Wallace and the Hypostatic Union – Part III

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The Hypostatic Union of Christ

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            The Hypostatic Union of Christ taught in the Chalcedonian Creed has a fine line to traverse, indeed.  It must avoid the two major errors in contention up to 451AD: Apollinarianism and Nestorianism.  Additionally, the Chalcedonian Creed must deal with the communicatio idiomatum.  It is clear that the creed does not aim to solve any mysteries regarding the metaphysical co-subsistence of the two natures.  In fact, a common argument leveled against the creed is that it does more to say what the union of Christ’s two natures is not than what it is.  This problem is then left to philosophers and theologians who are faced with biblical facts that seem to contradict the orthodox position.  One such situation is the position asserted by Wallace.

            A more modern solution to the difficulties of what Chalcedon does not affirm is the Kenosis theory.  Berkhof, especially, looks upon this theory with distaste, calling it “a pantheistic conception.”[1]  While the kenotic theory is not preferred and most likely based on poor exegesis,[2] it articulates the metaphysical need for interaction between the two natures of Christ without blurring the lines into a single nature.  Ronald Carson explains the difficulty of the biblical material thusly:

     “The natures are not to be conceived of as being in any way mixed or blended; and yet there is a real exchange, a real communication of properties, in the case of the genus majesticum, the communication of divine attributes to Jesus Christ according to his human nature.”[3]

            The stage is set for a stand off not unlike the one between the two camps on either side of the predestination and free will argument.  Orthodoxy exclaims, accurately, what can be said positively and negatively about the direct statements in Scripture regarding Christ and the two natures.  However, it does not speak directly to the metaphysical difficulties the likes of which Wallace has presented in his article.  Rather than reject Chalcedon or prematurely accept kenosis, it may be helpful to review an article by Stephen W. Need.

            Need wants us to examine the use of language in forming theological principles, especially as they relate to Chalcedon and Christology.  He finds elucidating information in the examination of language.  Specifically, he wants readers to accept the limitations of what our language is capable.  Need offers the concept of an understanding on the basis of “double vision” in conceptualizing our theological notions, saying, “Human language relates to the divine in a way that is neither merely expressive nor permanently true.”[4]  As much as our words are concrete, they should be given the freedom to express in their limited scope the larger infinite impossibility of our understanding the metaphysical postulations surrounding the hypostasis of Christ.

            Need solidifies this claim by citing the use of metaphor, not only in theological propositions, but also in the biblical record as well.  There is no shortage of people willing to acquiesce to the claim that our language is incapable of explaining the nature of God.  There must also be no shortage of people willing to concede that even Christ, in dealing with the shortcomings of language, resorted to the use of metaphor in theological proposition. 

     “Metaphor constitutes an important element of human speech about God; its double element yields a tensive interaction.  While articulating truth at one level, metaphors are usually literally false.  They contain an “is and is not” structure, a simultaneous affirmation and denial.  This gives them specific power and richness.”[5] 

            Need proposes, then, that this use and understanding of metaphor should also, and especially, be extended to Chalcedon.  While the Chalcedonian creed would certainly not be labeled a metaphor by most, one wonders how helpful such an analysis would be in healing the disparity between the natures of Christ and the shortcoming of the adverbs “inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly and inseparably” used in the creed.  He proposes that the etymology of these adverbs leads the reader to the conclusion that Chalcedonian Christology, “affirms unity between the defining characteristics of two things: a common derivation, continuity, or unity between the logos and the Father, on the one hand, and between Jesus’ humanity and that of humans, on the other.”[6]

            Based on Need’s proposition of metaphor, the Chalcedonian Creed does not avoid speaking to the metaphysical.  Instead, it offers a dynamic and fluid relationship between the two natures of Christ.  Chalcedon in the true fashion of theological language is a set of guidelines or restrictions.  If, then, Wallace does not violate what is implicitly stated as the positive or negative qualities of the hypostatic union, there seems to be some metaphysical ‘wiggle room’ afforded in orthodoxy.

Conclusion – Wallace’s Use of Attributes and Orthodoxy

            How, then, does Wallace’s proposition for moral and amoral attributes coincide with orthodoxy?  If we consider the premise of Need’s work to be sound, which we should, then Wallace has a good chance of conformity to orthodox teaching.  The greatest challenge that Wallace’s proposition faces is the potential for his teaching to be misconstrued as dividing the attributes of God.  However, he is in the company of Erickson who prefers to use a modification of the natural and moral division of God’s attributes.[7]  Certainly, Wallace’s designation is similar in effect.  The strength of Wallace’s proposition is that it derives basic information from sound biblical exegesis.  There is a point in our theological posturing where even the orthodox creeds must bow to the supremacy of Scripture (yes, you heard me say that – quit gasping fellow Episcopalians).

            Philosophically, Wallace’s designation of God’s attributes is preferable.  Citing the biblical material, it offers the strength of speaking to the metaphysical interaction between the natures of Christ.  In comparison to the work of Need, Wallace’s distribution has the strength of utilizing the metaphorical nature within the confines of Chalcedonian Christology.  He does not purport that Christ grew into his divinity, but rather elements of that divinity were mitigated by the work of the Spirit in His life.  Wallace thus makes a way for Christ’s humanity to be more significant than even Chalcedon allows, while also affording Christ the fullness of deity.  We see in his understanding of the attributes of God, a careful estimation of how to reconcile the biblical material to orthodox teaching.  It is an effort that has helped us to understand better the interaction of the dual natures of Christ.  Ultimately, it may take modern theology time to round the corner, but efforts on behalf of thinkers like Wallace may smooth the path to an increasingly perfect theology.


[1] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 328.

[2] See John G. Gibbs, “The Relation between Creation and Redemption According to Phil. II 5-11.” Novum Testamentum 12 (July 1970): 270-283.  Specifically, he points to the focus of the passage being the work Christ came to the earth to do, “That Paul’s purpose was more to describe the work of Christ than present a metaphysic of the person of Christ is evident, also, in the fact that he does not elucidate the relation between “the form of God” and the ‘the form of a slave.”

[3] Ronald A. Carson, “The Motifs of ‘Kenosis’ and ‘Imitatio’ in the Work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, with an Excursus on the ‘Communicato Idiomatum.’” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 43 (September 1975): 546.

[4] Stephen W. Need, “Language, Metaphor and Chalcedon: A Case of Theological Double Vision.” The Harvard Theological Review 88 (April 1995): 238.

[5] Ibid., 243.

[6] Ibid., 248.

[7] Erickson, Christian Theology, 293.

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8 Comments

  1. I appreciate the kind words, Tony. Thanks. The next series will be timely. I am going to run a couple of posts on the inspiration and canonization of Scripture as an interaction with a section of F.F. Bruce’s book “The Canon of Scripture.”

    Reply

  2. Like you, lots of people know me in different ways. Some even have perceptions of me but we have great times together.

    So, let’s say a Christian holds a classic heretical understanding of Jesus. Does it affect her prayers? Does it affect her eternal security?

    This stuff is so subtle, I imagine that 95% of everyday evangelicals who firmly classify themselves “Christian” could be shown to have heretical thoughts (or “tendencies”, on a good day).

    So when you close your eyes to pray to you struggle to keep the trinity as really one in your mind when you pray to the father least your prayers not be heard because you got it wrong?

    Now what about the non-Christian theists– they got it really wrong, what happens to their prayers? Is there a line? Is it confessing the creed or is it REALLY understanding the creed.

    This sounds like kids arguing over the powers of different Pokemon characters.

    Reply

  3. Sabio,

    My kids are on to bakugan, and if you had been paying attention to your South Park you would know that those addictive Asian games/comics are a ploy to subvert capitalism with communism (not a ploy to subvert hedonism with pietism).

    As far as the rest of your post is concerned (you know, the part where you aren’t trying to bait us again), I think that you expose one of the serious flaws surrounding millennia of pontificating.

    I have said for years to those close to me (you can verify with James if you like) that the next big thing to come out of Christian theology is going to be someone’s lifelong opus dealing with the synthesizing of language and theological jargon. One of the weaknesses of being part of a thousands of years old institution is that you have to constantly determine how best to understand your tradition in ever changing cultures – it makes for messy history.

    “So, let’s say a Christian holds a classic heretical understanding of Jesus. Does it affect her prayers? Does it affect her eternal security?”

    I agree that saying something and understanding what you are saying are two different things (wow, what an indictment this could be against blogging). That is why evaluating someone’s Christianity should be done by a far more reliable tool than asking them what they believe. If a person is acting like a Christian, I think their lifestyle is far more important than whether they can recite and understand a creed. The church got into murky water the day it started worrying more about orthodoxy than orthopraxy (expect someone to drone on about orthopraxy being dependent on orthodoxy at this point). I am willing to draw a line of demarcation between what a person believes and how they are able to articulate it in theological language. I just don’t expect people who are not seminarians to utilize theological language well.

    “This stuff is so subtle, I imagine that 95% of everyday evangelicals who firmly classify themselves “Christian” could be shown to have heretical thoughts (or “tendencies”, on a good day).”

    I agree, which is why we need to be /1/ better educating our people in classic doctrine, etc. /2/ leave indoctrination in denominational distinctive for some time after they grasp orthodoxy /3/ continue to build a scholarly base that is humble. However, again, I still think that teaching Christians how to live Christians lives ought to precede all of this (and I am not talking about disciplining people to adhere to a list of do’s and don’ts)

    “So when you close your eyes to pray to you struggle to keep the trinity as really one in your mind when you pray to the father least your prayers not be heard because you got it wrong?”

    Unlike many of my counterparts (in Christian scholarship), unfortunately, I do not assume to know the mind/mysteries of God, through Scripture or otherwise. There has to be some ontological reality about the person of God that transcends all language about God, and I believe that faith is able to extend beyond the limitations of language, culture, intelligence, etc. I choose to have faith (to trust) that God is merciful and kind, and that he isn’t going to be splitting hairs over theological minutiae at the judgment (in fact, Scripture itself asserts that the basis of judgment will have only to do with how you lived in response to the person of Christ – which begs your question, I know).

    Blessings,

    Shawn

    Reply

  4. That is why evaluating someone’s Christianity should be done by a far more reliable tool than asking them what they believe. If a person is acting like a Christian, I think their lifestyle is far more important than whether they can recite and understand a creed.

    Wow, this was my insight too, just before leaving the Christian fold. C.S.Lewis agreed also and it comforted me. But then I thought the obvious:

    “What if a person has a Christ-like lifestyle AND does not confess creeds”?

    Seemed a no-brainer to me. For it seemed that it was the heart and actions that mattered and not the web of beliefs to woven to support a good heart and actions.

    Thank you for agreeing with so much of what I wrote — I felt like you were really listening.

    So you sound like a pluralist but maybe a bit hesitant to say it too loudly. No?

    Reply

  5. Sabio,

    “Thank you for agreeing with so much of what I wrote — I felt like you were really listening.”

    I appreciate your saying so, I have come a long way since I was an obnoxious college kid.

    “So you sound like a pluralist but maybe a bit hesitant to say it too loudly. No?”

    I am not a pluralist.

    I would definitely say, though, that I have often been tempted by some form of inclusivism (before anyone freaks out, read my comments on my worldview here). The reason for the temptation is two-fold. First, Paul makes rather interesting statements in Romans 5, 8, and 1 Corinthians 15. Second, I think the reality of who God is transcends our language of him (including Scripture – again, reference my post on my worldview before you freak out, it’s why it’s there), and there is some philosophical reality behind having faith in Jesus that goes beyond a 21st century interpretation of Christianity.

    So, I am not hesitant to discuss my true feelings and crazy ideas, but I certainly feel like I lack the philosophical language to speak technically about how my mind/heart interface with who God is and what Scripture reveals about him. Unfortunately, while I have a theological vocabulary, I have not come across something that accurately represents my feelings on the matter. I don’t think all religious paths lead to salvation. However, I don’t think that one community’s conception of who Christ is corresponds as the litmus test for salvation for all times and cultures, either. God is bigger than Christianity.

    I hope this helps clarify things a little. I have enjoyed dialoging with you.

    Blessings,

    Shawn

    Reply

  6. Again, Shawn, wonderfully honest and unsheltered, thanx.
    Yes, I forgot about inclusivists. I would have guessed that, if I had remembered. I was an inclusivist for 2 or 3 years as I was transitioning out of my Christian dogmas. The position helped me not to throw the baby out with the wash — in other words, I still value highly such things as forgiveness & agape love and realize that with normal habits of mind, these are hard to produce on one’s own. C.S. Lewis also held an inclusivist position, and you can find lots of conservative sites who recognize this and condemn him for it. So I can see why you have to caution other readers twice, “do not freak out”.

    This caution, though, it the epitome of a major downfall of Christian dogma — I call it “believism”. The salvation position about just having your head wrapped around the right theological positions as part of the formula to gain you eternal life. The church, then, can become an community of dogma, instead of a community of love. I understand what some feel is the delicate balance of right thought needed to preserve right heart, but it always seems awkward.
    Nonetheless, you inclusivism, even if not theologically sound (and you know I wouldn’t care), will always allow you to make true friendships with nonbelievers (like myself) and to keep your eyes open for a reality (“God”) who is bigger than Christianity.

    My generous translation of your statements puts you in my camp of thought. I think this is why conservatives dislike inclusivist leanings, because they intuitively feel there should always be a tension between themselves and nonbelievers. With inclusivism, you are open to learn from anyone.

    Reply

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