The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

From the Scylla of Patripassianism into the Charybdis of Nestorianism

My attention was recently drawn, via a link at Robin G. Jordan's Anglicans Ablaze blog, to a posting at Ligonier Ministries' website entitled "Did God Die On the Cross?". In this post, which is excerpted from R. C. Sproul's book The Truth of the Cross, the eminent American Calvinist theologian takes exception with the line from Charles Wesley's well-known hymn "And Can It Be?" that asks the question "How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?"

What is it about this line that Dr. Sproul finds to be problematic?

He writes:

If we say that God died on the cross, and if by that we mean that the divine nature perished, we have stepped over the edge into serious heresy.

In this Dr. Sproul is correct enough but his words invite the question of who, other than a trained and professional theologian, could or would possibly be obtuse enough to understand Wesley's words as suggesting that "the divine nature perished."
Dr. Sproul went on to say:

In fact, two such heresies related to this problem arose in the early centuries of the church: theopassianism and patripassianism. The first of these, theopassianism, teaches that God Himself suffered death on the cross. Patripassianism indicates that the Father suffered vicariously through the suffering of His Son. Both of these heresies were roundly rejected by the church for the very reason that they categorically deny the very character and nature of God, including His immutability. There is no change in the substantive nature or character of God at any time.

Again, Dr. Sproul is correct in what he says but I note the absence of any mention of another heresy that is quite pertinent to this matter. The heresy in question is that of Nestorius.

Nestorius served as Archbishop of Constantinople from 428 to 431 AD, in which year he was removed from his position following his condemnation at the First Council of Ephesus. This condemnation was reiterated and intensified twenty years later at the Council of Chalcedon, which produced a statement on the Person and Nature of Christ which has subsequently been regarded as one of the key ecclesiastical statements of orthodox Christology.

What had Nestorius said exactly that got him into all this hot water?

He had objected to the way Mary was customarily honoured with the title Theotokos, which literally means "God-bearer" but is more commonly rendered in English as "Mother of God". Being a trained and professional theologian, Nestorius obtusely understood this title to mean some nonsense about Mary being the mother of Christ's "divine nature." Since the divine nature by, well, nature, eternal, Nestorius said that she should be called the "Mother of Christ" instead.

Nestorius did not actually deny the deity of Christ but the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon saw his doctrine as leading in that direction. It tended to the seperation of the divine and human natures of Christ, which, in the Incarnation had been permanently united in the One Person of Christ. Thus Nestorianism became the name of the heresy which denies the perfect and permanent union of the divine and human natures in the Person of Christ. Its opposite heresy - for heresies tend to come in pairs which depart from orthodox truth in opposite directions - is Monophysitism, which confuses or mingles the divine and human natures.

Dr. Sproul writes:

Some say, “It was the second person of the Trinity Who died.” That would be a mutation within the very being of God, because when we look at the Trinity we say that the three are one in essence, and that though there are personal distinctions among the persons of the Godhead, those distinctions are not essential in the sense that they are differences in being. Death is something that would involve a change in one’s being.

Here, Dr. Sproul falls into Nestorianism. To say that it was the Second Person of the Trinity Who died on the Cross does not assert a mutation in the very being of God. Presumably, Dr. Sproul would not say that the Incarnation effected a mutation within the very being of God. Yet in the Incarnation, a truly and perfect human nature, was forever joined to the Second Person of the Trinity, the Eternal Son of God. Which means that it was that Person Who died on the Cross.

To deny that the Second Person of the Trinity died on the Cross is to assert that it was Christ's human nature and not Christ Himself Who died. Dr. Sproul as much as does this when he writes "The atonement was made by the human nature of Christ." This, however, is as bad a heresy as asserting that the divine nature perished. It was the Person of Christ, in Whom the two natures are forever joined, Who made the Atonement, and that Person is God.

Charles Wesley had it right. In an attempt to avoid one deadly and ancient heresy, Dr. Sproul has fallen into another.


  1. I don't regard these heresies (if they were indeed heresies, rather than over-zealous logic chopping on both sides, who were both looking for easons to disagree) as anything like as deadly as the persecution of these heresies turned out to be.

    The monophysites became the Oriental Orthodox including the modern Eygptian Christians or Copts (until recently, millions of them) - who I would regard as a shining example of Christian devoutness and endurance under more than 1000 years of extreme difficulties and persecutions.

    (They have, in fact, almost been obliterated in the past few years since the 'Arab Spring' with the assistance and apparent approval of Western Powers, including the government of my country and probably yours.)

    In other words, if that is regarded heresy then there is nothing much 'deadly' about it; would that there were more such heretics!

  2. Bruce, both are heresies. But we all have error within. We need to correct them.

    But we can praise God for our brother who, despite errors, gives glory for God.

    To be an antichrist is to deny Jesus is the Messiah and the source of our salvation: to deny his Lordship.

    And many Papists, Nestorians and Monophysites are not antichrists.

  3. I understand the necessity of rooting out heresy where it is found, but it strikes me that the early Church likely suffered the nightmare of discussing high metaphysics among people who had different languages. Getting across concepts in the same way would have been incredibly difficult during this time.

  4. "The atonement was made by the human nature of Christ."
    Is this sentence even meaningful? Is atonement a thing that can be done by a nature, human or divine?

  5. No it isn't. Sproul is either very confused or is using words in a highly idiosyncratic fashion that makes it hard to tell what he means. And this makes me doubt that he actually is an adherent of the heresy of which is being accused. (In order to be an adherent he would have to understand the matter at issue, which he doesn't seem to.) But Mr. Neal is correct in saying that his words, taken at face value, do state a heretical doctrine. Sproul is not speaking for Calvinism here, which is fully in accord with Chalcedonian orthodoxy.