Concerning Identity and Nature

Perhaps the most pervasive of all heresies affecting the Christology of the church is Docetism, the idea that Jesus was not truly man but only appeared to be. (1* On this see my Still Docetic) The problem is frequently referred to but almost never properly addressed. Even Evangelicalism tends in the direction of Apollinarianism which taught that the eternal Word replaced the rational soul in Jesus. I would argue that one of the reasons for this is that central to received theology is the almost universal belief enshrined in the Chalcedonian Creed that in becoming man Jesus retained his divine nature in what is known as hypostatic union. In other words, despite denial and the claim that the two natures were united ‘unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably’, in true Nestorian style Jesus had at one and the same time two separate natures, one fully divine and one fully human, hence Chalcedonian Dyophysitism. Though this hypostatic union seems to fly in the face of John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:5-11 and Hebrews 1 and 2 to go no further, all of which seem to underline the fundamental truth of the incarnation, that is, that the Word did in fact become a genuine man, denial leaves us with a Jesus who was different from all other human beings that ever lived. And if this is true, we are forced to recognise that the second Adam was not really man and that since atonement was made by one who was not like us in every respect (Heb. 2:17), it was therefore ineffective. Assuming that this inference is correct, we are forced to ask why the church has historically made such a basic mistake. I would argue that the problem stems primarily from failure to distinguish between identity and nature. In becoming man the Word did not cease to be who he was for he clearly he retained his identity. But he manifestly changed his nature (Heb. 2:14, cf. Rom. 8:3). If he did not, he never really became man. And this according to John constitutes horrendous heresy (1 John 4:2f.; 2 John 7).

The basic reason why Chalcedon taught the hypostatic union or two natures in one person was that it was deemed impossible for the Word to be fully divine if when he took on flesh he dispensed with his divine nature (cf. kenoticism). However, if this is regarded as a truism of universal application, it leaves us with big problems in other areas for we ourselves as human beings necessarily, that is, by divine decree, change our natures. Both Jesus himself and Paul insist on this. While Jesus teaches that we must be spiritually born again (John 3:7) to enter heaven, Paul tells us in no uncertain terms that since flesh and blood cannot by nature inherit the kingdom of God, we must all be corporeally transformed (1 Cor. 15:50,53). It must be noted at this point that sin does not figure in either scenario. Both regeneration and transformation are natural necessities inherent in the plan and purpose of God. So if man can change his nature in order to be perfected in the image of God, so could the Word himself in becoming man. Furthermore, having become man with the express intention of attaining to the glory intended for man but prevented by sin, he had to change his nature again and become the complete image of God (John 3:13; Eph. 4:9f. and note John 20:17.) (2* See further my Two ‘Natural’ Necessities)

The underlying problem here would seem to be that traditional theology has held that man as created was fully formed devoid of development (though noticeably involving the change from dust to flesh) and thus implying that apart from sin he was immutable, fixed and static. Augustine of Hippo whose views have done so much to fashion the thinking of the churches especially in the West held that Adam was created perfect, immortal, holy and righteous but ‘fell’. Creation also was regarded not simply as ‘good’ and serving a temporal purpose but initially perfect despite Genesis 1:2. It was then radically affected by the Fall and its consequent curse. The result of this was that creation is now regarded as ‘fallen’ rather than simply futile by nature, that is, by divine decree (Rom. 8:18-25). (3* Regrettably Romans 8:18-25 has been radically misunderstood. It surely corresponds with passages like Hebrews 1:10-12, and 8:21 clearly refers to the creature who is differentiated from creation though derived from it. See further my Romans 8:18-25, Romans 8:18-25 In Brief; The Relationship Between Genesis 3:15-19 and Romans 8:18-25. The traditional view reflects Augustinian theology on the one hand and exegetical ineptitude on the other.) In other words, tradition has it that man’s nature has changed for the worse by sin. What the Bible really teaches, however, is that man was created imperfect or immature with a view to attaining to the maturity or the perfection of God himself (Lev. 11:44f.; 19:2; Mt. 5:48; 1 Pet. 1:16, etc.). In view of our present subject it is useful to add here that as ‘made by hand’ (usually cheiropoietos in Greek), man, like the physical creation in general (Isa. 45:11f.), was even created ‘defective’ (Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:16-18, etc.) and therefore needed to be changed on that account alone. Ideas of restoration, however, belong to the temporary old economy and covenant and are contrary to the new covenant which is concerned with replacement (4* Cf. Heb. 10:9b, etc. See further my Manufactured Or Not So) Otherwise expressed, man as the image of God was potentially like him but was prevented from becoming so by the devil.

The truth is that God began at the beginning and made man imperfect or immature and not merely capable of growth, development or evolution but inherently perfectible, that is, designed to attain to the completeness or perfection of God himself (Mt. 5:48, cf. James 1:4). As made in the divine image man was expected or rather required to become his perfect likeness. (5* See my Perfection) In the event, since God always planned to be the Saviour of man (Ps.130:9; Isa. 45:22-25; Rom. 11:32; 1 Cor. 1:29, etc.) whom he intentionally consigned to sin so that he could exercise his mercy (Rom. 11:32; Gal. 3:22) and display the glory of his grace (Eph. 1:6,12,14), he sent his Son Jesus who uniquely met the precondition of salvation by keeping the law as man (Lev. 18:5; Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14f.). And so it was as man that he eventually became the exact image (complete likeness) of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3). Bluntly, as created, man was not statically perfect, as Augustine taught, but naturally immature and hence subject to dynamic development and providential change. While as flesh like the earth from which he derived he was capable of attaining to physical perfection or maturity only to lapse into final dissolution like the rest of the animal creation (cf. Heb. 12:27; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12), as spirit he could be born from above (John 3:3,7, cf. 1:12f.) and achieve perfection in the presence of God (Rom. 5:2; Eph. 2:18; 3:12). This was the course pioneered by Jesus (Luke 13:32; Heb. 12:2) who was not so much the perfect man as the progressively perfected man as Hebrews in particular makes clear (Heb. 2:10; 4:14; 5:9; 7:28). As man, he not only acquired the complete image of his Father himself (Heb. 1:3, etc.) but ensured that his sheep did so too by dying to cover their sins (Heb. 2:10-13, etc.), provide them with (an alien) righteousness (Rom. 9:30; 1 Cor. 1:30; Phil. 3:9) and thereby open up for them the door of heaven and the presence of God (John 14:1-3, cf. Eph. 2:17f.).

It is vital to point out again that the Word not only changed his nature when he became man but as man’s trail blazer into heaven also changed it as man. At his incarnation, though the ‘natural’ Son of God, he began his earthly career as a son of Adam (Luke 3:38) born of woman, that is, as dust from the earth (Gen. 3:20; Gal. 4:4, cf. Eph. 4:9f.). He thereby recapitulated the career of the first Adam, his original human progenitor (cf. 1 Cor. 15:47-49) whose son he was through his mother (Luke 3:38). As such he passed through the entire gamut of human development first in the womb (cf. Eden, the womb of the race), then from animal flesh in the stable at Bethlehem, through heathenism as a child in Egypt and adolescent servanthood under the law (Lev. 25:42,55) till, having kept it flawlessly in accordance with Leviticus 18:5 (cf. Gen. 2:17), he gained eternal life at his naturally necessary baptismal regeneration. Had he not done so, he would have been in no position to give his flesh in death for his people. For it is only as a spiritually regenerate son that he could freely offer his fleshly life (cf. Mt. 17:25-27) and take it again (John 10:17f.). So long as he remained under the law (Gal. 4:4) he remained under obligation himself, and his death under it would have been permanent and irretrievable since it would have implied debt and sin (Rom. 5:12; 6:23). In the event, however, as one who had personally kept the law and was sinless (Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22) but had died on behalf of his people, he was necessarily raised from the dead (Acts 2:24, cf. 1 Pet. 3:18).

Jesus the Son of God and the Son of Man

In further clarification of this it needs to be appreciated that Jesus’ ‘natural’ sonship of God which involved his incarnation and birth of Mary should not be confused with his development as a genuine man. As he himself so plainly taught, all, including himself even though he was the ‘natural’ son of God, who were born of the flesh, that is, as sons of Adam, had of necessity to be born again (John 3:3,7). So far as the latter is concerned, as man he had to attain to sonship by his obedience, for this was the human precondition of life (Lev. 18:5, etc.). Then, having laid down his life in atonement for the sins of his people and been physically raised from the dead, Jesus did not undergo corruption. This being so he remained flesh but as such, as Paul indicates, he could not enter the kingdom of heaven for flesh and blood are excluded by nature (1 Cor. 15:50). So in order to regain his former glory divested at his incarnation, he had to be changed (John 17:5,24). However, as the author of Hebrews makes plain, he remained flesh only for a little while (Heb. 2:7,9). To be glorified he needed a body of glory to match his regenerated spirit and this he gained at his ascension transformation which served as the paradigm of those who at the end of the world neither die nor undergo resurrection as he did (1 Cor. 15:50-53).

But the all-important point is that he was glorified as man. Though clearly retaining his identity throughout his earthly pilgrimage, far from regaining his divine nature again, as man he gained God’s generic nature (Mt. 28:18; Rom. 1:4, etc.). He was not merely designated Lord to the glory of God (Acts 2:36; Phil. 2:9-11) but was recognised as the exact image of God (Col. 1:15; 2 Cor. 4:4; Heb. 1:3). It was as such that having had all things subjected to him, he himself was finally subjected so that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). In other words, his own manhood is and remains in subjection to his deity, for though man cannot become God, he can share his generic nature as his son (2 Pet. 1:4, cf. Mt. 28:18).

Of course, it may be objected at this point that Jesus remains ever the same and that his traditional immutability must not be questioned. But the assertion that he remains the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8) refers to his identity and character not to his nature. If his nature never changed, if God never became man, we would still be in our sins. Atonement had to be made by man (Heb. 2) and Jesus the man was not only our mediator (1 Tim. 2:5) but the propitiation of our sins (Rom. 3:25, ESV; Heb. 2:9,17). As Paul says, he was made sin even though he knew no sin so that in him we believers might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21, cf. 1 Pet. 3:18). And it is as such that we are his children (1 John 3:2f.) and hence his heirs (Rom. 8:17).

Now if change is fundamental to man, not to mention creation, and inherent in the plan of salvation, then it must be true of Jesus or he was never truly man. In fact, in order to be our pioneer and trail blazer his manhood was indispensably necessary for God’s original promise of eternal life (salvation) was made to man (Gen. 2:16f.; Lev. 18:5, etc.) and therefore had to be fulfilled by man. Of course, it can be claimed that God as our omnipotent Creator and Ruler can have mercy on whomever he pleases (Ex. 33:19; Rom. 9:15f.), but this ignores his character as a holy and righteous God. The truth is that he saves in accordance with both his promise and character and to the praise of his glory. The wonder of the gospel is that our triune God so loved the world that he sent his Son to be our Saviour. This can only mean that the Word was willing to humble himself (Phil. 2:7), change his nature and become man, that is, one of us (Heb. 2:10-13) in order to save us. And it is as glorified man that he is forever King of kings and Lord of lords to the glory of God (Phil. 2:11) through whom we inherit all things (Rom. 8:17,32). (6* See my The Ecclesiastical Christ, The Exaltation Of Jesus)



On the identity of Jesus with God see Chris Wright The Mission of God, pp. 106-123, Nottingham, 2006.