"Notes" to the Belgic
Confession - Rev. C. Bouwman
TWO NATURES IN THE ONE PERSON OF CHRIST
Guido deBres wrote the Belgic Confession in a context of great struggle. DeBres worked in the midst of persecution by the Roman Catholic government and was consequently forced to work 'underground', was imprisoned by the authorities, and beheaded on account of his faith. In the midst of his struggles, deBres wrote the Confession, wrote also article 19 concerning the divine and human natures of Christ. One may well question deBres' doing so. Of what relevance was the issue of Christ's two natures to the tensions experienced by deBres in his day? Is the topic of the two natures of Christ not strictly academic and irrelevant to the daily struggles of the believer??
As a minister, it was deBres' responsibility to instruct his congregation in the truths of Scripture; the truths of God's revelation. This revelation of God included Christ's incarnation, the doctrine that God the Son became man, was born as a baby in Bethlehem. That Christ became man was not denied or disputed in deBres' day. What was disputed though, was the relationship, the interaction between the divine and human natures of Christ. How was Jesus true God and true man simultaneously? It was this that deBres sought to defend in article 19. It was his conviction that the truth of God's word had to be laid before the people, and be rightly confessed - even though the subject might at first reading appear so theoretical and difficult.
SCRIPTURE CONCERNING THE TWO NATURES OF CHRIST
1. Jesus is True God
With Article 10, evidence was mentioned from Scripture that Jesus was indeed true God. This evidence need not be repeated here.
2. Jesus is True Man
In the course of history, Christ's human nature has not been seriously challenged. Not only is it logical that Jesus of Nazareth was truly human; it is also Scripturally accurate. The picture given to us by the authors of the gospels is distinctly one of Jesus being true man. He was born in Bethlehem as oldest child of Mary. His genealogy records the names of His ancestors (see Matthew 1 and Luke 3). He grew up in Nazareth, as others grow up elsewhere. As other children, He grew in wisdom and in stature (Luke 2:52).
Jesus knew from experience what exhaustion was (Mark 4:38), what hunger was (Matthew 4:2), what thirst was (John 4:7). He could be happy, He could also be angry and grieved (Mark 3:5). When Lazarus lay in the tomb, He wept (John 11:35).
Well has the church confessed in the Athanasian Creed that Jesus was not only "perfect God", but also "perfect man".
HERESIES CONCERNING THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE TWO NATURES OF CHRIST
After the adoption of the Nicene Creed in the fourth century, much discussion arose in the church concerning how Jesus was both God and man.
Eutyches (c. 378-454) stressed the one nature of Christ: a combination of two elements which formed something new. His position may be compared to the result one gets when you mix cold water with hot; the result is neither cold nor hot but somewhere in between. In Jesus (he said) the divine and human natures were combined in such a way that the human nature took on characteristics of the divine nature, and the divine nature took on the characteristics of the human. Jesus, then, was neither true God as God is true God, nor was He true man as man is true man. Rather, Jesus was a 'mixture' of God + man = 'Godman'.
Over against Eutychus, Nestorius (he became bishop of Constantinople in 428) taught the division of Christ's two natures. According to Nestorius, the person of Jesus was (as it were) made up of two distinct persons, the one being human and the other divine. He position may be compared to oil and water in the one container. Just as oil and water do not mix, the oil floating on the water remaining distinctly oil and the water underneath the oil remaining distinctly water, so (he said) God and man do not mix. The Son of God, he said, came to live in the man Jesus as in a temple. So Jesus was made up of two separate persons: God and man.
After a period of much struggle and confusion, these two positions were refuted by the church in the Council of Chalcedon (451). This Council formulated a new creed that strengthened the contents of the Nicene Creed, stressing that Jesus Christ, one Person, was both true God and true man: unmixed, unchanged, undivided, unseparable.
3. Martin Luther
During the Great Reformation in the 16th century, Martin Luther picked up on what Eutychus taught. Luther taught that Jesus' divine nature pervaded His human nature, so that the characteristics of His divine nature extended also to His human nature. It is characteristic of divinity to be everywhere present. So, Luther said, Jesus' human nature has taken on board this divine characteristic of omnipresence. So Jesus' body is everywhere present.
This understanding on Luther's part had repercussions on his teaching concerning the bread of the Lord's Supper. If Jesus' human nature is omnipresent, then Jesus is also bodily present in the bread. Luther referred to Luke 22:19, where we read that Jesus, at His institution of the Lord's Supper, said to His disciples concerning the bread: "... This is my body..." In deBres' community of Doornik, this teaching of Luther's was known.
How we receive the bread of the Lord's Supper is dependent upon our view on the relationship between the two natures of Christ. Hence deBres saw it as his duty to explain to his congregation what God had revealed concerning this. Said deBres, "We believe that by this conception the person of the Son of God is inseparably united and joined with the human nature, so that there are not two sons of God, nor two persons, but two natures united in one single person. Each nature retains its own distinct properties.... However, these two natures are so closely united in one person that they were not even separated by His death." No, deBres does not provide us with an explanation as to how the one Person of Christ has two natures simultaneously. Yet he clearly implied the error of Luther's teaching in stating, "Each nature retains its own distinct properties."
Scripture tells us that Jesus is true God and true man. How Jesus is true God and true man at once we cannot understand. Here again we are confronted with the limitations of the human mind. Here again we are called to humbly acknowledge that we are only human, and so we cannot understand our God. In faith we must believe what God has revealed to us.
THE TWO NATURES OF CHRIST CRUCIAL FOR MAN'S SALVATION
DeBres concludes this article with a statement as to the importance of confessing the two natures of Christ. "For this reason we profess Him to be true God and true man: true God in order to conquer death by His power; and true man that He might die for us according to the infirmity of His flesh." As we confess in Lord's Day 6, to deny that Christ is true God or that He is true man, or to maintain that He is half God and half man ('Godman'), is to undermine salvation itself. Lord's Day 5 (Question & Answer 15, see the prooftexts mentioned there) echoed the teaching of Scripture that the only mediator capable of delivering man from God's eternal punishment was one who was a true and righteous man and at the same time true God. Lord's Day 6 then goes on to explain why such a deliverer is necessary. God's justice required that the same human nature which sinned should also pay for sin - the Saviour had to be a real man. At the same time, since God's wrath against sin was greater than any human could bear, the Saviour also had to be true God. Had Christ not possessed the two natures of divinity and humanity in His one person, I would be without salvation.
Was it necessary for
deBres, in a time of persecution and unrest, to defend the doctrine of the
two natures in the one person of Christ? Given what was at stake, it certainly
was necessary - despite the circumstances. It remains necessary today too
to stay close to all that God has revealed in His Word, His Gospel of salvation