Belgic Confession Article 19: The Two Natures in the One Person of Christ
We believe that by this conception the person of the Son of God is inseparably united and joined with the human nature, so that there are not two sons of God, nor two persons, but two natures united in one single person. Each nature retains its own distinct properties: His divine nature has always remained uncreated, without beginning of days or end of life (Hebrews 7:3), filling heaven and earth. His human nature has not lost its properties; it has beginning of days and remains created. It is finite and retains all the properties of a true body. Even though, by His resurrection, He has given immortality to His human nature, He has not changed its reality, since our salvation and resurrection also depend on the reality of His body.
However, these two natures are so closely united in one person that they were not even separated by His death. Therefore, what He, when dying, committed into the hands of His Father was a real human spirit that departed from His body. Meanwhile His divinity always remained united with His human nature, even when He was lying in the grave. And the divine nature always remained in Him just as it was in Him when He was a little child, even though it did not manifest itself as such for a little while.
For this reason we profess Him to be true God and true man: true God in order to conquer death by His power; and true man that He might die for us according to the infirmity of His flesh.
Guido DeBrès wrote the Belgic Confession in a time of intense persecution. DeBrès was repeatedly forced to flee for his life, was compelled to labor 'underground', was never sure of his safety or his life. The same was true for the believers amongst whom he labored. Yet, when DeBrès wrote his Confession, he included also an article concerning the divine and human natures of Christ. One may well wonder why DeBrès would do so. Was the issue of Christ‘s two natures truly relevant to the tensions DeBrès experienced in his day? Is the topic of the two natures of Christ not strictly academic and foreign to the daily struggles of the believer?
It was DeBrès‘ responsibility, as a minister of God, to instruct his congregation in the truths God revealed in Holy Scripture. This revelation of God included Christ‘s incarnation, the doctrine that God the Son became man, was born as a baby in Bethlehem. That Christ became man was not denied or disputed in DeBrès‘ day. What was disputed, though, was the relationship, the interaction between the divine and human natures of Christ. How was Jesus true God and true man at the same time? It was this that DeBrès sought to explain and defend in Article 19. It was his conviction that the truth of God‘s Word had to be laid before the people, and be rightly confessed – even though the subject might, at first reading, appear so theoretical and difficult.
Scripture concerning the two natures of Christ
1. Jesus is True God
The Scriptural need to believe that our Lord Jesus Christ was true God while He lived on earth has already been set forth in our discussion of Article 10. This evidence need not be repeated here.
2. Jesus is True Man
In the course of history, the reality of Christ‘s human nature has never been seriously challenged. That Jesus of Nazareth was truly human was as obvious and as logical as our humanity. Bible readers also understood that the Scripture clearly taught Jesus‘ humanity.
He was born in Bethlehem of a human mother, born as any other child is born. He grew up in a specific town (Nazareth), as others grow up in specific locations. As other children, He grew in wisdom and in stature (Luke 2:52).
As an adult, Jesus knew from experience what exhaustion was (Mark 4:38), what hunger was (Matthew 4:2), and what thirst was (John 4:7). He could be happy, and could also be angry and grieved (Mark 3:5) and even cry (John 11:35). Those who lived with Jesus and knew Him did not doubt His humanity for a moment. ''When He had come to His own country, He taught them in their synagogues, so that they were astonished and said, „Where did this Man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is this not the carpenter's son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us?‘'' (Matthew 13:54-56). Jesus‘ humanity was beyond dispute.
Attempts to explain the two natures of Christ
After the adoption of the Nicene Creed in the fourth century, much discussion arose in the church concerning how Jesus was both God and man at the same time.
Eutyches (c. 378-454) stressed the one nature of Christ, arguing that the combination of Godhead and manhood in Jesus Christ formed something new. His position may be compared to the result one gets when you mix cold water with hot; the result is neither cold nor hot but somewhere in between. In Jesus, he said, the divine and human natures were combined in such a way that the human nature took on characteristics of the divine nature, and the divine nature took on the characteristics of the human. Jesus, then, was neither true God as God is true God, nor was He true man as man is true man. Rather, Jesus was a 'mixture; of God + man = 'Godman'.
Over against Eutyches, Nestorius (who became bishop of Constantinople in 428) taught the division of Christ‘s two natures. According to Nestorius, the person of Jesus was (as it were) made up of two distinct persons, the one being human and the other divine. His position may be compared to having oil and water in one container. Just as oil and water do not mix, the oil floating on the water remaining distinctly oil and the water underneath the oil remaining distinctly water, so, he said, God and man do not mix. The Son of God, said Nestorius, came to live in the man Jesus as in a temple. So Jesus was made up of two separate persons: God and man.
After a period of much struggle and confusion, the church refuted these two positions at the Council of Chalcedon (451). This Council formulated a new creed that strengthened the contents of the Nicene Creed, stressing that Jesus Christ, one Person, was both true God and true man: unmixed, unchanged, undivided, inseparable. The Athanasian Creed reflects this progress in understanding God‘s revelation on the point correctly: ''He is God from the Father's substance, begotten before time; and He is man from His mother's substance, born in time. Perfect God, perfect man composed of a human soul and human flesh, equal to the Father in respect of His divinity, less than the Father in respect of His humanity. Who, although He is God and man, is nevertheless not two, but one Christ. He is one, however, not by the transformation of His divinity into flesh, but by taking up of His humanity into God; one certainly not by confusion of substance, but one by oneness of person'' (see Articles 30-35). Notice: the Creed does not attempt to rationalize how Christ is both God and man in one Person. This is as beyond our comprehension as the structure of the Trinity is beyond our comprehension.
3. Martin Luther
During the Great Reformation in the 16th century, Martin Luther picked up on Eutyches‘ teaching. Luther taught that Jesus‘ divine nature permeated His human nature, so that the characteristics of His divine nature extended also to His human nature. It is characteristic of divinity to be everywhere present. So, Luther said, Jesus‘ human nature has taken onboard this divine characteristic of omnipresence. So Jesus‘ body is everywhere present.
This understanding on Luther‘s part had repercussions for his teaching concerning the bread of the Lord‘s Supper. If Jesus‘ human nature is omnipresent, then Jesus is also bodily present in the bread. Luther referred to Luke 22:19, where we read that Jesus, at His institution of the Lord‘s Supper, said to His disciples concerning the bread: ''... This is my body...'' DeBrès‘ community of Doornik knew of this teaching of Luther.
How we receive the bread of the Lord‘s Supper depends on how we view the relationship between the two natures of Christ. Hence DeBrès saw it as his duty to explain to his congregation what God had revealed concerning this. Said DeBrès, ''We believe that by this conception the person of the Son of God is inseparably united and joined with the human nature, so that there are not two sons of God, nor two persons, but two natures united in one single person. Each nature retains its own distinct properties.... However, these two natures are so closely united in one person that they were not even separated by His death.'' No, DeBrès does not explain for us how the one Person of Christ has two natures simultaneously. Yet he clearly implied the error of Luther‘s teaching in stating, ''Each nature retains its own distinct properties.''
Scripture tells us that Jesus is true God and true man. How Jesus is at once true God and true man we cannot understand. Here again we are confronted with the limitations of the human mind, and so are called to humbly acknowledge that our God is much beyond our comprehension. That is no problem for the child of God, and gives reason to trust this God the more and praise Him for who He is.
The two natures of Christ crucial for man's salvation
DeBrès concludes this article with a statement as to the importance of confessing the two natures of Christ. ''For this reason we profess Him to be true God and true man: true God in order to conquer death by His power; and true man that He might die for us according to the infirmity of His flesh.'' Well does the church confess in Lord‘s Day 6 of the Heidelberg Catechism that one undermines salvation itself when one denies either Christ‘s Godhead or His manhood, or when one maintains that He is half God and half man ('Godman'). The justice of God requires that the same human nature that sinned in Paradise must pay for sin, and so any possible Savior must be a true man. At the same time, since God‘s wrath against sin is greater than any human can bear, a possible Savior must also to be true God. That the Lord God would, then, provide a Mediator able to stand in the breach between us and God is such a marvel of His grace! Had Christ not possessed the two natures of divinity and humanity in His one person, I would be without salvation.
Was it necessary for DeBrès, in a time of persecution and unrest, to defend the doctrine of the two natures in the one person of Christ? Given what was at stake, it certainly was necessary – despite the circumstances. It remains necessary today, too, to stay close to everything that God has revealed in His Word, His Gospel of salvation for sinners.
Points for Discussion:
- Explain why DeBrès considered it necessary, in the midst of his persecution and daily struggles, to confess the two natures of Christ. Are there not more important issues than this? How strongly must one today insist on getting all doctrine just right?
- Explain how Jesus is both God and man at the same time.