Anhypostasis: What Kind of Flesh Did Jesus Take?

. . . [Being] 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 . . . (Philippians 2:6–7)

At Christmas we celebrate that Jesus became human that he might save us. Without ceasing to be fully divine, he took on full humanity.

But what kind of humanity did he take on? Was it a humanity that was already personal? Or did he somehow take on a kind of impersonal humanity?

We’re not the first Christians to think about these things. In particular with the doctrine of Jesus’ person (Christology), we find a good two millennia of thoughtful engagement with such questions and challenges.

The famous all-church Council of Chalcedon in 451 confirmed with clarity that Jesus is “one person” with “two natures” (full divinity and full humanity), but after the council, years of further discussion ensued. How is it that one person can have two natures? When the Son of God took on humanity, did that not mean that he was taking to his divine person a second (human) person as part of that humanity? Is he not two persons, if he as two natures?

Enter the theological term anhypostasis. The Greek word hypostasis had come to refer in the early church discussions to what we’d call personhood—whether in the Trinity or in the two-natured person of Jesus—and so the negating an- prefix was added to signify that, considered on its own (apart from his divinity), Jesus’ humanity is impersonal.

In other words, Jesus took a fully human nature, but he did not take a human person. Jesus can have a fully human nature without also taking a pre-existing human personhood. Not that his human nature ever existed on its own. It’s a question about a hypothetical reality, intended to give insight into the actual reality.

Donald Macleod summarizes well the doctrine of anhypostasis in his book The Person of Christ:

Christ took human nature, but he did not take a man. He took the form of a servant (Philippians 2:7), but not a servant. He did not even take an existing human genotype or embryo. He created the genotype in union with himself, and it’s ‘personality’ developed only in union with the Son of God . . . [H]e is a divine person who, without ‘adopting’ an existing human person took our human nature and entered upon the whole range of human experiences. (201)

Heinrich Heppe also captures it nicely: “The humanity taken up into the person of the Logos is, then, not a personal man but human nature without personal subsistence” (Reformed Dogmatics, 416).

Anhypostasis is a “negative” doctrine, so to speak. It says where Jesus’ singular personhood does not come from. But there is a “positive” doctrine to complement it.

Tomorrow we’ll look at enhypostasis and where that personhood comes from.

For more Christmas reflections on the person of Christ —