One Incarnate Nature of the Word

This phrase is part of the language that we use in our Orthodox Church to explain and describe in a partial manner what we believe took place in the incomprehensible incarnation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. It is a phrase used by St Cyril of Alexandria to express his own understanding, and has been used by our holy Fathers until the present time. But it is a phrase which is controversial in that from the very beginning it has been misunderstood and misrepresented. Undoubtedly many members of our own Orthodox Church, as well as those of the Eastern Orthodox Church, do not properly understand what is meant by these words.

There are some Eastern Orthodox who do not care what we believe. They have already decided that we are heretics. One Eastern Orthodox priest said exactly that to me. “I do not care what you believe, I know that you are a heretic!” What a strange and disturbing thing to say, especially since the determination of heresy is something that absolutely requires a knowledge of what someone believes. I am not writing this post for those who have no interest in the truth, and show no evidence of love.  But there are a great many who would be glad to understand better for the sake of dealing with others on the basis of truth and in love, and there is a great need for the members of our own Orthodox Church to understand our Faith.

I will keep this post short and to the point. It is not intended to be a lengthy theological paper. My aim is to explain simply what the phrase “One incarnate nature of the Word” means, so that those who use other terms will at least understand what we mean, and will not impose their own interpretation. And so that members of our own Orthodox Church can be confident in the Orthodoxy of this phrase.

St Cyril uses this phrase to speak about Christ, and it is a phrase that seems also to have been used in preceding generations, and by those who had a false understanding. But that hardly means that St Cyril used it in an incorrect manner. We confess that we believe in One God, but so do Jews and Muslims. We do not stop using the phrase “One God” simply because others use it in a false or deficient manner. Likewise, the fact that this phrase was used by others in an incorrect manner does not mean that it cannot also be used in an accurate and correct manner, as St Cyril and our Fathers certainly did.

In this simplified explanation it is enough to say that the phrase is criticised by those who consider us heretics because it uses the word “one” and the word “nature”. The Eastern Orthodox have come to define the word nature (or physis in the Greek), as having the meaning of essence (or ousia in the Greek). Essence has the sense of meaning what type of thing an object is. So a chair has the essence of chairness. That is what it is. A dog has the essence of dogness because that it what it is and what separates it from a cat. And so a man is of the essence of humanity. We may even speak in a relative sense, since God is incomprehensible, and say that the three divine persons are of the essence of divinity or share the divine essence.

Now when the Eastern Orthodox see the words “one” and “nature” in the same sentence, they tend to immediately think of “one essence”. But when we are speaking about the Lord Jesus Christ, whom we believe is God and man, this is a problem. If he is one essence then what does this mean? It must mean either that he is all God, and the humanity of Christ is just a mirage or a pretence. Or it must mean that he is all man, and his relation to God is not any different to that which any of us might experience. Or it must mean that he has now a new essence, which is God-man-ness, some sort of a mixture of divinity and humanity. All of these are unacceptable options for an Orthodox understanding of the incarnation. We want to insist that Jesus Christ is the Word of God, a divine person, one of the Holy Trinity, who has become man, truly human in every way, without sin, and without ceasing to be God, and without any confusion or mixture of the divine and human essences.

If he has not truly become man then we are not saved because no one really died and rose again. It was just an appearance. If he is not truly divine then we are not saved because it was only a prophet who died on the cross. And if he represents a new essence of God-man-ness then we are not saved because he is neither God nor man.

So if we mean “one essence” when we say “one incarnate nature of the Word” then there is a problem. In very recent times it has been noted that the phrase we are considering uses the Greek word “mia”, which is translated as “one”. And it has been proposed, in fact by a theologian who is not a member of our Orthodox Church, that we should call ourselves miaphysites. The idea behind this is that “mia” could be taken as meaning “one by a union”, and so the phrase “one incarnate nature of the Word” is interpreted as saying, “a union of essences in the incarnate Word”, and does not mean simply one at all.

Of course we do insist that in Christ the humanity and divinity are not mixed or confused into one, but that Christ is truly both God and man. So this seems an attractive way forward. It is as if we agree that there is one essence, but this essence is a union, not a confusion, of the essence of humanity and divinity. The problem with this explanation is that it does not describe what we believe, and what our Fathers teach, at all. It seems to me that it merely indicates that we have listened to the Eastern Orthodox criticism, allowed them to define all the terms, and then tried to find a solution based on the Eastern Orthodox interpretation.

Let’s be clear first of all that we do not believe at all that the humanity of Christ has ceased to be the same, real and true and complete humanity of each one of us, or that the divinity of the Word has been changed in any way. St Severus says…

Flesh does not renounce its existence as flesh, even if it has become God’s flesh, nor has the Word departed from his nature, even if he has been hypostatically united to flesh which possesses a rational and intelligent soul: but the difference also is preserved, and the essential quality in the form of natural characteristics of the natures of which Emmanuel consists, since the flesh was not converted into the nature of the Word, nor was the Word changed into flesh.

We can consider some of these terms on another occasion, But what is very clear is that we do not believe at all that the flesh, the humanity of Jesus Christ, has ceased to be humanity, nor has the divinity of the Word changed into a different essence either. The humanity is just like ours and has the faculty of will – that is what rational means to St Severus. It is complete and it remains completely human. The flesh was not changed into divinity, and the divinity was not changed into humanity, and the difference between them was preserved. More than that St Severus is quite happy to speak about natures, a plural. Because humanity and divinity are different and remain different, and when we ask what essence Christ is of we have to answer accurately that he is of two essences.

Now we will notice that we are using the word translated as nature to speak of essences. And this is entirely proper. The word being used by St Severus is not essence (or ousia), but is nature (or physis). And this word has several meanings. In some contexts it can mean essence (or ousia), just as he uses it here. But this is not its only meaning. It can also stand for another word used in the passage I have quoted, which is hypostasis. This is another Greek word which stands for a concrete identity, a real example of whatever type of thing we might mean by an essence. So there is a human nature which we all share, because we are all of this type of thing – we are human. But we are human hypostases, (the plural of hypostasis) because we are all real and concrete examples of what being human means.

Now God the Word is a divine hypostasis. He is a real instance of the divine nature, not quite in the same way that we humans are examples of the human nature of essence. But he is truly one divine identity. St Severus tells us that this Word of God, this divine hypostasis, has united a real humanity to himself in a hypostatic manner. This real humanity, which comes into existence only at the moment of this uniting with the Word, has a soul and intelligence and will. It is a complete humanity. But it has its existence only as belonging to the Word. It is united hypostatically, which means that it belongs to the hypostasis, or the identity of the Word. God the Word, a divine hypostasis, remains divine, but God the Word now also has his own humanity, a real humanity. It is God the Word who is both human and divine without confusion.

If the uniting of humanity and divinity was a matter of essence then we would have to end up with a mixture, because humanity and divinity would have been united, and all of mankind would have become all of the Holy Trinity. But the union is to do with the identity of the Word. The humanity and divinity have been united because they both belong to him, and because they both belong to him and are united because he adds being truly a human to his own identity, they are neither mixed not confused but retain the difference about which St Severus speaks.

Again, St Severus says…

Those therefore who confess one incarnate nature of God the Word, do not confuse the elements of which he consists….they recognise the difference only, not admitting a division: for the principle of union does not admit of division.

What are these elements which we do not confuse? They are his humanity and his divinity which are entirely different. We should have no trouble saying this. Humanity and divinity are different and retain their essential difference, but they are not divided. They have been united. But this unity is found in the hypostasis or identity of God the Word, since it is he who is both human and divine after the incarnation. It is not a unity in essence, but a union of essential difference in the identity of the Word.

St Severus continues…

…Emmanuel is one, consisting of Godhead and manhood which have a perfect existence according to their own principle, and the hypostatic union without confusion shows the difference of those which have been joined in one in dispensatory union, but rejects division, both the elements which naturally belong to the manhood have come to belong to the very Godhead of the Word, and those which belong to the Word himself have come to belong to the very manhood which he hypostatically united to him.

Once more we see that our Faith is that the divinity and humanity continue to be preserved in perfection according to their own principles and without any confusion or mixture. The union in the hypostasis of the Word does not cause either the humanity or the divinity to be compromised in any way. It is separating these two elements, as Theodore and Nestorius and their supporters did, which we reject. We absolutely confess the continuing difference.

This is what St Cyril teaches when he says…

But, while each of them both remains and is perceived in the property which is by nature, according to the principle which has just been enunciated by us, the ineffable and incomprehensible union has shown us one nature of the Son, yet, as I have said, an incarnate nature.

Both the humanity and divinity remain, and we can see what is human because it has the quality of our own humanity. And we can see what is divine because it has he quality of the divine essence. But when we look at Christ we also see a unity, so that he appears as one incarnate nature. But this brings us back to the controversy of this phrase. If we do confess that the humanity and the divinity are entirely different, and are not united at the level of the type of thing that Christ is, because he is two, both human and divine, and these are not mixed up or confused at all. Then what does St Cyril and St Severus mean, what do we mean, when we speak about one incarnate nature? If we don’t mean one essence, and clearly we do not, then what do we mean?

As I have suggested, and St Severus states this quite clearly. Ousia or essence means a generality, such as humanity and the human nature. But hypostasis means a particular instance. This man over here. He has the same human nature but he is a particular instance. Just as God the Word became a real man, Jesus Christ, with particular features. Sharing the universal human nature which we all participate in, but being a particular instance. The word nature, or physis, can vary in meaning depending on the context. As St Severus says…

Where therefore we name all mankind one nature, we use the name ‘nature’ generically in place of ‘essence’; but, where we say that there is one nature of Paul, the name ‘nature’ is employed in place of ‘individual hypostasis’.

It doesn’t really matter at all if Eastern Orthodox want to use these or any terms in a different way. But what is absolutely necessary is that if we are considering what we ourselves mean and teach then we must understand how we use these terms. And here we see clearly, nature can be used to mean essence or individual hypostasis. This is important because we have seen that we do not mean to say “one essence” when we say “one incarnate nature of the Word”. St Severus explain exactly what we do mean, saying…

When we say ‘one incarnate nature of God the Word’, as Athanasius the prop of the truth and the apostolic faith said in the books on the Incarnation of the Word, we use ‘nature’ in place of ‘individual designation’, denoting the one hypostasis of the Word himself, like that of Peter also or of Paul, or of any other single man. Wherefore also, when we say ‘one nature which became incarnate’, we do not say it absolutely, but by adding one nature of the Word himself clearly denote the one hypostasis.

This is a very important passage indeed. It says exactly what we believe. It is nothing to do with a union of essences. When we say “one incarnate nature of the Word” we mean that the one hypostasis or identity, or even person, of the Word of God has become incarnate, has become a man, while remaining the divine Word. We mean “the one identity of the Word has become incarnate”. This is what nature means in this context. The one nature of the Word refers to the person of the Word, the who he is, not the essence, which is the what he is.

This is what St Severus clearly tells us. It is not an opinion or a complicated argument made from vague references. This is exactly what we believe. So when we are told that we believe in a mixture of humanity and divinity because we confess “one incarnate nature of the Word”, we must be clear that those who accuse us have absolutely failed to understand what we believe. We do not mean one essence or ousia. We mean the one hypostasis or identity of the Word which remains one both before and after the incarnation. It is the one Word who has now become man for our sake while remaining God, and his humanity and divinity retain their perfection and difference, united in the one Word, who is both perfect God and perfect man. It is the one Word who is the one nature.

And this is exactly how St Cyril explained the meaning of this phrase when he used it. Saying..

To one Person therefore must we attribute all the words in the Gospels, to One Incarnate Hypostasis of the Word: for there is One Lord Jesus Christ, according to Scriptures.

Elsewhere he uses the phrase in the form, one incarnate nature of the Word, but here, he makes clear just what he means. Nature in this context means hypostasis or identity or person. And there is only one hypostasis of the Word who has become incarnate and is one Lord Jesus Christ. When we ask WHO Christ is, we insist that he is one. One nature/hypostasis. But when we ask WHAT he is, we insist that after the incarnation he is two. Of or from two natures/ousia/essences. He is a member of two types of thing, if we dare speak like that about the divinity. This is what we mean. This is what our Fathers always taught. This is the Apostolic and Orthodox Faith, whatever words others use to express the same truth.

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