Hypostatic union (from the Greek: ὑπόστασις hypóstasis, sediment, foundation, substance, or subsistence) is a technical term in Christian theology employed in mainstream Christology to describe the union of Christ's humanity and divinity in one hypostasis.
Hypostasis had come into use as a technical term prior to the Christological debates of the late fourth and fifth centuries. Before there were Christians, the word was used in Greek philosophy, primarily in Stoicism. Hypostasis had some use in the New Testament that reflect the later, technical understanding of the word; especially Hebrews 1:3. Although it can be rendered literally as "substance" this has been a cause of some confusion so it is now often translated "subsistence". It denotes an actual, concrete existence, in contrast with abstract categories such as Platonic ideals.
Apollinaris of Laodicea was the first to use the term hypostasis in trying to understand the Incarnation. Apollinaris described the union of the divine and human in Christ as being of a single nature and having a single essence - a single hypostasis.
In the 5th century, a dispute arose between Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius in which Nestorius claimed that the term theotokos could not be used to describe Mary, the mother of Christ. Nestorius argued for two distinct natures of Christ, believing that God could not be born. Therefore Nestorius believed that the man Jesus was born and then assumed the divine nature after birth. The First Council of Ephesus labeled Nestorius as a neo-adoptionist and deposed him. In his letter to Nestorius, Cyril used the term hypostatic (Greek, kath' hypostasis) to refer to Christ's divine and human natures being one, saying, "“We must follow these words and teachings, keeping in mind what ‘having been made flesh’ means …. We say … that the Word, by having united to himself hypostatically flesh animated by a rational soul, inexplicably and incomprehensibly became man.”
The Nestorian Theodore of Mopsuestia went in the other direction, arguing that in Christ there were two natures (dyophysite) (human and divine) and two hypostases (in the sense of "essence" or "person") that co-existed. However in Theodore's time the word hypostasis could be used in a sense synonymous with ousia (which clearly means "essence" rather than "person") as it had been used by Origen and Tatian.
The Chalcedonian Definition agreed with Theodore that there were two natures in the Incarnation. However, the Council of Chalcedon also insisted that hypostasis be used as it was in the Trinitarian definition: to indicate the person and not the nature as with Apollinarius.
Thus, the Council declared that in Christ there are two natures; each retaining its own properties, and together united in one subsistence and in one single person (εἰς ἓν πρόσωπον καὶ μίαν ὑπόστασιν, eis hèn prósōpon kaì mían hypóstasin).
As the precise nature of this union is held to defy finite human comprehension, the hypostatic union is also referred to by the alternative term "mystical union."
The Oriental Orthodox Churches, having rejected the Chalcedonian Creed, were known as Monophysites because they would only accept a definition that characterized the incarnate Son as having one nature. The Chalcedonian "in two natures" formula (based, at least partially, on Colossians 2:9) was seen as derived from and akin to a Nestorian Christology. Contrariwise, the Chalcedonians saw the Oriental Orthodox as tending towards Eutychian Monophysitism. However, the Oriental Orthodox have in modern ecumenical dialogue specified that they have never believed in the doctrines of Eutyches, that they have always affirmed that Christ's humanity is consubstantial with our own, and they thus prefer the term Miaphysite to refer to themselves, a reference to Cyrillian Christology, which used the phrase "μία φύσις τοῦ θεοῦ λόγου σεσαρκωμένη", "mía phýsis toû theoû lógou sesarkōménē". The term miaphysis means one united nature as opposed to one singular nature (monophysis). Thus the Miaphysite position maintains that although the nature of Christ is from two, it may be referred to as one in its incarnate state because the natures always act in unity.
In recent times, leaders from the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches have signed joint statements in an attempt to work towards reunification. Likewise the leaders of the Assyrian Church of the East, which venerates Nestorius and Theodore, have in recent times signed a joint agreement with leaders of the Roman Catholic Church acknowledging that their historical differences were over terminology rather than the actual intended meaning.
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- Aristotle, "Mund.", IV, 21.
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- "Theodore" in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian History, ed. J. Brauer. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971.
- Denzinger, ed. Bannwart, 148