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From time to time I try to post brief articles like this one as a short primer on some topic in systematic theology. The aim is clarity. The approach is brevity. No more than 500 words—starting now.

The extra Calvinisticum teaches that in the Son’s incarnation the divine Logos is fully united to, but never fully contained within, the human nature.

The term was originally a pejorative label given by Lutheran theologians in their debates with Reformed divines over the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Whereas Lutherans affirmed the physical presence of Christ’s body in, with, and under the elements, Reformed theologians spoke of a real spiritual presence. In order to maintain their position (later termed consubstantiation), Lutherans argued that the attribute of omnipresence should be predicated not just of Christ’s divine nature, but also of his human nature.

Reformed theologians, by contrast, held to a different understanding of the communicatio idiomatum (communion of properties), insisting that what can be said about either nature can be said about the Person of the Son, but cannot be automatically predicated to the other nature. Consequently, the divine Logos is omnipresent, but Christ’s human body is not. In other words, the Son, even in his incarnate state, is able to live a divine life outside (extra) his human nature. Or as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it: “Since divinity is not limited and is present everywhere, it is evident that Christ’s divinity is surely beyond the bounds of the humanity he has taken on, but at the same time his divinity is in and remains personally united to his humanity” (Q/A 48).

While the doctrine may seem like unnecessary and overly precise doctrinal wrangling, the extra Calvinisticum is crucial for protecting a classic understanding of the incarnation. In fact, some have preferred the term extra Catholicum because even though the doctrine is attributed to John Calvin, it was clearly the position of church fathers like Augustine, Cyril, and Athanasius, and was taught throughout the Middle Ages. The extra is an important doctrine in that it safeguards the transcendence of Christ’s divine nature (i.e., it cannot be contained) and the genuineness of the human nature (i.e., it does not possess attributes reserved for divinity).

The extra also reminds us that in the incarnation “the Son did not cease to be what he had always been” (Wellum, God the Son Incarnate, 332). He continued to sustain the universe (Col. 1:15-17; Heb. 1:1-3) and to exercise his divine attributes together with the Father and the Spirit. When Mary conceived a child by the power of the Holy Spirit, the divine nature did not undergo any essential change. Better to say the Person of the Son became incarnate than to say the divine nature took on human flesh (for the latter suggests the divine nature changed in its essential properties).

All this means–because the divine nature did not undergo essential change–that in coming to earth, the Son of God did not abdicate his rule, but extended it. It also means–because the human nature was not swallowed up by the divine–that the Son’s earthly obedience was free and voluntary. In short, the extra protects a Chalcedonian understanding of the incarnation that Christ’s divine and human natures were indissolubly joined, yet “without confusion” and “without change.”


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14 thoughts on “Theological Primer: The Extra Calvinisticum”

  1. Neville Briggs says:

    I don’t understand the point of these sort of speculations.

    In the Book of Job, The Lord says ” Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge ” The Lord then asks a series of questions which shows that human understanding of God’s ways is woefully inadequate.

    My understanding is that followers of Jesus are called to enter the Kingdom of Heaven by childlike faith ( Mk 10 ). Surely the message of the NT , all through, is that humble faith and trust trump any pretentions to special knowledge.

    Each day of the week I try to be the church to those I come across, I can’t see how the esoteric knowledge discussed in this post is of any use at all in the daily walk with Christ.

  2. Joel says:

    Excellent explanation. Very helpful and insightful. I could have read 15 books this year and never run across that gem of theology resulting in praise. Thanks so much.

  3. JV says:

    Great article! So much to consume and ponder on the beauty of the incarnation and nature of our Lord.
    Do reformed hold to the teachings of Chalcedon?

  4. Adam says:

    This is really helpful, thank you! I’ve wondered how the two can be united like that, and this makes a lot of sense.

  5. Mark Klitsie says:

    “While the doctrine may seem like unnecessary and overly precise doctrinal wrangling…” It is. The Bible is silent on what you are laying out. The “human” and “divine” natures of Christ are so entangled, it is not worth untangling.

  6. John says:

    Excellent summary. Precision is key because almost every heresy in church history comes from a faulty view of Christ’s person and work. Pastorally, such depths of thinking about our Savior provokes wonder and worship (Rom 11:33-36)–fuel for living the Christian life. Blessings, brother.

  7. VW says:

    Thank you for this post and for taking the time to try to help teach truth. Perhaps I am still very young in my understanding of Christ, but I struggle to understand this post. For me, a clearer understanding of how Christ is in all and through all, etc. can be found in a lecture given by Denver Snuffer titled, “Christ”:

    Christ’s suffering was redemptive. It lifted the Creation as a result of what He was able to
    do. If you think about it in physical terms, using a fulcrum to lift an object it is necessary to put
    the fulcrum underneath the whole thing. You cannot lift unless you put the fulcrum beneath.
    Christ is, in effect, the fulcrum that lifted the entirety of Creation. In order to lift the entirety
    of the Creation, Christ needed to be bonded to all of creation. Therefore to lift all of you Christ
    likewise needs to be part of you.

    “He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended
    all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth; Which truth shineth.
    This is the light of Christ. As also he is in the sun, and the light of the sun, and the power thereof
    by which it was made. As also he is in the moon, and is the light of the moon, and the power
    thereof by which it was made; As also the light of the stars, and the power thereof by which they
    were made; And the earth also, and the power thereof, even the earth upon which you stand. And
    the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which
    is the same light that quickeneth your understandings; Which light proceedeth forth from the
    presence of God to fill the immensity of space—The light which is in all things, which giveth life
    to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who
    sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things. Now,
    verily I say unto you, that through the redemption which is made for you is brought to pass the
    resurrection from the dead. And the spirit and the body are the soul of man. And the resurrection
    from the dead is the redemption of the soul. And the redemption of the soul is through him that
    quickeneth all things, in whose bosom it is decreed that the poor and the meek of the earth shall
    inherit it.”

    The statement Christ is “in all things” appears seven times. It appears throughout. Christ is in all things. Everything in this creation is sustained by the Light of Christ. He occupies it all by His light. He brings the light into it that powers all of this creation. He is more intelligent than all of it. He keeps it organized by the Light emanating from Him. This is why redemption is possible through Him. When He descended below it all, including death, He had the power to bring it all back to life with Him. He is the fulcrum. He is the one who must permeate all things, in order for Him to be able to lay hold upon all things, and in order therefore to bring back you back from the grave. This means at this very moment, you are in contact with Him through His Spirit. He is giving you the life you are presently living.
    He is not a distant God. He is an immediate and an intimate God. You say He knows your thoughts, and that is true enough! That is because He is giving you the ability and the freedom to think. Therefore He knows how to judge you, because everything you have done, has used His power. He lends you life and light. We have only the illusion of privacy. We have the freedom to act and choose, our “agency,” but our agency operates inside a creation powered by and dependent upon Him.

  8. Gina says:

    This is so very helpful to me as we are going through this doctrine in our Sunday School hour and in God’s perfect timing- the Tuesday right after, this article does bring some clarity although I am still saying, “Wow, I really don’t know how to really comprehend all this.” but I trust God by faith and the leaders He has established to teach these truths to me. Thank you!!!

  9. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    “The extra is an important doctrine….”

    I’ll have an extra helping of mashed potatoes and gravy, please.

    Manners are important when asking for extra portions.

  10. MichaelA says:

    “even though the doctrine is attributed to John Calvin, it was clearly the position of church fathers like Augustine, Cyril, and Athanasius, and was taught throughout the Middle Ages.”

    That comes as no surprise. The magisterial reformers were conscious of their place in the flow of church history, and built on the theology of those that came before, yet of course always keeping grounded in its apostolic (i.e. scriptural) foundations.

    The Anglican Article XXVIII reflects a similar understanding to Calvin’s:

    “… The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith….”

  11. Sam says:

    When you say that we should say that the second Person took on flesh instead of the divinty…I have heard the argument against such logic that the second Person is still fully divine and the divine essence is shared so the divinity still under went some change or rather took on flesh – so why nuance it? Could you speak to this reasoning/argument?
    Thanks Kevin

  12. Sean says:

    Kevin, I really appreciate this post — I’ve been wondering about this topic lately, and this gives me a great starting point from which to do more research. Two quick suggestions: (1) In future posts, some recommended reading at the end would be a great addition; (2) simplifying the language would help, I personally have over a dozen well-used systematic theologies on my shelf and occasionally read old puritan works, but the style of writing here was nearly incomprehensible even for me. That said, I loved the post and the direction it pointed me in. Thanks Kevin.

  13. Claud says:

    Why not fully contained within Jesus’ human nature? God created man in his own image, and in the resurrection, our mortal bodies are going to put on immortality (1 Co 15:53) — There are also bodies in the heavens and bodies on the earth. The glory of the heavenly bodies is different from the glory of the earthly bodies. (1 Co 15:40)

  14. Eugene says:

    How does this position reconcile with the orthodox teaching of Maximus the Confessor, that there were two distinct wills within Christ, one divine, and one human?

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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