As Christians, we readily acknowledge that Jesus, in addition to being Divine, also had (and has) a true human body. But does Jesus also have a human soul? This is one of the earliest questions that the early Church had to resolve, and the answer is crucial for how we understand Christ Jesus.
I should mention at the outset that the Catechism answers the question of Christ’s human soul carefully and clearly in CCC 464-475, and I highly recommend that you read it. It, in turn, cites extensively to the earliest Councils of the Catholic Church. For example, St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.):
The holy and great Synod therefore says, that the only begotten Son, born according to nature of God the Father, very God of very God, Light of Light, by whom the Father made all things, came down, and was incarnate, and was made man, suffered, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven.
These words and these decrees we ought to follow, considering what is meant by the Word of God being incarnate and made man. For we do not say that the nature of the Word was changed and became flesh, or that it was converted into a whole man consisting of soul and body; but rather that the Word having personally united to himself flesh animated by a rational soul, did in an ineffable and inconceivable manner become man, and was called the Son of Man, not merely as willing or being pleased to be so called, neither on account of taking to himself a person, but because the two natures being brought together in a true union, there is of both one Christ and one Son; for the difference of the natures is not taken away by the union, but rather the divinity and the humanity make perfect for us the one Lord Jesus Christ by their ineffable and inexpressible union.
So there are three things to note. First: yes, God the Son has a true human soul. Second: in uniting a human soul to Himself, His divine nature doesn’t change. He doesn’t cease to be God, or become a half-man, half-God demigod or something. Even while becoming fully man, He remains fully God. Third: we’re not talking about a pre-existing human soul. There was a heresy called adoptionism that said that Jesus the man eventually became united with Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity. That’s wrong. Christ’s human soul is created, but (like His Body) His soul is united to Him from the first moment of its existence.
That’s a good start. But there was still some confusion after Ephesus. CCC 467 describes the Monophysite heresy, which “affirmed that the human nature had ceased to exist as such in Christ when the divine person of God’s Son assumed it.” So, in 451, another Council was called, this time at Chalcedon. It describes what’s called the “double consubstantiality” of Christ: in His divinity, He is of the same nature of the Father. In His Humanity, He’s of the same nature as us. It’s in this way that He is able to serve as a bridge between God and man. And so the Council of Chalcedon says:
We confess, therefore, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, perfect God, and perfect Man of a reasonable soul and flesh consisting; begotten before the ages of the Father according to his Divinity, and in the last days, for us and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin according to his humanity, of the same substance with his Father according to his Divinity, and of the same substance with us according to his humanity; for there became a union of two natures. Wherefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord.
In clarifying these matters, the Church was saying nothing new. Thus we hear from Hippolytus, writing c. 230 A.D.:
Let us believe then, dear brethren, according to the tradition of the apostles, that God the Word came down from heaven, (and entered) into the holy Virgin Mary, in order that, taking the flesh from her, and assuming also a human, by which I mean a rational soul, and becoming thus all that man is with the exception of sin, He might save fallen man, and confer immortality on men who believe in His name.
And Scripture itself testifies, in Hebrews 2:14-18,
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. For surely it is not with angels that he is concerned but with the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.
So Christ’s Incarnation, His taking on of “flesh and blood,” isn’t just about assuming a human body, but a human nature, body and soul, such that He can suffer and be tempted. Let’s consider a few reasons why it’s critical that Jesus Christ have a human soul.
- If Christ didn’t have a human soul, He wasn’t fully human. I’m not just my flesh, and neither are you. Neither is Jesus.
- If Christ didn’t assume a human soul, He didn’t redeem human souls. The whole point of the Incarnation is to unite humanity with divinity so that humanity can be saved.
- If Christ didn’t have a human soul, He couldn’t suffer or die. Christ, in His Divinity, is impassible. That’s another way of saying that He’s not susceptible to moods or passions or emotions. He’s entirely perfect and changeless (He can’t change for the better, already being perfect; He can’t change for the worse, or He would cease to be perfect). He is also immortal in His Divinity. But in His humanity, He can suffer and die… and did. It’s also due to His human soul that Christ weeps for the death of His friend Lazarus, etc.
These points are made much better by St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390), in his famous Epistle 101, in which he scolded those who denied the reality of Christ’s human mind and human soul. His remarks also anticipate all of the usual objections, so it’s worth reading carefully:
If anyone has put his trust in Him as a Man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation. For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole. Let them not, then, begrudge us our complete salvation, or clothe the Saviour only with bones and nerves and the portraiture of humanity.
For if His Manhood is without soul, even the Arians admit this, that they may attribute His Passion to the Godhead, as that which gives motion to the body is also that which suffers. But if He has a soul, and yet is without a mind, how is He man, for man is not a mindless animal? And this would necessarily involve that while His form and tabernacle was human, His soul should be that of a horse or an ox, or some other of the brute creation. This, then, would be what He saves; and I have been deceived by the Truth, and led to boast of an honour which had been bestowed upon another. But if His Manhood is intellectual and nor without mind, let them cease to be thus really mindless.
But, says such an one, the Godhead took the place of the human intellect. How does this touch me? For Godhead joined to flesh alone is not man, nor to soul alone, nor to both apart from intellect, which is the most essential part of man. Keep then the whole man, and mingle Godhead therewith, that you may benefit me in my completeness.
But, he asserts, He could not contain Two perfect Natures. Not if you only look at Him in a bodily fashion. For a bushel measure will not hold two bushels, nor will the space of one body hold two or more bodies. But if you will look at what is mental and incorporeal, remember that I in my one personality can contain soul and reason and mind and the Holy Spirit; and before me this world, by which I mean the system of things visible and invisible, contained Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
One final point worth considering: Christ’s human soul makes His Sacrifice all the more beautiful. It’s not just that the Second Person of the Trinity was willing to die for us to save us from our sins. On some level, perhaps we expect that sort of amazing self-emptying from Christ as God. But Jesus Christ is fully man, and a man, with a human soul, a human mind, and a human will, He chose to go along with this, out of love for us. Realizing that He poured Himself out as a man is moving… and inspiring. You aren’t divine, but you are human; and you can imitate Christ in uniting your mind, heart, and soul to the plan of God.