A Theological and Scripturalist Defense of Gordon H. Clark's Two Person View of the Incarnation
By Charlie J. Ray, M. Div.
Continuing with our study of Dr. Gordon H. Clark's apologetic system, I am attempting to show that Dr. Clark did not suddenly become a Nestorian at the end of his life when he wrote his final book as some advocates of Cornelius Van Til's theology have asserted. Instead I want to show that Clark had developed his theology of the incarnation much earlier in his life and his book, The Incarnation, (Jefferson: Trinity Foundation, 1988), was simply a continuation of the logical implications of many propositions Clark had articulated in his books and lectures throughout his career.
In this post I want to examine what Dr. Clark has to say about Christ the mediator in his series of articles on the Westminster Confession of Faith. Christ the Mediator is chapter VIII in the Confession. And it is telling that Clark emphasizes the prioritizing of the chapters in the Confession once again as a logical system in which all the parts fit together in harmony:
Of course, this feeling that one doctrine or one chapter is the most important is purely psychological, momentary, and relative to a particular purpose. One might as well ask which wheel or tire of an auto is the most important. Presumably it is the tire that is about to run over a tack. Otherwise they are all equally important. This is true of the chapters of the Confession because they fit together as a system and are not haphazard and disjointed. It was previously pointed out that the doctrines of predestination and providence underlie effectual calling and the perseverance of the saints; the covenant bears on New Testament baptism; and of course the fall of man necessitates a Redeemer and Mediator. They all fit together.
Dr. Gordon H. Clark. What Do Presbyterians Believe? The Westminster Confession Yesterday and Today. 1965. (Unicoi: Trinity Foundation, 2001). P. 91.
To put it in Scripturalist terms, the doctrine of the Incarnation cannot be neatly separated from the rest of the system of propositional truths which are deduced from the Bible. (Westminster Confession, 1:6). The doctrine of Scripture, God's eternal self existence as Trinity, predestination, creation, the fall of man, and the doctrine of the atonement all relate to one another. According to Dr. Clark, the Westminster Confession of Faith is the best summary of the system of theology ever written and even so it does not come close to exhausting all the possible propositions which can be deduced from the Bible. "But if it is asked, What do Presbyterians believe, the answer will always be, the Bible and its most excellent summary, the Westminster Confession." ("Preface", 1965. Ibid., p. ix).
Dr. Clark's book on the Westminster Confession originally appeared as a series of articles in the Southern Presbyterian Journal from 1954-1955. Some chapters were added later in 1956. But the book as it stands now was published in 1965 and then reprinted in 2001. But Clark was already pointing out in the 1940s and 1950s that Jesus Christ in His human nature had a genuine human soul and was limited in every way just as we are. Since God is a spiritual being, obviously to identify with humanity and to redeem the elect from their sins the mediator had to become incarnate in human form. God cannot suffer human pain because He is a spirit. (John 4:24).
The main idea is not too difficult to understand. In order to serve as a mediator, the Son of God had to become a man. This is most evident with respect to the crucifixion. Obviously if the mediator was to die on the cross, or die in any way, it was necessary to have a body. A pure Spirit could not be executed. . . . What we call the incarnation involves more than God's taking a body. What the Second Person of the Trinity took to himself was a "man's nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof." That is, Jesus had a human mind that he could advance in wisdom, as well as stature, and in favor with God and men (Luke 2:52). (Ibid., pp. 94-95).
Here Clark still holds to the view that Christ is one person as taught in the Definition of Chalcedon 451 A.D. and the Westminster Confession 8:2. (Ibid., p. 95). But notice in the quote above that Dr. Clark says that "Jesus had a human mind that he could advance in wisdom . . ." It is clear to me that Clark was thinking about the apparent contradictions involved in the doctrine of the incarnation early on in his career. Also, this is not something new to Reformed theologians since even Dr. R. C. Sproul acknowledges that Christ in his human nature is not omniscient.
One of the most often cited criticisms of Clark's view is that the orthodox view takes into account the communicatio idiomatum and attributes of both the divine nature and the human nature are predicated of the one person. Unfortunately, this is confusing because obviously the eternal Logos is an omniscient person, the second person of the triune Godhead, while the human soul of Jesus is fully personal and is not omniscient. Dr. Clark recognizes the problems entailed by this but does not tackle the issue early on. But to show that he understood the implications of the heretical views I wish to quote extensively from two of his earlier books. Some modern evangelists unwittingly commit the heresy of Apollinarianism when they insist that Jesus was "God in a body". Apollinarianism taught that the divine Logos replaced the human soul of Jesus Christ. But Dr. Clark also rejected Nestorianism:
In addition to the view that Jesus was "God in a body," a theologian by the name of Nestor conceived Jesus Christ to be two different persons: one person purely human, the other purely divine. Another attempt was to conceive of the Savior as neither God nor man, but of a sort of "chemical" mixture the characteristics of the components were both lost. The student is urged to look up Nestorianism, Eutychianism, and Docetism in a theological encyclopedia. The subject matter is very interesting.
Eventually the Council of Chalcedon, after nearly four hundred years of church history, arrived at the orthodox doctrine that "two whole, perfect, and distinct natures were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion."
This Chalcedonian doctrine is necessary to support the function of Christ's mediatorial office. The reason is that if Christ were a mere man, he could not function as a mediator; nor could he if he were simply God. In both cases he would be confined to one extreme and fail to link the two. If Christ were neither God nor man, but an angel or something else, he would be a barrier between God and man rather than a mediator. But as both God and man, as truly God as man and as truly man as God, Christ can be the Mediator and unite God and men.
In the middle of the section ii the Confession [WCF 8:2] states the method God chose to accomplish the incarnation. Christ became man by the Virgin Birth.
Ibid., p. 95.
The Roman Catholic Church progressively took extreme liberties with the doctrine of the virgin birth and the orthodox view that Mary was the God bearer or theotokos has been expanded to include the mariolatry that Mary is the mediatrix and a repository of grace as indicated in the line from the rosary where Mary is said to be "full of grace," a mistranslation of the verse from where the Greek actually says Mary was "highly favored" of God. (Luke 1:28). The Nestorian controversy was over Nestorius's insistence that Mary only gave birth to the human nature of Christ and was thus the Christ bearer or christotokos and not the bearer of God. That's because God has no beginning and no end as an eternally self existent triunity of three persons. So on this point at least, Nestorius was correct and the early church was wrong. Mary conceived Jesus supernaturally but she only gave birth to the human nature of Christ. How could flesh and blood give literal birth to God since God is an eternal spirit? (John 4:24). [See my post, The Perpetual Virginity of Mary].
The liberal church historian, Adolf von Harnack, in his discussion of the Valentinian form of Gnosticism points out that the Roman Catholic Church adopted at least a portion of the gnostic view:
The characteristic of the Gnostic Christology is not Docetism, in the strict sense, but the doctrine of the two natures, that is, the distinction between Jesus and Christ, or the doctrine that the Redeemer as Redeemer was not a man. The Gnostics based this view on the inherent sinfulness of human nature, and it was shared by many teachers of the age without being based on any principle (see above, p. 195 f.). The most popular of the three Christologies briefly characterised above was undoubtedly that of the Valentinians. It is found, with great variety of details, in most of the nameless fragments of Gnostic literature that have been preserved, as well as in Apelles. This Christology might be accommodated to the accounts of the Gospels and the baptismal confession (how far is shewn by the regula of Apelles, and that of the Valentinians may have run in similar terms). It was taught here that Christ had passed through Mary as a channel; from this doctrine followed very easily the notion of the Virginity of Mary, uninjured even after the birth—it was already known to Clem. Alex. (Strom. VII. 16. 93). The Church also, later on, accepted this view.
Harnack, Adolf von. History of Dogma, Volume 1 (p. 317). Footnote 357. . Kindle Edition.
It gets even more complicated as some Evangelicals apparently have accepted patripassionism and/or modalism when they infer that one of the persons of the trinity suffered on the cross:
Nestorianism is basically the doctrine that Jesus existed as two persons, the man Jesus and the divine Son of God, rather than as a unified person. This doctrine is identified with Nestorius (c.386-451), Patriarch of Constantinople, although he himself denied holding this belief. This view of Christ was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431, and the conflict over this view led to the Nestorian schism, separating the Assyrian Church of the East from the Byzantine Church.
The motivation for this view was an aversion to the idea that "God" suffered and died on the cross, be it the divinity itself, the Trinity, or one of the persons of the Trinity. Thus, they would say, Jesus the perfect man suffered and died, not the divine second person of the Trinity, for such is an impossible thought -- hence the inference that two "persons" essentially inhabited the one body of Jesus. Nestorius himself argued against calling Mary the "Mother of God" (Theotokos) as the church was beginning to do. He held that Mary was the mother of Christ only in respect to His humanity. The council at Ephesus (431) accused Nestorius of the heresy of teaching "two persons" in Christ and insisted that Theotokos was an appropriate title for Mary.
I am laying some groundwork for Clark's view of the incarnation so the patience of the reader with the long quotes to substantiate the problems inherent in the doctrinal formulations of many Evangelicals is appreciated. Dr. Clark is aware of these implications and tackles the problem of the liberal doctrine of kenosis and whether or not God could literally die in his book, The Atonement: "Christ proved to be a man, not only because he got tired and thirsty, but because he died. God cannot die. In fact it is precisely because God cannot die that Jehovah became a man." Dr. Gordon H. Clark. The Atonement. 1987. (Hobbs: Trinity Foundation, 1996). P. 50.
Some Evangelicals and Charismatic/Pentecostals have adopted the sub-kenotic view of Millard Erickson and Henry Thiessen. Due to time constraints I will stop here and discuss the problem of the incarnation from the point of view of the kenosis and sub-kenosis views and how that relates to the divine attributes and the human attributes of the Christ in the incarnation from a more orthodox perspective.
See previous post at: Incarnation Part 3
This email has been checked for viruses by Avast antivirus software.