Heidelberg 48: Two Natures Inconfusedly, Indivisibly, United In One Person

Early in post-apostolic Christian history confused believers and heretics alike sought either to conflate the two natures of Christ, with the result that Christ was made, as it were, to have only one nature (the monophysite heresy) or to separate the two natures so that Christ was made to be essentially, as it were, two persons. Eutyches (c. 378–454) reacted to Nestorius (c. 351–c.451) by concluding, in effect, that there was more than a union of two natures in one person. He taught that, after the incarnation, there was only one nature (hence monophysite, μόνος, one + φύσις, nature). He was condemned, then acquitted briefly by Leo I—the indefectibility of the papacy—who reconsidered and condemned him in his famous Tome. Eutyches was condemned by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, which declared:

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the theotokos (θεοτοκος), according to the humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

Note the adverbs “inconfusedly” and “unchangeably” and the clause, “the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union” and the clause: “the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence….” These were all aimed at Eutyches and the Eutychian or monophysite error. Jesus is one person with two natures. His humanity does not become deity (even though it is resurrected and glorified; glorification is not deification) and his deity does not become humanity. Eutychianism leads to the notion that Jesus’ humanity (not his person) is omnipresent or ubiquitous. Again, there is no question among Christians whether Jesus is omnipresent but the question is whether we may speak of his true, consubstantial (with us) humanity as if it possessed the properties of the deity. For more on the implications of this debate see the explanation of Heidelberg Catechism Q. 18.

The other heresy to be avoided is Nestorianism, named for Nestorius, an Antiochene Monk who was made Archbishop of Constantinople over the objections of the locals. He was accused doing more than distinguishing the two natures of Christ. He was accused of separating them and thereby, were it possible, creating two persons. It is now disputed by scholars whether Nestorius actually taught this but it is certain that he used infelicitous language at best. Cyril of Alexandria, whom Gerald Bray calls an “unscrupulous” man, had asked Nestorius whether Mary was the Theotokos God bearer (θεοτοκος), i.e., whether she bore in her womb God the Son incarnate. Nestorius affirmed but was uncomfortable with this language and preferred Christokos, Christ bearer. He and others thought that Theotokos smelled of adoptionism. It was also being used by some to foster an unhealthy devotion to the Virgin Mary. His reluctance, however, gave Cyril what he needed and a council was held in Rome (430) and Nestorius was condemned by Celestine. He was sentenced at the Council of Ephesus (431). Most of Nestorius writings were destroyed but one of his later works, written after his banishment, suggests that he actually agreed with the orthodox against Eutychianism. He preferred to speak of a “conjunction” (συνάφεια) of the two natures and a union of the will rather than a union (ἕνωσις).1 The latter became the language of orthodoxy and much to be preferred over Nestorius’ language. In Reformation polemics, the Reformed refusal to affirm the omnipresence of Christ’s humanity has been falsely labelled “Nestorian.” The Reformed heartily affirm the Chalcedonian formulae, “indivisibly, inseparably,” and “not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son….”

This controversy and its Reformation successor lay in the background to the language of Heidelberg Catechism 48:

48. Since his human nature is not present wherever His Godhead is, are not then these two natures in Christ separated from one another?

Not at all; for since the Godhead is incomprehensible and everywhere present, it must follow that the same is not limited with the human nature He assumed, and yet remains personally united to it.

The Reformed view has been dubbed by Lutheran critics, the “Calvinistic Extra.” Here extra means “beyond” not “in addition to.” It means that, in place of the notion of an omnipresent humanity, the Reformed hold that God the Son operates “beyond” his humanity by virtue of his deity. David Willis, has shown, however, that what this doctrine of the “extra” work of the Son is not peculiar to Reformed theology. It is a patristic, catholic doctrine. God the Son operated in creation (John 1:1–3) so that nothing came into being without him. He walked with Adam in the garden. He appeared as the “Angel of the Lord” (e.g., Genesis 16:7–14) and he was with the Israelites in the desert:

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness (1 Cor 10:1–5; ESV).

When Paul says, “the Rock was Christ” he is speaking anachronistically. He wants the Corinthians to know that God the Son, who was with his people is he who became incarnate. In other words, God the Son has always operated beyond the humanity. He worked in creation, providence, and salvation before the incarnation and he continued to do in the incarnation. He says “heaven is my throne” (Isa 66:1; Acts 7:49. He says,

“Am I a God at hand, declares Yahweh, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares Yahweh. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares Yahweh (Jer 23:23–24).

God the Son is ubiquitous, immense, filling everything with all of himself always. Those attributes are proper to God. His humanity, retaining its properties, is local. That is why his ascension is described for us as a local phenomenon. The disciples (Acts 1) saw him ascend. When St. Stephen looked into heaven, he saw the true, glorified, local humanity of Jesus (Acts 7). When Jesus manifested himself to Paul (Acts 9) and to St. John (Rev chapters 1–3) he manifested his humanity as true, glorified humanity. If his human nature is not truly local then it is difficult to see how it is consubstantial with us. Hebrews says, “like us”in “every respect” (sin excepted; Heb 2:17; 4:15). Hebrews clearly wants us to think that Christ’s humanity is in one place, at one time, as we are. If we say anything else, we verge on Docetism (the heresy that says he only appeared but was not actually truly human). When Paul wants to express Christ’s omnipresence, he appeals to Christ’s deity, not to his humanity: “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him….” (Col 2:9–10). We have been filled “in Christ,” in his person but the reference is to his deity, which dwells bodily. Paul did not say to the Colossians that his humanity fills them. Jesus said to the disciples that he was glad that he was not present bodily when Lazarus died (John 11:15). Even after his resurrection, as we saw under the earlier, the angel said, “he is not here” (Matt 28:6). Some assert that, in his glorification, Jesus belongs to a class of one, the so-called “Genus maiestaticum” so that his humanity has properties that no other human person has. The Reformed, of course, have not found this reasoning persuasive because of the strong, consistent, and clear testimony of Scripture to the contrary.

The two natures were united in the tomb, even as his true, rational human soul was temporarily separated him his body in death. The two natures were united in the resurrection and ascension. The incarnation is a great mystery, of course, but we can say what we should say and we should always say that Christ is one person, not a composition, in whom two, distinct natures are indivisibly, inseparably united and that the incarnation is for our salvation and for the glory of God.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.


1. See s.v., “Nestorianism” in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!