The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Friday, May 17, 2024

Orthodox Christology and the Athanasian Symbol


The upcoming Sunday is Whitsunday which is the Christian Pentecost that looks back on the day the Holy Ghost came down upon the Apostles as they were waiting in the Upper Room following the Ascension.   It is the successor in the Christian Kalendar to Shavuot or the Festival of Weeks, the Jewish Pentecost, which is often thought of as looking back to the giving of the Law.   While it is not explicitly stated that this is the reason for the Festival in the Old Testament the timing is right.  Shavuot falls fifty days after the Jewish Passover, hence it's having been called Pentecost in the Greek-speaking ancient world.   Whitsunday falls fifty days after the Christian Passover, Easter, commemorating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Forty days after the Resurrection came the Ascension and then ten days after the Ascension, fifty after the Resurrection, the Holy Ghost came upon the Apostles.


Whitsunday is one of the days appointed in the Book of Common Prayer for the Athanasian Creed to be recited instead of the Apostles’ Creed in Morning Prayer or Matins as is the Sunday after Whitsunday known as Trinity Sunday.  This rubric, along with the one that says that Morning and Evening Prayer should be available in every parish on a daily basis, are ones the Church ought to take more seriously.   It would be a great corrective to the doctrinal decay of the present day.


The Athanasian Creed, or more properly, since it is not in the form of a Credo, an “I believe” confession of faith but is rather in the form of a Quincunque Vult declaration of what must be believed by “whosoever will be saved”, the Athanasian Symbol is the longest of the three ancient Symbols.   Whereas the Apostles’ and Nicene-Creeds follow a Trinitarian structure – three sections, the first about the Father, the second and largest about the Son, and the third about the Holy Ghost and His earthly ministry through the Church – the Athanasian Symbol has two parts.   The first and longest is a thorough statement of the doctrine of the Trinity so as to exclude any possibility of confusing the Persons or dividing the substance.   The second part is a statement of the doctrine of Jesus Christ.   While the Christological section of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Creed which under ordinary circumstances is supposed to be used in a service of Holy Communion, adequately protects against Arianism, the main heresy against which the Church contended in the fourth century in which this Creed was developed, the Athanasian Symbol is a welcome supplement for it incorporates the safeguards of the doctrine of the Hypostatic (Personal) Union of Jesus Christ against Nestorianism and Monophysitism, the heresies against which the Church contended in the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon in the fifth century.   The Christological portion of the Athanasian Symbol begins like this:


For the right Faith is that we believe and confess: that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man;

God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds: and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world;

Perfect God, and Perfect Man: of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting;

Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead: and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood.

Who although he be God and Man: yet he is not two, but one Christ;

One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Manhood into God;

One altogether, not by confusion of Substance: but by unity of Person.

For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man: so God and Man is one Christ.


The statement that He is “Perfect Man: of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting” guards against the heresy of Apollinaris of Laodicea, the fourth century heretic who in his zeal to oppose Arianism taught that Jesus was less than fully human, that in Him the divine Logos took the place of a human νοῦς or mind.  Hence the reference to “a reasonable soul” as well as “human flesh.”   Jesus’ eternal divine nature did not take the place of anything missing in His human nature, He was perfect in both of His natures.   Therefore He had a human “reasonable soul”, that is a soul with a mind that reasons, that knows things by learning through experience and drawing deductive conclusions like any other human being, as well as His omniscient divine nature in which He knows everything because as God to be omniscient is not something different, added on, or accidental to His just being.  His human nature was complete, differing from ours only in that it was enhypostatic and sinless.   Enhypostatic means that His human nature did not belong to or comprise a self other than His divine Self, if this were otherwise, the Nestorians would have been right and He would have been two persons sharing the same body, instead of One Person, which would be something closer to the idea of possession than of Incarnation.   A self is not a component of human nature without which it would not be complete and completely human like a body or a human soul.   Of course a nature cannot exist without a self, but the self is the owner of the nature, that to which the nature belongs, and in the case of Jesus’ Christ’s complete human nature, the self to which it belonged was always the Self of the eternal Son of God.   Nor does His sinlessness indicate that He lacked something necessary to make Him human, quite the contrary.  Sin, although we talk about it as if it were a thing, something that has positive existence in us, something that was added to our nature at the Fall, because human language is such that if we didn’t talk about it this way it would be difficult to talk about it at all, is not actually a thing, with positive existence, added to our nature, but rather a deficiency, the hole where something we lost in the Fall used to be, something that exists in us only in a negative sense, as an absence or shadow.  Specifically it is the absence of the quality of rightness, of being right or just, in our thoughts, words, and actions, singular and habitual.   When we say that Jesus was sinless, we are saying that He lacked a lack, that the absence that is there in all of us of the rightness that ought to be there was itself absent in Him, meaning that the rightness that ought to be there in us was present in Him, and that therefore His lacking sin really means that He was completely human in a way that we in our fallen estate are not.


In the twentieth century, Gordon H. Clark and Cornelius Van Til, two of the conservative Presbyterian theologians who followed J. Gresham Machen in opposing the apostasy of the Presbyterian Church of America and Princeton Theological Seminary when these bodies abandoned the nineteenth century Presbyterian orthodoxy of Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, had a famous controversy over the relationship between divine and human knowledge.  Van Til took the position that God’s knowledge was qualitatively different from man’s knowledge, Clark took the position that it was merely quantitatively different.  To explain further, suppose a truth, let us say that all dogs are animals.   Clark maintained that this truth as known by both God and man, is the same known truth to God as it is to man, except that God knows it more thoroughly, knows all of its details, knows every type of dog for example, everything implicit in it, and everything consequential to it.  The truth, however, is the same truth for man as it is for God, and the knowledge of it is the same knowledge.   The difference between man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge, to Clark, is that man’s knowledge is limited, that he knows certain finite truths and can add to his knowledge, truth by truth, but this can never approach God’s knowledge, because God knows all truths, and so His knowledge is infinite, which the finite can never approach because infinity is indivisible and so no amount of finites can ever add up to an infinite.   Van Til maintained that God’s knowledge differs from man’s in more than this, that it is qualitatively different in that each truth is different to God than it is to man, with God’s knowledge of it being the true knowledge, of which  man’s knowledge is only an approximate resemblance.   While each man’s most zealous adherents, such as Greg Bahnsen for Van Til and John W. Robbins for Gordon Clark, maintained the controversy long after its originators had passed, others less partisan have come to suspect that the two men were talking past each other.  Clark’s position is grounded in the idea that truth is truth and that it is the same for everybody, an idea that seems to have been jettisoned today, but without which the basic laws of logic – the law of identity, the law of non-contradiction and the law of the excluded middle - fall.   Van Til’s position is grounded in the idea that God is incomprehensible by man and that in speaking truth of Him, neither univocal (the bark of the Doberman, the bark of the Rottweiler) nor equivocal (the bark of the Doberman, the bark of the tree) language can convey truth but only analogical which is neither univocal or equivocal but shares aspects of both enough so that something meaningful and understandable can be conveyed through it about the infinite Being that is beyond the comprehension of human minds.  Clark and Van Til, being strict Calvinists, would have abhorred the thought, but both would have benefited from a thorough grounding in Thomistic theology and philosophy for both of their starting points were stressed and harmonized in the thinking of the Angelic Doctor.   Furthermore, they would have benefited from looking at the Patristic consensus on the difference between divine and human knowledge as formulated in the struggles of the orthodox Fathers against heresies such as Apollinarianism.   Divine knowledge is indeed different from human knowledge in more ways than the mere quantitative but the difference is between the omniscience of the simple, uncreated, Being Whose essence and every attribute are the same as His very existence and the finite knowledge of composite, created, beings who must attain and accumulate what they know, truth by truth, fact by fact, over time.


Other errors that have plagued Christianity in recent centuries could have been avoided by more attention to the Athanasian Symbol and the words “One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Manhood into God.”   Take, for example, kenoticism.  This error takes its name from the Greek word rendered “made himself of no reputation” in Philippians 2:7 in the Authorized Bible.   The English Standard Version, which is the apostate liberal Revised Standard Version as modified for Crossway Publishers by a committee that included enough evangelical celebrities like J. I. Packer and Wayne Grudem as to persuade the gullible into thinking a liberal translation had thereby been turned into a conservative and faithful one, renders it “emptied himself” in the American edition as do the ASV, NASV, and NRSV.  The New Living Translation renders it “he gave up his divine privileges.”  The NIV has “made himself nothing” as does the UK edition of the ESV.   Now, “empty” is not a wrong translation of κενόω when it comes to word-to-word translation, it is the basic, literal, meaning of the word.   Contextually, however, in Phil. 2:7, the meaning is that of the Authorized Bible.  It is not that the Son of God underwent an ontological emptying in which He divested Himself of His deity, part of His deity, or even His “divine privileges.”   Think of the words of Jesus to Nicodemus in John 3:13 “And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.”   He declared there that He was in heaven even as He was on earth speaking to Nicodemus having come down from heaven.   Clearly there was no ontological divesting of His deity or any of His divine attributes, which in orthodox theology are not accidental in God, but all belong to and indeed are equivalent to His very essence.   St. Paul in Philippians 2 was not talking about an ontological change in the Son of God but His humility in taking to Himself another nature, a far less exalted nature, a created nature, and undergoing all the experiences appropriate to that nature and indeed everything that human nature experiences as a result of its debasement through the Fall into sin even though the human nature He took unto Himself was not so debased.  Kenoticism is the interpretation of Phil. 2:7 as meaning that Jesus underwent an ontological emptying of at least part of His divinity in order to become truly man.  It is usually thought of as beginning with Erlangen School neo-Lutheran theologian Gottfried Thomasius around the middle of the nineteenth century.  Another major proponent of it was Charles Gore, Bishop of Oxford, a liberal (in the sense of embracing the so-called higher criticism, rejecting Biblical infallibility, and trying to make the Christian faith conform to so-called scientific theories built upon the unsound foundation of anti-Christian naturalistic presuppositions) Anglo-Catholic (“liberal Anglo-Catholic” ought to be as absurd an expression as “liberal fundamentalist” since pre-Oxford Movement high churchmen were the most reactionary – as always I mean that as a positive compliment – wing of the Church, and the Oxford Movement began as a reaction against liberalism).   The sound orthodox doctrine, however, is that of the Athanasian Symbol.  The Incarnation was “not by conversion of the God head into flesh”, which is what an ontological kenosis would amount to, but “by taking of the Manhood into God.”   The divine nature, the Godhead, is simple and immutable.  It does not change.   Being infinite and simple, it is indivisible with no composite parts.  No attributes can be separated from it as accidental, each are the very essence of the Godhead.   The Son of God, the Second of the Three Persons Who each possess the whole of the one Godhead in the Trinity, took to His Self another nature, a complete human nature, so that from the moment of the Incarnation – His conception – He has subsisted in two modes simultaneously, as fully God and fully Man.



That Jesus Christ is “One altogether, not by confusion of Substance: but by unity of Person” is a necessary corrective of two opposing errors in the main branches of continental Protestantism.   In the early days of the sixteenth century Reformation, Dr. Martin Luther accused the Swiss branch of the Reformation of Nestorianism.  This was because Ulrich Zwingli of Zurich who was the leading Swiss Reformer for most of the period in which Dr. Luther led the Reformation in Germany in defence of his memorialist view of the Lord’s Supper argued against the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament on the grounds that Jesus’ body, and His human nature in general, has a local presence which is currently in Heaven, preventing it from being on the altars of all the parishes in Christendom.   Dr. Luther was a strong defender of the Real Presence, the strongest among the Protestant Reformers, and this issue was what prevented the success of the Marburg Colloquy of 1529 which sought unity between the German and Swiss branches of the Reformation and at which both Luther and Zwingli were present.  Zwingli died two years after the failed Colloquy and five years after that French Reformer, John Calvin, published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion and was persuaded by William Farel to move to Geneva and lead the Reformation there.  Calvin, while he rejected Zwinglian memorialism, held to a spiritual view of the Real Presence rather than the more literal view of the Lutherans who concluded that the difference between his view and Zwingli’s was more nominal than substantial.  That Calvin in rejecting the Lutheran view borrowed Zwingli’s argument based on the local presence of the body of Christ lent its support to this conclusion.  Thus, Calvinism became as suspect in Lutheran eyes as Zwinglianism of, if not outright Nestorianism, a Nestorian tendency.


That this Nestorian tendency actually exists in the tradition of Reformed thought is undeniable today although it was not remotely as evident in the sixteenth century.  In our day, a leading “orthodox” Reformed theologian, the late R. C. Sproul, accused the hymn writer Charles Wesley of bordering on Patripassionism (the heresy against which Tertullian wrote his Against Praxeas, it would later be renamed after Sabellius, and is essentially the modalist view of the Trinity, that the Three Persons are not Three Persons but three names or offices of the same Person) for the line in his beloved hymn And Can It Be that says “that Thou my God shouldst die for me.”   Sproul’s accusation against Wesley, however, did not reveal actual Patripassionism on the part of the hymn writer, who by no means confused the Persons of the Trinity, but rather Nestorianism on the part of the one making the accusation.  It was the human nature of Jesus that died, Sproul argued, not His divine nature.   This is a fundamentally Nestorian argument.  Natures do not die.  Persons die.  Jesus, the Person Who is the eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, died.  That means that when He died, God died.  He was able to die because in the Incarnation He took to Himself a second nature, human nature, which was mortal, that is to say, capable of death, as His divine nature, which is immortal, incapable of death, is not.   The death the Son of God experienced, therefore, was a human death, but it was the human death of a Person Who is fully God, which is why Wesley’s line is legitimate.   Since the human nature and divine nature of Jesus both belong to the same Person in which they are eternally united it is legitimate to predicate of that Person whatever is true of either nature even when speaking about Him in terms of the other nature.  This is called the communicatio idiomatum, the communication of properties or attributes, a Scriptural example of which can be seen in the verse quoted earlier from Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus.  Note that He calls Himself “the Son of man” when stating that He is, that is in the present at the time when He was speaking to Nicodemus, in heaven.  Sproul’s Nestorianism was particularly troublesome in that it expressed itself as taking exception to something that is arguably the entire point of the Christian message – that in the Incarnation, and in the suffering and death the Son of God was able to experience because of the Incarnation, God entered into the plight of humanity and redeemed and sanctified it by His sharing in it, that God imposed no suffering upon mankind as a natural or juridical consequence of sin that He had not determined to go through Himself to redeem us.   It has been more common among the Reformed of the last century or so, to revive Nestorianism in its original form, the rejection of the honorific of “Mother of God” for the Virgin Mary.  Nestorius rejected this honorific, or rather its Greek original Θεοτόκος (literally, God-bearer, but because τόκος refers to bearing in the specific sense of bearing children rather than the more general sense, it means Mother of God) and based his rejection on the fact that Jesus received His human nature from Mary rather than His divine.  The problem with his reasoning, a problem so serious that it was condemned as heresy in the Council of Ephesus, is that the Person to Whom the Blessed Virgin gave birth was One Person Who is both God and Man, and while He did not receive His deity from her, she is still the Mother of the Person Who as the Son of God is God, and therefore the Mother of God.  The Nestorian tendency in the Reformed tradition did not manifest itself in this form until recently because Zwingli, Bullinger, Calvin et al. in the sixteenth century all had a higher, more Catholic, Mariology than their twentieth and twenty-first century successors.  Note that while the revival of the Nestorian rejection of this honorific has not been limited to the Reformed among Protestants of the last couple of centuries, the Reformed are the only ones among this renaissance of Nestorianism who claim to care about the Patristic orthodoxy of the early Ecumenical Councils.


Dr. Luther, therefore, was correct in perceiving a Nestorian tendency in the Reformed tradition.  Unfortunately, in responding to it he opened the door to a different sort of error.   In the fifth century, after Nestorianism was condemned at the Council of Ephesus, an opposite heresy called monophysitism developed among those who were most vehement in their rejection of Nestorianism.   Monophysitism, as the name suggests, is the idea that after the Incarnation, Jesus Christ was not just One Person, but had only one nature.   Those who adopted this position pointed to a line in the writings of St. Cyril of Alexandria, who had led the orthodox side at Ephesus, which they interpreted as saying that the Incarnate Christ had only one nature but this was a case of a term not having yet attained its settled meaning in theology.   Before the Council of Chalcedon issued its definition, clarifying the doctrine of the Hypostatic Union of the two natures in the one Person of Jesus Christ, the word φύσις was not the settled word for “nature” but was used with other meanings, sometimes interchangeably with ὑπόστασις which was the settled (1) theological word for person in Greek. (2)  This seems to be how St. Cyril was using the term.   The monophysites, particularly the Eutychians who followed Eutychius of Constantinople, however, taught that in the Incarnation Jesus’ human nature was sort of absorbed into His divine nature    This is what was condemned as heresy at Chalcedon.  Dr. Luther did not revive the error of Eutychius.   He did, however, in response to Zwingli and Calvin, draw some unfortunate conclusions from the communicatio idiomatum.


Dr. Luther’s position is often misunderstood.   When he responded to the claim that Jesus’ body cannot be literally present in the Sacrament because it’s local presence is in Heaven by saying that since in Jesus the divine and human are inseparably united Jesus’ human nature is present everywhere His divine nature is, this was not his explanation of how Jesus is present in the Sacrament but his rebuttal of the argument that Zwingli and Calvin built upon the local presence of the body of Christ.   In other words, by maintaining that through its union with His deity Jesus’ human nature was in a sense omnipresent he was responding to the claim made based on the local presence of Jesus’ body in Heaven by saying that the local presence is not the only presence that Jesus’ human nature has, as is assumed by the Zwinglian and Calvinist position, rather than saying that it is through this particular other presence that Jesus is present in the Sacrament.  Many of Dr. Luther’s critics on this point do not get beyond their objections to his claim for a sort of omnipresence for Jesus’ human nature to see that what he meant by Jesus’ Sacramental Presence was a third kind of presence that was neither the local presence of Jesus’ body nor this omnipresence that he claimed was shared from Jesus’ deity to His humanity.   It is this claim of a shared omnipresence that concerns us here, however.


In the orthodox doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum the attributes of Jesus’ divine nature and those of His human nature are shared, not with the other nature directly, but with the Person Who is Subject and Owner of both natures.  Had Dr. Luther limited his talk of Jesus’ divine attributes being shared with his human attributes to His omnipresence his position, depending upon how he further explained it, would not necessarily contradict the orthodox viewpoint.   Indeed, it is logically necessary that if the divine and human natures have since the establishment of the Hypostatic Union in the Incarnation been inseparably united that wherever Jesus is both of His natures in some sense are which translates into Jesus’ human nature being in some sense omnipresent.   The question, however, is what is that some sense?  Obviously that sense is not that the local presence of His human body and soul have been extended infinitely.   While omnipresence as an attribute of the Godhead is not a local presence but a presence that transcends the limits of locality it would be wrong to say that this omnipresence now belongs to Jesus’ human nature qua His human nature.  That would require that either the omnipresence of His Godhead has passed from His divine nature to His human nature or that it has been duplicated in His human nature.  Divine attributes can neither be duplicated nor alienated from the divine essence.   The sense in which Jesus’ human nature can legitimately be said to be omnipresent is that because it is inseparably united with His divine nature it is present everywhere the divine nature is present in the divine nature.  Thus, the Lutherans are right in maintaining that what they call the Extra Calvinisticum, the idea that Jesus as God is present in places where He as Man is not present, is wrong, but they themselves are wrong in thinking that because everywhere Jesus is present He is present, since the Incarnation, as both God and Man, that His omnipresence has passed from the omnipresent nature to the locally present nature so that the locally present nature is now omnipresent in se, rather than that through the inseparable union of the two natures in the Person of Jesus Christ, both are present wherever that Person is present, in the nature that is omnipresent.  Unfortunately, the Lutheran misunderstanding of the communicatio idiomatum goes beyond this, for the Lutherans also claim that omnipotence and omniscience have become part of Jesus’ human nature as well as His divine nature.   That Jesus’ human nature must in some sense be omnipresent is a logical requirement of the Hypostatic Union because the doctrine forbids the separation of the two natures and if Jesus were somewhere present without His human nature there His divine nature would be separate from His human nature.   No such logical requirement can be deduced with regards to His omnipotence and omniscience.


Again, the Athanasian Symbol declares that Jesus is “One altogether, not by confusion of Substance: but by unity of Person” and it is important to consider these words in the light of the preceding words “One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Manhood into God.”   Sometimes the One Person of Jesus Christ is spoken of as if He were the product of the Incarnation as if His Person was what you get when you add His deity to His humanity.   This, however, would make Him a created and composite person.   His Person, His Self, His Ego is eternal.  He has always existed with the Father Who eternally begat Him and with the Holy Ghost Who eternally proceeds through Him from the Father.   In the Incarnation, without changing Who He eternally is, the Son of God, the Divine Logos, or What He is, Very God of Very God, of one substance with the Father, He united to His eternal Person a perfect, created, human nature so that the same eternal Person Who eternally existed as God, now and forevermore exists also as Man.


Given the number of basic Christological errors prevalent today we would do well to follow the liturgical use of the Athanasian Symbol as prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer.

 (1)   I have used the word “settled” here where most writers would probably use the word “technical” because I do not like to speak of “technical terms” in theology, the word “technical” having connotations closely associated with Modern ways of thinking and doing things that I am very much opposed to importing into theology.

(2)   Before ὑπόστασις was settled on as the Greek equivalent of the Latin persona and these terms became settled as the Greek and Latin designations of what it is that makes the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost three, it had itself been used as a synonym for οὐσία, the Greek word for “being” or “essence” – in God, although in no created being, essence is identical to being or existence – which is the word that designates what it is that makes the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost one.  The original synonymy of ὑπόστασις and οὐσία can still be seen in the term used in Latin theological writings as the equivalent of οὐσία.   This is the word substantia, from which our English word substance that in older theological English was always used for these terms is derived.  If you break this word down into its component parts sub (under) and stantia (from stans, a participle form of sto, stare, meaning “to stand”) these correspond to the component parts of ὑπόστασις.  The point of bringing this up is to illustrate that it is important to pay attention, when the important terms of theology are used in the early centuries, to when they are used.  When they are used in conciliar definitions, at least the definitions of those councils received by the larger Church as truly ecumenical, as φύσις was at Chalcedon, they can be taken as from that point having their settled meaning.  This meaning should not be automatically assumed for earlier uses.  The term ὁμοούσιον was used in the Nicene Creed in the fourth century to indicate that the Son shared the same essence, substance, being with the Father.   Those who objected to the term at and immediately following the First Council of Nicaea were not all Arians who objected to the idea that it was being used to express.  Their concern was that a generation or so prior it had been used with a very different meaning, a Sabellian one, by, for example, Paul of Samosata.  While politics had as much or more to do with the time it took for the Nicene consensus against Arianism to be finalized in the Church it was only through this finalization that ὁμοούσιον attained its settled meaning and the danger of it being taken in a Sabellian sense passed.

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