Richard Cross on the Ubiquity of Christ’s Human Nature

March 14th, 2018 by

When thinking about theological anthropology, myriad questions arise. What sort of things are humans? What is a human’s relation to its creator? What is a human’s relation to another human? Do humans have a vocation? If so, what is it? Did God make a human being one substance? Two substances? Three substances?

What about this question: can a human body be located everywhere? Can a human body be omnipresent? To this question, Dr. Richard Cross, the John A. O’Brian Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, came to Fuller to shed some light, particularly by way of a close reading of the Reformation and post-Reformation Christological/Eucharistic debates that cropped up between Luther, Zwingli, and others.

Now, one immediate response to the question is “no, of course not; bodies aren’t the sorts of things that can be omnipresent.” One reason for this immediate response might be this: omnipresence is a divine property; it’s a maximal property predicable only to that which is a maximal sort of thing (i.e., God). Bodies aren’t maximal sorts of things; bodies, by virtue of the nature of having the property “being a body” are limited; so, no body (no body ≠ nobody) can be omnipresent. Indeed, my own response to such a concept is one of incredulity. Why on earth should anyone entertain that a body possibly could be omnipresent?

Enter Martin Luther. On Cross’s reading, Luther has an important Christological worry that motivates his argument for bodily omnipresence. Luther, it seems, thinks that ascribing various properties to one of Christ’s natures and not to the other entails Nestorianism. Here’s Cross’s rendering of this Lutheran argument:

 

  1. If the divinity exists where the humanity does not, the person is divided.

  2. If the natures are spatially divided, the person is divided.
  3. The person is not divided.

      C1. It is not the case that the natures are spatially divided. ([2] and [3] MT)

      C2. It is not the case that the divinity exists where the humanity does not ([1] and [3] MT)

  1. The divinity is everywhere

     C3. The humanity is everywhere ([4] and [C2])

From this line of reasoning, says Cross, Lutherans believe that Luther advances a “new dogma” concerning Christ’s humanity. The new dogma is that Christ’s human nature has the property of “being omnipresent” or “being ubiquitous.”

To this “new dogma,” Cross provides two responses. The first is an analysis of the argument. Cross suggests that the critical premises are (1) and (2), premises (says Cross) that rest on a particular metaphysical assumption: two-way spatial inseparability. Here’s one way to think of two-way spatial inseparability:

 

LDH: If the divine nature is present at a location, L, at a time T, then the human nature is present at location, L, at time T.

LHD: If the human nature is present at a location, L, at a time T, then the divine nature is present at location, L, at time T.

So, LDH ⇔ LHD

 

This principle, argues Cross (following Vermigli), is unmotivated. For, so goes the argument, if one tries to plug in other sorts of objects to this metaphysical principle, it generates obviously false conditionals. Vermigli’s example is of a tree: the unity of a tree is not risked merely because its parts are in different places. The root is not everywhere the tree is, nor is its trunk (and so on).

The second response Cross provides to the idea that Luther has presented a “new dogma” is this: what Luther provides isn’t new at all. Indeed, his ascribing bodily omnipresence to Christ is just to trade on a stock medieval metaphysical distinction concerning bodily location: Christ’s body occupies a place repletively, which is a mode of existence proper to some bodies (say the medievals) such that a body “is simultaneously present in all places whole and entire, and fills all places, yet without being measured or circumscribed by any place, in terms of the space which it occupies.”[1] Repletive location might also be termed as “holenmerism.” Repletive location is a mode of bodies in contradistinction to “circumscribed” (i.e., normal) location and “definitive” location (the sort of location the medievals used to allow for the whole of Christ’s body to be located in every bite of bread of the eucharist; for, in this “definitive” mode, the body and its place don’t correspond one-to-one). The finer points of detail about these positions needn’t detain us for present purposes (that is: it’ll take us too far afield for this short post to follow up on whether or not such modes of bodily existence are coherent). What is important, though, is that Cross contends that Luther’s ascription of repletive existence to Christ’s body isn’t introducing anything new at all. Thinking that it is new is a failure of those Lutheran exegetes fully to be educated in medieval metaphysics (at least, so says Cross).

There’s one last, and central, bit to report on Cross’s talk. That’s this: he claims that it is a mistake to suggest that Luther thinks that Christ’s human nature has the property “being omnipresent.” On Cross’s reading, Luther doesn’t make predications of the following sort: the proposition “that Christ’s φs” means that Christ φs by virtue of having a nature that φs. Rather, Christ, the person, bears the property in question, rather than one of his natures bearing the property. So, by Cross’s lights, while Luther wouldn’t agree that Christ’s human nature has the property of “being omnipresent,” Luther would agree that the Second Person of the Trinity has the property “being bodily omnipresent.”

So goes the historical report, anyway. It’s been some eight years since I’ve done any intense Luther study; thus I’m not sure whether Cross’s read is correct (though, he did marshal a good bit of evidence during the talk that seemed prima facie persuasive). But suppose it is. There are obvious questions one might pose to Cross’s Luther. Here’s one: Christ’s body purportedly exists in the repletive mode (it’s omnipresent); what’s to block one’s intuitive inference from “that Christ’s body is omnipresent” to “Christ’s body is omnipresent by virtue of bearing the property “being omnipresent”? After all, we do this with just about every other property his body might have: his body is a human body by virtue of it bearing the property of “being a rational animal.” It’s precisely because his body bears that property that one can say that his body is human.

I suppose you might count me as one of those who doesn’t buy that the distinctions Cross’s Luther makes will help him out in any appreciable way. After all, it strikes me that a person bears properties by virtue of her nature. But then, so does God the Son; He bears properties by virtue of his natures. I’m not at all sure what it means to say that a person bears a property but does not do so via her nature. Of course, I might lack some imagination or intellectual ability to conceive of such a thing. If so, that’s my fault and not Luther’s.

Finally, a quick point in defense of Cross’s Luther. Vermigli’s counter to Luther’s two-way spatial inseparability is weak. For, it strikes me as obvious that the argument from the tree example isn’t analogous to Christ and his two natures. I take Luther’s claim to be something like the following: Persons are wherever their natures are. Moreover, the natures of individual persons just are wherever the individual persons are. But this is just obviously true. No person is spatially separated from her nature, even if she’s a physical object and the parts of her physical body are spread out. (For that matter, nothing is spatially separated from its nature.) Her nature is wherever here body is; and that’s because she is there. So, if Christ, the person, is at a location, L, at a time T, then Christ’s natures are there, too. And, if Christ’s natures are at a location, L, at a time T, then Christ, the person, is there, too. It just turns out that Christ has two natures, not one. And so wherever he is, his two natures are.

In closing, I’ll just let the implications of this last argument sit. I’ve no immediate way to resolve the problem ready to hand, anyway. But, I am grateful for Professor Cross for coming to give his talk as one thoroughly at home in the medieval philosophical world.

     [1] From Cross’s handout.

J. T. Turner is a Research Associate on Fuller Theological Seminary’s Analytic Theology Project for the 2016 – 2017 academic year. He holds a PhD from The University of Edinburgh, a ThM from Erskine College and Seminary, and an MA and BS from Liberty University. Turner’s current research projects include writing a book on the metaphysics of afterlife in Christian theology, and work on constructing an analytic theology of what some biblical theologians call “holistic eschatology.”

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