Luther, Nestorius, and Medieval Christology

An interesting conclusion can be drawn from David Luy’s ‘Dominus Mortis’. Stated bluntly, the conclusion is this: passibilism, the idea that God suffers, follows the same logic as Nestorianism. That’s an extraordinary claim, but as with all claims, it requires but sufficient evidence.

A bit more precisely, let’s define the passibilist thesis broadly as the idea that the being of God is conditioned by events in salvation history. Here, passibilism is a distinctly historicist thesis, and vice versa. Luy summarizes:

‘God becomes truly vulnerable in Christ by entering into the depths of human corruption. Christ resolves the defects of sinful existence by subsuming them within the historical process of God’s own dialectically mediated self-existence. Those in union with Christ through faith are caught up into the sequential process of divine becoming. In Christ, God identifies God’s own being with sinful humanity. In doing so, God offers them a share in God’s eschatalogical future.’ (Dominus Mortis’, pp. 171)

The semantic logic behind this thesis roughly cashes out to this: If God suffers, divinity suffers. Jesus is God, therefore, divinity suffers. Nestorius, wanting to preserve the integrity of deity (as opposed to simply importing a pagan Greek concept of God, according to Luther), argues that God cannot suffer:

‘Luther does not chastise Nestorius because he assumes that divinity is incapable of suffering. He criticizes the fifth-century bishop for rejecting orthodox christological speech on the basis of faulty logic. Nestorius wrongly assumes that an ascription of human predicates to God must entail a coextensive application of the same predicates to Christ’s divinty. The entailment does not follow. Nestorius’s failure to understand this leads him to speak as if Christ were two distinct persons.’ (pp. 175)

For Luther, this orthodox christological speech was the communication of attributes – that is, the predication of both divine and human attributes to the one person Christ in virtue of his divine and human natures. An example of this would be, say, that God suffers, and a man created the heavens (both of which were said, actually, by Luther and late scholastic theologians). Both of these are true in virtue of the fact that, according to his human nature, Jesus suffered, and according to his divine nature, Jesus created the heavens (rough and oversimplified, of course). Thus, the opposite of the passibilist thesis: God suffers does not entail that divinity suffers. God suffers, not because Jesus and therefore divinity suffers, but because Jesus, the God-Man, is one subject with two natures, of whom we can predicate things both human and divine. Luther here invokes two-natures language as well as the medieval idea of ‘concrete’ predications:

‘We are told here that Christ, true God and born as true man, descended according to His humanity, that God’s son died, descended into hell, and ascended again into heaven; that at the same time God remained in heaven, for the Godhead does not move about hither and thither but is omnipresent; and that according to His human nature, Christ ascended up above all. One may properly say that since there are two natures on one Being and Person, God’s Son came down and entered into the Virgin’s womb and God’s son descended into hell. Although this really applied only to the human nature, by virtue of the personal union in Christ it is also ascribed to the other nature. “That which applies to the one nature, applies to the entire person in the concrete”.’ (‘Luther Works’, 22:328, quoted in ‘Dominus Mortis’, pp. 136)

Luther’s christological semantic here invokes a distinction between ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ predicates. It is worth paying close attention to, especially on account of its precedence in medieval scholastic theology:

‘The primary intent of the distinction’s application during this period is to distinguish between predicates that refer to the single person of Christ (concrete) and those that denote each nature as such (abstract). Thomas Aquinas, for instance, distinguishes concrete terms as predications that refer to natures as they are possessed by the subject, whereas abstract terms refer to natures per se. This distinction regulates the grain of christological description for Aquinas and other medieval thinkers. Concrete terms may apply to any subject that possesses the “nature” to which a particular abstract terms belongs. Human properties may therefore be ascribed to the son of God (in the concrete) by virtue of the fact that the humanity of Christ is “possessed”, so to speak, by a divine subject. The predications may not run in reverse. Concrete terms do not necessarily apply to each of Christ’s natures. Hence, the Son of God suffers (abstract to concrete) but divinity does not suffer (concrete to abstract).’ (pp. 151-152)

It should be noted that Luy argues that it is precisely these two ideas, the communication of attributes and concrete/abstract predications, that show Luther did not endorse a bidirectional communication of attributes:

‘Luther’s prolific use of the distinction between abstract and concrete predication…makes it abundantly clear that, despite whatever ambiguities may exist in his descriptive vocabulary, his intent is consistently to affirm the single subjectivity of Christ as the rightful recipient of predicates belonging to the divinity and humanity. In expressing this intent, Luther specifically rejects any notion that the divine nature is directly conditioned by human properties of Christ. He prohibits this implication by enlisting medieval qualificatory discourse. God suffers, for Luther, only in the sense that the one person who is both God and man suffers on account of of his genuine humanity.’ (p. 159)

With the concrete/abstract distinction as well as the communication of attributes in mind, it becomes easier to see just how the passibilist thesis runs on the same logic as Nestorius. Nestorius’s failure to adopt the communication of attributes forces him, on pain of accepting a suffering deity, to refuse predicating human attributes of God:

‘Nestorius imagines that the application of creaturely predicates to God logically demands that Christ’s divinity is ontologically conditioned…He [Luther] agrees that Christ’s divinity is not derived from Mary’s womb. And yet, because Christ is a single person, the predicates of both natures must apply to God. It is thus not Nestorius’s doctrine of God that misleads him, but his lack of logical sophistication.’ (pp. 177)

What Luy takes to be the key consequence is this: by affirming that God suffers, one does not logically have to accept the suffering of divinity. However, if one rejects the idea that God suffers, one must logically reject the incarnation. Because Jesus is truly God and truly man, God suffers. But because Jesus is truly God, divinity does not suffer.  Luther argues that Nestorius’s error lies in his semantic – of his refusing to predicate human attributes of God because of his belief that a suffering God = a suffering divinity. The passibilist thesis, which holds that Christ’s suffering = divine suffering, can thus be seen to run on Nestorian logic.




A Review of “Dominus Mortis: Martin Luther on the Incorruptibility of God in Christ” Part 1 | theologia vera

Here’s a more in depth review which interacts and engages with the main poonts of the book – definitely worth reading:

Review-ish of ‘Dominus Mortis’

So I read ‘Dominus Mortis‘ this last month, and though I don’t usually do book reviews (there’s no shortage of theoblogs doing book reviews), I decided to write up a few thoughts on this outstanding little volume.

As a whole, this is just a fantastic work of scholarship – anyone interested in divine impassibility, late medieval christology (and christology in general), theological metaphysics and, of course, Luther’s theology will benefit hugely from this book. The writing is clear (though technical in places) without dumbing things down, though of course the reader will have to follow the text closely so as not to be lost. Being a specialized study, there’s the assumption of a fair amount of familiarity with theological vocabulary and concepts, so while easy to read, it’s not a beginners guide.

The standouts in terms of content for this book are for me the engagement with the doctrine of passibility/impassibility, the engagement with modern theology in terms of Luther’s applicability for today’s issues, and the historical overview of the ‘divergence thesis’  with the subsequent argument/demonstration that the passibilist reading of Luther is, in fact, very incorrect (I won’t give it away here, you’ll have to read it yourself – suffice it to say that the passibilist reading of Luther has been dealt quite a blow in this book) .

Something I really, really, really, REALLY REALLY  appreciate is that at the end of every chapter is a brief (1-2 page) summary of what’s been discussed in the chapter. This is quite simply so very nice – the arguments can be somewhat long and complex and it’s incredibly helpful to have a look back to help you get your bearings with a quick stock-taking to see just where you’re at.

I’ll end this review-ish with a hearty recommendation – if you’re interested at all in passibility/impassibility, christology, theological metaphysics and Luther, this is an essential volume. Get it.

Reading Notes 1/4/2015

I received ‘Paul and the Faithfulness of God’, Christmas eve, and finished the first volume in roughly 7 days – lots to think about. While I’m onboard with most of what Wright argues, I think he seriously overstates the theme of Israel’s national failure – partly because, at a textual level, the evidence he needs just isn’t there. Arguing from the implicit to the explicit is fine – but when every lack of data is brushed off with ‘the implicit narrative’ or ‘every second-temple Jew would have known this’, there’s a problem. Wright’s thesis is strained, at best – the texts he argues from (largely Romans 2:17-23 among others) simply don’t support his idea. I don’t even think he needs it, honestly. I wonder if he’s holding on to said thesis just for the heck of it. For a much more scholarly critique, see Larry Hurtado. It was nice to see him town down some of the anti-imperal rhetoric and relegate it to a somewhat more implicit role (somewhat).

I’ve been reading Pelikan’s Reformation volume, along with various writings of Luther, trying to get a handle of Lutheran dogmatics – christology, specifically (communication of attributes and all that). Christologically, I’d side with the Lutherans over the Reformed (who really do have some Nestorian tendencies), though the Lutherans have their own Eutychian leanings. When it comes to the law/covenant, though, Reformed wins every time. Even allowing for Luther’s rhetoric, I can’t get behind his idea of the law being an ideal that huamnity can’t attain, and in virtue of that, driving one to Christ. Two great web resources on this specific issue: Concordia Theology and Lutheran Theology

I forgot that I had a volume with the major christological dogmatics of Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazanien, and Athanasius, as well as all the major christological documents from the post-nicene controversies – Nestorius/Cyril, Leo’s tome, Chalcedon/Constantinople statements, Arius/Eusebius, etc. I’ve been reading the Nestorius/Cyril exchange, as well as the various christological statements.

My Cambridge Companions to Aquinas, Augustine and Plato have all arrived – I’m about halfway through the Augustine volume, which is fun because I’ve never really read and secondary work on him aside from an article here and there. It’s good to get a better handle of Augustine – though funny enough, as sophisticated as his metaphysic is, his theology is pretty blunt – ‘God damned you. Deal with it.’ But seriously though – good volume. Excellent article on the nature of God – so far that’s the standout. There are essays on his epistemology, philosophy of time, memory, language, cognition, etc. Looking forward to it.

I’ve also been reading a good amount of sci-fi short stories, starting with basic Star Wars (the ‘Tales From’ series) and branching into space opera, reading from this great volume. Lots of great old stories – it’s especially interesting reading the ‘harder’ sci-fi from older periods. In one instance, the ‘ether’ was said to have currents, waves, etc, that spaceships could get sucked into – lots of great fun.

More Reading Notes 2/15/14

I finally got Pelikan’s Reformation book in his history of doctrine series. It’s been outstanding so far – I’ve zeroed in on the discussion of Luther, justification and the theology of the cross. Something I learned was Luther’s emphasis on the Christus Victor theme, which, while all Christians sort of believe that at some level, definitely lost some emphasis in the medieval period. Luther focused on it to a degree I had not realized. While I’m fairly familiar with the justification doctrines Luther puts forward, this has also served to flesh out the subtleties in his thought in that area. I hope to learn more of the subtleties and nuances in Reformation thought.

Apart from that, I’ve done a large amount of reading in the classical metaphysical tradition, specifically the Aristotelean (sp?) theory of act and potency and the debate surrounding divine simplicity/energy-essence distinction. The main thinkers I consulted on act/potency include Aquinas, here, Aristotle, here, and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, whose writings on the topic can be found here. I read Hart on simplicity several times over in ‘The Experience of God’, who, while Orthodox, takes a decidedly Latin approach to the whole affair, but still maintains that God in his true nature is unknowable, whereas the E/E distinction doesn’t hold to the absolute divine simplicity of the Latin tradition. I also consulted Barth, in C/D 2.1, pages 457-461, who affirms divine simplicity by tying it to the freedom and simplicity of God’s love, which is par for the course for Barth. This led inevitably to thinking about the role of apophatic and cataphatic theology – which is a whole ‘nother discussion.

‘Mapping the Mind’, by Rita Carter has also been great – a fantastic entry-level book on the physiology/biology of the brain and brain science, technical, up-to-date, covering all the major areas, but easy to read. I’m learning a great deal about neurons, synapses, grey matter, chemical reactions, and lots of other fun things.

Earlier this week I spent some time reading Plantinga’s ‘Warranted Christian Belief’, specifically the sections dealing with foundationalism. This was sparked by someone asserting that unless one had self-evident propositions one couldn’t have knowledge, and God served as the self-evident thing. Plantinga more or less points out a big flaw, namely that foundationalism is self-referentially incoherent – it makes demands that it can’t meet. Fantastic book all around, and highly recommended.