At the council of Chalcedon1 the church set out to better articulate their understanding of the person of Jesus Christ. Their task was not “…to invent a new doctrine2” but, rather, to affirm a doctrine which was already “…intrenched in the teaching of the New Testament.3” The Council of Chalcedon, 4514, affirmed that Jesus Christ is “…truly God and truly man…acknowledged in two without confusion, without change, without division, without separation – the differences of the natures being by not means taken away because of the union, but rather the distinctive character of each nature being preserved, and each combining one Person and hypostasis.5” It is this affirmation, that Jesus was truly God and truly man, which this paper seeks to examine and explain more fully. Jesus Christ, as both God and man, is himself a unique person that possesses two natures, but who cannot be adequately reduced to, or simplified by, our understanding of either separate from one another.
Part 1: Jesus – Man
When discussing the person of Christ it seems customary for those of faith to begin by affirming and defending his deity and working towards his humanity. For those who question the Christian faith, it seems to be more customary to pursue, first, the “historical Jesus6” and then root out any notion of his deity. This paper will begin by affirming the humanity of Christ simply because it seems more generally accepted that Jesus was, in fact, a man who lived in time and space. It is outside the scope of this paper to consider whether or not Jesus really existed or to defend the reliability or historicity of the Gospels. It will be assumed that the Gospels are reliable and that Jesus was, in fact, a person who really did walk on the earth in time and space.
Birth and Childhood
In a review of Robert Southwell’s poem Christes childehoode, Theresa M. Kenney wrestles with the notion of Jesus’ true infancy in light of the affirmation that Jesus was God. Quoting Luke 1:52, she writes, “’And the child grew and waxed strong, full of wisdom: and the grace of God was in him.’ In that sentence resides the entirety of the knowledge the Gospel writer wishes to hand on to the coming ages about Christ from one week to twelve years old.7” If Jesus Christ really was a man, he must have a birth and childhood, at least in some respects, similar to that of other men.
Kenney notes that “…tradition had handed down images of Christ’s wonder working abilities,8” but that those traditions were generally rejected by the reformation9. She writes, “Southwell’s Christ Child is wondrous, however, in a much less showy way than is his folkloric predecessor.10” Erskine, however hesitantly, is willing to draw some information from the Apocryphal stories regarding Christ’s Childhood. “We are tempted to think of [Jesus] always as a peace-lover, a preacher of non-resistance, but perhaps he came to that attitude with time. The apocryphal stories of his childhood have little in them to hold our attention but we can’t ignore the emphasis they put on his violent disposition.11” Southwell’s poem seems to give in to Erskine’s “temptation” when he writes, “No nature’s blots, no childish faults defiled.12” Kenney, delving into this line, explains, “…we are to deduce that the Christ child was never cranky, disobedient, or willful. He did not spit or bite or kick or make rude noises. He never had a tantrum.13” She goes on to add to this list that he never upset his playmates and certainly never “[struck] down his companions with lightning.14”
Erskine sees, in the apocryphal stories, something a little different and maybe even a bit more consistent with the Jesus that is depicted later in the Gospels. “He was meek in no lamb-like sense; on the contrary he resented injustice, and his temper was hot. Something explosive persisted in him, however he may have learned to control himself; he was in his essential character when he took a whip to them that sold and bought in the temple.15” Erskine may be tapping into something of the reality of Jesus’ genuine human nature without sacrificing the divine nature. While questioning the validity of the stories themselves, he notes that there is a common theme of explosive anger and tendency to despise injustice. This would be both consistent with a human child, affirming Jesus’ humanity in childhood, while also acknowledging the pure justice that would seem to naturally accompany a child who was also divine.
While the record may be short, and the tradition in question, about the young life of Jesus Christ, it is clear that His humanity, as it relates to childbirth and childhood, are essential affirmations of the Christian faith which can by no means be denied. John Calvin adamantly rejects both the Manichees and the Marcionite notions that Christ was somehow a “phantom” or had some kind of “celestial flesh” when he writes, “The passages of Scripture contradictory to both are numerous and strong. The blessing is not promised in a heavenly seed, or the mask of man, but the seed of Abraham and Jacob; nor is the everlasting throne promised to an aerial man, but to the Son of David, and the fruit of His loins.16” Calvin continues his assault, but his initial point, here, rests on the promise that the Messiah would in fact be a human child. If, at this first point, Jesus fails to be a man, like other men, he fails to fulfill the promises and immediately disqualifies himself from being whom he claimed to be.
B.B. Warfield writes that, “the doctrine of the Incarnation [sic] is the hinge on which the Christian system turns. No Two Natures [sic], no Incarnation [sic]; no Incarnation [sic], no Christianity in any distinctive sense.17” Warfield affirms, with Calvin, that to lose the humanity of Christ is to lose Christianity at its core. In like fashion to Calvin, Floyd Barackman insists on the essential nature of the incarnation but his description raises some questions, “Our Lord’s divine conception was necessary to His saving work… [p]reserving his sinlessness, it qualified him to make atonement for the sins of others.18” Barackman goes on to explain that this occurred by the Holy Spirit fulfilling the role of the Father, such that Jesus Christ did not have a human Father. Does not this “divine conception” raise questions about the genuineness of Jesus’ humanity and, as Warfield noted, undermine the distinctiveness of Christianity? Theresa Kenney anticipates similar trains of thought when she quotes Richard Kieckhefer, “If he… was truly divine, he should have full divine consciousness even while lying in the manger, but it seems virtually impossible to conceive [of] that without verging on a Monophysite theology, in which the humanity is compromised for the sake of the full divinity, and indeed the infancy becomes something of a pretence.19”
These are the sorts of questions and difficulties that come with understanding, and accurately communicating, the truth of the humanity of Christ while trying to affirm the Chalcedonian formulation. Warfield notes that “voices” in his day were willing to concede the battle. “[W]hile no doubt men of ancient time could conceive ‘that a man might really be an incarnate deity,’ modern men feel much too strongly the impassable barrier which separates the divine and the human to entertain such a notion.20” At the conclusion of this paper, the relationship between the two natures will be considered. It is, however, at this juncture sufficient to note the immediate difficulty when simply considering the birth of Jesus.
Suffering, Sinless Life, and Impeccability
One of the most compelling aspects of the humanity of Christ is that he suffered and died on the cross. While, like a man, he must be born of a woman, it is also true that he must die in similar fashion to other men. While the circumstances surrounding the death of Christ, namely crucifixion, were somewhat unique, Christ suffered as any man would in that situation. Erskine paints the picture well as he discusses John 19:28, “The exclamation, I thirst, was wrung from the suffering peculiar to this form of execution – a simple human cry of pain.21” Jesus, as a man, was a participant in all human emotions that are not rooted in sinfulness. Donald Macleod notes that Jesus “…experienced deep, habitual joy…. Jesus also knew anger, indeed, blazing indignation,… [he] experienced grief,… turmoil and anguish,… [and] a real abandonment by God.22” All of these emotional experiences depict a Jesus who was, in every reasonable way, human.
These emotions, while native to the nature of man, are somewhat foreign to the divine nature. How can it be said that God suffered, or that God died on the cross? Calvin reacts strongly to this kind of thinking, “Another absurdity which they obtrude upon us… [is] that if the Word of God became incarnate, it must have been enclosed in the narrow tenement of an earthly body, is sheer petulance. For although the boundless essence of the Word was united with human nature into one person, we have no idea of any enclosing.23” Again, we see the tension building as one defends the humanity of Christ they must also go to great length to insulate the deity of Christ from the affirmations of humanity. This tension becomes particularly strained when considering the sinlessness and impeccability of Christ.
In his book Christ Could Not Be Tempted, W. E. Best maintains that “[t]emptation has no power over a perfect Person [sic], but it does over a depraved person. Jesus Christ, during His days in the flesh was holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners.”24 Best argues that temptation only has power over those men with a sin nature. Barackman, along with Best, affirms that although Jesus had a human nature, He had no sin-nature. “The Lord’s unique conception prevented his receiving from a human parent inherent corruption… and from the father the imputed guilt of Adam’s initial sin.25” All of these assertions, again, raise serious questions about the true humanity of Christ. What man, for example, has no earthly Father? While a sinful nature is not necessarily essential to being human, the Scriptures make it clear that all men are sinful by nature since Adam26. Can Jesus be properly called “human” in the same sense that the rest of humanity is human, while also being incapable of being tempted? Hebrews 4:5 says, “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Can it really be said that Jesus was tempted “as we are” while also saying that he had no sin nature?
W. E. Best is willing to go so far as to say, “To suggest that he had a nature subject to sin is nothing short of blasphemy… No one who understands the Biblical teaching concerning the Person [sic] of Jesus Christ could entertain a thought that he could desire the unlawful or forbidden.27” Best’s assertion is a strong one, but is it true? If it is, what are we to make of Jesus’ indecision in the Garden of Gethsemane? What does Jesus mean when he says, “Father, if it is your will, take this cup away from me; nevertheless not my will, but yours, be done?28” If Jesus’ desire was not the same as the Father’s, is it appropriate, then, to say that He did at least “entertain” what was forbidden?
Further, if Jesus was impeccable, unable to sin, was this interaction genuine or was it a mere show? The closing line of Southwell’s first stanza may hint at this sort of gamesmanship, “Whose grace was guide, and God did play the child.29” Was the divine Christ merely putting on a masterpiece performance for humanity?
“[St.] Hilary had famously opined early in the history of debate about the subject of Christ’s human nature that Christ only suffered outwardly but remained divinely unmoved by pain and fear… However, I would argue… [that] Southwell indicates that the Christ child is guided by grace, which only makes sense if he is indeed human, at the same time that the poet gives evidence of Christ as God.” 30
Barackman, too, would contend that Christ’s temptations were, in fact, genuinely felt, “Were the Lord’s temptations real? Yes, as much so as Adam’s and Eve’s temptations were real. His and theirs were external temptations, for there was no evil force within them that these temptations could arouse or to which these temptations could appeal.31” The Scriptures indicate that God cannot lie,32 and that Jesus didn’t sin,33 so Jesus must be taken at his word when he says, at least in the Garden of Gethsemane, that his will is not the same as the Father’s. Again, the tensions mount as the humanity of Christ is considered.
1B. B. Warfield The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Vol. III – Christology and Criticsm (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 260-263.
4Edward R. Hardy Christology of the Later Fathers (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954) 371.
6B. B. Warfield The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Vol. III – Christology and Criticsm, 261.
7Theresa M. Kenny God did play the child Robert Southwell’s “Christes childhoode.” Logos: A Journal Of Catholic Thought & Culture 17, no. 3 (Summer 2014): 177.
11John Erskine The Human Life of Jesus. (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1945), 10.
12Theresa M. Kenny God did play the child Robert Southwell’s “Christes childhoode.179.
15John Erskine The Human Life of Jesus.10.
16John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009), 304.
17B. B. Warfield The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Vol. III – Christology and Criticsm, 259. Warfield capitalizes “Incarnation” and “Two Natures.”
18Floyd H. Barackman Practical Christian Theology, Fourth Edition. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2001), 150.
19Theresa M. Kenny God did play the child Robert Southwell’s “Christes childhoode.177.
20B. B. Warfield The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Vol. III – Christology and Criticsm, 259.
21John Erskine The Human Life of Jesus. 233.
22Donald Macleod ed. The Person of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 171-176.
23John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion 308.
24W. E. Best Christ Could Not Be Tempted (Houston: South Belt Grace Church, 1985), 13.
25Floyd H. Barackman Practical Christian Theology, Fourth Edition.150.
26Romans 3:10-23 (NKJV)
27W. E. Best Christ Could Not Be Tempted, 13.
28Luke 22:42 (NKJV)
29Theresa M. Kenny God did play the child Robert Southwell’s “Christes childhoode.179.
31Floyd H. Barackman Practical Christian Theology, Fourth Edition.153.
32Titus 1:2 (NKJV)
33Hebrews 4:5 (NKJV)