In 1995, when I began as college teacher, I inherited a course in basic theology from Dennis Okholm. He very graciously helped a nervous, not-ready-for-primetime college prof (still finishing my DPhil thesis) by giving me his syllabus. One of the assignments on his syllabus was to have the students write a brief confession of faith. I liked that assignment very much and I have used it ever since. The confession must cover briefly each of the basic topics: Scripture, God, man, Christ, salvation, church, and last things.
Right away I noticed that, under Christology, students tended to write that Christ is “100% man and 100% God.” I understand what people mean when they use this language. They want to affirm the mystery of Christ’s two natures in one person. Nevertheless, the use of percentages struck me as odd but I was not sure why. Slowly, over time, I began to realize why this way of speaking is not ideal.
First, the doctrine of Christ’s two natures and one person is taught in Scripture and confessed by all Christian churches in all times and places. It is a catholic (καθολικος, universal) or ecumenical (οικουμενικος, universal) doctrine. It is not a peculiarly Reformed doctrine. To be sure, there are ways we understand and explain the doctrine that distinguish us from other traditions but it is a fundamental doctrine. Christians adopted ways of speaking about the two natures of Christ a very long time ago. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (the Nicene Creed as revised and adopted at Council of Constantinople in 381) affirms that Jesus Christ is the “only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God (θεὸν ἀληθινὸν ἐκ θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ), begotten not made, being of one substance (ὁμοούσιον) with the Father…”. Of his humanity we confess, “and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Notice the language that we use to affirm Jesus’ humanity. We use adjectives: “true God of true God.” This is instructive.
In the Definition of Chalcedon (451), we confess Christ is “perfect in deity” (τέλειον τὸν αὐτὸν ἐν θεότητι) and “perfect in humanity” (τέλειον τὸν αὐτὸν ἐν ἀνθρωπότητι). We confess that he is “truly God and truly man” (θεὸν ἀληθῶς καὶ ἄνθρωπον ἀληθῶς). At Chalcedon we used an adjective and an adverb.
In the Athanasian Creed (not actually written by Athanasius but probably dating between the 5th and 7th centuries) we confess to believe that “our Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God is God and man. God of the substance of the Father, before before world and man of the substance of his mother, born in the world. Perfect God (Perfectus Deus), perfect man (perfectus homo), equal with the Father according to deity, inferior (minor) to the Father according to his humanity. Who, though he be God is also man, nevertheless not two but one Christ.” Again, we see the ancient church summarizing the ecumenical faith concerning the two natures affirming the reality of Christ’s humanity and deity, the consubstantiality of his humanity with ours and the consubstantiality of his deity with God’s. With reference to the controversy over “eternal subordination,” note where Chalcedon locates Christ’s subordination. It is not in his deity, his being, nor in his eternal relations within the Trinity but in the incarnation. Chalcedon uses an adjective to express the truth and reality of Christ’s deity and humanity.
Second, neither the ancient church nor the Reformed confessions, which followed the ecumenical creeds closely on Christology and Trinity, use quantitative language. They use qualitative language. We should follow their example and refrain from using quantitative language. Percentages are necessarily quantitative. They imply a measurement. How does one measure the humanity of another? Talk of measuring deity is nigh unto blasphemy.
I am confident that no one who uses quantitative language when attempting to articulate the Trinity means to commit heresy. So why have we fallen into this pattern of speech? I submit it is because it sounds vaguely scientific and it is an unconscious attempt to sound scientific and precise. It is meant as the strongest possible affirmation of the truth of the deity and humanity of our Lord. It is an example of a failed attempt to translate ancient, ecumenical, biblical truth into the post-19th century terms.
The use of the quantitative language also suggests that we have become relatively disconnected from the ecumenical creeds. We speak in faux scientific terms because those are the categories with which we are familiar. We do not use the terms used by the ecumenical creeds because we do not use them very often. We do not confess or consult them regularly. The terms of the creeds are not part of our theological instincts. They are not in our bones, as it were. They should be. Henceforth, let us resolve to use the agreed language of the ecumenical creeds, the language of the church: true, truly, and perfect and not the language of the laboratory, however tempting it may be.
In light of this argument, a correspondent writes to ask about the propriety of using the adverb fully. My initial response that, though it might not be as obviously problematic as “100%” it is still necessarily quantitative language, which is still not quite what the ecumenical creeds say nor is it the same sort of category the use. I suggest that we avoid that way of speaking too.