Christ -The Hypostatic Union
The nature of Human-Divine Union in Christ as seen by Scotus and Bonaventure and some additional notes from Charles Gore.
Introduction: Christ as Exemplar of God and Humanity
The hypostatic union is that union in Christ as defined by the Nicene Creed and council of Chalecedon that holds in union both the humanity of Jesus and His divinity. As to being human He shows the best of humanity and as to being divine He displays what God is like and is the very image of the divine.
I explore here the nature of the union in Christ that makes Him both the Exemplar of God and the Exemplar of humanity in our truest intended being, starting with Scotus and Bonaventure and then some considerations from, Charles Gore and Karl Rahner.
Scotus: Existences in Christ.
As elsewhere Scotus’ love for Jesus leads him into the most intense considerations of the truths of the Incarnation. For both apologetic and spiritual reasons he considers several intense philosophical questions about the possibility and nature of the union between God the Word and the human person of Jesus.
Scotus first asks if such a union between the infinite and a finite being is possible and considers reasons for and against it. (Ordination 3, distinction 1). He tries to defend the claim of faith that the union of divinity with humanity is possible. He makes the following points.
- There is the argument that it is not possible for human nature to be united to the eternal, infinite and divine Word in a person because a pure and infinite act (and person) cannot be combined with anything material. Because God is simple and has no parts the Word cannot have parts and cannot be combined with something finite. However the truth that such a union is possible is taken from the testimony of scripture, “the Word was made flesh”. The testimony of scripture is considered to be sufficiently reliable and it is recorded that it has happened, therefore such a union must be possible.
- One of the three divine persons (the Word) unites with humanity rather than the other two. Some argue the whole Trinity operates equally in the incarnation. (Note biblically the involvement of the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary) but it is the Word that makes the union and is involved with the union and not either of the others.
- It would seem that in actions directed outwardly there is no distinction in the three persons of the Trinity in their acting, except that one person may act from Himself. The Father could so act but it is the Son who acts in this special way of making a union with human nature. There is a special relationship involved in which it is specifically the Word that is the active agent of God that takes upon Himself the union in a special dependent relationship.1In respect of scripture (point 1) Scotus takes it for granted that the testimony of scripture is sufficient to establish the case for the union. Many may doubt scripture today on various grounds, but if we do accept the testimony of scripture then we may easily affirm these things as Scotus does.
As elsewhere Scotus does not seem to want God to depend on created things or humanity in any way, but of course God must in some way depend upon the contingencies in the cosmos (including our evolution) for the union of humanity and divinity to be possible and to occur. If humanity had not occurred in earth’s history the union of God with creation in free-willed creature was desired by God and may have occured on another planet but depending on such contingencies in the environment of that planet. Furthermore if there is free will there must be some dependence of God on a free-willed response of a willing agent and in this case the willing assent of Mary in her free will decision to accept her vocation as the bearer of the created union. The Word needed a willing rational creature, to whom He had given free will, to be an agent in which the joining could take place. Hence God does in this sense rely on our humanity and the contingencies of nature for the event of the incarnation to occur.
In a second set of considerations Scotus probes the questions surrounding the precise nature of the union. Are there two existences (divine and human) in Christ and does this make Christ two persons? It seems that through his varied arguments that Scotus defends two different existences dwelling in Christ but this does not make Christ a two because of the close nature of that union that is the second highest union after the Trinity.
Richard Cross commenting on Scotus’ account of the divine-human union writes that
- Christ’s human nature in not part of the Trinity and is dependent on the Word.
- The human nature of Christ lacks nothing of the positive aspects of human nature as organic being and personhood in many other respects what the Word takes on as human nature is our nature and therefore like us.
- Christ in the union of divinity with humanity has the highest grace of any creature and always enjoyed the greatest vision of God’s grace and future existence and knew everything the Word knows. He had perfect intuitive knowledge (thus people’s thoughts and aspects of the future that he predicted).
- Christ’s will was free and indeed had to be and was thus capable of wrong choice and sin. This has to be the case otherwise he would not be like us in every way and therefore could not redeem us because he was not the same. He could only redeem us by being the same as us.
- Although He could have sinned and had the choice between self and God’s justice he remained impeccable, freely choosing the divine will.
Scotus in his elaborate exploration therefore seems to make the point of a real humanity in Christ joined with God in a special way that was both free and capable of sin and yet remained true to God in a willing obedience. Christ had the highest vision of God’s future life purpose and remained true to that vision, satisfying God’s justice rather than following selfish will. Christ thus manifests God’s justice and our way to be.
3. Bonaventure’s exposition of Christ
There is in the writings of Bonaventure a very strong emphasis on the Incarnate Word in Christ as being both the Exemplar of God and Example of our best humanity and way to be. The Word in Him is the principle of all knowledge and truth. Because of this we need to contemplate aspects of the life of Christ and His ministry and be deeply involved in prayerful union with Christ because He is our way and the truth we need to hear and obey. As Francis before him, we are to dwell on the acts of Christ and life that revealed way. It brings with it the consciousness of our sins and need of conversion.
Bonaventure’s view of the Incarnation is somewhat different to Scotus. For a start Bonaventure seems to imply that by God’s grace Christ was immune to sin and could not have sinned. Also Christ possessed all knowledge and was free of ignorance. The problem with such an exalted view of Christ would make him some sort of moral superman and not really testable as we are. Also while we can appreciate Bonaventure’s desire to exalt Jesus in His divinity I think that his view of Christ separates us from Christ as real humanity. For that reason I prefer Scotus more greater real humanity emphasis.
Christ comes to us as the most supreme revelation of God’s nature and our way to be. He is the foundation of all correct doctrine and without Him our perception of God is incomplete. Christ carries in Him the immutable truth that lays behind all scientific knowledge and the very laws of the cosmos. He carries is him a truth that does not change with time. Things are not perfectly knowable without Him. We do not find the true laws by which we must live simply in ourselves and our own understanding. The light of our own intellect is not good enough as guide to things in life and He only can bring a certitude of the right way of being and living. Thus we cannot have only a naturalistic view of the world we need a knowledge of Christ to make our understanding of the cosmos complete.
Christ is the “going in” to the fullest knowledge of the character of God and though Him with the greatest access into the knowledge of the Father from whom He came. He therefore links us with those greater things beyond this world and leads us into the fullest knowledge and truth of the eternal and immaterial. Thus Christ came to “beautify the person” finding the life giving presence of God as our “pasture” in which we walk. He is also the ladder that reaches upon to heaven, being the means of our own ascent to God.
Therefore as the greatest teacher of truth and knowledge Christ should be given the uttermost honour ( in Tillich’s words our “Ultimate Concern”). He should be honoured not only by words but by practical application of it, practical followers of that ultimate truth. We must listen through the humility of faith. When we seek knowledge it must not be for curiosity but with the intention of obedient loving response. We should seek from Him those things that lead to our holiness that embraces the fullest love of one’s neighbour, to find the highest harmony with others and our mutual well-being.
In all these ways we find in Christ the very presence of God and what divinity means and all also we our truest humanity is. We have evolved as imperfect beings subject to wrongful thoughts and actions but Christ is the Exemplar of our truest being, our Intended Being to which we may be led by His revealed knowledge and truth
4. Charles Gore: Christ revealing humanity
As a complement to Scotus and Bonaventure I consider some of the writings of Charles Gore. In the wake of Charles Darwin and biblical criticism The Bampton Lectures by Charles Gore gave both a defence of orthodox faith but also an adaption of critical arguments about the nature of scripture and received faith. In the lectures Gore sets out a specific view of Christ as the revelation of our humanity and also the revelation of the divine nature. It complements the themes we have already found in Scotus and Bonaventure.
Jesus is the Son of Man and hence the real humanity we are to be. He had all the usual faculties of a human being and such that His being the divine Son does not detract from that. He is therefore the way for humanity in His righteous living and being right with God in all things. Although there is focus in Christian theology of His great work as Redeemer this should not cloud aspects of Christ as the living way and example for us. Jesus grew up as a normal boy but excelling in wisdom and the application in His life of all that is good in human relations. He had a human consciousness of His relationship with God that did not conflict with experiencing real fear, anxiety and pain.
Gore explores aspects of “Kenotic” Christology which is the emphasis on the self-emptying of the Word as part of the incarnation. The Word leaves aside divine power as it resides in the humanity of Jesus. Hence Gore takes the view that Jesus was restrained in His fleshly existence for us. The Spirit that rested upon Jesus did so in the manner the Spirit has rested upon other in the past and can rest upon us and empower us. Jesus did not speak always from omniscience but from inspired human perception and is conditioned by the limits of normal human consciousness. What extra knowledge of people that Jesus had revealed to Him was extraordinary but not beyond the possibilities of our own perceptions in contact with the Holy Spirit. Hence in the Incarnation the Word assumed our humanity in its completeness. In this He revealed the character that God intends for us all. Thus Jesus Christ is the Exemplar of our way to be. In His resurrection and exultation in the Ascension is He exhibited the conditions of Godhead. In this He has a uniqueness but points to the future glory of all of us.
In other respects, Jesus was of course not like us. Despite being tempted He was “sinless” in that He overcame temptation and turned aside from what would be sinful. He is fully obedient to what He knows to be the will of the Father. That is to say He had complete moral freedom and the fullest freedom to do what is right. His desires were controlled by His willing obedience and sifting what is true and good. The point is that He could have turned aside from God’s will but did not. In that He lived in the divine will perfectly He is the summit of humanity (and is so as the end point of our evolution).
As part of his engagement with Darwin’s theory of the evolution of humanity Gore says that we have no reason to think that humanity was created perfect. When humanity first became conscious of the divine and free-willed being we could have evolved in perfect love and obedience but have not. However in Christ we have the revelation of a completed goal of perfect communion and goodness that is meant for us. So we see our best selves in Him and what we are to be.
Gore writes further that Christ is “catholic” in that He is beyond the limitations of the race of people into which He was born. Jesus went beyond the narrow confines of the Jewish race and their religious nationalism. He converted the Jewish symbols and institutions into something more pervasive and catholic for all races. With Him and in Him each race finds the highest expression and the most moral and good character to be found.
The church has often been unworthy in the way that it has treated those outside as “heretics” and made false distinctions between people. It has not had that Catholic character of Christ and that He intended for His church. We must today see Christ beyond the considerations of individuality and origins. We must seem in Jesus Christ a revolt against racial pride and the selfish use of property. Christ is in contrast to the selfish divisions and classifications of race and status that still degrade our humanity.
Thus we are to see in Jesus a humanity that does not conflict with His divinity but shows a self-emptying limitation of His divine powers in order to be like us in our humanity and be the sign of what is possible for us in obedient love of God’s will for us. He is the exemplar of all God’s purpose for us.
A wonderous mystery is this day revealed:
The Two natures are united
Thus we find in Him our the most divine glory and the most divine example of our potential
Hail to thee thou greatest unity of all
May we seek thee and find thee
Our true origin and our whole purpose to be