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Augustine on the Two Natures of Christ In His Sacrifice

From time to time, the Protestant Reformers, especially the Calvinists, found it necessary to clearly distinguish the ways in which the two natures of Christ operate in His work of redemption, even explaining which aspects of the work were properly carried out by Christ’s divine nature, which were carried out by His human, and which involved some simultaneous working of both. Modern readers, typically faint of heart when it comes to such systematic precision, are alarmed by this. But it was not a new way of doing theology at the time of the Reformation. Indeed, some of the most frightening distinctions are present in the 4th century. To show this, we will take an example from St. Augustine.

Augustine lived prior to the Council of Chalcedon, but he was able to anticipate much of its formulation. In one passage from the City of God, he offers what could rightly be called a Chalcedonian reading of Christ’s sacrifice, and in doing so, he also anticipates the rigor of the Protestant Reformers who would come so many centuries later:

And hence that true Mediator, in so far as, by assuming the form of a servant, He became the Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, though in the form of God He received sacrifice together with the Father, with whom He is one God, yet in the form of a servant He chose rather to be than to receive a sacrifice, that not even by this instance any one might have occasion to suppose that sacrifice should be rendered to any creature.  Thus He is both the Priest who offers and the Sacrifice offered.  And He designed that there should be a daily sign of this in the sacrifice of the Church, which, being His body, learns to offer herself through Him.  Of this true Sacrifice the ancient sacrifices of the saints were the various and numerous signs; and it was thus variously figured, just as one thing is signified by a variety of words, that there may be less weariness when we speak of it much.  To this supreme and true sacrifice all false sacrifices have given place. (City of God 10.20)

Augustine clearly explains both the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ and how they were at work in His sacrifice of redemption. A few observations are in order:

  1. Notice that for Augustine, Jesus Christ both gives the sacrifice and receives the sacrifice. He gives the sacrifice in “the form of a servant.” He receives the sacrifice “together with the Father.” This reminds us of the famous line from “At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing”– Christ the victim, Christ the priest. Indeed, Augustine says exactly this himself, “Thus He is both the Priest who offers and the Sacrifice offered.”
  2. But notice the fact that Christ receives the sacrifice as God and does not receive it “in the form of a servant.” Why does Augustine feel the need to make this further distinction? Because, Christ did not wish for anyone “to suppose that sacrifice should be rendered to any creature.” What is the “creature” in view here? It is Christ’s humanity, the created nature which supplied the “form of a servant.” So, the Godman offers the sacrifice to God. Or, if you wish, the theanthropic Christ offers the sacrifice to the Trinity. In no case–not even the true sacrifice of the Cross– is worship offered to a creature.
  3. If this were not intriguing enough, Augustine adds a few statements on the way this sacrifice is now “offered” by the Church. It is hard not to connect the sacrament of the Eucharist to this explanation, though we should be cautious. Augustine does not actually extend this to the Eucharist, at least not here. Instead, he simply mentions “the sacrifice of the Church, which being His Body, learns to offer herself through Him.” This may include the Eucharist, but for this section Augustine is specifically highlighting the way in which a creature is offered to God. It is analogous to the way that Christ offered His incarnate sacrifice to the Godhead. Thus the “true sacrifice” is the work on the cross, and the sacrifice of the Church is a “daily sign” of that sacrifice.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. 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 Director for the Davenant Institute.