Jesus Christ: Man or a man?

As we draw near to Christmas, I thought I would pose this question: Was Jesus of Nazareth a human being? (I put the question in the past tense only so we might focus on the historical life of the incarnate Son, without getting drawn into extraneous considerations about how Jesus’ mode of existence was changed by his resurrection.) A year and a half ago I joined a discussion of this question at an internet forum and affirmed the proposition. I was bluntly told by two Orthodox priests that I was speaking heresy. I explained that I fully supported the Church’s dogmatic rejection of Nestorianism, as defined by the Councils of Chalcedon and II Constantinople: Jesus is a divine hypostasis in two natures (divine and human). The eternal Son did not assume a human hypostasis; the hypostasis of the eternal Son assumed human nature. Hence Jesus is properly acclaimed as Theanthropos, the God-man.  But, I was told, Jesus was not a man but Man. I tried to explain that I too frequently expressed the Incarnation without using the indefinite article, particularly when I wished to highlight Christ’s role as the New or Second Adam: God became Man. But it is still important, I argued, to be able to speak of Jesus as “a” human being, too—otherwise we compromise the catholic doctrine of the Incarnation. Alas, I remained a heretic in the eyes of the two priests, as well as in the eyes of most of the forum members. And that’s when I decided to start blogging again …

Was Jesus of Nazareth a human being?

When I hear folks declare that Jesus Christ is not a human being, I hear them denying his full humanity. I understand that this is not the intent of those who say this. I understand that the principal thrust of the “no” is the exclusion of Nestorianism: Christ is not composed of two hypostases. Regardless, when I hear someone, even an Orthodox Christian, say, “Jesus Christ is not a human being,” what I hear is a denial of the full humanity of Jesus Christ in his historical particularity. And I suspect that this is what most people hear, whether they be Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, or agnostic. In other words, the denial that Jesus is a human being belongs most naturally to an Apollinarian or docetic christological world.

Consider this thought experiment:

Jesus is gathered with his disciples in a house in Capernaum. You order a group of Roman soldiers to arrest all human beings in that house. Will Jesus be among the ones arrested? Of course he will be. After all, he looks like a human being, he talks like a human being, he eats and sleeps like a human being. He was born of a human mother. He was raised was raised in Nazareth and is known by his family and friends by the name of Jesus. He seems to be mortal (he is). In fact, Jesus possesses all the human characteristics, features, and qualities that qualify him as a member of the species homo sapiens.

I point to Peter and ask you, “Is he a human being?” “Yes,” you reply.

I point to Andrew and ask you, “Is he a human being?” “Yes,” you reply.

I then point to Jesus and ask you, “Is he a human being?” “Yes,” you reply. What other answer can you give?

I then give you a copy of the Chalcedonian Definition. “Here is what the followers of Jesus will be saying about him four centuries from now”:

Following, therefore, the holy fathers, we all in harmony teach confession of one and the same Son our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and the same perfect in manhood, truly God and the same truly man, of a rational soul and body, consubstantial with the Father in respect of the Godhead, and the same consubstantial with us in respect of the manhood, like us in all things apart from sin, begotten from the Father before the ages in respect of the Godhead, and the same in the last days for us and for our salvation from the Virgin Mary the Theotokos in respect of the manhood, one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation (the difference of the natures being in no way destroyed by the union, but rather the distinctive character of each nature being preserved and coming together into one person and one hypostasis), not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, Only-begotten, God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ, even as the prophets from of old and Jesus Christ himself taught us about him and the symbol of the fathers has handed down to us.

I point to Jesus and say, “That Jesus, that specific human being we are now looking at, is the person the Chalcedonian Definition is talking about.” I go on to explain that the definition was subsequently clarified by the 2nd Council of Constantinople: “Jesus is not a human hypostasis. He is a divine hypostasis, the Eternal Son and Second Person of the Holy Trinity. God the Son assumed our human nature in the womb of his mother, Mary, the betrothed of Joseph of Nazareth.”

“What is an hypostasis,” you ask.

“Hmmm. Good question. Best I can figure it refers to the particular bearer of a nature: Jesus is the one subject of two natures. Hence we may attribute both divine and human properties, attributes, qualities and activities to him. The Chalcedonian grammar allows us to say remarkable things like ‘The babe in Mary’s arms created the universe’ and ‘Almighty God took a nap this afternoon.'”

I then re-pose the question: “Is he a human being?”

Being a thoughtful person, you then ask me this question: “Has the Eternal Son’s assumption of human nature altered human nature in such a way that it is no longer human nature but something else?”

Referring back to Chalcedon, I remind you that Jesus is “consubstantial with us in respect of the manhood, like us in all things apart from sin.” “Of course,” I say, “it’s a remarkable thing that Jesus has never sinned and can never sin; but the human nature he assumed is the same as ours. List all the defining properties of humanity–Jesus has them all.”

“This hypostatic union is very interesting,” you remark. “So what is the difference between a divine hypostasis who possesses a human nature and a human hypostasis who possesses a human nature?”

“The divine hypostasis is uncreated,” I explain; “the human hypostasis is created.”

You ponder on this a while. My attention begins to wander; but then a smile comes to your face, and you ask, “Is being created an essential attribute or quality of humanity?”

And now it’s my turn to ponder …


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23 Responses to Jesus Christ: Man or a man?

  1. I always say he’s not JUST a human being. He’s also 100% God. Then again, there was a time when I staunchly opposed the Trinity due to incarnational issues. Yes, I was a heretic Arian at one point in my rebellious, Protestant life.


  2. jrj1701 says:

    The legalistic twists to the definition of Christ causes so much trouble, don’t it???


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I wouldn’t want to call them “legalistic twists.” Rather, I prefer to think of the Chalcedonian definition as stipulating the grammatical rules by which to speak orthodoxly of Christ Jesus.


  3. Vasco Gama says:

    To the question “Was Jesus of Nazareth a human being?”
    Probably I am not aware of all the theological implications of this question, but to me it appears to be only one possible answer: No.

    He was not a human being as any other that can possibly exist. At the most he was God with the form of a human being, as the perfect human being, which definitely is not merely to be understood as a human being.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That understanding is borderline Docetic or Monophysite. He is a human being but he is also God. This means he has two wills. A human will and a divine will. The human will was subjugated to the God will. The human will is the one that doesn’t want to die but subjugates to the will that says he has to. Did God die on the cross? Would not be possible if he had not become incarnated as a man.


      • brian says:

        These are notoriously difficult issues for theology. Part of the problem is that Jesus reveals both who God is and what man is. He is the first truly human person as God intended. I like what Sergius Bulgakov has to say about the Incarnation. The healing miracles are a sign of what a true humanity can accomplish. He is also careful to dismiss the old habit of ascribing Christ’s weakness, hunger, etc. to his humanity and everything else to his divinity. Well, it’s hard to conceive a God-Man, but at the least, one needs to emphasize the two wills. Maximus the Confessor seemed to think it was the vital point. I personally like the way NT Wright ended Jesus Christ and the Victory of God. A lot of traditionalists thought he went too far in stressing the humanity of Jesus, but I think it is correct to highlight the risk of human living. I suppose it is also tied up in how and to what extent one understands kenosis in the life of Christ.


      • Vasco Gama says:

        This is not simple (in spite we can discuss it as if it is, but…), while being God in a human form (or nature) it doesn’t follow that there has to be two contraditory wills in a way that one is subjugating the other (and in no way human will is forcely contraditory to God’s will). Plus in this particular case it is only unavoidable that those wills are in total agreement (while somehow it may seem to contradict human nature that suffers pain and that doesn’t want to die, as is commonly understood).


  4. Matthew Petersen says:

    No. He is human, and when we point to the human person (person understood in the modern sense) we are pointing to a God, not a man.


  5. Fr Mark says:

    But does person = being? It seems that these are used synonymously, but aren’t necessarily equivalent, and that is part of the difficulty. Fully human, yes, but a divine person Who assumed human nature – completely, without ceasing to be divine. I would probably answer the question, “It depends on what you mean. Yes, in a certain sense. But in another sense, no. Not merely. More.” And the more I think about it, I’m thinking I should have mercy on my congregation and give up preaching! 🙂


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Why would Jesus’ divine hypostatic identity entail that he is not a human being?

      And I’m betting you do not address these technical questions in your homilies, Father! 🙂


      • Battle of the Friars!


      • Fr Mark says:

        Again, it depends. If you’re using “human being” to mean a person with a human nature, then sure, fine… though of course, there’s more to say. We find ourselves speaking in light of the history of Conciliar teachings, so there are certain well-established theological dance-moves that have to be honored. And if we don’t dance with the tradition, then we wind up making certain heretical mis-steps. For example, would you say, “Christ is/was a human being; Christ is/was also a divine being” ? That comes across flat-footedly Nestorian, I think. To take seriously the particular history of the Incarnation and its Conciliar intrepretations, we wind up pausing and phrasing things in ways that may seem awkward, but are nonetheless attempts to be faithful to the nuanced footwork we’ve inherited.

        Perhaps you should have said, “Jesus was a divine human being. And I mean that in the most non-Monophysite, un-Nestorian way possible.”


  6. William says:

    I had no idea that saying Jesus was a man could get you into hot water in Orthodox territory. But I guess I should have known there are some funky backwaters out there. How can Jesus be “man” without being “a man”? In any case, it seems the likes of St. Maximus the Confessor and Dumitru Staniloae (or their Orthodox translators, at least) didn’t shirk from calling Jesus “a man.”

    From St. Maximus, from the English Philokalia translation of “Various Texts on Theology, First Century, No. 14”:

    “… Through this He also mystically taught us to embark of our own accord on another way of life, one perhaps begun in pain and labor but nevertheless ending in divine pleasure and everlasting gladness. That is why He who made man became a man and was born as a man, so that He might save man and, by healing our passions through His passion, might Himself supra-naturally destroy the passions that were destroying us, in His compassion renewing us in the spirit through His privations in the flesh.”

    From Fr. Staniloae’s “Experience of God, Vol. 3”:

    “… Christ is not only God, but also the perfect man, or the man fully realized through the power of God as no other man was or shall ever be. However, in this perfection Christ as man remains an authentic man, or man fulfilled in the most authentic way. ”

    “… Who could have invented such a man, so authentic and wonderful at the same time?”

    “God unites the world to Himself through the human being. Christ fully gathers the world within Himself through his human nature. As a man united in an ultimate way with God, or as God who acts through man …”

    To be sure, in Staniloae, Jesus is referred to as “man” a lot, and as “the man” quite a bit, too, but many of his passages explain to us exactly why he is “man” by being “a man.”

    “… In Jesus Christ human nature received its concrete existence not as its own center, but in a preexistent center, in the unity of the Logos’s divine Hypostasis. This does not imply an autonomous subsistence of human nature within the framework of the superior and greater unity in which it came to be. In this case, human nature would affirm itself as a distinct hypostasis. Nither does it mean keeping this nature in a state of pure object because human nature cannot really exist as such, which is to say it does not exist non-hypostasized and therefore non-personalized or non-subjectivized, laking the character of a subject. Besides, in this case Christ would not be a ‘complete man.’ In the case of Jesus Christ, the modality of subject or the valence of subject of human nature, is not realized as a modality by itself, as an autonomous subsistence, but is accomplished in the hypostatic divine-human wholeness of which it is a part. The characteristics of spontaneity and conscious registering of outside acts, characteristics that are latently comprised in human nature, are not activated by that modality of subject in isolation, but are activated by the divine-human wholeness that also includes it. The divine subject thus becomes a human subject, too.

    “This does not only mean that human nature has found in God its subsistence as general humanity, but also that it has received in the Word and together with Him the personal human modality that is distinct from other human persons. For as the Son of God is a Person distinct in His divinity from the other divine Persons, in like manner, He imprints upon the assumed humanity the identity as the Son of God on one hand, and the identity as a hypostasized or personalized humanity distinct from the other human persons. This is the only way in which the Son of God has, through His Incarnation, put a value not only on the human being in general, but on all human beings as distinct persons. …

    “Among human beings there walked a man who is no longer centered in himself but within God, being — as a Person, — identical with God.”

    I skipped so much good stuff in this longer passage, but I hope this is helpful. It seems to me when you shy away from calling the one hypostasis of Jesus Christ “a man” even while recognizing that he became man or took on humanity, that’s actually when you start creeping in a nestorian direction. The key, however, when calling him “a man” is knowing that he is not “a mere man.”


    • Andy says:

      Fr. Kimel,

      St. Athanasius wrote in his “On the Incarnation” (and I may be paraphrasing here): ‘And this is the wonder—as a man he was living a human life, and as God he was sustaining the life of the universe.’

      I assume that with these words Athanasius is touching the bedrock of orthodoxy. Does this mean the baby in the manger was at the same time ruling over all creation as God? That is much harder to grasp than a kenosis-understanding of the Incarnation. How much kenosis is too much kenosis? How much was laid aside (emptied) when, as the Apostle Paul said, “he took on the form of a servant”? As one minister told me, “God the Son did not change addresses when He became man; He only added an address.”

      Do you agree, Fr. Kimel? Please help me understand.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Andy, yes, you are right. The Chalcedonian grammar does commit us to saying that the babe in the manger was simultaneously ruling over all creation as God. And no, I can’t help you understand this, as I, like you, cannot grasp this at all. 🙂 I don’t think we are supposed to comprehend it.

        This question always raises a second question: as the incarnate Son, what did Jesus know, what was his self-awareness like, etc.? These are probably impossible questions for us, or at least for me, but perhaps I should post my thoughts about them sometime in the near future.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, William, for these helpful and illustrative quotations.

      I subsequently learned after the forum discussion two years ago that there was actually a heated debate among U.S. Orthodox theologians on this question back in the 60s. Unfortunately the debate doesn’t appear to have reached the level of printed publication, so I can’t track down the arguments that were advanced.


  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Just to keep things messy…

    1. Is one of the fields of discussion whether the Son Enhypostasized ‘the whole of human nature’ (as He, like the Father and the Spirit, without dividing fully Enhypostasizes the Whole Divine Ousia), or only something like ‘one concrete human beiing’s worth’?

    2. I have read some Ethiopian work where the claim is made to being Miaphysite (not ‘Monophysite’) in a way fully Nicene, Jesus Christ Our True God the Theaner (as I recall, and so to put it) being Fully Divine and Fully Human without mixture or confusion, so confessing what seems the same thing without using Hypostasis and Ousia/Phusis in the same way.

    (Do please block any entrances to any inappropriate warrens, here,…)


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Please do keep things messy! 🙂

      Would you mind elaborating further on the first paragraph. Any specific theologians here that you have in mind?


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        With apologies, I do not know by heart, and have not tried to dig (an all too literal verb) for the possibly relevant archives, before blurting it out! My trying to look into it arose (years ago) from an odd expression in Charles Williams’s He Came Down from Heaven, which prompted me to turn to learned friends who suggested where i might look…

        If I manage to find anything, I will report back!


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