Ecumenism: Concerning the Natures of Christ

by Gjergji Evangjeli

 

In 1999, the late Coptic Pope, H. H. Shenouda III, wrote “The Nature of Christ,” a work through which he hoped “to settle this question by attempting to rewrite a satisfactory wording of our faith, which would be acceptable to all.” There is much that all Copts, Orthodox, and Catholics would have to agree with while reading it. Nonetheless, the principal question of the article is to see whether it is possible to maintain that Christ, the Incarnate Logos, had only one Nature, which has been the Coptic Church’s position and the reason for its separation from both the (Eastern) Orthodox Church as well as the Roman Catholic Church. “On the Nature of Christ” is a clear and precise formulation that shows that there is now more possibility than there has ever been for the Coptic Church to join with the Chalcedonian Churches. More than that, it shows that the Coptic Church has given a great push toward the purpose of reunification, a push that needs to be examined and answered by both the Christian East and the Christian West. I do not claim to be a theologian for any purpose, but I believe that a new and more philosophically inclined look into this article will show that there is little more than misunderstanding over definitions in the separation between the non-Chalcedonian and Chalcedonian Churches and, at the same time, that the loose definition of ‘Nature’ on the part of non-Chalcedonian Churches can be harmoniously substituted without causing harm to either side’s theology.

As such, there is no problem with the theology in the article. In fact, there are no fewer than ten headings in “The Nature of Christ,” but there is little to talk about once one passes the first three in terms of a disjunction between the two churches. The real problem only rests in carefully and properly defining what we mean by the word ‘Nature’ and fleshing out whether a more rigid definition of this word would affect the theology in the remaining seven headings. My opinion is that a better-defined understanding of that word would solve this ancient conflict.

 

One can see the loose definition of the term ‘nature’ by the following quotation from the article, “… human nature…comprises two united natures: the soul and the body.” The composite view of nature presented here would lead to problems of logical consistency. In addition, when the theological principles relevant to this matter are being laid out later on, H. H. Shenouda says, “It is One Nature (one entity) but has all the properties of two natures.” It seems, therefore, that the misunderstanding is in terms of what the Church means by ‘person’ and what She means by ‘nature.’ There would be no Orthodox or Catholic believer who would ever argue against, “It is the one Person of Christ who has all the properties of the two natures.” The singular personhood of Christ is defined in terms of metaphysical existence, i.e. there is only one living Christ; the (singular) person of Christ possesses both the Divine Nature in its fullness as well as the human Nature in its fullness. ‘Nature,’ however, is not defined in terms of metaphysical existence, but as a conceptual abstraction. Therefore, Christ possesses the fullness of what we mean when we say ‘God’, i.e. He is fully Divine. At the same time, He possesses the fullness of what we mean when we say ‘human’, i.e. He is fully human.

 

This more rigid definition of ‘nature’ solves the dilemma that H. H. Shenouda mentions in the first quotation. If what we mean by ‘human nature’ is simply the abstraction of what it means to be human, i.e. possessing of both body and soul, then there is no reason to say that human nature in itself is comprised of two natures. On the other hand, saying that Christ has two Natures does not imply a division between the two, because the two Natures are harmoniously united in the person of Christ, which is singular. By inputting this distinction between ‘nature’ and ‘person,’ one does not harm or cause any change the theological dogma about Christ. I hope that a discussion based on these terms would serve as the jumping of the last hurdle toward reconciliation between the non-Chalcedonian and Chalcedonian Churches.

 


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