Friday, 7 March 2014

The Son of God Incarnate, One Person in Two Natures: What Does That Even Mean?

The basic mistake most people make when they try to understand what Christians mean by saying that Jesus is fully human and fully divine is what John Behr calls the compositional approach.  We have some divine stuff over here and some human stuff over there and we are supposed to believe that both of these things fit together somehow.  Yet every way of describing the Incarnation in terms of composition was rejected by the Church.  For instance there's the alternating current approach of Nestorianism.  That is, that the two natures sit side by side in Christ and oscillate back and forth, one operating at one time and the other at another time.  There's no real unity here.  Then there's the puzzle-piece approach of Apollinarianism--maybe if the human nature could be cut into the right shape, then the divine could interface with it.  This approach claimed that the divine nature took the place of the human soul in Christ.  Finally, there's the mixture model of Eutychianism, otherwise known as monophysitism.  Here the two natures are supposed to be like two fluids that can dissolve into a new compound.

All of these were rejected with good reason because from a logical perspective they are deeply confused.  What I mean is that they start with metaphysical speculations and not with simple sentence structure.  When the Bible, for instance, states that 'Jesus did such and such' and 'Jesus said such and such,' it is following basic grammatical rules.  There is a subject, Jesus, who does certain things.  When looking at these sentences we can ask a couple questions, like 'who is doing such and such?'  Answer: Jesus.  Or 'what is Jesus doing?'  Answer: speaking, walking, healing, or whatever.  Of course inanimate objects can do things, look rock-like, tumble down a hill after a gust of wind, reflect light, etc..  But personal agents can do more--they are just as frequently subjects of a verb rather than objects of a verb.  Rocks are more often acted upon, while people act.  So to say that Jesus is a 'person,' as the Chalcedonian Creed says, is to first of all say that he is an agent who can be the subject of a verb in a sentence.  To say that he has two natures is also fairly straightforward.  For, we distinguish between different kinds of things by what they do, by the kinds of verbs that are used of them.  In the Bible we find sentences like 'Jesus wept,' which is a very human thing to do, or, being in the form of God, he 'emptied himself, taking the form of a slave' (Phil 2:7), which is a very divine thing to do.  Note that there is no logical-grammatical reason why agents cannot be the subject of different kinds of verbs like this. 

Therefore, rationalists who object to the Christian distinction between person and nature are, like the above-mentioned heresies, starting with metaphysics rather than the simple rules of grammar.  Seeing the absurdity of trying to 'compose' an Incarnate Son of God out of divine stuff and human stuff, they pronounce it impossible.  Yet orthodox Christians start with grammar.  We pay attention to pronouns and verbs.  To deny the logical distinction between person and nature on a priori metaphysical grounds would result in sentences that collapsed pronouns and verbs.  Try to compose a sentence where a verb is the subject of a verb, it's impossible.  Yet if the rationalist denial of the person-nature distinction were correct, such absurdities would follow.  The grammatical approach certainly does have metaphysical consequences, yet it immediately eliminates all sorts of metaphysical dead-ends.  Perhaps I'll write about the legitimate metaphysical consequences one can derive from normal biblical grammar another time.  

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