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Behold Something Marvelous: The Chalcedonian Logic of the Extra Calvinisticum

Published Wednesday, December 23, 2020 By KJ Drake

Christmas is a time to wonder at the mystery that is the Incarnation – that the eternal Son took our flesh without ceasing to be who he essentially is. That is the mystery of Bethlehem, the Creator of space and time entered into his own Creation without ceasing to transcend it as Lord. This is what Christian doctrine means when it seeks to speak rightly about Christ in the creedal tradition, confessing Christ as true God and true man in one person. One implication of this is often underappreciated and has been a point of contention within Magisterial Protestantism since the Reformation, the doctrine known as the extra Calvinisticum. Succinctly stated the extra Calvinisticum holds that Christ is both truly incarnate in his human nature and simultaneously beyond it as the eternal Word of the Father. The locus classicus for the extra comes in Book II of the Institutes in Calvin’s discussion of the human nature of Christ, where he defends the integrity of Christ’s two natures against contemporary opponents. Calvin states,

For even if the Word in his immeasurable essence united with the nature of man into one person, we do not imagine that he was confined therein. Here is something marvelous: the Son of God descended from heaven in such a way that, without leaving heaven, he willed to be borne in the virgin’s womb, to go about the earth, and to hang upon the cross; yet he continuously filled the world even as he had done from the beginning.[1]

I wish to show that rather than being an abstruse doctrine this marvelous truth of the extra flows directly from the orthodox understanding of Christ as expressed in the Chalcedonian Decree.

The Definition of Chalcedon should not be understood as an exhaustive statement of the personal identity of the Son in both preexistent and incarnate states, but rather as an answer to the question of the whatness of Jesus Christ, i.e. in what sense is Jesus Christ both God and man? The Chalcedonian Formula flows from the needs of the Church at the time to both guard the right witness of the faith and set proper bounds of theological expression. Chalcedon presents this in a positive form by describing Christ as “the same perfect in Godhead, the same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man.” [2]  This positive statement is then bounded by negative qualifications; Christ is this way:

In two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation—the difference of the natures being by no means taken away because of the union, but rather the distinctive character of each nature being preserved, and [each] combining in one Person and hypostasis—not divided or separated into two Persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ.[3]

As the council clearly states, even with the Incarnation the perfect qualities of the eternal Son are neither diminished nor changed and neither are the qualities of the human nature changed nor confused with the divine. Each nature persists in perfection according to its kind without separation or division. But one is then forced to inquire into the description of these perfections. The perfection of the human nature is more easily understood for it is a genus in which we too share, although it is not without attendant difficulties. However, answering this question with regard to the divine nature is more difficult and is crucial to avoiding accusations of untoward projection. Christian theology must avoid any temptation to define the divine nature through a process of human projections of perfection onto the being of God in order to avoid worshiping and proclaiming an idol rather than the Living God. Our theological formulation of perfection must be informed by the self-revelation of this One.

This process of definition, however, is not as difficult as it might appear for the question of the extra Calvinisticum. The perfection of Christ’s divine nature can only be defined by the action of the perfect Triune God. What then is the activity ascribed to the Eternal Son before, at least from a creaturely perspective, the Incarnation? From revelation, the Logos has at least two activities pre-carnate: ad intra—engaging in perfect communion with the Father and Holy Spirit as well as ad extra—upholding and governing creation. The prologue to the Gospel of John gives the theologian a window into this pre-creation activity of the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:1-3).[4] The activity of the Logos is seen both in the relationship with God the Father and with creation. The Logos is “with God.” The Christian tradition has understood this as the loving communion of the three persons of the Trinity sharing the one divine substance. John Webster has characterized this Triune life as “the spontaneous, eternal, and unmoved movement of his being-in-relation as Father, Son, and Spirit.”[5] Therefore, the perfection of the divine nature must be this intimate union of the Son with the Father and the Spirit, which in no way ceases when Christ took our flesh.

In addition to this ad intra communion, the Logos is engaged in the work of creation ad extra both in the actual creation event (John 1:3) and the governance and upholding of this creation (Heb 1:3 et al.). “By the word of his power” the Son is primary in the role of the providential care of creation. Unlike the life of the Trinity, which is self-existent, the creation acquires the integrity of its being from without, that is by the power and act of the Triune God, in particular the Son as the agent of creation and providence. The execution of this role requires the quality of spatial transcendence for space itself, as well as time, is a creational reality that must be maintained. Therefore, from the description of the activity of the Son/Logos before the incarnation we can conclude that his activity ad intra as second person of the Immanent Trinity and ad extra in upholding the existence of creation must be included in any understanding of the perfection of the divine nature including the quality of spatial transcendence.

The perfection of Christ as vere deus, true God, requires the quality of spatial transcendence; however, this is a property that cannot be included in the concept of vere homo, true man. The most fundamental quality of human nature broadly conceived is its createdness; this entails finitude. The finitude of the human nature includes the spatial finitude of the human body. It is counter-intuitive to conceive of a spatial transcendent human body that could still be recognizable as such. As Augustine argues in his Letter to Dardanus, “Take away from bodies the space of their location and they will be nowhere, and because they will be nowhere they won’t exist.”[6] In addition, the finite nature of humanity is not a defect of that nature but rather as appropriate to the very goodness of humanity as created. Therefore, spatial finitude is unlike the accidental human infirmities taken on by Christ, such as mortality, hunger, thirst, etc.

Given this understanding of the respective perfections of the divine and the human natures, the following argument can be made demonstrating how the extra Calvinisticum must follow from Chalcedon.

  • 1. Divine perfection includes the quality of spatial transcendence. 
  • 2. Human perfection includes the quality of spatial finitude.
  • 3. Through the hypostatic union Christ has both the qualities of divine and human perfection.
  • 4. This union takes place “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.”
  • 5. The removal of spatial transcendence from the divine nature would constitute a change thereby violating 4.
  • 6. The addition of spatial transcendence to the human nature would constitute confusion thereby violating 4.

Therefore, the one person of Jesus Christ must possess both spatial finitude, according to the human nature, and spatial transcendence, according to the divine nature. The Son is both wholly present in his incarnate state, as the logos ensarkos,and simultaneously fully present beyond his flesh, as the logos asarkos. From the Chalcedonian formula, it is demonstrated that an existence beyond the flesh of the incarnate Logos must follow lest the Logos be confined to the compass of the human body or the human nature extend to the infinite dimension of the divine nature. Calvin’s formulation, and that of those who follow him, accords well with this conclusion and cannot be understood as a problematic innovation. Rather, Calvin extends this logic, on the basis of the permanence of the hypostatic union, to include the entire post-incarnate career of the Logos through the ascension and session as well as its implications for Eucharistic presence.[7]

The great mystery at the heart of Christian theology is that Christ maintains the fullness of his divine life even while taking to himself the fullness of our human existence. In the extra Calvinisticum the mystery of the Incarnation is in full view. The humility and grandeur of the Eternal Son and the babe of Bethlehem should lead to the confession of the unfathomable otherness of God and yet his intimate closeness to humanity as Immanuel. The extra places this antinomy firmly before us, and, with Calvin, we too can proclaim, “Here is something marvelous.”


Dr. KJ Drake is Sessional Assistant Professor of History at Redeemer University in Ancaster, ON. He is the author of The Flesh of the Word: The extra Calvinisticum from Zwingli to Early Orthodoxy (Oxford University Press, Forthcoming March 2021).


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2.13.4.

[2] Hardy, “The Chalcedonian Decree,” 373.

[3] Ibid.

[4] For discussion of Christ’s preexistence in the Gospels and systematic theology respectively see Simon J Gathercole, The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; O’Collins, Christology, 248–255.

[5] John Webster, “Life in and of Himself,” in Engaging the Doctrine of God, ed. Bruce McCormack, 115.

[6] Letter to Dardanus, PL 35.839. Citing from translation given in Vermingli, The Dialogue on the Two natures in Christ, p. 14

[7] See Calvin, Institutes, 4.17.30.

  • KJ Drake