The hypostatic union hard to understand?

Someone told me recently that he didn’t understand how Jesus could have two natures. He wasn’t saying merely that he didn’t believe it, but that he found it incomprehensible.

One thing we need to guard against is the idea that things which are hard to imagine are hard to understand. Imagining and understanding are different things. One or the other may be hard in a given instance, but the one being hard doesn’t have to make the other hard. Examples may be multiplied of things which are easy to imagine but hard to understand, and vice versa.

I suspect that some people have a problem with the hypostatic union because of the idea that two things can’t occupy the same place at the same time. But it’s important to remember that the divine nature, being spiritual, takes up no physical space.

If Jesus is God, then either he is like a centaur, being half God and half man; or he is fully God and fully man. Although, theoretically, an animal could be half human and half horse, there’s no way he can be fully human and fully horse, because part of the nature of human and of horse is to have a physical body, and he can’t have two physical bodies at the same time and in the same place.

But since it is not of the nature of God to have a physical body, there is no necessary conflict in conceiving of Jesus as fully God and fully man.

A nature is that by virtue of which a thing acts as it does. Thus, human beings walk because it’s our nature to have legs, and we think because it’s our nature to have an intellect. Jesus’ having two natures means that in addition to the things he does by virtue of being human, there are also things he does by virtue of being God.

He’s not half God, as if he can act like God but with only half the power. And he’s not half human, as if he only has one eye, one ear, one arm and one leg. He’s fully human, with a whole human body and intellect, and he’s also fully God, having existed for eternity and possessing infinite power, etc.

I don’t see the problem. I can understand people not believing this doctrine, if they already believe something which contradicts it (such as that God and man are of the same nature but at different stages of development). But I don’t see why it must be thought of as incomprehensible or self-contradictory.

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7 thoughts on “The hypostatic union hard to understand?

  1. @Ag – If you don’t have a difficulty with this, then I would leave the subject alone.

    But the difficulty is that in classical, philosophical, monist theology – there is an infinite difference between creator and created; God the Father is utterly different from everything else. God includes everything, anything other than God is inside God.

    Since Man is part of ‘everything else’ there then is no common sense way that the God and Man can be combined.

    I think this was the main philosophical basis of the Christology schisms in the early centuries of the church- it was a genuine problem, not a misunderstanding.

    And the problem was never *solved* by classical theology, but was simply made into a phrase, an incantation (ie the official creeds) and declared to be a mystery.

    This way around the problem has been acceptable to many Christians for hundreds of years – and that is good because it stops an intractable philosophical problem blocking the Christian life. (All philosophies have problems, so philosophical problems should not be allowed to stand in the way of Christianity, or else nobody could ever become a Christian. Life is bigger than philosophy.)

    But the credal answer is not a real answer from the perspective of someone was has noticed the problem, and will not accept the ‘black box’ verbal formulations of the creeds.

    However, as I said, if you personally do not experience the problem, and if the creeds provide a satisfying way around it; then you have nothing to gain from trying to make yourself feel it as a problem.

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    • Bruce:

      I think there is definitely a misunderstanding here. I agree that there is an infinite difference between creator and created, and God is utterly different from everything else. “Different” however not being synonymous with “separate”.

      I don’t understand, and therefore don’t agree that “anything other than God is inside God.” I’ve never heard this proposition in all my study of traditional theology.

      You write, “Since Man is part of ‘everything else’ there then is no common sense way that the God and Man can be combined.”

      I don’t think it follows that because God and creation are different, that there is therefore “no way that the God and Man can be combined.”

      We believe that God and creation are different, but we also believe that they are intimately connected at all times. This is implied in the belief that God holds all things in existence constantly, things material and immaterial. This is what is meant by saying that God is everywhere: Since outside creation there is no “where” in which to be present, this statement means that God is everywhere within creation: Wherever there is something created, there God is, above and below, before and behind, without and within, to the very core of each creature’s being. Therefore I don’t see why I should believe that “there is no way God and Man can be combined”. I don’t know precisely how it could happen, or what it would mean in every specific. But with the idea that it can happen, I see no difficulty.

      I’m a little confused by your insisting that philosophy not influence religion, yet seeming to choose one religion and adopt another for specifically philosophical reasons. For example, you argue that God and man can’t be “combined” because there is no “common sense way” in which it could happen. Aren’t you now rejecting a religious doctrine for reasons of metaphysics? And if you reject one metaphysics, aren’t you really arguing for another? In which case, haven’t you now “allowed” a “philosophical problem” to “stand in the way of” a religious doctrine?

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      • @Ag – You haven’t understood my point – because you think I am arguing in favour of Mormonism which I am not,. I am doing some analysis within classical theology – trying to clarify what it was that Christians were fighting, torturing and killing each other about in the early centuries. You may be happy with your answer to the nature of Christ – which is fine – but they early Church was not schisming about nothing. It should have been seen as trivial, a matter for tolerance – it should not have been taken so deadly seriously – but it was not about nothing. There is a real philosophical problem.

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  2. I think the tougher thing, is to grasp the hypostatic union in relation to Jesus’ human mind, such as how “Jesus increased in wisdom” (Lk 2.52), while being the Divine Wisdom itself. I feel like it’s also often said that one thing occurs to Jesus’ human nature alone, and other things in His divine nature alone, so that we don’t see any practical union at all. And also how one person can have two wills, yet not be two people.

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  3. Ignatius:

    Good points. I won’t claim to solve all these difficulties in a blog post, but here is what occurs to me, for what it’s worth.

    First, Christians who deny the hypostatic union still assert (among other things) that Jesus is God and that he suffered and died – all the while asserting that God or gods are immune to bodily harm and immortal. So it must be admitted by both sides that something mysterious is going on, however you try to account for it.

    Second, I said before that “Jesus’ having two natures means that in addition to the things he does by virtue of being human, there are also things he does by virtue of being God.” It seems to me that doing some things by virtue of being human and others by virtue of being God, necessarily entails having two wills, but doesn’t necessarily entail being two persons.

    God can’t enter time and continue seeing things from the perspective of eternity, and yet function as a creature of space and time. The latter must experience life one moment at a time and one small area of space at a time, in order to be fully human. This necessarily entails there being two wills, since a space/time creature must will things sequentially, for example sometimes willing to sleep and other times willing to wake up. God’s eternal will can’t change like that.

    But this doesn’t necessarily lead to conflicts between the two wills. God’s eternal will can will that Jesus sleep at 10:00 on Tuesday and wake up at 6:00 on Wednesday, while Jesus wills sleep at the former time and wakefulness at the latter. So you have two wills, a space/time will and an eternal will, but with no conflict between them – indeed both wills willing the same thing at all times.

    Some would point to the Agony in the Garden: Jesus prays, “If it be thy will, then take this cup away from me; but not my will but thine be done.” Jesus in space/time wills that the cup of suffering be removed lest he suffer bodily pain and harm. We may think that in this instance his will conflicts with God’s. But this imagines that God wills things as a space/time creature wills them, i.e. sequentially, and thus Jesus’ will at this moment in time conflicts with God’s at this moment in time. But it has always been God’s will that Jesus be fully human and therefore naturally desire to avoid suffering; and also that he submit his natural human desire to avoid suffering, to God’s will that he suffer; both of which Jesus does – he does them in sequence, but from God’s eternal perspective both are present, and neither conflicts with his will. Therefore, they will the same thing always.

    And again, being a creature of space/time, Jesus must grow in wisdom and grace, because as a space/time creature he can’t experience full wisdom all at once; whereas the eternal God can’t not experience full wisdom at once.

    Basically all I’m saying is that it’s not impossible for God to experience life as a human being, while also experiencing his existence as God. And experiencing life as a human being necessarily implies doing things — like willing things sequentially, growing in wisdom, wishing to avoid suffering, and dying — which God in eternity cannot do.

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    • Thank you. That is very helpful, especially the distinction between Jesus’ human sequential and divine eternal wills.
      What I think may also be a problem, is that sometimes explanations seem more like denials. You wrote: “being a creature of space/time, Jesus must grow in wisdom and grace, because as a space/time creature he can’t experience full wisdom all at once; whereas the eternal God can’t not experience full wisdom at once.” Taken on its own, it would seem to deny Jesus is the eternal God.
      A solution I’ve found and like, is that the Divine Wisdom that Jesus is, is perfectly simple, and so, radically different from all human wisdom, though all human wisdom is grounded in the Divine Wisdom.
      A helpful thought (to me, at least), is how in maths (and so nature), infinite can be contained in the finite, e.g. how a circle with finite circumference contains infinite symmetries, or how a fractal (such as the Koch Snowflake) can surround a finite area with an infinite perimeter.

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  4. Bruce:

    I didn’t think you were arguing in favor of Mormonism in this instance. I understood you were pointing out a problem in classical theology. My last paragraph was in reference to the general gist of several things you have posted on your own blog.

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