RC Sproul and Nestorianism – A Clarification

I’m a member of a Facebook group called the Reformed Pub. My guess is if you’re reading this, you’ve heard of it. In this group there are several recurring topics that come up. Among some of them are the 2nd Commandment (No images of Jesus). Yesterday, the point was made that RC Sproul does not think that images of Jesus are out-of-bounds.

I made a statement, which I’ve made in the past, that there are several concerning elements on RC Sproul’s Christology that amount to a functional Nestorianism that is deeply concerning. This functional Nestorianism plays into why Dr Sproul does not see the images of Christ to be a problem.

Now, before I go further, I want to make a few things crystal clear… because I’ve already been misrepresented on 3 different occasions because of this.

I don’t think that RC Sproul is a heretic.

I don’t think that RC Sproul is a heretic.

I don’t think that RC Sproul is a heretic.

Do you see that?

I don’t think that RC Sproul is a heretic. Hopefully that is clear enough.

I have a deep respect for Dr Sproul. I have remarked before (usually in the context of this discussion) that I view RC Sproul as a kind of theological grandfather. If I had to give you a list of living theologians who have most deeply influenced me… Dr Sproul would be number 3 (that includes theologians who I have studied directly under).

Dr Sproul has taught me a number of things. Chief among them is that we are to always be reforming. If anyone says something that is not in line with the Bible we are to correct them, no matter who they are. Even if they are him.

I would not be a good student of RC Sproul, if I did not call out what I believed to be error in his theology.

I also want to make it clear… I absolutely hate that I have to do this. It pains me to see a figure who has been so influential to me, both in terms of doctrine, but more so in terms of piety, espouse such a great error. I really do hate it.

Beyond that, I’m sure there will be some people who question the medium in which I address this (there always are). If you have the ability to facilitate a direct discussion between Dr Sproul and myself, then please do. I would love nothing more to discuss this directly with him.

Now that that’s out-of-the-way… let’s get to the meat.

There are a number of places that I could point that demonstrate what I see to be the problematic phrasing in his theology. This one is the most common. In order to understand the problem we have to go back to the 5th century.

The controversy over the use of the term Theotokos came to a head in the Council of Ephesus in 431. The teachings of Nestorius were deemed to be heretical, and the Church ruled that it is in fact appropriate to call Mary the Theotokos (God-bearer). This was not an affirmation of some elevated role of Mary, but was an affirmation of the singularity of the person to whom Mary gave birth.

Following an additional controversy, the Council of Chalcedon ruled that even though we affirm one person, we must also hold that this one person has two natures. This brought forth the document known as the Chalcedonian Definition.

In this document there are two foundational elements. The first, and most commonly recognized, are the so-called Four Negations.

without confusion, without change, without division, without separation

The first two highlight that the two natures of Christ do not merge or blend. The second two highlight that the two natures are genuinely unified and cannot be separated.

The second element, and one that is not often recognized, is the repeated emphasis on the singular person of Christ.

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ…

one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten…

…but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ

This repeated refrain of “one and the same” or “self-same” forms the structure of the definition.

This concept that the same Son who was eternally begotten of the Father, was also born of the Virgin Mary, is the basis for the doctrine of the Incarnation. It is how we make sense of the term Theotokos and it is absolutely central to Christian theology.

Nestorius rejected the term Theotokos, because it was absurd to him to think that the eternally existent God the Son could be born. Thus, he preferred the term Christotokos. While it may be inaccurate to say that Nestorius actually affirmed two distinct persons, it is not inaccurate to say that he treated the human nature of Christ as though it was a distinct subject capable of its own verbal actions. God the Son was not born of the Virgin Mary, only the human nature of Christ was born of the Virgin Mary. This logic was extrapolated by his followers to say things like “God didn’t hunger in the desert, only the human nature of Christ did.” and “God didn’t die on the cross… only the human nature did.”

That’s where Sproul comes in. In this article he makes exactly this point. God didn’t die on the cross, only the human nature of Christ did. God didn’t make atonement for our sin, only the human nature of Christ did. He treats the human nature as though it were its own subject, rather than treating the divine second person of the Trinity as though he were the subject of the incarnation.

He comes to the exact same conclusion that Nestorius and his followers did, by way of the exact same basic reasoning. The difference is that Sproul explicitly denies that Christ is two persons, where as Nestorius (maybe) and his followers (definitely) asserted that the incarnation was a union of two persons (usually that a human person was specially graced by the indwelling of a divine person). He is not a heretic, because he denies the heretical conclusion… despite the fact that his reasoning SHOULD lead him to that conclusion.

So the question must turn to Scripture. Does the Scripture ever say that it was not the person of the Son who died, but that only his human nature did? Does the Scripture ever imply that it was not the Son who thirsted in the desert, but only his human nature? NO! Always and everywhere the person of the Son is spoken of, even when he is acting or experiencing something according to his human nature (which is a whole different post). Beyond that, Christ’s human nature was a limited human nature, subject to death and decay. If it were only the human nature that died on the cross and made atonement, then it was not a sufficient sacrifice. It is precisely because the infinite second person of the Trinity died according to his human nature that atonement can be made. A Scriptural argument cannot be made that separates the work of Christ from the person of God the Son. It was the second person of the Trinity who took on flesh and dwelt among us. It was the second person of the Trinity who made propitiation for our sin and sat down at the right hand of the Father. It was the second person of the Trinity who hungered, thirsted, and didn’t know who touched him. It was the second person of the Trinity who died on a cross, and it was the second person of the Trinity who was placed in a grave. Not just his human nature.

10 thoughts on “RC Sproul and Nestorianism – A Clarification

  1. Jesus’ human form was not fallen. It is precisely because His human life was perfect that it was the acceptable sacrifice. His divine nature cannot die. How did you get this wrong? RC is right.

    1. Blaine, I think you should probably go back and reread what I’ve said, and probably the posts I listed below. I didn’t argue that his divine nature died.

    2. As a friend of mine once (whimsically) put it, if only the human nature of Christ died and made atonement on the Cross, then salvation is not ultimately from God, but instead from the works of supererogation of Saint Jesus of Nazareth. Our Arsenal (in accord with the Fathers of the Church) is quite right here; the good Doctor has made a goof.

  2. Right. A divine Person died. We don’t abstract natures from the persons. Natures are, as the Christian Tradition has held, enhypostatic. Sproul is quite wrong.

    Anyway, dying doesn’t mean “cessation or negation of being.” It means cessation of bodily existence. This is Christian Eschatology 101.

  3. Very interesting post here. Thank you.

    It seems the point of difference comes down to death involving a change in one’s being or not.

    1. Not precisely. It comes down to the fact that if what we mean by “being” is “nature” that Christ had two of them… one immutable (divine nature) and one mutable (human nature) and that death happened to the Son according to his human nature.

      1. Each time you say the Son died “according to his human nature” aren’t you implicitly saying “not according to his divine nature”?

Comments are closed.