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Christology in the Concrete:

Cyril of Alexandria and the Question of Theological Abstraction

Adam G. Cooper


In the doctrinal history of Christianity it is possible to trace the fortunes of a little known
distinction which in certain contexts has featured as a crucial touchstone of Christological
orthodoxy. In the Latin west this distinction has been proposed in the form of two types of
predications that can be made about Christ: predications made in the concrete (in concreto)
and predications made in the abstract (in abstracto).

Concrete predications are statements whose content is strictly determined by Jesus’

unique identity and the actual circumstances of his existence and history, as these are known
in faith. They would include such statements as ‘This man is the creator of the universe’ or
‘God suffered and died on the cross.’ At first hearing such claims seem to cut across common
human intelligence. Our ideas about what it means to be human do not normally include a
capacity for creating universes, and our ideas about what it means to be God do not normally
include liability to suffering and death. But in the actual case of Jesus Christ, based on what
the Church believes and confesses concerning his identity and history, such paradoxical
predications are not only possible but proper. And indeed, theology has always granted them
a certain privilege and primacy, inasmuch as they boldly and faithfully embody the
kerygmatic core of the Christian faith. They are the kinds of predications from which faith is
born and which in turn constitute the native language of ‘primary theology’, that is, the
theology of Christian prayer and worship. Just think of Thomas’s exclamation as he beheld
the wounded body of the risen Jesus: ‘My Lord and my God!’

By contrast, abstract predications are statements that reduce the categories indicated
by the actual circumstances of Christ’s existence and history to terms compatible with
conceptual classification. They would include definitional type statements like ‘Christ’s
divine nature is immortal’ or ‘his human nature is created,’ or qualificatory type statements
such as God died ‘as man’ or ‘according to his human nature.’ Such statements restrict the

attribution of divine properties to Christ’s divine nature and human properties to his human
nature. They represent intellectual judgements whose truthfulness lies at the level of the
generic and theoretical, without any reference to any actual or particular circumstances. Or if
they make reference to the actual and particular, it is always with a view to qualifying such
references by appealing to theoretical categories.

Over the course of history it has been the conviction of many thinkers that confusion
between abstract and concrete statements about Christ results not only in misunderstanding,
but in a loss of the properly paradoxical articulation of the Christian mysteries. Looking back
on the history of Christology from his 13th century vantage point, Thomas Aquinas faulted
the Nestorians in particular for precisely this error.1 By insisting on the primacy of
philosophically abstract and theoretically watertight statements alone, and in failing to
recognise the validity of concrete predications concerning the incarnate God or his Mother,
the Nestorians ended up bracketing out the actual as it were, thereby threatening the saving
proclamation of the gospel, of which concrete predications are the hallmark.

On the other hand, faith always legitimately seeks understanding, and theology has
always had ready recourse to the more abstract categories of rational inquiry and speculative
philosophy in order to spell out more precisely and intelligibly in what sense the concrete
affirmations hold true. Thus, says Aquinas, although it is impossible for contraries to be
predicated of the same thing in the same respect, nothing prevents their being predicated of
the same thing in different respects. So while with reference to the concrete person of Christ
we correctly say that God suffered and died, we do not mean that the divine nature suffered
and died, even if it is true that, absolutely speaking, God is his nature. In other words, while
the concrete statements hold pride of place in the primary theology of Christian faith and
worship, abstract predications offer a way of clarifying and filling out their truth content at
the secondary, conceptual level. In this way the coherent articulation of the Christian
mysteries, while always presupposing and never departing from the fundamental register of
experience and history (or what we might call mythos), also fully respects and indeed draws
upon the full range of resources provided by the register of philosophy and ontology (or what
we might call logos).

Where did this rationale come from, this theological instinct for distinguishing
between the concrete and the abstract? It seems to me that it involves the convergence of two

Summa theologiae III, 16, 4.

different strands in patristic tradition. On the one hand there is the insistence on a logical and
categorical distinction between person and nature, a distinction whose basic parameters I
would argue were first explicitly established by Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa in
the 4th century. On the other hand there is the emergence of an implicit rule in the theology of
Cyril of Alexandria in his repeated insistence that duality in Christ can only be affirmed at the
level of the theoretical (e0n qewri/a|). For Cyril, the decisive element in Christian truth lies at
the level of the concrete, for it concerns a real person, Jesus Christ, his actual saving
sufferings and deeds in history, and our living encounter with him in worship and faith.2 The
coming together of these two strands, the nature/person distinction on the one hand and the
abstract/concrete distinction on the other, unfolded from the late fifth century onwards. By
the time of John of Damascus it is quite clearly in place in the east. In the west, in his own
discussion of the distinction in the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas quotes not only from the
Damascene, but also from Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzen, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine,
Cyril and Leo, suggesting I think that by then the idea was pretty much regarded as belonging
to the widely accepted common patrimony of the Church.

That at least is my working hypothesis. In what follows I attempt to outline the

distinct but related emergence of these two strands and their eventual convergence. I do so in
three parts. In the first part, I outline the emergence of the nature and person distinction in the
theology of Basil and Gregory of Nyssa and briefly follow its fortunes through to John of
Damascus in the 8th century. In the second part, I outline the emergence of the second strand,
the distinction between the abstract and the concrete, in the theology of Cyril, touching also
on a number of instances of its development after the fifth century. In the third part, I outline
the convergence of the two strands in the theology of John of Damascus, and then indicate
how it is adapted by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century and the Lutheran theologian Martin
Chemnitz in the 16th. Finally, in conclusion, I offer some observations regarding the question
of the ongoing significance of the distinction in light of ecumenical dialogue between Eastern

This assertion is not unrelated to claims concerning Cyril’s more ‘existential’ Christology in comparison with
the more ‘rationalistic’ Christology of Nestorius. See e.g. Doru Costache, ‘Fifth Century Christology Between
Soteriological Perspective and Metaphysical Concerns: Notes on the Nestorian Controversy’, Phronema 21
(2006), 47-59. These claims need to be balanced by the recognition that Cyril was no enemy of metaphysics, nor
afraid selectively to appropriate Aristotelian philosophy in both conceptual content and terminology. Though I
would dispute some of the details in her conclusions, Ruth Siddals has clearly demonstrated Cyril’s
philosophical acumen in this regard: Ruth M. Siddals, Logic and Christology in Cyril of Alexandria, PhD
dissertation (University of Cambridge, 1984). See also M.-O. Boulnois, Le paradoxe trinitaire chex Cyrille
d’Alexandrie: herméneutique, analyses philosophiques et argumentation théologique, Collection des Études
Augustiniennes, Série Antiquité 143 (Paris: Institut d’Études Augustiniennes, 1994), 181-334; and the chapter
‘Cyril of Alexandria’s Use of Aristotelian Logic’ in Hans van Loon, The Dyophysite Christology of Cyril of
Alexandria (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 61-122.

Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches, and of certain emphases in the Christologies of
Karl Barth and Karl Rahner.


Ousia and Hypostasis in Patristic Theology

Much misunderstanding surrounds the relationship between the terms ousia and hypostasis
and what they denote in the history of theology. The literature on the subject is vast, but often
confusing. Thankfully there has been some excellent clarification in recent studies. Here I can
only offer a very summary treatment. For the first few centuries of Christian thought, the two
terms were more or less synonymous, and simply meant ‘being’ or ‘reality’ or ‘existing
thing.’ This is quite clearly the case even at the Nicaean Council of 325, when the anathema
immediately following the creedal formula condemns any ‘who assert that the Son of God is
of a different hypostasis or ousia’ (from the Father). At this stage the terms appear
synonymous and do not convey distinct meanings. But from the late fourth century, a period
in which the Church was forced by controversy to clarify its doctrinal terminology more
rigorously, the two terms came increasingly to refer to two distinct ways of speaking about
being. The Cappadocian Fathers in particular, no doubt assisted by the increasingly well-
accepted conceptual distinctions between individual, species, and genus espoused in
Porphyrian logic, played a key role in tightening up the sense of common theological terms in
order to preclude confusion.3 In working out their Trinitarian theology, ousia came to
designate what a thing is at the level of substance. It indicates what is shared in common
between beings with the same nature (physis) or generic definition. Hypostasis, on the other
hand, came to designate the particular, a subsisting individual with differentiating features
that mark it off from others. Ousia answers to the question: what is it? Hypostasis answers to
the question: who or even how is it? The two terms do not indicate two different beings.
Rather they indicate two different ways of thinking and speaking about a given being, two
different modes of conceptual classification.

On the ubiquity of the Porphyrian taxonomic system in late antique intellectual culture, see Mark Edwards,
Culture and Philosophy in the Age of Plotinus (London: Duckworth, 2006); Christoph Erismann, ‘The Trinity,
Universals, and Particular Substances: Philoponus and Roscelin’, Traditio 63 (2008), 277-305; and with specific
reference to the Cappadocians, see Johannes Zachhuber, Human Nature in Gregory of Nyssa: Philosophical
Background and Theological Significance (Leiden: Brill, 2000); D. G. Robertson, ‘Stoic and Aristotelian
Notions of Substance in Basil of Caesarea’, Vigiliae Christianae 52 (1998), 393-417; J. F. Callahan, Greek
Philosophy and the Cappadocian Cosmology (Dumbarton Oaks Papers 12, Cambridge MA, 1958).

Although the distinction served primarily in the field of revealed theology, it was
illuminated by appealing to categories common to human experience. In the words of
Gregory of Nyssa, ‘Human is distinguished from horse by ousia, Paul is distinguished from
Peter by hypostasis, and this hypostasis of the human is distinguished from this hypostasis of
the horse by both ousia and hypostasis.’4 What is Gregory saying here? If one were to
consider a horse under the register of ousia, that is, in terms of what it is, the answer would
be: a horse, that is, an individual of the equine species. As a member of the equine species,
this particular horse shares in common with all horses a single, generic ousia, a common
essence defined in terms of what it means to be a horse: to be a living, horse-like animal, to
have four legs and a tail, to neigh, to have various natural instincts and abilities, and so on. If,
on the other hand, one were to consider this horse under the register of hypostasis, that is, in
terms of who it is, the answer would be defined by all the particularities that go into making it
distinct from other horses who share his common nature: his particular breed, his history, his
parentage, his age, the colour of his coat, the sound of his neighing, his name even, along
with all the special tendencies and habits which are peculiar to him, and so on.

By using a horse to illustrate an important theological distinction, Gregory did not

mean to devalue the sense of the terms ousia and hypostasis when used in respect of the holy
Trinity. His point was that the logical distinction between ousia and hypostasis in all cases -
divine, human, or animal - is the same. Unlike the English word ‘person’, the term hypostasis
in the Greek Fathers bears no special ‘psychological’ or ‘moral’ significance. It refers simply
to a particular, existing entity, such as a particular horse or human being, each with its unique
and incommunicable differentiating features. In adapting these classificatory terms to
Trinitarian theology, the Fathers were conscious of the limits inherent in them: they do not
express the fundamental reality itself. All they do is provide the necessary conceptual,
rational, and grammatical parameters within which finite human thought can articulate that
fundamental reality in a coherent, consistent way, a way congruent with the actual reality
given in divine revelation. So we find Basil of Caesarea writing in the latter half of the fourth
century with respect to the Church’s confession of one God in three distinct hypostases:

The distinction between ousia and hypostasis is the same as the distinction between
the general and the particular; for example, ‘animal being’ and the ‘the man X’.
Therefore in respect of the Godhead we acknowledge one ousia, so as not to give a

Ad Graecos 29, 16-20. Trans. in Lucian Turcescu, Gregory of Nyssa and the Concept of Divine Persons
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 71.

different account of being; but we also confess the particular hypostasis so that we
may have an unconfused and clear conception of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If we
have no distinct idea of the distinctive marks of each, fatherhood, sonship, and
sanctification, and confess our belief in God on the basis of the general notion of
being, then we are at a loss to give a sound account of our faith. We must therefore
confess our faith by adding the particular to the general.5

Note again how, according to this scheme, ousia denotes being that is common or shared or
generic. In God’s case it denotes divinity, majesty, omnipotence, glory, will, activity - all of
which are one, equal, and undivided in God. Hypostasis, on the other hand, denotes
something distinct or particular. In God’s case it denotes the tripartite relational modalities in
or as which the one divine being exists - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet Basil is far from
modalism, for he acknowledges at once the inseparability and the integrity of each divine
hypostasis. Thus oneness or unity or commonality in God is predicated at the level of ousia,
whereas distinction in God is predicated at the level of hypostasis. By applying the
conceptual logic of the general and particular to theological language, Basil was convinced
that the content of the homoousion, confessed in the creed of Nicaea, would be preserved

In another passage, ascribed by modern scholars to Gregory of Nyssa, we find exactly

the same logical distinction between the general and the particular - first defined, then
expressly applied as a conceptual apparatus in the field of trinitarian theology:

The word hypostasis is used to indicate that which is spoken of in respect of some
special distinction. When we say ‘humanity’ the effect on the hearer is a vague,
dispersed notion…. It succeeds in indicating the general nature, but it does not signify
what subsists, and what is referred to at the level of the particular. If we say ‘Paul’,
[however], we indicate the nature as it subsists, by referring to the particular instance
to which the name applies. This then is hypostasis, or subsistence….

You will not go wrong if you transfer to theological doctrine this principle of
distinction between ousia and hypostasis which you recognise on the human level….

Basil of Caesarea, Letter 236.6. On the origins of this distinction in Aristotle’s distinction between primary and
secondary substance, see Nathan Jacobs, ‘On “Not Three Gods” – Again: Can a Primary-Secondary Substance
Reading of ousia and hypostasis avoid Tritheism?’ Modern Theology 24/3 (2008), 331-58.
Basil of Caesarea, Letter 214.4.

The difference of the hypostasis does not tear apart the continuity of nature, nor does
the community in respect of ousia confuse the individual characteristics.7

Later, in the 7th century, Maximus the Confessor followed precisely the same logic
when he used the words hypostasis and hypostatic to designate this differentiating subsistent
distinctiveness wherever it is indicated: between the different persons of the Trinity, between
different human beings, and even between different individual animals. Like Gregory of
Nyssa, he does not hesitate to identify the hypostatic qualities of a horse. ‘They [the divine
Fathers] call reasoning in human beings or neighing in horses an essential quality, while the
curved-nose or snub-nose of a certain man, or the dapple-grey or chestnut colour of a certain
horse they call a hypostatic quality.’ Just a few sentences on, Maximus applies exactly the
same logic to the Trinity: ‘The hypostatic quality of the Father is non-generation, of the Son
generation, and of the Holy Spirit procession.’8 Clearly in these sentences the formula
‘hypostatic quality’ (ποιοτής ὑποστατική) means something like differentiating or
particularising characteristic.

What about Cyril of Alexandria? Did he know and apply these terms of conceptual
classification in his Trinitarian theology? The answer is yes. In his Dialogue on the Trinity
Cyril follows the Cappadocians in aligning ousia with physis: Father and Son are ‘connatural
and consubstantial’ (o9mofua= te kai\ o9moou/sion).9 The word ‘consubstantial’ indicates
‘natural identity’ (tauto/thta fusikh\n).10 He similarly defines ousia in terms of
commonality: it is indicative of ‘some common factor’ (kata\ koinou= tinoj pra/gmatoj).
Meanwhile he defines hypostasis in terms of particularity or ‘what is most proper to each’
(kaq 0 e9no/j prepwde/steron). The distinction is exemplified in the conceptual difference
between human nature, which is a universal conceptual category inclusive of all human
beings, and different actual human individuals, such as Thomas, Mark, Peter or Paul.
Applying the same conceptual logic to the Trinity, Cyril affirms that the Father and the Son
share a common ousia, yet, on account of their differentiating features, are nonetheless quite
different hypostases.11

Gregory Nyssa, preserved as Basil’s Letter 38.3-4. For discussion on the authorship of this letter, see Paul J.
Fedwick, ‘A Commentary of Gregory of Nyssa or the 38 th Letter of Basil of Caesarea’, Orientalia Christiana
Periodica 44 (1978), 31-51.
Maximus Confessor, Opusculum 21 (PG 91, 248CD).
Dial.Trin. I (PG 75, 672C).
Dial.Trin. I (PG 75, 676C).
Dial.Trin. I (PG 75, 700A-C).

Ousia and Hypostasis in Patristic Christology
No doubt through the widely accepted authority of the Cappadocians, the Fathers after the
fourth century manifest a remarkable consistency in their application of the terms ousia and
hypostasis when speaking about the holy Trinity. God is one at the level of ousia, and three at
the level of hypostasis. Hypostatic terms such as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do not predicate
what is common in the divine being, but what is distinct, unique, and individual. They are
terms expressing the respective relations (scheseis) between the three persons or their distinct
‘modes of existence’ (tropoi hyparxeos).12

In the fifth century, in the new situation occasioned by the Christological

controversies, this Trinitarian distinction between ousia and hypostasis came also to be
applied also to Christ, the incarnate Son of God. But here the order clearly had to be reversed:
oneness or unity is predicated of Christ at the level of hypostasis (kath’ hypostasin), that is, in
respect of who he is (a single acting subject, Jesus Christ the incarnate Word), while
difference or distinction is predicated at the level of ousia (kat’ ousian, kata physin), that is,
in respect of what he is (divine/human, impassible/passible, immortal/mortal, infinite/finite).
Through the Christological debates of the fifth to seventh centuries, an increasingly fixed
categorisation of this kind of technical vocabulary emerges.13 Even Cyril, who has been said
(somewhat inaccurately) to lack philosophical and terminological rigour,14 applied these
categories and maintained them fairly consistently in his Christology. Divinity and humanity
are different at the level of ousia and physis. In Christ however we meet a single individual or
hypostasis who is in actual fact the simultaneous coincidence of both.15 Eventually of course
this became the very language and conceptual logic adopted by the Council of Chalcedon.

After Chalcedon the classifications became still more compounded. Having

documented the contribution of such figures as John of Caesarea (the Grammarian), John
Maxentius, Leontius of Jerusalem, and Leontius of Byzantium, Aloys Grillmeier concludes

Gregory of Nazianzen identifies ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ as terms indicating ‘relation’ (sxe/sij) and ‘mode of
generation’ (tro/poj gennh/sewj). See Or 29, 16; Or 31, 10. On the formula ‘mode of existence’ see G. L.
Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (London: SPCK, 1952), 245-8.
See Aloys Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition vol. 2 part 2: The Church of Constantinople in the Sixth
Century, tr. Pauline Allen and John Cawte (London: Mowbray, 1995).
So Wickham: ‘Cyril’s Christology, at the level of philosophical explanation, will always seem thin. It lacks
the barrage of technical jargon to be developed over the next century….’ ‘Introduction’ in Lionel R. Wickham
(ed.), Cyril of Alexandria: Select Letters (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), xxxiv.
There are numerous references in Cyril’s Second Letter to Nestorius and Contra Nestorium. Usage is
consistent with his earlier work On the Incarnation (cf. PG 75, 695B). See further van Loon, Dyophysite
Christology, 124-151; 268-82; 328-33; 370-98.

that by the time of Justinian’s Edict of 551, just prior to the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553),
the two concepts with their various terms had been ‘expressly distinguished.’16 Along with
ousia and its verbal cognates went similar terms like physis (nature), koinon (universal) and
logos (definition or principle), all of which denoted what was common or generic. With
hypostasis and its verbal cognates went words such as idiotes (particularity), idioma
(characteristic), prosopon (person) and tropos (mode).17 It was the inability on the part of
such theologians as Severus of Antioch to see any relevant distinction between physis
(nature) and hypostasis (existing subject) that led them to reject the Chalcedonian confession
of one and the same Christ not only ‘from two natures’ but also ‘in two natures.’ Through the
work of Maximus the Confessor in the seventh century, and John of Damascus in the eighth,
the distinction between ousia and hypostasis in Christ – understood precisely as a distinction
between the general and the particular - came to be established and recognised as normative
orthodox doctrine.18 The failure to distinguish between the two terms - first in trinitarian
theology, then, subsequently, in Christology - was seen by them to be the basic mark of all


The tradition of distinguishing between abstract and concrete predications made about Christ
finds its roots in Cyril of Alexandria’s insistence in the doing of theology on the priority of
the actual and concrete and paradoxical, over against the theoretical and conceptual. The
distinction seems to have a background in Stoic epistemology: sensate contact with actual
things gives rise to conceptual ideas or thoughts (ennoiai). These ennoiai ‘are mere concepts;
they have no extramental or concrete reality’, but nonetheless ‘serve as an important criterion
Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition 2/2, 455.
Against this background the use of the English word ‘person’ to translate the Greek word hypostasis or
prosopon is laden with difficulty. To be a person, in modern Christian terms, is to be a unique creature in God’s
image, to be relationally constituted, to be capable of consciousness, rationality, growth, self-expression,
fulfilment in union with God, and so on. But for the Greek Fathers, these are all qualities intrinsic to human
nature (physis) or essence (ousia), that is, they are qualities common to all members of the human species. They
are not hypostatic or distinctive qualities, but natural, generic and ontological. While it took centuries for
theology to develop the relational aspects inherent in Trinitarian theology in an anthropological direction, a
movement which, prompted by currents in personalist philosophy, has culminated in the Trinitarian and
communional anthropology of the 20th century, for historical interpretation one should avoid reading the
semantic peculiarities of personalist philosophy back into the Fathers.
See Daley, ‘A Richer Union’; Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ: Person, Nature, and Will in the
Christology of St Maximus the Confessor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); Andrew Louth, St John
Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 95-116;
Melchisedek Törönen, Union and Distinction in the Thought of St. Maximus the Confessor (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2007).

of truth….’19 Cyril was probably not the first to use this idea; in his Theological Orations
Gregory of Nazianzen commends the exegetical strategy of making a mental separation
between Christ’s divine and human natures corresponding to various scriptural appellations.20
But it is especially Cyril’s Christological employment of this distinction that has formed the
focus of a number of careful studies by such scholars as Lebon (1909) and Jugie (1912) at the
beginning of the 20th century and Grillmeier (1987) and De Halleux (1993) near the end.21
However as Hans van Loon has shown recently in his painstakingly detailed analysis (2009),
Cyril’s use of the distinction between abstract and concrete predications is found not only in
the Christological debates with Nestorius, but also in his pre-Christological Trinitarian
theology as well. Van Loon’s main burden is to prove that Cyril was not a proto-
Monophysite, as he is often made out to be, but always affirmed an on-going real presence of
two distinct natures in the incarnate Word. Occasionally this concern appears to over-
determine van Loon’s interpretation of certain passages. But given the comprehensiveness of
his overall terminological analysis, I feel justified in drawing in good part on his selection
and discussion of texts relevant to my overview of the emergence and significance of the
abstract and concrete distinction.

Key texts in Cyril’s earlier theology

If it is reasonably easy to grasp what concrete predications sound like in Christology, how do
they work in Trinitarian theology? The characteristic formula which Cyril uses for
predications made in the abstract is e0n qewri/a|, literally meaning ‘in contemplation’ but

F. E. Peters, Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon (New York: New York University Press,
1967), 57. See further Victor Caston, ‘Something and Nothing: The Stoics on Concepts and Universals’, in
David Sedley (ed.), Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 145-213.
Caston makes the important point that the Stoics did not believe that concepts have no reality at all. Rather they
‘just deny that concepts are anything existent’, which is ‘still compatible with their being something.’ (op.cit.,
Greg. Naz. Or. 30, 8 (SC 250, 242.9): h9ni/ka ai9 fu/seij dii+/stantai tai=j e0pinoi/aij, sundiairei=tai kai\ ta\
o0noma/ta (‘Whenever the natures are mentally separated, the names are also divided along with them.’)
Joseph Lebon, Le monophysisme sévérien: Étude historique, littéraire et théologique sur la résistance
Monophysite au concile de Chalcédoine jusqu’à la constitution de l’Eglise jacobite (Louvain: Universitas
Catholica Lovaniensis, 1909); Martin Jugie, ‘La terminologie christologique de saint Cyrille d’Alexandrie’,
Échos d’Orient 15 (1912), 12-27; Aloys Grillmeier, ‘The Understanding of the Christological Definitions of
Both (Oriental Orthodox and Roman Catholic) Traditions in the Light of the Post-Chalcedonian Theology
(Analysis of Terminologies in a Conceptual Framework)’, in Christ in East and West, ed. Paul Fries and Tiran
Nersoyan (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University, 1987), 65-82; André de Halleux, ‘La distinction des natures du
Christ ‘par la seule pensée’ au cinquième concile oecuménique’, in M. Pacuariu and I. I. Ică Jr. (eds.), Persoană
şi comuniune: Festschrift Dumitru Staniloae (Sibiu, 1993), 311-19.

perhaps better translated ‘conceptually.’22 One of the earliest appearances of this formula in
Cyril’s theology occurs in his Commentary on John, written well before the Nestorian crisis.
In reference to various binitarian analogies, which include what Ruth Siddalls famously
dubbed ‘radiation factors’,23 Cyril insists that the distinct factors in each pair are separate
only in idea or concept, not in nature, by which he seems to mean, not in actual fact.
Examples include honey and its sweetness or fire and its heat:

[It is] as if the sweetness of the honey when laid on the tongue should say of itself, I
am in the honey and the honey in me; or again as if the heat that proceeds naturally
from fire, emitting a voice, were to say, I am in the fire and the fire in me. For each of
the things mentioned is I suppose divisible in idea, but one in nature, and the one
proceeds by a sort of indivisible and continuous forthcoming from the other, so as to
seem to be even severed from that wherein it is. Yet although the force of ideas
regarding these things takes this form, still one appears in the other and both are the
same as regards essence.24

Another early example of the theological application of the distinction occurs in

Cyril’s Dialogue on the Trinity. Here it arises in an imagined objection on the part of a
heterodox interlocutor who believes that the Son’s actual generation from the Father took
place at some temporal point. The Son’s eternal relation to the Father, by contrast, is regarded
as ‘only conceptual,’ a matter of ‘mere appearance,’ while the Father was Father only ‘in
potential.’25 Although Cyril obviously rejects this view, believing instead that the Father and
the Son are eternally coexistent, the example suggests that the formula ‘in contemplation
only’ here is roughly synonymous with ‘in appearance’ and ‘in potential’, and that both stand
in contrast to ‘in actuality.’ Whether this is always the meaning of the distinction is an
important question, for if it is, then the difference between Christ’s divine and human natures
would not be a real and abiding one, but one in name or appearance only. Yet it will
immediately become apparent where Cyril stands on this matter.

Other formulae include e0n qewri/a| mo/nh|; kata\ qewri/an; kat’ e0nnoi/an; kata\ th\n e0pi/noian. The use of
theoria in these contexts is not to be confused with its use in the distinction between historia (=historical sense)
and theoria (=spiritual interpretation) in biblical hermeneutics.
Siddals, Logic and Christology, 57, cited by van Loon, Dyophysite Christology, 153. For detailed analysis see
Boulnois, Le paradoxe trinitaire, 103-80.
In Joh. I, 3 (PG 73, 53BC). Similar applications to these binary analogies of the distinction between real unity
by nature, and division ‘in idea’ or ‘logical conception’ only, can be found in In Joh. II, 1 (PG 73, 213CD) and
In Joh. XI, 1 (PG 74, 449B-D) with respect to all three persons of the trinity.
Dial. Trin. II (PG 75, 781A). The key terms are: yilh=| qewri/a|; e0n mo/nh| dokh/sei; duna/mei.

The first Christological use of the distinction arises in Cyril’s Festal Letter 8, written
in the year 420, some nine years before the first sparks of the Nestorian crisis. Explaining
how it is that the Scriptures can ascribe the same personal unity to the Word both before and
after his incarnation, Cyril comments:

We do not on account of the union annul the things that are dissimilar by nature: the
radiance of the Father existing according to its own principle (logos), and the flesh
from the earth or a perfect man according to another. But having distinguished
(diegnokotes) these things in this way, and having separated the definition (logon) of
each in thought alone (monais tais ennoiais), we bind them together again into
indivisible unity.26

As was the case in the Trinitarian passages, Cyril is saying that, even if we can mentally or
conceptually distinguish two different natures or logoi or principles of existence, in the actual
reality which is Jesus Christ the Word made flesh we encounter a single personal subject
who, in an ineffable and incomparable way, embodies a unity of both. And it is this one
personal subject with whom we are dealing in Christian proclamation and worship, or rather,
who is dealing with us. Having said that, it is important to note here that Cyril in no way
suggests that the conceptual difference between the two natures is only apparent or nominal
and not real, or that after the union it ceases to have any meaning. Rather the point seems to
be that such a difference need only be affirmed as a kind of mental presupposition, the
minimum conceptual background needed to make sense of the much more decisive, concrete
reality confessed by faith: ‘the divine Word became fully human.’

Key texts in Cyril’s later theology

With the eruption of the Christological controversy Cyril was afforded even more
opportunity to invoke the primacy of the concrete and to restrict acknowledgement of duality
in Christ to the level of the abstract. Perhaps one of the best known examples of this
insistence occurs in his Third Letter to Nestorius, read aloud before the bishops gathered at
the Council of Ephesus in 431: ‘We must maintain that both the human as well as the divine
sayings were uttered by one subject…. This is why all the sayings in the Gospels must be

Tr. in Cyril of Alexandria, Festal Letters 1-12, ed. J. O’Keefe (Fathers of the Church 118, Washington D.C.:
Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 149. Modified by me.

attributed to one person, the one incarnate hypostasis of the Word.’27 By contrast, while there
is a place for affirming duality in Christ, Cyril argues that it can only be at the level of the
theoretical and abstract. ‘The one and only Christ is not twofold (diplou=j), even though he
may be conceived (noh=tai) as compounded out of two different elements in an indivisible
unity, just as a human being is conceived as consisting of soul and body and yet is not
twofold, but is one out of both….’28

In The Five Tomes against Nestorius Cyril twice expresses the idea of a conceptual
distinction with the terms ‘only in knowing’ (tw=| ei0de/nai mo/non).29 It is one thing to divide
Christ’s two natures ‘only to know’ the difference between them. It is altogether another to
separate them from their unity into two hypostases. Van Loon interprets these two possible
ways of interpreting duality in Christ as a difference between a legitimate separation ‘done in
the mind in order to know the difference of the natures’ and an illegitimate separation made
‘in reality.’30 This strengthens van Loon’s thesis that Cyril’s criticism of any division
between divine and human elements in Christ beyond the level of thought alone does not
pertain to the fact that there are two elements as such, but to the problem of their separation.

But is Cyril always so clear? In another passage from the same treatise Cyril rejects
the applicability of the terms juxtaposition (suna/feia) or relation (sxe/sij) to explain the
union of God and man in Christ. Not only do they fail to capture the intimacy and
permanence of the union, but they retain too much of the idea of an ongoing duality. Christ is
‘a single being’ (ei{j), even if in his proper nature the Word is foreign to all flesh. Now that
the Word has actually become flesh, we should not regard his divinity and humanity as two
entities, but one. Cyril explains his point by way of a striking example: If you kill a man, you
only kill one person, even if he is made up of two distinct elements (soul and body). ‘We
should think about Christ in the same way. For he is certainly not twofold (diplou=j).’ So
what about the difference between the natures? Cyril concedes ‘that the difference (th\n
diafora/n) between the humanity and the divinity or indeed the distance (dia/stasin)
separating them is vast….’ But when we turn our attention to the actual fact of Christ, when
the mystery of his personhood is set before us in liturgy and sacrament and Scripture, ‘then,
without ignoring the difference, our discussion of the union nevertheless puts division (th\n

Cyril, Third Letter to Nestorius 8; my translation of the Greek text in Lionel R. Wickham (ed.), Cyril of
Alexandria: Select Letters (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983), 22-4.
Contra Nestorium II, 13 (PG 75, 109C); III, 5 (PG 75, 157C).
Van Loon, Dyophysite Christology, 387.

diai/resin) aside, not because we are confusing the natures or mixing them together, but
because the Word of God, having partaken of flesh and blood, continues to be regarded as a
single Son and is called such.’31 What Cyril seems to be contending with in this passage is
not the recognition of difference between Christ’s two natures per se, but the extension of
what is properly a conceptual distinction into the realm of the actual, and indeed, into the
sphere of worship. It is not just duality that is problematic, but the proposition of an actual
two when in fact Christian worship honours an actual one. This is what results from allowing
the theoretical affirmation of an infinite distance between divinity and humanity, valid in its
own right, to encroach divisively upon our faithful confession and worship of Christ who in
actuality, at the level of the concrete, is truly one. The latter claim by no means denies the
truth that Christ is a union of two very different natures.

Following the Formula of Reunion in 433, we find Cyril applying the ‘in conceptual
thought’ motif in a new context, one which demanded more careful nuance, for in this case
his interlocutors were no longer Nestorians. Rather Cyril had to contend with anxieties
arising from among his own bishops and supporters that agreement with the Formula
signalled a doctrinal compromise. In particular the problematic phrase in the Formula was
one which affirmed, in apparent opposition to what had been asserted in the Council of
Ephesus, the propriety of referring various sayings in the New Testament to one or the other
nature in Christ:

As for the terms used about the Lord in the Gospels and apostolic writings, we
recognise that theologians treat some as shared because they refer to one person, some
they refer separately to two natures, traditionally teaching the application of the divine
terms to Christ’s divinity, and the lowly ones to his humanity.

Wasn’t this to backpedal away from the position stated so forthrightly in Cyril’s 4th
anathema, namely, that one should ascribe all sayings to the one subject? While some modern
scholars, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, defend the coherence of the two positions
(inasmuch as the conciliar text is understood to denounce the ascription of properties to two

Contra Nestorium II, 6 (PG 75, 84D-85B); translation in Norman Russell, Cyril of Alexandria (London:
Routledge, 2000), 149-50.

different ‘person-referents’ rather than ‘nature-referents’),32 Cyril’s bishops understood the
matter otherwise.

And so writing to Acacius of Melitene, who had been so influential at the council,
Cyril defends the Antiochenes for ‘taking the recognised elements from which Christ is
[composed] at the level of mere ideas alone (w9j e0n yilai=j kai\ mo/naij e0nnoi/aij).’33 They
should not be impugned for heterodoxy, for they clearly declare one Son and Christ and Lord,
while maintaining ‘that it is only the terms applied to the Lord which are divided.’ By this
‘they do not mean that some of these apply to a Son in isolation, the Word of God, and some
again to a different woman-born son, but instead that some apply to his divinity and some to
his humanity.’34

This more subtle affirmation of a qualified duality in Christ arises again in Cyril’s
letter to the priest Eulogius in Constantinople (433). Not everything that Nestorius taught is
to be opposed. He is right in distinguishing two natures, wrong in his failure to hold them
together in union. Here Cyril illustrates by showing how a conceptual distinction can be
applied analogously to one human being composed of soul and body, without necessarily
dividing the person into two. ‘Our intellect (o9 lo/goj) and conceptual power (h9 qewri/a)
recognise the difference [between body and soul], but we unite them and then recognise the
single nature of man.’ In the same way the difference between Christ’s two natures can be
recognised mentally (ei0de/nai) without splitting the one Christ into two.35 Later this sentence
became the object of heated debate between Severus of Antioch and subscribers to the
Chalcedonian definition. For as Wickham queries, ‘The passage affirms a real distinction of
natures in thought’, but ‘in what respect is the duality actual?’36

Finally, in both his first and second letters to Succensus, Cyril similarly explains his
apparently easy acceptance of dividing attributions of various activities to one or the other
nature in Christ by recourse to the application of a purely mental or conceptual division. In
the first letter he states: ‘So far as the question of the manner of the only-begotten’s becoming
man appears for purely mental consideration by the mind’s eye, our view is that there are
two united natures but one Christ Son and Lord, the Word of God become man and

See e.g. John A. McGuckin, St. Cyril of Alexandria: The Christological Controversy, Its History, Theology
and Texts (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 345 n.4.
Ep. 41, 15(Wickham, 52).
Ep. 41, 16 (Wickham, 52).
Ep. 44 (Wickham, 64).
Wickham, 65 n.4.

incarnate.’37 He goes on to invoke the soul and body analogy. In the second letter, Cyril’s
account is shaped by the need to respond to the specific charge of theopaschism which had
been laid against him and his supporters. Cyril reiterates the orthodox affirmation of the
incarnate Word’s suffering with the qualifying phrase ‘in the flesh’, which he says is
synonymous with ‘in our nature.’38 But lest that qualification be taken as a concession to a
Nestorianising Christology, Cyril recalls a crucial logical rule: ‘it is usually only those things
that are divided at more than a merely theoretical level which completely split apart in mutual
difference and separate individuality.’ To explain this philosophically dense sentence, he
again calls on the soul and body analogy. ‘Take a normal human being. We perceive in his
case two natures, one of the soul, the other of the body. But we divide them only in thought,
accepting the difference as residing in fine-drawn insight or conceptual intuition.’39 It is the
same way with Christ: the natural difference between the united elements is recognised by an
act of conceptual abstraction. In Cyril’s words: o9 nou=j fanta/zetai to\ e9terofue\j, that is,
‘the mind presents the difference to itself in the form of a mental image.’40 True as it may be
in its own limits, in no way should this mental image be confused with the actual reality,
which, pregnant with an infinite mysteriousness, cannot be reduced to conceptual categories.

Looking back over the data, I think it is possible to detect a shift in these later works
in Cyril’s application of the ‘in conceptual thought only’ motif. Originally we saw how the
notion was invoked in both Trinitarian theology and Christology in order to strengthen the
focus on the singular and concrete and ward off the dangers of theological dualism. With the
eruption of the Nestorian crisis this emphasis only intensified. After the Formula of Reunion,
however, the logic gets turned to the question of the incarnate Word’s passibility, and
especially to the question whether confessing one incarnate nature after the union amounts to
predicating passibility of the divine nature. In light of this concern to qualify the Word’s
suffering by reference to ‘his flesh’ or humanity, the distinction between the concrete and
abstract served to justify the kind of differentiation needed to avoid, on the one hand, the
overly theopaschite or miaphysite Christology for which Cyril and members of his party had
been accused, and, on the other, the fear that such qualifications signified a more or less
implicit capitulation to a fully blown two-subject Christology.

Ep. 45, 7 (Wickham, 76).
Ep. 46, 5 (Wickham, 92).
Ep 46, 5 (Wickham, 92).
Ep. 46, 2 (Wickham, 86).

Overall, the texts show that the e0n qewri/a| motif operates chiefly in the service of
Cyril’s commitment to the primacy - and paradoxical profundity - of the concrete. His
insistence on confessing one Christ from two natures and his hesitancy to accept the ‘in two
natures’ formula, later ratified by the Council Fathers of Chalcedon (451), seems to support
this conclusion. As McGuckin comments, ‘The concept of two natures as a primary vehicle
for language about the incarnation… strikes him as too static and too weak to carry the sense
of the dynamic economy which for him constitutes the incarnation.’41 In other words, the real
Christ is always richer than our ideas and definitions of him. The e0n qewri/a| motif undergirds
this outlook. ‘The one nature is the primary reality in the incarnation, the ‘two natures united’
are deducible from the former. It is, therefore, only possible to speak of two natures after the
union in a theoretical or deductive sense, precisely because the union has made them ‘united’,
thus one reality, even though a composited one.’42 Siddals’ proposal that Cyril’s Christology
follows a compound model leads to the same assessment. Although a compound is made up
of parts, which are different in nature and retain their difference within the compound, the
primary reality, the actual and existent one we encounter in fact, is one, singular, unified. In
light of this actual reality, any distinction between the parts is primarily theoretical.43

But, as Cyril later affirms, abstract or theoretical statements are not necessarily
opposed to actual reality.44 To say that the human body can be killed, but not the soul, is not
to say something utterly false and unreal and without foundation. It is nevertheless to
prioritise an abstract description for an existentially actual, historically subsistent one. The
only danger lies in confusing abstract statements with concrete ones. Herewith it is possible
to utter falsehoods. So of Christ we can say: This man is God. But we cannot say his
humanity is divinity. To those who grant primacy to the abstract, concrete statements such as
‘Mary became God’s mother’ or ‘God died on the cross’ or ‘This bread is Christ’s body’
seem naïve, perverse or confused. On the other hand, those who refuse to acknowledge the
utility and need for abstraction, close the door to intelligent reflection on - and precise
dogmatic formulation of - the primary data of Christian faith and narrative confession.

McGuckin, Christological Controversy, 355 n.6.
McGuckin, Christological Controversy, 211.
Siddals, recounted by van Loon, Dyophysite Christology, 208-9.
This I think is the weakness in van Loon’s thesis, when he argues that the ‘in conceptual thought only’ only
applies to the separation of different elements in Christ, not to their distinction. On this van Loon is right, but by
defining the abstract as not real (Dyophysite Christology, 200-201), he is led to overstate his case, anxious as he
is to exclude all unreal difference from Christ.


Where do the two strands we have so far studied converge? Grillmeier has detailed how the
distinction between abstract and concrete predications in Christology cropped up at important
moments in the very turbulent period immediately following the Council of Chalcedon in 451
right through to the Canons of the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553. During this time, in
which a chief concern was to determine more precisely the way in which concrete
particularity could be attributed to Christ’s humanity without implying the Nestorian doctrine
of two hypostases, the concepts of qewri/a and e1nnoia came to ‘pertain to the most important
notions which were adopted from Cyril to interpret Chalcedon’s teaching of two natures.’
The successful application of these concepts would notably depend on ‘Justinian’s
purification of terminology, that is, the distinction of hypostasis-prosopon vis-à-vis physis
and ousia….’45 Additionally we find it linked to the increasingly important distinction
between enhypostatos and anhypostatos, terms whose role is crucial to the convergence I am
outlining but whose meaning has become obscured in the light of modern scholarly
controversy and popular use. It will be helpful therefore to provide some general background
that will shed light on the meaning of this latter pair and on their role in the development
under analysis.

In the late 19th century Friedrich Loofs advanced the influential thesis that
enhypostatos and its cognates as used by the sixth century theologian Leontius of Byzantium
indicate that Christ’s human nature was not subsistent but was ‘hypostasised in’ the divine
hypostasis. This hypothesis was widely but uncritically accepted for well over a century until
convincingly challenged by a careful study by Brian Daley. Daley demonstrated that the
prefix ‘en’ in Leontius’s use of the term enhypostatos means not ‘in’ in the locative sense but
is simply the opposite of the alpha privative in anhypostatos. Enhypostatos thus simply
means subsistent, or real in the sense of possessing actual existence, while anhypostatos
means the opposite: non-subsistent or without actual existence as an independent entity.46
This seems to be confirmed by usage of the term enhypostatos in the sense of existent or real
as far back as Irenaeus, Origen, and Didymus.47

Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition 2/2, 458.
See Brian E. Daley, ‘A Richer Union: Leontius of Byzantium and the Relationship of Human and Divine in
Christ’, Studia Patristica 24 (1993), 239-65. Daley includes a reference to Loofs’ article and a summary of
erroneous interpretations connected with it.
See G. W. H. Lampe, Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), 485-6.

While Daley’s thesis is essentially correct, especially with respect to the Christology
of Leontius, an examination of the wider use of enhypostatos in patristic theology indicates
some additional nuances. One of the earliest and most well established applications is
Trinitarian. The attribution of enhypostaton to the divine Word and Spirit to indicate their
respective real subsistence, often in contrast to human words and breath which lack
subsistence, is widely attested in Epiphanius, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, and
Maximus Confessor.48

A second and more broadly metaphysical usage yields some additional distinct
meanings. First, enhypostatos can designate the accidents or qualities possessed by a
subsistent being. So we find the definition of Maximus the Confessor:

Hypostasis designates a person by means of characteristic properties. Enhypostaton

by contrast signifies the accident which, lacking being of its own, possesses its being
in another, and is not contemplated in itself, nor is subsistent in itself, but is always
contemplated in connection with the hypostasis. Such are the qualities which are
called both essential and non-essential: they are not substance, nor are they by
themselves, but they happen in the substance and have no being apart from it.49

According to this definition, accidents do not have their own actuality or subsistence
independent of the individual substance whose accidents they are. This goes for ‘essential’
accidents such as rationality in humans, as well as for ‘non-essential’ accidents, such as being
red-haired or one-legged. All such accidents deserve the designation enhypostatos only in so
far as they actually exist in a concrete individual, a hypostasis. Set them apart from the
hypostasis, mentally separate them and think about them in their own right apart from their
actual existence in this or that subsisting substance, and the term enhypostatos no longer

Second, enhypostatos applies to a substance or species, again considered not in its

own right, that is, in the abstract, but considered in the individual, that is, in the concrete.50
This meaning is closely related to the first, where enhypostatos is applied to concretely
existing accidents, but here it is extended to universals: they can only be considered real or
subsistent - enhypostata - as they actually exist in individuals.

Epiph., Panarion, haer. 72.11; Chrys., In Iohannem, hom. 4 (PG 59, 47); Cyr., Thesaurus (PG 75, 324A); In
Jo. V (PG 73, 844AB); Max.Conf., Amb.Io. 23 (PG 91, 1260D); Q. Thal. 13, 18-31 (CCSG 7, 95).
Max.Conf., Opusc. 23 (PG 91, 261AB).
See Max.Conf., Opusc. 14 (PG 91, 149BC); Ep. 15 (PG 91, 560A).

Finally enhypostatos may indicate something put together with another to bring about
a whole.51 The obvious example is the soul and body of a particular human being: neither has
being in its own right, independently of the other. Nonetheless they are actual, real, and
subsistent inasmuch as they are both possessed by and realised as an individual human being.

Of these two main ways of using the term enhypostatos, it was the Trinitarian way
which made it obviously applicable to Christ’s divine nature, while the more metaphysical
meanings apparently made it useful for trying to characterise the actuality possessed by his
human nature.52

It is now possible to return to a number of brief examples from the sixth and seventh
centuries which provide the outlines of the kind of convergence I have proposed. The first
appears in the connection made by John of Caesarea between ousia as an abstract conceptual
entity and hypostasis as an existent particular. This distinction is strengthened by his
application of the term enhypostatos to the humanity of Christ. By this John did not mean that
Christ’s humanity is a hypostasis in its own right; nor apparently did he mean that it has
‘existence in’ some other hypostasis (i.e. that of the Word). Rather, by designating Christ’s
human nature as enhypostatos John was simply indicating that it is real, existent, and
concretely actual. It is enhypostatos ‘inasmuch as it has existence and is’ (kaqo\ u9fe/sthke/ te
kai\ e1stin).53

This notion of Christ’s humanity as enhypostatos or concretely existent was

developed further by Leontius of Byzantium when he contrasted it with anhypostaton, which
denotes a purely abstract, accidental, or non-subsistent level of being. In Christology
anhypostaton functions more or less in parallel with the concept of e0n qewri/a| or e0n e0nnoi/a|:
it denotes the non-actual, while enhypostaton refers to the real and existent. Leontius
explicitly stated that his chief analytical interest resided in the whole Christ in his

Max.Conf., Ep. 15 (PG 91, 560A)
For further discussion see Aloys Grillmeier, ‘The Understanding of the Christological Definitions of Both
(Oriental Orthodox and Roman Catholic) Traditions in the Light of the Post-Chalcedonian Theology (Analysis
of Terminologies in a Conceptual Framework)’, in Christ in East and West, ed. Paul Fries and Tiran Nersoyan
(Macon, Georgia: Mercer University, 1987), 65-82; Brian E. Daley, ‘A Richer Union: Leontius of Byzantium
and the Relationship of Human and Divine in Christ’, Studia Patristica 24 (1993), 239-65; F. LeRon Shults, ‘A
Dubious Christological Formula: From Leontius of Byzantium to Karl Barth’, Theological Studies 57 (1996),
431-46; U. M. Lang, ‘Anhypostatos-enhypostatos: Church Fathers, Protestant Orthodoxy and Karl Barth’, The
Journal of Theological Studies 49/2 (1998), 630-57.
Cited in Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition 2/2, 64.

paradoxically rich unity rather than in semantics or abstract entities.54 It is in the context of
this epistemological primacy of the actual, individual, and contingent that we are to
understand his use of terms. Thus in the hypostatic union, Christ’s humanity is not
anhypostaton, non-existent, but enhypostaton: actual, real, and subsistent, yet not in such a
way that there are two existents, that is, two hypostases. For as Leontius argues, while ‘there
is no anhypostatos nature’, that is, while natures have no existence outside particulars, it is
wrong to conclude from this axiom ‘that that which is not anhypostatos’, that is, that which is
enhypostatos, ‘is therefore a hypostasis.’55 Leontius’s meaning can be clarified with reference
to an expression from a learned philosophical contemporary, the Alexandrian John
Philoponus, for whom the same conceptual distinction was explained by explicit invocation
of the abstract and concrete terminology: ta\ e0nupo/stata o1nta are concretely existing
realities, in contrast to beings which only have being conceptually: e0n mo/nh| th=| e0pinoi/a| to\
ei}nai e1xei.56

A third example can be found in the even richer theology of Leontius of Jerusalem,
for whom the combination of the two ideas serves to strengthen a depiction of Christ in which
his humanity is again affirmed in its concrete particularity, without implying the presence of
an independent second hypostasis. Leontius recognises that apart from the actual conditions
of the hypostatic union, that is, e0n qewri/a|, Christ’s human nature would be a hypostasis in its
own right. But in actual fact, before they could exist on their own, all the particular properties
(i0diw/mata) proper to the human substance (ousia) ‘were already appropriated to the divine
subject.’57 In this way Leontius is able to affirm with his namesake from Byzantium the
subsistent particularity and individuality of Christ’s humanity. Like the divine nature, it is
actual and real: enhypostaton. Does this mean that Leontius ascribes two enhypostata to
Christ? Yes, in as much as each nature is indeed enhypostatos – that is, subsistent and actual
– as one and the same hypostasis. Neither nature lacks actuality. Even so, the duality
suggested by this affirmation is not actual but conceptual. The enhypostaton of both natures

Epilysis 8 (PG 86, 1940BC): ‘Since, then, the mode of union rather than the principle of nature contains the
mystery of religion, we are free from having to investigate the nature of what is united and what is perfect in
them…. Let us, then, investigate the mode of union and its product (a0pote/lesma).’
Leontius of Byzantium, Nest. et Eut. (PG 86a, 1277CD).
John Philoponus, In Physics I, 1, quoted by U. M. Lang, ‘Anhypostatos-enhypostatos,’ 634. Also cf.
Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition 2/2, 194 n.29.
Cited in Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition 2/2, 289-90.

‘must be thought of (noei=sqai) as being in one and the same hypostasis.’58 Duality is
relegated to the conceptual sphere. In concrete fact, Christ is one.

Yet a fourth example arises just after this period in the work of the pro-Chalcedonian
Patriarch of Alexandria, Eulogius (580-607). In considering the question of Christ’s
ignorance, Eulogius invoked Cyril’s distinction between the abstract and concrete to affirm
that, while human nature in itself is normally characterised by ignorance, in the actual case of
Christ it would be ‘reckless’ to ascribe ignorance without appropriate qualification. ‘If, as the
blessed Cyril teaches, we separate fact from fact in subtle thoughts (ennoiai) or in the
imagination of the spirit according to the art of theoria, then we see the characteristics of
each of the two natures, as they are in themselves….’ It is only by this method that we can
attribute ignorance to Christ’s humanity, only, that is, when we consider it in the abstract, as
pure and simple human nature, without reference to the actual conditions of the incarnation.59

The fifth and final example I shall propose here comes from the theology of Maximus
the Confessor, which carries strong echoes of the formula from John Philoponus, adduced
just above. Like the two Leontii, Maximus applies the adjective enhypostatos to a range of
entities insofar as they exist in or as actual, real, and concrete beings, and not as they are
considered just abstractly or conceptually. Thus one can call a common substance or species
enhypostaton inasmuch as ‘it actually exists in the individuals under it, but not when
considered in thought alone (ou0k e0pinoi/a| yilh|= qewrou/menon).’60 Here again we find the
epistemological formula e0pinoi/a| yilh|= in order to draw a contrast between a given entity’s
concrete existence in actuality and its conceptual consideration in the abstract, with
enhypostaton reserved to characterise the entity as it actually exists.

Following all this evidence from the sixth and seventh centuries, a clearer
consolidation of the two ideas arises definitively a couple of centuries later, in the writings of
John of Damascus. In the following passage from his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith we
see quite clearly the articulation of a distinction between created reality considered in the
concrete and created reality considered conceptually or in the abstract, running parallel with a
distinction between hypostasis and ousia, that is, what is encountered empirically at the level
of the individual and particular and what is conceived by rational abstraction at the level of
the common and universal.

Cited in Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition 2/2, 285 n.61.
Cited in Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition 2/2, 379.
Maximus Confessor, Opusc. 14 (PG 91, 149BC).

One ought, moreover, to recognise that it is one thing to look at a matter as it actually
is [pra/gmati], and another thing to look at it in the light of reason and thought
[logw|= kai\ e0pi/noia|]. In the case of all created things, the distinction of hypostases is
observed in actual fact. For in actual fact Peter is seen to be separate from Paul. But
the community and connection and unity are apprehended by reason and thought. For
it is by the mind that we perceive that Peter and Paul are of the same nature and have
one common nature. For both are living creatures, rational and mortal; and both are
flesh endowed with the spirit of reason and understanding. It is, then, by reason that
this community of nature is observed.61

According to this way of thinking, there is an order of knowing by which we encounter things
at the level of the particular before we come to know and understand them at the universal
level (I say ‘before’, but the priority is more logical than temporal). I get to know the general
category ‘humanity’ and discern the unity of nature shared by human beings by a process of
rational abstraction from living and concrete encounters with particular, different, individual
persons - Peter, Paul, or Mary.
But while this is the order of knowing with created beings, it seems to be a different
matter when it comes to knowing the God, who infinitely transcends the created realm. As
the Damascene explains:

…. [However] in the case of the superessential and incomprehensible Trinity, far

removed from everything, it is quite the reverse. For there the community and unity
are observed in fact, through the co-eternity of the hypostases, and through their
having the same essence and energy and will and concord of mind, and then being
identical in authority and power and goodness - I do not say similar, but identical….
When, then, we turn our eyes to the divinity, and to the first cause and the sovereignty
and the oneness and sameness, so to speak, of the movement and will of the divinity,
and of the identity in essence and power and energy and lordship, what is seen by us
is unity. But when we look to those things which the divinity is, or, to put more
accurately, which are the divinity, and to those things which are in it through the first

John Damascene, On the Orthodox Faith I, 8. Louth cites Kotter’s contention that John drew this distinction
from a passage in Basil’s Ascetica, preserved in the Doctrina Patrum. If this dependence could be substantiated,
it would suggest an origin for the abstract/concrete distinction prior to Cyril. But even so, concedes Louth, ‘it
was Cyril’s use of this distinction in Christology that popularized it.’ See Andrew Louth, St John Damascene:
Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 111.

cause without time or distinction in glory or separation, that is to say, to the
hypostases of the Son and the Spirit, it seems to us a Trinity that we adore.62

What is John saying here? Empirically speaking, created beings are most immediately
marked by their hypostatic diversity, their separateness one from the other. If you pay
attention to particular details, each one is not like the other. Their unity or communion is
more difficult to perceive, and can be known only conceptually by rational abstraction from
the particular to the universal and common. Thus difference is encountered at the level of the
particular, unity at the level of the abstract. But when we turn to God, things are reversed.
When reason turns its gaze beyond created things, it finds that God’s most recognisable
characteristic, as supreme cause and being of beings, is his unity, his oneness, his self-
identity. It is only by a subsequent rational movement, prompted by special divine revelation
and encounter with the Son and the Spirit, that we come to know this one God also as three.63
Thus with God, difference or multiplicity is encountered by a process of reflection: ‘it is by
thought that the difference is perceived’, says the Damascene, and ‘only in the attributes of
Fatherhood, Sonship, and Procession’, that is, in the particular modes of existence, ‘do we
perceive differences.’ Yet neither the distinction nor the unity detracts from the other, for in
God sameness and difference are mutually co-inherent.64

The Latin Tradition

What of the western patristic tradition? In the sixteenth century Latin had been the
established language of technical theology in western Europe for over a millennium. Yet
from the late fourth century, the Greek words ousia and hypostasis could not be translated
into Latin without departing from the sense ascribed to them by their use in Christian
theology. Just as ousia and hypostasis had, in their everyday, philosophical context meant
virtually the same thing, so the Latin words essentia and substantia were virtual synonyms
denoting a real, existing thing. While essentia came to be used to translate ousia and
substantia for hypostasis, it was not without confusion. So Jerome recounts his horror when,
on arriving in Greek-speaking Antioch, he was asked to confess his faith in one God and

John Damascene, On the Orthodox Faith I, 8.
Maximus similarly spoke of a shift from an initial knowledge of the divinity according to the (monadic) logos
of its being to a fuller knowledge of the divinity according to its (triadic) mode of subsistence. See Amb.Th. 1,
33-36 (CCSG 48, 7). Also cf. Amb.Io. 67 (PG 91, 1400D); Mystagogia 23 (PG 90, 701A).
John’s discussion includes here the first application of the term perichoresis in Trinitarian theology. See
further Louth, St John Damascene, 104-16.

three hypostases. How, thought Jerome, can one possibly speak of three substantiae - three
distinct realities - in God? That would be tantamount to tritheism.65

Despite Augustine’s confessed unfamiliarity with Greek, he was apparently well

aware of the logic behind the terminological distinction between ousia and hypostasis and the
pitfalls involved in translating them without due qualification. As he explains in On the

Above all, we must maintain this position, that terms applied to the sublime and
incomparable divinity in respect of itself are understood as substantial, whereas terms
which have external reference are to be taken as relative…. Whatever predicates are
applied to God in his own being are applied to each person severally… so we do not
speak of three ‘greatnesses’, but one ‘essence’ and one ‘greatness’. By ‘essence’ I
mean what in Greek is called ousia, which we normally call ‘substance’.

Thus Augustine recognises ousia as a term that denotes what is common or shared. When it
comes to denoting what is different or distinct, he refers to the Greek word hypostasis, most
likely as it was used by Gregory of Nyssa.66 His conclusion about the inherent limitations
involved in Tertullian’s famous word persona is striking:

They [the Greeks] also use the term hypostasis, differentiating this from ousia, so that
many of our writers who deal with these questions in Greek have adopted the phrase,
‘one ousia, three hypostases’. The Latin for this would be, ‘one essentia, three
substantiae’. But in our language ‘essence’ has come to mean the same as
‘substance’, and so we shrink from using this formula. We prefer to say ‘one essentia
or substantia, three personae’…. However, we say ‘three persons’, not because that
expresses just what we want to say, but because we must say something.67

The Concrete in the Christology of Thomas Aquinas

In the writings of Boethius (c. 480-524) we discern a distinct shift in thinking. Like
Augustine, Boethius knows about the Greek distinction between ousia and hypostasis, but

Jerome, Letter 15.3.
On the debated question of Cappadocian influence on Augustine, see Lewis Ayres, ‘The Cappadocians,’ in
Allan D. Fitzgerald (ed.), Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 121-
Augustine, On the Trinity 5, 9, 10.

goes on to specify a definition for hypostasis that was to have quite an impact in the
Scholastic period, especially through Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). For the first time,
hypostasis comes to denote not simply any particular thing when considered in its distinctive,
individual subjectivity, but a subsistent, rational being. Using the word persona, then,
Boethius provides the following definition: person is an individual substance of a rational
nature (persona est rationalis naturae individua substantia). I cannot here treat Aquinas’s
treatment of Boethius’s definition in question 29 of the prima pars of his Summa Theologiae.
But the new meaning comes to play a role in Aquinas’s Christological distinction between
abstractum and concretum. The distinction occurs especially when Thomas is addressing
questions relating to the union of the divine and human natures in Christ, and therefore
relating to what pertains to Christ from the standpoint of being. Several principles underscore
what he has to say, some of which are pertinent to our discussion. It is to be noted here that
Aquinas devotes much energy to demonstrating the rationale that determines what can or
cannot legitimately be said in Christological matters. Behind his at-times arduous dialectical
method stands the belief that beneath orthodox Christian language lies a common-sense logic
without which it would lose its coherence and intelligibility.68

First we may draw attention to Thomas’s observation that ‘a word signifying a

common nature in the concrete (in concreto) may stand for whatever is contained in the
common nature, in the same way that this word homo may stand for any individual man.’69 In
other words, while the word homo (human being) indicates a nature common to all human
beings, it may be also predicated ‘in the concrete’ of any individual human being: ‘Socrates is
a human being’. It follows, says Aquinas, that it may also be predicated of that individual
human being who, as the incarnate Son of God, is also truly God. It is therefore true to say
that ‘God is a human being’ in so far as we are speaking in concreto, that is, in so far as we
are referring to the concrete individual70 Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God.

It is not difficult to see that Aquinas is here simply preserving the patristic distinction
between nature and ousia on the one hand, and hypostasis on the other. Like Cyril of

This is quite different from a purely rationalising approach to theology which would try to justify revealed
truth according to the demands of rational inquiry. The mysteries of revelation exceed rational comprehension,
even while theology tries to express those mysteries in comprehensible terms and show the reasonability of
Christian belief. At the same time, revelation purifies and expands reason, giving it a new horizon and
deepening its grasp of reality.
Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, 16, 1.
What Aquinas calls the hypostasis or suppositum.

Alexandria, the trajectory of his argument on this point is noticeably anti-Nestorian. In
Aquinas’s own estimation:

The Nestorians wished to divide words predicated of Christ in this way, namely, that
such as pertained to human nature should not be predicated of God, and that such as
pertained to the divine nature should not be predicated of the man.71

In contrast to this, the Council of Ephesus had decreed that acts pertaining to either the divine
or human nature of Jesus are all to be predicated of the single concrete hypostasis, for, ‘since
there is one hypostasis of both natures, the same hypostasis is signified by the name of either
nature.’72 For that reason, Aquinas continues,

whether we say ‘human being’ or ‘God’, the hypostasis of divine nature and human
nature is signified. And hence, of the man may be said what belongs to the divine
nature (as of a hypostasis of the divine nature), and of God may be said what belongs
to the human nature (as of a hypostasis of human nature).73

All this, we may note, is commonplace in the Catholic Christological tradition.

The second principle on which we may focus attention follows on as the counterpart
to the foregoing rule. While one may predicate what pertains to the human nature to Christ in
the concrete, it clearly does not follow that the word homo can be predicated of God in an
abstract, general sense (in abstracto). This would be to confuse the distinction between the
two natures in Christ. For ‘in the mystery of the incarnation the natures, being distinct, are
not predicated one of the other in the abstract.’74

Further discussion along these lines continues when Aquinas addresses the question
as to whether human properties, manifest in Christ, may rightly be predicated of the divine
nature. Keeping to the logic adduced in the preceding principle, Aquinas asserts that ‘what is
proper to the human nature may not be said of the divine nature’, for ‘what belongs to one
nature cannot be said of another unless they [the natures] are the same.’75 Thus while at the
level of the concrete one may predicate indifferently what belongs to either nature, at the
level of the abstract one is bound to observe the difference between the natures. The divine

Aquinas, Summa theologiae III, 16, 4.
Aquinas, Summa theologiae III, 16, 2.
Aquinas, Summa theologiae III, 16, 5.

nature is not human nature; incorporeal is not corporeal, impassible is not passible. Sameness
or unity, as we have seen, exists in Christ only at the level of the concrete and particular, that
is, at the level of hypostasis. Difference remains at the level of nature or the abstract.

There is one final principle to be noted in Thomas’s Christology which further

elucidates the distinction between being as it pertains to nature (that is, being considered in
itself in the abstract), and being as it pertains to hypostasis (that is, being considered in its
concrete, existential particularity). Having cited Boethius’s rule that ‘whatever is, in so far as
it is, is one’ (omne quod est, inquantum est, unum est), Thomas goes on to argue that,
although there are two natures in Christ, he remains truly one on account of the fact that
nature, considered in the abstract, ‘cannot truly be predicated of the suppositum or person.’
He concedes that if it were possible to predicate both the divine and the human natures of
Christ in the abstract, it would follow that he is two, and not one. But in fact only the divine
nature can be predicated of him in the abstract: one can point to Christ and say ‘he is
divinity’. That is, whatever can be predicated of the common divine nature of the holy
Trinity, can also be predicated of Christ - even at the level of the abstract. This is because,
with God, there is no difference between ‘what’ he is (i.e. God), and ‘by what’ he is (i.e.
divinity). Unlike a human being, who is what he is (a human being) by reason of human
nature considered in its abstract form (humanity), God is what he is absolutely: he is both
one, and unity itself; he is both divine, and divinity itself; he is both good, and goodness
itself, and so on.

On the other hand, says Aquinas, while one can predicate of Christ whatever is
common to divine nature in the abstract (since, as God, he is his divine nature), it does not
follow that one can predicate of him whatever is common to human nature in the abstract. So
while it is possible to say ‘Christ is a human being’, one cannot say ‘Christ is human
nature.’76 One cannot predicate human nature in its abstract, universal, absolute sense of an
individual, concrete human being.

The Concrete in the Christology of Martin Chemnitz

I come at last to the application of the distinction between abstract and concrete terminology
in Christology in Lutheran scholasticism. It is impossible to do this full justice without also
entering into fairly detailed analysis of the 16th century controversy between the Lutherans

Thomas is right. Yet it is proper to say along with Maximus the Confessor’s famous axiom, taken from
Leontius and followed by the Damascene, that Christ ‘is’ (both) his natures.

and the Reformed over the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament of the
altar, not to mention the very carefully worked out scheme Chemnitz develops under the
umbrella of the fourfold genera in his teaching on the communicatio idiomatum. Such an
analysis however would require a lengthy study in its own right. It shall suffice here to
confirm that in using the distinction between abstract and concrete Chemnitz seeks expressly
to preserve the Greek patristic distinction between ousia/physis and hypostasis, a distinction
between what is common and shared on the one hand, and what is particular and distinct on
the other. Let us take a few selections from his work The Two Natures in Christ, first from a
lengthy passage in the opening chapter where he defines certain critical terms:

For since … in the incarnate Christ the nature and the person are not the same thing, it
is necessary, in order to avoid both confusion and separation, to use distinguishing
terms, some of which indicate the natures in Christ and others His person. The
Scholastic writers in dealing with this teaching attempted to indicate and distinguish
these different and distinct expressions by the use of particular names and
designations. Thus the terms which indicate Christ’s natures they call abstract. And
when they use terms in a speech or doctrinal pronouncement which refer to the
natures united in the person of Christ, the Scholastics call this speaking in the abstract
or using abstract terms. And they call abstract those doctrinal propositions which
consist of abstract terms, that is, terms which indicate or denote the actual natures of
Christ. On the other hand, they call those terms concrete which indicate or denote the
person of Christ, which subsists in or consists of the two natures. Thus the Scholastics
say one is speaking concretely when he attributes something to the person itself or
uses terms which refer to the person…. For the general rule among the Scholastics is
that abstract terms apply to the natures and concrete to the person.77

Take another example, this time from the chapter treating the first genus:

The rule of the Scholastics is that the substantial attributes of the one nature are not
attributed to the other when we consider it in the abstract, but they are communicated
to the person in the concrete, that is, by a term which indicates the hypostasis. For it is
not correct to say that the humanity is an essence generated from the Father from
eternity, or that the deity is pierced with nails or wounded with a spear; but it is

Chemnitz, The Two Natures in Christ, 31-2.

perfectly correct to say concretely that the Son of Man ascended to where he was
before, that the Lord of glory is crucified.78

Chemnitz not only has recourse to scholastic authors such as Thomas, Bernard, and
Bonaventura for this terminology. He appeals first of all to the Greek Fathers, especially for
the distinction between ousia as the common and hypostasis as the particular. He even notes
how these meanings ‘apply to every substance, not only an intelligent one’, and how John
Damanscene ‘from the thinking of the Greeks applies the terms ou0si/a and u9po/stasij even
to horses, cattle, or olives.’79 Chemnitz also appeals to Melanchthon and Luther as witnesses
to the validity of such a distinction. His appeal to Luther becomes in fact a defence of Luther,
for Luther had been accused of so emphasising the union of natures that the distinction
between them was blurred, or even collapsed, as if one nature basically merged into the other.
But this, asserts Chemnitz, is a false reading of the situation.80 Luther’s commitment to the
characteristically Cyrilline confession of the concrete unity of Christ’s person, to attributing
‘to the whole person whatever belongs to either of its parts’,81 was simply an example of
taking the hypostatic union seriously. To say that the properties of the divine nature have
been communicated to Christ’s humanity does not in any way imply that the two natures have
been confused. As Chemnitz cites Luther from his commentary on John:

For when we speak of the natures in the proper and distinct sense, we must confess
that the one is God and not man, that the human nature is not from eternity but the
divine is, and that the divine nature is not born in time or put to death but the human
nature is…. [T]here are individual things which are proper and according to each

One further comment is needed on Chemnitz’s appropriation of the enhypostatos /

anhypostatos distinction, which we have seen was more clearly developed in patristic
Christology by Leontius of Byzantium, Leontius of Jerusalem, and Maximus the Confessor.
Here we see for the first time the somewhat unusual predication of both terms to Christ’s
human nature, for which Chemnitz invokes not only the unspecified usage of ‘the
Scholastics’ but also the authority of John of Damascus:

Chemnitz, The Two Natures in Christ, 174-5.
Chemnitz, The Two Natures in Christ, 91.
Chemnitz, The Two Natures in Christ, 192.
Luther, Vom Abendmahl Christi, Bekenntnis, quoted by Chemnitz, The Two Natures in Christ, 193.
Luther, Commentary on John 14, quoted by Chemnitz, The Two Natures in Christ, 194.

For although elsewhere the term a0nupo/staton indicates something which simply
does not exist and e0nupo/staton indicates something which either exists of itself or
inheres in another, as an accident in a subject, yet Damascenus is quite correct in his
belief that the human nature in Christ can be called a0nupo/statoj inasmuch as it
does not subsist by itself or according to itself, in its own personality, as the
Scholastics say, but is e0nupo/statoj.83

However an examination of the Damascene’s writings on this point reveals that he repeatedly
denies that Christ’s human nature is anhypostatos. The most definitive statements are found
in his treatise On the Orthodox Faith: neither nature [in Christ] ‘is permitted to be
anhypostaton’; the flesh of God the Word was ‘not anhypostatos.’ Here John of Damascus
simply represents the terms as defined by the tradition, according to which anhypostatos is
the opposite of enhypostatos, the former meaning non-actual or non-subsistent, the latter
meaning actual or subsistent.84 Whatever the source of Chemnitz’s reconfiguration of the
terminology, we find in subsequent Lutheran Scholasticism - especially as developed by John
Gerhard (1582-1637), John Quenstedt (1617-1688), and David Hollaz (1646-1713) - the
unusual but qualified application of both terms, enhypostatos and anhypostatos, to Christ’s
human nature.85 Does the doctrine at stake thereby substantially change? It seems not, since
by calling Christ’s human nature anhypostatos the Lutheran divines wanted only to say that it
does not have its own subsistence independent of the divine Word, while by calling it
enhypostatos they wanted to affirm its actual and concrete subsistence in the hypostatic
union. Heinrich Schmid designates these two predications ‘negative’ and ‘positive’
respectively; we might prefer to call them ‘in the abstract’ and ‘in the concrete.’86 In fact by
Schmid’s time (19th c.) the original adjectives have become nouns, and later even verbs, so
that in the 20th century we find woven together with ideas drawn from modern personalism a
full-blown ‘doctrine’ of the ‘anhypostasia’ and ‘enhypostasia’ of Christ’s human nature, and
various proposals of ‘enhypostasizing’ and ‘enhypostasization.’87

Chemnitz, The Two Natures in Christ, 31.
See John Damascene, De fide orth. III, 9 (PG 94, 1016C-1017B); cf. Dialectica 29 (PG 94, 589BC); On the
Composite Nature Against the Acephali 6 (PG 95, 120CD).
See Heinrich Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, tr. Charles A. Hay and
Henry E. Jacobs (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1899), 300-1.
Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology, 295.
Accoding to Louth (St John Damascene, 160), the popularisation of this terminology in the English language
can be traced to Maurice Relton, A Study in Christology (London: SPCK, 1934).


Having studied the origin and history of the distinction between abstract and concrete
predications in Christology, the question remains whether this distinction retains any
importance today. A number of brief examples from more recent decades of Christian
thought suggests that it may. It is beyond my scope here to develop any one of them in any
detail, but I offer them as a kind of index of contemporary ‘moments’ that, touching more or
less directly on the distinction as elaborated, provoke the question of its abiding function and

The first example comes from an article published in 1965 by John Meyendorff on the
relationship between the Eastern and Oriental Churches in the wake of the post-Chalcedonian
schism. In tracing the history of the Christological debate, Meyendorff drew attention to the
reluctance of such strongly Cyrilline theologians as Severus of Antioch to ‘count the number’
of the natures in Christ as though they were two subsistent entities. Meyendorff claims that
while the Christology developed by such figures as Leontius of Byzantium and later ratified
by the Fifth Ecumenical Council acknowledged only one composite subsistent reality in
Christ, and affirmed that outside of this hypostasis we cannot speak of Christ’s divinity and
humanity except in the abstract, nonetheless it proposed that the distinction between the two
natures applies not only in ‘in the mind’ but also ‘in act’, since each preserves its own
‘energy’ or activity.88 One question to follow up on would be to ask to what extent this
proposal represents a development of the Christology of Cyril, and how well it holds up in
light of the more subject-centred approach of modern Christology.

The second example, related to the first, comes from the official theological dialogue
between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In an
Agreed Statement arising from a meeting between representatives of the two churches in
Egypt in 1989, the dialogue partners affirmed that the Hypostatic Union resulted in ‘an
inseparably and unconfusedly united real divine-human being’, whose divine and human
natures are to be distinguished from each other ‘in theoria only’, that is, only conceptually or
in the abstract. No mention is made in the Agreed Statement of any actual distinction in terms
of two energies or activities.89 In consequence at least one scholar attentive to the
significance of the ‘in theoria’ notion with its related formulae has wondered whether or not

John Meyendorff, ‘Chalcedonians and Monophysites after Chalcedon’, Greek Orthodox Theological Review
10 (1964-1965), 16-30.
The Agreed Statement was published in The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 36 (1991), xx-xx.

the terms of the Agreed Statement amount to ‘a deficient understanding of the full humanity
of Christ.’90

A third example comes from the theology of Karl Barth, one of the most influential
theologians of the 20th century. Barth was a stern critic of the theological abstractions of
German idealism and an avid protagonist of a return to the theologically particular and
especially to the biblically and Christologically concrete. In the assessment of Tom Greggs,
‘Wishing not to speak of Christ in abstracto but in concreto, Barth prefers instead to speak of
a Verbum incarnandum.’ As a result, continues Greggs, ‘Barth even goes so far as to speak of
an eternal lo/goj e1nsarkoj as the reason for creation, since God already was both fully
human and fully divine in Christ.’ This presence of Christ in pre-temporal eternity results in
placing ‘an eternal humanity in the Godhead in the person of Jesus Christ.’91 Does this
curious proposal indicate certain limitations that belong to a theology attempted strictly at the
level of the concrete?

My fourth and final example comes from another highly influential twentieth century
theologian, namely Karl Rahner, with whom the turn to the concrete takes a direction very
different from Barth. Rahner criticised the high Christology of orthodox conciliar and
dogmatic history for its implicit role in propounding what he calls a monophysite and
mythological understanding of the Incarnation. If taken in the concrete, argues Rahner,
traditional formulas such as ‘Jesus Christ is God’ or ‘God became a human being’ involve an
interchange of predicates whose meaning is liable to misinterpretation, and which burdens the
‘real’ content of faith ‘with a lot of mythological misunderstandings.’ Alongside this
allegedly one-sided Christology from above Rahner proposed the complementary
development of a ‘consciousness Christology’ from below, according to which Jesus is
understood as the culmination of cosmic evolutionary history, the created spirit who has so
completely given his being over to the self-communication of God that he becomes, as it
were, the irreversible and abiding point of created openness to infinite and absolute being.92
To do Christology in the concrete therefore, for Rahner, will more involve predications

Van Loon, Dyophysite Christology, 49.
Tom Greggs, Barth, Origen and Universal Salvation: Restoring Particularity (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2009), 42. Greggs cites Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/2, 165; IV/2, 683; IV/3, 724.
See Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity (New York:
Crossroad, 1978), 176-321. For an extensive critique, see John McDermott, ‘The Christologies of Karl Rahner’,
Gregorianum 67 (1986), 86-123, 297-327. It is important to note that Rahner never rescinded traditional
orthodox Christological affirmations, but held them in dialectical tension with his new proposals.

concerning Jesus the man, his consciousness and his acts vis-à-vis God, than it will about the
divine Logos vis-à-vis his assumed humanity.93

These four examples, drawn from the fields of historical theology, Orthodox
ecumenism, and Reformed and Catholic Christology, all appear to suggest that the kinds of
concerns embodied in the old distinction between abstract and concrete predications
concerning Christ have at least in recent theological history been fully operative. It is
possibly true that few in our time will regard the rigour and detail needed for a recovery or
development of the kinds of logical categories these concerns indicate worth the effort. Not
only do we live in a theological era that prefers dogmatic pluralism over precision, but more
decisively, Christology has moved into new directions, less concerned with traditional
metaphysical categories of classification and more interested in the way certain
psychological, historical, and interpersonal dynamics function relative to graced or salvific
forms of human narrative. This essay has simply tried to show how a good part of Christian
doctrinal tradition has been committed to preserving a certain theological rationale, in as
much as it was thought faithfully to keep attention focused on the concrete realities intrinsic
to the revealed deposit of faith. In principle, the grammar that was developed to express this
rationale may not be essential to the apprehension and communication of those realities.
Linguistic terms are, after all, just an outward form. But in practice it may be wondered
whether and to what extent the neglect of this rationale can be sustained without some kind of
loss of theological substance.

Yet Rahner’s later Christology is closer to Nestorianism than to Adoptionism. Although it was expressed off-
handedly, there is perhaps some significance in his stated preference for being an ‘orthodox Nestorian’ over an
‘orthodox Monophysite.’ See Karl Rahner, Karl Rahner in Dialogue: Conversations and Interviews 1965-1982
(New York: Crossroad, 1986), 127; also Patrick Burke, Reinterpreting Rahner: A Critical Study of his Major
Themes (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002), 157-8.