Reformed Christology and the Westminster HTFC Report: A Critical Comment

Dr. Bruce McCormack, the Frederick and Margaret L. Weyerhaeuser Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, had written an essay focused on the Christology of a relatively recent Historical Theological Field Committee report, (HTFC report), issued by Westminster Seminary.

The essay and it’s blog host, previously available here, has since been set to “private”, so it is only by God’s grace that this essay had already been in circulation before tracks could be covered up completely….

What is important here, is that this essay clearly demonstrates that conservative Reformed theologians, such as Bruce McCormack, readily admit that Reformed Christology is not Chalcedonian (Orthodox), but more properly and admittedly a conformation to Nestorianism.


Reformed Christology and the Westminster HTFC Report: A Critical Comment

The recent upheaval at Westminster Seminary has been a cause of concern and of not a little academic interest for many who stand outside of that institutional family. The reason for the concern has to do with the specter of Presbyterians fighting with Presbyterians (yet again). The damage done to the Reformed witness in this world may prove to be significant. Certainly, more is at stake than Westminster’s internal relationships. The academic interest, for me at least, has to do primarily with the Christology presupposed by those who question Pete Enns’ orthodoxy.

The issue for the writers of the Historical and Theological Field Committee Report [hereafter HTFC] does not seem to lie in the use of a Christological analogy for assessing the relation of divine and human “causality” in the production of Holy Scripture; the writers are quite willing to argue for their own version of the analogy in question. The real issue is: which Christology counts as “orthodox” for Reformed Christians? The presumption throughout is that a simple and straightforward equation can be made between the Chalcedonian Formula and Reformed Christology. But can it? I will state my conclusion at the outset and then seek to explain how I arrived at it. My conclusion is that the Christology of the writers of HTFC is certainly “orthodox” in the ecumenical sense of the word, but – ironically, given the current situation at WTS – it is not Reformed.

For Reformed Christians, it is not simply Chalcedon which defines “orthodoxy” within the realm of Christological reflection; it is Chalcedon as interpreted by the Reformed Confessions. Or, in the case of denominations like the OPC and PCA, it is Chalcedon as interpreted by the Westminster standards. Westminster’s Christology stands, however, at the end of a long history of confessional reflection on the person of Jesus Christ and cannot be rightly understood without careful attention to that history.

As is well known, Reformed Christology was born out of a conflict with the Lutherans over the nature of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. As the debate unfolded, both sides made appeal to Chalcedon (and to the theologies of various Church Fathers) in their efforts to establish their case. But they differed in laying emphasis on differing parts of the Chalcedonian Definition. The Lutherans placed all of their weight on the unity of the Person. The Reformed placed the emphasis upon the formula “two natures unimpaired in their original integrity subsequent to their union.” As Calvin put it, “For we affirm his divinity so joined and united with his humanity that each retains its distinctive nature unimpaired, and yet these two natures constitute one Christ” (Institutes II.xiv.1).1 This was said in order to lay a foundation for the rejection of the Lutheran doctrine of a direct communion or inter-penetration of the natures. The properties of each nature, the Reformed said, are rightly ascribed to the “person” but not to each other. God remains God, the human remains human – precisely in the hypostatic union.

From this emphasis on the integrity of the natures, another characteristic emphasis would eventually follow; that, namely, of a robust doctrine of the “communication of operations.” In classical Reformed theology, the meaning of this doctrine is that in every act of the one God-human, both natures are fully involved – and involved in a way that protects their integrity. The Westminster Confession defines the “communication of operations” this way: “Christ, in the work of mediation, acteth according to both natures; by each nature doing that which is proper to itself…” (Chapter VIII, vii). It is not the case, on Reformed soil, that the “Person” acts through His human nature as His instrument, much less upon it. Rather, the God-human acts according to both natures.

From this second point flows a third. Because the Reformed insisted upon the integrity of the human nature and resisted its instrumentalization as a consequence of the hypostatic union, they were also willing to insist that the “excellencies” of the human nature of Christ were the consequence of the work of the Holy Spirit who bestowed upon Him certain gifts. It is important to note that these gifts were understood to be “created graces” – gifts of knowledge, power, faith and love which were appropriate to the “substance” of the creaturely which He shared with us. As Francis Turretin put it, “Here belong the passages in which he is said to be anointed with the Holy Ghost and with power (Acts 10:38), anointed with the oil of gladness (Ps.45:7), which can pertain only to the gifts of the Spirit, wonderfully rejoicing his soul. The plenitude of these is also designated when Christ is said to be ‘full of grace and truth’ (Jn.1:14) and to have received the Spirit without measure (Jn.3:34). Still it must not be supposed that this plenitude is simply infinite, both because the humanity is finite in itself and cannot be receptive of the infinite and because this grace is a created thing” (Thirteenth Topic, Q.12). It is because these excellencies are created and therefore compatible with his humanity, that Turretin can then go on to say that he finds it appropriate to ascribe to the human Jesus both faith and hope (Thirteenth Topic, Q.13).

It could be argued that John Owen represents the logical outcome of the Reformed insistence upon the integrity of the natures and resistance to an instrumentalizing of the human when he says, “The only singular and immediate act of the person of the Son on the human nature was the assumption of it into subsistence with himself” (John Owen, Works, vol.3, “Pneumatologia”, p.160). Every other act, then, including all of Christ’s miracles, were performed by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the human Jesus. “The Holy Spirit is theSpirit of the Son, no less than the Spirit of the Father. … And hence he is the immediate operator of all divine acts of the Son himself, even upon the human nature. Whatever the Son of God wrought in, by, or upon His human nature, he did it by the Holy Ghost, who is his Spirit, as he is the Spirit of the Father” (ibid., p.162). With these words, Owen introduced a final clarification into the doctrine of a “communication of operations.” In every act of the God-human, both natures operate in a manner consistent with each nature – but the Logos acts by bestowing His Spirit upon the human Jesus. In this way, the full humanness of the activities of the Mediator is preserved.

The unifying ground of these three concerns – the integrity of the natures, resistance against an instrumentalizing of the human nature and the emphasis on the Spirit’s ministry in the life of Jesus – was found in the Reformed understanding of the person of the union. There is, you see, an ambiguity at the heart of the Chalcedonian Definition where the “Person” is concerned. On the one hand, the Definition can say that “the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being.” On the other hand, the Definition can say, “he is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ…” On the basis of the first formulation, it would seem that theperson is formed out of the coming together of the natures. On the basis of the second, it would seem that a straightforward and direct equation is being made of the “person” and the pre-existent Logos as such. It is because of this ambiguity that patristic scholars are, to this day, divided over the question of which party to the controversy actually attained the upper hand at Chalcedon (which already, by itself, would render untenable any simplistic appeal to “Chalcedonian Christology”).. There are those who, leaning heavily on the first of these formulations, say that the Formula grants a certain victory to Nestorius. But there are also those who say that it is Cyril’s theology which triumphed at Chalcedon. In the first group is to be found Aloys Grillmeier and Brian Daley; in the second, John McGuckin. My own view is that a carefully contextualized reading of the Definition will show that it is the second of these opinions which is correct. But here’s the thing: classical Reformed theology clearly stood on the side of the first of these options – not the second.

Heinrich Bullinger offers the most extreme example. In his Second Helvetic Confession, he writes, “We therefore acknowledge either two natures or two hypostases or substances, the divine and the human, in one and the same Jesus Christ our Lord.” Two hypostases is extreme; indeed, it is something less than orthodox. According to Chalcedon, there is but one hypostasis in which the two natures subsist. What led Bullinger to this conclusion, however, was something that is to be found in the Definition, viz. the idea that the person of the union is formed out of the “coming together” of the natures. The same idea can be found in Calvin (who mistakenly believed that this was the view of all the orthodox Fathers). “Now the old writers defined ‘hypostatic union’ as that which constitutes one person out of two natures. This expression was devised to refute the delusion of Nestorius, because he imagined that the Son of God so dwelt in the flesh that he was not man also” (Institutes II.xiv.5). Clearly, Calvin’s grasp of Nestorius’ views was shaky at best. But he was not wrong to think that the idea that the “person” is formed out of the union had orthodox support – not only in one of the strands of the Chalcedonian Definition but also in later orthodoxy. John of Damascus, whose great work “On the Orthodox Faith” was newly translated into Latin in the early sixteenth century (and pored over by Zwingli), understood the “person” as a “compound person”2 – an idea that finds resonance in the Westminster Confession. “So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ.” The “person”, according to this teaching, is not simply the Logos as such but is very God and very man – the two natures having come together to form a single person.

It was this understanding of the “person” which made possible the Reformed doctrine of the communication of the attributes of both natures to the person. Indeed, the Reformed understanding of the communicatio is inexplicable without it.

We come back then to the HTFC report. What surprises me in this report is the ease with which the writers ally themselves with the Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran equation of the “person” with the Logos as such, thereby turning their backs on the Reformed tradition. “…the divine is essential and the locus of personality” (HTFC, p.20). That is an interesting statement, since “personality” means something rather more than mere “subsistence” – which is the Chalcedonian equivalent of prosopon or “person.”. To be “personal” is to possess mind, will and energy of operation. Do the writers intend to say that only the divine is “personal” in this sense, thereby denying to the human Jesus a mind, will and energy of operation? They certainly seem to. They speak of the “unipersonality in the God-man” (p.23), and they explain what they mean in a footnote as follows. “Orthodox Christology affirms that the human nature of Christ has no personality or subsistence of its own, but subsists only in its union with the Logos.” In truth, this is a very confused statement. The anhypostasia of the post-Chalcedonian Church was meant only to say that that the human nature of Christ had no subsistence in itself but subsisted in the person of the Logos; it was not intended to deny to the human Jesus a human “personality.” To say then that the human nature has “no personality or subsistence of its own” is to confuse two things which must be kept distinguished if we are to avoid a fairly radical form of Apollinarianism. I am confident that the writers do not intend such an outcome; this is just a sloppy formulation. But sloppy or not, it does tell us something rather significant. It tells us that the Christology of these writers stands in much closer proximity to the Christology of the Eastern Orthodox and the Lutherans than it does to the Christology of the Reformed tradition.

It is clear what has led the writers of this report down this path. 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.

I have to say that this is the last thing I expected to discover in a report issued by Westminster Seminary theologians. I live in an ecclesial world in which those who value Christian orthodoxy as a concept seem invariably to drift towards either Rome or Constantinople or some amalgamation of the two which is represented by no existing church. The last thing most of my friends want is a truly Protestant theology (whether Lutheran or Reformed); theosis is the hot topic in soteriology and both Lutheran and Reformed theologians are struggling mightily to find something akin to a theosis doctrine in their own church fathers (in Luther but also in Calvin – as Todd Billings’ recent book amply demonstrates). Mind you, I am not accusing the theologians of Westminster of abandoning Reformed soteriology! But they do not seem to realize that in advocating the version of Chalcedonian Christology they do, unreconstructed by Reformed sources, they have taken a most important step in that direction. After all, which soteriology do they think the Chalcedonian Definition was originally designed to support? For the sake of a more responsible Reformed theology – responsible that is to its originating sources – the theologians at Westminster need to attend more closely to their own tradition. Polemical situations rarely provide a seed-bed for careful theology. And that, it seems to me, is worth thinking about.

1The Reformed Confessions which were written after the definitive edition of the Institutes all contained this emphasis. The French Confession: “We believe that in one person, that is Jesus Christ, the two natures are actually and inseparably joined and united, and yet each remains in its proper character: so that in this union the divine nature, retaining its attributes, remained uncreated, infinite, and all-pervading; and the human nature remained finite, having its form, measure and attributes; and although Jesus Christ, in rising from the dead, bestowed immortality upon his body, yet he did not take from it the truth of its nature, and we so consider him in his divinity that we do not despoil him of his humanity” (Art. XV). The Belgic Confession: “We believe that by this conception the Person of the Son is inseparably united and connected with the human nature; so that there are not two Sons of God, nor two persons, but two natures united in one single person; yet each nature retains its own distinct properties” (Art.XIX). The Second Helvetic Confession: “We therefore acknowledge either two natures or two hypostases or substances, the divine and the human, in one and the same Jesus Christ our Lord. And we say that these are conjoined or united in such a way that they are not absorbed, or confused, or mixed, but are united or conjoined in one person – the properties of the natures being unimpaired and permanent” (Chapter XI). I should note that this translation of the Second Helvetic Confessions constitutes a modification of the one found in Arthur Cochrane’s much-used Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century, p.243. Cochrane left out the phrase – original to Bullinger’s Latin text – “two hypostases.” If he did so deliberately, it is likely due to the fact that he could only understand the phrase as tilting decidedly in the direction of Nestorianism. I will return to that problem in a moment. For now, my attention continues to be directed wholly to emphasis upon the integrity of the two natures in their distinctiveness. The Westminster Confession of Faith: “So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion” (Chapter VIII, ii).

2John of Damascus, Writings, trans. by Frederic H. Chase, Jr. (Washington, D.C.: 1958, pp.274-278.


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