“No person but the Sonne of God” (Richard Hooker’s Christology, Pt. 1)

As something of a transition (albeit a bit belated) between filling much of my blogspace with reflections on McCormack’s Christology and filling much of it with reflections on Richard Hooker (as I shall be wont to do for the next couple years, most likely), I thought it might be good to write up a few posts on Richard Hooker’s Christology, which although quite rich and thoughtfully developed, is rarely if ever mentioned in surveys of Protestant Christology (at least, I have never heard it mentioned).  This is a sad oversight, for though certainly not startlingly original, Hooker articulates a Reformed Christology that is deeply rooted in, and consciously harmonized with, Patristic orthodoxy, and that goes a fair way toward bridging the deep rift that had opened up between Reformed and Lutheran Christologies by the end of the sixteenth-century.  At any rate, that is how I read it, though I invite those more expert in Christology and historical theology to correct or nuance this judgment.

Hooker’s Christology is also well-worth attending to for my own purposes, since Torrance Kirby argues in his recent monograph Richard Hooker’s Doctrine of the Royal Supremacy that it is integral to his political theology, in particular his account of the relationship of the two kingdoms, and of Church and State.  Indeed, Kirby claims that Hooker constructed his doctrine this way in direct response to Cartwright’s appeal to Christology to undergird the Puritan political ecclesiology, arguing that Cartwright’s Christ was heterodox.  If so, this is very intriguing indeed, since none other than our old friend VanDrunen has summoned forth Christology as an integral foundation for his version of the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine, and to my mind has fallen into heterodoxy in the process.  My hunch is that Cartwright’s correlation of Christology and political theology will have the same structure as VanDrunen’s, and Hooker’s response will be equally telling against both, thus providing another means of tying in Hooker’s political thought with modern debates.  

 

Hooker’s Christology proper spans twenty-five densely-packed pages in the middle of Book V of the Lawes, comprising chapters 51-55.  Although the immediate question before Hooker at this point in Book V is the efficacy of the sacraments, he opts, as usual, to build this more particular discussion on as general and systematic a foundation as possible, and that means explaining who Christ is and how we can have communion with him in his divine and human natures.  And if Kirby is correct, Hooker penned this discussion also with an eye toward his account of church and state and the royal supremacy in Book VIII, which would draw on the Chalcedonian language of two natures in personal union.  Although spanning five chapters, Hooker’s discussion can be divided into three movements: first, a thoroughly orthodox and Alexandrian statement of the received Chalcedonian doctrine, emphasizing the personal identity of Christ with the eternal Logos; second, a typically Reformed statement of the communicatio idiomatum, emphasizing the separation between the two natures; third, a series of qualifications to the doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum, constituting as it were concessions to the Lutheran understanding of the divinization of the human nature and its resultant ubiquity, yet without abandoning firm Reformed ground.  I shall allot one post to each of these movements.

 

First, then, Hooker undertakes to establish in ch. 51 “That God is in Christ by the personall incaranation of the Sonne who is verie God.”  He begins by making a traditional Trinitarian distinction of the three persons and the one nature, and uses this distinction to show that the second person, the Word, becomes incarnate, but the other two persons do not.  However, while being careful to deny the incarnation of the other two persons, we must not deny the incarnation of the divine nature: “Notwithstandinge for as much as the worde and deitie are one subject, wee must beware wee exclude not the nature of God from incarnation and so make the Sonne of God incarnate not to be verie God.  For undoubtedly even the nature of God it selfe in the only person of the Sonne is incarnate and hath taken to itself flesh.”  We must not imagine any kind of gap between the person of the Word and his nature.  “Wherefore incarnation may neither be graunted to any person but only one, nor yeat denied to that nature which is common unto all three”–so the orthodox doctrine requires, but Hooker confesses this “an incomprehensible mysterie” (51.2)  

Why should this incarnation happen?  Because “it seemeth a thinge unconsonant that the world should honor any other as the Savior but him whome it honoreth as the creator of the world, and in the wisdom of God it hath not bene thought convenient to admitt anie way of savinge man but by man him selfe.”  Using language reminiscent of Athanasius, then, Hooker says “It became therefore him by whome all thinges are, to be the waie of salvation to all, that the institution and restitution of the world might be both wrought by one hand.”  Moreover, inasmuch as God willed that the world could only be saved by the death of his Son, “Christ tooke manhood that by it he might be capable of death whereunto hee humbled him selfe” (51.3)

He moves on then in ch. 52 to define the hypostatic union.  He begins with due humility, warning that “It is not in mans habilitie either to expresse perfectlie or conceyve the maner how this was brought to passe….Howbeit because this divine mysterie is more true than plaine, divers havinge framed the same to theire owne conceiptes and phancies are found in theire expositions thereof more plain than true” (52.1).  In other words, orthodoxy and logical clarity are likely to be inversely proportional in this matter; heresies have erred more often than not by trying to make the matter perfectly clear, thus undermining the delicately-balanced tension of the orthodox paradox.

He then runs through a quick and dizzying catalogue of the heresies that arose on this point between Nicaea and Chalcedon, culminating with Nestorius, in response to most of the rest of this chapter is arranged.  By Nestorius’s time all had come to agreement that Christ was both truly God and truly man, “But that the selfe same person which verelie is man should properlie be God also, and that, by reason not of two persons linked in amitie but of two natures humaine and divine conjoyned in one and the same person, the God of glorie may be said as well to have suffered death, as to have raised the the dead from theire graves, the Sonne of man as well to have made as to have redeemed the world, Nestorius in no case would admitt” (52.2).

His error here, says Hooker, steemed from inattention to John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and dwelt in us”; the plural number signifies that Christ became incarnate in the manhood common to us all, not in one particular man.  This distinction is absolutely essential, as Hooker expounds so well that it is worth quoting him at length:

“If the Sonne of God had taken to him selfe a man now made and already perfected, it would of necessitie follow that there are in Christ two persons, the one assuminge and the other assumed, whereas the Sonne of God did not assume a mans person unto his own, but a mans nature to his owne person, and therefore tooke semen the seed of Abraham, the verie first originall element of our nature before it was come to have anie personall humaine subsistence.”  

This means that there was never anything human preexisting the union of the Word with the human: “The flesh and the conjunction of the flesh with God began both at one instant, his makinge and takinge to him selfe our flesh was but one act.  So that in Christ there is no personall subsistence but one, and that from everlastinge.”

The person of Christ is completely identical with the eternal person of the Godhead: “By taking only the nature of man he still continueth one person, and changeth but the maner of his subsisting, which was before in the meere glorie of the Sonne of God, and is now in the habit also of our flesh.”  This personal unity must be so unqualified that we can speak comfortably of the human history of Christ as God’s history; indeed, we must do so, because it is the history of a person, not of a nature: “For as much therefore as Christ hath no personal subsistence but one whereby wee acknowledge him to have bene eternallie the Sonne of God, wee must of necessitie applie to the person of the Sonne of God even that which is spoken of Christ accordinge to his humane nature.  For example, accordinge to the flesh he was borne of the Virgin Marie, baptised of John in the river Jordan, by Pilate adjudged to die and executed by the Jewes.  Wee cannot saie properlie that the Virgin bore, or John did baptise, or Pilate condemn or the Jewes crucifie the nature of man, because these are all personall attributes, his person is the subject which receaveth them, his nature that which maketh his person capable or apt to receive.”

To say otherwise (e.g., to deny “Theotokos”) is simply Nestorianism: “If wee should saie that the person of a man in our savior Christ was the subject of these thinges, this were plainelie to intrap our selves in the verie snare of the Nestorians heresie between whome and the Church of God there was no difference savinge onlie that Nestorius imagined in Christ as well a personall humane subsistence as a divine, the Church acknowleging a substance both divine and human but no other personall subsistence then divine, because the Sonne of God tooke not to him sele a mans person but only the nature of a man.”  

In sum, then, we must affirm that “Christ is a person both divine and humaine, howbeit not therefore two persons in one, neither both these in one sense, but a person divine because he is personallie the Sonne of God, humane because he hath reallie the nature of the children of men.”

“Whereupon it followeth against Nestorius,” Hooker emphatically and unapologetically asserts, “that no person was born of the virgin but the Sonne of God, no person but the Sonne of God baptised, the sonne of God condemned, the sonne of God and no other person crucified, which one onlie point of Christian beliefe–the infinite worth of the Sonne of God–is the verie ground of all thinges beleived concerninge life and salvation by that which Christ either did or suffered as man in our behalfe” (52.3)

Here we can see, as starkly and clearly as possible, how forcefully the orthodox tradition asserted that God really did suffer and die; I am still not convinced by McCormack’s arguments that this confession was weak, half-hearted, and hedged in with qualifications that deprived it of real force–merely a linguistic and not a real confession.  No, it is emphatic and uncompromising. 

 

Hooker concludes this chapter by finishing the story up through Chalcedon–Cyril’s forceful confession against Nestorius is misinterpreted by some (due to some imprecise language on Cyril’s part) as a confession of only one mixed nature in Christ (Eutychianism) which Chalcedon undertook to deny.  “For as Nestorius teaching righlie that God and man are distinct natures did thereupon misinferre that in Christ those natures can by no conjunction make one person; so Eutyches of sound beliefe as touching theire true personall copulation became unsound by denyinge the difference which still continueth between the one and the other nature.  Wee must therefore keepe warilie a middle corse shunninge both that distraction of persons wherein Nestorius went awrie, and also this later confusion of natures which deceived Eutyches” (52.4).

Finally, we must confess this union to be perpetual, so that it applied even when Christ was dead in the grave.  Even at this point, the person of the Son remained inseparably joined to his human body and soul, existing with them in a state of death.

 

Up to this point, we have a doctrine that is robustly Alexandrian, willing to affirm much more than most modern Reformed are regarding the fullness of the union.  In fact, we may wonder whether Hooker is going to be Reformed at all with this kind of emphasis.  In the following chapter, which I will explore next week, he undertakes to balance out this discussion with an explanation of the complete distinction of the two natures.


2 thoughts on ““No person but the Sonne of God” (Richard Hooker’s Christology, Pt. 1)

  1. Albert

    I am impressed with Hooker's grasp of Christology.

    Why should this incarnation happen? Because “it seemeth a thinge unconsonant that the world should honor any other as the Savior but him whome it honoreth as the creator of the world, and in the wisdom of God it hath not bene thought convenient to admitt anie way of savinge man but by man him selfe.” Using language reminiscent of Athanasius, then, Hooker says “It became therefore him by whome all thinges are, to be the waie of salvation to all, that the institution and restitution of the world might be both wrought by one hand.”

    This seems a good response to the question McCormack asked as to why salvation could not come through a Spirit-filled man but came through an incarnate God.

    “The flesh and the conjunction of the flesh with God began both at one instant, his makinge and takinge to him selfe our flesh was but one act. So that in Christ there is no personall subsistence but one, and that from everlastinge.

    That point has been key for my own search for understanding.

    Wee cannot saie properlie that the Virgin bore, or John did baptise, or Pilate condemn or the Jewes crucifie the nature of man, because these are all personall attributes, his person is the subject which receaveth them, his nature that which maketh his person capable or apt to receive.

    This also has been key.

    Like

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