Taking it Personally


Christian history is littered with theological controversies, and oftentimes moderns find this hard to fathom. The at-times bitter disputes are perceived in retrospect as theological hair-splitting at best, partisan war-mongering at worst. Are not these types of disagreements too esoteric to become excised about? Why risk disunity over abstractions?

I’ve always found this sort of perspective odd, since it seems to be rather selectively applied. I think about my relationship with my wife; it is definitely something worth getting worked up over, something worth pouring my life and thought and energy into. The nature of the relationship matters, and it matters a great deal; in fact, if I couldn’t be bothered to care enough about it to define and delineate aspects of it (e.g., if I couldn’t tell you what my wife likes) one would have to seriously question its importance in my life.

Seen in this light, the amount of ink spilled and vitriol expended in the theological controversies of the early church makes perfect sense. Granted, we may wish in our modern prejudices that they might have been ‘nicer’ to each other, but at least one can not fault them for not caring. It is probably an indictment of our theological malaise that we often cannot be bothered at all to get upset about truth, or even worse that we would rather accommodate error under the guise of inclusivity and unity than demonstrate that we actually love the truth by being willing to not be ‘nice’ in service to it.

But I digress and diverge slightly, but only slightly.

One theological controversy which became particularly heated concerned the Incarnation, namely: was Jesus one person? What was the nature of the Incarnation? This especially vexing question may seem to us to be so abstract as to be meaningless, a metaphysical puzzle not worth the effort. But the truth goes much deeper, and thus is almost impenetrable to the modern predilection for bumper sticker theology.

For what was really happening in the Christological debates of the early church was the intersection of the understanding of faith as revealed by God, the doxological experience of the Christian life, and the integrity and meaning of personhood. It is not too much to say that the understandings of what it means to be a person as slugged out within these theological grudge-matches would form the basis for how we understand ourselves as persons today.

For centuries theologians had been content to describe the relations in the Trinity by means of hypostatic language; The Father, Son and Holy Spirit were each a hypostasis, and thus the Trinity could be briefly (albeit certainly not exhaustively) defined as three hypostases in one essence. Of course, even the terminology is use here had undergone dramatic changes over the years; hypostasis and essence (the Greek ousia) had originally been essentially (pun vehemently intended) synonymous, and thus some early thinkers could easily talk of the divine nature being one hypostasis, meaning one essence.

For the layman, this entailed that God is basically one ‘what.’ And while hypostasis would come to basically delineate ‘who,’ prior to the Trinitarian and Christological conflicts there wasn’t an especially robust notion of what ‘who’ would actually entail. This concept of being a ‘who’ is something we take for granted after over a millennia of the development of this thought, but in the world of nascent Christianity it was not as clearly intuited.

But back to words. (Yay!) The talk of ousias and essences and hypostases was the Greek way of approaching these discussions, and for Latins they could often truly say that it was all Greek to them. Many Greeks felt that Latin was a poor language and couldn’t offer much in the way of precision, which is why when Latins began to develop their own theological nomenclature problems could arise. For example, when speaking of God’s one, undivided nature Latins primarily used the term substantia (substance), which is for all intents and purposes equivalent to the Greek ousia (essence). However, substantia was etymologically similar to hypostasis, and thus one could see how confusion could arise, especially among those not terribly familiar with the other’s language. A Latin could hear a Greek talking about how in the Trinity there are three hypostases, and the etymological similarity might lead him to think the Greek was saying that God has three substances. In the early days of theological discourse this wasn’t as big of an issue, and even the council of Nicaea uses the sense of hypostasis as referring to the one nature of God.

The debates and conflicts that arose had the ultimate effect of clarifying terminology, and in all truth it was probably a few persons (St. Basil notably) who essentially defined Greek terminology and delineated the distinction between ousia (essence) and hypostasis. But what of the Latins? Since substantia had been cordoned off to speak of God’s one nature/substance/essence, and since this no doubt helped to bring about the clarification between ousia and hypostasis among the Greeks, what word were Latins to use as an equivalent to hypostasis?

The biggest contender was the term persona, from which English gets both persona and person. Initially this was rather scandalous for the Greeks, in that persona was etymologically equivalent to their own prosopon, a word which originally referred to the mask actors would wear during a performance. (Persona even in its modern sense still retains this flavor.) There were numerous difficulties with this, especially in light of modalistic interpretations of the theological relations, since persona seemed to describe exactly what modalists meant by the Trinitarian relations.

Despite numerous objections, persona (from here on rendered as person) held on and became the Latin term of choice. The Greeks never really embraced prosopon as a term, preferring hypostasis to signify what Latins intended by person. (In fact, many felt this was a concession on their part due to the poverty of the Latin tongue…)

Hypostasis had originally meant essentially the same as essence, as aforementioned. It etymologically entailed ‘that which stands beneath,’ which is a fairly good description of substance or essence, which also why the Latin substantia was etymologically related to it. However, the particular way in which Greeks approached the Trinitarian relations actually led to a shift in meaning (perhaps better stated as a clarification in meaning) for hypostasis. Although this is a bit of a simplification, the Greeks tended to come at the Trinity beginning with the relations themselves, seeing these relations as the ground of the one essence. Thus, hypostasis truly is that which stands beneath, since it is the unity of the three hypostases which forms the unity of the one essence.

The Latins, on the other hand, tended to come at the Trinity starting with the one essence, the one substance, and understanding that as the foundation of the relations. In this sense, person was a much more suitable term since, although it intended nearly the same thing as what Greeks meant by hypostasis, it did not necessarily speak of standing underneath but actually spoke more to the relations themselves, especially at it involves the notion of rationality. Ultimately both Greeks and Latins intended practically the same understanding of the Trinity, but the way in which it was approached and explicated led to distinct ways of understanding it and even influenced the terminology employed.

All of this brings us to the Incarnation and the Council of Chalcedon. The debate in question was if Jesus- in whom the divine substance and the human substance were united- was one person or not. Perhaps he was two- one person for each nature? After all, isn’t every who ultimately a what? And if Jesus has two whats, might he not be two whos?

The definition of Chalcedon finally clarified the question as such:

So, following the saintly fathers, we all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from Mary, the virgin God-bearer as regards his humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being; he is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets taught from the beginning about him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ himself instructed us, and as the creed of the fathers handed it down to us.

Books can (and have) been written explicating this pronouncement, but one of the tensions that Chalcedon was trying to reconcile was how Jesus can have two substances- divine and human- yet at the same time be ‘a single person,’ a ‘single subsistent being.’ In Jesus each substance, each ‘what’ retains what is proper to it; as Chalcedon states, ‘the property of each nature is preserved.’ This means that whatever it means to be God was in Jesus while also whatever it means to be human was in Jesus. Thus, earlier the definition mentions (over against various heretical understandings of the time) that Jesus’ human substance included a rational soul and a body.

Chalcedon understands ‘person’ as being a subject which subsists in a nature, and in this case the person and subsistent being (hypostasis) of Jesus subsists in both the divine nature and in the human nature. From the Latin standpoint of person Jesus as a person terminates the two natures, being the subject of each substance’s properties and acts, whereas from the Greek standpoint Jesus as a subsistent being (the rendering of hypostasis here) underlies the properties of each nature and has its properties and acts predicated of him.

All this is to say that Jesus is ultimately one who, one subject of whom the divine and human substances are predicated. Substances, essences, natures- none of these exist in the abstract but are only instantiated in existing things. This ‘termination’ of essence was for the Greeks located in the hypostasis, which underlies that essence’s properties. Thus, whether we have a cat as an essence or a human being as an essence, to-be-this-one is proper to the hypostasis, since it makes an essence an actually existing thing and is the ground of it being this thing at all.

One of the reasons Latins finally latched onto person is that person spoke to a particular type of substance. Whereas hypostasis could be used of Whiskers the cat and Athanasius the man, person had the notion of rationality attached to it. In the time of Chalcedon this understanding was still in its infancy, but Boethius would eventually define person as ‘an individual substance of a rational nature.’ Here person is more stringently predicated of those beings which have a rational nature.

But even in Chalcedon this understanding was beginning to take shape, for we find that whether intended only to confound the heretics or not, the definition locates the rational aspect of person not in the person itself but rather in the nature the person possesses. Hence, Jesus has a ‘rational soul and a body,’ both of which are constituent of the human nature. Person is related to this precisely in that as the one who possesses a human nature, this man is rational since his nature’s properties are properly predicated of him, rather than of the nature in the abstract. For example, when I think we do not say that my human nature thinks or that my rationality exercises itself, but rather, as already mentioned in passing, that I think. All the actions of the human substance are only real in as far as they are predicated of being possessed by a person. There is no such thing as human nature outside of an existing human, and thus humanity as a rational nature does not exist in the abstract but only as instantiated in a human being.

As a brief aside, the implications of this understanding of what it is to be a person are staggering. In the modern world we have a tendency to understand personhood as being rationality itself; hence, it is often not until one reaches a certain level of consciousness or self-understanding or cognitive development or what-not that one can actually be thought of as a ‘person,’ even though we are often forced by pronouns to contradict this approach. (If nothing else it is impolite to refer to other humans as ‘it.’) The difficulty with locating the properties of the human nature (assuming we even bother with thinking there is such a thing as nature any more) in the ‘person’ is that it is not the person which possesses the properties of a given nature, but rather the person itself which is those properties. Person becomes bifurcated from nature, and once that occurs person becomes whoever or whatever one determines, both for oneself and (horrifyingly enough) for others.

Understanding person in the classical sense, on the other hand, has implications of its own. For if a person is an individual substance of a rational nature, as Boethius famously defined, then if one has a rational nature, one is by definition a person. The rational aspect of humanity is not something we grow into or develop as to our personhood, but is rather at bottom constituent of what it means to be both human and to be a person. In other words, if something(one) is human, that something is a person. And since human beings begin as human, they thus begin (and end) existence with a rational nature and as a consequence cannot help but be defined as persons. I will let the reader note the implications of this for certain contemporary controversies.

But back to the matter at hand. One particular difficulty that a Chalcedonian approach to the Incarnation posed was this: if Jesus is fully human and fully divine, is he therefore a human person and a divine person? Is he one over-against the other? Or do the two somehow meld into one hybrid person of sorts?

One consequence of Jesus being fully divine is that if he as a person is to truly have the divine substance predicated of him, he as a person will have to be divine, After all, in God essence and existence, substance and person are identical. That is, while we speak of God having a nature, this is only analogical, for it is better stated that God is his nature. The implication is that if Jesus as a person- as the subject in whom the divine and human substances are united- is going to be divine, then as a consequence he as a person will have to be divine. Thus Chalcedon states that this single person is “one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, Jesus is a divine person, rather than a human one.

For moderns this can seem outright heretical, given our tendency to collapse the properties of nature into what it is to be a person. But it is not only a modern problem, since Chalcedon was aimed at competing theologies which predicated two persons in Jesus, which made an amalgam of a divine-human person, which said the divine person took the place of Jesus’ human soul, and a host of other approaches. The basic thrust of Chalcedon is that Jesus is a divine person and not a human person; rather, he is a divine person in whom the divine substance and the human substance are united, the first by virtue of being the same thing, the second by means of a hypostatic union.

But are we not essentially saying that Jesus isn’t actually human? After all, every other human being we know is a human person, rather than divine. Is not Chalcedon cordoning off a special case that has no relation to reality, preferring to lock Jesus away into a metaphysical bubble?

The difficulty, of course, is that while for God person and substance are identical, for created things they are not. After all, if I was the same as my nature as a human being, I would be the only instance of what it means to be human, as would every other ‘human’ person. St. Aquinas clarifies this point:

Person has a different meaning from “nature.” For nature, as has been said, designates the specific essence which is signified by the definition. And if nothing was found to be added to what belongs to the notion of the species, there would be no need to distinguish the nature from the suppositum of the nature (which is the individual subsisting in this nature), because every individual subsisting in a nature would be altogether one with its nature. Now in certain subsisting things we happen to find what does not belong to the notion of the species, viz. accidents and individuating principles, which appears chiefly in such as are composed of matter and form. Hence in such as these the nature and the suppositum really differ; not indeed as if they were wholly separate, but because the suppositum includes the nature, and in addition certain other things outside the notion of the species. Hence the suppositum is taken to be a whole which has the nature as its formal part to perfect it; and consequently in such as are composed of matter and form the nature is not predicated of the suppositum, for we do not say that this man is his manhood. (ST, III, 2, 2)

By suppositum Aquinas here means something equivalent to hypostasis, the individuating ‘property’ that makes any substance or essence ‘this’ substance or essence. A person will thus be a suppositum with a rational nature. For Aquinas (and for Chalcedon) the notion of ‘person’ includes the nature in question, since the person is the one who possesses a given nature and of whom its acts and properties are predicated. The person is the ‘whole’ in Aquinas’ usage since it is only in a suppositum that an essence or substance actually exists concretely.

Given this, while there is a correspondence between person and nature, in that every (rational, in this case) nature is only so in that it is substantiated by a suppositum (or in this case, person), there is not a necessary correspondence between the ‘kind’ of person and the ‘kind’ of nature. Hence, Aquinas states that the nature of any particular being is not predicated of the suppositum; that is, for example, Jason as a person is not his humanity, but is rather the one who has a human nature, since to be a person is to be an individual substance of a rational nature.

Thus, while loosely speaking Jesus is a human person in that as a person he possesses a human nature, there is nothing about that ‘person’ in and of itself which is human, since the ‘person’ of Jesus is actually divine. In fact, since God is the only being in whom person and nature are identical, God is thus the only one of whom it is actually correct, within these definitions, to state that he is a certain ‘kind’ of person.

All that being the case, Chalcedon’s definitions begin to make a little more sense. Jesus as a human is not a complete whole standing over against Jesus as God, but rather the human nature is included in the suppositum/person of the Word. There was not a time when the human nature of Jesus existed apart from this union, and thus there is no room to think of Jesus’ human nature perhaps ‘missing’ something, as if the divine person is filling in a suppositum-al gap. Instead, Jesus’ human nature has its being in the suppositum/person/hypostasis of the Word.

This unity in the person of the Word means that Jesus is really a unity of substances, a person who is both completely human and completely God. The consequence of this unity in the person is borne out in the way in which one can predicate of Jesus things which would normally seem improper. For example, the phrase “God is man” would normally be blasphemous and- more to the point- impossible, since it would predicate of one nature that which belongs to another. However, since Jesus as a person is the one of whom each nature’s properties and acts are predicated, and since he as a person is the ground of that union and the suppositum of each nature, what is predicated of a nature in the concrete (that is, in Jesus as the concrete suppositum of the divine and human natures) is applicable to the other nature as well in the concrete. This is the ‘communicatio idomatum’– the communication of idioms.

For example, when we say something about human nature (being born, for example), that word is meaningfully applied in the concrete to Jason in so far as Jason has a human nature. Since the Word is the person of the human nature in Jesus, since it is proper to predicate being born of the human nature of Jesus it is proper (and far less roundabout!) to do the same for Jesus as a person. Thus, we normally say that so-and-so was born, not that ‘a rational human nature with a suppositum’ was born. Person here stands in for the nature concretely, since the nature is contained within person. As such, phrases like ‘God was born’ or ‘God died on a cross’ are proper and even natural in as far as they are predicated of Jesus concretely who is the suppositum for the divine and human natures.

But since even in speaking of ourselves we do not predicate actions of natures but of persons, so in Jesus one cannot predicate the property of one nature abstractly of the other. Hence, while one can state that God died on the cross, since here the concrete person (Jesus) is intended, one would go beyond both orthodoxy and the bounds of normal predication to asset that ‘the divine nature died on the cross.’ To do so would actually be an abuse of language and predication, since natures do not exist abstractly but only as instantiated in a suppositum, and in the case of rational natures, in a person. Chalcedon hints at this in clarifying that Mary as the God-bearer is not so of the divine nature abstractly, but ‘as regards his humanity,’ In other words, only as a concrete person with a human nature was Jesus born of Mary, only in this concrete sense is she the Mother of God.

The rather long digression leads to the final point which has already been underscored, that to be a person is not- for created beings- to merely be a nature or to have a developed sense of consciousness or whatever we might predicate of it in our modern confusion, but is rather the grounding of our existence as rational beings. The rational aspect of our nature, the bodily existence in which we subsist; all of these are not what makes us persons. Rather, it is to be a suppositum of a rational nature that makes us persons. This sounds terribly esoteric, but it really becomes quite simple. If you are human, you have a rational nature, and thus you are a person. The level of intellectual, cognitive and conscious development we may undergo is actually somewhat accidental to that underlying nature. You are not identical with your rationality, but rather posses everything that it means to be human, modern definitions be damned.

The theological development of Trinitarian and Incarnational theology actually led humans to contemplate the nature of being a person, and thus in more than one way Jesus as God-become-man and as the person in whom the human nature was united with the divine was the foundation of our self-understanding as being persons.

In more colloquial language, the divine who becoming a human what took human whats and made them whos.

In light of this, theological conflicts are not mere hair-splitting but actually have teeth, a deep underlying meaning which can be as profound as it can be transformative. And in striving to know more about God, and in bothering to search out unfathomable mysteries- even at the risk of not being nice- we might actually come to know more about who and what we are, which is probably not terribly surprising since God is the source of everything that is.

It’s really why we should take theology so personally.

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