Ecumenical Christology And Faux Science

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.

Addendum
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.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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14 comments

  1. That was a most illuminating and edifying post Dr. Clark. Your blog is multum in parvo. A veritable treasure trove in toto of systematic, biblical, and historical theology for which I am thrice blessed. Thank you sir.

  2. I understand. But I can also imagine a future where the world speaks in language that no longer reflects its commonality with the ancient languages ( I would include Latin). If one desires to refrain from modern verbage in religious context, can that go too far? In my evangelly days, we spoke of avoiding ‘christianese’ since that would only confuse newcomers, but I would say the reformed have cornered the market when it comes to Christo-academic language. I can just see some newcomer of the future hearing, “at our church we don’t talk that way, or that way, or that way…”
    Maybe “100% man 100% God” is not as beautiful as ancient church prose, maybe it does reveal a cultural appropriation of scientific jargon, which may have come about initially to lend weight to one’s arguments. But once that initial purpose has faded, which it inevitably will through an over abundance of overuse ( I think it has already) then is it not more charitable to read it as intended? Unless of course, they were all just trying to sound like scientististic know-alls, then you should just flunk ’em.
    Personally, I am attracted to the project of making Truth knowable in all languages, including cultural lingo. But maybe I read too much Wittgenstein.

    • It is not that they are insufficient in the least. I just think someone can ‘mean’ the same thing using ‘100%’.
      Yes, that language is used quantitatively, in some context, but I think it is also, now, used qualitatively as well. Words acquire new meanings through use. Should we cease to use ‘bachelor’ to refer to unmarried men because the word once was used to refer to a soldier’s buttons? Someone might have had an objection to the words new use at one time, but it’s moot now, because the language changed to include the use of the word to refer to the man and not his buttons. That is just the way it goes.
      I do think being immersed in ancient church documents is a healthy and worthwhile activity. But the further the common tongue grows away from the roots, the harder that might become for many future church members. I guess I believe that to be inevitable.
      Nevertheless, though we use different words, or words differently, from the early church, we will still mean many of the same essential things, don’t you think?

      • Creedal language isn’t arbitrary or archaic. It’s the language of the visible, institutional church. This is the language on which we have agreed. Confessions/creeds aren’t just mini-systematic theologies. They are the church’s confession of the Word on particular topics. Where the church has confessed we should submit. If one thinks that the church should change her language, there are ways of revising creeds and confessions, through the assemblies of the church.

        On ecumenical doctrines, e.g., the two natures of Christ, we ought to be very cautious about adopting new language. That is how heresy starts—heretics are almost always, ostensibly, trying to be helpful, to make the faith more understandable.

        There is another problem: doing theology in “translation” mode. Several writers have discussed this problem in recent years. There’s a discussion of it in Recovering the Reformed Confession that might help. There are dangers is seeking to “translate” the faith. Yes, Scripture can and must be translated but we must also educate people. Sometimes translation costs more than it gives.

    • I think I am coming at it from the other direction. I am not arguing that we need to ‘update’ the creeds and confessions to reflect modern language use, but that modern language use can also reflect the meaning in the creeds and confessions using different words/words differently.
      This works both ways. Modern Christians do not read “He decended into hell” in the same way the initial writers intended. Of course, we can be taught to read it the same way, by having it explained to us, which would include an explanation of what they meant. One mode of explanation would include using different words to indicate the meaning, modern words.
      I think the ‘100%’ language works the same way, but in reverse. We would have to explain what we meant by it to someone who only uses it quantitatively. In doing so, we are teaching a new use. That just seems to be how language grows and changes.
      I know none of this was really what your post was addressing. I just found it interesting that your objection to ‘100%’ while sounding reasonable and persuasive currently, may well become merely an historical observation about the root use of a word in contrast to howit has since come to be used.

      • Aren’t you arguing that we may and can translate “true,” “truly,” and “perfect,” into “100%”? I’m questioning that. Your best argument is that “perfect” is not far from “100%” I don’t agree but it’s a reasonable argument.

        The argument “language changes” proves more than you want, I think. It’s really an argument from force. If enough people say x, then x must be correct.” Non sequitur. If enough people had begun using homoiousious (same substance) after Nicea but explaining it to mean “same substance,” that would not have made it so. Yes, language evolves over time but “true,” “truly,” and “perfect” are still words in use. They are still understandable to rational people. It’s not as if they have become archaic and must be replaced.

        The turn to percentages is a well-meant attempt to translate creedal, ecumenical language that should, on balance, be judged a failure. We lose more than we gain. We don’t gain clarity. We don’t gain new insight. We still have to explain something, in this case, we mean by “100%” Why not spend our time explaining our agreed, ecumenical language?

    • Again I know this wasn’t the intention of the post, but you did have a question mark at the end of your reply…
      1. I would not argue for replacement, merely inclusion. ‘Perfect’ and ‘truley’ are excellent and sufficient words, but so is ‘100%’ if it means the same thing. It’s usage may still be questionable right now, it may still hold some connotations that we do not like when speaking of Christ’s two natures. I am willing to wager though, that that is a moot point; culturally speaking, more and more people use ‘100%’ in a way that is synonymous with those other words. Eventually, the reason for its useage as you difined it in the original post, will become merely an historical detail (I am willing to wait another two decades before collecting on that wager if (Lord willing) you are still around to see that I was right (insert smiley emoticon here).
      2. I disagree that this is an argument from force. I would not agree with ‘if enough people say x, then x must be correct’. I would prefer, ‘if enough people mean x when using y, then y can and will be used to mean x, even though some people prefer w or z when meaning x’. The former would make this true: ‘enough people say the world is flat, therfore the world is flat’. I am certainly not advocating that. But I am fine advocating, ‘enough people use ‘100%’ to mean ‘perfectly’ or ‘truley’, therefore it is now acceptable to use in the same situational context’. It is hard to see how one can disagree with that. Grammarians may not like it, but if enough people begin using ‘that is so bad, man!’ To mean ‘I really like that’, then that is how it will be. Yes, that may create problems between different language communities, but I think we can handle that (via explanation). The truth is communicable in every language that does not necessarily exclude truth.

  3. Could you expand upon the meaning of “perfect” in the Definition of Chalcedon? Would it be “perfect” as in “ideal” or as in “complete”? Because, if the latter, it seems to me that 100% is a close synonym.

    • Don,

      In our usage perfect can suggest a quantity but it isn’t necessarily quantitative, and that’s the problem (as I see it). Chalcedon doesn’t intend to imply the potential of less or more. There’s no measurement inherent to perfect, at least not as it was used. It means “the thing as it is meant to be.” E.g., God is perfect. He cannot be measured. It can signal “the intended purpose,” which doesn’t fit here. It can denote “not lacking.”

    • Also, I assume that your students who listen to too much sports radio are putting it at 110%. It’s been–what, decades?–since giving 100% effort was enough.

  4. “Truly” and “true” are much better than 100% and even “fully”. I don’t see any good reason for updating this language.

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