Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Defense of the Omnipresence of Christ's Human Nature

One of the main bones of contention between the Lutheran and Reformed Churches has been the doctrine of the omnipresence of the human nature of Christ. This doctrine is not isolated for Lutherans and is not merely promoted to support our view of the Lord's Supper as is often claimed. We come to this position because of an overall conception of the incarnation itself which differs from that of the Reformed.
When Christ became incarnate, the human and divine natures were united in one person. These natures were not mixed into one, nor were they completely separated from one another. They interpenetrated one another.

Because of this union of the two natures, the Lutherans talked about a communicatio idiomatum, meaning communicating, or sharing, of attributes. This doctrine states that, due to the unity of the person, the attributes of the divine nature can be attributed to the human nature. For the sake of organization, Lutherans have typically put the communication of attributes into three classes, or genera, though sometimes four.

The first class is the genus idiomaticum. This means that what is attributed to one nature can be attributed to the whole person. Thus one can say "the Son of God died" without having to clarify by saying, "the human nature of Christ died."

The second class is the genus maiestaticum. This is where the real controversy arises. According to this doctrine, the attributes of Christ's divine nature are communicated to his human nature. They are not attributed to the human nature through necessity or nature, but by the free attribution of the divine nature. So what are some of these attributes?

1. The majesty of divinity. Any time scripture talks about majesty, power or authority being given to Christ in time it must be talking about His human nature. If one does not confess this, he is admitting that Christ indeed did not have full power and majesty according to His divine nature before this point.
Some examples in scripture are:

"Then Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.'" (Matthew 28:18)
"All things have been committed to me by my Father." (Luke 10:22)
"So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs." (Hebrews 1:4)
"You made him a little[a] lower than the angels;
you crowned him with glory and honor
and put everything under his feet."
In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him." (Hebrews 2:7-8)
"And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church" (Ephesians 1:22)
"For he "has put everything under his feet."[a] Now when it says that "everything" has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ." (1 Corinthians 15:27)

2. Omniscience There are several times in the New Testament where divine knowledge is attributed to the human nature of Christ.
"He did not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man." (John 2:25)

3. Omnipresence Here is where the controversy usually arises. Lutherans claim that Christ is omnipresent as a person, thus both natures are omnipresent. The Reformed have historically argues that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father according to His human nature, and omnipresent only according to His divine nature.

Does the Scripture teach the omnipresence of Christ's human nature? The most clear verse on this subject is Ephesians 4:7-10:

"But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says:
"When he ascended on high,
he led captives in his train
and gave gifts to men." (What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)"

The text seems clear. Christ descended, ascended, and now fills the whole universe. This cannot be according to His divine nature because it describes a point in time wherein He began to fill all things. His divine nature always filled all things. Ephesians 1:23 also states that He "fills everything in every way." These verses have been interpreted by the Reformed to mean either one of 2 things.

1. The "filling all things" refers to his accomplishment of redemption, or his fulfillment of prophecy. However, the context has nothing whatsoever to do with salvation or Christ's work on the cross. It has to do with cosmology. It describes a place He was from, went, and now is.

2. This refers to his sustaining and ruling the whole universe. This simply is not in the text. Filling the whole universe simply means filling the whole universe. There is not any way around it except to explain away the clear meaning.

Christ's promise in Matthew 28 is that He will always be with His church. The man Jesus standing in front of His disciples said this. Was there any reason for them to think He only meant according to His divine nature? No, of course not. The one speaking was the God-man.

Christ shows that He has power over normal spacial constraints according to His human nature. In John 20:9 Jesus walks through a locked door. Even before the resurrection He vanished from sight. (John 8:59, Luke 4:30)

Is it really taking scripture seriously to say that the "fullness of deity" (Colossians 2:9) dwelt in bodily form if indeed the deity of Christ is mostly separate from the human nature? If the incarnation really means that the second person of the trinity is both God and man, we must say more than that He is only man in one specific location.

To be Biblically consistent and to affirm that the fullness of Christ's deity was and is incarnate, one must confess to communication of omnipresence.

The third class of communication is the genus apotelesmaticum. This doctrine states that all of the functions that Christ performs as prophet, priest, and king are performed by both natures. The entire person accomplishes every part of redemption, not simply one nature.


Steve Bricker said...


Your post reminded me of an article I just read (Mark Weedman, "The Polemical Context of Gregory of Nyssa's Doctrine of Divine Infinity," Journal of Early Christian Studies, Volume 18, Number 1, Spring 2010, pp. 81-104). The point of the article is to "establish the polemical rationale for why Gregory developed and employed divine infinity as he did: to defend the traditional pro-Nicene account of the Son's eternal generation against anti-Nicene (here Eunomian) claims to the contrary." [quote taken from abstract]

I was wondering if Gregory's logic of the infinite in Contra Eunomium might also be useful here. I'm just thinking out loud at this point. Might be an opportunity for research. H-m-m.

And as for other biblical arguments for Christ's omnipresence of his human nature, I have heard John 1:48 used. Again, more research is needed.

Jordan Cooper said...

Looking into Gregory's ideas would be an interesting study. He was, along with Cyril of Alexandria, one of the patristics used most by the Lutheran Fathers in support of their christological views. I have not read much of Gregory myself yet. I may look into this.
I have heard John 1:48 used in this context as well. I think it proves communicated omniscience, but omnipresence I'm not so sure.

Nick said...

You said: "When Christ became incarnate, the human and divine natures were united in one person."

What is your take on the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 8:1,

"two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. **Which person is very God, and very man**, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man."


Was Jesus' **Personhood**: (a) wholly Divine, (b) wholly human, (c) both Divine and human combined, (d) two persons, one human and one divine??

Jordan Cooper said...

Nick, the doctrine of the communication of attributes is in full accord with Chalcedonian Christology. When I say the two natures are united in one person, I do not mean that they became one nature. I am simply referring to the hypostatic union. I don't know how you could assume that I would not agree with that part of the WCF as it is merely affirming Chalcedon.

Thomas M said...

(Knowing that this is an old post). How does the Reformed and Lutherans differ in answering the quesion: Who suffered(what nature) on the Cross?

Jordan Cooper said...

The Reformed would say only the human, whereas Lutherans have tended to say the whole person suffered.

Frank Sonnek said...

two comments.

herman saase argues that ubiquity has only been held as a plausable theory and not a Lutheran Doctrine. your post suggests otherwise.

secondly . Lutherans would say that God died on the Cross.

Jordan Cooper said...

Frank, ubiquity is a view adopted by the Lutheran confessions. (Solid Declaration Article VIII) What Sasse is probably referring to is the nature of ubiquity. Some would argue that Christ's human nature was omnipresent from the moment of conception, whereas other have argued (most notably Martin Chemnitz) that it is only omnipresent when God wills it to be, thus he was not always omnipresent as a man during his humiliation, though he could choose to use this attribute.

And yes, God died on the cross.

Frank Sonnek said...

Jordan that was very helpful!

I read saase in his book "this is my body" many years ago. If you have a copy handy and could look it up, i would be interested to hear... i am in brasil and dont have access to those resources..

thanks jordan.

Craig said...


I know this is an old thread; so, I hope you'll indulge me.

I'm neither Reformed nor Lutheran, etc. - I'm just a layperson who's been studying theology a bit and most specifically Christology. Given that I'm not RCC or EO, I suppose that makes me a Protestant of some sort. :)

You wrote, "...thus he was not always omnipresent as a man during his humiliation, though he could choose to use this attribute." My question on this: how does the Lutheran church exegete Heb 1:3 and Col 1:17? My understanding is that the Word's upholding of the cosmos is continual and continuous, i.e. from the point of creation and forward. This would mean the Person of Christ was upholding the cosmos during the state of Humiliation. Hence, I believe the so-called extra calvinisticum needs to be applied, i.e. the Person of Christ sustained the cosmos in virtue of His divine nature extra carnem.

I note that this understanding was in the Patristic era as evidenced by Athanasius, Tertullian, etc.

In addition, the Patristic era seems to affirm the communicatio idomatum as per the Reformed views which do not ascribe the divine nature properties to the human and vice versa. Leo's Tome - I would argue that the Chalcedonian "Definition" should be read through the lens of the Tome - also specifically affirms the communicatio in this way illustrating, in my mind, that the 'spirit'/intent of Chalcedon was to affirm the communicatio as such.

[See the Tome here: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf212.ii.iv.xxviii.html ]

At present, I do not ascribe to the 'real presence' of the Lord's Supper; however, while I understand the Patristic era writers apparently subscribed to some version of what is now the RCC doctrine regarding the 'real presence' in the Eucharist (excepting Transubstantiation which was codified later), although I'm not sure how this was understood exactly. Do you know how the Patristic view differs from the Lutheran view?

I'm not closed to the idea that Christ's body post-Ascension may be different from His glorified body between the Resurrection and the Ascension; however, I cannot see how Christ's post-Resurrection body (pre-Ascension) is ubiquitous by Scripture.

Craig said...


I see I ascribed the quote above to you when it was Chemnitz – sorry about that. That’s what happens when I try to multi-task. I just re-read your post and also read the Solid Declaration Article VIII, so I now have a better understanding of this from the Lutheran perspective – that the omnipresence of Christ in His humanity (full Person) is a fairly universal Lutheran doctrine both pre- and post-Ascension.

However, I think the ‘descended’ in Ephesians 4:9-10 may refer to the Incarnation, i.e. the Person of Christ could not have ascended unless He first descended as the Incarnate Word (John 3:13). Moreover, according to Peter T. O’Brien’s PNTC Commentary, there’s a new view that ‘descended’ here may refer to the Spirit’s descending at Pentecost.

Craig said...

I didn’t finish my thought. It seems the best, the most literal, translation of the final part of v 10 is fill/fulfill all things (cosmos is not in the Greek); so, I interpret this passage as meaning not merely cosmological but primarily redemptive/soteriological. This was the Logos purpose from the beginning of creation, as per my understanding (Rev 13:9).

Anonymous said...


Can you provide a list of books for suggested reading to further help understand the Lutheran position of the omnipresence of Christ’s human nature? Seems to me that this is critical for understanding God properly and the salvation of man through Word and Sacrament.

John Rownby said...

Hi there. Great article!

Just wondering, would you want to extend the omnipresence of Christ's human nature to include also the timelessness/atemporality of his humanity nature? i.e. does the ascended Christ inhabit timeless eternity, such that he literally fills all of time as well as space?

This seems an attractive option, although I wonder how you think this would affect our understanding of the eschatological future for us 'mere' humans. Whilst Christ's human nature may be able to somehow 'become' atemporal and omnipresent, I'm not so sure ours can. I think regular humans - creatures - are probably strictly temporal and finite. But if Christ's human nature is atemporal, while our future selves are not, does that not mean that our resurrection body is really quite different from Christ's resurrection body? Is this problematic?