Every art and every science has its own unique set of terms and language. This also applies to theology. One such term is the communication of idioms.
In the following article I will try to explain what is meant by communication of idioms. I will then seek to place idioms in the larger context of ontology and the Catholic doctrine of hypostatic union.
Idioms, union and ontology
The phrase communication of idioms is a term of art in theology, especially in Christology. Specifically, an idiom as used in theology refers to properties or traits that can be attributed to Jesus as God and to properties and traits that can be attributed to Jesus as a human being. .
Since the communication of idioms involves the natures of Jesus and who Jesus is in his person, it is prudent to describe both hypostatic union and ontology.
Hypostatic or hypostasis means a substance. Thus, the hypostatic union refers to the union of the human and divine natures in the one person of Christ. In 451 AD. BC, the Council of Chalcedon declares that the two natures of Christ are united “in one person and one hypostasis” (Denzinger 302). The term “hypostatic union”, however, was not adopted until a century later, at the Fifth General Council in Constantinople (AD 533).
The council sought to express the Catholic doctrine on Jesus Christ that there are in him two perfect natures, divine and human. The divine person appropriates or includes in his person a human nature (and the idioms that are proper to a human being). The council also sought to show that the incarnate Son of God is an individual and that the union of the two natures is real and not merely God indwelling a human being (as some heresies suggested). Moreover, the nature of Jesus possessed a rational soul, and his divine nature remained unchanged by the Incarnation.
The gospel message is ultimately and fundamentally about the person of Jesus Christ. The Gospel, in other words, has a strong ontological disposition.
Ontology is a branch of metaphysics concerned with identifying the kinds of things that exist and the nature of being itself. From a Catholic point of view, ontology would admit at least two kinds of things or substances, one spiritual and one material.
With regard to Jesus, the ontology is complex because of his two natures. As for his divine nature, we can say abstractly that the ontology of Jesus is the Word (that is, the logos) of God (John 1:1). Or we can talk about the divine ontology of Jesus as Peter did: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. (Matthew 16:16).
It seems to me that one can only speak abstractly of the ontology of God. It is beyond human reason to understand who God is in essence. Yet we must not fall to a Kantian level of skepticism. God is knowable by divine revelation and human reason (albeit in a limited way).
An ontological definition of a human being would seem to include an individual substance composed of a spiritual, rational soul and a material, physical body.
The difficulties of idioms
Having provided a sketch of hypostatic union and ontology, I can address the complexity of idiom communication.
Because Jesus has two natures, one divine and one human, questions arise. What properties or traits belong uniquely to Jesus’ divine nature, and what properties or traits belong to His human nature? Finally, is it possible that these properties intertwine between the two natures?
The caveat is not to confuse the attributes of the two natures of Jesus. That is to say, for example, to attribute to the human nature of Jesus what is proper to his divine nature or, conversely, to attribute what is proper to his divine nature to what is proper to his human nature.
Because of the two natures of Christ, it is therefore possible to speak of two distinct modes of operation, one divine and the other human. These modes of operation are evident in the Bible and in the development of Catholic theology.
The Bible describes Jesus performing Godly activities, such as performing miracles, raising the dead, walking on water, and turning water into wine. We can also speak of Jesus carrying out activities proper to his human nature, such as being born, getting tired, sleeping, being hungry, suffering and dying.
The early church followed the biblical use of idioms in primitive creeds and symbols of faith. More speculative development only came with time. Among the first to develop the theory of the communication of idioms were Origen, Ephrem, Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem and, more explicitly, Gregory of Nyssa in the East Tertullian, Hilary and especially Augustine in the West.
It is the teaching of the Catholic Church that the communication of idioms is not between the natures of Christ; that is to say, the properties of one nature never become the properties of the other. On the contrary, the communication of languages is in the unique person of Jesus, who is truly God, the only Son, the second person of the Trinity, and who became man and Son of Mary.
So, once the Incarnation has taken place, whatever is asserted of that one person when named or designated according to one nature can be established of the same person when named or designated according to the other nature. . The person is always the same even if at one time he was called God because of his divine nature and at another time he was called man because of his human nature.
In this article, I have sought to tackle a rather abstract and stimulating subject: the communication of idioms. This theological term refers to the properties and traits that are attributed to Jesus vis-à-vis his divine nature and vis-à-vis his human nature.
Thanks to the hypostatic union, it is possible – perhaps necessary – to identify the traits that belong to the human nature of Jesus and those that belong to his divine nature.