On the Natures of Christ

This post started as a comment and ballooned out of control… Anglicat is a conservative comrade who keeps us updated on Anglican doings in the Land of a Thousand Lakes (um yah yah!) and posted an exchange questioning the theology contained in a sermon by her bishop. Specifically, the question was whether his sermon on last Sunday’s text (the Canaanite woman) betrayed Arian tendencies.

While the bishop may be guilty of Christological errors (I’ve not seen the sermon) there’s not enough here to convict. Chalcedon says it’s a both/and, not an either/or. See–here’s the problem… Orthodoxy walks the line between Arianism and Docetism: the first, of, course being the notion that Jesus is a creation (perhaps the first, perhaps the best, but created none the less). The second is the notion that Jesus was, in fact so God that he only seemed (Grk: dokeo) human.

In my experience liberals will, consciously or not, not tend towards the first while conservatives often tend toward the second. One of the key problems with Docetism is that it leads to what Luther calls a Theology of Glory that fundamentally misses a Theology of the Cross (I’m thinking Heidelberg Disputation, nicht war?).

Whenever we get creeped out by an overly human Jesus—a Jesus who sweated, got stinky, took craps, etc.—we should fear that we’re wandering towards docetic territory.

I completely affirm Jesus’s full divinity. And I affirm his full humanity received through his ever-blessed mother. And that’s why I’m not ready to pounce on the bishop yet. If, as Holy Scripture affirms, Christ emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, did he access the divine foreknowledge within his divine nature or did he take the Incarnation seriously enough to truly set that aside in order to actually experience life as one of us? What I suggest in no way diminishes or compromises his nature, but instead explores the depths of his humility.

Speaking from where I sit (completely human), I don’t have foreknowledge. I don’t know how things will work out. I live in anxieties and hopes and consider these to be a fundamental part of what makes us humans human. I live in a body flawed by a fallen nature and hemmed by limitations of the flesh. The first is sin and is a defect caused by man’s disobedience; the second is not–it’s a by-product of created reality. The Incarnate Christ was without sin–but by its very definition Incarnation means accepting limitations. That is, created matter forces me to be localized in time and space. I sit in my basement; I can’t at the same time be standing outside because my physical body simply doesn’t allow it. (A resurrected body is an entirely different matter and is way outside the scope of this post…) So, what limitations came with the Incarnation as a consequence of taking on human flesh? Did Jesus choose to access the full knowledge of God proper to his divine nature or did he accept the limits of his senses and experience in line with the limitations of his human nature?

Where the rubber hits the road is the cross. Did Jesus know with complete certainty that God would raise him on the third day or does he provide us with the greatest example of faith—trust that God would fulfill his righteous promise? I as a frail human cling to the hope that Christ was acting in true faith, true hope, true love, and not as an actor who already has the full script and knows with certainty how it all comes out. A Jesus who knows with certainty that all he must endure is a day or so of pain, some rest, then the return to glorious splendor seems more docetic and less human to me than a man who—through trusting completely in God—faced torture and execution for what was good, true, and holy without certain knowledge of his exaltation.

All that is a long way to say this: Chalcedon gives us a Jesus who is completely human and completely divine. What did Jesus (fore)know and when did he know it? I don’t think Scripture tells us. My rule of thumb is that if the Scriptures, Creeds, and Councils don’t tell us, then we may acceptably hold positions that remain within those bounds, suitably guided by the writings of the Fathers. In that regard, I don’t personally have a problem with a “racist Jesus”. Indeed, I think I might even prefer a racist Jesus because the episode would once again reiterate the humility of our Master: a man sent from God (to use Johannine language–not denying his divinity…) who is willing to engage, listen to, and learn from an unclean foreign woman.

21 thoughts on “On the Natures of Christ

  1. Anastasia

    Jesus as creature and Jesus as ordinary man are two different issues, as I see it. In this case, the scandal is that Jesus was human and if Jesus were understood to be a human person, whom God used for divine purposed, that sounds more like an adoptionist position to me. It doesn’t sound Arian. in other words, I understand Jesus’s status as uncreated as a separate issue from his humanity.

    I’m making the point because Arianism is a heresy that distorts a proper understanding of the trinity. It says relatively little about the relationship between the two natures of christ. That’s why the answer to Arianism is three persons in one substance, a trinitarian statement.

    as gnostic as docetism plainly is, the idea of a savior that must be reminded of his mission or be himself saved sounds equally gnostic to me, as in the hymn of the pearl.

    even as I’m getting all technical on the terminology, I should also note that I completely agree with your position on the larger issue. Panic at the thought of Jesus’s need to grow and change is clearly a theological defect that should be countered by a full embrace of the humanity of Christ–without mixture or confusion with or separation from his divinity.

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    Excellent points, Anastasia. You’re right–I’ve often been guilty of collapsing Arianism with Adoptionism. That’s a very helpful way to remember the difference (i.e. that Arianism is a trinitarian error while Adoptionism is a christological one).

    I agree that the redeemed redeemer concept is a common one in gnostic tracts–and one to stay away from. I hope I’m not heading there too completely. However, there’s the text itself: why the refusal, then the relenting (perhaps even more stark in Mark 7:24-30 given the lack of justifications)? I don’t know if the conventional “test” answer fully satisfies me… (And I think to read the passage in *Matthew* without considering it in relation to the healing of the centurion’s slave is to miss part of the point as well–an exegetical observation, not having bearing on the topics under discussion here…).

    Anyway, thanks again!

  3. Pingback: On the Natures of Christ (from Derek) « The Wingèd Man

  4. lutherpunk

    Ok, I’ll bite since I preached this text this week.

    Jesus clearly is all too human for us here. The fact that he refers to the nameless woman with what was most likely a racist slur is disturbing to our notions of Jesus. A human Jesus may slip up, a divine one would certainly never call someone a name (or would he?). But what about one who was both human and divine?

    The point of this text seems to me to be a woman holding a steadfast faith, confessing Jesus to be exactly who he had claimed to be. In other words, this text tells us little about Jesus when you get right down to it. It tells us a heck of a lot about this woman, though. When thinking of Jesus here, I don’t think we take away from his divinity when we say that this may have been a time when he was so singularly focused on his mission to the Jews that he forgot/neglected the universality of his own message. This is precisely why it makes such great sense to link this to the Isaiah lesson: a cult that was closed will be open even to a eunuch, just as a Gospel intended for the lost of Israel will be open even to Gentiles.

  5. John-Julian, OJN

    I notice that more and more there rises in my mind the idea that sometimes Jesus was aware of his divine nature, and sometimes he forgot about it in the hustle and bustle of his days — because even his human awareness of his divine nature might tend to be – what? – “crippled” or “limited” by his being within time and in history, by his having a human brain.

    I mean constantly being consciously both within time and outside of it could only produce a kind of schizophrenia. I have an intuitive hunch that Kazantzakis was onto something in his “Last Temptation” in which Jesus seems to wander in and out of his awareness of the messianic role – sometimes even fleeing from it, and finally, in the last moments, embracing it — and K’s wonderful image of the attacks by a raptor as a reminder. (Of course, that story could be amenable to Docetism or Adoptionism.)

    And remember that other “sin” when Jesus lied to his brothers in telling that he was not going up to the feast in Jerusalem — and then goes after all (probably not wanting to be involved with them when he had so much ahead of him — or perhaps originally tending to avoid Jerusalem [and all that that entailed] and finally coming to terms with it).

    I think it is interesting that the Church has chosen not to deal formally with these smallish diversions, but is satisfied to limit its definitions to onotology, leaving the midrash up to us.

    And I also find myself wondering if some of the Evangelists might have thought: “Well, Jesus MUST have known about x, y, or z.” and then writing that in.

    I guess if I were pressed to define it more definitely I would probably suggest that he might have had an “intuitive” sense/awareness of his own nature, but not an entirely intellectual or fully-conscious knowledge of it. (Wow, look at all the qualifying words in that sentence!)


  6. Tripp

    Good stuff. Thanks. Without knowing about this post, I said much of the same thing in my sermon this past Sunday.

  7. Derek the Ænglican

    I have to admit, I’m way to gun-shy to try and talk too much about the psychology of Jesus.

    Basically, that was a major issue in the first Quest for the Historical Jesus. Particularly the latter end of the quest involved attempts to talk about an evolution of messianic consciousness in the mind of Christ. Again–what did he know and when did he know it?

    The fundamental problem, especially as complicated by the rise of form and redaction criticism is the issue of sources. Do the evangelists give us the type and quality of data that suitably illuminate the mind of Jesus? Most recent answers have been in the negative.

    For myself, I find it much safer and more edifying to go along with the early/medieval church: do you wish to know the mind and thoughts of Jesus? then ponder the psalms…

  8. Derek the Ænglican

    LP, I think you’ve read it quite well in it’s Matthean setting. Again–it’s an echo of the centurion in chapter 8: a foreign oppressor is the one in whom Jesus finds more faith than he has found in Israel.

  9. LP

    Fr John-Julian –

    When I was working on my homily this week I had the same thought you did, and even tried to locate my copy of Last Temptation (alas, it is still awash in my sea of unpacked boxes).

    Of course, when I was at the Lutheran seminary, I had a professor who chewed me out for speculating about the psychological state of Jesus, so I am always gun shy about including any of that in my sermons.

  10. Wifried

    Greetings, delurking since this raises an issue I’ve had since before I was Christian (which in fact hasn’t been all that long). Forgive me if it’s a naive question, but it is something I’ve been wrestling with.

    “The Incarnate Christ was without sin–but by its very definition Incarnation means accepting limitations.”

    But don’t human limitations included limitations on right thought, word, or deed? How can Jesus who is fully human (his full divinity notwithstanding) also be sinless? Is racism, though an anachronistic term, not a sin? Does calling someone of the wrong nationality a “dog” and refusing to help her not fly in the face of his own Great Commandment to love thy neighbor, and go against the teaching of the parable of the Good Samaritan, who exemplified neighborliness even to his ethnic antagonist he found by the side of the road? More fundamentally, isn’t sinfulness part and parcel of humanness, and can someone who has never sinned be said to have experience humanity in its fullness?

    I’m not arguing that Jesus wasn’t sinless, but trying to find a way to reconcile his sinlessness with his humanity. I can’t help ending on the thought that if he was indeed perfectly sinless, he was less than perfectly human.

  11. Derek the Ænglican

    Wifried–great question!

    I guess I’d start by drawing a distinction between “humanity” and “fallen humanity”. Classically, theologians have talked about humans as we are but also about humans as we were/will be. That is, you’ll find discussions in Peter Lombard, Aquinas and others up to the present wondering about what Adam was like or what humans are like in heaven. While this stuff appears like speculative hair-splitting it actually serves a very practical purpose.

    If we start with the notion that God created all things good, then it means that the original design for humanity is “sinless”. The discussions about Adam and folk in heaven, then, are trying to talk about who we are as God truly created us to be instead of who we are as we turn out in a world of sin and anguish. In one of my favorite treatments of the topic, Melanchthon in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession 2.9-23 discusses the nature of original sin by reference to a discussion of original righteousness. That is, the question on the table is what is the fundamental difference between humanity and fallen humanity? Melanchthon’s answer (and his mentor Luther’s as well) is that original righteousness includes the knowledge of God, the fear of God, and trust in God. Original sin, therefore, is a lack of these things: an ignorance of God and an inability to fear, love, and trust him as we ought (cf. the explanation of the 1st commandment in Luther’s Small Catechism). And if we can’t love God right, we certainly can’t love our neighbor right.

    So–we’ve historically suggested that humanity isn’t defined by sinfulness. It’s unquestionably part of our experience, but that is not part of God’s original concept or our ultimate destiny.

    As for Christ, the classic text on the issue is Hebrews 4:14-5:14 (which also talks about him growing and being made perfect) but the money quote is 4:15 which descibes him as: “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” That’s the key in my book–Christ/God does not have the experience of sinning but does have the experience of temptation and in that respect knows what it is we go through.

    Does that help?

  12. Joe Rawls

    The magic five-dollar grad school phrase is “kenotic Christology”, which I, a humble EFM person, seem to have been the first to bring up, unless I skimmed the previous comments too rapidly. Or maybe I’m just intellectually hot-dogging. Anyway, a great post.

  13. Christopher


    Definitely so. In our time though we’ve come to understand that there are two different schools within “kenotic Christianity”. The former, often associated with Gore, Temple, and even Williams, tends to focus on Jesus Christ emptying himself. More recent kenotic christologies, however, have warned that there are problems with this conception, and that a better understanding is that in becoming Incarnate, the Word went out of himself for us and our salvation. The point is that the fullness of the Person of the Word is present in the Incarnation. That in nowise need imply that Jesus Christ is not fully human in every way but sin, but could suggest that in becoming human, as Derek mentions, the Word in his fullness limits himself to the conditions of created humanity (again without sin).

    It seems in our time that we have on the one hand a tendency toward christologies that do not adequately deal with the uniqueness of the Incarnation (various forms of Adoptionism and Arianism), and on the other hand, christologies that tend to a downright divorce of Christ from Creation, especially common in some end-timey approaches (Docetism).

    I tend toward a high christological starting point, I admit.

    I might note that the Armenians and Ethiopians are interesting in this regard because of their high christology with a radical Incarnationalism. This might be attributable to their miaphysitism. Lutherans also in my experience tend to have a high christology with radical incarnational tendencies due to their focus on the communicatio idiomatum (communication of attributes).

  14. Joe Rawls

    Many thanks for your comment on my comment; I think it puts things in a nutshell without being too pat. But what the hell is “miaphysitism”? It’s not in my Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity. Was it condemned at some council or other? Inquiring minds want to know.

  15. aconservativeblogforpeace

    An impressive post like I’d expect here but, not that it’ll surprise anyone, ISTM he crossed the line.

    ‘Sweated, got stinky, took craps’ = not sins.

    Jesus’ self-emptying = not sin.

    Racism = sin.

    Of course sin wasn’t part of God’s intention for one’s being fully human. I think it’s the opposite.

    ‘Like us in all things but sin.’ If Jesus committed sins (a survey a while back in America showed even many self-styled born-again Christians think that!) including in thought (‘his Jewish racism’) I might as well be bris’d into Judaism (what one famous dead Catholic said he’d do if somebody proved to him Jesus was not God) or just jack it all in (which some of your readers wouldn’t mind as it might shut me up).

    Miaphysitism is what modern commentators call the real position of the Oriental communion – Copts, Ethiopians, Armenians and Syrians – instead of the centuries-old accusation of Monophysitism which many orthodox no longer think is true.

  16. John-Julian, OJN

    Oh, yes that “fallen humanity’ bit.

    You see, “original sin” (as per Augustine- it’s true inventor) was passed on in the semen. And, since none of that was involved in Christ’s virginal birth, he didn’t get any of the “original sin” stuff…..

    I really am SUCH a scandalous heretic: I believe that “original sin” has nothing to do with the nature of the new-born, but with sociology: birth into a sinful society — i.e., humanity universally sinful by nurture, not by nature. (so, it figures, that if I had been raised by the immaculately conceived and sinless BVM, I’d be sinless, too!)

    Now go ahead and tut-tut me — I’m used to it.

  17. Caelius Spinator

    I’m a little late to this debate, but a comment at bls’s about a Jewish midrash on Noah gave me an interesting reading of this passage. Noah is described as the least of the patriarchs, because he would not act as an advocate for his generation as Abraham did for Sodom and Moses did in the wilderness. In other words, debating God can be a key part of relationship with Him. Could Jesus just have been playing the role as the racist Jewish interlocutor in order to draw the Canaanite woman into “wrestling with the Living God” and thereby include an unclean Gentile into the ranks of the patriarchs and prophets?

    Father John-Julian–Considering how much child abuse has been justified in support of restraining original sinful nature, this is tempting heresy. I think the infection of our nature comes when born in a sinful society, we go along with it.

  18. Derek the Ænglican

    I think Augustine was doing what we ought to be doing–interpreting theology in light of the best science available to him. The problem is that science has moved on and we have a far better understanding of biological processes. Nevertheless, I’d still hold more to an Augustinian stance in that I see it as much a part of nature as nurture. That is, given an ideal human baby raised on an island by the kindest, gentlest wolves, I think the child would still grow with a tendency to be intrinsically selfish–which I see as the root of the inability to love, fear, and trust God as we ought. Certainly society exacerbates it; our culture positively nurtures it; but I still see it as a part of us that ought-not-be.

    I concede with YF and the original post that a fully racist Jesus is a theological error, and agree with LP that this story is designed by both Mark–and even more so Matthew–to tell us more about the woman than Jesus, Caelius’s angle is not a bad one at all.

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