The Two Forms of Christ

In the first book of On the Trinity (De Trinitate), Augustine faces a difficult exegetical problem. Orthodox Christianity teaches the Trinity, the equality of the three divine persons. On the other hand, many statements in Scripture speak of Christ as being inferior to or less than the Father. The solution is distinguishing between Christ’s two forms.

To accomplish the redemption of mankind, the Son became the incarnate mediator between God and man. Augustine appeals to Philippians 2:6-7  — “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Augustine comments, “For he did not so take the form of a servant that he lost the form of God in which he was equal to the Father. So if the form of a servant was taken on in such a way that the form of God was not lost … who can fail to see that in the form of God he too is greater than himself and in the form of a servant he is less than himself? And so it is not without reason that scripture says both; that the Son is equal to the Father and that the Father is greater than the Son. The one is to be understood in virtue of the form of God, the other in virtue of the form of a servant, without any confusion.” (1.14)

“Provided that we know this rule for understanding the scriptures about God’s Son and can thus distinguish the two resonances in them, one tuned to the form of God in which he is, and is equal to the Father, the other tuned to the form of a servant which he took and is less than the Father, we will not be upset by statements in the holy books that appear to be in flat contradiction with each other.” (1.22)

“In the form of God, all things were made by him (Jn 1:3); in the form of a servant, he himself was made of woman, made under the law (Gal 4:4). In the form of God, he and the Father are one (Jn 10:30); in the form of a servant, he did not come to do his own will, but the will of him who sent him (Jn 6:38). In the form of God, as the Father has life in himself, so he gave the Son also to have life in himself (Jn 5:26); in the form of a servant, his soul is sorrowful to the point of death, and Father, he said, if it can be, let this cup pass by (Mt 26:38). In the form of God, he is true God and life eternal (1 Jn 5:20); in the form of a servant he became obedient to the point of death, the death even of the cross (Phil 2:8). In the form of God, everything that the Father has is his (Jn 16:15), and all yours is mine, he says, and mine yours (Jn 17:10); in the form of a servant, his doctrine is not his own, but his who sent him (Jn 7:16)” (1.22).

Augustine’s approach shows that the Trinitarian and Christological controversies worked to resolve two concerns: 1) rendering a satisfactory account of how the incarnation grounds human salvation and 2) harmonize the seemingly contradictory exegetical material. As even these paragraphs show, John’s writings were the most fiercely contested. If Athanasius found the antidote to Arianism in John’s works, R. P. C. Hanson is right to point out that there would have been no Arianism if not for the same writings.

The non-Nicenes too understood the importance of a mediator, but their mediator was slightly less than true God and something more than normal man. The Nicene victory consisted not in providing more texts than the opposing side, but in producing a theology robust enough to give full rein to “both” sets of scriptural data. The mediator is True God and true man according to his two forms, which are never separated but never confused.

Published in: on February 14, 2011 at 6:57 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. This was very illuminating, Charlie. You’ve persuaded me… I need to read a lot more Augustine. There is a beauty and power in his rhetoric equal to the beauty and power of his reasoning. Very nice, stuff! Thanks.

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