Calvinism’s Christology Problem

Imagine someone set out to reinvent the wheel but got it all wrong. That’s the position that reformed theologians find themselves in. However, due to lack of historical consciousness, they usually don’t realize they are trying to reinvent the wheel. But the truth is that the Sixth Ecumenical Council (680-681) provided a framework for understanding the relationship between the human and the divine with a subtlety and sophistication that rendered unnecessary nearly all subsequent Calvinist metaphysics.

The background to the Sixth Ecumenical Council was the struggle with the heresies of Monoenergism and Monothelitism. The Monothelites had asserted that while Christ possessed two natures, He only had one will. The Monoenergists, on the other hand, maintained that Christ was animated by only one ‘energy.’

Concerned that both these positions undermined Chalcedonian Christology by implying Monophysitism (the belief that Christ has only a divine nature and not a human nature, which would be a species of Docetism), the council condemned both positions. Drawing on the theology of St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662), the council provided a framework for understanding the relationship between the human and the divine, and by extension the spiritual and the material.

Against the Monoenergists, the Orthodox Christians at Chalcedon affirmed that Jesus acted through two energies: the divine and the human. Against the Monothelites, they maintained that if Christ is truly man and truly God, then He must have two wills: a human will and a divine will. The two wills work together synergistically, even as human beings are called to co-operate our human will with the energies of God. Thus, the doctrine affirmed by the Sixth Ecumenical Council was known as Dyoenergism, meaning “two energies.”

While I was still attending a Calvinist church, I started thinking about the soteriological implications of the Sixth Ecumenical Council. It began to dawn on me that the Monergism of Calvinism seemed to be driven by many of the same concerns that animated the ancient Monoenergists, for both tended to treat the divine and the human as if they are two sides in a zero-sum transaction. Soteriological Monergism, no less than the heresy of Monoenergism, sees the divine and the human competing for the same space, and both want to give the divine all the pieces of the pie.

This becomes clear when we address the crucial question that Calvinism never seems to squarely face, namely, whether Christ’s human will was predestined to obey the Father, or whether His human will remained exempt from the predestination applied to the rest of the human race.

If we say that Christ’s human will was exempt from divine predestination, then it is hard to avoid the implication that there must have been true non-monergistic synergy and co-operation between the divine and the human wills of Christ. But if so, then it is equally hard to see why it would be problematic to assert a similar non-monergistic synergy and co-operation between the divine and the human wills when dealing with the rest of humanity, especially since Christ typified the appropriate relation between humanity and divinity. Saying that Christ is exempt from Divine predestination also seems to suggest, at least by implication, that some version of libertarian freedom may not be an intrinsically incoherent concept as Calvinists will frequently assert.

On the other hand, if we say that Christ’s human will was not exempt from divine predestination, then the results are just as equally problematic for a Calvinist. I do not refer merely to the problem that we would then have Christ predestining Himself, although that creates a host of thorny problems in itself. Rather, I refer to the fact that if Christ’s human will was “irresistibly” moved by the divine will, then it follows that there must have been only one energy operative in Christ—a divine energy, not a human energy—since on this scheme Christ’s humanity becomes little more than a passive tool. The reason we can say that Christ’s humanity is reduced to little more than a passive tool is because the human energy of Christ is then subsumed into, overcome by, subordinated to the divine energy, not because the human will genuinely surrenders to the divine in an act of co-operation or synergy, but because such subordination is required by the terms of predestination itself.

Once you say that Christ’s human will was subordinated to, and irresistibly moved by, the divine will, then you have essentially embraced a version of Monothelitism. For what very few Calvinists realize is that Monothelitism was far more than merely a denial of the natural human will in Christ, which is why some Monothelites were even happy to acknowledge that Christ had two wills. Rather, it is clear from Saint Maximus’s The Disputation With Pyrrhus that their heresy involved the notion that even if Christ did possess both a divine and a human will, the human will was only a type of instrument that was used by the divine in a determining fashion. As Schonborn points out, Monothelitism was “characterized by its incapacity to view the impeccability of Christ other than as a passive determination of the human nature by the divine nature…” (Schonborn, cited in Farrell, Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor, p. 192). Similarly, when Thomas Aquinas was describing the Monothelite heresy in his Summa Contra Gentiles, he said that “they saw the human will in Christ ordered entirely beneath the divine will so that Christ willed nothing with his human will except that which the divine will disposed him to will.”

As this suggests, even when they could grant two wills, Monothelitism was characterized by the belief that there was only one activity or “energy” operative in Christ since the humanity of Christ was essentially a tool that was subordinated to, and determined by, the divine. As such, the Sixth Ecumenical Council is as much a confession of the necessary role of the human will in the scheme of salvation as it is anything else. “Indeed, one could say that in terms of the general principles of his [St. Maximus’] doctrine of free choice, a lack of synergism in theological anthropology or in soteriology… implies and presupposes a conception of Christ inherently monothelite in its dimensions” (Farrell, p. 193).

It follows that if the orthodoxy of the Sixth Ecumenical Council be fully embraced, then the reality of soteriological synergism cannot be avoided. Significantly, not even the Chalcedonian fathers who sometimes seem to espouse a purely verbal monothelitism went so far as to unambiguously teach that the human will is moved by the divine. “…the view that the human is moved by the divine is not a distinct characteristic of Athanasius, Cyril, or Leotius of Jerusalem” (Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ, p. 93).

It is significant that in order to defend the metaphysics of predestination, the Latin West often flirted on the edges of Monoenergist Christology, as exemplified in Anselm’s statement that “the righteous will that [Christ] had did not come from [His] humanity but from [His] divinity” (cited in Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, p. 117). Or as reformed theologian Lane G. Tipton put it (without perceiving any problem), “The divine and human in the God-man, therefore, are not equally ultimate… The divine is primary; the human, while real, is subordinate.”

Calvinists will try to escape from this problem by asserting that Christ had both a human will and a divine will, and that the relationship between the two runs parallel to the relationship between our will and the divine will as affirmed by historic Calvinism. But this is merely to restate the problem itself, for what is the relationship between the divine will and our will under historic Calvinism? Pick up any reformed book from Calvin’s Institutes to Sproul’s Chosen by God and the answer is clear: all righteous acts performed by the human will are only possible through the human will being subsumed into, overcome by, subordinated to, or predetermined by, the divine will. Once again, the critical question is whether these categories can also be said to describe the relationship between the divine will of Christ and the human will of Christ. The Latin West has generally answered that they do, that Christ is the ultimate type of predestination. As Augustine taught, “The most illustrious light of predestination and grace is the Saviour Himself…” (cited in Farrell, p. 202). In this way, human nature essentially becomes a passive tool used by God. What results resembles the type of Apollinarian dualism which, in the words of Demetrios Bathrellos, “could not conceive of a coexistence and cooperation between the divine and the human natures and wills in Christ that would respect the particularity and integrity of both.”

The notion that Christ’s human nature was a kind of passive tool used by God is not unique to Calvinism but was a position taken by many of the monothelites, such as Theodore of Pharan in the seventh-century, who fell into the trap of overemphasizing the hegemony of the divine over the human in Christ. As Demetrios Bathrellos summarized Theodore’s position, “the energy of Christ is one… his divinity and his humanity had one energy…. Christ had only one will, the divine…”  (The Byzantine Christ, pp. 69-70). Theodore reached this position from premises that Calvinists (especially those in the tradition of Jonathan Edwards) take as axiomatic, namely “Emphasis on the divine initiative, on the complete subordination of the human to the divine…”  In concert with many other Monothelites of the seventh-century, Theodore of Pharan “attributes every initiative to the divine energy or power of the Logos, and conceives of Christ’s humanity as a mere vehicle through which the acts are accomplished.” For Theodore, the humanity of Christ is a more or less passive instrument of his divinity.” Theodore thus urged what Bathrellos rightly terms “an over-asymmetrical emphasis on redemption as exclusively the work of God…. the one will of Jesus Christ is identical with the divine will” (Bathrellos, p. 71).

What was lacking for both Theodore and Calvinism is the assertion of synergy between the human and divine will which seems to have been the understanding behind the verdict of the Sixth Ecumenical Council. In the teaching of Saint Maximus the Confessor (the principal theological architect of the Sixth Ecumenical Council’s vindication of Dyothelitism), Christ’s human will is not determined by the divine will but self-determined. “If the Logos did not assume the self-determining power of the nature that he had created, “he either condemned his own creation as something that is not good… or he begrudged us the healing of our will, depriving us of complete salvation… Maximus repeatedly states his belief that the human soul is not moved by another, but is self-moving. Moreover, he elsewhere says that man has by nature a ‘self-moving and masterless power’. In addition, he repeatedly characterizes the human will as self-determining. As has been shown, for Maximus the human will is characterized so fundamentally by self-determination that it can be identified with it…. The incarnate Logos possesses a self-determining human will in virtue of which he is able to will as man in a self-determining way, and thus to actualize the self-determining power of his human will” (Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ, 131 & 166–7 & 169).

To be consistent Calvinism must deny that the human will possesses such self-determining powers. Thus, Christ’s obedience to the Father to the point of death becomes either a kind of fake dramatization or something attributed to His divine nature only. The notion that the humanity of Christ was simply a passive tool surfaces now and again in contemporary reformed polemics. Sometimes this is explicit, as when Calvinist theologian R.C. Sproul reduced Christ’s humanity to merely a passive tool used by God. According to standard Chalcedonian Christology, it was not a nature that suffered on the cross (whether divine or human) but an actual divine person: the Word; the second person of the Trinity; God himself incarnate in the flesh. By contrast, Sproul maintains that the second person of the Trinity did not die on the cross. In his book The Truth of the Cross, Sproul condemns the statement “It was the second person of the Trinity Who died” and adds “We should shrink in horror from the idea that God actually died on the cross. The atonement was made by the human nature of Christ.”

But we should not shrink in horror from the idea that God actually died on the cross because God did actually die on the cross. Human nature itself cannot suffer; only persons can suffer, and in this case it was the person of the God-man who suffered and was buried and rose again on the third day. To be consistent with his extraction of the God-man from the cross, Sproul would also have to say that Mary was not really the God-bearer, but that she simply gave birth to a human nature that was then used by a divine person in a determining fashion.

This radical separation of nature and person acts as a convenient buffer for modern-day Calvinists to separate God from the pain of the world, so that the Person of the Word is not actually experiencing humiliation on the cross, only an abstract “human nature.” The scandal of the incarnation and crucifixion that created so much discomfort for the Gnostics is equally difficult for Calvinists today. The Gnostics tried to solve the problem with a Docetism that detached Christ from materiality while Calvinists in the tradition of Sproul try to resolve the problem by a crypto-Nestorianism that sequesters the Second Person of the Trinity from the human nature going through birth and death (as Sproul says, “death is something that is experienced only by the human nature…”). However, extricating the human nature of Christ from the divine person, so that the central acts of the incarnation can be predicated of the former without touching the latter, denies the Nicene Creed’s explicit affirmation that it was “very God of very God” who was crucified, suffered and buried. The Second Council of Constantinople was even more explicit in affirming that it was “true God and the Lord of Glory and one of the Holy Trinity” who was born and died on the cross. Essentially, this type of Calvinism turns Christ’s humanity into merely a passive tool. Behind this turn is the recurring sense of angst among reformed theologians—bequeathed by the irrational commitment to Monergism—towards any synergy between the divine and the human, the spiritual and the material.

Objections and Answers

Objection #1: You misrepresent Sproul since his point is merely that the divine nature did not die (become non-existent) on the cross.

Answer to Objection #1: In the controversy that followed his book, Sproul could easily have cleared things up by saying, “What I really meant was that while the Second Person of the Trinity died, He did not cease to exist.” But Sproul never said that. Why not? Because he seems to really believe that certain things (i.e., death) can happen to Christ’s humanity without also happening to the Logos, that is, the Divine Person (God) who became incarnate. Moreover, Sproul is ambiguous on whether “the God-man” is the same as the Logos. (For example, he implicitly denies that the God-man and the Logos are one and the same when he says, “Some say, ‘It was the second person of the Trinity Who died.’ That would be a mutation within the very being of God.”) However, as I pointed out above, if this were true then Mary is not really the God-bearer, but just the “human-nature bearer,” which has been condemned as heresy. Moreover, Perry Robinson has pointed out that this is also Nestorianism, since it treats the human nature as a distinct subject from the Logos.

But let’s give Sproul the benefit of the doubt and assume that by ‘death’ Sproul really means cessation of existence. If we grant this, then it raises a host of new problems, chief of which is the fact that Jesus Himself demonstrated that physical death does not entail the cessation or non-existence of the person who dies. Moreover, if the word “died” in Sproul’s statement “We should shrink in horror from the idea that God actually died on the cross” refers merely to the cessation of existence, then Sproul has invested theological terms with novel, individualistic meanings. This would undermine his claim to be working within the tradition and embracing Sola Scriptura instead of Solo Scriptura. (The distinction is explained here.)

Finally, if Sproul is investing the term ‘death’ with a novel meaning, you would still have the problem that he goes beyond this to maintain that it was Christ’s human nature that suffered on the cross. Again, the reason this is problematic is that natures cannot save. Only persons can do that. Unless it was a divine person who suffered and was buried, then we are still dead in our trespasses. Consider: Was a Person born of Mary, or simply a human nature? Did a Person suffer, or did a human nature suffer? Did a Person die, or did a human nature die? The latter position in each case denies the hypostatic union.

Objection #2Sproul is simply saying that the atonement “was made by the human nature of Christ.” What’s so bad about that?

Answer to Objection #2: If the atonement was made by the human nature of Christ, then either a person did die on the cross or a person did not die on the cross. If a person did not die, but merely a human nature, then that is Docetism. As Bryan Cross explained,

“Dog nature does not die when a dog dies. Pig nature does not die when a pig dies. Horse nature does not die when a horse dies. Rather, a dog dies, a pig dies, or a horse dies. Natures are not concrete entities, but only abstractions; they do not live or die. They belong to beings that live or die. So if the claim is that only a nature died, this entails not only that no one died, but that nothing died. And in that case, we have Docetism.”

On the other hand, if a person did die on the cross, then that person was either (1) merely human, or (2) divine and human. #1 means entails we are still in our sins while #2 means that a divine person suffered death, which Sproul explicitly denies. To quote again from Cross,

Either a mere human person died, or a divine person died. But either way, a person died. So if we affirm that a human organism died, but deny that a divine Person died, our position entails that a human person died. And that’s Nestorian. Since by an ecumenical council we know there were not two persons; but only the one eternal divine Person, there is only one possible orthodox answer: a divine Person died on the cross.

Elsewhere Bryan Cross summarized the entire dilemma Sproul has created for himself:

Sproul is here rightly concerned to protect the doctrine of the immutability of the divine nature. But he thinks that in order to protect this doctrine, it cannot be the case that the Second Person of the Trinity died on the cross. This would entail either (a) that no Person suffered, died, and made atonement for our sins, but only some impersonal, created thing did all that for us, or (b) that a non-divine person suffered, died, and made atonement for us. The latter position is a form of the heresy of Nestorianism, condemned at the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in AD 431. The former position would nullify the efficacy of the atonement for our sins for the same reason that the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins (Heb. 10:4); the sacrifice of Christ by which He made satisfaction for our sins is of such great value and worth precisely because the Lamb who was slain for our sins is God, not a mere creature.

Sproul adds that “It’s the God-man Who dies.” But this just raises the following dilemma. Either the “God-man” is the same Person as the Second Person of the Trinity, or the “God-man” is not the same Person as “Second Person of the Trinity.” If the former horn of the dilemma, then if the “God-man” died, then the “Second Person of the Trinity” died, and Sproul is here contradicting what he said in the first excerpted paragraph. But if the latter horn of the dilemma, then [either (a) or (b)], or (c) the First or Third Person of the Trinity suffered, died, and made atonement for us. The consequence of both horns of that dilemma are deeply problematic, for obvious reasons.
By contrast, the Catholic Church teaches that it was not a nature that suffered, died and made atonement, but the Second Person of the Trinity who suffered, died, and made atonement for us in His human nature. We say in the Nicene Creed:
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
The same Person who “came down from heaven” and “was incarnate of the Virgin Mary” is the same Person who “was crucified under Pontius Pilate” and “suffered death and was buried.” That Person is the Second Person of the Trinity, not an impersonal nature or created thing. When we say that Christ suffered death, we do not mean that there was a change in the divine nature, but that He endured the separation of His soul from His body. Canon 12 of the Council of Ephesus (which condemned Nestorianism) reads: “If anyone does not confess that the Word of God suffered in the flesh, and tasted death in the flesh, and was made the firstborn from the dead [Col. 1:18] according to which as God He is both the life and the life-giver, let him be anathema.”

So what lies behind the reason for Sproul’s claims that the Second Person of the Trinity did not die, and that a mere human nature suffered, died, and made atonement for us? It seems to me that denying that the Second Person of the Trinity suffered and died for us on the cross is the result of multiple factors. One factor, I think, is Protestantism’s denial (or general unwillingness to affirm) that Mary is the Theotokos (Mother of God). If she gave birth only to a human nature, then only a human nature suffered and died on the cross. But if she gave birth to the Second Person of the Trinity, then the Second Person of the Trinity suffered, died, and made atonement for us. Another factor is Protestant adherence to sola scriptura, according to which councils, including the Council of Ephesus, have no authority, and are ultimately unnecessary: “the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” (Westminster Confession of Faith I.6)

The above article originally appeared on the website Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy. It is reprinted here with permission of the author, Robin Phillips 😉 .

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