecture anything upon such a subject, but seek simply to ascertain what the word of God makes known to us. That word plainly represents Christ to us as being and continuing a true and perfect man, after the human nature had been assumed into union by the divine; and thus shows that our plain and imperative duty is just to believe on God's testimony, that the divine nature did not absorb or extinguish the human, but left it, notwithstanding the union between them, distinct, in all its entireness and completeness, so that Christ really was very man as well as very God, and had manhood as well as Godhead, whole and entire.

The Son of God assumed human nature into union with the divine. The human nature is, of course, liable to change or alteration, while the divine is not; and, therefore, the question naturally enough occurs, What became of this human nature when it was taken into union with the divine; what position did it thereafter occupy? It was to contradict or exclude all supposable modes of explaining its position and relation to the divine nature, except that to which the whole tenor of God's word shuts us up, —viz., that it still, in the union, retained its own entire completeness and perfection— that the Council of Chalcedon declared that they were united together; and that it is declared in our own Confession, that they "were joined together without conversion, composition, or confusion." It is not needful to suppose that these three words in our Confession are intended to convey three distinct, or materially different ideas; or indeed anything more in substance than the ἄτρεπτως και ἀσύγχυτως introduced by the fathers of Chalcedon against Eutyches, and ever since generally adopted by the orthodox churches. Composition and confusion are here used as critically synonymous, —the one being merely exegetical of the other, and the two together just expressing most fully the sense of ἀσύγχυτως, for which indeed the word communication, as well as composition or confusion, has been sometimes employed. If the human nature did not continue in Christ perfect and entire, so that He still was very man as well as very God, there are just two ways, in one or other of which it must, when assumed by the divine nature, have been disposed of. It may be conceived to have been changed or converted into the divine nature, so as to have been wholly absorbed by it, and thereby to have ceased to have any proper existence of its own; this is denied to have taken place, when it is said that the two natures were united, without conversion, without the one being changed into the other. Or else the two in their union may have been confused or mixed up together, so as that a third nature was formed out of the composition or commixture of the two which was neither the one nor the other, but partook partly of the properties of both; this is denied to have taken place, when it is asserted that they were joined together, without composition or confusion. And the grounds of these negations are twofold: First, the intrinsic and inherent absurdity and impossibility of the things themselves, —i.e., of the human nature being changed into the divine; unless, indeed, this be supposed to be the same as the annihilation of the human nature, which is possible, but which is not contended for, or being commingled with it, so as to change or modify its character. And, secondly, their inconsistency with the scriptural representation of the continued entireness and complete perfection of the human nature in its distinctive characteristics, and with all its essential properties, in Christ after its assumption into union with the divine. There would have been no occasion whatever for making such assertions, or for Employing such phrases as these, had not the Eutychians maintained that there was but one nature in Christ, —that He was indeed of two natures, as they expressed it, i.e., that the divine and human natures both went, or contributed in some way, to the formation or constitution of His person;—  but that He was not in, as well as of, two natures, inasmuch as from the time when the union of the two was formed, one or other, or both, had been in some way changed, so that they were not both, if either, found in him entire and perfect. If the eternal Son of God assumed human nature, and if yet Christ, from the time when the assumption took place, had but one nature, as they held, it followed necessarily, that the union or assumption must have taken place in such a way, that either the one was changed into the other, or that the two must have been commingled together, so as that one compound was formed out of them. Hence the necessity and consequent propriety, with a view to the explicit contradiction and exclusion of the whole error upon this subject, in its root and branches, of asserting that the divine and human natures were, and continued to be, in Christ distinct, entire, and perfect, being united together “without conversion," and without “composition or confusion."

II. The Nestorian Controversy

Though Christ had two distinct natures, entire and perfect, He had but one person, as the ancient church decided against Nestorius, and as has been since generally held by orthodox churches. This position is necessary, in order to our forming' right views of the person of the Mediator; and the meaning of this position, though it does not perhaps admit of any very clear, formal definition,, is just practically and in substance this, that from the time when the union of the divine and human natures took place, all that was said, done, or suffered, was said, done, and suffered by one and the same Being, without any distinction of persons subsisting in that one Being, as there does in the unity of the Godhead, —there being but one speaker in regard to all the words which Christ uttered, one agent in regard to all the actions which He performed, one sufferer in regard to all the afflictions which He endured. There is no appearance in Scripture of anything like a distinction of persons in Christ, of a divine person saying or doing some things ascribed to Him, and of a human person saying or doing other things, also ascribed to Him. On the contrary, He is uniformly represented as being in every sense one; and if we just submit our understandings fairly and implicitly to the influence of the views given us concerning Christ in the word of God, we can no more doubt that He was one person, though He possessed two natures united together, and each perfect and entire, than we can doubt that any one of our fellow-men is one person, though he has a body and a soul united together, — and though some things that may be predicated of Him generally and without distinction, are true only of His soul, and other things only of His body. The ground on which the person of Christ has been divided, and on which it has been maintained that He had two persons as well as two natures, is not in the least a scriptural, but merely a metaphysical one. The doctrine ascribed to Nestorius, and certainly taught by some of his followers, that Christ had two persons, is represented as a natural or necessary consequence of His having two natures. It is not necessary to enter into any metaphysical discussion upon such a point. It is enough that the word of God uniformly represents Him as one person, though having two distinct natures united together; and to remember that it was the person of the Son, the eternal Word, who, retaining His own proper personality, assumed, not a human person, but human nature, into union with the divine.

These great scriptural truths concerning the person of Christ, the Mediator between God and man, when combined together, form what is usually called by divines the doctrine of the hypostatical union, or the union of the divine and human natures in the one hypostasis, or person of Christ. There are several distinct truths, each based upon clear and abundant scriptural authority, that, when combined, go to form this great doctrine, — which declares or unfolds the person of Christ, the Redeemer of God's elect. The particular truths or doctrines which exhibit or unfold the constitution of Christ's person, are these: first, that He was God, possessed of the divine nature and perfections, and God's Son, even with reference to His divine nature, as standing from eternity in a certain special relation to the first person of the Godhead, analogous in some respects, though of course not in all, to the relation subsisting between a son and a father among men; secondly, that He was a man possessed of human nature, with all its essential properties and common infirmities, yet without sin, —an actual partaker of flesh and blood, having a true body and a reasonable soul, as we have; thirdly, that, though He possessed at once the divine and human natures, He was but one person, as distinguished from two or more persons. Now, if these different doctrines are each based upon scriptural authority, then, when combined together, they just form the one great doctrine of the union of the divine and human natures in the one person of Christ, which is thus proved to be taught in the word of God; while it manifestly unfolds to us all that we could desire to know concerning the person of Him who is set before us in Scripture as the only Saviour of sinners. The only thing material necessary to complete the scriptural account of the person of the Redeemer, is, that this union of the divine and human natures in the one person of Christ, having been once formed, is never again to be dissolved. It existed while He tabernacled on earth, —it exists now while He sits at the right hand of God, —it will continue when He comes again to judge the world, —and it will last" for ever.

There is one other position concerning this matter laid down in the Confession as taught in Scripture, to which, before finally quitting this subject, I may briefly advert. It is this: "Christ, in the work of mediation, acteth according to both natures; by each nature doing that which is proper to itself: yet, by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture attributed to the person denominated by the other nature." The union of the divine and human natures in the one person of Christ, with a view to the salvation of sinners, was effected just because there were some things necessary for the salvation of men which could be accomplished only by God, and others which could be done or endured only by man. Man alone could suffer and die, and God alone could satisfy the divine justice and magnify the divine law. Christ, accordingly, being God and man in one person, did by each nature that which was proper to itself.

The second part of the statement just quoted from the Confession is a mere assertion of a fact in regard to a certain scriptural usage of language, and its accuracy is proved by such texts as this— “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because He laid down His life for us." Dying is, of course, proper to the human nature; yet it is here attributed to God— the person denominated by the divine nature; and the ground or reason of the attribution is, that that person who laid down His life, and did so as man, was also God. The Confession, in making this statement, merely notices a fact, or points out an actual scriptural usage of language; but is not to be understood as laying down any general principle by which we may be guided in our use of language. We ought to make no such attributions of what is proper to one nature to the person denominated by the other, except only when the Scripture has gone before us, and sanctioned it. Some persons, upon the ground that instances of this usage of language occur in Scripture, have thought themselves warranted to indulge in minute and elaborate attributions of what was proper to the one nature, to the person denominated by the other, and thus to form an elaborate series of startling and prima facie contradictory or irreconcilable positions, —declaring of Christ's human nature, or at least of Christ as man, what was true only of the divine, or of Christ as God, and vice versa, —a practice which I cannot but regard as inconsistent with the awe and reverence with which the great mystery of godliness— God manifest in the flesh— ought ever to be contemplated. The position in the Confession, —a mere statement of a fact in regard to an occasional scriptural usage of language, -must be carefully distinguished from a doctrine which sounds very like it, and which has been strenuously maintained by Lutheran divines, as the ground of their tenet concerning the ubiquity or omnipresence of Christ's body, as it is called, which they are accustomed to adduce in defence of their view of the real presence of Christ's body in the Eucharist. The Lutheran doctrine is, that what is proper to one nature may be attributed, not, as our Confession says, to the person denominated by the other nature, or described by a name taken from the other nature, but to the other nature itself; and more particularly, that the ubiquity or omnipresence of Christ's divine nature may be attributed, because it really belongs, or has been communicated, to His human nature; nay, to His body or flesh. It is quite unnecessary to expose this absurd and monstrous doctrine; it is enough to point out that, though resembling in sound the statement contained in the Confession, it is essentially different in its nature and import, and in the authority on which it rests.

The errors involved in the Eutychian and Nestorian controversies are not now, and, indeed, have scarcely ever been since they were first broached, subjects of serious practical discussion, though there are still some sects of Christians in the East who are understood to hold them. The chief use now to be made of an examination of these controversies, —of the points which they involved, and of the grounds on which they were decided, —is not so much to guard us against errors which may be pressed upon us, and into which we may be tempted to fall, but rather to aid us in forming clear and definite conceptions of the truths regarding the person of Christ, which all profess to believe; in securing precision and accuracy of language in explaining them, and especially to assist us in realizing them; in habitually regarding as great and actual realities the leading features of the constitution of Christ's person, which the word of God unfolds to us. Scarcely any man in the Western Church has, ever since the fifth or sixth century, deliberately and intentionally taught Eutychian or Nestorian error, though charges of this sort have occasionally been brought against individuals— not because they had deliberately embraced these errors, and seriously meant to defend them, but because, from ignorance or inadvertence, they had been led to use language which had something of an Eutychian or Nestorian complexion. It would be no very difficult thing to produce specimens of this, or of something like it, from works on popular theology; and I am not sure that I have not heard from the pulpit phrases which a more intelligent acquaintance with the discussions that have taken place in regard to the constitution of Christ's person, would have led men to avoid, —expressions which, if strictly interpreted and followed out, would have tended either towards dividing the one person, or confounding the two natures. It is, of course, the duty of all to see that they are able to unfold the scriptural views of the person of the Redeemer with clearness, precision, and accuracy. There is - reason to fear that professing Christians in general, and even ministers of the gospel, are too apt to rest satisfied with very vague and indefinite conceptions of the person of Christ, and to contemplate Him too much merely in general as a glorious and exalted being, who came down from heaven to save sinners, without distinctly regarding Him as being at once very God and very man, —a real possessor of the divine nature, and at the same time as truly and fully a real partaker of flesh and blood like ourselves. This is the view given us in Scripture of the person of our Redeemer; and it is only when this view of His person, in all its completeness, is understood and realized, that we are duly honouring the Son, and that we are at all fitted to cherish and express the feelings and to discharge the duties of which He is the appropriate object, —to love Him with all our hearts, at once as our Creator and our elder Brother, —to rest in Him alone for salvation, —to yield ourselves unto Him as alive from the dead, —and to rely with implicit confidence on His ability and willingness to make all things work together for our welfare, and to admit us at length into His own presence and glory.


From Historical Theology by William Cunningham

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