Two natures, distinct but united

Book 2 Chapter 14  Section 1-8

In the previous chapter we considered why the incarnation was necessary for the salvation of mankind. But how did this work in practise? How does the Creator inhabit a creature without losing something of either the human or divine natures? Calvin addresses these issues in this chapter and asserts that when we say the Word was made flesh “we must not understand it as if He were either changed into flesh, or confusedly intermingled with flesh but that He made choice of the virgin’s womb as a temple in which He might dwell.”  Indeed, Christ became man “not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.”

Calvin maintains that the “entire properties of each nature remain entire, and yet the two natures constitute only one Christ.” In attempting to illustrate how two substances can exist without confusion, Calvin draws our attention to our own natures, which consist of both body and soul. Although they exist simultaneously in the one person, each is distinct yet perfectly united.

When we turn to how Jesus describes himself, and how the NT authors describe how these two natures dwell in one person, we find that there is a number of ways used to communicate these truths. Calvin recognises that they:

1. Sometimes attribute to Him qualities which should be referred specifically to His humanity. This is when Jesus’ human attributes are demonstrated, such as when he weeps beside Lazurus’ grave or confesses He does not know the last day.

2. Sometimes qualities applicable primarily to His divinity. This describes times when Jesus’ is described as divine. For example when Jesus said “Before Abraham was, I am” in John 13.58 this clearly could not refer to His humanity, but rather His divinity.

3. Sometimes qualities which embrace both natures, and do not specifically apply to either. Here is where Calvin says “the true substance of Christ is most clearly declared”. This is most common in John’s gospel, with numerous examples of Christ’s work as the Mediator exhibiting both the human and divine natures. When we read of His “having received power from the Father to forgive sins; as to His quickening whom He will…as to His being appointed judge both of the quick and the dead…are not peculiar either to His Godhead or His humanity, but applicable to both.”

4. Sometimes communicate the two natures with each other without specifically referring to them (this is known as “a communication of properties”). One example of this is when Paul states that Christ purchased the church “with His own blood” (Acts 20.28). As Calvin says “God certainly has no blood” but as Christ shed His blood on the cross for us, the acts which He performed in His human nature are transferred to his divinity.

Calvin finishes by refuting the false teaching of Eutyches, Nestorius and Servetus regarding the person of Christ. They taught that Christ either had two natures (Nestorius) or that He was a fusion of two natures and wasn’t fully God or man (Eutyches) or that Christ was a “figment composed of the essence of God, spirit and flesh” (Servetus).

Response

Studying Calvin’s understanding of the person of Christ has brought fresh light to many familiar bible passages. It is so easy for me having accepted the two natures of Christ for many years to miss the full impact of the concepts the New Testament writers are trying to convey. The idea of the one and only God shedding His blood for us was bizarre to a first century Jew and should shock us to think of it as even being possible. And yet it happened.

How can an eternal, all powerful God die? Only by somehow entering into frail human flesh could the death of God become remotely possible. This is a mystery, for we know that it is impossible for the God who sustains all things by the power of His word to die.  Because of His love for us God found a way to enter into the theatre of creation, to fully experience life as a human and then willing submit Himself to the ordeal of death. What wisdom to even devise such a plan of salvation, what love to set it in action and what determination to see it to the bitter end.

“Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity, so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” Hebrews 2.14-15

Father, our minds cannot fully grasp how it was possible for the Son of God to become the Son of Man and yet we believe and know that Jesus is the Christ. Thank you for freeing us from the fear of death, for He has gone before us and broken its power. We praise your wisdom, power and mercy for such a wonderful salvation, Amen.

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