The Communicatio Idiomatum (Hooker’s Christology, Pt. 2)

I’m afraid I’ve been sadly delayed from getting to this second installment, but here at last it is.  Having looked at Hooker’s rather Alexandrian treatment of the unity of Christ’s person in the first post, I will now look at his treatment of the distinction of natures, in which he articulates a clearly Reformed understanding of the communicatio idiomatum over against the Lutherans.  This appears in V.53, “That by the union of the one with the other nature in Chirst there groweth neither gaine nor losse of essentiall properties to either.”  

He begins with a resolutely Chalcedonian summary statement: the conjunction of natures involves “no abolishment of naturall properties apperteininge to either substance, no transition or transmigration thereof out of one substance into an other, finallie no such mutuall infusion as reallie causeth the same naturall operations or properties to be made common unto both substances, but whatsoever is naturall to deitie the same remayneth in Christ uncommunicated unto his manhood” (V.53.1).

We may merge the two in speech, while recognizing that they remain thoroughly distinct in reality: “To Christ we ascribe both workinge of wonders and suffringe of paines, wee use concerninge him speeches as well of humilitie as of divine glorie.  But the one wee applie unto that nature which he tooke of the Virgine Marie, the other to that which was in the beginning” (V.53.1)  Otherwise we risk eclipsing the humanity of Christ, which being the weaker nature, would be “swallowed up as in a gulfe” if it were merged with the divine nature–this was the error of Eutyches.  Against this, Hooker cites testimony from Sts. Hilary, Cyril, and Leo.  

Inasmuch as the two natures remain distinct and unimpaired in themselves, they serve as the causes of distinct operations–some things Christ works by power of his divinity, others by power of his humanity, others by both concurrently: “Wherefore some thinges he doth as God, because his deitie alone is the wellspringe from which they flowe; some thinges as man, because they issue from his meere humane nature; some thinges jointlie as both God and man, because both natures concurre as principles thereunto” (V.53.3).  Hooker thus proposes as a rule for deciding all doubts “that of both natures there is a cooperation often, an association alwayes, but never any mutuall participation whereby the properties of the one are infused into the other” (V.53.3).

This, he says, is the proper foundation for the Damascene doctrine of the communication of attributes.  The constant association of the natures in one subject justifies our attribution of the works of God to man and the works of man to God.

“A kinde of mutuall commutation there is whereby those concrete names God and Man when wee speake of Christ doe take interchangablie one another’s roome, so that for truth of speech it skilleth [matters] not whether wee saie that the Sonne of God hath created the world and the Sonne of man by his death hath saved it, or els that the Sonne of man did create and the Sonne of God die to save the world.  Howbeit as oft as we attribute to God what the manhood of Christ claymeth, or to man what his deitie hath right unto, we understand by the name of God and the name of man neither the one nor the other nature, but the whole person of Christ in whome both natures are” (V.53.4).

The legitimacy of such forms of speech, he says, is what justifies statements such as the Apostle saying that the Jews “crucified the Lord of glorie” in which “there is attributed to God or the Lord of glorie death whereof divine nature is not capable”; or statements that the Son of Man is in heaven at the same time he is on earth.  “Therefore by the Lord of glorie wee must needes understand the whole person of Christ, who beinge Lord of Glorie was indeed crucified, but not in that nature for which he is termed the Lord of glorie.  In like manner by the Sonne of man the whole person of Christ must necessarelie be meant, who beinge man upon earth filled heaven with his glorious presence, but not accordinge to that nature for which the title of man is given him” (V.53.4). 

I am not sure that at this point Hooker is being altogether consistent with his approach in the previous chapter.  For here, it has sounded as if the relationship of the two natures to the “whole person of Christ” is symmetrical–the person in itself is something of a logical abstraction, neither divine or human in itself, but both by its possession of each nature.  But in the previous chapter, the relationship between the divine and human in the one person was clearly asymmetric–it was a divine person, possessing a divine nature, who took to himself another nature, a human nature, so that it too might become proper to him:    “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.”   Christ is not both divine and human in the same senseone he is personally, and the other, we might say, appropriately–that is, by appropriation.  

To make a statement about “the Lord of glorie,” it would seem, is to make a statement about the person of the Son, not about the divine nature in abstraction.  And therefore there is no need to resort to the notion of the communicatio idiomatum in order to explain how we could attribute death to the Son of God.  Natures don’t die, persons do, and so there is no need to make some kind of conceptual stretch in order to say “they crucified the Lord of glorie”–this, it would seem, is true without equivocation.  At least, that’s what Hooker seemed to think in the previous chapter, when he said: “Whereupon it followeth against Nestorius 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.”  It does make sense, on the other hand, to invoke the notion of the communicatio idiomatum to explain a statement about the ubiquity of the Son of man–because there is no human hypostasis corresponding to the human nature that possesses divine attributes (as such a statement would seem to imply); there is a divine hypostasis that possesses human attributes.  So here, the doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum is necessary to explain why such statements are justified, and in what sense they are rightly understood.  

There is thus somewhat of a tension between this characteristically Reformed way of using the communicatio idiomatum as applying symmetrically to both natures which associate or concur in a person, understood somewhat abstractly, and the Alexandrian approach of the previous chapter, where the divine person was understood asymmetrically to act through and be acted upon in the human nature which he assumed.  


However, Hooker does not linger at this point of tension for long.  Immediately in the next chapter, he goes on to articulate an asymmetry in the relationship between the two natures, in which the human does not remain untouched by the divine the way the divine remains untouched by the human, and seems to heavily qualify his statement in this chapter that there is “never any mutuall participation whereby the properties of the one are infused into the other.”  This discussion, which occupies ch. 54, paves the way for him to build something of a bridge toward the Lutheran understanding of ubiquity, but without leaving authentically Reformed ground or conceding to the Lutherans on the crucial points.   

I had said before that this series would consist of three posts, but it will take two more to cover the remainder of Hooker’s argument, so consider this Part 2 of 4.

4 thoughts on “The Communicatio Idiomatum (Hooker’s Christology, Pt. 2)

  1. Darren

    Very interesting stuff, Brad — thanks for the this. Hooker does seem to be thoroughly Reformed in his view of the communicatio idiomatum and what it does (and does not) do for dogmatics. I've done a good bit of reading here, from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries, and your analysis looks to be spot-on.You've also identified what I think is a keenly important tension in Reformed Christology — namely, the tension between its identification of the subject of the Incarnation (or the location of 'personhood') as the eternal Son or Word, and the desire to hold the two natures in the sort of symmetry that would seem most faithful to Chalcedon (i.e. – He is no less human by virtue of the fact that His human nature is assumed or appropriated). I think this is an important tension to keep in mind when we examine historical Christology(-ies).


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks Darren. Wonderful to have confirmation that my analysis is on the right track…as it was, most of the background that I know is either from McCormack lectures or from a few other bits of scattered reading, so I felt like this was a bit of a stab in the dark.I'll be interested to hear from you as to whether you think Hooker is still being thoroughly Reformed in chapters 53 and 54, as he makes some limited Lutheranizing moves. Should get those two posts up next week.


  3. I'll have to dig up my Hooker, but I am not convinced.It would be helpful to give a more precise gloss on what the communicatio idiomatum was for Chalcedonian and post Chalcedonian theology from 451 to say the end of 2nd Constantinople.


  4. Brad Littlejohn

    What are you not convinced about, Perry?And yes, I would certainly welcome anyone who could give a "more precise gloss" on that–but the only book I've read that *might* have touched on this subject was 2 1/2 years ago, so I couldn't begin to spell that out, I'm afraid.


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