Sometimes Infinity Is Surprising

Photo used under Creative Commons license from Flikr user Lee Winder

Photo used under Creative Commons license from Flikr user Lee Winder

Professional football season has begun again in America. To some people, this is a big deal. 5 years ago and earlier, it was a big deal for me too. For various reasons, it just hasn’t had the appeal for me that it used to, but I used to be absolutely captivated each season by every Pittsburgh Steelers game that I could watch. There was just something special about watching their defense make a tough stop on an important down, and to likewise see Jerome Bettis taking tickets for The Bus ride.

The Steelers don’t always play like they are the best team in the league, though. I remember watching a playoff game against Tennessee during the 2002-2003 season. It was the divisional playoff week, and it was a great game to watch. I think Eddie George, Tennessee’s star running back, was given a concussion early in the game and had to miss the rest of it. Somehow, the Titans still pulled out a win (and I remember there being some loud talking about why Tennessee was permitted to re-kick the game-winning field goal). So, all who watched the game where I was felt a sense of defeat. An entire season of watching football ended abruptly.

Part of the reason I remember the game so well is that it was the first game that I had watched at a particular Aunt and Uncle’s house in my memory. My cousin (their son) came to visit them that evening, and I sat by him as we watched the game.

Pittsburgh fans are known to be a little tough on the teams that they love. I remember at one point in the game that the Steelers took two or more penalties in a row and I joked aloud: “at least they can’t get backed up forever; they’ll hit their own goal line at some point,” two which my cousin replied “infinity works with half distances, too.”

Ok, for those who don’t know the rules of football, when you are penalized for doing something wrong, your team moves closer to its own goal (making it harder for your team to score and easier for the other team to score) a certain number of yards (which is determined by the severity of the penalty). Once you are within a range to your own goal line so that there isn’t enough distance between the ball and  your own goal line to fulfil the penalty (because you can’t be penalized into your goal), the referees move the ball halfway closer to the goal line from where it currently lies. So, my cousin’s point was that there could be an infinite number of penalties applied; they would just need to keep moving the ball halfway closer to the goal line each time.

I remember thinking to myself “I don’t normally think of infinity working that way.”

Indeed, we don’t normally think about the infinite at all, as it’s not something with which any of us have an practical experience. This inexperience with the infinite often leeches into our interpretations of scripture. It’s not my intent to get very philosophical or start diving into a defense of doctrine from a mathematical standpoint, but in this case it actually matters for a right description of doctrine and practice.

Throughout the ages ever since the early church, history has proven that one of the most dis-unifying and contentious points of doctrine is also one of the most important. Ever since the early church, theologians have been arguing concerning the degree of interaction between the two natures in Christ, his human and his divine natures. Theologians consider this studying of Christ’s nature as a subtopic of Christology. So, people in the church have been arguing Christology since the early days.

First there were the Arian heretics. These people taught that Jesus was a being (although a divine being) that was created in time, before all of the Father’s other creations. They also taught that Jesus was of similar essence to the Father, but was not the same essence. In effect,what they were saying was that Jesus was a god, but he was not God as the scriptures define him. One could ask if Jesus could have been created by the Father in such a way so that he could be of the same essence of the Father. Intuitively, the answer is “no,” because part of this essence is eternality, and an eternal being cannot be created (thus the Nicene Creed’s, “begotten not made.”).

Then there were the Eutychians, a specific variety of monophysitism, and the Nestorians. Truly, there are more Christological heresies than this but I’m no expert on the history of heresies, and Eutychianism and Nestorianism are probably the two most important to grasp for the upcoming posts. Like all heresies, these were declared heresies because they are contrary to scripture, but additionally they undo the basis of the Christian’s salvation.

I suppose it’s helpful to give a very short description of these two heresies.

Eutychians believe that Christ is a divine being and when he was born as a human, his humanity disappeared in the vastness of his deity. A common illustration is to say that his human nature is present with his divine nature, but that the human disappeared into the divine like a drop of water would disappear into the ocean. For all practicality, this denies the human nature of Christ.

Nestorians believe that Christ has two natures but that the attributes of each nature do not communicate, that is they are not experienced by both natures. So for a Nestorian, it’s acceptable to say that the human nature suffered fatigue and anguish but the divine nature did not (and indeed cannot). It’s also acceptable for the Nestorian to say that when Christ performed miracles, it was his divine nature performing these acts not his human nature.

Honestly, I see the allure of Nestorianism far beyond that of Eutychianism. Nestorianism makes logical sense. Eutychianism seems like a solution in search of a problem. Yet we cannot rely on human logic to form our doctrines, they must arise from scripture. And that’s the primary problem with both of these heresies, though one may be a little bit more subtle than the other.

Besides speaking where the scriptures are silent, Eutychianism is actually a bald-face contradiction to the scriptures. A main point in the New Testament is that Christ has taken on our identity and has saved us by bearing our likeness and by redeeming it from its worthless position. Eutychianism takes the most important part of the gospel –that Christ is qualified as our mediator because he’s one of us, because he actually suffered under the curse in the flesh– and tosses it out like yesterday’s trash.

Nestorianism arises instead from trying to harmonize the confusing parts of the scriptures. Consider the following collection of thoughts:

  1. God is spirit. Christ had flesh.
  2. God cannot be tempted. Christ was tempted.
  3. God cannot die. Christ died.
  4. God is the source of knowledge. There are things Christ (who is God) did not know.

The list can probably continue for some time, and there are probably more examples of the above than what I listed. These are troubling things because they have potential to undo faith and salvation if they are not handled carefully. So, the Nestorians tried to handle it carefully and ended up inventing their own Christ. They compartmentalized the two natures in Christ in such a way that the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing. The Nestorians’ Christ was both God and Man, but there was no communication of attributes. In short, they upended Christ’s qualification as our mediator and source of righteousness because they could not accept a mystery: that Christ is Holy God who bore our likeness and became in every way like us.

Isn’t that always the way? We try to explain the unexplainable Trinity, and we invent a God that doesn’t exist. We try to explain the unexplainable mystery of the union of Christ’s two natures, and we end up with a Christ that doesn’t exist. Instead, we end up worshipping an idol that we’ve created and called “Christ.” We try to explain so many mysteries of scripture, to put them in the bounds of our finite minds, and the result is always the same: Illegal summation. 15 yard penalty. Loss of down.

So how is this pertinent in a comparison between FE traditions and Lutheranism?

Regarding Eutychianism, I’ve sometimes seen a slow, unwitting slide into the heresy by some FE’s when they say things like “Christ wasn’t really tempted, because God can’t sin.” Truthfully though, I don’t see this problem often among FE’s, and it’s typically an accident when it does appear.

This isn’t the case with Nestorianism. I’ve found it is much more typical for FE’s to dive headlong into this heresy; it is not because they want to embrace a heresy, but rather because it resolves some of the seemingly contradictory statements above. It’s just simpler to say that “it was Christ’s human nature that didn’t know the day or the hour, not the divine” or “Christ’s human nature was tempted, not his divine nature” than it is to say “it’s a Holy mystery.” The trouble is, this heresy permeates FE doctrine so deeply that a Biblical understanding of several doctrines is next to impossible. More troubling is that scripture doesn’t speak of a divided Christ. The Bible just does not speak of Christ in the terms that a Nestorian is comfortable with tossing around.

Unfortunately, it’s also often accepted as a happy medium to allude to mystery, but plead ignorance. Sometimes, these matters just are not given much thought in FE churches. However, this ignorance of the union of the two natures can only exist so long as the Christian is refusing to study and to grow by reading the Bible. It is inevitable; at some point, questions just naturally arise when certain passages are read. At that point, there are three options: lie to ourselves by pretending there is no cognitive dissonance, accept a heresy, or be prepared and disciplined to accept God’s mysteries as incomprehensible mysteries while we find the implications of these mysteries.

As an FE, I often did the first two of those three options. It’s tough to say that, but it’s true. When I got around to embracing the third option, it was typically only half of the option. I accepted mystery as mystery so I didn’t need to think about it any longer. The only thing this did was allow me to continue in my own ignorance. There is a better way.

It’s a fairly involved read compared to most of what I post, but I very much recommend an essay by John C. Jeske. I’m simply not equipped to explain the communication of the attributes like this man is able. Once this doctrine is understood, it opens the door to understanding a soon-coming topic: the Lutheran understanding of The Lord’s Supper.

If the reader is sufficiently interested, this 18+ hours series of lectures by Dr. Rod Rosenbladt is what really opened my mind to Lutheranism. It’s all about a book by Martin Chemnitz (a 16th-century Reformer) called “The Two Natures in Christ.”


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