Episco-Fact #55
July 30, 2017

Who is Jesus?

This is the question that has followed the Church and its predecessor communities since the women spread the word from the empty tomb.

One answer, found on page 849 in the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer, is that Jesus is the Son of God. That is fine as far as that answer goes, but it still leaves a lot to imagine.

The more precise answer of the church is found on page 864 in the Book of Common Prayer in a section called Historical Documents. That answer is the Definition of the Union of the Divine and Human Natures in the Person of Christ, Council of Chalcedon, 451 A.D., Act V. This is one of seven Ecumenical councils of the Church, from 325 through 451 which are mostly about the question of who Jesus is "ontologically" (i.e. real self on the inside).

Paul of Tarsus, laid down the earliest thoughts about the nature of Jesus as he proclaimed the Gospel to the communities from Galatia to Rome. His speculations are that Jesus, the Messiah, is 1) preexistent and this preexistence is communicated in the Old Testament, and 2) that his followers worship him as Kyrios (Lord).

After Paul, the church wants to explain the how's and why's of Jesus' preexistence and why we would worship him. The Nicene Creed (325 A.D.) addresses these two issues with the structure of statements that Jesus is the second person of a Trinity, which is also a Unity, and that he is of the same hypostasis (substance) as the first person. This statement still leaves room for more reflection and definition.

By the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D., about 125 years after Nicaea, there was a debate between Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius of Antioch on this issue. Nestorious argued that there were two natures in Christ because God could not be born, and that Jesus was born in union with but separate from the second person of the Trinity. Therefore, there was a nature in Christ that was not completely identifiable with the divine Logos. Cyril argues for "two natures, one human, one divine, united with no confusion nor division." With some small modifications in the definition agreed to, this becomes the stated position of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Protestant Churches, including the Anglican Communion.

Not all churches of the time accepted this definition. They thought it too much like Nestorius'. Those churches are called Oriental Orthodox and include the Copts of Egypt. They take a more moderate position. To these churches, Jesus' divine and human natures are a synthesis but without mixture, confusion, or alteration. This difference caused a schism which has not been entirely breached even to today, though Nicene Churches have agreed that this "Miaphysite" positon is amenable to the Chalcedonian Definition.

A more modern take on all this, Kierkegaard: Jesus is the "ultimate paradox." He encompasses all the contradictions of being divine and human at the same time.


 The Rev. David Lucey