Is Jesus a Human Person?

Fully God and fully man, yes. A Person with a human nature, yes. A human person?

(photo: Register Files)

The Catholic faith confesses one God in three Persons, made known by Jesus Christ who is true God and true man, with the fullness of divinity and the fullness of humanity. Both the Trinity and the Incarnation are great mysteries, and in the unfolding of these mysteries Catholic thought has come to some surprising conclusions.

One that surprised me decades ago, as a reasonably well-formed creedal Protestant converting to Catholicism, was while the traditional formula is that Jesus is a divine Person with both divine and human natures, we do not call Jesus a “human person.”

When I mentioned this in the combox to my blog post “Let’s Stop Celebrating Saint Nicholas Punching Arius,” one reader took understandable (if rather disparaging) exception:

Sorry to differ with you, but you may have all the theological and media background as listed on the side panel but what the Church has always taught is that JESUS WAS TRUE GOD AND TRUE MAN, so Yes, He was a divine Person but He was also a human person: God, made man, by the power of the Holy Spirit who descended unto Mary.

Catechesis has suffered these past 50 years so I do not blame you for this faulty view. It is so sad. Your statement above is heretical.

To which I say: Friend, I feel you. This is, indeed, one of the more counterintuitive implications of Catholic theology. I resisted it myself when it was first proposed to me over a quarter century ago as I was converting to Catholicism.

It seems counterintuitive because Jesus is a Person with both a divine nature and a human nature, and if being a Person with a divine nature makes him a divine Person, then shouldn’t being a Person with a human nature make him a human person (or human Person)? 

I believe the first source I checked regarding these questions was Dr. Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, a standard reference work of Catholic teaching. Dr. Ott writes (p. 144):

The dogma asserts that there is in Christ a person, who is the Divine Person of the Logos, and two natures, which belong to the One Divine Person. The human nature is assumed into the unity and dominion of the Divine Person, so that the Divine Person operates in the human nature and through the human nature, as its organ.

Of course I noticed, as I’m sure you did, that Dr. Ott’s language is strikingly consistent with the idea that Jesus is a divine Person with a human nature, but not a human person. Both here and elsewhere Ott repeatedly describes the person in Christ as a Divine Person, and speaks of what is human in Christ as human nature, but avoids calling the Person of the Word a human person. It’s not necessarily a slam dunk, though, since he never says Christ is not a human person.

Later on I discovered that the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks the same way (§466ff):

Christ’s humanity has no other subject than the divine person of the Son of God … Thus everything in Christ’s human nature is to be attributed to his divine person as its proper subject … Christ’s human nature belongs, as his own, to the divine person of the Son of God … The individual characteristics of Christ’s body express the divine person of God’s Son … Jesus Christ is true God and true man, in the unity of his divine person

And that’s just scratching the surface. The Catechism contains many references to Jesus as a “divine person” with a “human nature”; it calls him a “man,” but, like Ott, it never calls him a “human person.”

And the same is true of any number of papal and magisterial documents (like this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, to pick just a few out of a hat).

No magisterial source I consulted ever referred to Jesus as a “human person.” Always, he is a “divine Person” with a “human nature.” This was baffling to me at first. Why would all these theological sources so carefully speak always of Christ’s “humanity” or “human nature” while always referring to the “divine person” of the Son of God? Could all of this be merely coincidence?

I might have first found confirmation that it was not in the reliable old 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, which states unequivocally:

This creed of the catechumens gives even the Divinity of the totality, i.e. the fact that the individual Person of Jesus is a Divine and not a human Person. Of this intricate question we shall speak later on.

Later on, I found further confirmation in vol. 2 of Ignatius Press’s Fundamentals of Catholicism, written by Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J., editor-in-chief of Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Fr. Baker writes (p. 217):

For, Jesus is not a human person; he is a divine Person who has taken himself a human nature.

Well, so much for the idea that this notion is a heretical product of the poor catechesis of the 50 years.

But how can this be? What does it mean? Jesus is a Person with a human nature; what else would a “human person” be but a person with a human nature?

I’m not saying there’s no sense in which we can say that Jesus is a “human person.” Language is polyvalent, and if we define “human person” as “person with a human nature,” then in that sense it would be correct to call Jesus a “human person.” I’m just saying that’s not the traditional language of the Church.

But why not?

The Incarnation, like the Trinity, is a mystery because it defies full human comprehension. We can say some things about it that are true — and especially exclude some false interpretations — but any pictures we have of it in our minds are almost certainly false.

The most elementary misunderstanding, which many of us probably had as children, is something like the heresy of Apollinarism: the Son of God plugged into a human body where the soul or the mind goes. But no, Christ has a human soul and a human mind. At one point, as a young adult searching for what was one in Christ, I thought that perhaps the will is the center of personhood, which would mean that Christ, being one person, has only one will. But no, the Church rejects this the heresy of Monotheletism; Christ has both a divine will and a human will.

Once you realize that Christ has everything that pertains to human nature — a human mind and soul, a human will — it can become difficult to conceive what exactly is left of “personhood” to be one in Jesus.

In fact, it can become hard to imagine how we are to avoid the heresy of Nestorianism, which, at least as characterized by the heresiologists, distinguished the humanity and the divinity of Christ so thoroughly that the result in effect was an amalgam of two persons, one human and one divine.

We know this is wrong, but why is it wrong? How is it wrong? Why is the complete humanity of Jesus, which has every single thing any human person has, down to a human mind and soul and will, not a complete, distinct human person like any other human person, even if he is in some special way united to the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity?

In a way it’s like the problem of the accidents or appearances in the Eucharist. We say that the “substance” of the bread and wine are gone, and only the “accidents” or appearances remain. But the “accidents” or appearances of bread and wine turn out to mean literally everything we know of bread and wine, and the mysterious “substance” or “is-ness” is we know not what. What exactly is missing in this apparent bread and wine to render it not-bread and not-wine?

"Substance,” like “personhood,” turns out to be impossible to define or describe in terms of its attributes, for it has no attributes per se: All attributes by definition are part of the “appearances” or the “nature.”

I was about to go into an excursus on the mysteries of Aristotelian metaphysics and how we might apply or understand them in a modern scientific framework, but, well, this blog post is already too long.

For those into technical explanations, I offer the following, from the Catholic Encyclopedia article linked above:

To understand the discussion, one must needs be versed in scholastic Philosophy. Be the case as it may in the matter of human nature that is not united with the Divine, the human nature that is hypostatically united with the Divine, that is, the human nature that the Divine Hypostasis or Person assumes to Itself, has certainly more of reality united to it than the human nature of Christ would have were it not hypostatically united in the Word. The Divine Logos identified with Divine nature (Hypostatic Union) means then that the Divine Hypostasis (or Person, or Word, or Logos) appropriates to Itself human nature, and takes in every respect the place of the human person. In this way, the human nature of Christ, though not a human person, loses nothing of the perfection of the perfect man; for the Divine Person supplies the place of the human.

If your eyes are glazing over reading that, here's a non-technical shorthand version: However we understand or explain what is one in the God-Man Jesus, it must be understood as being divine — not human. And, historically, the Church has used the word “person” for precisely what is one in Jesus — as well as what is three in the one God.

Therefore, the “person” in Jesus is divine, not human. And, being divine, it does not change; the Person of the Word is not changed by the Incarnation. This is an important point, and a crucial rejoinder to objections to the Incarnation based on divine immutability. As Ott writes (p. 153):

In regard to the unique quality of the assuming Divine Person (ex parte assumentis), it is objected that the Hypostatic Union contradicts the immutability of God. The rejoinder to this is that the act of becoming man, as an operation of God ad extra, has no more induced a change in the Divine Essence than did the creation of the world, as it is only the execution in time of an eternal unchangeable resolve of will. Neither did the event of the Incarnation result in a change of the Divine Essence; for, after the assumption of a body the Logos was no more perfect and no less perfect than before. No change for the worse took place, because the Logos remains what It was; and no change for the better, because It already possessed in sublime manner all perfections of the human nature from all eternity. The Word becoming man means no more an intensification of the Divine perfection than does God’s Creation of the world. The change lay on the side of the human nature only, which was elevated to participation in the Personal Subsistence of the Logos.

In other words, the objection to the Incarnation is that God’s perfection excludes the possibility of change, and if he can’t change, he can’t “become” a man. The answer to the objection is that God assumes human nature to the divine Person of the Word without any change taking place in the Word. He took to himself a human nature, but the change was entirely on the human side, not the divine side.

In the Nicene Creed we confess that the Son of God, “for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” But of course there was no actual “coming down” from heaven — and, in an important sense, the Divine Person of the Word wasn’t “made” anything, if by that we understand being converted or changed, for God cannot change. Rather, as the Athanasian Creed puts it, the Incarnation took place, “not by conversion of the Godhead into Flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God.”

I can understand people’s eyes glazing over all this as theological hair-splitting — not that anyone ever accused patristic or scholastic theologians of being averse to hair-splitting. I can understand my combox interlocutor feeling that if a Person with a divine nature is a “divine Person,” then a Person with a human nature (even if he also has a divine nature) is a “human person” (or “human Person").

This, though, is not the way Catholic thought has historically expressed itself, and with good reason.