The Unicity of the Incarnate Word

Few theologians in the Christian tradition have asserted the unicity of the God-Man as strongly as St Cyril of Alexandria. God the Word has made humanity his own, he declares again and again, not by the assumption of an already existing human person but by the appropriation of human nature, body and soul. In Jesus Christ two natures have become one reality, yet without obliteration, assimilation, or blending. Consider this dialogue with Cyril and his imaginary interlocutor:

B. So the Emmanuel must not be separated out into a man, considered as distinct from God the Word?

A. On no account. I say that we must call him God made man, and that both the one and the other are this same reality, for he did not cease to be God when he became man, nor did he regard the economy as unacceptable by disdaining the limitations involved in the self-emptying.

B. They would argue that if this were the case then his body must be consub­stantial with the Word. For only in this way, and no other, could he be regarded as one single Son.

A. What nonsense this is. Surely it is the clearest proof of a delirious brain. How could one posit an identity of essence in things which are so disparate in the rationale of their respective natures? Godhead is one thing, manhood quite another. So, what are these things which we say have come into unification? One cannot speak of things “united” when there is only one thing to start with; there must be two or more. (On the Unity of Christ, pp. 76-77)

The Alexandrian’s principal concern is to secure the eternal sonship of Jesus Christ—hence the significance for Cyril of the Johannine declaration: “The Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14). The ontological subject, i.e., the One who acts and speaks as the man Jesus, is God himself. Christ cannot be divided into two subjects, a divine Son and a human son. The biblical story disallows such a schizophrenic portrayal of the Savior. When the Word empties himself through inhomination, he genuinely submits to the worldly conditions of finitude, corrup­tion, and death.

But, the Nestorians object, if the Son has truly become a human being, with the conse­quence that the Logos and Jesus are now one subject, then this logically entails the conclu­sion that Jesus’ body is consubstantial (of one essence) with God. It’s unclear to me pre­cisely what Cyril’s critics are suggesting. Perhaps they are thinking of an absorption of the body into divinity, thus making Jesus into some kind of mythological avatar. Or perhaps they are accusing Cyril of teaching “that the holy body of Christ had come down from heaven, and was not from the holy virgin” (Ep. 39.7). In any case, Cyril will have none of it. The Incarna­tion is the unification of two disparate realities, divinity and humanity, into one composite reality, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Nestorians then advance another objection: “In that case both natures must have been confused, and have become one” (p. 77). Cyril replies:

A. But who would be so misguided and stupid as to think that the divine nature of the Word had changed into something which formerly it was not? or that the flesh was changed by some kind of transformation into the nature of the Word himself? This is impossible. We say that there is one Son, and that he has one nature even when he is considered as having assumed flesh endowed with a rational soul. As I have already said, he has made the human element his own. And this is the way, not otherwise, that we must consider that the same one is at once God and man.

B. Then he does not have two natures? that of God, and that of man?

A. Well, Godhead is one thing, and manhood is another thing, considered in the perspective of their respective and intrinsic beings, but in the case of Christ they come together in a mysterious and incomprehensible union without confusion or change. The manner of this union is entirely beyond conception. … After the union (I mean with the flesh) even if anyone calls him Only Begotten, or God from God, this does not mean he is thought of as being separated from the flesh or indeed the manhood. Similarly if one calls him a man, this is not to take away the fact that he is God and Lord. … My friend, if anyone says that when we speak of the single nature of God the Word incarnate and made man we imply that a confusion or mixture has occurred, then they are talking utter rubbish. (pp. 77-79; emphasis mine)

Those who have been trained in the christological grammar of Chalcedon will immediately come to full attention. Did not the Fourth Ecumenical Council speak of the one Jesus Christ “in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably”? How then can Cyril speak of the single incarnate nature of Christ? We will look more closely at the mia physis in our next post.

The Alexandrian patriarch firmly rejects all sug­gestions that his unitive christology implies a hybridization of the divine and human natures of Christ: “It was not impossible to God, in his loving kindness, to make himself capable of bearing the limitations of manhood” (p. 79). We must allow the biblical story to interpret, and if necessary correct, our philosophical preconceptions about what God can and cannot do. Cyril points us to the story of the burning bush. How was it that the bush was not consumed? “This event,” he tells us, “was a type of a mystery, of how the divine nature of the Word sup­ported the limitations of the manhood; because he chose to. Absolutely nothing is impos­sible to him” (p. 79). Or as I might interpret: Cyril is struggling to articulate a non-con­trastive, non-competitive understanding of divine transcendence.

(5 January 2016)

(Go to “One Incarnate Nature”)

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