HYPOSTATIC UNION AND INCARNATION
TERMS TO UNDERSTAND JESUS CHRIST
Giuse Phạm Thanh Liêm, S.J.
About the place of the incarnation in Christology, Karl Rahner said in the book titled “Foundations of Christian Faith”:
“In giving a justification for our faith in Christ, the basic and decisive point of departure, of course, lies in an encounter with the historical Jesus of Nazareth, and hence in an “ascending Christology.” To this extent the terms “incarnation of God” and “incarnation of the eternal Logos” are the end and not the starting point of all Christological reflection.”
Incarnation is certainly not the word of the apostles, but of later theology. Similarly, the word “hypostatic union” exists only and officially in the Council of Ephesus. These two words express Jesus’ identity and have the relation with each other. The notion ‘incarnation’ assumes the notion of Trinity with ‘second person’ of God.
In process of identifying Jesus Christ, the apostles had recognized that Jesus is from God and of God; he belongs absolutely to God, so much so that he is God. Once given, theologians or the first Christian community searched for the word to express it; for example, the second person of God, the Word of God, incarnation, hypostatic union.
Following this way again to recognize Jesus as the absolute saviour who belongs to God so much so that he united with God as hypostatic union, and then he is the second person of God incarnate. This paper will present the understanding of Jesus Christ through the experiences of the apostles, then the Christological affirmations of the councils, and finally the comprehension of Jesus Christ through the hypostatic union and incarnation. The third section of this paper uses the idea of Karl Rahner to express it.
This section will offer a view of Jesus Christ through the historical Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, the witnesses of the apostles about the claim of Jesus, and two Christological reflections in the New Testament.
Some people today question whether the historical Jesus is the Jesus of the Christian communities. For even if the apostles were the witnesses of the historical Jesus, all the testimonies of the apostles were collected after the death and so called “resurrection” of Jesus, that is, all events of Jesus were seen through the lens of “resurrection.” However, even though all accounts collected from apostles were after Jesus’ death and resurrection, they still are objective and historical in a certain level.
Through the four Gospels and with an understanding of how they were constructed, Christians today know Jesus through the literary devices rooted in the witnesses of the apostles. Jesus is truly a man who is hungry, thirsty at the bored of Jacob, and who slept in the boat.
The following is accepted by almost all people today:
Jesus lived in Nazareth, after that he went about Judea to preach about God and God’s kingdom. In this time he gathered disciples, and among them he chose twelve, called apostles. His preaching had offended spiritual leaders, for example “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Mt.21, 31). The conflict between Jesus and Jewish leaders become more and more fanatical so that they decided to slay him. Jesus faced his death resolutely and accepted it as at least the inevitable consequence of fidelity to his mission imposed on him by God. He died on the cross when Pilate was governor of Judea.
By the testimonies of the New Testament, the Church believes that Jesus is risen as the apostles testified. He is the prophet, the Christ, the Word of God.
In the New Testament, the apostles did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus (Mc.16, 9-14) until the risen Jesus appeared to them at the end of the first day of his resurrection (Jo.20, 19-24). Thomas especially did not believe in Jesus’ resurrection, although the testimonies of the women and even of the ten apostles were trustworthy, until the risen Jesus appeared to him on eight days later (Jo.20, 25-29). The empty tomb and the appearances are signs and languages of Jesus’ resurrection in the preaching of the apostles and of the first Christian communities. The appearances only happened to some chosen people:
“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen- by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”
The Church and the apostles experienced difficulty believing in Jesus’ resurrection. The preaching on Jesus’ resurrection of the apostles and Christians is very important so that people in all ages can believe in Jesus Christ.
Surely the authors of the New Testament present their view and the Church’s view of Jesus based upon the witness of the apostles. However, some authors reflect the first stage of witness. Saint Mark and his gospel is an example.
The Good News of Jesus Christ according to saint Mark reflects the apostles’ first preaching. Jesus claimed that he has power to absolve sins (Mk.2: 5.10), that he will sit at the right hand of God: “the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mk.14: 62), but Jesus is a human being: he slept, prayed, and was ignorant (Mk.13: 32).
The apostles, first of all, were pious Jews, so they respected Judaism. Surely they did not preach something against the traditional monotheism. “God raised him from the dead… therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Act.2, 24.36).
By these words of Jesus that strongly shocked Jews so that they thought him blasphemer, and by his resurrection, the Church recognized him as the eschatological prophet, the Messiah, the one who was very intimate with God.
In the New Testament, two very deep reflections on Jesus Christ are of Paul and John. This paper does not present Paul’s and John’s Christology, but only mentions some ideas related to the incarnation or pre-existence of Jesus.
Paul presents to us a deep Christology in his letters. He encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, and believed in him. He recognized Jesus Christ. In the text below, Paul’s faith is the same with the Christian community.
“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made him nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-even death on a cross. Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Phil.2: 6-11)
According to Paul and to the Christian community, Jesus is the first born of the creatures:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”(Col.1: 15-20)
Jesus is one by who all receive salvation:
“God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood” (Rm.3: 25).
John, by tradition, is the last apostle who was not martyred. He had the longest life among the apostles. In the Gospel which bore his name, John or his disciple presents Jesus as the Son of God, and the Word of God.
Jesus is before Abraham: “before Abraham was born, I am” (Jo.8: 58). He is one with the Father: “I and the Father are one” (Jo.10: 30). The Jews wanted to stone him, because they thought he blasphemed: “you, a mere man, claim to be God” (Jo.10: 33).
With John, Jesus is the Word of God who became flesh (Jo.1: 14). The relationship between Jesus and God, his Father, is very intimate. It is so intimate that “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jo.14: 9).
Many Christians in the first age tried to identify who Jesus was. Probably the first Christians questioned the apostles about Jesus, and that generated the materials for the four gospels which we have today. The intellectuals did try to understand more about Jesus, and did try to fit their understanding of Jesus with the monotheism of Judaism.
Arius explained that Jesus was adopted by God to be his son (adoptianism); therefore Jesus is subordinate to the Father (subordinationism). With this one the monotheism of Judaism can be integral. The council Nicea (325) with Athanasius protected the doctrine that Jesus Christ is the same nature with God (homoousios), so he is equal to God.
Nestorius wanted to protect the absoluteness of God, so Mary could not called “mother of God”, but is only mother of Jesus. That supposes in Jesus Christ there are two distinct persons, divine and human. The council Ephesus (431) protected the doctrine that in Jesus exists only one person that is second person of God. The second person of God assume the human nature in Jesus, so Mary can be called “mother of God”, and this union between divine person and human nature is called the hypostatic union.
Someone claimed that Jesus has only one divine nature because he is God incarnate, because the second divine person of God assume the human person, but the council of Chalcedon defend that there are two distinct natures in Jesus:
“We confess that one and the same Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son, must be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion or change, without division or separation. The distinction between the natures was never abolished by their union but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person (prosopon) and one hypostasis. He is not split or divided into two persons, but he is one and the same Only-begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as formerly the prophets and later Jesus Christ himself have taught us about him and as has been handed down to us by the Symbol of the Fathers.” (CF.615/DZ.302)
Someone defended that in Jesus there is only one will (monothelitism) because Jesus is the second divine person incarnate, but the Church taught in Jesus there is two wills, one of God and one of a human being, because in Jesus there are two natures.
One can recognize that in all the history of the Church, the descending Christology took priority. All Christological affirmations of the councils defended the viewpoint of the Word of God incarnate. However, the descending Christology presupposes the ascending Christology.
The incarnation presupposes Trinitarian doctrine: the second person of Trinity becomes man, but why does man know the Trinity? By Jesus Christ’s revelation, by recognition that Jesus Christ is the Word of God, the Son of God, and God incarnate. This is recognized by encountering Jesus Christ through an ascending Christology, not a descending Christology. Now we search to understand more concerning the incarnation.
Theologians today have a lot of work to do with Christology so that modern man can understand Jesus’ resurrection, hypostatic union, and Incarnation.
The death of Jesus is an event that everyone can easily accept, but Jesus’ resurrection is not so easily received, likewise for people at Athens in time of Paul (Act.17, 32-33).
In the New Testament, there are rapports of the resurrection of the son of the widow at Nain, of the daughter of Jairus, and of Lazarus. However, the resurrection of Jesus is not similar with Lazarus’ resurrection. Because if it is similar, Jesus will die again as the people whom Jesus had raised. Jesus’ resurrection is not to get again the life, but the final and definitive salvation:
“The resurrection which is referred to in the resurrection of Jesus as distinguished from the resuscitation of the dead in the Old and New Testaments means the final and definitive salvation of a concrete human existence by God and in the presence of God, the abiding and real validity of human history, which neither moves further and further into emptiness, nor perishes altogether.”
The resurrection is understandable for someone who wants to have eternal life after this life. In other words, hope in resurrection of one’s own is the transcendental horizon to recognize and accept the resurrection of Jesus. If someone has a bad moral life in doing evil works, then that one does not want to survive in the eternal life, thus it is very difficult for him or her to believe in the resurrection of Jesus.
The reports of Jesus’ appearances at first glance cannot be harmonized completely; hence, they are to be explained as secondary literary devices and dramatic embellishments of the original experience, rather than as descriptions of the experience itself in its real and original nature. The original experiences of the apostles are “he is alive” or “he is risen”. The appearances are the way to speak about the original experience “he is alive.”
One can refuse to believe these testimonies, but cannot do so by pretending that one understands their experience better, or because these testimonies have falsely interpreted a religious phenomenon which is familiar to us elsewhere.
What is really experienced, witnessed and believed with the resurrection of this Jesus? We do not presuppose the sonship of Jesus in Paul’s and John’s Christology here, because they are late Christ in New Testament, but we desire to understand the first experience and understanding of the apostles before Jesus’ resurrection.
According to the New Testament the experienced resurrection contributed to the content of the interpretation of the essence of the person and the work of Jesus. It was not merely the divine confirmation of knowledge already clearly expressed by Jesus before the resurrection.
By the testimonies of the apostles that we have in the New Testament, Jesus claimed that
“There is present with him a new and unsurpassable closeness of God which on its part will prevail victoriously and is inseparable from him. He calls this closeness the coming and the arrival of God’s kingdom, which forces a person to decide explicitly whether or not he accepts this God who has come so close.”
Rahner is applying the title “saviour” to that historical person who appears in time and space and signifies the beginning of the absolute self-communication of God which is moving towards its goal, that beginning which indicates that this self-communication for everyone has taken place irrevocably and has been victoriously inaugurated.
“We are calling saviour here that historical subjectivity in which, first, this process of God’s absolute self-communication to the spiritual world as a whole exists irrevocably; secondly, that process in which this divine self-communication can be recognized unambiguously as irrevocable; and thirdly, that process in which God’s self-communication reaches its climax insofar as this climax must be understood as a moment within the total history of the human race, and as such must not simply be identified with the totality of the spiritual world under God’s self-communication.”
The absolute saviour, that is, the irreversibility of the history of freedom as the self-communication of God which succeeds, is, first of all, an historical moment in God’s salvific activity in the world. This is true in such a way that he is a part of the history of the cosmos itself. He cannot simply be God himself as acting in the world, but must be a part of the cosmos, a moment within his history, and indeed at its climax.
By the resurrection, then, what Jesus taught and performed in his lifetime is vindicated, particularly as the absolute saviour.
Let us first examine how Jesus is the final prophet. A prophet is one who brings a word of God to concrete historical existence over and beyond all ‘eternal truths,’ and calls one to a decision. But Jesus holds that his word is final and unsurpassable. This stands first of all in contradiction to the self-understanding of every other genuine prophet. It is a self-understanding which is either explicitly present or to be assumed with the genuineness of a prophetic call from a God who is free. In his word a genuine prophet must allow God in his unlimited possibilities to be greater, and he speaks his word to a definite situation which presently exists, but then gives way to a new and different situation. He must experience and proclaim his word essentially as a promise preaching to an open and unlimited horizon. Hence, Jesus is a prophet who surpasses and subsumes the essence of a prophet. His word can be understood to be definitive not because God now ceases arbitrarily to say anything further, although he could have said more. It is the final word of God that is present in Jesus because there is nothing to say beyond it, because God has really and in a strict sense offered himself in Jesus.
“Jesus, then, is the historical presence of this final and unsurpassable word of God’s self-disclosure: this is his claim and he is vindicated in this claim by the resurrection. He is of eternal validity and he is experienced in this eternal validity. In this sense in any case he is the ‘absolute saviour.’”
In the Old Testament, the angel and some people such as kings were called Son of God. In the New Testament, Jesus is Son of God can be understood by this meaning. In this meaning, it does not mean the pr-existence of Jesus Christ.
“Jesus is the Son and the Word of God first of all in a sense which is still prior to the notion of a pre-existent Logos and Son, in a sense which can and must be predicated of his human reality because this has been assumed by God as his expression.”
Hence Jesus is “Son”, He is so close to God that he does not bring a word from God which can and must be replaced because God in his own self has not yet given himself totally and definitively in it.
Hence he is the Word of God which is spoken to us in everything which he was and said, and, as this final word, He was definitively accepted and confirmed in the resurrection.
The concrete risen Jesus with his claim is the presence in our midst of the unique and unsurpassable existence of God himself. This unique relationship is understood as a relationship between God and Jesus in his reality and in his real history, and not merely in his spoken “word,” because it is in this that he was accepted and remains valid.
Next, let us examine the hypostatic union, based on the God’s self-communication.
The grace is very important in Rahner’s theology. For him, grace is God’s self-communication.
“The term ‘self-communication’ is really intended to signify that God in his own most proper reality makes himself the innermost constitutive element of man.”
God’s self-communication means that what is communicated is really God in his own being, and in this way it is a communication for the sake of knowing and possessing God in immediate vision and love. Furthermore, divine self-communication means that God can communicate himself in his own reality to what is not divine without ceasing to be infinite reality and absolute mystery, and without man ceasing to be a finite existent different from God.
Of course, this divine self-communication, in which God makes himself a constitutive principle of the created existent without thereby losing his absolute, ontological independence, has “divinizing” effects in the finite existent in whom this self-communication takes place. As determinations of the finite existent itself, these effects must be understood as finite and created. But the real thing about this divine self-communication is the relationship between God and a finite existent. This can and must be understood as analogous to a causality in which the “cause” becomes an intrinsic, constitutive principle of the effect itself.
The absolute saviour is a man who, just like us, receives in his spiritual, human and finite subjectivity, the self-communication of God in grace, which we assert of all men, and therefore of the cosmos, as the climax of the development in which the world comes to itself absolutely and comes to the immediacy of God absolutely.
“According to the conviction of Christian faith, Jesus is that person who, in and through what we call his obedience, his prayer and his freely accepted destiny to die, also lived out the acceptance of the grace bestowed on him by God and of the immediacy to God which he possesses as man.”
Jesus is truly man, he has absolutely everything which belongs to a man, including a finite subjectivity in which the world becomes conscious in its own unique, historically conditioned and finite way, and a subjectivity which has a radical immediacy to God in and through God’s self-communication in grace, just as it is also present in us in the depths of our existence. This immediacy is based on God’s self-communication in grace and glory just as ours is.
A human reality belongs absolutely to God, and this is precisely what we call hypostatic union:
“If therefore, the reality of Jesus, in whom as offer and as acceptance God’s absolute self-communication to the whole human race ‘is present’ for us, is really to be the unsurpassable and definitive offer and acceptance, then we have to say: it is not only established by God, but it is God himself. But if this offer is itself a human reality as graced in an absolute way, and if this is really and absolutely to be the offer of God himself, then here a human reality belongs absolutely to God, and this is precisely what we call hypostatic union when it is understood correctly. This union is distinguished from our grace not by what has been offered in it, which in both instances, including that of Jesus, is grace. It is distinguished rather by the fact that Jesus is the offer for us, and we ourselves are not one again the offer, but the recipients of God’s offer to us.”
But the union of the offer with, and its inseparability from, the one who is offering himself to us must be understood in accordance with the specific nature of the offer. If the real offer to us is human reality itself as graced, in which and from which God offers himself to us in his grace, then the union between the one offering and the offer cannot be understood only as a ‘moral’ unity, as between a human word or a mere sign on the one hand and God on the other. It must rather be understood only as an irrevocable kind of union between this human reality and God. It must be understood as a union which eliminates the possibility of separation between the proclamation and the proclaimer, and hence a union which makes the really human proclamation and the offer to us a reality of God himself. This is just what hypostatic union means. It means nothing more as Rahner states:
“In this human potentiality of Jesus the absolute salvific will of God, the absolute event of God’s self-communication to us along with its acceptance as something effected by God himself, is a reality of God himself, unmixed, but also inseparable and therefore irrevocable. But to assert this is to assert precisely the offer of the grace of God’s self-communication to us.”
By the hypostatic union of Jesus, Christians can understand the union of human beings with God, especially the union of mystical men.
“Grace in all of us and hypostatic union in the one Jesus Christ can only be understood together, and as a unity they signify the one free decision of God for a supernatural order of salvation, for his self-communication. In Christ the self-communication of God takes place basically to all men.”
This is meant not in the sense that they would also have the hypostatic union as such, but rather that the hypostatic union takes place insofar as God wishes to communicate himself to all men in grace and glory. God’s unsurpassable self-communication to all men has reached its fullness and is historically tangible in an irrevocable way. Every self-expression of God which is not simply the beatific vision takes place through a finite reality, through a word or through an event which belongs to the finite, created realm. But as long as this finite mediation of the divine self-expression does not represent a reality of God in the strict and real sense, it is still basically provisional and surpassable because it is finite. And in this finiteness it is not simply the reality of God himself, and so it can be surpassed by God by establishing something else finite.
Jesus is a man who belongs absolutely to God so much so that he has the hypostatic union with God, he is the absolute saviour, he is of God, he is God. From this understanding, Christians can talk of the second person of God, the Son of God who unites to God but is always distinct from God, and the incarnation.
The incarnation is not God drawing closely to human beings for a certain times to save them, but, according to the true teaching of the Christianity, it is that God lays hold of matter when the Logos becomes flesh, and does so precisely at that point of unity at which matter becomes conscious of itself and spirit possesses its own essential being in the objectifications of matter. God does so in the unity of a spiritually human nature.
“In Jesus matter is borne by the Logos exactly as the soul is, and this matter is a part of the reality and of the history of the cosmos, a part which can never be understood as detached from the unity of the world. The Logos of God himself establishes this corporeal part of the world as his own reality, both creating and accepting it at the same time. Hence he establishes it as what is different from himself in such a way that this very materiality expresses him, the Logos himself, and allows him to be present in his world. His laying hold of this part of the single material and spiritual reality of the world can rightly be understood as the climax of that dynamism in which the self-transcendence of the world as a whole is borne by the Word of God.”
This is what is supposed by the Christian dogma of the Incarnation: Jesus is truly man with everything which this implies, with his finiteness, his materiality, his being in the world and his participation in the history of the cosmos in the dimension of spirit and of freedom, and in the history which leads through the narrow passageway of death.
The ascending Christology follows again the experiences of the apostles and the process of recognizing Jesus risen as the man of God who united to God so closely that he has the hypostatic union with God: he is God incarnate but distinct with God. That Jesus depends absolutely on God and has an intimate relation with God as son to father-son enables us to understand the hypostatic union. The hypostatic union of Jesus Christ helps Christians to understand the mystical union of the Christian mystics and Christians’ union with God in the beatific vision and in daily life.
The incarnation is really the end point of Christological reflections as Karl Rahner stated. Only when Christians recognize the risen Jesus as God-man, does the incarnation make sense. Once Christians recognize Jesus Christ as the Word of God incarnate, as God become man, then they can build a descending Christology and understand the soteriology without difficulty. In a certain sense, hypostatic union and incarnation enlighten the same reality with different viewpoints; thus they complete and correlate each other.
The original way that the apostles went for
comprehending Jesus Christ can helps Christians to understand and express more
adequately the mystery of Jesus Christ, and at the same time Christians can
understand correctly the official Christology and the Christological
affirmations of the councils in the history of the Church.
J. Neuner,S.J- J. Dupuis, S.J., The Christian Faith- In the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church (New York: Alba House, 1996)
Leo O’Donovan (ed.), A Word of Grace: An Introduction to the Themes and Foundations of Karl Rahner’s Theology (New York: Seabury, 1980)
Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, (New York: Crossroad, 1995)
Karl Rahner, L’ homme à l’écoute du Verbe, Mame 1968
Karl Rahner, L’ Esprit dans le Monde, Mame 1968
Karl Rahner, “Christology Today?” Theological Investigations XVII (New York: Crossroad, 1981
Chúc bạn an vui hạnh phúc.
Giuse Phạm Thanh Liêm, S.J.
 Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, (New York: Crossroad, 1995), 177
 Ibid., 247: “Jesus lived in and was part of the religious milieu of his people and the historical situation in which he found himself. He was a radical reformer; he knew himself to be radically close to God, and for him God was not an empty symbol of man’s importance, but was the ultimate reality who was simply taken for granted as part of life. He hopes for a victory in his religious mission in the sense of a “conversion” of his people. He faced his death resolutely and accepted it at least as the inevitable consequence of fidelity to his mission and as imposed on him by God. His radical preaching and his exhortation to reform were intended as a call to conversion in and because of the closeness of God’s kingdom, and were intended to gather disciples who “follow” him.”
 Act.10, 39-41
 Ibid., 266
 Ibid., 279
 Ibid., 194
 Ibid., 280
 Ibid., 280
 Ibid., 116
 Ibid., 195
 Ibid., 202
 Ibid., 202-203
 Ibid., 201
 Ibid., 196-197