David W. Hegg
Hypostatic Union & Impeccability
Introduction: As we move into the area of Christology we will be looking at some of the issues that have historically challenged the church in relationship to the Incarnation, and redemptive work of our Savior. We will look at the Hypostatic Union and the Impeccability of Christ.
1. Hypostatic Union:
The Relationship of the Human and Divine Natures in Jesus Christ
Early on the challenge was explaining how Jesus Christ could be both God and Man. Jesus’ humanity was rarely questioned (except by the Docetics, proto-gnostics who considered that Jesus merely “seemed” to have a body). What was at issue was his divinity. Once the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) solidified the church’s teaching on the deity of Christ, the church moved on to the challenge of understanding how the two natures of Christ (human and divine) could co-exist in one person, and further, how they functioned in that one person.
At the Council of Chalcedon (A.D.451) the Chalcedon Definition became the standard resolution of all issues pertaining to the two nature of Christ. Since that day, it has been taken as the orthodox definition of biblical teaching on the subject for Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christianity.
A. The Chalcedon Definition
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.
B. Inadequate Views
As is always the case, it was the growing popularity of false doctrine that spurred the church forward in thoroughly studying and formulating the biblical teaching concerning the two natures of Christ. But, it must always be remembered that those formulating inadequate theories were most often good hearted, and merely attempting to offer the church a plausible answer to the problems being addressed. It was only after their views had been promoted that Christ-followers could measure them against Scripture and find them wanting.
B1) Apollinarianism: Apollinaris was bishop of Laodicea about 361 A.D. He taught that Jesus Christ had a human body, but a divine mind or spirit, known as the logos. This logos took the place of the human soul in Jesus. He argued that, since the soul was the source of free will, and free will was linked to sin, then Jesus must not have a human soul but a divine one.
His opponents, however, successfully argued that it was not just our human bodies that needed to be saved by Christ, and therefore needed to be represented by him in his redemptive work, but also our human minds and souls as well. Christ had to be truly and fully human if he were to be a complete substitute for all that we are. Apollinarianism was rejected by several church councils and finally defeated at Chalcedon.
B2) Monophysitism (Eutychianism): Eutyches (378-454 A.D.), a leader of the monastery at Constantinople, was the primary advocate of this view. He held that Jesus had only one nature (Gk: mono, one, and physis, nature). He taught that the human nature of Christ was taken up and absorbed into the divine nature, and that a third kind of nature resulted. He taught that the combination of the two natures modified both the human and divine making Jesus neither fully human nor fully divine. (A subsequent form of this heresy held that the human nature was so completely absorbed that it ceased to exist, and Christ was only divine as a result.)
This teaching had far-reaching negative effects on the church as it left Jesus as neither human nor divine. Thus, he could not truly represent us as a man nor could he be true God and able to accomplish our salvation.
Against the Monophysites Chalcedon affirmed that Jesus had two distinct natures, divine and human. The first two of the highlighted assertions (above) speak against this heresy: Christ’s natures were acknowledged to exist inconfusedly, unchangeably, meaning they were “without confusion” (not mixed) and “without change” (not becoming a third type of nature).
B3) Nestorianism: Nestorius was a popular leader and teacher in Antioch, and became bishop of Constantinople in 428 A.D. While it is certain that he never explicitly taught the view that bears his name, he nevertheless was unable to convince his critics that what he actually did teach could be understood any other way. Many historians today agree that Nestorius was in agreement with Chalcedon. Nevertheless, a wide-spread heresy continues to bear his name.
Nestorianism was the belief that there were two separate persons in Christ: one divine and one human; two separate persons were inhabiting one body. This view was accepted by many and had to be confronted. The last 2 of the 4 phrases highlighted above were Chalcedon’s way of correcting Nestorianism: Christ’s natures were acknowledged to exist indivisibly (without division) and inseparably (without separation).
In the end Chalcedon declared correctly that Jesus is one person with two natures. It is interesting that, in understanding Jesus, we reverse the language used to identify the Trinity:
Trinity: 3 persons with one nature
Jesus: 1 person with two natures
What Chalcedon affirmed was that the one person Jesus Christ bears divine attributes and also human attributes, without either nature becoming deficient in the process of the incarnation.
C. The Answer: Hypostatic Union
C1) Defined: The hypostatic union is the Christian doctrine derived out of the Bible concerning the person of Jesus. It is the teaching that in the one person of Christ there are two distinct natures: the divine and the human. The hypostatic union was canonized at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Hypostatic is derived from the Greek “hypostasis” and is translated as "nature" in the NASB in Heb. 1:3, "And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power." It is translated as "image" in the ASV, KJV and NKJV, "imprint" in the ESV and NRSV.
(Fahlbusch, E., & Bromiley, G. W. (1999-2003). The Encyclopedia of Christianity (2:675). Grand Rapids, Mich.; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; May 2000, page 675.)
C2) Unions in the Bible:
Divine Union: The unity of the Godhead (3 in 1)
Mystical Union: The unity of Christ and the church
Hypostatic Union: The unity of the divine and human natures in Christ
Marital Union: The unity of husband and wife (2 in 1)
C3) Understanding the Hypostatic Union and Its Ramifications:
While we can examine Scripture and find ample proof that Jesus is both fully and human, it is not so easy to understand just how these two natures can exist, relate, and operate in one person. How can a person be both human and divine, infinite and finite, invisible and visible, eternal and temporal, spiritual and physical, omnipotent and yet suffering, omniscient and yet limited in knowledge?
Yet, it is apparent that, to accomplish the redemptive plan which necessitated the incarnation, Jesus had to limit the exercise of his divine attributes.
On the one hand Jesus exhibited on many occasions that he had access to divine attributes, and to the power of God the Father:
Matt. 26.51 And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”
Mark 4.41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
On the other hand Jesus certainly limited his divine preogatives in order to don human flesh, live in a state of humiliation, and demonstrate how power is made perfect in weakness:
Matt. 24.36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.
The answer is to understand Jesus’ willing self-limitation. The very nature of incarnation called upon the invisible, omnipresent God to become visibly present. That is, to limit the use of his divine attributes in these and other areas.
It is useful to consider this self-limitation as Jesus did: as the voluntary submission of a son to a father:
John 4.34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.
John 5.30 “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.
John 6.38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.
Heb. 10.5 Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; 6 in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. 7 Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’”
In order to accomplish the eternal plan of redemption, God the Son, while incarnate, voluntarily surrendered up the independent use of his divine attributes to God the Father. He neither divested himself of them, nor lost the use of them, but rather exercised them only when it was God the Father’s good pleasure to do so.
D. A Final Word: In thinking about how the two natures of Jesus affect the person, the Westminster Confession of Faith, 8.7 is helpful:
VII. Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself; yet, by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture attributed to the person denominated by the other nature.
“This means that we can distinguish between two classes of action, each “proper to” one nature or the other … But we should remember that natures as such do not do anything. A nature is a collection of attributes. Attributes don’t act –only the things or persons that possess those attributes act. So it was not Jesus’ divine nature that wrought miraculous healings. It was the person of Jesus, Jesus himself. Jesus healed people miraculously because of his divine nature. Similarly, it was not Jesus’ human nature that hungered and suffered pain. Rather, it was Jesus himself; the person, not his nature. We should never say that “Jesus’ human nature did this or that,” or “Jesus’ divine nature did thus and so.” Jesus himself was the actor, the One who performed the great works that brought us salvation.” (John Frame, Systematic Theology, pg. 891)
2. The Impeccability of Jesus Christ
Was it possible for Jesus to sin?
One of the ramifications of Jesus’ being fully human is the consideration of whether or not he could have sinned. The arguments go like this:
• Assertion: “Jesus was divine, did not possess a sin nature, and thus, could not have sinned.”
• Response: “But, if Jesus could not have sinned, then how could his temptations have been real? How can he identify with me when temptation comes?
A. Biblical Evidence: (What we know for sure!)
A1) Jesus never sinned:
Heb. 4.15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
John 14.30 I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me,
Heb. 7.26 For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.
1John 3.5 You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.
Summary: Jesus was a sinless man. He was free from original sin (inherited depravity), inherited guilt (through supernatural conception), and any thought or act of sin.
A2) Jesus was tempted, and the temptations were real:
Luke 4.1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry.
Heb. 4.15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
Summary: The ability for Jesus to be sympathetic high priest for us depends on his being able to identify with our sufferings, including our temptations to sin. Thus, he must have felt the full sting of temptation, and perhaps at the highest levels possible given that he never gave in to sin.
A3) Scripture says God cannot be tempted with evil:
James 1.13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.
This presents the following formula:
Jesus was tempted.
Jesus was fully man and fully God.
God cannot be tempted with evil.
B. Toward a Solution (reasoning from Scripture)
• If Jesus’ human nature existed by itself it is possible to argue that there existed a theoretical possibility that he could have sinned, even as Adam’s human nature was able to sin.
• But, Jesus’ human nature never existed apart from his divine nature. Both existed in one person from the time of conception. And while some experiences affected only the human nature (hunger, thirst, physical weakness) sin would have been a moral experience and would have involved the entire person. Yet, if Jesus had sinned he could no longer be God, and this could never have happened since God is immutable, and infinitely holy. Thus, Jesus’ could not have sinned.
• While the divine nature of Jesus contains nothing in it that can respond to temptations to sin (according to James 1:13), this does not rule out the fact that his human nature can be tempted.
• Thus, the temptations Jesus faced were both real and felt because his human nature did contain that which could respond to the temptations, yet without sin.
Summary: While the human nature of Jesus made the whole person temptable, the divine nature of Jesus kept the whole person impeccable. He felt the whole range of temptations to sin, even while remaining unable to sin.
C. A Little Latin …
C1: Non posse non peccare: “Not able not to sin”
This is the moral position of natural man, born into sin.
Is. 64.6 For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
Rom. 3.10 10 as it is written, “ THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE;
11 THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS, THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD; 12 ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS; THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD, THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE.” 13 “ THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE, WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING,” “ THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS”; 14 “ WHOSE MOUTH IS FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS”; 15 “ THEIR FEET ARE SWIFT TO SHED BLOOD, 16 DESTRUCTION AND MISERY ARE IN THEIR PATHS, 17 AND THE PATH OF PEACE THEY HAVE NOT KNOWN.” 18 “ THERE IS NO FEAR OF GOD BEFORE THEIR EYES.”
Rom 3.23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
C2: Posse non pecarre: “Able not to sin”
This is the moral position of those who are regenerate in Christ
1Cor. 10.13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
C3) Non posse pecarre: “Not able to sin”
This is the moral position of Jesus Christ by virtue of his full deity
Heb. 4.14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. 16 Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
John F. MacArthur
Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem
Systematic Theology, Robert Duncan Culver
Evangelical Theology, Michael Bird
Systematic Theology, John Frame
Spiritual Union and Communion, Arthur W. Pink; Guardian Press, 1971
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Bruce A. Ware; Crossway, 2005
The Person and Work of Christ, B. B. Warfield; Presbyterian and Reformed; 1970