“To Be or Not To Be (Natures or Persons)?”: Vanhoozer’s Question to Evangelical Calvinism, pt. 2

In my recent post “‘To Be or Not To Be (In Christ)’?: That is Kevin Vanhoozer’s Question to Evangelical Calvinism“, I offered an initial response to Vanhoozer’s critique of Evangelical Calvinism in his essay entitled “The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism)”.[1] As a preliminary rejoinder, I argued that Vanhoozer’s disjunction between ontology and soteriology – a fundamental point upon which his critique is based – does not speak in terms appropriate to the orthodox grammar developed by the early church to explicate and defend the central Trinitarian and Christological doctrines of Scripture. There is, however, much more to Vanhoozer’s critique than this, and so I intend to address some further issues that he raises. Again, Bobby Grow has already done an excellent job in doing this, but I think there is an additional angle from which to examine the argument.

It is close to the halfway mark of Vanhoozer’s essay (pp.192ff) that he begins to lodge his primary complaints with Evangelical Calvinism (as represented primarily by Karl Barth, T.F. Torrance, and Myk Habets). His first point – that Torrance errs in thinking that his view of incarnational union (i.e. that Christ in his incarnate humanity ontologically grounds and vicariously represents all human beings in his person and work) equals that of Calvin – is not a significant problem, whether or not it is true. Vanhoozer acknowledges this and quickly proceeds to consider election in Ephesians 1, arguing that Evangelical wordmadefleshCalvinism does little justice to the actual way in which Paul speaks of the elect in Christ as those who are of the Holy Spirit. Since I have already examined Ephesians 1 in a previous post, I do not want to retread that same ground here, so suffice it to say that I, as an Evangelical Calvinist following Barth, do not (contrary to some accounts) reduce the conception of election as articulated in the biblical text to merely ‘all humanity in Christ’. That is, of course, ultimately where a Christ-conditioned view of election lands, but (and as even Barth’s own multi-layered exposition indicates) it does not bypass the nuanced ways in which Scripture speaks of election in terms of both human communities (Israel and the church) and individuals in history (elect vs. reprobate). Thus, I do not think that Vanhoozer’s charge takes into full account the various ways in which ‘election’ is used in Scripture (for which it is necessary to look also outside Paul’s writings) in that he presupposes a view equally reductive as the one which he criticizes (i.e. election as merely ‘those who have received the Spirit’).

The major issue that Vanhoozer has in his sights, though, is what he considers to be “the very origin of Torrance’s, and Evangelical Calvinism’s soteriology”, that is “a conflation of senses of union with Christ, stemming from a fundamental confusion of the categories ‘natures’ and ‘persons,’ itself the result of what we might call hyperextended anhypostasis.”[2] From this, Vanhoozer goes on to register the following three concerns:

  1. As to the idea that the Son assumes humanity, Evangelical Calvinism elides the distinction between nature and persons…
  2. As to the doctrine of election, Evangelical Calvinism mistakenly associates it with the “carnal” union of natures (i.e. Incarnational ontology) rather than spiritual union of persons (i.e. salvation by grace through faith)…
  3. As to the crucial concept “being in Christ” – the font from which all spiritual blessings flow (Eph. 1:3) – Evangelical Calvinism ontologizes what for Paul (and Calvin) is ultimately a personal union wrought by the Holy Spirit, the giver of life (and faith).[3]

There is obviously quite a bit going on here, so let me try and clarify the heart of the problem as Vanhoozer sees it. First, Vanhoozer is correct to note: 1) that Evangelical Calvinism understands the scope of soteriology to equal that of ontology (though, I would add, not by confusing the two) on the basis of the grounding and redemption of all creation – including all of humanity – in Jesus Christ, and 2) that this ontological/soteriological relation of humanity to Christ is ultimately required by the incarnation understood in terms of an anhypostatic/enhypostatic Christology.[4] Now I realize that this last sentence may be difficult for many people to understand, so I will let Vanhoozer himself break it down a bit. Essentially he is arguing that the incarnation did not establish an ontological/soteriological relationship between Christ and every human being because:

In becoming man, the Son takes on human nature [i.e. anhypostasis], but this means that he becomes human being, not all human beings [i.e. enhypostasis]. As “true man,” the Son exercises his representative and substitutionary role. However, in the words of Donald Macleod: “the only humanity united to him hypostatically is his own. . . . It was not the human race by the specific, personalized humanity of Christ that suffered under Pontius Pilate.” [The Person of Christ, pp.202-203] The Incarnation unites the Son to human nature, to be sure, but it does not follow that it unites the Son to me (or me to the Son). To say the Son assumed humanity does not necessarily mean that he assumed my humanity, that is, the subsistent, hypostatic relation that is me. To be sure, Jesus’ assuming humanity is a necessary condition for his being the mediator, the Messiah, and the second Adam. However, the question in dispute is whether human beings come to participate in Christ as representative of the new covenant…and head of a new humanity…simply through what Barth calls an “ontological connexion.” [CD, IV/2, p.275).

Once again, we see Vanhoozer attempting to drive a wedge between ontology and soteriology, between humanity as created by Christ and humanity as redeemed in Christ. The ultimate reason for this (as we will see in a subsequent post) is that Vanhoozer fears the lack of such a wedge will lead to universalism, even though this is unequivocally denied by Evangelical Calvinists. So in order to sustain this disjunction, Vanhoozer must distinguish between the humanity/human nature that Christ assumed in the incarnation and the humanity/human nature possessed by all other individual human beings. Thus, Vanhoozer contends, just because Christ assumed human nature and became a human being, this does not mean that he assumed the human nature of every human being such that he in effect becomes hypostatically every human being (which would be absurd). Thus, for Vanhoozer (following Macleod), the only human nature we can properly speak of in relation to Christ is that of Christ himself. Otherwise, Vanhoozer avers, we stretch the anhypostatic component of the incarnation to its breaking point.

Vanhoozer’s critique here is admittedly complex inasmuch as it hinges on the technical distinctions betwee anhypostasis and enhypostasis. Therefore, in order to provide a bit of clarification, I would like to quote (at length) Fred Sanders who helpfully explains the history and meaning of these terms. Not only does Sanders shed light on an otherwise obscure topic, but he also provides some important details that address Vanhoozer’s concerns:

The powerful theology of the fifth ecumenical council [Constantinople II] has suffered from neglect, misunderstanding, and misrepresentation through the history of the church, but especially in Western theology during the modern period. When this theology has been taught at all, it has been taught poorly…There is, however, a shorthand way of describing the heart of this council’s theology; although couched in second_council_of_constantinopletechnical terms not used at the council itself, this description is worth introducing because it is the standard way of referring to the fifth-council theology and because of its real explanatory value. I am referring to the anhypostatic/enhypostatic Christology. This terminology, derived from Leontius, is not utterly opaque in one is already alert to the prevalence and importance of the word hypostasis in patristic Christology so far. If, as the theology of the fifth council argues, the eternal hypostasis of the Son takes to himself a perfect and complete human nature, what is the status of that human nature? Normally, any instantiation of human nature that we come into contact with is also a human person.

Is the human nature of Christ, therefore, also a human person? The Christology we are considering gives a twofold answer. On the one hand, the human nature of Jesus Christ is in fact a nature joined to a person, and therefore enhypostatic, or personalized. But the person who personalizes the human nature of Christ is not a created human person (like all the other persons personalizing the other human natures we encounter); rather it is the eternal second person of the Trinity. So the human nature of Christ is personal, but with a personhood from above. Considered in itself, on the other hand, and abstracted from its personalizing by the eternal person of the Son, the human nature of jesus Christ is simply human nature, and is not personal. The human nature of Christ, therefore, is both anhypostatic (not personal in itself) and enhypostatic (personalized by union with the eternal person of the Son)…

Jesus Christ is human, and Jesus Christ is a person. It is also true that Jesus Christ is a human person, but what the fifth council makes clear is that “a human person” cannot mean “his created human nature is personalized by a created human personhood.” Instead, we can and must think in terms of the human nature of this divine person, the humanity of the hypostasis of the Son. After the powerful two-natures thinking honed at Chalcedon, it would be easy to imagine that the key to Christology is to double everything according to the logic of two perfect natures unconfused, unchanged, undivided, and unseparated. But at the center of the incarnation is the hypostasis of the hypostatic union, and no parallel thinking can apply to the hypostasis. The person involved in the incarnation is not derived by adding above and below, but comes down from above and takes to himself what is below. The parallelism appropriate to two-natures Christology only functions properly within a zone marked out by trinitarian thought. To say it in terms of the development of the last few councils: this one divine person (Ephesus 431) who is fully divine and fully human (Chalcedon 451) is the second person of the Trinity (Constantinople II 553).[5]

Sanders unearths a particular detail, relative to Constantinople II’s clarification of Chalcedonian Christology, that Vanhoozer seems to miss and that leads him to ‘hyperextend’ enhypostasis (in ironic contrast to his objection that Evangelical Calvinism hyperextends anhypostasis). When Vanhoozer argues that the Christ’s assumption of “humanity does not necessarily mean that he assumed my humanity, that is, the subsistent, hypostatic relation that is me“, he equivocates on the meaning of the persons in question. Whereas Vanhoozer thinks that EC confuses natures and persons, it would be more accurate to say that EC distinguishes between the Person of Jesus Christ (as the Creator enfleshed) and the persons (i.e. creatures) with whom he united himself in the incarnation. In other words, Vanhoozer’s critique appears to trade on a symmetrical relationship between the way in which human nature is enhypostatized in Christ and the way in which it is enhypostatized in all other human beings. As Sanders explains, the whole point of Constantinople II’s distinction between anhypostasis and enhypostasis in Christology was to safeguard the truth that the acting Subject of the incarnate Christ is the Word (contra any notion, such as in Nestorianism, that the human Jesus could have existed prior to or apart from the Word). That is to say, whereas all human beings are personalized persons – deriving their nature and personhood from outside themselves – the Word who is the single subject of the incarnation is the personalizing Person – the One who gave existence to this particular man Jesus of Nazareth by the Spirit in the incarnation. Thus, while it is true that both Christ and all other human beings are persons, they are not persons in the same way. The latter, as creatures, are personalized; the former, as Creator, is the Personalizer.

So what does this mean for Vanhoozer’s critique? Simply this: the person of Jesus Christ in the incarnation is utterly unique for which there is no parallel and as such, he cannot be thought of as enhypostatic in the same way that all other human beings are. To be sure, Vanhoozer’s argument who gain traction were it addressing any other human being, for it would certainly be incoherent to speak of a ‘personalized person’ – a contingent creature – as somehow instantiating an ontological bond with all of humanity. Although sharing a nature common to all other human beings, a personalized person cannot be other than or prior to who he/she already is as an enhypostatic individual and thus has no existence independent from that individuality. A personalized person can only receive his/her humanity. This, however, is not the case for the Word through whom all things came into being. The Word, as personalizing Person, did exist prior to and apart from his enhypostatized humanity, for he was already a hypostasis in the Trinitarian being of God – the Word, the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity. Thus, there is something qualitatively different about the way in which the Son became Jesus and the way in which every other human being becomes who they are. Inasmuch as “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14) and not simply “one particular instance of flesh”, he took into irrevocable union with himself not a man (for that would be the heresy of adoptionism) but “man”, the “flesh”, the humanity, that is enhypostatized in all human beings. Karl Barth expresses it thus:

That the Word became flesh means, indeed, that He became a man. But we have to be careful about the sense in which alone this can be said. If we ask what the Word became when in His incarnation, without ceasing to be the Word, He nevertheless
ceased to be only the Word, and if we allow ourselves to say that He became flesh, we must barthiconnote that primarily and of itself “flesh” does not imply a man, but human essence and existence, human kind and nature, humanity, humanitas, that which makes a man man as opposed to God, angel or animal…

“The Word became flesh” means primarily and of itself, then, that the Word became participant in human nature and existence. Human essence and existence became His. Now since this cannot be real except in the concrete reality of one man, it must at once be said that He became a man. But precisely this concrete reality of a man, this man, is itself the work of the Word, not His presupposition. It is not (in the adoptianist sense) as if first of all there had been a man there, and then the Son of God had become that man. What was there over against the Son of God, and as the presupposition of His work, was simply the potentiality of being in the flesh, being as a man. This is the possibility of every man. And here—for the individuality and uniqueness of human existence belong to the concept of human essence and existence—it is the one specific possibility of the first son of Mary. The Word appropriated this possibility to Himself as His own, and He realised it as such when He became Jesus. In so doing He did not cease to be what He was before, but He became what He was not before, a man, this man.[6]

Barth carefully upholds the delicate balance between both aspects of Christ’s humanity – both as man (anhypostasis) and as a man (enhypostasis). To simple say that Christ became “a human” would be tantamount to adoptionism, and it is Barth’s insistence that Christ became “a human” by assuming that which makes all human beings “human” (and thus united himself to all human beings) that preserves his account from serious Christological erro. It seems to me that contrary to this, Vanhoozer so emphasizes Christ’s being a human being (enhypostasis) that he fails to grasp the implications of Christ’s being human (anhypostasis) and thus ontologically related to all who are likewise human. This, I would contend, is what the Chalcedonian Definition intended when it appropriated the Nicene homoousion – originally used to describe the consubstantial and thus irreducibly ontological relation of the Son to the Father – and applied it to the Son’s relation to humanity in the incarnation: “co-essential [homoousion] with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same co-essential [homoousion] with us according to the Manhood” (retrieved here). The Chalcedonian fathers certainly knew what they were doing when they wrote this. If the homoousion means that Christ is ontologically (rather than merely morally or covenantly) united with the Father, what could it mean for Christ to be homoousion with humanity except that he is likewise ontologically (rather than merely morally or covenantly) united with all human beings who share the same human nature?

Thus, in response to the three aforementioned critical points raised by Vanhoozer, I would argue:

  1. As to the idea that the Son assumes humanity, Evangelical Calvinism does not elide the distinction between nature and persons; rather it properly distinguishes between the way natures are related to persons in Christ vs. in all other human beings and, in doing so, coherently affirms that when Christ assumed human nature in the incarnation, he united himself to all human beings as their ontological and soteriological ground.
  2. As to the doctrine of election, Evangelical Calvinism does not mistakenly associate it with the “carnal” union of natures rather than spiritual union of persons; rather it affirms that the Word’s Spirit-wrought personalizing of human nature in Jesus Christ involves both “carnal” and “spiritual” aspects of union and that it reveals, rather than obscures, the saving intention of God from all eternity with regard to all people.
  3. As to the crucial concept of “being in Christ”, Evangelical Calvinism does not ontologize what for Paul is ultimately a personal union wrought by the Holy Spirit, for it is Paul himself who, while clearly emphasizing the personal, “spiritual” aspect of union with Christ, ontologizes this union when, for example, he portrays, in Rom. 5:12-21, Christ as the last Adam of whom the first was merely a “type” (implying that the scope of Christ’s work is equal to the impact of Adam’s sin) or when he declares, in 2 Cor. 5:14-16, that he can no longer regard any human being “according to flesh” on account of the fact that Christ died for all and thus all died in him. Indeed, how could Paul consider the reality of all human beings to have so decisively changed such that he could no longer think of anyone merely as they are “according to the flesh” if all had not been included in the scope of Christ’s death?

In conclusion, I would say that Vanhoozer wants to sunder that which Evangelical Calvinism believes that God has joined together – Christ and humanity, ontology and soteriology, carnal union and spiritual union. No doubt this raises, as it does for Vanhoozer, the question has to whether Evangelical Calvinism logically ends in universalism or, if not, incoherency. This, however, is a question for another post.


[1] Vanhoozer, K.J., 2014.’The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism)’ in Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians and New Testament Scholars. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

[2] Ibid., p.198.

[3] Ibid., pp.198-200.

[4] Ibid., pp.195-198.

[5] Sanders, F., 2007. ‘Introduction to Christology: Chalcedonian Categories for the Gospel Narrative’ in Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective: An Introductory Christology. Nashville: B&H Publishing, pp.30-32.

[6] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics I/2: The doctrine of the Word of God, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.149.

This entry was posted in Anthropology, Biblical interpretation, Bobby Grow, Christology, Classic Calvinism, Creeds, Doctrine of God, Election, Evangelical Calvinism, Heresy/Heterodoxy, Holy Spirit, Homoousion, John Calvin, Karl Barth, Kevin Vanhoozer, Orthodoxy, Patristic theology, Predestination, Reformed theology, Scripture, Soteriology, T.F. Torrance, Trinity, Union with Christ, Universalism, Vicarious humanity of Christ. Bookmark the permalink.