Tim Pawl on Speaking About Christ’s Human Nature

May 7th, 2018 by

A person who spends some significant amount of time studying philosophy and theology very quickly learns that language can be tricky. It is quite difficult to speak clearly and precisely about the things with which these domains are concerned. For that reason, clarity and precision of expression are two centrally important virtues of any work of analytic philosophy or theology. Tim Pawl’s presentation in this week’s Analytic Theology seminar, titled “The Metaphysics of the Incarnation: Christ’s Human Nature,” attempts to bring some clarity and precision into theological discourse about the humanity of Christ.

His lecture was concerned with the following questions. How should theologians and philosophers speak about Christ’s human nature? More specifically, is His human nature to be conceived abstractly, along broadly Platonic lines (in the contemporary/analytic sense of “Platonic”), or concretely, as more or less identifiable with his human body? Moreover, is it possible to make predications of Christ’s human nature without falling into Nestorianism? For example, if we say that Christ is both passible and impassible, does that commit us to the existence of two persons, the passible human person and the impassible divine person?

In response to the first question, Pawl suggests that the debate between abstract and concrete conceptualizations of Christ’s human nature is not as theologically substantial as it might initially seem. If a person were to opt for the Platonic interpretation of Christ’s nature, she would still have to grant that He had a ensouled human body that exemplified that abstract nature, which gestated in the womb of Mary, which consumed food and produced spittle, which was beaten and crucified, etc. If she opts for the concrete interpretation of Christ’s human nature, she simply identifies the nature with that ensouled body, while still granting that it perfectly exemplified the abstract nature of a human being. The difference is more one of words than of substance. In any case, we can use the phrase “human element” to refer the ensouled human body of Christ, leaving open the question of whether or not we identify Christ’s human nature with his human element.

Moving on from this matter, then, the question is then raised as to whether it is possible to make substantial predications of Christ’s human element, or whether it is strongly ineffable. A person may think that there is a danger of falling into Nestorianism when making predications of the human element: after all, if we say that the Logos is impassible, on the one hand, and that the human element which belonged to Him suffered, on the other, does not that require us, on pain of contradiction, to admit that the human element is a distinct person capable of suffering?

Pawl responds to this issue by distinguishing different modes of predication. He claims that there is no universal principle of aptness of predictability by which we can distinguish between predicates which do not apply to Christ’s human nature and those which do. Instead, he opts for a careful consideration of the language of the Ecumenical Councils. There we find that some predicates apply to Christ’s nature and others to Him as person. For example, the Councils of the Church predicate of Christ’s human nature that it was hanged and pierced (physical predicates), that it makes judgments and statements (intellectual predicates), and that it wills (volitional predicates). On the other hand, the Councils forbid the predication of “hypostasis” or “person” to the human nature of Christ. How can we understand this?

Pawl introduces the notion of “supposit” (or “suppositum”) into the discussion in order to distinguish between three different modes of predication. Some predicates — to which Pawl gives the unfortunate designation “suppository” — require that their subject be a supposit. Other “non-suppository” predicates, do not require that their subject be a supposit. Finally, there is a “faculty” predicate, which is only appropriate for subjects that are faculties of a certain sort. “Man” is an example of a suppository predicate: to call something a “man” is to call it a supposit with a human nature. Thus, conciliar Christianity rejects the notion that “man” is predicable of Christ’s human nature because His human nature is not a supposit or substance or hypostasis — it is anhypostatic, not belonging to any person when considered in itself, and enhypostatized once it is assumed by Christ (though Pawl does not make explicit reference to this distinction). On the other hand, both “passible” and “impassible” are predicable of Christ because they are not suppository predicates. On Pawl’s analysis, “passible” means “possesses a nature that can be causally affected,” whereas “impassible” means “possesses a nature that cannot be causally affected.” Thus, Christ is both passible and impassible because He possesses a nature which can be causally affected, namely His human nature, and one which cannot be so affected, namely His divine nature.

Returning in the end to the earlier discussion about abstract vs. concrete conceptualizations of Christ’s human nature, Pawl proposes a “formula of union” that should prove acceptable to proponents of either view: The Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, became incarnate in the human element of Christ — that flesh and blood composite of body soul. As incarnate, the Word hung on a cross, bled, and willed the salvation of souls — all in the suppository sense of those terms. Moreover, Jesus’s human element, too, bled was hung on a cross, and willed the salvation of souls — all in the non-suppository sense of these predicates. The distinction between the “suppository” and “non-suppository” predication helps us to understand how these phrases can be true without requiring Nestorianism.

Importantly, Pawl emphasizes that the distinction between “suppository” and “non-suppository” predication is already recognized as a feature of ordinary language. If I cut my hand, it is equally appropriate to say that it is bleeding and that I am bleeding, but in the first case the predicate is not applied to a supposit but to a part of one, and in the second case it is applied to the supposit itself. The implication, then, is that the predication of different terms to Christ, such as “passible” and “impassible,” can be understood along the same lines as the predication of a term to a part of me that would apply equally to me as a supposit. Christ’s natures are understood as “parts,” in a sense, which can be isolated in speech and predicated various terms which are not equally applicable to both natures. At the same time, the predicates can be applied equally well to Christ the supposit. So Christ’s human nature can be said to suffer and so can Christ Himself; Christ’s divine nature can be said to be impassible, and so can Christ Himself.

I am very sympathetic both to Tim Pawl’s methodological commitment to the language and vision of the Ecumenical Councils, as well as to the distinction he proposes between various forms of predication for the sake of clarifying their theological language. I also appreciate his effort to move past the debate about competing conceptions of Christ’s human nature in order to get at the heart of the matter. I think that his proposals regarding the interpretation of various predicates adequately recognize the unique case of the Incarnation, the fact that in the Godman we have a perfectly singular phenomenon which calls for a careful reconsideration of the way in which we use predicative language. Indeed, precisely because Christ has two natures, in contradistinction to every other possible subject of predication, new possibilities of language open up for us, so that we can say, without contradiction, “Christ the impassible God suffered and died on the Cross.”

Steven Nemes is a PhD student at Fuller Theological Seminary whose research primarily concerns philosophical theology.

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