Thomas Joseph White #21: What does the hypostatic union mean in Christ? (III, 1)On March 14, 2020 by Raul Dinwiddie
Why did Christ become human? (III, 1) So, in 451, the Catholic Church declared that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, and taught that He is one person, subsisting in two natures. Now, this is based on reading the New Testament, and what the teaching is about Christ in the four Gospels, in the letters of Paul and the other apostolic letters. The formulation is that Jesus is an eternal person, the eternal Son of God, one with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and that the eternal person of the Son of God, subsists as both God and man. So, He is truly God, and possesses the divine nature, and He is truly human, by virtue of the Incarnation – in the womb of Mary, He has the human body and a human soul – and so He possesses a human nature. He has all that is human in Him, and He is also all that is divine, as one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Now, when Aquinas goes to analyze this mystery, and to think about the union of God and man in Christ, he takes the traditional line of thinking of the Catholic Church, and talks about what is called the “hypostatic union.” ‘Hypostasis,’ in Greek, is a word that means subsistent person, or concrete subsistent entity. Like you, or I, are a hypostasis, not just because we have a body, or a soul, or because we have a human nature, but because we’re one unique, personal human nature, we’re one person, one concrete thing. So, when you talk about the “hypostatic union,” you are talking about the fact that Christ is a personal ‘hypostasis.’ He is one concrete person, as God and man. And the union of the two natures, the union of the humanity and the divinity, occur in the person. They occur without a fusion of the two natures. So, God becoming human, does not mean that the humanity of Jesus becomes His divinity, or that His divinity becomes His humanity, that there is a sort of union, in such a way that there is a confusion of divinity and humanity. What it means, is that the second person of the Trinity, who is eternally God, begins to exist as human, as man, and expresses His identity as the eternal Son of God, His personal identity as Son, in and through His human actions as man. So, what Jesus does in His human nature, is expressive of His divine identity and person, without a confusion existing, or a fusion existing, between what is human and what is divine. Well, that is a very profound mystery. I mean, you look at it concretely in the Gospels: Jesus can raise the dead, because He is God, but He does so by touching people, or by speaking to people, as man. He wills humanly divine effects. Now, when Aquinas talks about Christ being both God and man, he says that we need to figure out, first of all, if the union of the divinity in humanity is a substantial unity, or an accidental unity. These are Aristotelian terms. We talk about an accidental unity when we talk about something like, how the car seat is united with the car, the rest of the car. Well, accidentally, because it’s kind of a relationship that’s screwed on there, but you could unbolt it. You could take the car seat out. Or, how are you and I united to a place that we are at, concretely, right now: by a relationship. We can get up, and we can change places. So, a political unity is often an accidental unity; people agree on a certain course of action, they have a sort of unity of mind and heart. You might call it a moral unity of will, but they don’t really have a substantial unity, because the people cooperating are substantially distinct realities. A substantial unity is like the unity of your body and soul. The soul and body are one in being. So, you can’t, as it were, separate your body and soul, like you separate the car seat from the car, and still be okay, because your substance depends on being both body and soul together. So, Aquinas says: the first thing we need to say is that the “hypostatic union” of God being man, of the Son of God being true God and true man, is a substantial unity, not an accidental unity. Christ is one concrete reality, He is one subsistent person, one thing, who is the Son of God, who is truly God, and truly man. So, when you touch the hand of Christ, the man, you touch the physical human hand of God. When Jesus Christ walks on the shore of Galilee, it is the Lord, the eternal Lord, who is the Son of God, walking in a human way, through His human will and human actions, in and through human bodily activity. Concretely, He is the Son of God. If He suffers, if Jesus suffers and dies, through the excruciating suffering of the Crucifixion, it is the Lord God who dies in His human nature, experiencing the separation of His human body and soul, through human death. So, that’s very mysterious. And then Aquinas says, now here are two errors to avoid. On the one hand, we don’t want to say that it is a substantial union, between the two natures in the one person, because there’s a confusion of the natures. So, you wouldn’t want to say this, for example: because God has become human, God is no longer, in His nature, eternally divine, but God is now a human being in his very nature; God has ceased to be God, he has become human, in His nature. There is no longer a divine nature; now there is just a human nature, or some new fusion of human and divine natures. Well, that’s crazy. God is always God, and God doesn’t cease being God by becoming human. You also wouldn’t want to say: that because God became human, Jesus’ human nature is not the same as ours; something like: He is not a human being in His nature; i.e., He is some other thing, because He is united with God. So, there is a third kind of nature there, that is not divine, or human, but some third thing. So, we don’t want to say that. So, in Christ there is a real distinction of the human nature and the divine nature, even though He is one subsistent being. Well, that’s unlike any other human being because in every other concrete human being you have one nature, human nature, rational animal. Jesus is a rational animal and a human being like us. He has our human nature, but He is also God, and He has the divine nature. So that’s part of the mystery. You want to say this: one subsistent person, who is the Son of God, but He is truly God, and truly human, without confusion of natures. And on the other hand, you don’t want to say, that the union of those two natures is merely accidental, to go back to my simple analogy of the car seat, as if the human nature, and the divine nature, were, somehow, really, two things. That would be a theory like, Jesus is two persons: There is the man Jesus, and that is one person, and then there is eternal Son of God, and that is another person, and these are sort of very close to each other, but they’re not really united. So, then you’d have the man Jesus, who would be really holy, He is like Francis of Assisi, or Mother Teresa, but like on the scale a little further, because He is particularly close to the Word of God, or the Son of God. And then, the Son of God is an eternal divine person, really close to the man Jesus. No, the man Jesus is the Son of God; the Son of God is the man Jesus. When you look at Jesus, you are looking at the eternal Son of God, who is man. When you touch the hand of Christ, you touch the hand, the physical human hand, of God, because Jesus is God. So, we don’t want to say that there is a confusion of natures, and we don’t want to say that there is a distinction of persons. We want to say that there is one person, subsisting in two natures, and that is the substantial union in Him, of divinity and humanity, in the one person of the Son of God. Now, that’s just a little introduction. You actually can spend your life thinking about this mystery. It’s coherent. It’s not contradictory. It’s not contrary to reason. It’s not demonstrably provable that it is real, by natural reason, because it can only be known about by Faith, and through reading the New Testament, and understanding the teaching of the Apostles. But, it also cannot be demonstrated to be false, by some kind of philosophical objection. God can become human, because God’s omnipotent, and the way in which God has become human in Christ is totally coherent… and mysterious. So, it is both intelligible and numinous, and those are not contradictory. It is mysterious, and it can be studied. And that’s what we do in theology. And Aquinas has a beautiful and profound analysis of the “hypostatic union,” which you can study in the Summa Theologiae.