GHC Review 44: The Incarnation

*Cover Picture not shown*

The Incarnation, by Gordon H. Clark, Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1988, 78 pp.

The Incarnation was printed with a cover picture of a lady holding a baby. Could this be a representation of Mary and the baby Jesus? Could be. I don’t know what they looked like. So as not to conflict with Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 109, I have opted not to reproduce the image in this review.

I devoted Chapter 12 – “Persons, the Trinity, and The Incarnation” of The Presbyterian Philosopher to questions surrounding The Incarnation along also with Clark’s The Trinity. At the end of this review I’ll include the relevant material (minus footnotes) from that chapter.

First I wanted to note something else interesting in this volume that I do not recalling considering in previous readings. That is Clark’s denial God being infinite. (See Pages 55 to 64.) The only other place I recall Clark talking about God and “infinity” is in his theological examination in 1944. Anyways, I’m not presently understanding where he is going in this section. What does he mean by infinite? Perhaps he’s right that the Bible does not exactly ascribe the term “infinite” to God, but what is Clark’s positive argument against the idea? And how does this relate to the incarnation?

This is not the only difficulty in the book. The whole subject gets one’s mind spinning. Clark notes, “The real difficulty with the Incarnation is its real difficulty.” (p. 67) And there are a lot of difficulties packed into these short 78 pages.

For the previous review in this series see here.

For the next review in this series see here.


The Incarnation (Excerpt from The Presbyterian Philosopher)

In addition to working to better understand the doctrine of the Trinity, Clark set his sights on explaining the incarnation of Christ. Debates about the nature of Jesus Christ consumed the Christian church through much of the first seven centuries following Christ’s death. Was Christ God? Was he man? Was he both? Various attempts to solve this question were rejected as heresies in the early Christian church. These heresies included docetism (that Christ’s human form was merely an illusion), Arianism (that Christ was only a man and not God), Apollinarianism (that Christ had a human body but only a divine, not human, mind), Nestorianism (that Christ was two distinct hypostases or persons: the Logos and Jesus of Nazareth), Eutychianism (that the human and divine natures of Christ were mixed into a single new nature), and Monothelitism (that Christ had both the nature of God and man, but only one will). The condemnation of these various teachings as heretical was made official through a number of church councils. The First Council of Nicea (AD 325) produced the Nicene Creed, which stated that Jesus Christ is of one and the same substance as God the Father, rejecting both docetism and Arianism. The First Council of Constantinople (AD 381) rejected Apollinarianism, the Council of Ephesus (AD 431) rejected Nestorianism, the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) rejected Eutychianism, and the Third Council of Constantinople (AD 681) denounced Monothelitism as heretical.

Despite the credal statements produced at the ecumenical councils of the church, Clark saw that ambiguity remained regarding certain aspects of the doctrine of the incarnation. Perhaps the best explanation of the doctrine of Christ was that of the “hypostatic union” formulated at the Council of Chalcedon. This doctrine stated that Christ is one person of two natures, one human and one divine, with the natures neither confused nor divided.Clark did not disagree with this formula so much as he simply criticized it for using vague language.For Clark, there were two major issues that needed clarification. The first problem, Clark believed, was that the council never clearly defined person. Secondly, he believed Christ’s human-ness was always presented in the Bible as total. In other words, Christ does not only have the nature of a man; he is a man.

To address the first problem, i.e. the vagueness of Chalcedon on the meaning of person, Clark again utilized his definition of personas “a composite of truths,” saying, “A man is what he thinks.”To address the second problem, that Christ must be present as an actual man, he argued that in order to be “fully human” as Chalcedon stated, a human must also have a mind, for without a mind a man would not be fully human. Having a mind, Jesus was therefore a human person. Thus Clark employed his definition of person to arrive at the conclusion that Christ was two persons, one fully human, and one fully divine.

Clark specifically critiqued the position that Christ was a divine person only, and not a human person. Clark wrote,

If Jesus was not a human person, who or what suffered on the cross? The Second Person [of the Trinity] could not have suffered, for Deity is impassible. One of the heresies of the early ages … was Patripassianism. Substituting a modal trinity for the three distinct Persons, the theory requires the Father to have been crucified. But to require The Second Person, as such, to suffer is equally impossible. The Westminster Confession describes him as “a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions” (II, 1). If then the Second Person could not suffer, could a “nature” suffer?

Clark’s theory of Christology, using the term “person” to describe both Christ as man and Christ as God, opened him up to criticism, with some alleging that he held to the heresy of Nestorianism. This charge he anticipated in his writings. Clark wrote, “Some unfriendly critics will instantly brand the following defense of Christ’s humanity as the heresy of Nestorianism.”Yet he dismissed the critique as unable to “be sustained either logically or historically.”

David Engelsma, however, of the Protestant Reformed Churches, who was “friendly” to Clark’s views on many other topics, still saw Clark’s view as Nestorian. In a review of Clark’s book on the incarnation, Engelsma wrote, “Clark’s doctrine is the boldest, most advanced Nestorianism, suffering, fatally, from the weaknesses because of which the church rejected Nestorianism—its failure to unite the two natures of the Savior and its inability to unify the work of redemption.”Engelsma answered Clark’s question about who died on the cross, saying, “The answer is, The person of the eternal Son of God suffered and died in the human nature.”

Clark, in fact, was opposed to Nestorianism. He had just written a few years prior to The Incarnation in his commentary on Philippians (written circa 1982) a statement sounding much more like the traditional Chalcedonian view: “We must insist that Christ was not a human person somehow associated with a divine person. …we must avoid Nestorianism.”And he noted that “Nestorianism faces worse difficulties” than the orthodox doctrine.Yet in the same book, Clark noted that the Westminster Larger Catechism explained that Christ took “to himself a true body and reasonable soul.” On this basis, that Christ took both a body and a soul, Clark asked, “Does not this make him a human person?”This may indicate the early development of views Clark later articulated in The Incarnation.

As Clark was writing the book, he was acutely aware of the dangers of Nestorianism and was engrossed in solving the problem of the doctrine of the incarnation. He wrote to John Robbins, “[An] extremely difficult problem is the doctrine of the Incarnation. I have been working on it constantly since moving here [to Sangre de Cristo Seminary], and have some 150 handwritten pages. I can alleviate or eliminate several impossibilities in the doctrine as usually stated; but it is hard to avoid Nestorianism. I write and sleep, and sleep and write, and sometimes eat.”Later that month Clark wrote again, “My MS [manuscript] on the Incarnation may have 230 handwritten pages. It needs perhaps 25 more as a good conclusion. But there are so many complications in the subject, that putting them all together in a conclusion is really a very difficult problem.”

How then was Clark’s later view not Nestorianism, if he came to hold that there are two persons in Christ? In addition to the fact that he explicitly denied the charges of Nestorianism, Clark held that the ancient theologians, Nestorius included, never defined person, and therefore did not have a clear, unified idea of what the term meant. Since Clark had defined person in a unique way, the claim that Clark held the same view as Nestorius (or his followers) cannot be sustained. Secondly, rebutting the charges of Nestorianism in Clark’s doctrine, Gary Crampton and Kenneth Talbot have written, “It should be noted that Gordon Clark does not separate the two persons of Christ, as Nestorians do; rather, he ‘distinguishes’ between them. It is important to understand the difference between ‘separation’ and ‘distinction.’”This idea of “distinct but not separate” applies in that Clark held there are two persons, but these persons are united in one Christ.

So Clark’s view was not Nestorianism, but was it correct? Or perhaps the question is better phrased: Is Clark’s formulation an improvement upon Chalcedon? Returning to Engelsma’s objection, is Clark’s view unable to “unify the work of redemption” in his “failure to unite the two natures?” In previous works Clark wrote: “[The] Chalcedonian doctrine is necessary to support the function of Christ’s mediatorial office,”and also, “… the incarnate Jesus has two wills, one divine, and one human; and yet even with a human will, and a ‘reasonable soul,’ he is not a human person. Nestorianism, with its assertion that Christ was two persons, though plausible on the ground of this psychology, is nonetheless on the ground of the mediatorial atonement, a heresy.”Can Clark be said to have changed his views on this subject, or merely his terminology? Crampton and Talbot, holding Clark’s positions, respond, “God is impassible and cannot suffer. Orthodox Christianity maintains that Christ suffered on the cross as touching His humanity, not His divinity.”

Because The Incarnation was published posthumously, Clark was not around to see his readers’ reactions to the book, nor to continue to discuss the theology or defend his position. For many, Clark’s defense of two persons in Christ, even if not intentionally Nestorian, sounded Nestorian. This somewhat soured his reputation. Coupled with the various other controversies Clark was involved in, this has made him appear to be a controversial figure, even one whose writings some choose to avoid.

There was an inevitable tension between Clark’s desire to have a standard (the Westminster Standards along with the early church creeds) and his desire to see improved formulations of certain doctrines, such as the doctrine of the incarnation. Improving the formulation and understanding of doctrine is critical to the “always reforming” (semper reformanda) directive of the Reformed faith, but avoiding philosophical speculation is equally crucial. Readers of Clark’s work should consider for themselves whether Clark toed the line or fell into speculation over the doctrine of the incarnation.

The very last extant letter written by Clark suggests that he felt a fair amount of frustration at not being able to fully resolve the difficulties the doctrine of the incarnation presented. At the same time it also leaves room to conclude that, had someone been able to show him a position better than his own, he would have gladly entertained their arguments. In this letter, of February 1985, he wrote to John Robbins, “Maybe I am all wrong, but I won’t admit it until my critics define substance, being, subsistence, essence, etc., as well as person and nature.”As evidenced by similar positions expressed in the final published manuscript of The Incarnation, Clark continued to grapple with these questions right up until his death, just two months after the February letter.

7 thoughts on “GHC Review 44: The Incarnation”

  1. Pingback: GHC Review 43: Predestination | A Place for Thoughts

  2. A good summary. Thx Doug.
    I don’t know why anyone follows Chalcedon. It is just confusing.
    Clark is at least clear in his attempt at exegeting Scripture on this subject.
    +1 to Clark.

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  4. The creed of Chalcedon, is sound orthodoxy, Clark’s teaching of two persons has many biblical theological problems!

    1. The Belgic Confession of Faith Article 19 is a great commentary to the Creed of Chalcedon

    2. I am curious, Kevin what are those theological problems? Dr. Clark issues a sound argument that the terms *substance* and *nature* are philosophically problematic. When we speak of Christ as having a human *nature* but leave this undefined we are treading on theological thin ice. Scottish Common Sense philosophy has made significant inroads in Calvinist philosophy (by way of Plantiga et. al.) and many theologians fail to see the distinctions and what this entails.

  5. Read Martin Chemnitz on The Two Natures of Christ as well as some of Luther on this subject. A definite eye opener – giving peace and understanding to the confusion created by some folks who have to add to; and or alter historic Orthodox doctrine with a philosophical spin. Tommy

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