Torrence’s Incarnation 6.3: The Patristic Doctrine of Christ

The cover of Torrance's IncarnationNow that we have considered the hypostatic union and the relationship between this union and the atonement, it’s time to consider how to examine this in light of Patristic theology.

a) The differing strands in Patristic theology

The doctrine of Christ in the early church fell into two main camps: Antioch, which emphasized Jesus’ humanity, and Alexandria, which emphasized Jesus’ divinity. In the middle of these positions were Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Cyril, who stressed both natures equally. The tendency of the early church, in its battle against a lopsided hypostatic union, was to ignore the atonement in its effort to get incarnation correct. This is a problem since it’s only in the atonement that both natures receive equal emphasis.

The council of Chalcedon is the key defining moment of Patristic christology. The statement of the council steered clear of Apollinarianism and Nestorianism, but it didn’t fully equate the incarnation of Christ with his atoning work. The council of Chalcedon misunderstood what human nature meant. They would not insist that Jesus assumed fallen human nature—and of course, “the unassumed is the unhealed” (Gregory Nazianzen in Torrance 201).

Whatever else we say of the human nature of Jesus, we must affirm that he is the perfect man, representative of all humanity. From there we can say two things:

  1. Jesus is completely like us. He assumed our “frail, feeble and corrupt and temptable humanity” (205).
  2. Jesus is completely unlike us. He resisted the drag of human nature toward temptation and sanctified it.

b) The significance of the Chalcedonian ‘hypostatic union’

There are seven ways that the Chalcedonian definition of the hypostatic union is significant:

  1. The entire union is a pure act of grace on God’s part.
  2. The union is a twofold movement in one act whereby God condescends to take on human nature even as human nature is elevated and sanctified.
  3. The union is without parallel or analogy and can be described as a person union within one person.
  4. The union is inconfuse et immutabiliter. The two natures are not confused or changed.
  5. The union is indivise et inseparabiliter. The natures are not divided and are inseparable.
  6. In the union the peculiarity of each nature is preserved. This means that Jesus Christ continues to exist as man even while seated at the right hand of God.
  7. The union was between God and a man, not between God and man in general. While we must beware of adoptionist leanings in this statement, it is a corrective to the problem of Nestorian separation.

c) Factors helping to safeguard the humanity of Jesus

In addition to the work of the Chalcedonian council, there are four other factors which worked to limit Alexandrian christology:

  1. In 381 Apollinarius’ doctrine that Christ did not possess a rational human soul was condemned.
  2. In 448 Eutyches’ doctrine that Christ’s human nature was absorbed into the divine was condemned.
  3. In the sixth century Leontius of Byzantium repudiated the Nestorians and Eutychians by teaching that Christ’s true humanity had a full place “within the hypostasis of the Son as ‘enhypostatic'” (211).
  4. In 680 the Monothelites who believed there was only one will in Christ (thus rendering him incapable of being tempted) were condemned.

Some Reflections

If it is our fallen humanity that he sinlessly assumed, in order to heal and sanctify it, not only through the act of assumption, but through a life of perfect obedience and a death in sacrifice, then we cannot state the doctrine of the hypostatic union statically but must state it dynamically, in terms of the whole course of Christ’s life and obedience, from his birth to his resurrection. (201)

In our desire to keep Christ sinless (which he was and is), we are tentative to speak of him assuming our fallen nature. Once we admit that this is precisely what he did, we have to look at the hypostatic union differently. We cannot zero in timelessly and perfect ontologically definitions of the union. The union only becomes clear in Jesus’ life of obedience as well as his death and resurrection.

How much richer should our worship be when we realize the depth of fallenness that Jesus assumed to rescue us?

The hypostatic union … is one long act of atoning and sanctifying reconciliation in which he both judges our sin and enmity, and restores our human nature to its true relation with the Father and therefore to its perfection as human nature. (204)

This is a hope-filled quote. In Jesus Christ, our human nature has been restored to rights. In Christ, then, we do not have to give in to temptation. We can revel in our restored relationship to the Father.

← 6.2: The Hypostatic Union in Revelation and Reconciliation
6.4: The Reformation Doctrine of Christ →

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