Archive Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine Steven Wedgeworth

A Compound Person and Complex Questions (Part 2)

This is a continuation of the paper which was begun here.  It resumes the argument by investigating the Reformed Scholastics’ use of the expression and concept “compound person.”


Peter Martyr Vermigli explains the use of “whole person” by appealing to Peter Lombard and John of Damascus:

Lombard, as you also note, writes about this question in his third book, distinction 22, from the words of Augustine’s Against Felicianus, chapter 14, and concludes in this fashion, “Christ at the same time was whole in the tomb, whole in hell, and whole everywhere, just as he is also whole now wherever he is, but not wholly there.  He was not wholly in the tomb or in hell, even if he was whole.  Just as the whole Christ is God, so the whole man is, but not wholly.  Because he is not only God or man but both God and man.  Wholly refers to the nature.  Whole refers to the hypostasis.  Just as other and something refer to the nature, so another man and someone refer to the person.  Hence John of Damascus says, ‘The whole Christ is perfect God but he is not wholly God.  For he is not only God but also man.  And the whole is a perfect man, but not wholly man, for he is not only man but also God.  For wholly indicates the nature, while whole indicates the hypostasis,’ and so forth.[1]

Vermigli is citing these uses of terms in an effort to shore up his own distinctions surrounding the two natures in the one person and how it is that some actions or properties can be attributed to only one of the natures.  At no point does he say that the person of Christ is constituted of two persons.  Rather he insists that one may speak of the “whole person” or the person “wholly” subsisting in either nature or both.

When speaking about “the Word” in specific, Vermigli typically means the subsistence of the divine nature.  He will then say that the “the Word” added another nature, and that it called it its own.  However, this does not prevent Vermigli from stating that the Word is properly and primarily divine.  This is why the communication of idioms is so important.  What is true of one nature can be applied to the person, but it is always understood to apply to the person insofar as it is subsisting in the nature.  Thus there are times where Vermigli does not wish to say that “God died,” nor does he want to say “The Word” died.  This is not because he believes in another person in Christ, however, but rather only that he is meaning to speak very specifically about the natures.  Even here, however, Vermigli does not claim to approximate Nestorius nor even to offer a corrective to Cyril or Chalcedon per se, but rather maintains that he is being most faithful to the orthodox tradition.  Here is an example of his approach:

You now have enough for you to know about me—that although I deny that the Word of God really suffered and died, still I do not claim that the passion and death did not involve it at all, for the Word was present at the passion and death, as had been said, because of the hypostatic union, although in a quiescent way.  It was not affected by any suffering or by a new quality.  Hence it is not empty words that the Son of God suffered and died since that nature and flesh, which he made his own and to which he was present by a union of person, really and truly suffered and died.  But I would never say, as you are used to asserting, that the Word himself really and truly both suffered and died.[2]

Here Vermigli says that the “nature and flesh” of Christ’s humanity had “been made his own,” referring to the divine Word.  Yet Vermigli does not want to say that the Word “himself” really and truly suffered and died, since it would be impossible for the Divine Person to depart from His divine nature.  This would be an example of a quote where critics of the Reformed tradition would say Vermigli is in error.  His not allowing for “the Word” to be the subject of suffering and death must imply that some other person was.  Such a reading is, however, inaccurate.

At this point we need to point out that Vermigli is writing a dialogue.  That it is to say, Vermigli is conveying his own theology through the form of a conversation between two opposing voices.  The above quote indeed comes from the sympathetic character, but it is immediately met with a rebuttal, mimicking the arguments of the Lutherans.  Indeed, the character offering the rebuttal is quoting from Johannes Brenz.  This character points out that Cyril had offered a way of speaking that would allow for expressions like “The Word suffered.”  He says this:

But my practice is to add that he did this not from the nature of the Godhead but from the nature of the humanity, to which the Word is hypostatically united.  Cyril clearly agrees with me and writes, ‘Suffering in this economy was thus: because of their ineffable union the Word called its own things that belong to its flesh, while remaining outside the suffering as pertains to its own nature.  For God cannot suffer.  This is no surprise since we also see that, when some suffering befalls a man’s body, his soul in its nature remains outside the suffering, but the soul is understood not to be outside the suffering since its own body suffers,’ and so forth.  These are Cyril’s words.[3]

And then immediately Vermigli answers the Lutheran argument with his own interpretation of Cyril and the early church.  He does not reject Cyril, though he does note, rightly, that early on in the controversy Cyril used less than perfect language.[4]  Cyril is not rejected, however, but instead, properly interpreted.  This indicates that Vermigli purposely used the ambiguous and potentially controversial denial of “the Word” suffering in order to answer the anticipated response.  He goes on to point out that Cyril is the best interpreter of Cyril, and when rightly interpreted, Cyril is found to be consistent withEphesus andChalcedon.  Vermigli writes:

Cyril expressed clearly this point in the passage you quoted when he writes: ‘The Word calls its own things which are proper to the flesh,’ and so forth.  It was not speaking falsely in calling them its own since they belong to that flesh that it assumed in the hypostatic union.  This is certainly the way to speak also about ubiquity should the expression arise in one of the Fathers, but if it is said that the body of Christ is simultaneously everywhere or in many places, we should understand the expression as meaning that his body abides and is sustained in that nature or hypostasis which is everywhere, but, by contrast, the body itself is not in many places or everywhere.  For the property of ubiquity does not belong to the body since it must be in a definite place according to its status as a body.  Similarly the Son of God is said to have died according to his human nature which he sustains when in his own proper nature he cannot really participate in death.[5]

Thus we see how Vermigli could appeal to the same quote from Cyril as his Lutheran opponent, claim it as his own, and yet mean something different by it.  According to Vermigli, the communicatio idiomatum allows one to attribute properties and actions which are really proper to one nature to the person, since that person has claimed the nature as its own.  Properly speaking, the Word is divine, since it first subsisted in the divine nature.  Yet the Word can also be called human, since it has claimed a human mode of subsisting as well.  Therefore human properties can be attributed to the person.  This interpretation is where the Reformed and Lutherans diverged, and it is usually the decisive way to interpret any given statement by the Reformed concerning Christology.  What is worth noting, however, is that in maintaining this interpretation, Vermigli is not claiming to reject Cyril, but rather to most accurately interpret him.  We can ourselves give two quotes from Cyril which seem to support Vermigli on this point.  In his On the Unity of Christ, Cyril states:

Just as ‘he made him who knew no sin into sin for our sake that we might become the righteousness of God in him’ (for the nature of man has been justified in him), so in the same way he caused him who knew not death (since the Word is life and life-giver) to suffer in the flesh. But insofar as he is considered as God he remained outside suffering in order that we might live through him and in him.[6]

Cyril immediately adds, “The Word was alive, even when his holy flesh was tasting death.”[7]

Thus it appears that Cyril is giving a priority to the deity of the Word, stating that “the Word was alive” even while the Word’s flesh was dead.  The Word, “insofar as he is considered God” did not suffer.  This raises the question in what sense “the Word” would not be considered God.  It can only be in his human nature, in the flesh.  Cyril and Vermigli both reserve the right to deny that “the Word” died, depending on the meaning.


Zacharius Ursinus uses the language of a compounded person in such a way as to speak of “parts” of the person.  In his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism he says, “for the human nature which is in Christ was created in order that it might be made a part of another, so that we may properly say that it is a part of another.”[8]  Later in the same chapter he even says this, “That which is only part of a person (and such a a part that is not of itself a person) is no person; or, that which is a apart of a person, is not that person of which it is a part.  And so it may be said of the Word, if it be properly understood, that he is not the whole person of the mediator, although he is in, and of himself, a whole and complete person in respect to the Godhead.”[9]

This second statement is complicated.  It is actually an answer to the objection that the Word cannot be a person, since it is only a part of the person of the mediator.  Ursinus is granting that the mediator, properly speaking, is the Word plus the human nature assumed by the Word.  This is what he means by “whole person of the mediator.”  Taken merely on its own, it could be interpreted as meaning that “the whole person” is formed by the coming together of two prior persons.  Yet in the following set of objections and replies, Usrinus is careful to say “the body and soul which Christ took, do not exist by themselves but in the person of the Word.”[10]  Also, “the body and soul of Christ do not subsist, nor could they ever have subsisted, unless in this union.”[11]  The human “part” of the “whole person” is not itself a person, nor was it ever.  Thus, the “whole person” is not a combination of two prior persons, but rather one prior person and an added nature which only finds its existence in that prior person.

Some might object that this manner of speaking of the economic modification of the Word poses potential dangers.  It could lend itself towards false uses, perhaps indicating that the “person of the mediator” is a different person created out of the combination of the Word and the human nature.  Ursinus himself grants that this language is highly delicate.  “When we so speak, all imperfections must be carefully excluded.  Many, however, refrain from the use of such language in consequence of the dangers and abuses to which it may lead.”[12]  Why does he even bother with it then?  Is it because his new Reformed Christology demands that we move away from the ancient language?  Not at all.  “Yet Damascene and others often use this form of speaking.”[13]  He is using words precisely in specific contexts, but flexibly overall, as the better Fathers did, and for exactly the same reason: to articulate as carefully as possible the various aspects of the mystery and guard against misreadings of the truth.

“Compound person” turns out to be a particular usage, borrowed from Damascene, employed to discuss particulars of the hypostatical union, and which depends upon the primary creedal sense of “person.” It is not a subtle and uniquely Reformed redefinition of that primary sense used to make the natures of the union distinct personae and the person of Christ merely then a persona moralis, or functional conjunction of two distinct personae.

Richard Field’s Defense of Beza

Richard Field was a historian of the Church of England and a close associate of the more famous Richard, Richard Hooker.  Field’s historical writing exhibits a profoundly calm and judicious investigation of controversies, cutting through tangles of technical and polemical language to get to the intended use and theological point.  As already mentioned, Field believed that the later Nestorian churches were not actually Nestorians, but rather dedicated to certain ancient anti-monophysite language which could be uncharitably misconstrued in a Nestorian sense but did not have that intention among them.  Field was confident that this was only an apparent controversy, however.  He used this same critical skill to vindicate a Reformed theologian who had been accused of Nestorianism, Theodore Beza.  It was a vindication relevant to our present concern.

Field begins his defense of Beza by declaring that the Reformed are actually more in line with the early church fathers than are the Roman Catholics.  He states, “We reverence and honour the Fathers much more than the Romanists do who pervert, corrupt, and adulterate their writings, but dare not abide the trial of their doctrines by the indubitate writings of antiquity.”[14]  Field’s Roman Catholic opponent had charged the Reformed with Nestorianism and pointed to Beza’s use of “two hypostatical unions” as proof.  Field denies the charge, claiming that the true meaning is in line with the fathers and contrary to Nestorius.  He defends Beza with the following:

Beza, saith he, teacheth that there are two hypostatical unions in Christ; ergo, two hypostases or persons; which was the heresy of Nestorius. The consequence of this argument is too weak to enforce the intended conclusion; for when Beza saith there are two hypostatical unions in Christ, the one of the body and soul, the other of the nature of God and man, he doth not conceive that the union of the body and soul do in Christ make a distinct human person or subsistence different from that of the Son of God; (for he everywhere confesseth that the human nature of Christ hath no subsistence but that of the Son of God communicated to it); but he therefore calleth it an hypostatical union, because  naturally it doth cause a finite and distinct human person or subsistence, and so would have done here, if the nature flowing out of this union had not been assumed by the Son of God, and so prevented and stayed from subsisting in itself, and personally sustained in the person of the Son of God. This doctrine is so far from heresy that he may justly be suspected of more than ordinary malice that will traduce it as heretical: yet hath Beza, to stop the mouths of such clamorous adversaries, long since corrected and altered this form of speech which he had sometimes used.[15]

This particular passage is interesting because Field admits that Beza used a certain expression of speech, yet he explains Beza’s meaning as orthodox and points out that Beza has himself “corrected and altered” the expression.[16]  Beza had used the term “subsistence” in reference to the human nature, but only to insist that the human nature was a distinct instance of nature, and not the entire genus, and that it had all of the necessary components- body and soul- to be a person.  It was a sort of potential person in concept, since it has all of the requirements of a person.  The union of body and soul, indeed a complete soul, would ordinarily qualify as a “person.”  Yet Beza also said that this was not actually a human person because it was assumed by the person of the Son of God.  The humanity never subsisted “in itself.”  Its existence was always and only defined by its personal union with the Word.  Field is confident that the original intent was free from heresy, yet he also points out that Beza saw the difficulty such language could cause and so changed it himself.

By now we should see a consistent theme.  The Reformed were deliberately and devotedly continuous with the patristic and medieval history of Christological argument and terminology.  They always claimed a critical but faithful continuity with that history, even stating that certain expressions from John of Damascus were possibly dangerous but worth retaining.  They did refine their language through controversy, but only in order to clarify and make it most consistent.  And when they did use language that was open to misunderstanding, they were themselves eager to modify it.[17]


Perhaps the most thorough explanation of the Reformed view of Christology is to be found in the work of Girolamo Zanchi.  Zanchi flourished later than Vermigli, and was a contemporary of Ursinus and Beza.  His Confession of Christian Religion was originally intended for an ecclesiastical symbol, though its length and scholastic style quickly made this impossible.[18]  The good  Dr. Zanchi was certainly thorough.  He wrote extensively on Christology in the Confession, but he also added lengthy explanations in his Observations and Appendix to the 11th Chapter.  Both of the latter works were extended explanations and clarifications of the content of the Confession.

Throughout Zanchi’s writings, we see a continuation of the themes and expressions from other Reformed thinkers, but we also see an ability to add distinctions and clarifications.  Several patristic writers are cited positively, and we again see John of Damascus and the notion of the compounded person.  Zanchi ably explains this and shows it to be consistent with the prior Chalcedonian commitments.

Zanchi begins the 11th chapter of his Confession by stating that the “person” of Christ is the 2nd person of the Godhead, “consubstantial and coeternall to the Father, and lastlie true God almightie.”[19]  He adds, “And wee beleeve that the Sonne of God was made man without making any confusion of the divine and humanie natures, without his conversion into flesh or anie chaunge in the flesh, onely by assuming of the humaine nature into the unitie of that person.”[20]  He further explains:

…as the Sonne taking uppon him, was not chaunged into the thing taken (for God cannot be chaunged at all), but remained the same that he was, trulie distinct from the thing assumed and taken.  So that seede taken on him was not turned into the thing that tooke it, but was united with the divine nature into the unitie onely of the same person, according to that saying: ‘The Word was made flesh’.  The flesh, therefore, remained flesh and was not changed into the Word.[21]

We can see that Zanchi, consistent with Vermigli and Ursinus, wishes to distinguish “the Word” from “the flesh.”  He does not mean that there are two persons in view, however, because he also states:

Whence also wee understand that neither the divine nature common to the three persons, nay indeed one and the self same nature of them all, did take on it humaine nature, nor one person tooke on it another person, but onelie another nature… therefore wee acknowledge not two persons in Christ, but onely the same alone, by which all things were made and which was so perfect, before it tooke on it the seede of Abraham, that by the same taking it is not made anie other or anie perfecter person, or yet indeed any whitt unperfect.[22]

The divine nature did not take on the human nature, nor did the divine person take on another person, but rather a divine person took on a human nature.  In so doing, this person did not change from his nature.  When Zanchi uses the expression “the Word” properly and by itself, he intends to identify the divine person subsisting in its divine nature.  Yet this person did take on a new nature, and in that respect, did also subsist in a human way:

We doe not admit that the humaine was therefore assumed, that either a new person compounded of that and this as of the parts should be made in Christ, or that the former and the eternall person should bee made the perfecter by the coupling of a newe nature, but onelie that mans nature beeing taken into unitie of that most perfect and everlasting person, the Sonne of God, remaining the same that he was, might be made that he was not and might have what to offer unto his Father for us.[23]

Here we see the multiple distinctions at work.  Zanchi denies that a new person was formed out of the compound, as well as any insinuation the the original person was changed.  The assumption of the new nature was for the purpose of having something distinct to offer unto the Father-a human mode of subsisting.

At this point Zanchi goes into an extended discussion on what is and is not meant by the language of compounded person:

And therefore we doe not simplie allow it, if one saye, so the person of Christ is compounded of the divine and humaine nature, as the person of a man consisteth of a soule and a bodie.  But we allow the usuall phrase in the church, that Christ clothed himselfe or was clothed with our flesh. Whereupon Augustine saith: ‘Christ came downe from heaven as a naked man comes downe a hill, but he went up againe clothed with our flesh as with a garment.’  For this manner of speech, although it doe not perfectlie declare the personall union, yet it sheweth a manifest difference beetweene the person of the Sonne of God taking and our nature taken.  For this same cause we embrace those kindes of speaches of the fathers, as mans nature was borne of the Sonne of God to subsist in the person of the Sonne of God and such like, separating the person of the Sonne of God taking from the nature taken, and teaching that the person of the Sonne of God by the comming of mans nature was made neither other, nor more perfect.[24]

Here we see a level of critical appreciation of the ancient language.  Zanchi is not comfortable with the imagery of body and soul as an analogy for the two natures in Christ[25], but he is willing to use the image of clothing, citing Augustine.  He adds that he is also able to accept language which states the man’s nature “subsists in the Son of God.”

While using the language of compounded person, Zanchi also guards against the misuse of this language.  He does not wish to advocate a new person after the hypostatic union, nor does he want to imply that the person was imperfect prior to the union.  He writes:

That is, Christ is onelie one person, although there bee in him two natures.  Yet not that the person of Christ (if we will speake properlie) is constitued or made of both these natures as of the parts, as to the perfect constitution of man no lesse the bodie as an essential part, then the soule must ioyne together, seeing the person of Christ was alreadie, and that whole and most perfect, before it was shewed in the fleshe, but the person of man (as of Adam), was none at all until the soule was coupled with the bodie, and sith that nether the soule doth assume unto itselfe a body or the body a soule, as the Sonne of God assumed unto himselfe the seed of Abraham into unitie of the same person; and further, sith the bodie and the soule are two existences, as it is manifest in the creation of Adam, but mans nature did never subsist by it self, but onelie in the person of the Sonne of God, so that very uniustlie doe some abuse this godlie saying of the holie man for proofe of their owne dreams.[26]

Notice that Zanchi is speaking of the “person of Christ” as opposed to merely “the Word.”  He states that this “person of Christ” is only one person, having in him two natures.  Zanchi rejects the language of “parts” if it is understood to mean that the person itself was incomplete prior to the addition of the human nature.  He also adds that the humanity of Christ “was none at all” until it was formed and assumed by the person of the Son of God.  “[M]ans nature did never subsist by it self, but onelie in the person of the Sonne of God.”  The “holie man” who some “very unjustlie… abuse” by misunderstanding his “godlie saying” is Athanasius of Alexandria.[27]

Zanchi again affirms the unity of the person of Christ and explicitly condemns Nestorius.[28]
He says that he can affirm that “Christ consisteth now of his divine nature and his humaine, being taken into the unity of person, and that he is after a sort compounded of them both,” but this is only after he has been careful to state that the person is properly the divine and “eternall person.”[29]  The human nature only exists in this one person.  He states that, “in one and the selfe same person of Christ there is now two natures, the divine and the humaine, in which we doubt not that the same doth subsist, doth live and doth worke.”[30]  It is only in this context that Zanchi speaks of a compounded person.

The preceding quotes were all from Zanchi’s Confession.  Due to continuing controversy, however, he was obliged to compose several further explanations and continuations of his Christological thought.  We will briefly examine a few of them.

In his Observations, Zanchi commented on what he had written in his Confession.  Concerning the chapter on the person of Christ, he writes the following:

That the person of Christ, speaking properly, is compounded of the divine nature, which is immeasurable and most pure, and of the humaine, which in respect of the divine is lesse then a pricke to an infinite masse, as of two partes truely and properly so called, wee together with the schoolemen do iustly denie.  For what proportion can there bee betweene that, which is finite, and the infinite, betweene the creature and creator.  But by the way confessing with the auncient fathers that it may be called συνθετον compounded in that sense…   And there is nothing else but that this eternall hypostasis doth now subsist in two natures…[31]

Here we see a way in which Zanchi will not affirm a compounded person, as well as a way in which he will.  If taken to refer to comparable “parts” which come together to form a third thing, Zanchi does not wish to affirm composition.  He states that the two natures are qualitatively different, one being infinite and the other finite.  He is willing, however, to affirm  συνθετον in the sense of one eternal hypostasis subsisting in two united natures.  Again, it should not be missed that Zanchi suggests that the difficulty of language has been inherited from the ancient writers.  He is clarifying them, but also working in continuity with them.

Zanchi goes on to cite the whole/wholly distinction that we have already seen in Vermigli.  Zanchi also says that this comes from John of Damascus.[32]  He interprets this as but another way of saying that the one person subsists in two natures, invoking the communicatio idiomatum to show how distinct natural properties and actions can be applied to the single person.  Zanchi is emphatic that the unity of the person is never threatened:

1.  There is and ever was one onely person of Christ.  For there is but one onely begotten Sonne of God and one and the same Christ.  2. This person, being from all eternitie by the naturall begetting of the Father, is proper unto the Word; but was made common to the humaine nature taken to it by vertue of the personall union…

But this eternall hypostasis, proper by nature unto the Word, is by this union made common, as we said, with the divine nature and the humaine taken unto it; namely, that the Worde doeth no lesse subsist really in this humaine form then it doth in that divine form and in that respect is no lesse true and perfect man then true and perfect God; yet the natures, properties and actions remaining safe and distinct.[33]

Zanchi again explains the language of “compounded person” and how it means only that the single hypostasis subsists in two natures.[34]  The “nature taken (to speake properly) is not a part of this person,”[35] but it is sometimes said to be “a part” in the sense that it is taken by the Word and has no subsistence on its own:

Which is the cause why the humaine nature thus taken is to be reputed and acknowledged as it were a part of the person of Christ, namely, because it is so taken into unity of his person, that as the Word with this humaine flesh is said to be and is man, so also this flesh in the Word and with the Word God is said to be and is God, as Athanasius, Gregorie Nazianzene, Damascene and other fathers have proved out of   the scriptures.  For that flesh is God not by nature but by hypostasie, in which sense the same flesh is omnipotent an present in all places, whereuppon it comes also that what honour belongeth to the Word of it selfe, the same is also to bee given to the flesh in the Word and for the Word, because of them both there is but one and the same hypostasie.[36]

Zanchi seems somewhat uncomfortable with this language, and this is most likely due to the fact that it was being seized upon by critics as proof that the Reformed were advocating two persons in Christ.  Nevertheless, Zanchi maintains that it is patristic language and can be understood properly:

Add to this moreover for better explications sake, that the Word, although wheresoever it bee (and it is in all places), there also the same is not onely God, but also man, and that because it hath in all places the humaine nature united therunto by hypostasie, yet, where soever it is it self, it doth not make it self an hypostasis or personal to the humaine nature, but only there, where the same nature existeth; namely so, as that nature is sustained, borne and wrought or mooved by it.[37]

Neither doth it follow uppon this doctrine that the personall union is dissolvede, neither doth it come to passe that the whole person is not hypostasis to the flesh, but onely in parte.  The reason is because this person of the Word, as it is infinite, so also it is most simple and pure and therefore both is wholly hypostasis to the flesh, wheresoever the flesh existeth, and is also wholly hypostasis in other places, where the flesh existeth not, being it selfe existing in the form of God.[38]

At this point, one might assume that the explanations had been fully exhausted.  Such an assumption, however, would betray a certain naivete regarding the odium theologicum.  Zanchi was compelled to write still more about the definition of “compounded person.”  We will restrict ourselves to only two more examples.  Zanchi again makes clear that there is only one person:

For in Christ’s humaine nature there be only two things: the proper essence of his nature, with his proprieties and gifts created, and the common hypostasis with the divine, which is the Word itselfe.  His proper essence is finite or determinate and so is onely within one place.  The hypostasis is infinite, immeasurable, and most simple or unmixt; and therefore in this onely and not in the proper essence the flesh of Christ can be, and in verie deed is, present in all places.[39]

Thus Zanchi can speak about each nature according to its “proper essence,” and he can refer to a “common hypostasis,” which is properly divine.  This divine person adds a human essence to itself in the union.  And he explains that by the expression “whole person,” he means to refer to the full office of mediator, which applies to Christ in both of his natures.  “And that office was and is of his whole person, according to both natures.”[40]  Thus it is quite clear what “whole person” or “whole Christ” means.  It is not a way to approximate a two-person Christology, but rather a way to explain how the “person of Christ” subsists in two natures and operates accordingly.


One final doctrine needs to be considered to have a complete view of the Reformed understanding of Christology.  We have demonstrated their unanimous desire for continuity with the patristic tradition insofar as it was catholic, their orthodox formulation of one person subsisting in two natures, and what was meant by the expression of “compounded person.”  At this point we must also address the way in which the Reformers used the patristic doctrine of two energies in Christ.

It is well known that the Reformers used the humanity of Christ to argue for a second Adam covenant theology.  Jesus had to fulfill the covenant of works precisely as man.  McCormack understands this, but he gives the wrong impression that the Reformers argued for a symmetrical relationship between the two natures and two energies in Christ.[41]  In fact, the Reformed view was a sort of “asymmetry.”  They explained it by the communicatio apotelesmatum.  Heinrich Heppe summarizes a number of Reformed divines on precisely this point:

In SOHNIUS, ZANCHIUS, and KECKERMANN the concept of αποτελεσμα is already completely fixed.  It is the unitary action of the person of Christ in the work of redemption, in which both natures participate.  SOHNIUS defines an apotelesm as “a single personal work, (in which) distinct acts of the two natures concur and unite”, (Exeg. Conf. Aug. p. 246).[42]

Heppe also adds a quote from Zanchi which says:

That first of all what Christ is or does according to the divine nature the whole Christ is said to be or do… In fact Christ the Mediator never did or does anything according to his humanity, in which the divinity too did or does not co-operate…[43]

Finally Heppe quotes the Leiden Synopsis which says, “so in the action of Christ the θεανθροπος the divine nature functions as the principal cause, the human as a less principal and assistant cause…”[44]  There are two acts in Christ, corresponding with the two wills and energies, but they are still unified because of the one person.  This one person is the “principle cause,” since He is divine (and indeed subsisted first and initiated the union).  And so, even while there is an insistence on the integrity and complete work of the human nature in Christ, the priority is still given to the divine, since it is the principal cause.  Thus there can be no misunderstanding of a two-actor Christology, even though the single actor possess two acting faculties, according to each nature.


We have shown that there is a consistent articulation of terms and doctrines within Reformed Christology.  Laying claim to the earlier tradition, the Reformers built upon phrases from John of Damascus (and Lombard and Aquinas) to precisely express how the two natures could possess the full spectrum of essential properties and yet still subsist in the one person.  The communicatio idiomatum was embraced and used to explain various expressions of speech, noting the truth of their rhetoric, as well as the possibility of further distinction.  We have seen what was meant by “compounded person,” and we have even pointed out that the Reformed maintained an asymmetry in the relations between the natures, giving primacy to the divine.

Why was all of this necessary?  Indeed, the conclusion is rather unimpressive: the Reformers were not innovators in the theological locus of Christology.  Again, why then all the fuss?

I believe that we here see an inability among many contemporary readers to give a charitable and imaginative reading of older sources.  Instead of carefully examining the meaning of an expression through its context and use, we see a tendency to seize on terms in their own right.  If two historical figures use the same term in different ways, we assume that the essential proof of their disagreement has been found.  Combine this with the overuse and indeed abuse of hermeneutic tools like “paradigms” and “architectonic narratives” in historical evaluation, and the situation becomes even worse.[45]  Explicit confessions and direct disavowals of certain theological commitments become subordinated to the assumed logical trajectory of the theologian’s intellectual worldview, and the original context is replaced by the interests of our contemporary theological quest.

Moving from the academics to the polemicists, we see not merely a lack of charity and imagination (and rigor), but something very near a conspiracy-theory view of church history.  The Reformers are not only using “paradigms,” but are actually trapped by them.  Like intellectual quicksand, Bullinger or Ursinus’s orthodox-sounding explanations actually only sink them deeper, even despite their outward rejection of the supposed theological destination to which they are said to be sinking.  This kind of unfalsifiable verdict of pre-established guilt is reminiscent of Freudian analysis, wherein a reasoned and by all objective measures credible denial that one is “neurotic” is taken as the surest proof that one in fact is. Likewise, the critics of our doctors seem to think that their overt demonstrations of orthodoxy, and rejections of heretical formulations, are no match for the secret “presuppositions” or complexes which inexorably pull the Reformers back into the heterodoxy of which they are presumed guilty.  This should never have been taken seriously in the first place, and it is a sign of a crisis in our modern theological education that anyone has.  It certainly needs to stop.

If the Reformers were addicted to a “method,” it was the historical-grammatical method.  If they had a deep, ruling principle which determined all their theology, it was the Word.  Combining scholasticism and humanism, they sought to identify, define, and distinguish, all with the belief that original intent mattered and that it should be discovered through examinations of terms and their meaning from use and context.  To suggest that there was a larger spirit at work, foiling even their best efforts though leaving no credible historical trace, is to leave the discipline of history and textual excavation and to enter into courtrooms where spectral evidence is admitted but concrete evidence is not.  This is not only an intellectual problem, but also a pastoral one.  And to remedy that, we refer the reader back to our original paper.

[1] Dialogue on the Two Natures in Christ 99-100

[2] Ibid 61

[3] Ibid.  These words are in the mouth of “Pantachus,” and he is giving the Lutheran argument.

[4] Even a historian as sympathetic to Cyril as John McGuckin is grants this much.  See Cyril of Alexandria: The Christological Controversy (Brill, 1994) 227-229

[5] Vermigli 61-62

[6] 115

[7] Ibid

[8] Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Zacharius Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, translated from the original Latin by G. W. Williard, (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., reprinted from 1852) 210

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid 211

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid 210

[13] Ibid

[14] Richard Field, Of the Church 3.33

[15] Ibid

[16] Field is citing from Beza’s Picus. Apolog. Field gives the following for Beza’s original text: “Deus dupliciter habet esse in creaturis; 1. per illapsum in omni natura; 2. in natura assumpta per circuminsessionem, et licet per illapsum Deus sit intimus omni creaturae, intimior quam ipsa sibi aut forma materia,–tamen per circuminsessionem fit intimior naturae assumpta;–quia necesse est naturam assumptam amittere proprium esse subsistentise, si quod ante assumptionem in ea fuit; vel si num quam ipsum habuit, subintrare esse subsistentise naturae ad quam assumitur, ut sit idem suppositum subsistens in duplici natura.”

[17] We have seen that both Bullinger and Beza made such changes in their own lifetimes.  It was not that their students had to clean up after them, but rather that the men themselves learned through controversy which terms were best and which were unnecessarily difficult.

[18] See the introduction by editors Baschera and Moser in Zanchi, Confession of Christian Religion (Brill, 2007) 14-19.  All following Zanchi citations are taken from this Brill edition.  I will give the titles of their primary sources, but the page numbers will correspond with the Baschera and Moser edition.

[19] Confession of Christian Religion 11.2, p 201

[20] Ibid 11.4, p 203

[21] Ibid

[22] 11.5, p 205

[23] 11.6, p 205

[24] Ibid p 205-207

[25] John Calvin does use this imagery, however, in his Institutes 2.14.1

[26] Confession 11.7, p 207-209

[27] This chapter began with, “Surelie we confesse with Athanasius that …”

[28] Ibid 11.8, p 209

[29] Ibid

[30] Ibid

[31] Observations Of The Same Zanchius Uppon His Owne Confession 11.6, p 535-537

[32] Ibid 11.11, p 539-541

[33] Ibid 11.12.1-2, p 543-545

[34] 11.12.4

[35] Ibid

[36] 11.12.5

[37] 11.12.6

[38] 11.12.7

[39] Appendix to the 11th Chapter, p 655

[40] Certain Positions Of The Same Zanchius Of Some Principall Articles Of Our Christian Faith Against Diverse Heresies at Sundrie Times Disputed On, Partly At Heidelberg, Partly At Newstade 3.28, p 675-677.  This instance of using “person” in reference to “office” is an example of the Reformers’ appropriation of the classical Latin definition of “persona.”  They were comfortable using the term in its traditional ecclesiastical sense, meaning a specific subsistence of a nature, and they were comfortable using it in the sense of office, with “the person of Christ” meaning the messiah.  For more explanation of this see Stephen Edmondson, Calvin’s Christology (Cambridge, 2004) 15, 186-219

[41] McCormack’s exact expression is, “They want a Christology which will allow them to argue (by analogy) for an asymmetry in the relationship of divine authorship to human authorship of the Bible.  But in their haste to reach this end, they have unwittingly abandoned the tradition they claim to defend.”  He is addressing the Enns controversy, but he is also clearly implying that the Reformed tradition did not have “an asymmetry in the relationship” of divine and human natures.

[42] Reformed Dogmatics (Baker, 1978) 445

[43] Ibid

[44] Ibid 446.  Reformed Christology might sound much more exotic, and thus much more attractive to some, if it more often used terms found in the technical discussions of our doctors such as “theanthropic energies,” rather than the more Biblical language it on principle prefers. But the customary order of preference is, of course, the correct one.

[45] Michel Barnes explains this problem as particularly pronounced in the area of patristic retrieval, an area of study directly relevant to this paper.  Barnes writes: “[T]hese contemporary appropriations share the same two presuppositions: the first is that characterizations based on polar contrasts are borne out in the details that are revealed clearly and distinctly through the contrasts; and the second is that the same process of presenting doctrines in terms of opposition yields a synthesizing account of the development of doctrine. In short, there is a penchant among systematic theologians for categories of polar opposition, grounded in the belief that ideas ‘out there’ in the past really existed in polarities, and that polar oppositions accurately describe the contents and relationships of these ideas. Why these categories would be so valued by late-19th- and 20th-century readers of dogma is a question I leave for specialists in those eras, although, as will become clear, I believe that this penchant for polar categories reveals something about methodological choices systematicians have made in this century. Whatever the origins of this emphasis on polar categories may be, there are severe limitations in the histories produced by this polarizing hermeneutic of doctrine, and contemporary systematic theologians seem to have accepted these limitations as foundational.”  He also bemoans “the systematic penchant for using grand, broad-stroked, narrative forms.”  He adds: “Like turn-of-the-century historians, contemporary systematicians seem to be distinguished by the confidence with which they will deploy such grand, architectonic narrative forms. This confidence springs, I think, from two attitudes. First, the confidence reflects a positive sense of all the new things that we have learned as moderns through the mechanism of ‘paradigm shifts’; not the least of what we have learned is the existence of such paradigms themselves. Secondly, the confidence to speak in architectonic narrative forms reflects a general sense that details matter less than perspective, that historical facts are only epiphenomena of an architectonic paradigm or hermeneutic, so that a sufficient knowledge of ‘facts’ can be acquired solely through the practice of a hermeneutical or an ideological critique in itself, since any ‘fact’ can itself be reduced to an expression or the symptom of a hermeneutic or ideology. One can imagine that either or both of these attitudes would make historical judgments or characterizations more tentative and rare, but I think it is fair to conclude that this has not been the case.”  Barnes goes further and says that systematic theologians are actively writing bad history because of their devotion to the “architectonic narrative form.”  See “Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology.” Theological Studies 56 (1995) 239, 241

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.

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