There have been a couple of very interesting Christiological discussions over at Lane Keister’s Green Baggins blog recently. You can read Lane’s posts and the subsequent discussions here and here. One of the central questions in that entire discussion was whether or not we can or should say that God suffered and died “in some sense.” And, if we can say these things in “some sense,” what is the sense that we can say them, or are we just saying nonsense. Concerning the question of God suffering Lane writes:
I believe that the answer is that His divine nature sustained His human nature, but did not itself suffer. This sustaining would not be limited to the physical suffering, but would also include the spiritual suffering, as well as the sin-bearing. This is not a communication of properties of the divine to the human, since God also sustains us without communicating Godness to us. The divine nature was therefore active in the suffering, but not as the direct recipient of the suffering.
I would have thought that this was a perfectly acceptable non-controversial answer since God cannot suffer for the same reason He cannot tire or thirst (Isaiah 40:28). Among other things, the Westminster Confession of Faith states that God is immutable and the Incarnation, which includes suffering and dying, implies change. However, according to others commenting on his blog drawing such clear distinctions between the two natures of Christ is “Nestorian.” Further, and this is something I didn’t realize, the historic Reformed position concerning the Incarnation is routinely attacked as Nestorian by its critics and a more decidedly Lutheran understanding of the Incarnation appears to be the only consistent understanding of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. Lane provided a helpful illustration to help contrast both views below:
I actually believe that our entire question can be much clarified by asking the question this way: can God die? To ask the question is really to answer it. But we cannot separate part of the suffering of Christ from any other part: it is a seamless whole. If God suffered on the cross, then God died on the cross. I, for one, cannot go there.
Well, evidently not “going there” is not going far enough as Jonathan Bonomo of the Evangelical Catholicity blog, a blog dedicated to an “ecumenical discussion founded upon historic Christian orthodoxy,” explains:
When [Perry Robinson] makes that charge [that Calvin was decidedly un-Chalcedonian], he’s talking about the very same thing that’s been at issue here: Was the person who suffered for our sins a divine person, who suffered in his human nature? If we say “no,” then we really are open to the charge of Nestorianism.
Calvin, and other 16th c. Reformed, affirmed that the person of Christ was none other than the eternal Son of God–the Word. But because they at times also spoke of the human nature as composing “part” of the Person after the hypostatic union, they’re said by Reformed antagonists to be open to the charge of Nestorianism. But this is only the case if the analysis of the sources stops at isolated statements. Calvin et al needn’t be read to mean anything by such statements other than the meaning provided amidst these discussions–the human nature subsists in the person, and so after the union can be said in that sense to be “part” of the person. They were Chalcedonian, and their Christology followed the Exposition of John of Damascus fairly closely.
Bruce McCormack wrote an essay a few years back that provided much ammunition to this charge. However, regarding all this I would highly recommend the following two articles by Steven Wedgeworth:
All of this is very interesting and I would recommend taking the time to read Wedgeworth’s discussion of Jesus Christ as a “compound person” along with the debate as it unfolded on Lane’s blog. But, what struck me in the many pages of discussion on the Reformers and in defense of their fidelity to Chalcedonian orthodoxy, is that nowhere is the word “person” clearly defined, or, in the case of Wedgeworth, even defined at all. So if one were to say that Jesus Christ is one person or two or twenty-two it makes no difference unless one first defines what a person is.
Gordon Clark, who has also been accused of being “Nestorian” (so it would seem that he’s in good company), explained the problem this way in his earth-shattering monograph on the Incarnation:
A. A. Hodge (Outlines of Theology, p. 380,”#7) first says “He [Christ] is also true man” and few lines below makes this impossible by adding, “Christ possesses at once in the unity of his Person two spirits, with all their essential attributes, a human consciousness, mind, heart, and will.” We ask, How can a human consciousness, mind, heart and will not be a human person? All Hodge can reply is “It does not become us to attempt to explain” all this. In other words, the doctrine is based on ignorance. The creeds and the theologians assert “a true man” and their explanations deny it.
Clark argues, “But a doctrine insisting that Jesus Christ was a divine person and in no way a human person fails without such a definition.” One would think, if only to better understand Lane’s illustrations above, that defining what we mean by “person” would be the first order of business seeing that so much rests on that question. But that’s not the case. In fact, and as we shall see, it has never been the case. Instead the protectors of orthodoxy are extremely quick to slap the label of “Nestorian” on any deviation first and ask questions later. And, a deviation could be as simple as failing to draw out an implication of the historic Chalcedonian formulation far enough. That’s why even Lane, who said he “cannot go there” when it comes saying “God suffered on the cross, then God died on the cross,” was slapped with the label: “Nestorian.”
Obviously any understanding of the issues surround Christology cannot progress in such an environment. So I asked how do any of these self-appointed protectors of all things Chalcedonian define the word “person”? Thankfully, Jonathan Bonomo mentioned above, and who was one of Lane’s two primary interlocutors (although prosecutors might be a better description), took up the challenge. Actually, he said he had defined the word “person” many times throughout the debate and I just missed it. No wonder, because according to Bonomo a person is an “individual reality/subsistence.” Now an “individual reality” is pretty self-explanatory. Rocks, trees, roof shingles, men, mice, and various other rodents all have “individual reality.” Subsistence (or hypostais or substance) “denotes an actual, concrete existence, in contrast with abstract categories such as Platonic Ideals.” So, a person is an individual reality that has an actual concrete existence. Colloquially, subsistence can also mean that which supports life, which would at least exclude rocks, trees and roof shingles. According to Bonomo “the traditional definitions are the best we’ve been able to come up with these many many years, and they’re part of the received, accepted vocabulary.” Bonomo explains:
I’m just trying to be faithful to the terminology that’s been passed down since the fifth century. It’s not that hard to grasp. A person is an individual reality, a nature is that which subsists in the individual reality. Nature is the general category, person is the particular. The divine nature subsists in three persons in the Trinity. The divine and human natures subsist in one person in the hypostatic union. If you’re not satisfied with this, then you’re free to reject Nicea and Chalcedon.
See the dilemma. Either accept this definition of person which has been handed down since the fifth century or reject Nicea and Chalcedon. Actually, accepting the traditional and historic definition is easy and Bonomo is right that it’s not hard to grasp at all. The problem is that any definition of “person” that can just as easily apply to plants, polar bears, koalas, and Christ is about as useless and as meaningless as they come. It’s not really a definition at all.
Now, and to his credit, Bonomo offered a slightly refined definition:
Ok, Sean, What if we were to say that “Person” is individual reality, or “particularity,” as it subsists in God and those made in his image? This rules out all other creatures besides God and human beings. Would that then be satisfactory?
While arguably an improvement it hardly satisfies. For one thing God consists of three Persons, but I don’t think it would be accurate to say those three Persons subsist in God since all three are God. Further, the three Persons of the Godhead are not made in God’s image. So, while this revised definition rules out plants, polar bears, and koalas, it rules out the Persons of the Holy Trinity as well.
Here’s the rub: for nearly two millennium the dividing line between heterodoxy and orthodoxy in Christology has rested on an idea of person without anyone really knowing what they’re talking about. As Clark observed:
But when a council, or a pope, or a theologian uses the terms nature, person, substance, and sits back with a dogmatic sense of satisfaction, it reminds me of a football team that claims a touchdown while the football is still on the thirteenth or thirtieth yard line. But football teams are usually not that blind.
. . . Neither Nestorius nor his opponents had any clear idea of what a person is. They used the word but attached no meaning to it. In their discussion and writings the term was as much nonsense syllables as substance and nature. However distasteful it may be to those students whose knowledge is confined to fifteen minutes of a broader lecture in the Systematic Theology class, and all the more distasteful to the professor who knows little more than those fifteen minutes, they must be forced to acknowledge that the Chalcedonian bishops and the later theologians were talking non-sense, because their terms had no sense at all.