Prof. Ronald Cammenga, rector and professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in
the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary and member of Southwest PRC in
Wyoming, Michigan

Our Lord Truly Suffered.

 We believe, moreover, that our Lord Jesus Christ truly suffered and died for us in the flesh, as Peter says (I Peter 4:1). We abhor the most impious madness of the Jacobites and all the Turks who execrate the suffering of the Lord. At the same time we do not deny that the Lord of glory was crucified for us, according to Paul’s words (I Corinthians 2:8).

In this eleventh chapter of the Second Helvetic Confession, Heinrich Bullinger is dealing with the heart of the gospel. For that reason, this is also the heart of the confession of faith that the believer makes before the world: Jesus Christ, truly God and man, the only Savior of the world—my only Savior. Christ’s saving work depends on the truth that He is both God and man—fully God and fully man. If He is not truly God and man, neither can His work be of saving value. Who He is can never be separated from what He does.

For us men and our salvation, “the Lord of glory” suffered and died. Because He was truly a man, He could be the substitute for us men. And because He was truly a man, He could represent us men before the bar of God’s justice. At the same time, as truly God, He could sustain the frightful burden of God’s wrath so as to deliver us from that wrath. If He were only a man, He could never be our Savior. It would have been impossible for Him to endure God’s infinite wrath against the guilt of sin. And if He were only God, He could not have been a fit representative of human beings. God’s righteousness demands satisfaction by one who is of the same nature as those who have sinned.

The particular emphasis of this paragraph of the SHC is that Christ truly suffered. He experienced real suffering. The pain that He endured was real pain, both in His body and in His soul. Throughout His life, from His incarnation to His death, to one degree or another, what He felt as a real man was real agony. What climaxed in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross of Calvary, was indeed only the climax of that which He experienced every day, every hour, every minute, and every second of His life on earth. From the beginning of His earthly life to its end, He suffered. Truly He was, as Isaiah prophesied, “a man of sorrows” (Is. 53:3). And as the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews says, “in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren,” in order that He might “make reconciliation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17).

Jacobites and Turks

Bullinger usually carries on his polemics against heretics and heresies in separate sections of the SHC that he designates “The Sects.” However, in this article in which he defends the biblical truth that Jesus “truly suffered,” he chooses to mention two heretical groups who deny the reality that Jesus Christ truly suffered an atoning death. These two groups, whose errors the Reformed “abhor,” are the Jacobites and the Turks.

The Jacobites arose in Syria after the Council of Chalcedon, AD 451. They rejected the orthodox doctrine that Christ is two natures in one divine person. Instead, they taught that Christ is only one nature in one person. Some of them went so far as to teach that the human nature of Christ was absorbed into the divine. Although the origin of the name “Jacobites” is disputed, it is likely that they were named after the monk Jacob Baradai, who pleaded their cause before the church authorities in Constantinople and languished in prison for fifteen years for his trouble. The Jacobite churches survived the Muslim invasions and can still be found in parts of Iraq and Turkey.

Additionally, Jacobite churches were founded along the Malabar coast in the southwestern part of India. “Malabar” means “hill region,” which is the geography of this portion of India that is the present state of Kerala. It was along this coast that some of the Jews of the dispersion settled after their initial captivity in Assyria and Babylon. According to early Christian tradition, the apostle Thomas brought the gospel to India, beginning with the Jews of Malabar. Later, the Malabar churches were influenced by Jacobite teaching, which led to the founding of churches known as the Syro-Malabar churches. Today, some of these churches continue to maintain a separate existence, while others have been absorbed into the Christian churches of India. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Christians are a distinct minority in India, representing only about two percent of the total population.

The error of the Jacobites was that they denied the full humanity of Christ. Because Christ was not fully a man, neither could He have suffered as a man in body and in soul. Denial of the full humanity of Christ, therefore, necessarily entails the denial that Christ truly suffered. Further, since the divine nature of Christ is impassible, that is, not capable of suffering, as we noticed from the eighth paragraph of this article, to teach that Christ has only a divine nature and a divine person, is a denial of the impassibility of Christ’s divine nature. As far as the Jacobites are concerned, that is all there is in which Christ could have suffered.

Along with the Jacobites, Bullinger mentions the Turks. By “Turks,” Bullinger and the other Reformers had in mind the Muslims, the followers of Mohammed and the adherents of the religion of Islam.

Islam teaches that Jesus was another good man and divine prophet, alongside Mohammed. He was not a divine prophet in the sense that He was inherently divine. But like Mohammed, He was a divine prophet because He had been sent out by God. His suffering was the experience of the same kind of rejection and abuse that Mohammed experienced—nothing more. Christ’s suffering was not the suffering of one who was God incarnate. It was not the suffering of the Son of God in human flesh. And even the suffering that He did endure, was not the suffering of the man who represented other men, who suffered and died as their substitute and in their place. They indeed deny, as Bullinger says, “that the Lord of glory was crucified for us.”

Because they deny the very possibility of salvation, “we abhor the most impious madness of the Jacobites and Turks.” Not only do Reformed believers abhor the “impious madness” of this cult—the Jacobites—and this false religion—Islam, but publicly the Reformed faith carries on its polemic against them. It does so not only that the faithful be warned against dreadful error, but also that, if by any means, God may grant the adherents of these errors repentance to the acknowledging of the truth.

Impartation of Properties.

We piously and reverently accept and use the impartation of properties which is derived from Scripture and which has been used by all antiquity in explaining and reconciling apparently contradictory passages [of Holy Scripture].

In this paragraph, the SHC continues to develop the truth of the relation of the two natures of Christ, which are united in the one divine person of the Son of God. Since the two natures inhere in the one divine person, there is an impartation or communication of properties of the divine person to the two natures. In theology this is referred to as communicatio idiomatum. This means that the properties of each of the natures, the human and the divine, are now the properties attributed to the person. And this is the explanation of apparently contradictory passages of Holy Scripture.

As a result of the impartation of properties, Christ can be said, on the one hand, to be omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. But He can also be said to be of limited power, limited to one place at one time, and limited in His knowledge. On the one hand, He could say to Nathanael, “Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee” (John 1:48). On the other hand, He could say, “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father” (Mark 13:32). On the one hand, like Melchisedec, He is without father or mother (Heb. 7:3), and yet, on the other hand, He could be born of the virgin Mary, His mother. On the one hand, He is without beginning of days or end of life, and yet, on the other hand, He was born in Bethlehem’s stable and died on a cross outside the city of Jerusalem.

The communication of properties is based on the one-ness of person subsisting in the two natures of Christ— the hypostatic union. In this paragraph, Bullinger is further developing the implications of the Creed of Chalcedon. Chalcedon famously affirmed that Christ is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation.

On the basis of the union of Christ’s natures in His divine person, we can attribute what is true of each of Christ’s natures to His person. Thus, the person of Christ is omnipresent, according to His divine nature, not according to the human nature. The person of Christ died on the cross, but according to His human nature, not according to the divine nature.

Though intimately united in Christ’s divine person, the two natures of Christ remain nonetheless distinct. The divine nature is not humanized. Deity cannot share in human weakness or imperfection. But neither can the human nature be deified, as is the error of both the Roman Catholics and the Lutherans. The Roman Catholics teach that by virtue of the priest’s recitation of the words of institution over the sacrament the body and blood of Christ are present simultaneously on altars around the world. In the interests of their view of the Lord’s Supper, the Lutherans teach that at the ascension the human nature of Christ was accorded ubiquity, that is, omnipresence. Thus, Christ’s human nature is now “with, in, under, and around” the elements of the Lord’s Supper. The elements are not changed into the body and blood of Christ, but wherever the bread and wine are present, there also are the body and blood of Christ.

The teachings of both the Roman Catholics and Lutherans contradict the Creed of Chalcedon and violate the biblical teaching of the impartation of properties as defended by the SHC. Christ has both a human nature and a divine nature, united in the one person of the divine Son of God. This is biblical and confessional orthodoxy, which “we piously and reverently accept.”

Prof. Ronald Cammenga, rector and professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in
the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary and member of Southwest PRC in
Wyoming, Michigan
Prof. Ronald Cammenga, rector and professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in
the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary and member of Southwest PRC in
Wyoming, Michigan