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Two natures, one Mediator

Thoughts on the communication of properties between the two natures of Christ

by Tim Gallant

There is no more frustrating opposition between Lutherans and Reformed than with regard to the nature of Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper. This dispute, in turn, revolves around the issue of Christology. Ever since the 16th century, the Lutherans have accused the Reformed of holding Nestorian tendencies; the Reformed, meanwhile, have accused the Lutherans of Monophysitism (on these labels, see below).

The occasion for dispute

Martin Luther, while rejecting Rome's scholastic views of transubstantiation (i.e. the notion that the substance of the bread and wine was altered into the body and blood of Christ), retained the belief that Jesus' body and blood truly are physically present and offered in the Lord's Supper.

From the beginning, the Reformed challenged this. Already in the 1520s, Luther and Ulrich Zwingli were in collision. Zwingli argued that the flesh profits nothing (cf. Jn 6:63); hence, such a physical presence would be of no benefit. What matters is faith, which makes Christ spiritually present.

While later Reformed theologians repudiated Zwingli's formulation, and indeed developed much richer views of the Supper, they continued to maintain that Jesus' body and blood were not physically present.

The Christological argument

It is not so much our intention here to develop a doctrine of the Supper as to explore the Christological issues that came into play during the 16th century. Specifically, we will be asking: Is there a way to avoid both Nestorian and Monophysite tendencies when we approach these questions?


Nestorianism and Monophysitism were ancient heresies opposed by the Early Church. In Nestorianism, there is a robust teaching of two natures in Christ, whose accent results in the view that these natures can be identified as two persons in Christ: one divine, one human. Bible interpreters influenced by Nestorianism often would exegete the Gospels by ascribing, alternately, various acts of Christ either to one nature or the other.

Monophysitism derives from mono (one) + phusis (nature): the Monophysites taught that in the process of union between the natures, distinction was essentially lost; following the Incarnation, there was only one nature as a result.

The response of the Church was put forth most clearly and decisively at Chalcedon in 451. This Council adopted the following credal addendum (strictly, they saw themselves as providing a "footnote" to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, commonly known to us as the Nicene Creed):

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [coessential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

I have placed in bold the statements of Chalcedon that have most direct bearing upon our discussion. The long and short of it is that Chalcedon insisted that both natures remained inviolable, indivisibly united in one Person. We have neither confusion (which would really result in a tertium quid - a being neither truly God nor man, as in Monophysitism), nor separation (which would in reality undercut the Incarnation, essentially transforming God's presence into a divine indwelling in the man Jesus).

The Lutheran Formula

The Reformed argument was that Christ could not be physically present in or with the elements of the Supper, since He has a genuinely human body, which is subject to the restrictions of locality.

The Lutherans put forth a great deal of attention to this issue. They appealed especially to the doctrine of the "communication of properties" in defense. While the human nature in no way becomes divine, nor takes the divine properties as its own, as divine properties - yet those properties are communicated to it. There is an effort to uphold Chalcedon, while yet rejecting the Reformed argument as rationalistic.

The two natures are not mixed, the Lutherans stressed. Yet Chalcedon also insists that neither are these natures separated.

The Lutherans asserted that, particularly in His glorification, the human nature of Christ is permitted to share in the properties of the divine nature. Not, however, that the human nature becomes divine. Rather, as a piece of iron radiates heat and light from being placed in a fire, so too the human nature radiates the qualities of the divine nature, without changing its own essence.

As a result, Christ is able to be physically present wherever He wishes. This is due to his divine omnipotence; yet it is not because his human nature has become divine.

Zwingli's Formula

For his part, Zwingli said that where Scripture attributed divine things to the humanity, or vice-versa, this was a figure of speech called alleosis. If Scripture says that Christ suffered and died, this means that only the human nature suffered and died, since the divine nature can do neither.

Likewise, if Scripture speaks of acts of omnipotence or omnipresence in connection with Christ, this means, on Zwingli's view, that only the divine nature is in view.

Mutual Criticism

Neither party, unsurprisingly, was satisfied with the other. Luther said that Zwingli was separating the natures. Some later Reformed theologians, too, have concurred that Zwingli, at least, probably was afflicted by Nestorian tendencies in his thought. If only the human nature suffered and died, where was the divine nature, and where then is the divine quality of Christ's work?

On the other hand, in its own way, Lutheranism was exposed to credal and biblical critique from the Reformed side. Chalcedon stresses that the two natures undergo neither mixture nor change. "Without change," of course, in connection with the human nature, has reference to the fact that the human nature cannot change from human into divine. The Reformed suggest that this means too that the properties peculiar to each nature must remain in them. The "communication of properties" is legitimate - but it is a communication to the one Person of the Mediator, not a communication from one nature to the other as such.

The Reformed also criticized the Lutherans for their failure to account for the likeness between Christ's human nature and our own. In His humiliation, He was made like us in every respect, barring sin (cf. Heb. 2:17; 4:15). And in His glorification, He provides the matrix for our own glorification; our glorified bodies will be like His own, just as our mortal bodies were like Adam's (1 Cor. 15:49). Our bodies will be conformed to His own glorified body (Phi. 3:21). Consequently, we are not allowed to suggest that Christ's humanity has become somehow different from all the rest. This violates Chalcedon's "without change."

A way forward

It is not our intention here to examine later Reformed theologians for where, how and to what degree they differed from Zwingli. Nor are we intent on insisting that the Reformed have always successfully avoided Nestorian implications, although naturally, we do not agree with the Lutherans, who seem to see it everywhere in Reformed thought.

Our purpose here is simply to observe that there is a way beyond the Nestorian/Monophysite impasse. It is not the case that one must fall into one trap or the other. We must return again to the formulation of Chalcedon and hear it afresh.

Without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.

Without confusion: that is, without the two natures becoming mixed.

Without change: each nature must remain what it is. The divine nature retains its full array of divine properties; the human nature retains its full array of human properties.

Without division, without separation: the natures cannot act independently, much less in conflict with one another.


It seems to me that (1) what Reformed theology must draw from Chalcedon is its stress upon without division, without separation; (2) what Lutheranism must draw from Chalcedon is its stress upon without confusion, without change.

1. In the case of the Reformed, this will involve a change of accent. It is, for example, more widely thought of as Lutheran than Reformed to speak of "God dying for our sins." Yet Scripture can speak this way: It was "our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus who gave Himself for us" (Titus 2:13). Or again, Paul can speak of "the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood."

The point, of course, is not that the divine nature has blood, or that the divine nature can die. But it is only in stressing the unity of the Person that we can fully acknowledge the fact that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself (2 Cor. 5:19). It is only here that we can lay stress upon our salvation as a truly divine act.

When we acknowledge the fourfold witness of Chalcedon, we are confronted with the fact that the whole Christ acted in the cross. We find here one divine-human act of self-offering. We cannot pick our way through the Gospels and say, "The divine nature did this; the human nature did that." That is Nestorian. The one Mediator, the God-man, did it all, precisely as the God-man. The self-offering of Christ is a divine act, just as much as it is a human act.1

2. In the case of Lutheranism, the fourfold witness of Chalcedon does challenge the doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ's physical body. Ubiquity involves communication of properties to the nature, rather than to the one Person of the Mediator; and in so doing, it involves change, at least, in the human nature. (We demur from insisting that it involves mixture/confusion.)

But again, the without division, without separation demands that, while we retain both the full humanity (like our own, as glorified) and divinity, alongside that we must confess absolute unity. And here we are sympathetic to the Lutheran concern that Zwingli had severed Christ's divine nature from His human nature. For Zwingli, it seems, does seem to leave us with only the divine nature in the Supper; the flesh, after all, profits nothing.

Zwingli's exegesis of John 6:63 collides with itself: the same passage says that Jesus' flesh is given as life for the world (Jn. 6:51). Jesus was referring to the uselessness of people merely seeing Him after the flesh, not of the valuelessness of His flesh itself, which is our salvation.

This is why Calvin's view of the Supper, while difficult, is much superior to Zwingli's. While Calvin was insistent upon the fact that Christ's body must retain the properties of a body (limitation in space, for example), yet we must find communion with it.

Because Christ's divine nature is never divided nor separated from the human nature, the fact that the divine is infinite and everywhere does not threaten our accessibility to the human nature, which is finite and spatially limited. When Christ acts for us in self-giving in the Supper, He is not merely giving us His Spirit. He is giving us Himself - His Spirit, His body, His blood. Chalcedon demands that He be at once wholly present, and yet not physically present. That is the mystery of the Incarnation, not the object of mere rational deduction.


1 These thoughts should not be construed as a charge that classical Reformed theology did indeed fail to adequately stress the unity of the Person. While one can point to isolated statements that are perhaps problematic (e.g. Calvin's notion that when Jesus addressed the Father, He was perhaps addressing the whole Trinity), the confessional statements express a rich conception of the unity of the Person. We think, for example, of Canons of Dort II.3-4:

The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin, and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.

This death is of such infinite value and dignity because the Person who submitted to it wsa not only really man and perfectly holy, but also the only begotten Son of God, of the same eternal and infinite essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit, which qualifications were necessary to constitute Him a Savior for us; and, moreover, because it was attended with a sense of the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin.

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