The Reformed Doctrine of the “Communicatio”

Over at the Puritanboard Sebastian asks

I find often that people think the Refgormed undiscrimantely reject(ed) the communicatio idiomatum. However, the 2nd Helvetic Confession is as clear as any in accepting it. However, it does not qualify the way later theological formulations do. The text of the confession is:

“For we accept believingly and reverently the ‘communication of properties,’ which is deduced from the Scriptures and employed by the ancient Church in explaining and harmonizing seemingly contradictory passages.” (Ch. XI,11)

The note in the Schaff edition elaborates:

‘Nam communicationem idiomatum ex Scripturis petitam et ab universa vetustate in explicandis componendisque Scripturarum locis in speciem pugnantibus usurpatam, religiose et reverenter recipimus et usurpamus.’ It is an error, therefore, to charge the Reformed Church with rejecting the communicatio idiomatum. It admits the communication of the properties of one nature to the whole person, but denies the communication of the properties of one nature to the other, viz., the genus majestaticum, so called, whereby the infinite attributes of the divine nature (as omnipresence and omnipotence) are ascribed to the human nature, and the genus tapeinoticon, whereby the finite attributes of the human nature are ascribed to the divine. Either of these forms leads necessarily to a Eutychian confusion of natures. The Lutheran Church teaches the genus majestaticum, as a support to its doctrine of the Eucharist, but rejects the genus tapeinoticon.”

Is that correct?

Is that a case of comunicatio idiomatum in concreto (Reformed view) versus CI in abstracto (Lutheran view)?


This is a great point.

We (the confessional Lutheran and Reformed) do have a different doctrines of the communicatio idiomatum (communication of properties). Even if we don’t always use the expression our theologians and confessions do teach that what can be said of a given nature can be said of the person. The confessional Lutherans, on the other hand, say that what can be said of the person (e.g., he is ubiquitous – i.e., everywhere) can be said of any particular nature. Therefore, for the Lutherans, his humanity can be said to be ubiquitous.

In short, yes, Schaff is basically right.

Bullinger does implicitly qualify what he means. Notice that he says “Our Lord truly suffered.” He goes on to say that “we do not deny that the Lord of glory was crucified for us.” When he says “we do not deny” he’s responding to the gnesio (genuine) Lutherans who alleged that unless one holds their Christology one necessarily denies that the Lord of Glory was crucified. In other words, the whole discussion is framed with reference to the questions posed by the Lutheran critics. Those critics had been particularly hostile to the Swiss Reformed for 40 years by the time this confession was published.

We can see him positing the Reformed communicatio when he says that “the same Jesus Christ our Lord, in his true flesh in which he was crucified and died, rose again from the dead, and that not another flesh was raised other than the one buried….” This is a direct re-assertion of the Reformed Christology over against the Lutheran doctrine that in his glorification (or before) the humanity began to partake of the properties of the deity. It’s also a denial of the claim that the Reformed are rationalist for holding this view. We’re not reducing the mystery of the incarnation but we are preserving, per Chalcedon, the true humanity of Jesus. His humanity is consubstantial with ours and the Lutherans cannot really say this. For the Lutherans Jesus has a one-of-a-kind humanity. Notice too that Bullinger stipulated explicitly the creeds to which the Reformed subscribe.

“The Creeds of Four Councils Received. And, to say many things with a few words, with a sincere heart we believe, and freely confess with open mouth, whatever things are defined from the Holy Scriptures concerning the mystery of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, and are summed up in the Creeds and decrees of the first four most excellent synods convened at Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon–together with the creed of blessed Athananasius….”

This is an assertion of the catholicity of the Reformed communicatio.

And now a word from our sponsor. This post brought to you by Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant which contains an entire chapter on this very topic.

[This post first appeared on the HB in 2008]

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  1. How do we as The Reformed substantiate how Christ could appear and vanish in the midst of people post resurrection if He retained the same flesh that was crucified. 1 Cor 15 Paul says our resurrection turns the dishonor into honor.

    • Hi Michial,

      Glorification does not equate immateriality. Jesus was and remains truly human with a true, local humanity. When he went through doors without opening, we should think that it was the door that changed, not Jesus’ humanity. When he was hidden from them, the operation was on those who saw or didn’t see, not on Jesus’ humanity.

      • Hi Dr. Clark,
        But Jesus wasnt yet glorified. The Ascension had not taken place. I understand what your saying about the Lord somehow doing something to the door. What about the instances where he vanished from their sight and how the resurrection body in 1 Cor 15 isnt exactly like the pre-resurrection body. It seems Chalcedon isnt violated by his “post resurrection” status, is it? Sure yes His pre-incarnate cannot walk through walls.

        I understand a lot of this has The Supper as a background battle behind it, but hopefully not driving exegesis. Most, if not all the bishops at the council all held to a real presence so must not have thought it a contradiction. The Reformed view of the supper can still be maintained and the other shown incorrect simply because the scriptures say Jesus must remain in heaven until the second coming. He clearly said its better He goes spatially to the Father so the Spirit can come. We dont have to limit the abilities of His resurrection body to protect our view of the Supper or think if we give in there we capitulate to a corporeal presence in the Supper.

  2. One last thing. Walking through a wall isnt enough to plead ubiquity. When He walked through a wall He ceased being on one side when He appeared inside. He wasnt both inside and out in His flesh. They beg too much.

  3. So my question about Michial’s question, which I have puzzled over for a while but never understood, is this: I don’t get why anyone should make such a big Christological deal out of the upper room appearance. What is wrong with the category of miracle, that it cannot easily accommodate this?

  4. Philip,

    Exactly… a real physical body can’t stand, let alone walk, on water. It sinks. Does that mean Jesus didn’t have a real physical human body?

  5. I would think like Dr. Clark said Jesus influenced the water surface rather than make His body as light as a feather. My point is post resurrection according to Paul in 1 Cor 15 the resurrection body though physical is not like the body ante-resurrection, and is Chalcedon violated? When Jesus vanished from being right before the eyes of the two on the road to Emmaus I doubt the text is intimating Jesus blinded their senses while He slipped away, but rather He literally vanished.

  6. Here is Calvin on John 20:19 in his John commentary:

    And while the doors were shut.
    This circumstance was expressly added, because it contains a manifest proof of the Divine power of Christ; but this is utterly at variance with the meaning of the Evangelist. We ought, therefore, to believe that Christ did not enter without a miracle, in order to give a demonstration of his Divinity, by which he might stimulate the attention of his disciples; and yet I am far from admitting the truth of what the Papists assert, that the body of Christ passed through the shut doors. Their reason for maintaining this is, for the purpose of proving not only that the glorious body of Christ resembled a spirit, but that it was infinite, and could not be confined to any one place. But the words convey no such meaning; for the Evangelist does not say that he entered through the shut doors, but that he suddenly stood in the midst of his disciples, though the doors had been shut, and had not been opened to him by the hand of man. We know that Peter (Acts 10:10) went out of a prison which was locked; and must we, therefore, say that he passed through the midst of the iron and of the planks? Away, then, with that childish trifling, which contains nothing solid, and brings along with it many absurdities! Let us be satisfied with knowing that Christ intended, by a remarkable miracle, to confirm his disciples in their belief of his resurrection.

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