Jesus and His Soul

Last week I wrote about the Chalcedonian Box and its usefulness in understanding the Incarnation. Each side of the box protects against one of the main heresies associated with this complicated doctrine. I’ve enjoyed studying these councils and heresies, and reflecting on my teaching on this doctrine in the past, but it pains me to say that the richest fruit from this study has been the realization that I have believed and taught something very close to the Apollinarian heresy.

Before, you get out the torches and pitchforks, allow me to present my previous teaching and the reasoning behind it. I will present you my argument as I developed it and therefore we must start with a discussion of Anthropology.

Anthropology, theologically speaking, is the study of man. My starting point for this discussion in particular, is that man has both a nature and a person. His nature is that which he shares with everything else of His kind. Every human has a human nature. Even more precisely, every human has the same human nature. Part of that human nature is that every individual human is a person. However, it is the person that makes each individual human unique. This is why we talk about people having different personalities.

Think of it this way: somewhere in China there are thousands of workers making iPhones. Each one of those iPhones is identical in its hardware capabilities – they can all do the same things, at the same speed, etc. Then you put some software on it and each iPhone is now individually identified by a unique serial number and can further be differentiated from other iPhones by downloading different applications, loading different music, etc. In the anthropology discussion nature is the hardware, person is the software.

The next question we must ask then is: where exactly does the person reside in man? Man has at least two parts: flesh and soul (I don’t intend to get into the bipartite vs tripartite discussion except to say that all the Ecumenical Creeds only mention soul and flesh and leave out spirit). Certainly each one of us is physically unique. Even identical twins aren’t precisely identical. This might lead one to believe that the personhood or individuality of a person resides in the flesh of a man, but I find two compelling reasons to put the person in the soul.

First of all, the image of God in which man was created (Gen 1:26-27) describes the soul of man. God is spirit and, the incarnation notwithstanding, has no flesh in which an image can be made. We are made in the image of God in that we have souls with a mind, affections and will.

Second, every disembodied soul in heaven or hell is still a person. I admit that they are, in one sense, incomplete and waiting for the day when they will be given their bodies again – either a glorified body for the saints or an eternally damned body for the reprobate – but they are not incomplete in respect to their personhood. As a disembodied soul, they have every necessary characteristic of personhood.

So, I argue that each man is a person and their person resides in their soul. What does this have to do with the incarnation? In the past I have argued that Jesus did not have a soul because I made an error in reasoning. I argued that since personhood resides in the soul, if Jesus were to take on a soul he would necessarily be taking on another person. In other words, the second Person of the Trinity possessed some individual that was miraculously created in the womb of Mary. The obvious problem with this argument is that it describes the Nestorian heresy (that Jesus is two persons) and so, I rejected it.

Instead I argued that Jesus had all the elements of a soul (mind, affections and will), but that they were from his Divine nature. In one sense you can argue that a human soul is unnecessary – our soul is simply a reflection of God’s character so why have the reflection when you can have the real thing? Where we have a soul, Jesus has the divine nature.

This is where I must admit I was wrong. I was ignorant of both the Nestorian and Appolinarian heresies. Though I believe my logic was valid, at least one of my premises were false. My reasons were different, but my conclusion was Appolinarianism. If this position is true, it means that Jesus cannot heal or save our souls according to the council of Constantinople I. Clearly, to teach that Jesus does not have a soul is in error, but which of the premises above are false? How could Jesus take on a soul and not take on another person? I now believe I have the answer.

First, back to our Anthropology: how does personhood reside in the soul? Here we must assert that the soul itself is part of our nature and personhood is (figuratively speaking) “applied to” our soul. In other words, personhood is not part of or a characteristic of the soul, for a characteristic is a feature of or subordinate to some thing. Our personhood is the uniqueness of our souls – it determines the non-essential characteristics of the soul – so the soul must be ontologically subordinate to the person. Though inseparable, they are distinct. If you are familiar with the Ecumenical Creeds, that last phrase may sound familiar.

I believe the answer is to more precisely define the Hypostatic Union. The doctrine Hypostatic Union describes that Jesus is one person with two natures, but before now I have not considered where this union actually is! In reading through the Chalcedonian and Athanasian creeds, it seems that the answer has been there all along. So allow me to quote from these creeds (with my own emphasis added), and then give my answer. The Chalcedonian creed states:

The distinctiveness of each nature is not nullified by the union. Instead, the properties of each nature are conserved and both natures concur in one person and in one reality.

And the Athanasian creed states:

Who, although He be God and Man, yet His is not two, but one Christ: One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking the manhood into God; One altogether; not by confusion of Substance but by unity of Person.

The Hypostatic Union is precisely the union of the second Person of the Trinity with the person-ness (to necessarily coin a phrase) of the human soul of a man. At the incarnation a man was created – flesh and soul. At the creation of any other man, a unique person would be part of creation and (again figuratively speaking) “applied to” that soul. However, in the case of the Incarnation, the second Person of the Trinity was “applied to” that soul. Jesus having a soul doesn’t pose a problem to understanding the Hypostatic Union – it clarifies it by telling us exactly where that union exists!

To put it concisely: the two natures are united by personhood.

Let me conclude by saying that I don’t think I’ve changed the orthodox position, but I hope to have clarified it – even if it is only in my mind. Perhaps you already understood this and I’m a bit slow. Whatever the case, I hope you do two things:

  1. Be berean. Test these things against the Scriptures to see if they are so. Hold fast to the good and throw away the bad.
  2. If you find the bad, please bring it up. Comment here, send us an email or give us a call. Clearly I am not infallible. I believe this teaching to be true and good but am open to argument from the Scriptures.

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