Today is Easter Sunday for the majority of the world’s 2.4 billion Christians (most Orthodox Christians will wait until 1 May to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus). After the long penitential season of Lent, Christians are greeting each other with joyful exclamations of “He is risen,” and hearing in glad response, “He is risen indeed, hallelujah!” That Christ rose is surely wonder enough, but who it was that rose is what makes Easter the most important feast on the Christian calendar.
According to the traditional teaching of Christianity, the one who died and rose is none other than the ‘God-man’, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, Jesus Christ, incarnate among us as a human. He shared the divine nature with the Father and Holy Spirit, yet took on a flesh-and-blood human nature of the same type as yours or mine. This teaching, which elicits adulation from Christians, can equally elicit perplexity from non-Christians. For how could it be that one and the same person is true God and true man?
One can feel the befuddlement settle in. Anything worthy of being called “God” must be something maximally impressive. It must be all-powerful, know everything, and be infinitely wise. It must exist necessarily, and be perfectly good. According to most Christians throughout the centuries, it must be immutable, impassible, and exist outside of time. It must be, to borrow a phrase from St. Anselm of Canterbury, “that than which none greater can be conceived.”
Now, from that lofty height of metaphysical and moral perfection, lower your intellectual gaze to the realm of lowly humanity. When not ruminating on Christian dogma, we all think that no human could be all-powerful. No human knows everything there is to know. Every human might have not existed, and could be better. All humans are changeable, affectable, and exist in time. To parody Anselm, each human is that than which some greater can be conceived.
How, then, can one person be both God and man? How can one thing be both omniscient and limited in knowledge, omnipotent and weak, impassible and moved to tears, immutable and crucified, outside of time, yet first killed, then resurrected? Is it any wonder that St. Paul reports that his teachings on Christ were seen as folly by the Gentiles?
What ought Christians to say about this apparent contradiction at the center of their theological beliefs?
One response is to deny that all humans must really be the way I characterized them above, or that God must be as I describe the divine. Perhaps all ‘mere’ humans are limited in knowledge, lacking in power, etc. Perhaps something needn’t be outside of time or impassible to be God. We can avoid the apparent contradiction that one thing is both, for instance, changeable and unchangeable, if we can go through the listing of problematic pairs of attributes and cross one of each out, so to speak.
Such a response may have promise, but it would require deviating from the teachings of the earliest Christian councils, which are important documents for many Christian denominations. To provide just one instance, the documents of the Council of Chalcedon (451AD), the fourth ecumenical council, teach, in a single sentence, that Christ is both capable and incapable of death.
A second response would begin by noting that having incompatible attributes is a problem only if they are had at the same time. Then, while affirming that the God-man had all the attributes I listed earlier, this second response would assert that he didn’t have them all at the same time. For instance, he was omnipotent prior to the incarnation, but during the incarnation he was weak. Likewise, for other attributes.
This response, too, has promise. But, again, it is contrary to the traditional teaching affirmed by Catholics, Orthodox, and many confessional Protestants. The ecumenical councils teach that Christ, even during his incarnation, filled all of creation, and that in becoming incarnate he lost no power. Moreover, Christians traditionally affirm that Christ now reigns in heavenly majesty with the Father and Holy Spirit, yet is still human (the doctrine is referred to as the exaltation). If that is true, then this response will not work, for right now, at the same time, Christ has all the majesty of divinity and is still true man.
A final category of responses to this Christological problem requires modifying the attributions made of Christ. Rather than saying that he is necessary, for instance, we say that he is necessary according to his divinity. Rather than saying that he is weak, we say that he is weak according to his humanity. The one person is necessary because the divine nature he has is necessary. That same one person is weak because the human nature he has is weak. Similarly for other attributes. These modifications are common in Christian history. The very same councils I’ve pointed to previously modify the claims in these ways.
I am convinced that a move of this sort is what is needed by the Christian. One way of understanding such a modification is to interpret the apparently inconsistent pairs of terms so that they are consistent in very limited cases. For instance, if one understands the term “immortal” to mean that the thing in question has a nature that is incapable of dying, and the term “mortal” to mean that the thing in question has a nature that is capable of dying, then provided that Christ has two natures (one divine, the other human), it will be possible for him to be both immortal and mortal. Much more can be said about the application of this type of response. Provided, however, that there is some means by which to deny that one and the same God-man is both, say, mortal and immortal at the same time in the same way, the doctrine of the incarnation will be free of this alleged contradiction at the center of today’s feast.
Featured image credit: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.