Part 2 of a Register series: Jesus Christ Our Savior.
One of the tragedies of Catholic thought for the last 50 years or so has been the attempt to develop a religion without dogma. In this, many Catholic theologians belatedly followed a tendency inherent in Protestantism for several centuries, in which theology was not important and being nice was. One of the principal places where this tendency has been evident is in regard to Christ.
A great number of uncatechized Catholics have had a tendency to reduce Christ to a sentimental and rather humanistic ethics teacher. Many have rejected Christianity without even being able to give any credible account of what the Creed says about Christ. This is sad.
Early centuries in the life of the Church were characterized by a passion to identify just Who we believed in, a passion quite lacking today. It is instructive, then, to give a brief historical account of the various positions which led to a final clarification of who Christ is. The most basic clarification of theology about Christ occurred in the Council of Chalcedon in 451: We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord and only begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division or separation. The distinction between the natures was never abolished by their union, but, rather, the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person.
This very technical theological expression of our faith can seem quite remote from the daily life of people. But if one considers carefully the various heresies which gave rise to it and their practical implications on life, one can then come to appreciate how important such a technical expression of dogma can be.
For instance, Jim and Mary Doe might say, “If God is omnipotent, it cannot have mattered much to him what happens to us; and he cannot suffer anyway, if he is God. Moreover, though we are often taught we should be like God, who can be like him?” This is a fair description of the Eutychian heresy, where Jesus is a hybrid of God and man, but neither. The answer of Chalcedon to this was that Jesus was altogether God and man without confusion.
Our imaginary man or woman in the pew might object that this is silly, saying, “If he is God, then he cannot really suffer; and he must have been pretending to be man.” They are now Appolinarians, thinking that Jesus cannot have a human soul and, thus, practically also rejecting Christian living as impossible.
Or they might say, “Jesus was a sinner like all the rest of us.” Or: “He was a divine being; but not so divine as to be the same as God.” They would now be adoptionists or Arians, holding that Christ was merely a man or a perfect creature in some way identified with God, but not the same as the Creator.
They might also say, “Jesus became the Christ because he was a good moral teacher but was considered divine much in the way the Caesars were declared gods. God and man were so separate in him that they formed two distinct persons.” Now they would be Nestorians.
With just a little thought, one can see immediately that these statements basically deny the idea that God became man so that man might know and love God as he is in himself. They fly in the face of Christian practice. This is why Chalcedon says “without confusion, change, division or separation.”
The Church had to resort to concepts drawn from philosophy to explain the exact nature of the Church’s faith in Christ. Those concepts were person and nature. A person is an individual substance with a reasoning nature. Nature is a principle of action. In Greek, the term for an individual substance is “hypostasis.” So a hypostasis with a reasoning nature is a person.
If the union between God and man were to take place in the natures, then this would have several consequences: Jesus would either be God who only seemed to be man or a man who was united with God like us. The third possibility is that Jesus would be neither God nor man but some sort of monstrous science-fiction sort of creation. The Christian Church has always refused to look on the Christ in any of these ways because it would compromise his atonement.
For the atonement to be effective, Christ must be God, for no merely human action can justly answer for the sin. However, since the sin was committed by man, it was necessary that someone with a human nature suffer the punishments for this sin. The union of God and man must take place in the person, or the radically existing individual, not in the natures. Since the word “hypostasis” was used to describe this radically existing individual, it is called the Hypostatic Union.
Dominican Father Brian Mullady, has a doctorate in sacred theology. He is a mission preacher and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.
Read Part 1 of Father Mullady’s series here