Themes in Puritan Theology: Christology
August 23, 2018
Moving on from a Puritan theology of the covenants, we come to consider the foundation of such in the person and work of Jesus Christ. To some extent, we have been introduced to Christ in our consideration of him as the second person of the Trinity, and specifically to our understanding of the doctrine of eternal generation. So, while we will consider the Christ of the early creeds, we will not cover that vital topic in this post.
First, Christ as “the eternal Son of God, became man” (WSC, Q21) in order to fulfill his role as a Redeemer (WSC, Q21). God, who was determined to have a people for himself could only secure them as such through the “restoring” action, says William Ames (The Marrow of Sacred Divinity, 1627), of a mediator between God and fallen and alienated humanity (1 Tim 2:5). He shows his “fitness . . . to perform the work of redemption” of men by taking on flesh, argues Ames. “Christ took our flesh,” notes Thomas Watson, that he might suffer in the same nature as sinners and know “how to pity” them in the process (A Body of Divinity, 1692).
Second, Christ in his incarnation was, and continues to be one person in two natures as the God-man. The Puritans affirmed the orthodox Christology of the early ecumenical councils while repudiated the faulty ones of the day (e.g. Socininianism). So, they upheld Christ’s full deity (with Nicea, 325) and humanity (with Constantinople, 381), and the hypostatic union (“one subsistence” with a “twofold way of subsisting” - Ames) of the two natures in one person (with Ephesus, 431, and Chalcedon, 451). As Mark Jones observes, this certainly did not take away Reformed concerns for Roman Catholic and Lutheran tendencies to overwhelm the humanity of Christ with his divinity while affirming the “twofold consubstantiality” of Christ (of the same substance with man and God). Thus, the Reformed orthodox were careful to maintain “the integrity of the human nature” of Christ regarding both his states of humiliation and exaltation (Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology, Reformation Heritage, 2012).
We can see something of this endeavor in the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q21-22), which evidences a detailed emphasis on Christ’s humanity. So, Q22 picks up from the two-natures-one-person language of Q21 to more explicitly address manner of the incarnation of Christ who took “to himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.” The Confession (8.2-3) supplements these crisp thoughts with mention that Christ: took “upon him man's nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities” yet as sinless; exhibited “two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, . . . inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion”; and “in his human nature thus united to the divine, was sanctified, and anointed with the Holy Spirit, above measure, having in him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
Third, in this union of two natures there exists “a personal communication of properties” without “transfusion” (Ames). In other words, Christ performs everything as a person even though their exist operations proper to each nature. Ames observes, “the properties of the one nature” may be “attributed. . . to the whole person” (e.g. Christ died) or to the “other nature because of the person” (e.g. God received to glory 1 Tim 3:16) or things “proper to the whole person” get “attributed to either nature” (e.g. “man” Christ as mediator 1 Tim 2:5). This communication is not just words, yet neither “is it so real that the property of one nature doth pass” to the other. So, we see in Christ “two understandings,” one divine and all-knowing (John 21:17) and the other human “whereby he knew not some things as yet” (Mark. 13:32). Likewise, he had “two wills, one divine (Luke 5:13) and the other humane together also with a natural appetite (Matt 26:39).” With a proper focus on the communication of attributes (communication idiomatum), Ames rejects Roman Catholic and Lutheran abuse of such in the Lord’s Supper where a real communication of properties wrongly allows the human nature of Christ to be “in many places at once.” He also points out the Roman Catholic “real donation” in which the human nature gets divine abilities (e.g. denied in Matt 26:39).
Fourth, Christ showed his “fitness” as our Redeemer, in part, by undertaking his “office” to “obtain salvation for men” (Ames). By way of the eternal covenant of redemption, notes Ames, the Father “ordained his Son to this office” as he agreed to “make himself a sacrifice for sin.” This threefold mediatorial office (in line with Reformation, Medieval, and Patristic theology) is “Of a Prophet, of a Priest, of a King” as Christ, respectively: “revealed the whole Will of God that bringeth salvation” (e.g. Deut 18:15), “purged by sacrifice the sins of men, and obtained the favour of God for them” (e.g. Rom 5:10), and “doth dispense and administer all things with power and authority” (e.g. Dan 2:44). Each aspect of this mediatorial office gets fulfilled in both the humanity and divinity of the Redeemer, says Ames (“each nature doing that which is proper to itself,” WCF 8.7). He had to be God, to “keep the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God, and the power of death; give worth and efficacy to his sufferings, obedience, and intercession; and to satisfy God's justice, procure his favor, purchase a peculiar people, give his Spirit to them, conquer all their enemies, and bring them to everlasting salvation” (WLC, Q38). Likewise, he had to be man, to “advance our nature, perform obedience to the law, suffer and make intercession for us in our nature, have a fellow-feeling of our infirmities; that we might receive the adoption of sons, and have comfort and access with boldness unto the throne of grace” (WLC, Q39).
Fifth, Christ as a mediator “purchased redemption” by his “perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself” in which he “fully satisfied the justice of his Father” (WCF 8.5). While the priestly satisfaction by Christ mentioned in the WCF does not employ the explicit language of penal substitution, this does not mean a return to Anselm’s satisfaction view where Christ, instead of being punished for transgressors, makes payment to restore the infinite dishonor done to the Father (See discussion in J.V. Fesko, The Theology of the Westminster Standards). Notice most importantly that he is said to satisfy the “justice” of the Father and not his honor specifically (WCF 8.5 and WSC,Q25). So, Thomas Watson, in discussing the priestly satisfaction of Christ (which he also calls an “atonement”), makes abundantly clear what Christ does for sinners: “Unus peccat, alius plectitur [One man sins, another takes the punishment]” (A Body of Divinity, 1692). Likewise, Watson’s focus on the active and passive obedience as satisfaction finds agreement with Edward Leigh who notes that through Christ we must not only “satisfy God for our unrighteousness, but also perform perfect righteousness, else we could not be admitted to his favor” (A System or Body of Divinity, 1654).
Sixth, this satisfaction occurred for all whom the Father has given Christ, the elect (WCF 8.5, cf. 3.6). At first glance, WCF 3.6 and 8.5 seem to make clear that Christ as a mediator purchased redemption particularly for the elect only. In popular language (based on the misleading T.U.L.I.P. expression), Christ’s was a “limited atonement.” Certainly, the Arminian (Remonstrant) contention that Christ died effectively for all (and by implication died definitely for none) gets rejected here. However, as Fesko notes, Confessional expression on the extent of the atonement seems more nuanced than a strict particularism of Christ dying only for the elect. Looking to the scholarship of Chad Van Dixhoorn (The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1652, 5 vols., Oxford, 2012) and in line with the research of Richard Muller, Fesko discusses evidence that the Assembly never openly rejected the British hypothetical universalism (e.g. John Davenant, John Preston, and James Ussher) present at the time. This seems likely based on Assembly debates on extent of the atonement and the later testimony of Richard Baxter about them. Hypothetical universalism had surfaced clearly at the Synod of Dort (e.g. Davenant) and was considered in line with its Canons. It basically proposed, somewhat in line with the common Reformation and Medieval argument that Christ died sufficiently for all and efficiently for the elect, that Christ’s death was ordained to make all humanity saveable yet was efficiently applied to the elect only. This goes beyond the more common idea that Christ’s death was of sufficient value to save all while being ordained for the elect only. Likewise, this ordination of a universal satisfaction for all humanity conditioned on faith differs from Amyraldianism (e.g. Moises Amyraut and John Cameron) setting forth a hypothetical decree of predestination of the whole human race conditioned on faith. Subsequent to this decree, the Amyraldian argues that God decrees faith for the elect only apart from which they would never believe. We may not accept the claims of the hypothetical universalist, but we must give serious consideration to its prevalence and acceptance among the Puritans.
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For previous posts in this series, see: