The Incarnation (Part II)

In this second part we will discuss the mystery of how Jesus is God and man at the same time. In theological language hallowed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, theologians express this truth in the familiar phrases of the union of two natures (of God and man) in one person (the Son, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity).

We all have a general idea of union, and we have some idea from our own self-awareness of what a person is. But this is only partially helpful here because in Christ it is a unique kind of union, and the modern meaning of person and personality is not what the Council of Chalcedon meant by the same words.

There are some theologians who complain about this theological process. Since many of the words used are Greek and the early doctrinal formulations were composed principally by those who used Greek, this process of seeking understanding has been pejoratively called Hellenization. The truth of the Gospels, some assert, has been forced into a Greek mold. However, they mistake what has happened.

Man ever seeks a reason. Even in matters of revelation such as we are dealing with here, he seeks to know the what or why in its ultimate sense. To do this he must use human language and human reasoning. What is Christ in His ultimate being? How is the clear teaching of the Gospels that He is God and man to be explained?

Through much confrontation with error, the Church gradually refined her way of explaining this, and by the light of the Holy Spirit defined these truths as clearly as was possible — but in human terms which still do not dissolve the mystery.

Meaning of Nature

The problem today is to explain these same truths in language better fitted to a modern world where philosophy has gone in an opposite direction from faith and has evolved different thought patterns and language. To speak to this new world, as well as to those of the faith, is a part of our undertaking here. To accomplish this we will begin by examining the meaning of nature and will put in names only at the proper points.

Any observation of nature shows us that it is composed of innumerable varieties of natures: inanimate, such as atoms and their compounds, and animate or living. Among the living forms of nature we easily see that a tree is not a dog, and if we have any close experience with an intelligent dog we observe that he is not a human even in other ways besides his appearance. If we think about this almost infinite multitude of beings, we will note that the various natures occur only as individuals, even though sometimes never seen, as individual atoms of gold are not seen in a coin.

We never observe a nature as a general abstraction; it is always this individual man or this blade of grass — and yet each has a nature common to all its like. The very nature itself is an abstraction which our minds make either automatically and unconsciously or after much investigation. Only in our mind does a nature exist alone, that is, without individuation or distinguishing appearances or traits.

There is another way that a nature exists alone and that is in the mind of the Creator — leaving out of our consideration how the various species came about. In God’s mind there somehow exists (in our necessarily poor way of explaining it) an idea of man: human nature. This nature somehow reflects God’s own being in various ways, as better and higher than all the rest of earthly creation. In God’s mind, however, it is a general concept without individual traits or identity. But there is more.

Besides this, God has always had the knowledge of each one of us individually, as for instance, Mary the mother of Jesus. This individuality adds a new actuality to the nature, that is, it is a step toward the final being. Mary is distinct from every other individual — just as each one of us is distinct, just as every atom of oxygen is distinct from every other atom. However, something more has been added to the nature of humans, even in the mind of God. This added perfection of individuality is called the hypostasis in the Greek, a term we will have to use with Christ. In the case of an intellectual being such as man, the being having this perfection of individuality is called the person, a term we shall now use also.

An Actual Person

There are certain properties of the person which a bare nature does not have, such as the differences of face, hair, bone structure, etc. Although these are integral parts of a nature, the different individual characteristics (red or black hair) are mere consequences and variations of individuality. In human beings the various characteristics are secondary to what we mean by a person; if a woman dyes her hair, she is still the same person. Another property of the person, as distinguished from non-human earthly beings, is that it is a free being, made to exist in its own right, and capable of its own responsible actions.

One essential perfection is missing from each person as it exists in the mind of God and that is the final actuality which is existence. Even though God had an idea of Mary (and thus she may be said to have had a quasi-existence in the mind of God) she did not actually exist until the complimentary rudimentary parts of her physical being (her genes), produced by her father and mother, were biologically joined in the body of her mother and her immortal soul was then created and infused by God.

By understanding that Mary was only an idea in God’s mind before her conception, we can see that existence is something distinct from what it means to be a person. For her person was completely contemplated in God’s mind with all its individual characteristics, but it had to be brought into actual existence by another act on God’s part. After that she is an actual person with a human nature, having an actual human existence. An actual person always requires an actual existence, and there is no human actual existence without an actual person.

If being a person as such were existence and nothing more, then the two natures of Christ would be joined only by the one existence of the Son of God. The result would be something like a centaur (the head, arms, and upper torso of a man with the body of a horse). There would be no basic unity, much like the two persons and two natures of Christ taught by the heretic, Nestorius.

The divine will, for instance, would have had to dominate the human will by its supreme power and make it of little consequence, just as the sun does with the stars during the day. Even on the supposition that this human nature would have the beatific vision and would reach out to the divine will with love and reverence, there would still be only a loose external union and not the personal identification of the Word made flesh.

There remains for us now to put all this together to explain the unity of the two natures of God and man in Jesus. As we will show, and as we have partially shown already, the Gospels give us clear evidence that He had both. Like our example above, His human nature was seen with all its human characteristics by the mind of God. But the mystery of the Incarnation, which we accept by faith in God’s revelation, demands that this particular human nature not be a human person. Though fully human in His nature, Jesus was never to be a man in the same way as we are, that is as a human person.

Simultaneous with the operation of the Holy Spirit in Mary’s body to miraculously change an ovum into a human male, the Son of God assumed this new human nature unto himself, uniting it to His own personhood which is that of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. In His nature, Jesus is like us but because of this union in the person of the Son, He is not a human person even though He has all the powers capable of human operation as we have. The “I” of Jesus’ own words is used at different times to show that He is God and that He is man.

The Union of the Divine Person

Simultaneous also with this human nature being assumed by the Second Person, Jesus’ human nature came into actual existence. But despite the fact that He will truly live and act as a human, He will not have a human existence, but rather the existence of the Son of God. Thus if (per impossibile) the Person (and existence) of the Word should separate from the human nature of Christ, the Creator would have to supply a new human personality and existence for this nature or it would disintegrate: the soul dropping back into nothingness and all the parts of the body reasserting their previous independent existence and eventually becoming chemical elements and compounds (See Summa Theologiae III, 16, 12 and 2 & 3).

This personhood of God requires in this union that the human nature of Jesus exist as God. For since His human nature cannot exist without being a person, His existence must be the divine person who assumed this nature. It is therefore correct to say, “this man (indicating Christ) is God — First Cause, Infinite Love, Wisdom and Goodness — because of the union in the divine person.”

And so this human nature, with its beating heart and all the other functions of mind and body, has a divine existence. Therefore He is not two persons, divine and human, as Nestorius taught. In this error the divine would operate in or through a human person so that we could not say, for instance, that God suffered for us on the cross. Nor do we have an overpowering or blurring of the human nature by the divine nature. Both are integrally distinct, so much so that Jesus seemed outwardly to be only a man, as the Gospels faithfully record. Because this union is not a union of the two natures directly (that is the nature of God becoming the nature of man or vice versa) but in the person or hypostasis, it is called the Hypostatic Union.

Some of these names are outside common usage. But the use of “person” here is not too removed from what it generally means. To see this more closely we can briefly discuss one of the consequences of this one person with two natures. The greatest consequence for us is that all the actions of Jesus’ human nature are actions of the divine person, that is, they are actions of God. The actions of any living being are actions of the person. If the tongue has uttered slander, we do not blame the physical organ; we blame the person. If a pickpocket has stolen a wallet and, subsequently, in an accident has lost the hand that did it, we would not let the man free. The person is responsible for the theft. Thus the actions of the human nature of Christ belong to His person which is that of the Son of God.

Thus the words spoken by Jesus are the words of God. This is also the reason that He merited infinitely, especially by His death, so as to offer infinite atonement to the Father for our sins. His human nature, including His human will, had the person of the Eternal Son as the responsible source of His actions. Actions belong to the person.

Although this sounds somewhat artificial and complicated, the two natures of Christ operated harmoniously, even as our two components of spirit and flesh ordinarily do. For instance our sense memory, imagination, and our spiritual intellect can combine their powers to compose a speech. While we are doing this, we do not stop to ask which of our faculties are being used at the moment. Nor do we make conscious commands for one to operate and the others to pause. Similarly Jesus thought, felt and spoke easily and freely, using whatever mixture of divine and human that was most appropriate at the moment. It only seems artificial to us when we analyze it, just as our own way of mentally operating becomes complicated and artificial only upon analysis.

The human will of Christ would be under the direct and constant influence of the divine will through the union in the person of the divine Son. In all creation (and we must remember that in his human nature Christ is a creature), but especially in man, there is what is called an obediential potentiality by which we have an aptitude to be led or influenced by God. God has used this in our nature to raise us to adoptive sonship by grace. By this same obediential potentiality to the will of God in the human nature of Christ, His human will gave itself freely to the action of the divine will which as Son of God He shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Thus the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit are operating in an eminent degree in His human mind and will. These Gifts are a transient influence or movement by God to enable us to act, not in the human mode but in the divine mode. For instance a man may think long and deeply over a problem and come to a wise decision (the human mode of action), or he may be moved by the Spirit to act in a definite manner. This is called the divine mode of acting, not because it eliminates all thought but because the deep intuitive assurance that comes with it shows that this action is indeed the will of God. Jesus could and did certainly think things out in the human manner (Jn 7:2ff.), but the motion of the Spirit was always prompt whenever He needed it, and it was stronger in Him with the very strength that came through the union of His human nature with the divine. He would always do the Father’s will freely and out of love. (Part Three next month.)

FATHER HOFFMAN, O.P. (1913-1998), was ordained a priest in June 1941, taught physics, mathematics and moral theology. FATHER COLE, O.P., is professor of Moral and Spiritual Theology at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.