Christ’s nature

Christ’s nature September 22, 2005

Conceptual difficulties that arise from attempting to express incarnation in categories drawn from the Greeks. Sarah Coakley points to one such problem in a discussion of the work of Richard Norris on the Chalcedonian settlement. She finds fault with some of Norris historical analysis, charging that he imports post-liberal obsessions into his interpretations of the historical evidence, and she nicely defends the notion that the formulators of Chalcedon thought they were making ontological claims and not merely offering “grammatical” rules for ecclesial life.

More fundamentally, she notes: “Norris concludes that [Chalcedon] ‘appears to insist upon a synthesis or union of incompatibles – precisely because it takes its physical models too seriously.’ In other words, the concretization of thought about the ‘natures’ leads, he avers, to the supposition of their ‘incompatibility.’ And whereas in the patristic debate this false disjunction resulted in an overemphasis (claims Norris) on Christ’s divinity, the modern form of this aberrant perception of Chalcedon’s intent has been the opposite: ‘a new type of Monophysitism – a tendency, in the face of its own strong sense of the incompatibility of divine and human agencies, to reduce the Christ not to a God fitted out with vestiges of humanity but to a human being adorned with the vestiges of divinity.’”

As Coakley argues, “Both these alternatives, however, suffer from a misconception of the ‘natures’ as ‘interchangeable contraries’ – as ‘differing items of the same order,’ competing against one another for the same space,” and she suggests that “we need a ‘negative theology’ here in a particular sense, one that denies that the difference between God and humanity is a matter either of ‘contrariety’ or of ‘contradiction.’” In short, “It is not an issue of ‘how to fit two logical contraries together into one, as its ancient and modern interpreters have all but uniformly supposed, but how to dispense with a binary logic in figuring the relation between God and creatures.’”

Norris’ analysis suggests that there is a problem with certain understandings of the Chalcedonian conceptualization of Christology. In Thomist terms, the problem is that it assumes that God (or divine “nature”) is a member of the genus “nature.” There exists a general metaphysical category of “nature,” of which there are (at least) two subsets, divine and human. But Thomas is surely right that God is not a member of a genus, and, since God is His nature in perfect simplicity, God’s nature cannot be conceived of as a genus either. Analogy helps here; divine and human nature are not two “degrees” or individual types of a single category but are analogically related. This is apparently what the Chalcedonian formula has in mind, but at least it needs to be emphasized that we are not talking about two “natures” competing for the same “space.” This is addressed in part by the classic insistence that the human nature is “anhypostatic,” but this point needs to be made more explicit. Just as there is divine concurrence with every human act, a concurrence which does not destroy the secondary actor, so in a unique way the divine and human operate at different “levels” in Jesus.

Browse Our Archives