Saturday, December 20, 2008

Theology of St. Thomas - Are Protestants Nestorian?

Of course St. Thomas never wrote anything about Protestants per se, at least in part because he did not have access to a starship by means of which he could tamper with the space-time continuum. So to ask whether St. Thomas considered Protestants to be Nestorian make as much sense as asking what his favorite NFL team was. The real question for this post, though, is whether there is any sense in which what St. Thomas says in criticism of Nestorius may also be said of Protestants. Right away, though, we have to begin by qualifying things: I can imagine at least some Protestants to whom these criticisms do not apply at all. So this post is not to say that all Protestants are Nestorian, even if we conclude by saying that at least some might be. In particular I don't have any particular Protestant in mind at all, nor even any specific Protestant theological tradition. The most that might be said about specific persons would be about my specific Protestant self, prior to my conversion.

St. Thomas addresses the heresy of Nestorius in SCG, IV, 34. It is a fairly lengthy chapter, and we won't be looking at every single remark that Aquinas makes in it. He starts off by introducing the error:
They said that the human soul and the true human body came together in Christ by a natural union to constitute one man of the same species and nature with other men, and that in this man God dwelt as in His temple, namely, by grace, just as in other holy men. ... So, then, consequently on the things just said there must be one Person of the Word of God, and another person of that man who is co-adored with the Word of God. And if one Person of each of the two be mentioned, this will be by reason of the affective union aforesaid; so that man and the Word of God may be called one Person, as is said of man and woman that “now they are not two, but one flesh” (Mat. 19:6).

Now, such a union does not bring it about that what is said of the first can be said of the second (for not everything which becomes the man is true of the woman, or conversely); therefore in the union of the Word and that man they think this must be observed: The things proper to that man and pertinent to the human nature cannot be said becomingly of God’s Word, or of God. just so it becomes that man that he was born of a virgin, that he suffered, died, was buried, and this kind of thing; and all of these, they assert, ought not be said of God, or of the Word of God. But, since there are certain names which, although they are chiefly befitting to God, are nonetheless communicated to men in a fashion—“christ,” for instance, “lord,” “holy,” and even “son of God”—nothing according to them keeps one from the use of such names in predication of the things just mentioned. For, according to them, we say fittingly that Christ, or the “Lord of glory,” or the “Saint of saints,” or “God’s son” was born of a virgin, suffered, died and was buried. Hence, too, the Blessed Virgin must not be named the mother of God, or of the Word of God, but the mother of Christ, they say [SCG IV, 34, 2 passim; emphasis added].


And here we get to the heart of why it is that sometimes Catholics say that Protestants are Nestorian: they do not think it fitting to use certain sorts of language when speaking about the Lord Jesus Christ. This will be somewhat lengthy, but I think it's worth examining a bit more. The point isn't, as I already said, that Protestants are necessarily Nestorian; rather, it is that it seems (for some of them at least) their use of language, and their scruples about it, undermine the Incarnation after a Nestorian fashion, and that it would be better for them to modify that usage to be more orthodox.
if “the Word was made flesh,” that is, “man,” as the Evangelist witnesses (John 1:14). it is impossible that there be two persons, or hypostases, or supposits of the Word of God and of that man [ibid., 5; hereafter references to this same chapter will be by paragraph number only].
Now that may seem pretty obvious to us today. But St. Thomas draws the conclusion, "Whatever was made is what it was made; thus, what was made man is man, and what was made white is white. But God’s Word was made man, as is gathered from the foregoing. So God’s Word is man" [ibid.; emphasis added]. And:
Demonstrative pronouns, moreover, refer to the person, or hypostasis, or supposit. For no one says “I run” when another is running, except figuratively, perhaps, when another is running in his place. But the man called Jesus says about Himself: “Before Abraham was made, I am”,and “I and the Father are one” (John 8:59; 10:30), and several other things which clearly pertain to the divinity of the Word. Therefore, the person and hypostasis of the man speaking is plainly the very person of the Word of God [6].
The point here is that the second person of the Trinity is identified with the man Jesus - they are the same person. And of course the average orthodox Protestant (by which I mean one who accepts orthodox Christology) is not going to argue with that.

This usage appears frequently in Scripture.
  • Jesus says he is the bread which came down from heaven, which could only be said of the Word (John 6:51) [7]
  • The disciples watched him ascend to heaven (Acts 1:9), but St. Paul says "He that descended is the same also that ascended above all the heavens" (Eph. 4:10); the disciples could not see Christ's divinity ascend into heaven, but it is only his divinity that could have descended from heaven [8]
  • Jesus says that he came into the world (John 16:28), but that which has its origin in the world (namely, his body) cannot properly be said to "come into" it; so it must be the Word of God who speaks [9]
  • The suffering of one's body can be ascribed to the one whose body it is, and consequently we may say that the Word of God suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried because these things happened to his body [11]
  • The psalmist says that God is the King of glory (23:8-10), and Paul says that Christ is the Lord of glory (1Co 2:8); hence we may say that God was crucified [13]
  • God delivered his own Son up for us (Rom. 8:32), so that it is right to say that the Word of God suffered and died for us [14]
  • "[O]ne is said to be the son of a mother because his body is taken from her, although his soul is not taken from her, but has an exterior source. ... Now, it was proved that the body of that man is the body of the natural Son of God, that is, of the Word of God. So it becomes us to say that the Blessed Virgin is “the Mother of the Word of God,” and even “of God”. Of course, the divinity of the Word is not taken from His Mother, for a son need not take the whole of his substance from his mother, but his body only" [15]
  • "And, again, John says: “The Word was made flesh.” But He has no flesh, except from a woman. The Word, then, is made of a woman; that is, of the Virgin Mother. Therefore, the Virgin is the Mother of God the Word" [20]
  • Paul says that Christ is "of the Fathers" (Rom. 9:5), but this is only through his Virgin Mother; therefore he who is "over all things, God blessed forever" (Rom. 9:5 again) is of the Fathers through the Virgin Mother; therefore she is the mother of God in the flesh [21]
  • St. Peter says that the man Jesus has been exalted to the right hand of God (Acts 2:33), and St. Paul says that God "emptied himself" (Php. 2:7); hence, if we may say that the man Christ Jesus has been exalted, we may also say that "lowly thing" may be said of God - that he suffered and died, or that a Virgin was his Mother [28]
  • St. Paul says of this one person that in and by him all things were created (which could only be said of him in his divine nature), and that he is the firstborn from the dead (which could only be said of him in his human nature); hence "whatever is said of that man must be said of the Word of God, and conversely" (cf. Col. 1:16-18) [29]
For all these reasons we see that it is perfectly legitimate to speak of Mary as the Mother of God.

Now this is something to which at least some Protestants object. While it is undoubtedly true that at least some of these objectors hold an orthodox Christology, nevertheless their unwillingness to accept perfectly appropriate language concerning Christ and his Mother sounds as if they deny the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation, by denying the unity of the Person of Christ. He is one Person, of whom we may say that he is God, and that Mary is his Mother, and that he suffered and died for us, and that in him all things were made.

[Update - to add some additional considerations here...]

Why does it seem at face value as though they deny the orthodox doctrine? Because to be unwilling to say that Mary is the Mother of God - to be only willing to say that she is the Mother of Christ - is to suggest that the child - the person in her womb was not the Word of God. Now that may not be what they intend, but it is nevertheless the implication that is hard to avoid. But if he was not the Word, then he was merely human. And that, of course, would be heretical.

This is why it is so important to be willing to say that Mary is the Mother of God - the theotokos, the God-bearer. And as we have seen above from what St. Thomas has argued, we have excellent precedent for saying this, inasmuch as the Scripture often says of the human nature what rightly applies only to the divine, and vice versa. One who gives birth to a child is that child's mother; but Mary's child was God. Hence Mary is the Mother of God. Protestants who are distressed by this should carefully reconsider the implications of a denial of it.

2 comments:

Steve Morrion said...

As an evangelical Protestant, I affirm the Mary is the mother of God the Word, because Jesus is fully God, and there is only one Jesus with one will, though two natures. However, as a Protestant I dislike the term "mother of God" for 5 reasons.
1) The title is not found in scripture, so it's usage should not be a test of orthodoxy.
2) It can imply that Mary is the mother of the Father and Holy Spirit. Since all Christians do not believe that, then why use a made-up title that implies error?
3) Jesus' humanity came from Mary (not just through Mary. However, this term implies that Jesus' divinity came from Mary too.
4) It can lead to an unscriptural view of Mary. While Nestorians are wrong to split the human and divine will of Christ, that is not as wrong as the Roman Catholic Church calling Mary our co-mediator and co-redeemer.
5) Strident use of that term in 431 A.D. caused a major church split, without forcing that term it might have been eaier to show Nestorians their error and have them stay within the fold.

Since you ask if some Protestants might be at least Nestorian-leaning, could some Catholics be Monophysite-leaning?

F Noltie said...

Hello Steve,

Thank you for visiting my old blog and for your kind attention to this ancient post. :-) I do appreciate it! I apologize for not replying sooner; I do not check emails for this blog every day.

You wrote:

As an evangelical Protestant, I affirm the Mary is the mother of God the Word, because Jesus is fully God, and there is only one Jesus with one will, though two natures.

With all due respect, would you like to amend that? Because to say that Jesus has only one will is the heresy of monothelitism. The orthodox doctrine is that Jesus possesses both a divine and a human will. See here. Presumably this was a slip of the keyboard, so no big deal.


However, as a Protestant I dislike the term "mother of God" for 5 reasons.
1) The title is not found in scripture, so it's usage should not be a test of orthodoxy.


But the term Trinity is not in the Bible either; nor is the Greek word homoousios. Both of these have been tests of orthodoxy since the first Council of Nicaea. So the mere fact that the term is not explicitly used in the Bible does not imply that it cannot serve as a test of orthodoxy.

2) It can imply that Mary is the mother of the Father and Holy Spirit. Since all Christians do not believe that, then why use a made-up title that implies error?

It is not merely a “made-up title”; it is a description of a fact. Mary was a mother. Being a mother implies being a mother of a person. The Person of whom she was mother is the second Person of the Trinity. Therefore she was the mother of God, because it is perfectly appropriate to say this: The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. Therefore the Person of whom Mary was mother, is God. On the other hand, it is not appropriate to say that the Father or the Spirit were born of a woman, and therefore there is no implication that Mary was the mother of either of them.

3) Jesus' humanity came from Mary (not just through Mary. However, this term implies that Jesus' divinity came from Mary too.

My post addresses this objection specifically. :-)

4) It can lead to an unscriptural view of Mary. While Nestorians are wrong to split the human and divine will of Christ, that is not as wrong as the Roman Catholic Church calling Mary our co-mediator and co-redeemer.

Clarification: Nestorians do not split the human and divine will of Christ; I describe their error in the post.

I do not see how this term can lead to an unbiblical view of Mary. Indeed, it is intended to safeguard both her role and the doctrine of the Incarnation. If the Person of whom she was mother is not the Second Person of the Trinity, then the person of whom she was mother is not God. There is no non-Nestorian alternative.

5) Strident use of that term in 431 A.D. caused a major church split, without forcing that term it might have been eaier to show Nestorians their error and have them stay within the fold.

That is a prudential judgment, not a question of dogma. Ironically the Church today is frequently criticized for being too lenient with heterodox members, even when it is said that the intention is to avoid schism! :-)

Since you ask if some Protestants might be at least Nestorian-leaning, could some Catholics be Monophysite-leaning?

:-)

Sure, there probably or even undoubtedly are. But their views are rejected by the Church. Ultimately, though, the point of my post is expressed in its concluding sentence: Protestants who object to calling Mary the mother of God ought to rethink that objection, for the reasons I present in the post. Since you think otherwise, can you show what part of the argument I offer in the post is wrong?

Peace,

Fred