Participating in the Body of Christ: Christology and the Sacraments

Multiplying five loaves and two fish to feed 5,000 people instantly made Jesus a star in first-century Palestine. The satiated crowd endeavored to seize him to be the king of Israel and serve as the rallying point for a national rebellion against the Roman Empire. Word of this miracle spread swiftly throughout the region and the next day Jesus was being sought out in Capernaum on the opposite side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus immediately recognized that the crowds came searching for him, not because they understood who he was or embraced the truth toward which his signs pointed, but because they desired more free bread. Jesus used this occasion to teach the curious inquirers in Capernaum about the true bread of life. It was Jesus Christ himself who was the bread they truly needed, that which would satisfy their deepest longings. “For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.”[1] When questioned and challenged on these hard sayings, Jesus refused to qualify or explain away his statements in any way even though it cost him the vast majority of his following.[2]

It was on the night before his crucifixion that Jesus revealed the mystery as to how exactly his disciples were to eat his flesh and to drink his blood. He took bread and wine, declared that “This is my body which is given for you” and “This is my blood which is shed for you”, and instructed his disciples to eat and drink all of it. This was not a one-time event but was to be a perpetual ceremony to be celebrated until Christ’s final return. The Lord’s teaching in John 6 about eating his body and drinking his blood now made sense. It was through the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine that had been consecrated for this special purpose that believers fed on the bread of life.

Jesus did not merely command the practice of baptism and the partaking in the Eucharistic meal during his life and ministry. Rather, in the way that he taught them, he established a very close connection between his person and work and these sacraments that he instituted for the church. All authority had been given to him as the risen Christ and because of that reality (“therefore”), the disciples were to go disciple the nations by baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.[3] The apostles were to teach the word and were to baptize people into the church because of Jesus’ status as the risen lamb who had been slain and who is worthy to receive all glory, honor, and power. Likewise, the Eucharist was commanded by Jesus to be celebrated so that believers could feed on Christ spiritually and grow in his grace.

This means that what the church believes and confesses about the person and the work of Christ has utmost importance for its sacramental theology and how they are to be administered. John Calvin in the Institutes says the sacraments become clearer in their meaning the more we understand who Jesus is: “As for our sacraments, the more fully Christ has been revealed to men, the more clearly do the sacraments present him to us from the time when he was truly revealed by the Father as he had been promised.”[4] Citing Augustine, Calvin refers to Christ’s side, out of which blood and water flowed when punctured by the spear, as “the wellspring of the sacraments.”[5] What the church teaches about who Jesus Christ is and what he accomplished on the cross has massive implications for its doctrine of the sacraments. Yet, too often, the doctrines of God and Christ are merely assumed within the church rather than examined. The German Roman Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, says, “We must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.”[6] Differences in doctrine in these fundamental areas are seen as arcane or overly technical theological disputes that have little bearing on the life of the church. Because a proper understanding or articulation of these doctrines is not considered essential to the ministry of the gospel (“Can we not just all agree that we love Jesus?”), ancient heresies have made inroads back into the church largely undetected. Since theology has direct bearing on worship, the church’s worship suffers because the church knows very little and refuses to think very deeply about the Christ it claims as its head. When the theology of the church is compromised, the worship and the administration of the sacraments are compromised. Worse yet, churches may be no longer worshipping the true God at all, but rather an idol of their own making. Most people would acknowledge that poor theology will produce unsound preaching. However, poor theology, and poor Christology in particular, will produce a faulty, and even an invalid use of the sacraments. What the church believes about Christ will determine how it administers the rites of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Christological heresies have the effect of rendering the sacraments irrelevant, inconsistent, or incomplete.

Irrelevant Sacraments: Docetism, Arianism, Adoptionism, Sabellianism

One of the earliest Christological heresies making inroads in the church was the gnostic teaching of Docetism. Docetists held to a metaphysical dualism between matter and spirit, believing the material world to be evil and corrupted while the spiritual realm remained pure and good. This way of thinking was rooted in the platonic dichotomy between the eternal forms or ideals and the physical world. The ancient Greeks would have resonated with the first words of John’s gospel, astounding though they may have found them. The reality that the eternal logos was a person and not merely a unifying principle or force would have been shocking, but not wholly objectionable. However, reading on a little further, they would have found verse 14 of the same chapter to be extremely problematic: “And the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” For the eternal logos to become flesh was to sacrifice the purity and transcendence of the forms. This is why St. Paul says that the gospel is foolishness to Gentiles (Greeks) in I Corinthians 1:23 and why the Greek philosophers in the Areopagus referred to him as a “foolish babbler” in Acts 17:18. The way to salvation and enlightenment for Gnostics was through the secret knowledge from the spiritual world, not through physical actions, much less, suffering a physical death. Gnosticism then represented a fusion between Greek dualism and Christianity. The Docetists, adhering to this Gnostic worldview, made their way into the church and began to teach that Jesus never actually became flesh, but rather was a spirit only appearing to be a man. Jesus Christ was made to look like us so that we could relate to him and engage with him, but he never shared human substance nor shared the physical weaknesses of human beings. He instead floated just above the physical world. Since he was not a true man and did not have a physical body, Jesus could not experience suffering and death, which would be unfitting for God.

If Jesus Christ was only a spirit and could not and did not suffer pain and death, the hope of Christ followers would be similar to that of the pagan Greeks: enlightened human beings would one day shed their physical bodies and ascend to the spiritual realm, the realm of the forms where ultimate reality lies, untainted and unhindered by the weakness and corruption of flesh. If this teaching was accepted as true in the church, there would be no hope for the salvation of humanity. If Christ never became a real man, there remains an unbridgeable chasm between the holiness of God and the fallenness of humanity. Even Christ as the logos who dwelt among us has no way to close that gap between the spiritual and the physical world without taking upon himself a human nature. Should the chasm between the highest heaven to the dust of the earth appear to be reduced to mere inches in a spiritual incarnation, peace and fellowship with God remain as eternally distant as ever. Jesus Christ had to be made like man in all things.[7] St. Paul says that if Jesus was not really a human being and did not really die and rise again, Christians are most to be pitied for there would be no hope for resurrection of their physical bodies after death.[8]

If Christ did not assume human nature and was never truly a man, physical matter is irredeemable and is useless to serve as a sacrament to save and sanctify the Christian to God. The sacrament is completely worthless to a docetic Christology because a sacrament is a physical and visible sign of a spiritual and invisible grace. If Christ cannot bridge the gap between the spiritual and physical realms without corrupting himself, what good is the washing with water in baptism or the feeding on bread and wine in the Eucharist? These are merely corrupt, physical substances that do nothing to bring us closer to the spiritual realm. Moreover, the power of the sacraments is that they allow the believer to have communion with God the Father through Jesus Christ the Son. Because Christ shares our nature and can stand in the heavenly throne room as the lamb who was slain, those who are united to Christ in baptism can lift up their hearts and enter into the presence of the Father and have fellowship with him in a heavenly meal. While the pre-incarnate Christ enjoyed fellowship with the Father throughout all eternity in heaven, it is his enthronement as the incarnate Son of God that allows the believer to enjoy the same access and fellowship. The reconciliation and the access that the believer has to the Father only comes because one who shares our human nature is worthy of entering into the Father’s presence. Therefore, a docetic Christ, without a human nature, may be the Son of God, but this divine being accomplishes nothing for humanity. This being the case, the sacraments are rendered worthless.

While not extreme to the point of heresy, docetic tendencies in the administration of the sacraments remain strong within the evangelical church today. Holy baptism and the Lord’s Supper are commonly treated as mere symbols or visual aids by which the believer either publicly identifies with Christ’s death or calls it to memory. This “memorialist” view of the sacraments can be traced, at least to some degree, back to the Swiss reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, who argued that the finite could not contain the infinite. In other words, Christ’s presence could not be contained within the bread and the wine because as finite physical substances, they are inadequate to hold the infinite being of God. Though such a statement sounds plausible on its face, it creates a Christological problem for the physical body of Jesus Christ contained and veiled the glory of the infinite, divine Son of God as he tabernacled among us. Gerald Bray points out that if Zwingli was correct, we would also have to admit that Jesus gave up his power and knowledge to become human.[9] Perhaps Jesus would not even have known that he was God, given his finite knowledge. At the end of this line of thinking is the heresy of Kenoticism, which will be discussed later.

To be fair to Zwingli, there is some debate among scholars about the extent of his memorialist views of the sacraments. However, there is no debate about the extent to which modern, baptistic evangelicals have separated the spiritual and physical in their creation of a subjective view of the sacraments. According to this view, the believer does not participate in any spiritual reality through the use of physical means, for the connection between the physical and spiritual realm does not exist in the sacraments. The connection to the spiritual realm is located in the intentions of the heart and mind of the receiver of the sacrament. It is the sincerity of the believer’s profession of faith at baptism that makes the baptism valid. If the profession is later found to have been insincere, the individual is to be baptized again. Likewise, it is the degree of faith and focus of the believer while receiving the bread and wine that determines the validity of the Eucharist. This is not to suggest that such evangelical churches are outright heretical, but the denial of any real presence of Christ shares similar dualist assumptions about the relationship between the spiritual and physical world with the ancient gnostic heresies. According to evangelical Gnosticism, the physical substances, the water, bread, and wine, do not confer grace, but merely serve as reminders and visual aids to help believers publicly identify with Christ or remember his sacrifice on the cross.

Against a docetic view of the sacraments, a proper Christology affirming the full humanity of the Son of God, would also affirm that spiritual realities can be communicated through physical substances. Just as the person of Christ was not a visual aid to help us think about the invisible spirit of God, but was truly God in the flesh, so also the sacraments are not merely symbols and aids to our memory, but rather the outward signs by which invisible spiritual graces are delivered to the believer by faith. In short, something happens in the use of the sacraments. Heaven opens and believers are regenerated and progressively sanctified for the glory that awaits them at Christ’s return. St. Paul says in Romans 6:3 rhetorically asks the question, “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?” He goes on to answer the question in verses 4, stating unequivocally, “we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” In 1 Corinthians 10:16, St. Paul uses the same rhetorical device to speak of the Eucharist: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” Because we participate in the body of Christ with these physical actions, they are not to be taken lightly or to be received in an unworthy manner.

While the Docetists believed that Christ’s humanity was only an illusion, the Adoptionists taught that Jesus was only a man who became the divine Son of God through adoption. The earliest adherents of this theory of Christ’s person were the Jewish sect known as the Ebionites who lived in the second century. Theodotus of Byzantium also became a well-known proponent of this teaching in the late third century. This Christological heresy has persisted down through the history of the church but has proved to have considerable staying power in the modern world that seeks to find naturalistic or scientific explanations for the supernatural claims of Scripture. Like Docetism, it also has the effect of rendering the sacraments irrelevant to the believer.

According to proponents of adoptionism, Jesus Christ was conceived by natural means, was born, lived as a natural man, and proved his moral righteousness by conforming perfectly in every way to the Hebrew law on the basis of which he became the Son of God through adoption at his baptism. It would have a certain appeal to both Jews and Gnostics. Jews could acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Messiah, but in doing so, would elevate the importance of keeping the Jewish law in making Jesus who he is. Gnostics could maintain their fundamental distinction between a physical Jesus and the adoption by which he was elevated to the status of a divine, spiritual being. This Christology is strongly at odds with the opening words of the Gospel of John which begins by stating that the Word of God that became flesh existed from all eternity as distinct from God the Father yet was himself God.

Adoptionism also has held a certain appeal for moderns from the Enlightenment to the present day who have desired to reconcile Christianity with the discoveries of modern science by explaining away the supernatural events and claims of Scripture. The virgin birth is one such problematic event. If Jesus was not virgin-born but conceived by natural means and only later became the Son of God through his moral exemplary behavior, one more conflict between Christianity and scientific rationalism is resolved. For Enlightenment rationalists who denied the doctrine of original sin, Jesus was not needed to offer salvation. His teaching and moral example of being a good neighbor were useful as a basis for ethics. Combining this with the recognition of God as a unitary being who served as the first mover setting the laws of nature in motion, man had all that was needed to begin the process of redeeming the world through scientific discovery and reason. Liberals at the turn of the 20th century as well as the “progressive evangelicals” of the 21st-century continued to undermine the fundamental claims of Christianity regarding Jesus’ birth and resurrection to make a Jesus that is more “relevant” to the culture. Modern liberals sought to curtail Scripture’s supernatural claims to fit scientific theory, denying whatever failed this test to be true. Post-modern liberals did not attempt to outright deny the supernatural claims of Scripture such as the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement, and the physical resurrection of Christ, but simply state that the historicity of these events was irrelevant. For the liberals and progressives, Jesus’ life and death give Christians a powerful example of how sacrifice, authenticity, and social activism can bring about redemption for the world.

Though there is a certain plausibility to this Christology to the modern mind and it seems to fit well with the spirit of the age, it presents a series of theological problems. First, within the adoptionist framework, there isn’t any grace or peace with God that is offered. If Jesus was adopted as God’s son because he obeyed every jot and tittle of Hebrew law in the Torah and the Talmud, he is only at best an older brother to believers and serves as their moral example rather than as a substitute for sin. According to Scripture, Christ’s sinless record does not make him worthy of divinity but is that which is imputed to the believer that he might be reconciled with the Father. This is the source of real hope. Second, modern biology and genetics does not pose the challenge to the virgin birth that the Enlightenment or the modern liberals believe that it does.[10] A biblical and creedal Christology affirms that Jesus Christ was one person with two natures. His person pre-existed conception and birth. Thus, it was not Mary that gave life to the second person of the trinity. Rather the incarnation was the addition of a human nature to the divine person and divine nature that is the Son of God. This is a claim that goes beyond the ability of modern science to answer. Scientific rationalism should stay within its lane and not pretend it has the tools to falsify the supernatural claims of Scripture. Third, for the 20th and 21st-century liberals, who prefer to be rid of the concepts of a wrathful God and a bloody sacrifice and prefer to see Christ as a model of self-sacrifice and political activism, there is no rest and comfort offered in the cross. The quest to redeem the world through political and social activism becomes a burden that is never relieved and becomes a tool of guilt manipulators. Jesus was not the first Christian, and we are not called to be little Christs. Jesus was not adopted as God’s Son, believers are. Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God who added a human nature and died as a man so that man might be adopted into the family of God. Adoption is an act of grace that is extended by God to all of those who repent and believe the Gospel. Likewise, the sacraments are about receiving grace. The believer does not receive the washing of regeneration in baptism and cannot feed on the body and blood of Christ as a free gift if Jesus gave us only an example to follow. A Christology of adoptionism at best makes the sacraments something that the believer does in service to God, rather than a gift received from God. Therefore, the sacraments are rendered irrelevant. They have no power to save or to sanctify.

On the Christological spectrum between the extremes of Docetism and Adoptionism arose another heretical school of thought in the third century led by Arias of Alexandria, who taught that Jesus Christ was a special creation of the Father who served as the mediator between God and man. The Docetists had preferred to interpret John 1:14 as the logos who became “like” man but did not truly become human flesh. The Arians, in contrast, preferred to say that Jesus was “like” God or of a similar substance to God, but rejected the idea that the Son and the Father were of the same essence. If the Docetists sought to protect the logos from the taint of physical matter, Arians sought to protect the unity and supremacy of the divine monarchy over all things and to make sense of biblical language referring to Jesus Christ as being the monogenes of the Father. Ironically, Arianism fell into a similar error as the Docetists for they adopted the same Greek dualistic worldview that pitted the spiritual realm against the physical world. Says theologian Robert Letham, “Arians wanted a God who could suffer, but at the same time, it was inconceivable to them that the one God, the Father, could himself suffer. Revelation and redemption…had to be by one less than fully divine, since God could not come into contact with creation without either deifying it or destroying it.”[11] Thus, for Arius and his followers, the Son came about as the product of God the Father’s will rather than his nature. Since the Father willed the Son into existence ex nihilo, the Son is a creature who serves the Father. Even if Arians did not mean to slight Jesus Christ and would acknowledge him as the greatest human being, the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15), the source of redemption, and the only mediator between God and man, he is not fully divine as he does not share the divine essence with the Father. Since the Son came into being at some point, he has a nature that is subject to change. The Son is not the same yesterday, today, and forever because there was a time when he did not exist, therefore, it is possible that there will be a time when he will not exist again.

The Arian Christ, contra Docetism, is fully human and thus can truly identify with man’s physical weaknesses. He is also sinless, even if only by choice rather than nature, and as such is worthy to serve as a perfect sacrifice for sin that would be acceptable to God. However, as a finite creature, the sacrifice of the Arian Christ is also finite. Because of his perfect righteousness, he could merit heaven for himself, but he could not atone for the sins of other creatures. Thus, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross would be no more efficacious than the repeated animal sacrifices delivered regularly since the establishment of the Mosaic covenant. The sacrifices of animals throughout Israel’s history served an educational purpose for the people more than anything else. The blood of lambs did not actually turn away God’s wrath or satisfy man’s spiritual need for a savior. This is why Yahweh says through the prophets that he takes no delight in sacrifices and feasts.[12] It was not the sacrifice itself that had any efficacy in satisfying God’s eternal judgment against sin. Rather it was the care and the intent behind the preparation for the sacrifices and the works done with gratitude in response to the reception of God’s grace in which he delighted. Jesus Christ, as a finite creature, would only have been capable of offering a finite sacrifice. Humanity would remain lost because even though they had a representative of their race to bear the wrath of God, they could not be brought into union with this savior since their sins would not be washed away by this limited sacrifice.

The Arian Jesus also undercuts the purpose of the sacraments. If Christ is not eternal, he is not the source of life, but one who receives his own life from the Father.[13] Yet Jesus said that to have eternal life his followers must feed upon him for it is he alone that is the bread of life. If Jesus receives his life by grace from the Father, for all of creation is an act of grace and not of necessity on God’s part, Jesus is dependent on the Father’s grace for life just as every other creature. Apart from the father’s sustaining grace, the body and blood of Christ upon which the believer feeds would also be subject to death and corruption. Moreover, if the Father can simply show his grace by creating a mediator through whom that grace is extended to humanity, why could he not of his own free will extend that grace directly to humanity without the mediator? The purpose of a mediator is to stand between two parties and bring reconciliation. If the Father is already graciously disposed towards humanity such that an infinite propitiatory sacrifice is unnecessary, then no mediator is needed. If a mediator is needed, as is the case with an Arian Christology, the mediator enters the Father’s presence not as one who is worthy of receiving all praise, honor, glory, and blessing because he has purchased a kingdom of priests by his blood (Revelation 5), but as one who is accepted and sustained by the grace of the Father. The Arian Jesus renders the entire discourse on the bread of life in John 6 meaningless. By doing so, the sacraments become irrelevant. Christ’s presence in the bread and the wine is not life-giving. Thanks be to God that believers partake in the bread of life in the sacrament because Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, the creator and source of life, and willingly gave his life as a ransom for many!

Finally, Sabellianism is a fourth heresy that makes the sacraments irrelevant. Sabellianism was a modalistic heresy of the Western church that denied the distinction of persons within the Trinity and claimed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were different modes of being within the Godhead. For this reason, it is regarded primarily as a Trinitarian, rather than a Christological, heresy; however, it is worth mentioning here due to some important Christological implications. If the Trinity is not tripersonal, then Jesus is not a person with relationships with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Anselm argues that a denial of the three persons in the Trinity is a denial of any distinct actions taken by any of the three persons. “If the Father is numerically the same thing as, and not a distinct thing from, the Son, it is not true that something should be affirmed of the Son and denied of the Father, or affirmed of the Father and denied of the Son.”[14] In other words, there is no significance to the statement that the Son died on the cross and rose again. One could just as easily say that the Father died and rose again or the Spirit died and rose again. If there is no significance to the fact that the Son did these things, why is it necessary that the Son do them? If there are not distinct persons within the Trinity, then whose wrath must be propitiated through a perfect sacrifice? The person and work of Christ lose their meaning if there are no persons, and therefore no relations within the Trinity.

This Christological heresy then renders the sacraments irrelevant for it is through them that the Christian has fellowship with the Father. The prayer of consecration in the Book of Common Prayer refers to Christ on the cross “who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.”[15] To whom is this sacrifice given? The partaking of bread and wine is in remembrance of Christ’s death and passion and a partaking of “his most blessed Body and Blood.” Whose body and whose blood? The Eucharist is a calling into the Father’s remembrance of the death and passion of the Son, the only basis for fellowship with the divine. If there is only one person in the Trinity, the entire rite is meaningless.

Inconsistent Sacraments: Nestorianism and Monophysitism

The Christological pendulum swings from Apollinarianism to Nestorianism and back to Monophysitism in the post-Nicene era of the early church are not as wide as those between ante-Nicene heresies of Docetism, Adoptionism, and Arianism such that they render the sacraments irrelevant. The humanity and the divinity of Christ are affirmed within each of these post-Nicene heresies unlike those earlier heresies that denied one of two natures of Christ. However, the failure to correctly comprehend and articulate the relationship between the divinity and humanity of Christ served to create a lot of confusion about what the sacraments are and how they are to be utilized. In effect, these Christological heresies can be said to render an inconsistent or incoherent sacramental theology.

Nestorianism emerged in the fifth-century church and was named after the man credited as its formulator, Nestorius, though there is considerable debate as to whether he actually adhered to the heresy that bears his name. According to Cyril of Alexandria, Nestorianism grew out of the teaching of Diodore, the Bishop of Tarus in the late fourth century, who drew the distinction between the Son of God and the Son of David.[16] Nestorius was consecrated as bishop of Constantinople in 428. By this time, the fourth-century disputes over the deity and humanity of Christ had been resolved by the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, which had been written and affirmed by the ecumenical church in 381. Debates at this point revolved around how the divine and human natures of Christ related to each other within his person. If Jesus was born as a human of a virgin, but also was fully God from conception, Mary could be said to be the mother and bearer of God, the theotokos. Nestorius became associated with controversy due to his strong objection to the term being applied to Mary since this seemed to make her out to be a goddess. Rejecting the title of theotokos for Mary meant further separating the divine and human natures of Christ. Those associated with Nestorianism tended to speak of the human person of Jesus being indwelt by the divine logos. This distinction between the Word and the flesh in Christ supposedly avoided the confusion that had been associated with Apollinarians, who argued that Jesus had a physical body, but a divine soul and mind. This more radical Nestorian separation of the natures became a separation of two persons within Christ. In this framework, Mary gave birth to the human Jesus. Joined to the human person and nature was the eternal Word of God, which is a person, as John 1:1 says, with its own divine nature.

This overcorrection to Apollinarianism created as many problems as it solved. First, if Jesus Christ is a man who was indwelt by the Word of God, how does he differ from other prophets? Did not the Word of the Lord come to Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and many others as well? The New Testament reveals that this Word of God is a personal being, which was a new revelation, but this reality does not necessarily make Jesus all that different from the Old Testament prophets who spoke in God’s name. Second, if Christ consists of two distinct persons, who died on the cross? It could not be the divine Word because the divine cannot suffer. Only a human person with a physical body suffers. Therefore, on the cross, we could say that half of Christ suffers, but the divine person of Christ escaped death by simply leaving the human person to die. What merit then could be applied to the death of the human person of Christ absent the divine Son of God? Is the death of one man who had been indwelt by the eternal Word for a time sufficient to atone for the sin of the world and bring reconciliation with God? At best, atonement could be achieved for Christ alone, but his finite nature would be insufficient to purchase salvation for anyone else. Insufficient atonement means that believers cannot have communion with God. Christ’s body and blood ultimately do the Christian no good. Third, to confess two distinct persons within Jesus Christ does damage, logically, to the term person. As Anselm argued, persons are distinct from one another and “cannot have the same combination of individual characteristics.” The persons of the Trinity share the same essence, but it is their personhood that distinguishes them from each other. Three persons can be united in one essence, as is true of the Trinity, but two persons, cannot be united in one person without destroying the definition of what a person is. Thus, Anselm concludes, “when the ‘Word became flesh’ [John 1:14], he assumed the nature that alone we signify by the term ‘human being’ and ever differs from the divine nature; he did not assume another person, since he has the same combination of proper characteristics with the assumed human being.”[17]

Without a true unity of natures within the singular person of Christ, sacramental theology becomes inconsistent. In baptism, the believer is united to Christ like the branches to the vine. In the Eucharist, the believer feeds on Christ’s body and drinks Christ’s blood. However, given the assumptions of Nestorianism, to which of Christ’s persons is the believer united and on which of Christ’s persons does the believer feed? It cannot be the divine Word of God to which the believer is united in baptism because the divine person of Christ does not experience death, is not buried, nor does he rise again. Thus, Romans 6:4-5 would be meaningless. Moreover, the body of the divine person of Christ is not broken and not “given for you.” These statements could only be true of the human person of Christ. Yet, St. Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” It is the divine Word that St. Paul refers to here that lives within him, for it is not the human person of Christ that lives within him. This statement is incoherent if Christ consists of two persons because the divine person of Christ was not crucified. So how can Paul say that he has been crucified with Christ and that Christ now lives in him? When Jesus speaks of his body as the bread of life in John 6:35, it is the presence of the Word in the flesh that makes it so. Without the unity of two natures in one person, the believer does not feed on the bread of life in the celebration of the Eucharist. While Nestorianism denies neither the humanity nor the deity of Christ, logically, the chasm between human beings and the divine as referenced previously in regard to the docetic heresy remains. For this reason, it produces an inconsistent and incoherent sacramental theology.

In response to Nestorianism, the heresy of Monophysitism was born in the 5th-century representing the opposite end of the spectrum. The teaching of Eutyches of Constantinople, one of its most important advocates, represented an overreaction to Nestorius at the Council of Ephesus in 431. While he rightly rejected the idea that Jesus Christ consisted of two persons, he also rejected the two distinct natures of Christ. According to this Christological formulation, Jesus Christ had a single nature which was an amalgam of both divine and human natures. The properties of divinity and humanity were merged and intermingled within the person of Christ creating one unique composite nature that was unlike any other man. While this theory makes sense both logically and genetically, it is extremely problematic theologically. Like Arianism, it represented another attempt to derive an understanding of Christ’s person and essence from human experience. Just as the eternal begetting of the Son should not be understood in terms of human begetting, which was the mistake of Arias, so also Christ’s humanity and divinity should not be understood as a combination of two sets of DNA, divine and human, such as is the case with human offspring. On the contrary, Jesus Christ is both fully divine and fully human. The eternal Son of God did not transform himself from Creator to a hybrid human, but rather he added a human nature to His divine person and nature. Thus, the Incarnation cannot be said to have introduced any ontological change within the Godhead. Said another way, Christ did not diminish his divinity by becoming half human and half divine. For his sacrifice to have infinite merit, he had to be fully God. To fully identify with humanity and serve as a proper substitute, he had to be fully man. Therefore, the church catholic confesses that Christ is one person with two natures: inseparable, but distinct; united, but not confused.

If Jesus Christ was one person with two distinct natures, one should expect to see this archetype applied to the sacraments. The consecrated elements of the Eucharist could be said to consist of two natures, the physical substance and divine substance. If Christ did not transform from one substance to another in the Incarnation, it is reasonable to conclude that the celebration of the Eucharist does not entail the transformation of one substance to another either. The physical substance of bread and wine would remain bread and wine. It is not transformed into a new physical substance of the body and blood of Christ. Rather, the physical elements of bread and wine are joined with the real spiritual presence of Christ. As the divine Son of God added a human nature so that he might relate to human creatures, so the bread and the wine are physical creatures to which Christ “adds” his spiritual presence that the church may feed on him by faith. In doing so, Christ demonstrates the goodness of his creation in two ways. First, in the retention of his human body for eternity, Jesus Christ lives physically in heaven and not just as a spiritual being. Second, he is also pleased to use the physical substances of water and bread and wine to convey his grace to us. These common things need not be transformed into another substance to be used for the most holy purpose of serving as visible signs and seals of inward spiritual graces. Christ’s physical body need not be broken again, nor does it need to take on the characteristics of a spirit and be present everywhere to be fed upon in the Eucharist. However, we still refer to the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ because of that which they convey by faith. Bishop Edward Harold Browne eloquently summarizes: “The elements after consecration, may be called by the name of those things which they represent. But then we call them so, not because we believe them to have lost their original nature, and to have ceased to be what they were, but because, being hallowed to a new and higher purpose, they may be called that which they are the means of communicating.”[18] If it is true, as stated previously, that modern evangelical sacramental theology contains some docetic assumptions, and that the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, while not an outright manifestation of the Eutychian heresy, maintains some Eutychian assumptions about the relationship between the two natures of Christ in the Eucharist, both of these views should be rejected.

However, it is not only the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation that retains these Eutychian assumptions, for they can be found within Lutheran sacrament theology as well. Though Martin Luther rejected transubstantiation, he was unwilling to adopt an interpretation of the words of institution, “hoc est corpus meum,” that denied the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Thus, his formulation, known as “consubstantiation”, affirmed that the physical presence of Christ was in, around, and under the elements and was defended based upon the doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ’s physical body. According to Lutherans, Christ’s physical body was not restricted to one place or location but could be omnipresent just as Christ’s divine nature is omnipresent. This was possible, they said, because divine and human attributes, existing together in the one person of Christ, were communicable between divine and human natures, rather than separated. As the divine glory of Christ shined through his physical body on the Mount of Transfiguration, so could other divine characteristics such as omnipresence able to make their way into the Christ’s physical nature. The Reformed tradition argued strongly against this Lutheran position, even going so far as to suggest that Lutherans had fallen back into Eutychianism, for by commingling the natures of Christ to accommodate their sacramental theology, Lutherans were in effect arguing for one nature in Christ rather than two. Peter Martyr Vermigli, in his debate with the Lutheran Johannes Brenz over the ubiquity of Christ’s physical body, pointed out the fact that even the risen Christ in Scripture was said to be present in certain places and not others: “It is as a man that he goes and he comes…His coming and going is something in common with us….moving from place to place is so proper to a man that it cannot be communicated to God.”[19] When Jesus’ disciples discovered the empty tomb, they were told by the angel that “he is not here.” If the risen Christ was ubiquitous in his humanity, why would the angel say that he was not present at the tomb? When Christ ascended into the heavens, the angels promised that he would return just as he had left, that is descending from the clouds and with a physical body. In addition to the exegetical argument, Vermigli and the Reformed apologists made the theological argument that the doctrine of the ubiquity of the physical body of Christ would diminish his humanity. If Christ’s human nature could be present everywhere, then it did not have human dimensions or take up space. Physical substance occupies space. If physical space was occupied by the bread in the sacrament, where did the physical body of Christ reside? Says Vermigli, “While he walked among us on earth, he had with him those two natures conjoined in the same person, after the resurrection no less than before – and he still occupied a place just like other men. Therefore that union, in which he grew strong even in his mother’s womb, cannot in the last interfere with his body’s being contained in a place even after its glorification.”[20]

Incomplete Sacraments: Apollinarianism and Kenoticism

Two more Christological heresies, one ancient and one modern, in effect render the sacraments incomplete in that the promise of redemption offered does not entail a restoration of the whole of human nature.

Apollinarianism developed from the teaching of Apollinaris of Laodicea in the late fourth century and was a milder species of the docetic heresy that preceded it. According to the Apollinarian formulation, Jesus had a body, but a divine mind, soul, and will. It represents a move in the right direction away from docetic Gnosticism but fails to go far enough as it compromises the full humanity of Christ. The orthodox Cappadocian theologian, Gregory of Nazianzus, provided the best answer to Apollinarianism by arguing that all that is not assumed by Christ is not redeemed. If the Son of God did not assume a human mind, soul, or will in becoming man, then the mind, soul, and will are not redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. If Jesus Christ’s perfect record in life and perfect sacrifice on the cross were attributed to a divine mind, soul, and will and were not human, they cannot be imputed to the believer and the believer’s fallen mind, soul, and will cannot be imputed to Christ. Redemption of the human nature is tied to substitution. Without a complete substitute, there can only be incomplete redemption.

Therefore, the sacraments become visible signs of incomplete invisible graces. Human beings are not then completely united to Christ. Certain aspects of Christ remain divine and of the spiritual realm. Participation in the sacraments is not then a foretaste of complete restoration in the heavenly kingdom, because they only come part way. The Reformers taught that the sacraments were efficacious when combined with the Word and understanding. Without the preaching of the word the sacramental rites are just empty rituals. Yet, what good is the word if the human mind has not been redeemed to understand the significance of the sacraments and the human will has not been redeemed to receive the washing of regeneration and the body and blood of Christ by faith?

Kenoticism, or kenotic theology, is a modern theological heresy that has its origins in the teaching of 19th-century German theologian Gottfried Thomasius. According to this view of the Incarnation, Jesus Christ surrendered either all or much of his deity and power to become a man. The key biblical text used in support of this position is Philippians 2:6-7, which says that Christ “made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.” Some Bible translations render the Greek word ekenosen as “emptied” to communicate the idea that Christ made himself of no reputation. This is interpreted as Christ surrendering his power and divine attributes to become a man.

This view is almost taken for granted and sounds intuitively correct to much of modern evangelicalism today. Coming out of the German pietist movement, it resonates with an egalitarian age that likes to stress “servant leadership” and the surrender of power and privilege by superiors to inferiors. If Jesus gave up his divine power and privilege to become meek and mild, so should Christians also forego the exercise of dominion in the world to be gentle and lowly like their savior. It is not a coincidence that this view has become most prevalent in an age in which Christianity has been relegated to the private sphere. As secularism has become the dominant religion of the public square, Christianity has accommodated by looking to the Kenotic Christ who humbly gave up power and became weak for the love of the world.

While it is true that Jesus took on the form of a servant and humbled himself even to the point of suffering a painful death at the hands of sinful men, he did not surrender his divine identity or power to do so. Jesus Christ did not believe equality with the Father was something to be grasped[21] because he is already equal with the Father. The Incarnation did not diminish his deity in any way or make him inferior to the Father. The Son of God did not empty himself of his divine attributes, but rather of his glory. The reward given to Christ in Philippians 2:9-11 for his humility in going to the cross is exaltation above every other name in heaven and on earth. Glory and exaltation correspond to that which Christ gave up to become man. He was not rewarded with more power because he surrendered his divine attributes, but with greater glory because he veiled his glory in human flesh as he tabernacled among humanity. Jesus prays in John 17:5 that the Father would glorify the Son with the glory he shared with the Father from before the foundation of the world, further indicating that it was his glory that the Son laid aside in the Incarnation, not his power and attributes. Another problem with the Kenotic view is that Incarnation was not a temporary status for the Son of God before he threw off his humanity once and for all and returned to heaven as a spirit. On the contrary, Christ’s assumption of human nature at the Incarnation remains fixed throughout all eternity. He did not identify with human nature once upon a time but is forever God in flesh. If Christ emptied himself of his divine attributes to become man, he forever remains the Son of God without his full power and attributes. Assuming human nature does not detract from the divine power of the Son of God in any way. Should it do so, we have an incomplete redemption. If Christ emptied himself of his divine powers, he did not go to the cross willingly. He went to the cross because he was compelled by the Father and was powerless to resist. Yet Hebrews 10:10 says that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice once and for all. Only God, who is above all powers, thrones, and dominions can truly be said to never act under compulsion. Thus, Jesus says in John 10:18 that “No man taketh it [my life] from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”

Because Jesus Christ did not surrender any of his divinity or power in the Incarnation but came to earth and went to the cross willingly, he also gives himself to those who turn to him and with true faith feed on his body and blood. Jesus is not summoned as an errand boy to the altar when the proper incantations are recited but is the one who invites the believer to come and eat and drink and live. Holy Communion is not the recalling of a distant memory of a time when Christ was compromised but is a heavenly meal where the believer glories in the cross of Christ by which salvation is secured. Christ was fully God with all his divine attributes on the cross and is fully God in the bread and wine that is consumed in the Lord’s Supper. The sacraments are complete.

In conclusion, Jesus said that a good tree cannot bear good fruit. The church suffers from a poor sacramental theology in large measure due to a poor Christology. Ancient heresies are alive and well in the modern Western church. Recovery of a high view of the sacraments must not be based merely on the sentimental appeal of tradition or otherworldly appeal to mystery in reaction against the low sacramental theology and individualism of the fundamentalism of the past century. Rather, it must be built on sound biblical exegesis which ties the sacraments closely to Jesus’ person, which serves to shatter the Gnostic assumptions of the modern age.

Bibliography:

Anselm of Canterbury. The Major Works. Edited by Brian Davies and G. R. Evans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Book of Common Prayer, The: And Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church, According to the Use of the Reformed Episcopal Church in North America, Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David. Fifth ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Standing Liturgical Commission of the Reformed Episcopal Church, 2013.

Bray, Gerald. God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2012.

Browne, Edward Harold. An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles: Historical and Doctrinal. New York: H.B. Durand, 1965. Reprinted by Classical Anglican Press, 1998.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Vol. 2. The Library of Christian Classics. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960.

Ferguson, Everett. Church History: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context. Second ed. Vol. One. Grand Rapids, Mi: Zondervan, 2013.

Letham, Robert. The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2019.

Stott John R.W. The Cross of Christ. Study Guide ed. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006.

Treier, Daniel J. “Incarnation.” In Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, edited by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, 216-242. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016.

Vermigli, Peter Martyr. Dialogue on the Two Natures in Christ. Translated by John Patrick Donnelly. Vol. Two. Peter Martyr Library. Lincoln, Neb.: The Davenant Press, 2018.

Notes:

  1. John 6:55-56 KJV
  2. John 6:66: “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.”
  3. Matthew 28:18-19
  4.  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1298.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Karl Rahner, The Trinity, trans. Joseph Donceel (New York: Crossroad, 1997), 10-11, quoted in Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity in Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2019), 355.
  7. Hebrews 2:17
  8. I Corinthians 15:19
  9. Gerald Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2012), 197.
  10. Daniel J. Treier. “Incarnation,” in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, ed. Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 219.
  11. Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2019), 115.
  12. I Samuel 15:22, Psalm 40:6, 51:16, Isaiah 1:11, Hosea, 6:6
  13. Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology, 210
  14. Anselm of Canterbury, The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 242.
  15. The Book of Common Prayer, 100-101.
  16. Everett Ferguson, Church History: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context, Second ed., Vol. One (Grand Rapids, Mi: Zondervan, 2013), 258.
  17. Anselm of Canterbury, The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 253.
  18. Edward Harold Browne, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles: Historical and Doctrinal (New York: H. B. Durand, 1865; Reprint Classical Anglican Press, 1998), 686.
  19. Peter Martyr Vermigli, Dialogue on the Two Natures in Christ, trans. John Patrick Donnelly, vol. Two (Lincoln, Neb.: The Davenant Press, 2018), 58.
  20. Vermigli, 42.
  21. Philippians 2:6 ESV

 



Jared Lovell is a postulant and soon-to-be ordained deacon in the Reformed Episcopal Church serving Grace RE Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Jared is a classical educator, teaching European and American history at Memoria Press Online Academy, and is a teaching fellow at the Wayside School.


'Participating in the Body of Christ: Christology and the Sacraments' has 1 comment

  1. September 13, 2022 @ 10:42 pm Brad Kafer

    This was extremely well written and provided clarity regarding the significance of a proper Christology. The author clearly understands the various ancient heresies and their implications for the Sacraments as well as some of the modern equivalents. I will definitely be pointing people to this article!

    My only critique, at the risk of sounding pedantic, would be to only use the language of “assumption” of human nature rather than “addition” in regards to the Incarnation and to say one person “in” two natures rather than “with” two natures to more accurately reflect the ancient orthodoxy. (Also, there is a typo where the author said “rights” rather than “rites”.)

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