A Deformed Christ

For those of you who don’t know there has been a controversy among the Reformed (like, when isn’t there some new dire threat to “the gospel?” among the Reformed) surrounding OT professor at Westminster Seminary Peter Enns. It seems the axe is laid at the root in terms of his stay there unfortunately.

Enn’s book is in part concerning how to think about the inspiration of the Bible, particularly the OT using Christology as a grid. Enns maintains that the proper relationship between the divine and the human in the OT is not one of a subordinating relationship. This has obvious cross-over significance to much of what we write about here concerning St. Maximus and his refutation of Monotheletism and Monoenergism. And for those of you thinking about the relation of the OT accounts and surrounding cultures and inspiration, Enns I think is on the right track and worth reading. Even if I don’t agree with everything he has to say, the progromatic nature of his book and the project itself is worthwhile and helpful.

I have been contributing to a largely Reformed discussion of Enns over at Green Baggins. Some of Enns’ responses to various critics can be seen here, here, hereand here.

Lane G. Lipton defends what he takes to be the tradtional Reformed view of inspiration where the humanity of Christ is given via the Spirit “created graces” giving the relation between divine and human not noly a pnuematological structure but an extrinsic and subordinating gloss. Note what he writes for example,

The divine and human in the God-man, therefore, are not equally ultimate, existing in some sort of parity with one another. The divine is primary; the human, while real, is subordinate. (Emphasis his)

Uh, I don’t think so. Needless to say I think Lane’s account of Chalcedon is an exercise in misunderstanding, not to mention the obvious lack of biblical support for the notion of “created graces.” (I have to wonder if he is even aware of the history of such a notion coming out as it does from the medieval Catholicism that Calvinists love to detest. How ironic.)

Other critics like Paul Helm and John Frame have chimed in. (At this point after reading all of the reviews, the critics just seem to be feeding off each other.) Enn’s reply to Helm is here. I think Helm simply at best picks at the edges and doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter, specifically because he ignores the obvious Christological import. What is occuring here is a confrontation between two rival Christologies and to put it in Van Tillian terms, Helm failed to “press the antithesis.”

Frame has some seemingly odd things to say. For example he writes,

The fact that non-Israelite traditions are different, even older, does not prove or even suggest that there are any defects in the biblical versions.

While it may be true that it doesn’t imply that the biblical versions are defective, it certainly lends itself to a dependence thesis which would undermine Christian claims regarding the inspiration of those accounts.  This seems to be implicitly acknowledged by Frame in his use of the term “versions.” Frame then writes a bit later,

The traditional doctrine of organic inspiration says that there is no contradiction between divine inspiration and human efforts to determine the right thing to say. The former often makes use of the latter.

This may be true as well, but certainly the question is one of origination. A consistent activity on the part of the divine and the human as Frame as framed it leaves untouched the question we all want to know about, what is the origin, divine or human, or both?

Enns asks, “if the Bible reflects these ancient customs and practices, in what sense can we speak of it as revelation?” (31) I reply, why not? It is revelation because it’s God’s word and therefore true. It’s like asking, “Luke and Josephus both speak of Jesus, so how can Luke be revelation?” Easy. Luke is an inspired apostle and Josephus is not.

Here Frame seems to miss the point. The point isn’t in dictatorially affirming one is inspired and denying that one is not, but in what senseone is inspired, which is what Enns asked. The question isn’t here about the extent of inspiraton in terms of what works are inspired but in the nature of it. Frame also seems to miss the main thrust of Enns work by insisting that Enns is answering the question, how can a culturally conditioned book be inspired, rather than the question he should be addressing, did the Flood take place? Putting aside Frame supplying Enns with a new research project, Frame seems not to grasp what Enns is up to. Enns seems to me in speaking of the OT accounts in a specic sense as “myth” he is permitting them to be historically true.  He is softening up the divide to co-opt liberal and unbelieving criticisms as part of inspiration to preclude such parties from using them as weapons against traditional belief, and that would be a worthwhile achievement.

The Christological issues here are, is the human subordinated to the divine?, does the divine penetrate or merely act contiguously with the human? and was the humanity of Christ genuinely weak and did the divine person participate in this weakness? These are topics that Lipton, Frame and Helm would do well to pursue in the thought of Cyril of Alexandria and Athanasius on divine impassability.

But moving on, what I found interesting was the discussion of the NT use of OT texts. Enns argues that the grammatical-historical method can’t make sense of some of Jesus’ andthe Apostles’ usage of the OT. They are justified based on established secondTemple interpretations common around the time of the apostles. But Frame disagrees,

I do think there are better ways of dealing with these examples. They have been discussed in Christian literature for many centuries, and it is certainly not obvious to me that Enns’ treatments are unexceptionable. Gregory Beale and Donald Carson have recently done a great service to the church by publishing A Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), which attempts to comment on every NT quote, reference, or allusion to the OT. They distinguish between prophecy and typology(Hos. 11:1 is the latter) and in general maintain that the NT uses of the Old are grammatical-historically, not just Christologically, appropriate. (Ftnt 13)

It is interesting to me that there is very little that is actually new under the sun. If you spend a good deal of time in the past, not many of the “new” ideas suprise you. While Carson and Beale’s book is worth reading, their fundamental answer I think is problematic and not new. The distinction that they invoke to save the NT use of the OT is fundamentally the methodology of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius. (See also Reformed write Jules Grisham on the Second Council of Constantinople’s condemnation of the grammatical-historical methodology of Theodore and Nestorius.) This comment and citation from Grisham’s piece captures the sum of what Carson and Beale seem to have in mind,

In renouncing the suitability of allegory as a valid key to Scriptural interpretation, the Antiochenes nonetheless admitted that the sacred texts can and do contain deeper, spiritual messages. They understood theoria as the mind’s ability to discover “real” relationships existing between two texts – e.g., between a type and its archetype, or between a prophesy and its fulfillment.It is that power of the mind”to perceive within the historical elements of a text another higher or more sublime ‘reality’ to which the present text points as being its own fulfillment.” Note that, whereas the allegorical method employs this “faculty of insight” to the interpretation of texts as they stand alone, the Antiochene exegesis made use of it for the comparison of texts where context warrants the presence of a relationship existing between them. And this careful process of comparison was called “typology,” which Greer defines as “the comparison of two polesagainst an historical, eschatological background, with the belief that a real relationship between the two exists, andthat the second is the fulfillment of the first, and with the conviction that each pole has its own reality.” (Page 15)


But where there is no such historical connection between two poles, the Antiochenes called this “allegory.” In short, they would argue that a type was an exegetically deduced relationship warranted by Scripture, while an allegory was an exegetically deduced interpretation not warranted by Scripture. (page 16)


Now, the Antiochenes also admitted the presence of one more sense of meaning besides the literal and a typological senses, which they called the “accommodated” sense of Scripture, as referring to those situations where a person points out how a given present situation is congruous with another situation, but with which it has no inherent connection…That is to say, the prophets were not originally prophesying about Jesus, but their language was close enough to the new reality that the New Testament writers could point out how appropriate they were to this later situation. (page 17)


The underlying Nestorianism here should be obvious.Grisham gives a summary of Theodore’s Christology. You can see how the reading of the relation of the divine and the human in the Bible for Theodore, particularaly with reference to the OT prophecies and NT fulfillment are a product and work with his Christology. Two simple impenetrable objects related extrinsically by will.

For Theodore, all talk of an essential – that is, substantial, or hypostatic – union of the natures in Christ must be rejected. He understood hypostasis to be the individuated expression of a physis(or “nature,” a defining set of attributes), which itself is the generalized expression of the ousias (“essence,” the primal substance itself). This accorded with the conciliar view of the Trinity, for example, by which God is said to be one ousias (one essence, or substance) in three hypostases (three individuated expressions of that essence, or persons). Theodore, then, to his own thinking, was only being consistent when he taught that the human nature of Jesus was essentially distinct from the divine nature of the Son-Logos. Because he understood hypostasis as referring to the concrete instance of a nature (in the sense that a person is a concrete instance, a particular expression, of human nature), and because, according to his fundamental understanding concerning the radical “other-ness” of God, he insisted that the divine and human natures could not be hypostatically joined without corruption of the divine, Theodore held that there is an inhering dualism in Christ’s person. Accordingly, he taught that we must think of Christ’s union not as a hypostatic one (that is, of substance) but as a prosopic one (that is, of manifestation and benevolence). Prosopon means “face,” “role” (referring to drama as well as to social status), or “person,” in the societal-functional sense – i.e., what one does. And the concept he used to explain how this prosopic union came to be and remains intact is “assumption.”… Thus, in rejecting as philosophically untenable the concept of hypostatic union, Theodore “opted for the idea of a uniquely graced union where the Word’s and Jesus’ natures and wills function as one in Christ.” He believed that the union was one of “good pleasure” (eudokia), by which there was and remains a perfect unity of will between the outpouring benevolence of the “assuming” Son-Logos and the obedience of the “assumed” man.” (pages 26-28 )


Now this brings us to the main attraction. Bruce McCormack of that little school Princeton has chimed in giving a nice summary of how the Reformed have understood or rather misunderstood Chalcedon. Most Reformed folk assume that Reformed Christology is isomorphic with Chalcedonian Christology, but McCormack argues that it just isn’t so. I won’t reherse everything McCormack has to say in his piece but I will bring this to an end that ties all of the above together.

McCormack essentially argues that the Reformed interpret Chalcedon through the lens of their own confessions and that these confessions take a more Nestorian reading. To take the orthodox understanding leaves the Reformed defending a Christology that is not either compatibile with or meant to support Chalcedonian soteriology or vice versa, Chalcedonian Christology wasn’t designed to be compatible with or support Reformed soteriology.

The unifying ground of these three concerns – the integrity of the natures, resistance against an instrumentalizing of the human nature andthe emphasis on the Spirit’s ministry in the life of Jesus – was found in the Reformed understanding of the person of the union. There is, you see, an ambiguity at the heart of the Chalcedonian Definition where the “Person” is concerned. On the one hand, the Definition can say that “the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being.” On the other hand, the Definition can say, “he is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one andthe same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ…” On the basis of the first formulation, it would seem that the person is formed out of the coming together of the natures. On the basis of the second, it would seem that a straightforward and direct equation is being made of the “person” and the pre-existent Logos as such. It is because of this ambiguity that patristic scholars are, to this day, divided over the question of which party to the controversy actually attained the upper hand at Chalcedon (which already, by itself, would render untenable any simplistic appeal to “Chalcedonian Christology”). There are those who, leaning heavily on the first of these formulations, say that the Formula grants a certain victory to Nestorius. But there are also those who say that it is Cyril’s theology which triumphed at Chalcedon. In the first group is to be found Aloys Grillmeier and Brian Daley; in the second, John McGuckin. My own view is that a carefully contextualized reading of the Definition will show that it is the second of these opinions which is correct. But here’s the thing: classical Reformed theology clearly stood on the side of the first of these options – not the second.

Heinrich Bullinger offers the most extreme example. In his Second Helvetic Confession, he writes, “We therefore acknowledge either two natures or two hypostases or substances, the divine and the human, in one and the same Jesus Christ our Lord.” Two hypostases is extreme; indeed, it is something less than orthodox. According to Chalcedon, there is but one hypostasis in which the two natures subsist. What led Bullinger to this conclusion, however, was something that is to be found in the Definition, viz. the idea that the person of the union is formed out of the “coming together” of the natures. The same idea can be found in Calvin(who mistakenly believed that this was the view of all the orthodox Fathers). “Now the old writers defined ‘hypostatic union’ as that which constitutes one person out of two natures. This expression was devised to refute the delusion of Nestorius, because he imagined that the Son of God so dwelt in the flesh that he was not man also” (Institutes II.xiv.5). Clearly, Calvin’s grasp of Nestorius’ views was shaky at best. But he was not wrong to think that the idea that the “person” is formed out of the union had orthodox support – not only in one of the strands of the Chalcedonian Definition but also in later orthodoxy. John of Damascus, whose great work “On the Orthodox Faith” was newly translated into Latin in the early sixteenth century (andpored over by Zwingli), understood the “person” as a “compound person”2 – an idea that finds resonance in the Westminster Confession. “So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ.” The “person”, according to this teaching, is not simply the Logos as such but is very God and very man – the two natures having come together to form a single person.


While it is true that St. John does speak of a composite hypostasis, the issues is not whether Christ’s hypostasis is composite, but rather the hypostasis is formed from the coming together of the two natures or whether the hypostasis was the divine person of the Logos who took into his hypostasis human nature, thereby rederning it composite. The first gloss was Nestorian and the second Cyrillic and Chalcedonian. This is why I think Chalcedons language in the first part that McCormack notes gives no ground to a legitimate Nestorian reading of the Definition. In other words, McGuckin is right.


It was this understanding of the “person” which made possible the Reformed doctrine of the communication of the attributes of both natures to the person. Indeed, the Reformed understanding of the communicatio is inexplicable without it.

We come back then to the HTFC report. What surprises me in this report is the ease with which the writers ally themselves with the Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran equation of the “person” with the Logos as such, thereby turning their backs on the Reformed tradition. “…the divine is essential and the locus of personality” (HTFC, p.20). That is an interesting statement, since “personality” means something rather more than mere “subsistence” – which is the Chalcedonian equivalent of prosopon or “person.”. To be “personal” is to possess mind, will andenergy of operation. Do the writers intend to say that only the divine is “personal” in this sense, thereby denying to the human Jesus a mind, will and energy of operation? They certainly seem to. They speak of the “unipersonality in the God-man” (p.23), and they explain what they mean in a footnote as follows. “Orthodox Christology affirms that the human nature of Christ has no personality or subsistence of its own, but subsists only in its union with the Logos.” In truth, this is a very confused statement. The anhypostasia of the post-Chalcedonian Church was meant only to say that that the human nature of Christ had no subsistence in itself but subsisted in the person of the Logos; it was not intended to deny to the human Jesus a human “personality.” To say then that the human nature has “no personality or subsistence of its own” is to confuse two things which must be kept distinguished if we are to avoid a fairly radical form of Apollinarianism. I am confident that the writers do not intend such an outcome; this is just a sloppy formulation. But sloppy or not, it does tell us something rather significant. It tells us that the Christology of these writers stands in much closer proximity to the Christology of the Eastern Orthodox and the Lutherans than it does to the Christology of the Reformed tradition.

It is clear what has led the writers of this report down this path. They want a Christology which will allow them to argue (by analogy) for an asymmetry in the relationship of divine authorship to human authorship of the Bible. But in their haste to reach this end, they have unwittingly abandoned the tradition they claim to defend.

I have to say that this is the last thing I expected to discover in a report issued by Westminster Seminary theologians. I live in an ecclesial world in which those who value Christian orthodoxy as a concept seem invariably to drift towards either Rome or Constantinople or some amalgamation of the two which is represented by no existing church. The last thing most of my friends want is a truly Protestant theology (whether Lutheran or Reformed); theosis is the hot topic in soteriology and both Lutheran and Reformed theologians are struggling mightily to find something akin to a theosis doctrine in their own church fathers (in Luther but also in Calvin – as Todd Billings’ recent book amply demonstrates). Mind you, I am not accusing the theologians of Westminster of abandoning Reformed soteriology! But they do not seem to realize that in advocating the version of Chalcedonian Christology they do, unreconstructed by Reformed sources, they have taken a most important step in that direction. After all, which soteriology do they think the Chalcedonian Definition was originally designed to support? For the sake of a more responsible Reformed theology – responsible that is to its originating sources – the theologians at Westminster need to attend more closely to their own tradition. Polemical situations rarely provide a seed-bed for careful theology. And that, it seems to me, is worth thinking about.

Now I do not agree with everything McCormack writes, but in the main he is correct to note that the Reformed tradition has endorsed a Nestorian or a Nestorianizing reading of Christology. What is instructive about this fact is the relation this has to the way the Reformed have thought about inspiration, the relation of the divine and human in scripture as well as the appropriate method by which to interpret Scriptuyre. It should be clear that a Nestorian Christology and Nestorian interpretative methodology and theory of inspiration go hand in hand. Consequently, the Orthodox do not share the same interpretative methdology and view of inspiration of the Bible as the Reformed do because we have a different Christology. Consequently, there is much wisdom in Orthodox thinking in demanding that we start with a confession of the true doctrine concerning Christ. Starting with deducing the meaning of texts with a supposedly Christologically neutral methodology merely masks a deformed view of Christ, not to mention passes off a method as theologically netral when it is not. To engage in this way is to simply stack the deck in one’s favor. No interpretative methodology is Christologically neutral and those with a Van Tillian past I would hope would be sensitive to this point.

It is also interesting that McCormack recognizes that Chalcedonian Christology, the teaching of one of the four councils the Reformed have long claimed adherence to, is not fundamentally their own and was not meant to support their soteriological viewpoint, but rather one very different. His earlier comments about theosis make it obvious I think which soteriological model it was designed to support. The Reformed it seems are caught in a pickle as McCormack frames it. Either abandon their distinctive tradition, which requires them to adhere to Chalcedon, because it isn’t compatible with Chalcedon, or adandon their tradition because it isn’t compatible with Chalcedon and endorse Chalcedon. So either you can have orthodox Christology but not Reformed soteriological distinctives or you pledge fealty to a deformed Christ in order to maintain Reformed soteriological distinctives.

Here we have two traditions concerning Christ which frame the way we interpret the Bible at odds. Recall McCormack’s mentioning that the Lutherans and the Reformed are trying to find somthing like theosis “in their own church fathers.” The question is, which tradition will you choose? Because they frame the way we read the Bible there is no non-circular interpretative methodology we can appeal to to settle the matter. And neither can we simply appeal to the text of the Bible without such a method. There simply do not exist any Christologically neutral interpretative methodology to appeal to. So I ask my Reformed readers, which will you choose?

I’d bet on the Fathers of Chalcedon myself.



  1. WOW,

    Great post. I bought Peter Enns’s book some months ago when the Calvinists I know were talking about what happened to him. I thought he was on the right track. I too didn’t agree with everything he said, but it was a good read. I didn’t finish the book. I read most of it. It looks like the Reformed who didn’t like the book were worried about more things then what I knew existed.

    I thought he was just his ussage of the word “myth”. Even then he used it in a way that was different than the way that most modernist use the word.

    I also thought it was because of his dislike of alot of the common evangelical “approaches”. As well as hinting to the idea that scripture made use of pagan sources.

    From reading this post. It seems alot deeper than that. Good stuff.



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