Christ’s Human Nature: Concrete or Abstract?

Theology quickly leads to serious discussions about philosophical ideas. When it comes to Jesus Christ, theological discussions often begin with (or assume) the traditional Christian view that he is one Person with two natures: one human, and one divine. Yet, if Christ has a human nature, this leads us to ask, “What is a human nature?” There is also a related question nearby: “What is a human being?”

There are two main answers to the first question, and therefore two main answers to what Christ’s human nature is. One answer is that a human nature is a concrete thing, and this is called the “concrete nature” view. Another answer is that a human nature is an abstract thing, which (no surprise) is called the “abstract nature” view. On either view, the answer to what a human being is ends up being somewhat simple: A human being is something that has a particular concrete nature, or a particular abstract nature, depending on which view you take.

Obviously, the answers to both questions we began with need further explanation. In this post I simply want to explain the concrete and abstract nature views to lay a really basic foundation. I’ll have a lot more to say in other posts about the interesting (and difficult) theological puzzles that Christ’s human nature raises.

The Concrete Nature View

Like others who have written on this subject, I’ll begin with an article written by Alvin Plantinga called “Heresy, Mind, and Truth.” In that essay, Plantinga says that it “looks as if two quite different views of the Incarnation were (perhaps confusedly) present before Chalcedon and represented” there.[1]

The Council of Chalcedon took place in 451 A.D., and it is where the idea of Christ being one Person with two natures was officially declared. And Plantinga says that one of the views about Christ’s human nature that was present at that council was the concrete nature view. On that view, Christ assumed “a human nature, a specific human being.”[2] Plantinga continues:

What happened when he [the Logos] became incarnate is that he adopted a peculiarly close and intimate relation to a certain concrete human being, a “human nature” in the sense of a human being. That is, there is or was a concrete human being—a creature, and a creature with will and intellect—to whom the Logos became related in an especially intimate way, a way denoted by the term “assumption.”[3]

Another way to put this, as Oliver Crisp has, is to say that Christ’s human nature is a “concrete particular.”[4] But what’s a concrete particular? Well, let’s consider what a concrete object is first. It’s difficult to define precisely, so I’ll start with an enumerative definition: A concrete object is something like a tree, rock, chair, human body, or even a human soul. In this list, everything except the human soul has a shape, size, weight, and other physical characteristics. These things are also able to have a causal influence on other things. If you throw a rock at a tree, it will cause friction on the tree bark and probably dent it in a little bit. If you have a thought, your soul causes something to occur in your brain. (That’s the reason, by the way, that a human soul is a concrete thing even though it is non-physical.)

Each of the concrete objects that I’ve listed is also a particular, because none of them can be “had” by more than one thing. That computer monitor (or phone) you are reading this post with is there, and only there. That particular monitor can’t be “had” by any other location; likewise, my particular human nature can’t be had by anyone else. Even your soul (if you think such things exist) is a particular thing; it “belongs” to you and nobody else. The philosophical jargon for this is that particulars “may not be multiply instantiated.”[5]

That brings us back to Christ’s human nature as a concrete particular. Crisp says that Christ’s human nature, as a concrete particular, is “perhaps a human body [alone], but, traditionally, [understood as] a human body and human soul distinct from the Word.”[6] Christ’s human nature is whatever combination of concrete particulars are necessary for him to have a human nature.

We can represent what Crisp says about the Incarnation like this:

{ W, HN }

Here the squiggly brackets are meant to indicate that we have a single, unified thing. In this case, it is Christ as a “whole.” The W means “the divine Word/Logos” and HN means “human nature.”[7]

Some theologians have thought that all that’s necessary for the human nature is a human body. That would give us this:

{ W, HB }

As Crisp points out, though, this view is straightforwardly Apollinarian.[8] That’s just the view that the divine Word takes the place of a human soul in the Incarnation. The problem with this view is that if Christ doesn’t take on a human soul in the Incarnation, its hard to see how his substitutionary death redeems our souls rather than just our bodies.

As a result, Crisp says that theologians have traditionally thought that Christ’s concrete human nature consists of a human body (HN) and a human soul (HS). So instead we would have:

{ W, HS, HB }

Depending on which of these two representations you think is correct, you buy into either a two-part or three-part concrete nature Christology. The two-part view is that the Christ consists of the Word and a human body. The three-part view is that Christ consists of the Word, a human soul, and a human body.

The Abstract Nature View

The second view that Plantinga discusses is the abstract nature view. On this view, when the Word becomes incarnate, he “acquire[s] the property of being human, he acquire[s] whatever property it is that is necessary and sufficient for being human.”[9] Similarly, Crisp says that on this view, “Christ’s human nature is a property, or set of properties, necessary and sufficient for being human.”[10]

A note on this “necessary and sufficient” language. To say that something (call it Q) is necessary for something else (call it P) is to say that if Q isn’t the case, then neither is P. Suppose somebody says, “If it’s the day after Monday [P], then it is Tuesday [Q].” If it turns out that it isn’t actually Tuesday (i.e., that isn’t the case), then it isn’t true that it’s the day after Monday either. Now, to say something is sufficient for something else is to say that if P is the case, then so is Q. So, if it’s the day after Monday, then it’s also the case that it is Tuesday.

So far I’ve used the terms “abstract,” “property,” and “properties” without defining them. Let’s consider what an abstract object is first. These are often defined as those objects that lack characteristics that concrete objects (e.g., trees, chairs, etc.) have. For example, an abstract object is something that doesn’t have shape, size, or location (among other things). They are non-physical and non-temporal things. (You can’t bump into the number three.) In fact, abstract objects don’t have any causal influence on things either. (So the number three can’t hurt you either.)

Abstract objects are basically the opposite, or negation, of what concrete objects are. Examples of abstract objects include mathematical objects (numbers, sets, etc.) and the laws of logic.

Properties are also abstract objects, and they can be “possessed” or “had” by concrete particulars. Let’s consider a computer monitor again. For something to count as a computer monitor is to have a property (or set of properties) that are necessary and sufficient for being a computer monitor. A computer monitor “possesses,” “has,” “instantiates,” or “exemplifies” that property (or set of properties).

Some philosophers think that properties are universal abstract objects. This just means that more than one thing can have a property at a time. If your computer monitor is silver, there are many things in the world that have the property being silver, and probably fewer that have the property being a computer monitor. And there are plenty of things in the world that have the property being human. So, being silver, being a computer monitor, and being human are all universal properties; they are universal abstract objects.

Now I think that Plantinga’s and Crisp’s points about Christ’s abstract human nature are clear(er). For Christ to have a human nature is to have a property (like being human) or set of properties (perhaps having a body, having a human soul) that allow him to “count” as a human being just like us. To lack that property (or set of properties) disqualifies him from being human, and having them means that he qualifies as being a human just like us.

A Brief Example: Arcadi’s Alligator

James Arcadi has written an article that I think illustrates the concrete/abstract distinction more. Imagine that you’re at the zoo and one of the zookeepers comes out in the alligator exhibit and begins to feed an alligator whole chickens for lunch. As that alligator snacks, he’s clearly able to chew on small bits of chicken in his jaws.

Obviously, humans aren’t able to crush whole chickens in their jaws, but they are able to chew on small bits of chicken. On the abstract nature view, both humans and alligators have the property being able to crush a bit of chicken with jaws. So if a human or an alligator is chewing a small bit of chicken, that chewing action is the same kind of action.

But on the concrete nature view, even if a human and an alligator are both able to crush small bits of chicken with their respective jaws, those actions aren’t the same kind of action. As Arcadi says, the human is “unable to alligator-ly crush small bits of chicken, just as the alligator is not humanly able to crush small bits of chicken.”[11] A human and an alligator can only eat chicken in the ways that their concrete particular natures allow them to. Unless that human were an alligator, or that alligator a human, they just can’t be doing the same thing when they eat chicken.

Arcadi also provides this helpful note:

At bottom, when deciding what view of nature one wishes to adopt, one can ask a fundamental distinguishing question of [a thing]: does it have properties that entail membership in a kind or is it a member of a kind that then entails certain properties? If one affirms the former one is working with an abstract-nature [view], if the latter then one endorses the concrete-nature [view].[12]

Final Thoughts

I should throw this additional consideration in here for good measure. If you buy into the concrete nature view, the main issue to avoid is any obvious Nestorianism. That’s just the view the Incarnation involves two persons: a human one and a divine one. And if you accept the abstract natures view, the main issue to avoid is Apollinarianism (which I briefly explained above).

If I’ve done well enough explaining the concrete and abstract nature views in this post, a whole new world of reading theology is about to open up to you, just like it did for me. You’ll be able to recognize either of these views because, for example, only a human nature, in the concrete nature sense, can bleed and die. If human nature is an abstract object, it obviously can’t bleed or die. (Abstract objects are non-physical, remember?) Since I plan to make use of this distinction a lot in the future, what I’ve outlined in this post is crucial.


[1] Alvin Plantinga, “On Heresy, Mind, and Truth,” Faith and Philosophy 16, no. 2 (Spring): 183.
[2] Ibid. (original emphasis).
[3] Ibid., 194 (emphasis added).
[4] Oliver Crisp, Divinity and Humanity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 41.
[5] Alyssa Ney, Metaphysics: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2014), 65.
[6] Crisp, 41.
[7] I’m going with a representation of the concrete, compositional model of the Incarnation called the “Habitus” or “Model A” view here.
[8] Crisp, 46.
[9] Plantinga, 183 (emphasis added).
[10] Crisp, 41 (emphasis added).
[11] James M. Arcadi, “Kryptic or Cryptic? The Divine Preconscious Model of the Incarnation as a Concrete-Nature Christology,” Neue Zeitschrift für Systematicsche Theologie Und Religionsphilosophie 58 (2): 234.
[12] Ibid.

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