Torrance’s Incarnation 6.4: The Reformation Doctrine of Christ

The cover of Torrance's IncarnationThe Reformers approached the hypostatic union from a different angle than the church fathers. The Patristic emphasis on abstract being was pushed to the side in favour of a more relational understanding.

a) The different emphases in Lutheran and Reformed theology

The Lutheran and Reformed traditions look at the incarnation differently. The Lutherans emphasize the union of divine and human, while the Calvinists emphasized the person of the Son of God as God and man. These are two “complementary and overlapping aspects of the truth” (215). Both traditions focused more on the dynamic movement of grace in the incarnation than defining a state in time. This allowed the Reformers to bring the life and obedience of the Son into the incarnation and look forward toward the atonement.

b) The problem of the ‘extra-Calvinisticum’

Consider space.

Pre-Christian philosophers defined space as a container—a space that was distinct from what filled it like a bucket is distinct from the water it contains. The Greek fathers rejected the container theory of space and insisted that God could be present with us without leaving his throne. They stated that God makes his own space and cannot be boxed in by an idea of a finite container.

The Lutherans and Calvinists differed here. Lutherans operated with the container view while the Calvinists held the relational view. For the Lutherans, Jesus left somewhere to be incarnate. For the Calvinists, Jesus’ presence filled the universe even as he lay in a manger. This was the problem the Lutherans called the extra-Calvinisticum.

Calvinists protested the Lutheran view that the incarnation confines Jesus within his human nature. There is truth on both sides. “Now that the incarnation has taken place, we must say that the Son is none other than Jesus, and is identical with him” (220). On the other hand, with the Calvinists we cannot deny the eternal transcendence of the Son.

c) The communion of natures – communio naturarum

The Reformers affirmed the Chalcedonian doctrine: “two natures without change, and without confusion, without division or separation” (221), but cast the union in a more relational light. Again, the Lutheran and Calvinist traditions differed on the nature of this communion.

Lutherans emphasized the union of two natures in communion where “the human nature is assumed into the divine nature” (221). Calvinists emphasized the “assumption of human nature into the divine person of the Son” (222). There was a direct union between human nature and the Son, but a union mediated by the Spirit between divine and human natures.

Lutherans spoke of a mutual participation of the divine and human natures but we must qualify this by stating that “God became man in Christ, but man did not, or did not also, become God” (222).

d) The communication of properties – communicatio idiomatum

The Reformers also spoke of the communication of properties in the hypostatic union, but once again, they differ on the details.

Lutherans spoke of the communicatio idiomatum in three ways:

  1. Genus idiomaticum: The properties of each nature belong to one Christ. Therefore we can say things like “God died” and “the man Jesus is almighty” (224).
  2. Genus maiestaticum: The Son communicates his divine nature to the human nature and this is not reciprocated.
  3. Genus apotelesmaticum: Both natures cooperate to achieve the common purpose of redemption.

The Calvinists also spoke of the communicatio idiomatum in three ways:

  1. Communicatio gratiarum: The Son’s divine nature grew in lockstep with his human development reaching its culmination at baptism.
  2. Communicatio idiomatum: The two natures cooperate, and what is peculiar to either nature can be predicated of the Son.
  3. Communicatio operationum: There is dynamic communication between the two natures of the Son which is essential when we consider his role as mediator.

The doctrine of the incarnation is a challenge to the classical immutability and impassibility of God. This is overcome when we recognize God’s freedom in choosing to share in our human life.

e) The doctrine of anhypostasis and enhypostasis

The Reformers stressed that humanity was not assumed into the divine nature, but into “the person of the Logos” (228). The concept of anhypostasis and enhypostasis clarify this.

En-hypostasis: The human nature of Jesus never existed alone. From its creation, the human nature of Jesus existed in hypostatic union with God.

An-hypostasis: Within the incarnation, Jesus existed as a fully human being.

These two concepts must be taken together.

It’s important to note that these two categories function like theological algebra. They help us to understand the incarnation but they do not “contain the ‘stuff’ of christology” (233).

Some Reflections

The Reformers see the dangers inherent in the Patristic formulations of the doctrine of Christ whenever the Greek philosophical terms, inevitably used in the doctrine of Christ, came to acquire a static independence over against the direct witness of the New Testament. (214)

It almost seems paradoxical—the more accurately we attempt to describe the incarnation, the more we depend on philosophical categories foreign to the Hebrew scriptures. The narrative of revelation doesn’t respect our philosophy! This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use our minds to deeply consider the mystery of the incarnation—it’s a caution against trying to shoehorn our relationship God into abstract categories.

If we really take the biblical view of God, then we must think of God the Father as sending the Son into our lost existence, into unutterable humiliation in order to be really one with us. We must think of God as determining himself freely to be our God, directing himself freely to share in the profoundest way in our frail life, in all its limitations and weaknesses, and even in its lostness, all in order to be our God, and to gather us into fellowship with himself. (227)

The context of this quote is in reaction to the doctrine of the immutability and impassibility of God. Immutability is the doctrine that God never changes. Impassibility is the doctrine that God does not experience emotions—pain or pleasure. Nothing could be further from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob! The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ goes to great lengths, experiencing both pain and pleasure, to rescue his creation. Immutability and impassibility have much more to do with Greek philosophy than Hebrew scripture.

← 6.3: The Patristic Doctrine of Christ
7: The Kingdom of Christ and Evil →

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