The central thesis of Ian McFarland’s book, The Word Made Flesh, seems straightforward enough: the Christology hammered out in the Chalcedonian Definition remains “the most adequate account of Christian convictions regarding Jesus” (p. 3). But upon closer inspection, McFarland’s “Chalcedonianism without reserve” is quite arresting, even provocative.
Westminster John Knox, 2019
He suggests that the classic distinction drawn between hypostasis and nature yields a twofold Christian affirmation regarding Jesus of Nazareth: 1) In Jesus we perceive no one other than God the Son, and 2) In Jesus, we perceive nothing other than his human nature (p. 8). In other words, the person we meet in Jesus is a divine person, the very Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity. But because the divine nature is beyond human perception, we encounter Jesus only in virtue of his human nature. As McFarland has it, “an orthodox account of Jesus’ divinity necessarily includes the affirmation that nothing divine can be perceived in him” (p. 9). Particularly problematic for McFarland is the tendency, going all the back to Leo’s Tome in the fifth century, that suggests a kind of dual attribution of Christ’s works to his two natures: miracles belong to the divine nature and sufferings to the human nature. McFarland’s book ably canvases a wide range of theological issues related to the incarnation (the divine attributes, the nature of creaturely existence, the divinity and humanity of Christ, the question of supralapsarian Christology, the work of Christ, the presence of Christ in the sacraments, and more). But my brief response here will focus on some questions that McFarland’s “Chalcedonianism with reserve” raises for at least one particular take on classical Christology. My questions concern three main areas: the precise meaning of “perception,” the uniqueness of the incarnation, and the so-called extra Calvinisticum.
The Nature of Perception
Viewed from one angle, McFarland’s main contention—that the divine nature cannot be perceived—is trivially true, even tautological: If God is invisible, then he cannot be seen. But in a theological climate that is often overtly hostile to the classical conception of God, this is still a welcome reminder: God is not just another being the world alongside others, another object (albeit the greatest) that is available for our observation. No, God is the transcendent, yet immanent and personal, ground of all that exists. As McFarland puts it (p. 74), God is present in the world (as its creational cause) but not present to the world (as one more object alongside others).McFarland is right: properly speaking the divine nature cannot be perceived. But its created effects can be perceived and thus attributed to it. Furthermore, not even in the incarnation of the Son is the divine nature made visible. The two natures retain their distinctive properties. The divine nature does not become human; the divine person of the Son does.
So far, so good. McFarland has simply exposited here the basic contours of classical Christian theism and Chalcedonian Christology. But one lingering question that I have is simply this: is visible perception the only relevant sense of the term? For example, God cannot be seen, but can he be heard? Of course, even when God sends an audible voice from heaven (say, at the Baptism or at the Transfiguration), he is still making use of created means (some kind of ad hoc vibration that produces sound waves in the air that can be received through human ears). So, these moments are more like theophanies (which McFarland addresses in the book). My point in bringing them up is not to suggest that the divine nature can be literally perceived audibly any more than it can be visibly. McFarland is right: properly speaking the divine nature cannot be perceived. But its created effects can be perceived and thus attributed to it (which is to say, they can be attributed to the divine persons who are in essence each identifiable with the divine nature). Otherwise, how would we come to know that Christ has a divine nature at all? For these reasons it is unclear to me why the claims of Leo’s Tome are so objectionable. We cannot literally see Christ’s divine nature when he performs a miracle, but we can perceive its effects. And we can attribute those effects to the person of the Son in virtue of his divine nature. In any event, this maneuver—to explain the miracles in terms of the Son’s divine nature and the sufferings in terms of his human nature—is hardly unique to Leo. It was already present in the pro-Nicene Fathers of the fourth century and underwrote the practice of “partitive exegesis,” which was so critical to the emergence of a coherent Christology during the fourth and fifth centuries. To be sure, we must carefully attend to our grammar on this front. Natures don’t do things; persons do. But we can still speak about certain actions or attributes of the Son with reference to one or the other of his two natures. Again, the natures are united in the Son, but they retain their distinctive properties.
One last thought on the question of perceiving God: God cannot be seen, but can he be experienced? Can he be revealed? Can he be known? It seems significant that for many in the Christian tradition, redeemed human existence culminates in at least one kind of vision of God: the visio beatifica, when the essence of God will be “seen” by the “eye” of the divinized human soul. McFarland is certainly right that God cannot be physically seen, but it seems unfounded to speak in such sweeping terms against any kind of “perception” of the divine nature.
The Uniqueness of the Incarnation
Another set of questions I have about McFarland’s thesis concerns the uniqueness of the incarnation. If Christ’s miracles cannot be attributed to his divine nature—if, as McFarland argues, they are best attributed to his Spirit-empowered, divinized humanity—then in what sense is God’s presence in Jesus any different than his presence in the glorified saints in heaven, or (to a lesser extent) his work through other Spirit-enabled miracle workers such as Moses, Elijah, or Peter? If we cannot discern the divine nature active in Jesus,McFarland is sensitive to this potential problem and addresses it by means of an extended metaphor where he imagines an author who writes himself into a book as one of its characters. if we only have recourse to his human nature, then aren’t we left with a kind of functional kenoticism, where Jesus’ miraculous powers are more a function of his possession of the Holy Spirit than his own intrinsic divine authority?
McFarland is sensitive to this potential problem and addresses it by means of an extended metaphor where he imagines an author who writes himself into a book as one of its characters (pp. 80–83). As evocative as this analogy may be, its explanatory power is somewhat limited. McFarland rightly recognizes that God’s presence in Jesus must be qualitatively, not just quantitatively different than his presence in other creatures, and his conclusions are exactly right: Jesus is identifiable with Israel’s God; he is the person of the divine Son. But when it comes to the way divine power is operative through Jesus, his uniqueness seems somewhat diminished on McFarland’s telling. McFarland appeals to the Orthodox distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies and suggests that Christ participated in the divine energies by the Spirit’s enabling such that he possessed an already deified human will. Turning then to the Dionysian notion of a “new theandric energy” in Christ achieved by the hypostatic union, McFarland maintains that in Jesus’ case—and only in Jesus’ case—the “human mirrors the divine, so that in each of his acts Jesus does human things divinely and divine things humanly” (p. 94). But I wonder how the hypostatic union actually guarantees this uniqueness, if Jesus’ miraculous powers are explicable entirely in terms of his divinized humanity. Could we not imagine another human nature, not assumed hypostatically by a divine person and thus constituting a distinct person, who receives the gift of theosis and thus participation in the divine energies, complete with the ability to do human things divinely? McFarland claims that the doctrine of the hypostatic union entails that “everything we perceive Jesus doing is done by him in his human nature, since that is the condition of our being able to perceive it all” (p. 89). But this seems to collapse the distinction between the two activities of Christ, which was affirmed at the Third Council of Constantinople. The “new theandric activity” of Christ may explain how his human nature becomes the conduit of a divine miracle, but this doesn’t eliminate the activity of the Son qua divine which he carries out simultaneously in that very same miracle (and which he does do inseparably with the Father and Spirit as the one triune God).
The Extra Calvinisticum
A final potential problem, which is related to the previous two, concerns the so-called extra Calvinisticum. While this doctrine derives its name from John Calvin and the Reformation-era debates about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, it actually has strong precedent throughout the history of Christian doctrine. In short, the doctrine maintains that, in the incarnation, God the Son is not limited to nor circumscribed by his human nature but continues to subsist in the divine nature and thus continues to possess all of his divine attributes (e.g., omnipresence, omnipotence) and to carry out all of his divine activities (e.g., “he upholds the universe by the word of his power,” Heb 1:3). McFarland raises the question of the extra and acknowledges its difficulty. McFarland claims that all of Christ’s human activity is divine (since he is a divine person) but then asks whether “the converse [is] also the case, so that there is no divine activity of the Word that is not also human?” (p. 90). In answer to the question, McFarland appeals to his previously argued rejection of the logos asarkos, the idea that the Son exists outside of the flesh of Jesus. McFarland rightly rejects the idea there is a moment in the life of the Son “before” (or “after”) the incarnation, since the Son is timelessly eternal (on the classical understanding). He still sees some utility in the logos asarkos doctrine to the degree that it reminds us that the incarnation is contingent and freely chosen and doesn’t alter the properties of the divine nature.McFarland’s rejection of a “distinct” activity of the Word seems once again to conflate the two activities/energies of the incarnate Christ. Still, McFarland argues that this admission “cannot be allowed to entail the claim that the presence and activity of the eternal Word are at any point distinct from the presence and activity of Mary’s son. To do so would mean to have failed to honor the principle that Jesus just is the Word, as opposed to a form or manifestation of the Word” (p. 91).
As a proponent of a more Reformed understanding of Christology, I would raise a couple of concerns about this apparent rejection of the extra. McFarland’s rejection of a “distinct” activity of the Word seems once again to conflate the two activities/energies of the incarnate Christ. Certainly, the activity of the Word as such is not separate from the activity of the Word in and through his humanity, but those two activities are distinct. They retain their diverse properties. Further, while it is true that Jesus and the Word are the same person, it does not follow from this personal identification that everything that is true of the Word in his human nature is also true of the Word as such. McFarland rightly claims that “Jesus just is the Word,” but is the obverse true? That “the Word just is Jesus?” Again, if we are talking about personal identification, then the only orthodox answer must be “yes.” There is no person there, so to speak, other than the person we meet as Mary’s son. But because the Son possesses two natures, which retain their distinctive properties and activities, it in no way compromises this personal unity to affirm that the Son carries out divine activities that by their very nature extend beyond the constraints of his humanity. In this way, the extra actually safeguards the dignity of Christ’s humanity because it doesn’t require us to divinize the human nature—to transmute the human nature into something quasi-divine (as the Lutheran genus maiestaticum seems to do) or else to hominize, so to speak, the divine activity of the Son—to squeeze the activity of the Son into his human nature (as kenoticism does). In any event, the extra Calvinisticum appears to have sufficient biblical and historical support to make its rejection (or else attenuation) noteworthy.
To conclude, McFarland’s book offers a fresh exposition of the biblical and theological soundness of Chalcedonian Christology. His central thesis—that Jesus is a divine person but that his divine nature is imperceptible to us—has much to commend it. But as we tease out the implications of this thesis, several pressing questions emerge: Can the divine nature of Christ can be revealed at all, even in a mediated fashion? How is God’s activity in and through Jesus any different than his activity in and through other human beings? Is the Son’s divine activity circumscribed by his humanity? I put these questions respectfully to McFarland and look forward to his response.