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As a sequel to my previous post about Apollinarian patterns of thought in Chinese churches today, this article will discuss Nestorian tendencies in Chinese Reformed theology. Before going on to introduce the heresy of Nestorianism, it would be helpful to explain what I mean by theology “Chinese” and “Reformed,” particularly as it touches upon Christology, the doctrine of the person of Christ.
Reformed theology as delimited by its confessional boundaries subscribes to the Definition of Chalcedon, so does Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism. Chalcedonian Christology teaches the abiding distinction and inseparable union of Christ’s two natures—divine and human—in the one person of the Son of God, so to uphold the tenet that in the incarnation God the Son became truly and fully human without ceasing to be truly and fully God.
The distinctive feature of Reformed Christology comes to light when we compare it to its Lutheran counterpart, particularly in the disputed doctrine of the Communication of Attributes (communicatio idiomatum), the notion that by virtue of the inseparable union, there takes place a communication between Christ’s two natures such that some attributes of the one also apply to the other.
According to Lutheranism, the communicatio occurs in three genera: (1) that of the attributes (genus idiomatic), as occurs within the person of Christ, such that whatever may be said about Christ in the one nature, by virtue of the union, can also be said about him in the other (e.g. we can say that ‘the Nazarene is omnipotent’ even though strictly speaking Christ has never been and will never be omnipotent according to his human nature); (2) that of the acts and works of Christ (genus apotelesmaticum), such that all Christ’s actions and experiences in one nature are performed and undergone by his entire person (e.g. we can say that the Son of God died on the cross, even though God the Son in his transcendent nature cannot die and has never died); and (3) that of divine majesty (genus maiesticum), such that after the ascension into heaven, some of Christ’s divine attributes such as omniscience and omnipresence are really transferred to his human nature (e.g. Christ in his humanity really became omnipresent so that the substance of his flesh and blood can be really present at the right hand of the Father and on the Eucharist table simultaneously).
Reformed Christology can agree with Lutheranism about the genus apotelesmaticum (i.e., Christ’s actions and experiences are performed and undergone by his person, rather than by individual natures detached or insulated from the person), and even concur that in some sense there is communicatio in the genus idiomatic (e.g. the Reformed see no problem in stating that the Son of God assumed human weaknesses, or that Jesus of Nazareth is almighty, as long as these statements are not taken to imply that the attributes of the one nature are really transferred to the other). However, as Calvin and Reformed orthodoxy see it, in teaching the genus maiesticum, Lutheran Christology has over-emphasised the Chalcedonian principle of the inseparable union and violated the principle of the abiding distinction. By the latter principle, Chalcedon clearly states that Christ’s two natures are united in one person “without change” (Christ’s divine nature does not become anything other than divine, and his human nature does not become anything other than human) and “without confusion” (the two natures do not get mixed together, but each remains intact and distinct from the other).
Stressing the Chalcedonian principle of abiding distinction, Calvin and Reformed theologians resolutely rejected the genus maiesticum as taught by Lutheranism, as this Lutheran dogma virtually denies two of the “four fences of Chalcedon”—“without confusion” and “without change.” In turn, Lutheran theologians charged the Reformed with Nestorianism, the heresy that teaches the full separation of Christ’s two natures between which there is no communication whatsoever, and labeled the Reformed rejection of the genus maiesticum as the “Calvinistic extra” (extra Calvinisticum).
This Lutheran accusation, however, is of course false. Reformed theology never maintained that there is no communication between Christ’s two natures. Reformed theology carries through with the modal logic of Chalcedon more consistently than Lutheranism, honouring both the principle of the abiding distinction and that of the inseparable union. Therefore, for instance, whereas Luther and later Lutheranism would boldly speak of the “death of God” on the cross, Reformed theology would more carefully speak of the “death of the Son of God.” Meanwhile, Reformed theology recognises Christ as one person, so that whatever Christ suffers in his human nature (e.g. death) is suffered by his entire, unabridged person. That is, by virtue of the inseparable union, the death of Jesus of Nazareth is the death of the Son of God, even though the Son of God in his transcendent nature cannot die and never died.
Chinese Reformed Theology
Readers familiar with the historical developments of Reformed theology would know about its diversity in relation to geographic locations. There are differences in styles and theological emphases between, for instance, Continental and British Reformed theology. There were also in-house debates such as the Lapsarian Controversy that were not defined by geographic boundaries. However, the influence of language and culture on Reformed theology as developed in different geographical locations is hardly deniable.
The Chinese reception of Reformed theology is historically complex, and I do not intend to introduce this convoluted history in this article. Suffice it to say that on top of what appears to the human perspective as historical contingencies, the influence of Chinese language and culture on the development of Reformed theology in Chinese churches has been inevitable. This is what I mean when I speak of “Chinese Reformed theology.”
In what follows I will discuss Nestorian patterns of thought in Chinese Reformed theology, to which end I will first introduce Nestorianism briefly.
The heresy is named after Nestorius, once Bishop of Constantinople in early Fifth Century. It should be clarified that Nestorius himself was probably not a Nestorian, but I will not go into details here. Suffice it to say that the term Nestorianism refers to the heresy described and condemned by Cyril of Alexandria (see my previous post) and the Council of Ephesus in the Fifth Century, rather than what Nestorius probably taught in reality. It is meaningful to speak of this heresy, however, because it really existed even though Nestorius probably did not teach it, and its ghost has really haunted Christian theology through the ages.
The central tenet of Nestorianism is that Christ’s two natures are so distinct from one another that there is no communication between the two whatsoever. Nestorius rejected the term Theotokos (God-bearer) as a description of the Virgin Mary and opted for the term Christotokos (Christ-bearer) instead. The term Theotokos, later adopted by the Definition of Chalcedon, expresses the understanding that the person who entered and came out of Mary’s womb was the person of God the Son, and not a human person. According to Chalcedon, Christ’s two natures are united in the one person of God the Son, not separated into two persons. Nestorius’s teaching of Mary as Christotokos was taken by his opponents to imply that for him, Mary gave birth to a human person, and so Christ was two natures in two persons, rather than in one person of the Son.
Regardless of whether Nestorius himself taught that Christ was two persons, one divine and the other human, the heretical tendency to separate Christ’s human actions and experiences from his divine person has influenced Christian thinking in various ways through the ages. Sometimes individual teachers of Reformed theology fall into the Nestorian heresy by over-emphasising what Lutherans once ridiculed as the extra-Calvinisticum (see this post on The Reformed Arsenal), though Reformed confessions and major Reformed theologians have always been careful to maintain both the Chalcedonian principles of the abiding distinction and the inseparable union. The Chinese reception of Reformed theology, however, has been pervasively plagued with Nestorian patterns of thought. In what follows, I will demonstrate the influence of the Chinese language and worldview on Chinese Reformed Christology.
Chinese Reformed Christology
Chinese Worldview: Lack of Notions of Qualitative Transcendence
Unlike European languages, as analytic philosophers have long noted, there is no clear subject-object separation in Chinese grammar. This feature of the Chinese language is closely related to the Chinese worldview as a collective mindset resulting from competing Chinese philosophies. This worldview, of course, is not static. It has always been changing over time. Moreover, Chinese culture has always been diverse and not monolithic. Yet, some things remain to make Chinese culture distinctively Chinese (think of it this way: artifacts from the Dynasty of Tang look vastly different from those from the Song, but they are both recognisably Chinese and not, say, Japanese or Korean), and we can indeed speak of “the Chinese worldview” without feeling the need to always account for different Chinese worldviews separately. For instance, Neo-Confucianism of the Ming is markedly different from the Taoism of the Zhou, but we can speak of both of them as Chinese, just as we can describe both Heraclitus and Aristotle as Greek.
The lack of subject-object separation in Chinese grammar reflects a distinctive feature of the Chinese worldview. Chinese concepts of transcendence, such as Heaven (天), Li (理), and Tao (道) as presented in the Confucianisms through the ages, or Taoist conceptions of the Tao, are never absolutely objectified from the human subject. Sometimes these notions resemble Hegel’s conception of Spirit, which, though absolute and in some sense objective, is ultimately one with the human subject, as human beings are Spirit. This would be the case with Taoism and Neo-Confucianism of the Song, which maintain some relative concept of transcendence. In other cases, the transcendent is completely identified with the human heart. This is the case with the Neo-Confucianism of Wang Yang Ming, which is in many ways akin to Schleiermacher’s consciousness theology.
In other words, in the Chinese worldview, there is always, in one way or another, and to different extents, some sort of subject-object identification between the human and the transcendent (I refrain from using ‘the divine’ and ‘the transcendent’ synonymously, since the Chinese, just as the ancient Greeks, do not usually equate divinity with transcendence). In the Chinese worldview, the difference between the human and the transcendent is at best quantitative—in some cases it might even be described as an infinite difference—but never qualitative.
Reactionary Consequence in Chinese Reformed Christology
Because of the lack of notions of qualitative transcendence in the Chinese worldview, Chinese Christians often fail to appreciate the doctrine of the incarnation as an offence to fallen human reason. Chinese logic has a relatively soft view of the Law of Non-Contradiction (this is not to say that it is completely absent in Chinese logic) compared to European logic. This is also reflected in in Chinese grammar. Under the influence of Chinese logic and Chinese ontologies of the transcendent, Chinese Christians often tend to fail to understand that human and divine natures stand in an either-or relation: God is not human, and human beings are not God.
Chalcedonian Christology teaches that Christ is truly and fully God. Meanwhile, Chalcedonian Christology also teaches that Christ is truly and fully human. This constitutes and offence to fallen human reason, because Chalcedon subscribes to a strong view of the Law of Non-Contradiction and an absolute view of divine transcendence.
Yet, the Chinese mindset would often fail to see the Christian doctrine of the incarnation as an offence to reason, not because Chinese reason is unfallen, but because in the Chinese worldview the transcendent has never been thought of as qualitatively different from the human.
Like Hegel, Schleiermacher, and D. F. Strauss, Chinese Christians have traditionally exhibited a strong tendency to blur the line between God and humanity and ascribe some kind of a teleological status to the subject-object identification in the concept of the God-man. As a result, one overwhelming doctrine that has directed much of the life of the Chinese church is the Theosis (deification), which Watchman Nee, Witness Lee, and their followers explicitly teach: God became human so that human beings can become divine. They fail to understand why Chalcedon insists that Christ’s two natures are united “without change”: even Christ’s human nature never becomes divine, let alone that of the believers who are united to Christ.
Needless to say, Reformed theology, with its ruthless emphasis on divine transcendence and thus the Chalcedonian principle of the abiding distinction, can have none of this. Even Lutherans would firmly reject the doctrine of the Theosis (contra the Finnish School of Luther studies). Consequently, many Chinese teachers of Reformed theology, especially those of an older generation, have made it their business to instill in the believers a strong and absolute sense of divine transcendence.
In so doing, however, Chinese Reformed theology has often over-reacted in emphasising the abiding distinction between Christ’s two natures, and the result has been a Nestorian tendency to separate the man Jesus from God the Son. Many, if not most, Chinese teachers of Reformed theology would insist, inter alia, that Jesus died as a human person and not as the Son of God. Their intention is to avoid ascribing anything human to Christ’s divine person, but they do not realise that they have virtually taught a separation of Christ into two persons and violated the Chalcedonian principle of the inseparable union. I shall give examples of this tendency anon, but first I will discuss another feature of the Chinese worldview that has a more direct, rather than reactionary, bearing on Chinese Reformed theology.
Chinese Worldview: “Platonic” Impulses
Despite the lack of notions of qualitative transcendence in the Chinese worldview, no major Chinese school of philosophy ascribes eternal meaning to the visible, tangible, and material world of transience. China’s indigenised versions of Buddhism identify everything visible and transient as nothingness that is ultimately unreal. The human body, in particular, is described as “stinky skin bag.”
In comparison to Buddhism, Confucianism holds to a higher view of human embodiment. Confucius teaches that “the body, the hair, and the skin are all derived from one’s father and mother, and are not to be harmed.” Because Confucianism, unlike Buddhism, holds filial relationships to be sacred, what one receives from one’s parents, including the body, is also taken to be sacred. Even then, Confucianism does not find eternal meaning in anything transient. I-Ching, one of Confucianism’s Five Scriptures, teaches that “the meta-physical is called the Tao, and the physical is called tools.” For Confucius, “if one hears the Tao in the morning, one can die in the evening.” That is, once one attains unto noetic and ethical union with the Tao, the purpose of this life would be fulfilled, and life would no longer be worth living.
Whereas most versions of Confucianism, with the exception of perhaps certain schools of Neo-Confucianism of the Song, attempt to discover the eternal Tao through observing ethical relationships between human persons (most of Song Neo-Confucianism) or through self-searching (Neo-Confucianism of Wang Yang Ming), Taoism exhibits a stronger longing for nature in the wilderness and the mountains. However, Taoism does not ascribe eternal meaning to nature either. Rather, the Taoist would become one with nature to stand in a subject-subject relation with the Tao, which fills the heaven and the earth and tells the Taoist that the heaven and the earth are empty and non-active.
These three major schools of philosophy have been formative of the Chinese literati, the educated, elite class that exhibits a general disdain towards anything this-worldly. This is evinced by the fact that in Chinese feudal society, merchants constitute the lowest of the four social classes. The Chinese worldview is strongly characterised by a sense of Platonic longing for something other-worldly, something eternal that lies beyond and above what is physical, visible, and transient. Little value is given to the natural, the physical, and the this-worldly.
Consequences in Chinese Reformed Christology
The Chinese longing for the eternal and disdain toward the this-worldly reminiscent of Platonism finds unique expressions in Chinese Reformed theology. The historic Reformed emphasis on divine transcendence and thus the distinctive accent on the abiding distinction between Christ’s two natures are especially agreeable to the temperament of the Chinese literati.
Sometimes this “Platonic” impulse among the Chinese literati leads to Apollinarian patterns of thought, which I discussed in my previous post (see here). The famous founder of the so-called Reformed Evangelical Movement, who is by far the most influential Chinese teacher of all times carrying the banner of Reformed theology (notwithstanding his blatant violations of some of the most fundamental tenets of confessional Reformed theology), for instance, controversially states that he “cannot accept that any part of Christ’s person is created.” He thus denies the creatureliness of Christ’s human nature, and teaches that Christ’s disembodied “human-ness” is eternal and pre-existent. This calls into question whether he can speak of Christ as having truly and fully experienced human death on the cross—his answers to this question are characteristically fraught with ambiguities and confusions.
Chinese teachers who are more solidly trained in Reformed theology realise this problem. They understand that if they are to take seriously Christ’s true and full experience of human death on the cross—it constitutes the core of the Evangelical doctrine of penal-substitutionary atonement—they must acknowledge that Christ is really consubstantial with us. They know better that if they are to call themselves confessionally Reformed, they must agree that “Christ’s human nature has not lost its properties but continues to have those of a creature—it has a beginning of days; it is of a finite nature and retains all that belongs to a real body” (Belgic Confession 19).
However, many Chinese teachers of Reformed theology, especially those of older generations who tend to be more heavily burdened with traditional Chinese worldviews, feel that if they are to truly honour the transcendence of Christ’s person, they must detach everything this-worldly in Christ’s human agency from God the Son, especially weakness, suffering, and death. They insist that since God is impassible, Christ’s death pertains strictly to his human agency, and the Son of God never experienced human death.
What they do not realise is the implicit Nestorianism this entails. In Chalcedonian vocabulary, persons are the agents that perform actions and undergo experiences, not natures. Christ’s death was indeed human and not divine—God cannot die and never died—and yet Christ underwent human death not as a nature (that would have made no sense) but as a person. If the person of God the Son did not experience the human death that Christ suffered, Christ must have undergone death in another person—a human person—for human nature could not have been the active agent that underwent death. Yet, to separate Christ’s divine and human natures into two persons would be blatantly Nestorian.
Regrettably, this heretical view has been taught not only by teachers who are not well enough trained in Reformd theology, but even the Acting President of China Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS) in Taipei (who holds a Ph.D. from Westminster Theological Seminary!), among other prominent Chinese Reformed teachers, insists that in no sense may a true Christian speak of the death of the Son of God. At his church, Charles Wesley’s famous lyrics have been banned: “‘Tis mystery all, the Immortal died… Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”
Practical Consequences Among Chinese Reformed Christians
Aside from doctrinal consequences that are easily identified as basically or implicitly Nestorian, the Chinese Reformed impulse to emphasise the Chalcedonian principle of the abiding distinction at the expense of the inseparable union—the impulse to deny communications between Christ’s two natures even in the genus apotelesmaticum—also carries practical consequences in the life of the church.
As Christ’s true and full human nature is severed from his person as God the Son, many Chinese Reformed believers take imitatio Christi to mean the pursuit of everything other-worldly and the denial of everything this-worldly. Ecclesiastical vocation is perceived as intrinsically holier than any worldly career—the Reformed Evangelical Movement in Asia, despite its slogan of “cultural mandate,” is dedicated to calling the social elite to abandon their worldly careers to pursue ecclesiastical and/or evangelistic vocations. Evangelistic ministry, which carries eternal significance for the soul, is described as having infinitely more worth than marriage and family. The aforementioned CRTS Acting President once encouraged a young single parishioner to stay at a doctrinally sound church even if there was no potential spouse for her there, because, as he put it, friendship with Christ is infinitely more valuable than worldly marriage. Unlike the Puritans whom Leland Ryken describes as “worldly saints,” Chinese Reformed theology exhibits strongly puritanical tendencies, failing to see that the Puritans were usually the very opposite of puritanical.
One of the causes of these puritanical tendencies, as I have mentioned, is the Nestorian patterns of thought in Chinese Reformed theology and the underlying Platonic impulse of the Chinese literati. Taken as a whole, the Chinese Reformed community still has quite a long way to go before it can be considered truly Reformed. Perhaps Bruce Baugus’s terminology more accurately describes this community as “reforming” rather than “Reformed” (see his article series on Reformation21, as well as his forthcoming article series on the false teaching of Christ’s uncreated and eternally self-existent humanity, which pervades China’s reforming churches).
The Death of Christ: the Confessional Reformed View
As stated at the outset, confessional Reformed Christology upholds both the Chalcedonian principles of the abiding distinction and the inseparable union. What does this mean for the question of the death of Christ? If the refusal to acknowledge Christ’s death as the experience of the person of God the Son constitutes an implicit Nestorianism, what does confessional Reformed Christology really teach? And what would a right view of the death of Christ mean for the life of the church?
Confessional Reformed theology explicitly acknowledges Christ’s death as the death of the Son of God: “The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin” (Canons of Dort, II.3). This profound statement acknowledges that the Mediator between God and sinners is one person, not two, for otherwise there could have been no satisfaction for sin made to God on behalf of God’s elect in Christ (see my previous article). It acknowledges that Christ underwent human death in his one unabridged person as the Son of God. Indeed, confessional Reformed theology speaks explicitly of “the death of the Son of God” to avoid the heresy of Nestorianism that takes away the salvific significance of Christ’s death.
At the same time, Reformed theology is always careful to honour the Chalcedonian principle of the abiding distinction. Properly speaking, Christ’s death is a human death, as God in his transcendent nature cannot die and never died. It is only by virtue of the inseparable union of the two natures in the one person of Christ that we can speak, secundum quid, of the death of the Son of God.
John Frame is well-balanced in his presentation of the confessional Reformed view: “In his incarnation, the Son suffers injury and loss: physical pain, deprivation, and death… As we have seen, the doctrine of God’s impassibility should not be used to deny that God has emotions, or to deny that God the Son suffers real injury and death on the cross. But God in his transcendent nature cannot be harmed in any way, nor can he suffer loss” (John Frame, Systematic Theology, 417).
This Christology assures us that the Son of God is truly transcendent (contra the views of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee, and inadequate notions of transcendence in the Chinese worldview) and truly God-with-us (against the implicit Nestorianism and Apollinarism that plague much of Chinese Reformed theology). The Reformed understanding of the incarnation thus ascribes eternal value to things temporal and transient that have been sanctified in Christ. As Christ truly and fully participates in our death, our death and this life under the shadow of death is given eternal meaning through his resurrection. J. I. Packer, my beloved master who insists that the doctrine of divine impassibility must not be taken to deny the truly and fully human death of the Son of God, describes the Puritans as “at once this-worldly and other-worldly.” Indeed, the Reformed understanding of the death of the Son of God lends meaning to things this-worldly, even negative things like suffering and death, that have been sanctified. The title and content of Packer’s A Grief Sanctified well captures the spirit of Reformed Christology. The reforming churches of the Chinese world can be truly in but not of the world only when our Christology walks out of the Nestorian shadow and becomes truly Reformed.