Denial of the Hypostatic Union of Christ Leads to Theological and Biblical Error
Kathy L. McFarland
May 3, 2012
Scripture leaves no doubt that the Lord Jesus Christ holds the nature and attributes of His Father, the LORD God, from the beginning of creation as the spoken Word (John 1:1-5). And it is fully confirmed by Scripture that the Lord Jesus Christ reigns in Heaven today, fully glorified and filled with the nature, attributes, and authority of God Himself (1 Peter 3:21; Acts 2:33-35). It is a critical matter of Christian faith that the fullness of God is shared by the Lord Jesus Christ eternally.
But, the hypostatic union of Christ is a difficult concept that has troubled Christian faith throughout its history as different interpretations lead to unorthodox belief, heresy, and biblical error. Since the New Testament does not specifically state the systematic doctrine of the two natures unified in the Person of Christ, understanding of this important concept must be built upon numerous Scripture passages. This has led to significant debate in the early church with different interpretations of Christ’s nature scattered throughout Christian belief. This paper will examine some of the theological and biblical problems that occur when the hypostatic union of Jesus Christ is rejected.
Christological Concept Reflected in Philippians 2:5-11
Philippians 2:5-11 develops the Christological concept of the hypostatic union and is considered the fundamental, central passage that supports two natures in the Person of Christ. It is also a common place of interpretive error dependent upon analysis of Christ’s Incarnation and pre-Incarnation, the definition of the Greek words morphe and kenosis, and the theological platform from which these words are examined.
Usually, scholars place most of their focus upon the work of the Son of God with regards to salvation through Christ’s Incarnation, rather than the pre-Incarnation accounts of Christ as Creator that shares fully in the total works of the LORD God (John 1:1-4). The preincarnate Christ as mediator to divine creation of the universe joined with incarnate Christ as mediator of redemption provides salvation to those of mankind that recognizes and submits to Him as Lord. But, Philippians 2:5-11 demands scholars to consider the preincarnate Christ that is confident with His full attributes of God (John 1:1; 10:30; 12:45; 14:9;16:15), yet, according to various belief systems, voluntarily hides, mellows, joins, or leaves these divine attributes to assume the attributes of a human being (John 11:35; 12:27; 14:28; 18:23; 19:1, 2, 18, 28, 30; 20:17), to bring salvation to mankind and glory to God.
Traditional scholars historically support two shared natures, both divine and human, that have joined within the incarnated Christ in union together and continues to be with Christ in Heaven today. But, there are scholars that embrace an unorthodox view that sometimes suggests that Christ leaves his divine nature in Heaven, and assumes full human nature in his Incarnation, and then assumes full divinity again upon His ascension following Resurrection. There are even more severe interpretations of Philippians 2:5-11 that contain faulty exegesis and are contrary to truthful representation of Scripture; these heretical ideas reflect false doctrine declaring Christ fully human, without ever possessing the divine nature of God.
Exegesis of Philippians 2:5-11 with a comparison to other Scripture often leads interpreters to conclude that Scripture contradicts itself concerning Christ’s natures of divinity and humanity. Augustine resolves this conflict by applying an interpretative rule that separates any property inapplicable to Christ’s deity to his humanity as the “form of a servant,” and any property that is inapplicable to Christ’s humanity as the “form of God” (De Trin. 2.1.2). Thus, the ideas represented by the Greek words morphe (v. 6) “image of God”, and kenosis (v. 7) “made Himself of no reputation” become critical exegesis if this conflict is resolved with Augustine’s rule of interpretation.
Predictably, even these two words create conflict and have historically been assigned variant definitions depending upon the theological platform the interpreter represents. This passage has attracted more scholarly attention than any other writing of Paul, with morphe often traditionally classified as a specific word used by Paul to precisely “locate Christ within the being of God,” or given a “visible appearance of God.” However, contemporary scholars sometimes argue that it is counterevidence to Christ’s divinity, and that Paul is equating Christ to Adam.
Philippians 2:7 also provides variant interpretations with arguments concerning the actual meaning of the Greek word kenosis that translates the “making of no reputation” to represent Christ’s divine nature that is present, but subdued to the natural world with some taking the opposite approach where Incarnation is refuted. But, present-day theologian N.T. Wright concludes that kenosis is not simply a new view of Jesus, but rather, offers a new understanding of God. In fact, there seems a good deal of movement towards this idea, with theologians like Richard Bauckham, John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed that classify Philippians 2:7 as a revelation of a kenotic Father, rather than a kenotic Son. This seems to lead the attention usually reserved for the LORD God to be directed upon Christ first, with his revealed divine nature attributed to God as well, in an interesting twist of focus with a counterintuitive conclusion.
Four different kenotic speculations further complicate understanding of Christ’s reduction of himself to the rank of humanity, as the act is argued absolutely or relatively to reach consensus. Those holding the absolute dualistic type of belief like Thomasius and others divide the attributes of God into two distinct groups of the ethical (immanent) group and the relative (physical) group, declaring the former essential to the Godhead. In this view, the immanent parts of God’s nature cannot be laid aside, while the economical parts can. The absolute metamorphic view, speculated by Gess, Godet, and Newton Clarke, suggests a “divine suicide” that reveals Christ emptying himself completely of the divine nature, becoming fully, humbly human, until he resurrects and assumes divinity once again. The third view of absolute semi-metamorphic speculation that is advanced by Ebrard, thinks Christ disguises His deity, but maintains His divine properties, while He assumes a time-form human mode of existence. The fourth real, but relative theory advances the belief that Christ possesses His Godhead, but restricts His human consciousness to fit human nature and gives up his independent exercise of the divine attributes. This traditional view allows Christ to possess the deified attributes that are only used in his Incarnation when His Father wills.
It is clearly apparent why there are so many disagreements concerning the union of the divine and human natures within Christ, when the definitive Philippians 2:5-11 has so many interpretations and speculations. When the difficult concept of the Triune God is considered with additional Scripture that is less direct in its representation of this difficult subject, the atmosphere for misunderstanding and the likelihood for the development of false doctrine increases tremendously.
This central Christological concept concerning the hypostatic union leads to a great deal of historical conflict concerning the declared nature of Christ. The Council of Chalcedon determined that Christ is truly God and truly man, with one substance without confusion, change, division or separation in a Christology “from above” approach in AD 451. However, the Chalcedon Council failed to develop a definitive foundational model that provides clear exegesis of Scripture that represents this idea fully, leaving room for challenges and debates to this belief system.
Today, the doctrine of the Trinity in most Evangelical belief systems, declares that there is only one God, and that divine attributes are manifested in three distinct persons in hypostatic union, with each existing simultaneously with one divine nature. However, current trends in Pauline studies refuse to limit the articulation of Christology from the Council of Chalcedon by examining Christology “from below” in functional rather than ontological terms. Many current scholars attempt to redefine Christ’s divinity based upon the knowledge and activity through his human effort with a rejection of traditional past theological assumptions. This will bring even more confusion to this difficult concept, and gives more chance for the understanding of the Incarnation of Christ to be changed in such a way that pluralistic religions prosper through popular inclusive manipulation that rejects the human Christ from being the only way to God.
Consequences from disbelief in the Hypostatic Union of Christ
Denies the impeccability of Christ – Either Christ can be declared unequivocally unable to sin because of his divine nature, or, he risks falling into temptation with the cunning manipulation of the devil. Thus, a tempted Christ able to succumb to trickery and commit transgression against God cannot be God. This removes the ability for believers to hold certain faith in his divine perfection as the unblemished lamb (John 1:36, cf. Exodus 12:5) offered for sacrifice to redeem the sins of believers. If Christ’s humanity cannot resist temptation in disobedience to God, or if Christ’s divinity could actually sin, then His death upon the cross would be ineffectual because of his impure state.
Removes surety of revelation of God to mankind – If Christ is not equal with God in his exact image (Hebrews 1:3) and does not dwell in His fullness (Colossians 2:9), then He would be unable to stand in the glorified presence and keep His eyes upon Him (John 14:9). If Christ is lesser than God, or merely a human being, there is no guarantee that what he reveals concerning God is fully truth. If Christ is not coequal with God, there is no proof that he speaks of God with full knowledge and authority.
Revelation of God and humanity prevented – Prophets of old spoke for God, but they did not stand upright in his presence and the LORD God unveiled has never been seen by mortal man. It is through the mediatorial office of Christ, with full knowledge of each other (John 1:18; John 14:9) that provides revelation of the perfection of God to humans through direct contact with His Father. Further, he reveals humanity of man to the LORD God in his mediatorial effort, able to do so with full knowledge of humanity by sharing human attributes. If His hypostatic union is denied, no one will know the LORD God that has been introduced to mankind by Christ, and He will not know His human beings created in His image, because of the separation caused by sin against the holiness of God.
Changes the inerrant Word of God by removing fulfillment of promises as earthly King of Israel – Simply stated, the Word of God is without error. God makes many promises in the Old Testament to the nation of Israel that a natural Son of David would assume the Davidic throne in Jerusalem on behalf of God forever. In order for Christ to accomplish the fulfillment of prophesy, He has to be both God and man.
Christ’s sacrifice for sin would be inferior, and might be rejected by God – Someone must die to pay the penalty of sin, and it must be a human being, because it is a human being that incurs the guilt. But, there is no human that can atone for even his own sins, let alone the whole world. A Savior must be raised by God, and He must be equal to the Father and His Spirit, or He cannot be atonement for sin, because if He is not equal, then His sacrifice risks the rejection of God as inferior. Only the Son of God through both His divinity and his humanness can fulfill the will of God to become the ultimate sacrifice for the imputation of sin. It is through His promised grace that provides legitimate opportunity and ability to come closer to God through Christ and receive eternal life. It is the Triune Godhead that agrees to the salvation plan for mankind, and it is the Triune Godhead that carries the redemption process forward by forming the plan, implementing the procedure, and participating in the work that is first formulated by them together.
Removes High Priest - The work by Christ as High Priest is not possible if He does not receive human nature in His Incarnation. The Aaronic Priesthood is imperfect, with the continual need for the offering of sacrifices without the ability of humans to be cleansed from sin. Christ, as High Priest in the order of Melchisedec, offers representation of humans to God. Because Christ has learned obedience through His suffering, He is able to speak of mankind’s frailties and temptations with strong representation to His Father in their defense.
No new creatures formed – Christ becomes the Logos, and assumes head leadership of the new creation. Romans 5:12-21 shows that from Adam to the Last Adam, the fallen race exists. However, Christ brings new life, righteousness, and justification, and undoes the penalties of death, condemnation, and judgment for His followers. If He does not become the Logos, and undo these penalties, a new race of people belonging to God will not develop.
Would prevent the Theosis interaction of “Christ in us” – The Holy Spirit indwells believers and provides the means of establishing connection to Christ in His absence. The regeneration of believers by the Holy Spirit must be equal to Christ or He does not represent Christ fully; only Triune equality guarantees that the Father and Son will recognize the regeneration of the believer through the Spirit’s presence. Also, the Truth of God can only be fully known by His equal; thus, the One providing the revelation of mysteries and the hidden things of God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that gives believers understanding of Christ as the Word of God, must share equality with the LORD God.
Deification to share in God’s trinitarian life is impossible – As Christ is reflective of full Godhead and His Father, so too can believers reflect Christ and share in God’s trinitarian life. Through the Greek Orthodox doctrine of deification, humans are thought to be given the ability to possess their inner nature that is capable of receiving and reflecting God.
Though this doctrine is embraced by the Greek Orthodox religion, the Protestants’ knowledge of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit seems to capture this same basic thought. The doctrines of Theosis that speak of Christ’s communion and sanctification within believers also might fit this concept of deification. It seems the basic idea that Christ is hypostatically communicating with both divine and human energies, is also experienced by believers when their humanity is energized by the Holy Spirit and able to speak to God. Further, Christians are able to be holy as the Holy Spirit burns the chaff of unrighteousness (Matthew 3:12) and guides them closer to the righteousness of the LORD God.
Without the example of Christ’s relationship to the Father with full capabilities to reflect and share in each other’s natures, human beings would be unable to understand this difficult relationship that is necessary if God’s energies are to be shared. Though believers are not united to God through hypostases, they are united through His grace, producing the connection of energy that flows between God and believers. Without the ability for human beings to become holy, they cannot approach a holy God.
The power of Satan through death would be unstoppable – Hebrews 2:14 says plainly that Christ took on flesh and blood so He could die and destroy the power of death and thus end the devil’s control; though this cannot be fully realized until after the return of Christ to earth, the process has started through Christ’s sacrificial death. This provides the opportunity for believers to accept Christ as Savior and receive Christ’s baptism that brings believers to their baptismal grave and buries them to Christ’s death, raising up in new birth with death’s hold released forever (Romans 6:1-11). Believers will live eternally because of Christ’s efforts to overcome Satan and death. If Christ has not assumed flesh and blood, he cannot have died, because no one can kill God. Without Christ’s death, believers would still be controlled by Satan, their sins, and encroaching death without ability to receive eternal life.
Exaltation of Christ would not happen – The LORD God gave the Lord Jesus Christ a name above every other name (Philippians 2:9) in reward for His sacrifice that requires Him to first quiet his God nature and assume flesh and blood as a human being. While some suggest that the Son of God receives nothing, with the saved and the LORD God receiving greatly from His Son’s works, it is important to remember the exaltation of Christ for His effort. If He had not been exalted, He would be a humble lesser god with little power that could be overcome by greater power of a bigger god. His exaltation, rewarded to Him by His Father, declares him to be above all others, which declares His possession of the full attributes of God Himself.
Would not regain that which sinful man lost through the fall to sin - Genesis 1:28 records God giving dominion of His Creations to mankind with all other creatures subjected to them. But, when man and woman yielded to the temptation of Satan in the Garden of Eden, the LORD God changes His plans, and gives the beasts power to harm or destroy human beings. But, Isaiah 11:6-9 shows the change of the order of authority, with humans placed once again in dominion over the beasts, when the sin in God’s created world ceases. This possibility exists because of Christ’s Incarnation; without it, the superior dominion lost as a result of sin would not be returned to mankind.
The hypostatic union of the divinity and flesh is a difficult concept to understand, and Scripture exegesis to prove this concept even harder. However, scholars throughout the ages have wrestled with the difficult concepts that have developed into the understanding of the Triune relationship as unified One and equal in nature, Two subordinate and submissive in duties, and Three distinct and separate in person.
It is the Triune God that forms and is sovereign over all creation; it is the Three Persons of the Godhead that stand together, alone in their solitary majesty, and create life. One of the profoundest mysteries of the Incarnation is that Christ gave up the full expression of the power of God, and took the fleshly human nature; but, it cannot be denied that it is through His hypostatic union that gives him the nature of humans to show mankind how to wear their own humanness. And, it is through Christ’s divinity that humans are able to approach the holiness of God and bring glory to Him through Christ’s presence.
Sadly, misguided scholars have moved orthodox belief to a point today that encourages the development of pluralistic religions by denying the Incarnation of Christ. It is the divine Incarnation of Christ which makes it impossible to think that any other religion has equal value and truth, with the ability to approach God without Christ’s sacrifice. The two-natures of Christ expressed in the doctrine of Chalcedon have become major targets, with literal belief in Incarnation mocked, and declared a myth and metaphor. To advance the false teachings, misguided Christians are led to believe that they can be both Christian and pluralist, and that belief in the hypostatic union of Christ is not essential to Christian faith. As the pluralistic religions develop, more false teachings are introduced into the faith of Christians. It is a viral movement that can possibly lead to one world religion where everyone is included, with the denial of Christ’s hypostatic union at the forefront to carry out this wicked control.
It is critical to the Christian faith that the Incarnation of Christ through the hypostatic union of both the divinity and the flesh be held to the highest standards of faith, and declared foundational to Christian belief. Once Christ’s hypostatic union is denied, pluralistic religion will remove Christ’s works and the will of God from matters of faith, with tremendous consequences that will surely devastate and confuse Christian belief.
The nature of God in evangelical theology must remain “tri-personal, infinite, indivisible, immutable, eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, and absolutely perfect and just.” Any belief system that disagrees with these natures fully expressed in Scripture as belonging to the Triune God, hold unorthodox views of God that will lead to serious consequences to believers’ faith and relationship to Him.
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Henry, Carl Ferdinand Howard. God, Revelation, and Authority. Vol. 3. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1999.
Jowers, Dennis W. "The Meaning of Morphē in Philippians 2:6-7." Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, no. 4 (2006): 739-766.
Murphy, Gannon. "Reformed Theosis?" Theology Today 65, no. 2 (2008): 191-212.
Pink, Arthur Walkington. The Godhood of God. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1999.
Riches, Aaron. "After Chalcedon: The Oneness of Christ and the Dyothelite Mediation of His Theandric Unity." Modern Theology 24, no. 2 (2008): 199-224.
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Strimple, Robert B. "Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Studies : Some Exegetical Conclusions." Westminster Theological Journal 41, no. 2 (1979): 247-268.
Stroup, George W. "Christian Doctrine I : Chalcedon Revisited." Theology Today 35, no. 1 (1978): 52-64.
Walvoord, John F. "The Preincarnate Son of God. ." Bibliotheca sacra 104, no. 415 (1947): 282-289.
Wesche, Kenneth Paul. "The Doctrine of Deification: A Call to Worship." Theology Today 65, no. 2 (2008): 169-179.
Wright, N.T. The Climax of the Covenant. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993.
Zabriskie, Howard C. "The Seven-Fold Purpose of the Incarnation." Bibliotheca Sacra 96, no. 381 (1939).
Zathureczky, Kornél. "Jesus' Impeccability: Beyond Ontological Sinlessness." Science et Esprit 60, no. 1 (2008): 55-71.
 Charles Lee Feinberg, "The Hypostatic Union," Bibliotheca sacra 92, no. 368 (1935): 412.
 John F. Walvoord, "The Preincarnate Son of God. ," Bibliotheca sacra 104, no. 415 (1947): 282-283.
 Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 3 (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1999), 203.
 Disagreements concerning the Hypostatic Union can be understood through these basic terms, though theologists and scholars seldom apply such basic terms to define a complex issue such as this.
 Scripture reflects both divine and human natures in reference to Christ throughout the New Testament; however, the Book of John is cited as one of many examples in the Bible.
 Feinberg: 416-417.
 Dennis W. Jowers, "The Meaning of Morphē in Philippians 2:6-7," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, no. 4 (2006): 740.
 Joseph H. Hellerman, "Morphē Theou as a Signifier of Social Status in Philippians 2:6," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 52, no. 4 (2009): 779.
 Jowers: 742, 746.
 Robert B. Strimple, "Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Studies : Some Exegetical Conclusions," Westminster Theological Journal 41, no. 2 (1979): 286.
 N.T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 84.
 Michael J. Gorman, ""Although/Because He Was in the Form of God": The Theological Significance of Paul's Master Story (Phil 2:6-11)," Journal of Theological Interpretation 1, no. 2 (2007): 148.
 Feinberg: 416.
 Ibid., 417.
 Ibid., 417-418.
 William R. Baker, "The Chalcedon Definition, Pauline Christology, and the Postmodern Challenge of "from Below" Christology," Stone-Campbell Journal 9, no. 1 (2006): 77-78.
 John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God, Kindle ed. (Good News Publishers/Crossway Books, 2006), Kindle Location 11359-11380 of 22041.
 Aaron Riches, "After Chalcedon: The Oneness of Christ and the Dyothelite Mediation of His Theandric Unity," Modern Theology 24, no. 2 (2008): 200.
 Baker: 84.
 Perry Schmidt-Leukel, "Chalcedon Defended: A Pluralistic Re-Reading of the Two-Natures Doctrine," Expository Times 118, no. 3 (2006): 119.
 Feinberg, "The Hypostatic Union," 423.
 Kornél Zathureczky, "Jesus' Impeccability: Beyond Ontological Sinlessness," Science et Esprit 60, no. 1 (2008): 67.
 Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God, Kindle Location 10245 of 22041.
 Howard C. Zabriskie, "The Seven-Fold Purpose of the Incarnation," Bibliotheca Sacra 96, no. 381 (1939): 82-83.
 Feinberg, "The Hypostatic Union," 423-424.
 Ibid., 424.
 Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God, Kindle Location 10230 of 22041.
 Zabriskie: 80-81.
 Feinberg, "The Hypostatic Union," 425.
 Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God, Kindle Location 10234-10238 of 22041.
 Ibid., Kindle Location 10241 of 22041.
 Kenneth Paul Wesche, "The Doctrine of Deification: A Call to Worship," Theology Today 65, no. 2 (2008): 170.
 Gannon Murphy, "Reformed Theosis?," Theology Today 65, no. 2 (2008): 191.
 Myk Habets, ""Reformed Theosis?" A Response to Gannon Murphy," Theology Today 65, no. 4 (2009): 490.
 Gerard Austin, "Theosis and Eschatology," Liturgical Ministry 19, no. 1 (2010): 1.
 Zabriskie: 81.
 Ibid., 83.
 Ibid., 86.
 Arthur Walkington Pink, The Godhood of God (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1999), 1.
 Ibid., 4.
 Schmidt-Leukel: 113-115.
 George W. Stroup, "Christian Doctrine I : Chalcedon Revisited," Theology Today 35, no. 1 (1978): 54, 55.
 Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Two: God, Creation, vol. 2 (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2003), 311.