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Calling Out Crypto-Nestorianism Among Wannabe Orthodox Evangelicals

There are many aspects of Eastern Orthodox faith and belief that are quite beautiful and there are many aspects of American Evangelical faith and belief that are quite ugly. So, I don’t begrudge anyone who has grown dissatisfied with American Evangelicalism’s utilitarianism, individualism, or dualism (for example) and longs instead for something more mystical, more rooted in the heritage of the Church. In fact, I too have grown in my appreciation for what Robert Webber called “Ancient-Future Faith.”

Nevertheless, for a few, this lust for the exotic faith of the Eastern church has degenerated into self-righteous doctrinal certitude and arrogance that has left them blind to their own radically unfaithful views of Jesus’s life and work. In other words, in their manic attempt to strain out the gnat of Evangelical shallowness, they have swallowed the camel of Christological heresy. Namely, these Wannabe Orthodox Evangelicals (hereafter WOE) have rejected divine suffering and in its place have resurrected a long-dead heresy called Nestorianism, repackaging it as “orthodox” Christology.

Nestorianism was a heresy condemned by the Church in the fifth century. It was a vain attempt to preserve the purity of the divine nature from such foul and ungodly experiences as suffering or death—(you know, that stuff Jesus did to save us). The way it does this is by separating the “human nature” of Jesus from his “divine nature”. If something seems to a Nestorian to be unfitting of God (because of their own presuppositions as to what is “fitting” of God) then that only happened to the “human nature” of Jesus. So, for example, only Jesus’s “human nature” died on the Cross. WOEs clutch their pearls at the thought of the divine nature suffering or dying. By no means! Their god is hermetically sealed off from ‘bad things’ like that. Their god is safely untouched by “human” suffering and happily pollyannaish. Their god is above all such circumstances, like a pampered aristocrat who holds his nose while passing a smelly homeless person.

But this aversion to the messiness of the Incarnate life of the Son of God is not “orthodox,” as Robin Phillips demonstrates. In part 5 of a series of posts about his exodus from Calvinism, Phillips destroys both Calvinism and Nestorianism at the same time! But, for the purposes of exposing the error of WOEs, attention will be focused on his destruction of what he calls “crypto-Nestorianism” (a very apt name indeed!). He writes,

“According to standard Chalcedonian Christology, it was not a nature that suffered on the cross (whether divine or human) but an actual divine person: the Word; the second person of the Trinity; God himself incarnate in the flesh.” [1]

Here’s where the blindness of the WOEs is exposed. While they scramble to protect the “divine nature” from suffering and death, the biblical witness is screaming that the Son of God died for sins! The Word became flesh and laid down his life for us!

“Natures” don’t suffer and die; Persons do!

Since Phillips is focusing on Calvinism, he critiques R. C. Sproul. But, contrary to the WOEs objections, the same criticisms are equally applicable to them.

“Sproul maintains that the second person of the Trinity did not die on the cross. In his book The Truth of the Cross, Sproul condemns the statement “It was the second person of the Trinity Who died” and adds “We should shrink in horror from the idea that God actually died on the cross. The atonement was made by the human nature of Christ.”

But we should not shrink in horror from the idea that God actually died on the cross because God did actually die on the cross. Human nature itself cannot suffer; only persons can suffer, and in this case it was the person of the God-man who suffered and was buried and rose again on the third day. To be consistent with his extraction of the God-man from the cross, Sproul would also have to say that Mary was not really the God-bearer, but that she simply gave birth to a human nature that was then used by a divine person in a determining fashion.

This radical separation of nature and person acts as a convenient buffer for modern-day Calvinists to separate God from the pain of the world, so that the Person of the Word is not actually experiencing humiliation on the cross, only an abstract “human nature.” The scandal of the incarnation and crucifixion that created so much discomfort for the Gnostics is equally difficult for Calvinists today. The Gnostics tried to solve the problem with a Docetism that detached Christ from materiality while Calvinists in the tradition of Sproul try to resolve the problem by a crypto-Nestorianism that sequesters the Second Person of the Trinity from the human nature going through birth and death (as Sproul says, “death is something that is experienced only by the human nature…”). However, extricating the human nature of Christ from the divine person, so that the central acts of the incarnation can be predicated of the former without touching the latter, denies the Nicene Creed’s explicit affirmation that it was “very God of very God” who was crucified, suffered and buried. The Second Council of Constantinople was even more explicit in affirming that it was “true God and the Lord of Glory and one of the Holy Trinity” who was born and died on the cross.” [2]

Orthodox Christology proclaims loud and clear that the death of Jesus of Nazareth on the Cross is one and the same as the death of the Son of God, the Second Member of the Trinity. In the same way that Mary is the “God-bearer,” the Cross is where God died.

Here’s how one WOE responded:

“The question is whether these human experiences are attributable not only to this ‘person’ (all Orthodox agree they are) but also to this person’s divine nature, which the Orthodox do not do. If  the Son suffers humanly (in terms of his human nature), does it follow that he suffers in his divinity? If God dies in and as Christ, does the divine nature die? Does the unity of the person as subject of both natures require that we attribute to the divine nature all the experiences had by the Son in terms of his human nature (i.e., coming into existence, being nothing more than a zygote in gestation, being ignorant, suffering, dying, etc.)? No Orthodox would think so, and to accuse those who believe the person of the Son has divine experiences (in terms of his divine nature) transcendent of and so not reducible to his human experiences of asserting that ‘only his human nature and not his person’ is having these experiences is such a grievous misunderstanding of Orthodoxy it pretty much writes you out of the conversation.” [3]

This polemic is a smokescreen. Did you see the sleight of hand? It’s easy to miss. The same WOE had previously said this in the same post:

“As Robin rightly notes in his piece, ‘natures’ don’t have experiences independently of their subjects. It is ‘persons’ who suffer (or who are delighted, or what have you), not stand-alone ‘natures’.” [4]

There’s the contradiction.

Mary is “Theotokos” (“God-bearer”) because she birthed the Person of the Son of God, not because she birthed a “divine nature”. Neither did she birth merely a “human nature.” The birth that the Person of the Son of God experienced, was experienced by God—because the Son of God is God the Son. In the exact same way, contra-Nestorianism, the death that the Person of the Son of God experienced, was experienced by God—because the Son of God died and the Son of God is God the Son.

Or, as the Christian church has put it:

“X. If anyone does not confess that our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified in the flesh is true God and the Lord of Glory and one of the Holy Trinity; let him be anathema.” [5]

QED
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  1. http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/orthodoxyandheterodoxy/2014/01/23/why-i-stopped-being-a-calvinist-part-5-a-deformed-christology/
  2. Ibid.
  3. https://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2016/07/07/clarifying-chalcedon/
  4. Ibid.
  5. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.xii.vii.html