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 …