The Eutychian Controversy - by William Cunningham

Historical Theology Articles

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A look at a heresy which is coming to light again in our own day.

We shall first advert to the continued distinctness and com­pleteness of the two natures in Christ, in opposition to Eutychianism; and then to the unity of the person of Christ, notwith­standing the continued distinctness and completeness of the two natures in opposition to Nestorius, or at least the Nestorians; following the order of the Catechism, which teaches that ” Christ was and continues to be God and man in two distinct natures,” or as the Larger Catechism, with a more explicit reference to doctrinal controversies, expresses it, ” in two entire distinct natures and one person for ever.” The whole scriptural truth upon the subject is thus stated in the Confession of Faith: “The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon Him man’s nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet with­out sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance. 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 only Mediator between God and man.” This statement, so far as concerns the point with which we have at present more immediately to do, is given almost in the words of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which, in condemning Eutyches, gave an explanation of the whole doctrine of the incarnation, or the constitution of Christ’s person, in opposition to the Nestorian as well as the Monophysite extreme. The general doctrine explicitly taught in Scripture upon this subject is, that the Logos, the eternal Son of God, was incarnate, or assumed human nature, or became man. Of course He could not cease to be God, to be fully possessed of the divine nature, with all divine perfections and prerogatives; and accordingly, all who admit that He was from eternity possessed of the divine nature, and that He became incarnate in time, be­lieve that He continues to be very God, to possess the divine nature entire and unchanged. The question, therefore, respects only the entireness and completeness of the human nature after its assump­tion by the Logos; and really amounts in substance to this: Did the assumption of human nature by the eternal Son of God, leave that human nature entire and complete, so that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures,—the manhood as well as the Godhead,— were still to be found joined together in Christ?

The considerations which most obviously occur as bearing upon the settlement of this question, are these: First, that we have no indication whatever in Scripture of the disappearance, absorption, or extinction of the human nature in the divine; secondly, that the fair and natural import of the scriptural statements, which declare the great fact of the incarnation, leads to the conclusion that the human nature, though assumed into union with the divine, continued to exist in its proper character as human nature, retain­ing all its essential properties; and, thirdly, especially and above all,—for this is the direct and conclusive proof,—that Christ is uniformly represented to us in Scripture, during His abode upon earth, and of course after the incarnation, even from His birth, as being truly, properly, and in all respects, a man, or a partaker of human nature, with all its necessary constituent elements and essential properties. It is on this position mainly that the ques­tion hinges, —it is by this chiefly that it is to be decided. Christ had been from eternity God over all; He assumed human nature into union with the divine. The divine nature of course continued unchanged, because it is unchangeable. Did the human nature also continue unchanged, distinct from the divine, though inseparably united with it ? Christ is uniformly represented to us in Scripture as being prima facie a man—a full partaker of human nature in all its completeness. If it be asserted that He had not human nature in its entireness and perfection, or that anything essential to human nature was wanting in Him, the onus probandi must lie upon those who make this assertion; for the obvious import of the general declaration of the incarnation, and the general bearing of the representation given us of Christ during His abode upon earth, plainly lead to an opposite conclusion. There is no evidence whatever in Scripture that Christ wanted anything whatever to make Him an entire and perfect man, or possessor of human nature in all its completeness; and, on the contrary, there is direct and positive proof that he had every essential property of humanity.

The distinctive constituent elements of a man, of a human being, of one who is possessed of perfect human nature, are a body and a soul united. Christ took to Himself a true body and a reasonable soul, and He retained, and still retains them in all their completeness, and with all their essential qualities. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, (< of her substance,” as is said in the Confession of Faith and Larger Catechism; these words, “of her substance,” being intended as a negation of an old heresy, revived by some Anabaptists after the Reformation, to the effect that He was con­ceived in Mary, but not of her; and that He, as it were, passed through her body without deriving anything from her substance; and being intended to assert, in opposition to this notion, that she contributed to the formation of Christ’s human nature, just what mothers ordinarily contribute to the formation of their children. Having thus taken a true body, formed of the substance of the Virgin, He continued ever after to retain it, as is manifest in the whole history of His life, of His death, and of the period succeed­ing His resurrection; and He has it still at the right hand of God. He took also a reasonable soul, possessed of all the ordi­nary faculties and capacities of the souls of other men, including a power of volition, which is asserted in opposition to the error of the Monothelites. We see this clearly manifested in the whole of His history, both before and after His death and resurrection; and the proofs of it might very easily be drawn out in detail in a survey of the whole record which God has given us concerning His Son. The denial of perfect and entire manhood, as well as Godhead, in Christ, rests upon no better foundation than a vague and confused notion, that the divine must, somehow or other, have absorbed or extinguished and swallowed up the human nature; so that the human could not, after its union to the divine, con­tinue to exist in its entireness, and in the possession of all its own essential properties. But this is a mere imagination or conjecture, which has no solid foundation to rest upon. We must not imagine or conjecture anything upon such a subject, but seek simply to ascertain what the word of God makes known to us. That word plainly represents Christ to us as being and continuing a true and perfect man, after the human nature had been assumed into union by the divine; and thus shows that our plain and imperative duty is just to believe on God’s testimony, that the divine nature did not absorb or extinguish the human, but left it, notwithstanding the union between them, distinct, in all its entireness and complete­ness, so that Christ really was very man as well as very God, and had manhood as well as Godhead, whole and entire.

The Son of God assumed human nature into union with the divine. The human nature is, of course, liable to change or altera­tion, while the divine is not; and, therefore, the question naturally enough occurs, What became of this human nature when it was taken into union with the divine; what position did it thereafter occupy? It was to contradict or exclude all supposable modes of explaining its position and relation to the divine nature, except that to which the whole tenor of God’s words shuts us up, —viz., that it still, in the union, retained its own entire completeness and perfection—that the Council of Chalcedon declared that they were united together, atpretos kai asugxutws, and that it is declared in our own Confession, that they “were joined together without conversion, composition, or confusion.” It is not needful to suppose that these three words in our Confession are intended to convey three distinct or materially different ideas; or indeed anything more in substance than the atpretos kai asugxutws in­troduced by the fathers of Chalcedon against Eutyches, and ever since generally adopted by the orthodox churches. Composition and confusion are here used as critically synonymous—the one being merely exegetical of the other, and the two together just expressing most fully the sense of atpretos;, for which indeed the word communication, as well as composition or confusion, has been sometimes employed. If the human nature did not continue in Christ perfect and entire, so that He still was very man as well as very God, there are just two ways, in one or other of which it must, when assumed by the divine nature, have been disposed of. It may be conceived to have been changed or converted into the divine nature, so as to have been wholly absorbed by it, and thereby to have ceased to have any proper existence of its own; this is denied to have taken place, when it is said that the two natures were united without conversion, without the one being changed into the other. Or else the two in their union may have been confused or mixed up together, so as that a third nature was formed out of the composition or commixture of the two which was neither the one nor the other, but partook partly of the properties of both; this is denied to have taken place, when it is asserted that they were joined together without composition or confusion. And the grounds of these negations are twofold: First, the intrinsic and inherent absurdity and impossibility of the things themselves, —i.e., of the human nature being changed into the divine; unless, indeed, this be supposed to be the same as the annihilation of the human nature, which is possible, but which is not contended for, or being commingled with it, so as to change or modify its charac­ter. And, secondly, their inconsistency with the scriptural re­presentation of the continued entireness and complete perfection of the human nature in its distinctive characteristics, and with all its essential properties, in Christ after its assumption into union with the divine. There would have been no occasion whatever for making such assertions, or for employing such phrases as these, had not the Eutychians maintained that there was but one nature in Christ,—that He was indeed of two natures, as they expressed it, i.e., that the divine and human natures both went, or contributed in some way, to the formation or constitution of His person;— but that He was not in, as well as of, two natures, inasmuch as from the time when the union of the two was formed, one or other, or both, had been in some way changed, so that they were not both, if either, found in Him entire and perfect. If the eternal Son of God assumed human nature, and if yet Christ, from the time when the assumption took place, had but one nature, as they held, it followed necessarily, that the union or assumption must have taken place in such a way, that either the one was changed into the other, or that the two must have been commingled to­gether, so as that one compound was formed out of them. Hence the necessity and consequent propriety, with a view to the explicit contradiction and exclusion of the whole error upon this subject, in its root and branches, of asserting that the divine and human natures were, and continued to be, in Christ distinct, entire, and perfect, being united together,— atpretos kai asugxutws,—”with­out conversion,” and without “composition or confusion.”

Taken from:
Historical Theology, Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle, PA: 1969. Pages 311-315.

Bible Verse:

“I will be sanctified by those that draw near to me…” (Lev. 10:3).

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