Metaphysics and the Hypostatic-Union of Christ: How Philosophy Can Be the Theologians Greatest Ally

It is commonly perceived that philosophy leads to a corruption of the basic message of the Bible.  This fear of corruption is why so many Christians are adverse to the idea of philosophical theology.  While it is true that bad philosophy, or at least, an improper use of philosophy, can lead to a corruption of the Gospel, it is false to conclude that philosophy itself is destructive or inherently evil.  Philosophy, when utilized appropriately, can be the theologians most valuable ally.  This is because philosophy teaches one how to think critically and enables one to make subtle, yet crucial, distinctions between important categories.  It can provide a metaphysical framework in which clear theological discussion can take place. By demonstrating the important roll that metaphysics–a sub-discipline of philosophy–played within the great Christological controversy of the fifth century, this article seeks to provide a positive example of how philosophy can be utilized by theologians.  To accomplish this goal, this essay will focus exclusively on the debate over the hypostatic-union of Christ which culminated in the Council of Chalcedon in 451.  It will begin by defining the metaphysical terms employed by the Church Fathers involved in this debate, then proceed to explain the opposing interpretations of Christ’s nature, put forth by the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools, and conclude by explaining how Leontius of Byzantium reconciled these two schools and developed what is now the orthodox view of the nature of Christ.  It is my hope that this survey of the Christological controversy will open your eyes to the usefulness and importance of philosophical theology.

Some Preliminary Remarks

The fifth century debate over the nature of Christ was extremely complex–utilizing a host of metaphysical terms developed by Greek philosophers.  Some Christians are turned off by this–believing such debates are a waste of time.  They argue that such captious debates have nothing to do with faith and simply distract people from the, “simple message of the Gospel.”  People who make such arguments fail to understand that any created thing can distract people from the, “simple message of the Gospel.”  This includes both philosophy and theology.  Philosophy is man’s pursuit to make sense of reality and theology is man’s pursuit to understand God–as such, they are both anthropocentric.  But, this does not make them inherently wrong.

Such reasoning also fails to recognize the practical importance of theological precision.  Controversies over the use of one word can drastically alter, “the simple message of the gospel;” especially ones which involve the very nature of Christ.  Who you understand Christ to be–how you define His nature–has a profound impact on how you interpret other, “weightier,” theological issues such as your theory of the atonement or soteriology.  How  you define Christ’s  nature also impacts the way in which you practically live out your faith.  In his monumental treatise, On The Holy Spirit, St. Basil the Great asserted that,

Those who are idle in the pursuit of righteousness count theological terminology as secondary, together with attempts to search out the hidden meaning in this phrase or that syllable, but those conscious of the goal of our calling realize that we are to become like God, as far as this is possible for human nature.  But we cannot become like God unless we have knowledge of Him (St. Basil, 16).

Rather than consider the following explication of metaphysical terms an impractical waste of time, consider it to be part of your “pursuit of righteousness”–an endeavoring to gain a deeper knowledge of God in order live righteously.  For, this is no stale academic debate–but the very center of the Gospel itself is at stake–Jesus Christ.

Defining Terms

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of reality. The most fundamental element of metaphysics is what philosopher’s call ontology–that is, the study of existence or “being” (Mitchell, 5).  As St. John of Damascus explains, “Being is the common name for all things which are” (St. John, 13).  The controversy over the hypostatic-union of Christ in the fifth century was primarily concerned with ontology–that is, in explaining the nature of Christ’s existence or being. St. John further explains that being can be divided into both substance and accident.  Substance is, “a thing which exists in itself and has no need of another for its existence.  Accident, however, is that which cannot exist in itself, but has its existence in another.” (St. John, 14).  To illustrate, consider an apple.  An individual apple is a substance; a color, such as red, is an accidental property.  An apple, exists in and of itself, but the color red has its existence in a substance–like an apple or a flower.  A substance contains the essential properties that make an entity what it is.  What is most important to understand, for the purpose of this paper, is the concept of substance.  As will be made clear, the debate over the hypostatic-union of Christ had to do with explaining how two substances–God and Man–could exist in one person. There are three other metaphysical terms to define which are crucial to understanding the debate over the hypostatic-union:  hypostasis, anhypostasis, and enhypostasis.  According to St. John, hypostasis can be used as a general term for simple existence or, as in the case of the Church Fathers, can be used to refer to an individual substance–for example, Peter or Paul (St. John, 66-67).  What makes it different from the word substance is that hypostasis refers to the entire instantiated being–that is, to both a substance (the essential qualities of something) and its accidental properties (the non-essential qualities of something).  In other words, hypostasis refers to the essential qualities that make up Paul (the substance) and to the non-essential properties (the accidents, such as, skin color, etc.) that make up Paul–his entire instantiated being. According to St. John, anhypostasis, “sometimes means that which has no existence whatsoever, that is to say, the non-existent.  But it sometimes means that which does not have its being in itself but exists in another, that is to say, the accident” (St. John, 69).  So, anhypostasis can refer to that which does not exist or can simply be used as a synonym for accidental properties.  Enhypostasis, on the other hand, is, “that which is compound with another thing differing in substance to make up one particular whole and constitute one compound hypostasis” (St. John, 69).  A further explanation of this concept will be provided later–for the time being, this will have to suffice.  The important thing is, with these basic definitions, you are now in a better position to examine  the conflicting positions of the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools.

The Alexandrian School

The Alexandrian school emphasized the unity of Christ to a fault.  Although they recognized Christ was the Word who became flesh, composed of both divine and human elements, their interpretation of the incarnation blurred the lines of demarcation between the two natures.  The Alexandrian theologians believed that, “the Logos existed “without flesh” before its union with human nature,” but after that union, there remained, “only one nature, in that the Logos united human nature to itself” (McGrath, 336 Emphasis mine).  To use the terminology of metaphysics–somehow, two distinct substances–God and Man–had combined to form a new substance–Christ.  Thus, according to the Alexandrian’s, in Christ “the natures of God and humanity join[ed] so intimately that they form[ed] a compound or  hybrid”  (Olson, 210). Within this “hybrid” neither the divine nor the human natures are fully instantiated or hypostatized.  This is referred to as anhypostasia; because the divine and human elements do not exist in and of themselves, but in an entirely new substance (i.e. the incarnation).  In a sense, the Alexandrian understanding of the incarnation reduces the divine and human elements of Christ to mere accidental properties.  In their efforts to preserve the unity of Christ, they adopted a severely problematic understanding of Christ’s nature.  If Christ is not fully divine and fully human, then what is He?  What are the theological consequences to understanding Christ as being a mixture or hybrid of divinity and humanity?  If He is not fully God, is He worthy of our adoration and praise?  If He is not fully man, is He a worthy substitutional sacrifice or ransom for the sin of humanity?

The Antiochene School

In contrast to the Alexandrian school, the Antiochene school emphasized the two natures of Christ to a fault.  As Roger Olson explains, “The Antiochenes argued that Jesus Christ is two natures and two persons . . . who can also be conceived as one person, just as many communities or societies of more than one person are corporate persons in the eyes of the law.  When it comes to personhood, Antiochenes averred, two can become one while remaining two”  (Olson, 210 Emphasis mine).  In other words, Christ was composed of two distinct substances working together as one person.  In the words of Alister E. McGrath, the Antiochene’s understood that, “There is a “perfect conjunction” between the human and divine natures in Christ” (McGrath, 338). Unlike the Alexandrian interpretation, there is no mixing or mingling of the two natures–for the Antiochene’s, both the human and divine natures of Christ remained fully in tact.  As McGrath explains, the two natures are “watertight compartments within Christ.  They never interact, or mingle with one another.  They remain distinct, being held together by the good pleasure of God”  (McGrath, 339).  To their credit, they avoided the Alexandrian belief that Christ was the compound of two substances mingled together to form a new hybrid substance.  However, in their reaction against the Alexandrians, they mistakenly postulated that Christ was a conjunction of two distinct people. One of the Antiochene’s leading spokesmen for this view, Theodore of Mopsuestia, argued that the Logos, “assumed him [the man Jesus] and united him to himself . . . And because of this exact conjunction which this human being has with God the Son, the whole creation honors and worships him”  (McGrath, 338).  In their attempt to maintain two distinct natures within Christ the Antiochene’s succumbed to a sophisticated form of the heresy known as adoptionism.  While Theodore would object to this assertion, this is the logical conclusion of his position.  Ultimately, the Antiochene school pictures Jesus as a man who was intimately united with–adopted by–the Logos of God.  This view is problematic to say the least. If Christ is two people, then who are we worshiping when we worship Christ–just the “God” part?  How do we, as Christians, relate to this mysterious second person?  Has the human nature’s identity been entirely subsumed by the Logos?  Who died on the cross, the human person or the divine person?  These questions, and many more, arise while considering the Antiochene view.

Leontius of Byzantium

It was the Christology of Leontius of Byzantium which eventually won the day and was ratified by the Council of Chalcedon in 451.  As the reader probably suspects, Leontius devised a way in which one could maintain the two distinct natures of Christ, which was important to the Antiochenes–while adhering to the complete unity of Christ–which was important to the Alexandrians–without falling into heresy.  Leontius achieved this, “conceptual leap,” by developing, “the principle of the enhypostasia of the human nature of Christ in the divine Word”  (Olson, 245). If you recall, the term enhypostasia refers to, “that which is compound with another thing differing in substance to make up one particular whole and constitute one compound hypostasis” (St. John, 69).  The brilliance of enhypostasia is that it maintains that one substance can be hypostatized–actualized, instantiated, or personalized–within another substance without losing any of its properties.  “Leontius argued that while a nature–even a human nature–cannot exist without a hypostasis, it need not have its own hypostasis.  I can be “hypostatized” in another.  In other words, for Leontius, “the human nature of Christ was not without hypostasis, but became hypostatic [instantiated or personalized] in the Person of the Logos”  (Olson, 245).  St. John of Damascus elaborates further,

That nature is called enhypostaton which has been assumed by another hypostasis and in     this has its existence.  Thus, the body of the Lord, since it never subsisted of itself, not even for an instant, is not a hypostasis, but an enhypostaton.  And this is because it was     assumed by the hypostasis of God the Word and this subsisted, and did and does have this     for a hypostasis (St. John, 69).

In other words, in the incarnation the human nature of Christ was compounded with the divine nature of Christ–making up one particular whole–and, thus, constituting one compound hypostasis  (St. John, 69). It is important to note that Leontius’ conception of the humanity of Christ does not purport to explain the incarnation–for the deep mystery of this event still remains intact.  As Bruce Shelley notes, “Obviously Chalcedon did not solve the problem of how deity can unite with humanity in a singly person.  At the human level the problem resists explanation.  The Bible regards the Event as absolutely unique.  The merit of the Chalcedonian statement lies in the boundaries it established.  In effect, it erected a fence and said, “Within this lies the  mystery of the God-man” (Shelley, 115).  Leontius’ interpretation simply clarified what it meant to say that Jesus was fully God and fully man.  Contra the Alexandrians, Christ is not some unusual hybrid substance and contra the Antiochene’s Christ is not two persons so intimately joined that their individual identities are lost.  Jesus is one person with two natures.

Conclusion

There are times in which the theologian, in his struggle to accurately interpret what the Bible teaches about the nature of God, must carefully scrutinize his terminology–searching out the, “meaning in this phrase or that syllable” (St. Basil, 16).  When it comes to defining the nature of Christ, precision is everything.  As the Church Father’s discovered, the slightest variance in terminology could have drastic effects on who we perceived Christ to be.  A wrong interpretation could lead to a number of theological difficulties–as well as practical difficulties–and even heresy.  As it turns out, philosophy was a huge asset to the Church Fathers, as they struggled to develop an orthodox understanding of the nature of Christ.  The utilization of philosophical terminology enabled the Church Father’s to make subtle, yet crucial, distinctions between important categories, and provided a metaphysical framework in which clear theological discussion could take place.

References

McGrath, Alister E.  (1997).  Christian Theology: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Mitchell, Craig V.  (2007). Charts of Philosophy and Philosophers. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Olson, Roger E.  (1999).  The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition     and Reform.  Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

Shelley, Bruce L.  (2008).  Church History In Plain Language.  Nashville TN: Thomas Nelson

St. Basil the Great.  Trans. David Anderson.  (1980).  On the Holy Spirit. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

St. John of Damascus.  Trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr.  (1958). The Fathers of the Church. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press.