Examining "The State of Theology": Christology
Updated: Jul 3, 2020
Who is Jesus? What is His nature? Is He God, or merely a man? These questions concerning christology-the theological study of Christ-are at the center of the Christian worldview and the gospels. Not only that, but Scripture tells us that our response to Christ, who we believe Him to be, is essential to our salvation. Therefore, false beliefs about our Lord and Savior are not only wrong, but dangerous. We must be very careful not to be mistaken about this.
In this post, I will address statement #6 in the State of Theology survey: "Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God." Responding to this statement will take us to the heart of the Christian doctrine of the incarnation and be a springboard for our discussion of the revelation of this truth and its difficulties.
Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.
This is the first instance in our exploration of this survey in which the respondents' answers differed quite widely from each other. Among professing Christians in the survey, 58% of the respondents agreed with the statement, whereas 28% disagreed. The rest, 14%, were unsure. Among evangelicals, 71% agreed and 23% disagreed, with 6% unsure.
This is the first of a few statements in the survey in which I think the results might have been skewed by the wording of the question itself. I suspect that if I had asked the same group of people to respond to the statement, "Jesus was created by God," then less people would have agreed. The statement sort of encourages the reader to emphasize the first part, that Jesus is the first and greatest being. Hey, that's exalting Jesus, so that's good. More red flags go up when one merely says that God created Jesus.
Then again, I might be giving the lay Christian more credit than he deserves. Anecdotally, I find that Christians have a very hard time explaining the nature of Christ. If one asks if Jesus was a created being, Christians will often get hung up on the word "begotten." They'll think, "Well, God begat Jesus, but is that the same as creating Him?" Perhaps the survey is revealing what I have seen anecdotally, that Christians, by and large, have a very hard time explaining what is revealed in Scripture about Christ Jesus.
Nonetheless, when I was first looking into this survey for the blog, I was initially surprised at the fact that Christians, by and large, seemed divided on this statement. Because of the content of the statement, I wondered what could be indicated by the disagreement of the 28% of Christians. Did they disagree that Jesus was "first and greatest," or that He was created by God? What I found so much more surprising, however, was that the majority of Christians and the vast majority of evangelicals agreed with the statement. This fact, at least, betrays a very serious misunderstanding of christology on the parts of Christians in general and evangelicals in particular.
In the last two posts, we discussed the statement in question in two basic steps. First, we discussed the scriptural basis for the doctrine in question. Second, we used philosophy and theology to further flesh out the doctrine and help us explain it. I will do the same in this post on christology. Then, third, I will briefly explain why it is important to get our christology right.
I won't cover all of the Scripture that supports the orthodox Christian understanding of the nature of Christ, but I will focus mainly on three passages. First, let's look at John 1:1-5 (NASB):
"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 came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it."
John 1 is one of the most important passages of the entire New Testament for understanding who Jesus is. Jesus is identified with the Word, which is a translation of the word logos (λόγος) in Greek. Logos is a term in ancient Greek philosophy and theology that refers to the mind or intellect of God. There is debate among commentators as to what theological concept John has in mind in identifying Jesus with the divine logos. Is he thinking of the Greek concept of the mind or intellect of God or the Hebrew concept of the wisdom of God? Either way, the significance of this identification is clear from the start. Jesus, the Son of God, is Himself divine and worthy of worship. He is with God and Himself God, not Himself the Father and yet equal with the Father with respect to divinity. He is the Creator of the universe. John has what New Testament historians and theologians call a "high christology," that is, he has an exalted view of the divinity of Christ.
But, scandalously, this high and exalted God became a man. The divine logos took on flesh. Read John 1:14-18 (NASB):
"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. John testified about Him and cried out, saying, 'This was He of whom I said, "He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me."' For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him."
The theology in this passage is dense but so important, so pay attention. Central to the Christian worldview and our view of Christ is this craziness called the incarnation, that is, the claim that the Son of God, though God, became a man in Jesus Christ. He "became flesh, and dwelt among us." The Son of God took on a body. I describe Him as the God whose hand you can shake. He was born of the virgin Mary and developed, from a suckling infant to a young boy, from an adolescent to a young man, who probably worked as a carpenter with His dad, Joseph. He did this until He was in His early thirties, when He approached John the Baptist to be baptized, inaugurating His ministry on earth. The divine Son of God became a man.
Yet this incarnation did not diminish His glory. We still could see it. It merely made the glory of God visible. This is what the body does. How can I communicate who I am in the world? If you want to know what my desires are, what my personality is like, how can you know? I have a body with which I can communicate these things, both in my actions and words. In this sense, all bodies are revelatory; they reveal what is hidden in the person. In the same way, by taking on a body, the divine Son of God can show us physically who He is. He holds children in His arms. He heals the sick. He speaks of eternal life found in Him.
Because of His connection to the Father in the Trinity (see last week's post on the Trinity), the will revealed in Him is also the Father's will. The incarnate Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, is the "only-begotten" of God, that is, the unique Son of God, who is the only one who is able to reveal or "explain" the Father. The incarnation, then, is essential to revelation. We can only know the will of the Father because the Son became man and told us.
Finally, let's look at Philippians 2:5-8 (NASB):
"Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."
This passage is part of a larger one (verses 5-11) that has been classified by scholars as poetic or hymnic, meaning that the passage has certain lyrical and poetic qualities that suggest that Paul, the author, is not merely giving doctrine in an academic way. He is either creating this poetic description of the incarnation or possibly quoting from a past expression of this truth. Because of this, this passage could be memorized and easily quoted as a short description of who Jesus is.
The theology here is similarly dense, and there are particular concepts that I want to focus on. First, notice that the passage assumes that the Son is equal with the Father with regard to His divinity. He existed "in the form of God" and "did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped." That is, the Son, though equal with God, did not try to selfishly take this for Himself, but instead humbled Himself by becoming a man. What is called the humiliation of Christ begins with His taking the form of a man, with all of the limitations of being a man, and is completed on the cross, as He is executed as a blasphemer before the Romans and Jews, naked and bludgeoned beyond recognition. The punishment that Jesus accepted on His body for our sins is previewed in His taking on a body in the first place. In His accepting this humble estate, He is able to provide salvation for all mankind. Thus, the incarnation is key to understanding how Jesus saved us. This is one reason why the doctrine is so important.
Let's sum up what is revealed in these passages. First, Jesus is truly God. He is the divine logos, equal with the Father in His divinity. Thus, as God, He is uncreated. He never began to exist and will never cease to exist. So, we can see that the statement above is false and that any biblically faithful follower of Christ should have disagreed. The Son of God is not a creature. Second, Jesus is truly a man. He is in no way truncated in His humanity. He has a body and experienced pain, hunger, thirst, fatigue, etc. The exalted Son of God had to bathe, cut His hair, tend to His clothes and the health of His body. As biblically faithful followers of Christ, we cannot diminish the physicality of Jesus.
Third, Jesus' incarnation is essential to our salvation. This point cannot be missed. Both His true divinity and true humanity are essential to our salvation. We will break this down in more detail below, but let me put it this way. Only an incarnate God can be beaten and crucified for our sins. Only a divine man can, in His suffering and death, make atonement for all of the sins of the world.
As we move into theology and philosophy in helping us to understand and explain christology, we see that the early church has already done much of the hard work for us. In the fourth century A.D., a massive controversy erupted in the church over christology. This "christological controversy," the first of a few in the early centuries of the church, forced the church to contend with what the Bible taught about Jesus. The main two players, Athanasius and Arius, fiercely battled with words over the nature of Christ. To put it simply, Arius, a priest of Alexandria, taught that Jesus was a created being who began to exist at the beginning of the universe. Athanasius, to put it mildly, disagreed, arguing that the Son and Father were equal in divinity and that, therefore, Jesus is not a creature. So, as you can see, this controversy actually erupted around the question of whether Jesus was a created being. The Council of Nicea and Council of Constantinople, both in the fourth century, led to the writing of the Nicene Creed, one of the earliest and most important creeds of the Christian church. I'll quote from the section of the creed about Jesus:
"And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father."
I discussed this section of the creed last week, so I won't go into the same detail here. It can be said that the Nicene Creed focuses on the divinity of Jesus, since that was at the center of the controversy. As I said in the last post, the key word here is homoousias, or "one substance." Jesus shares of the same substance, divinity, with the Father. This word is an expression of biblical truth in verses such as John 10:30, in which Jesus says, "I and the Father are one."
In the fifth century, a second christological controversy prompted another council, the Council of Chalcedon. Convened in 451, its statement is an incredible expression of the truth of the incarnation:
"We...confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [homoousias] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial [homoousias] with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ."
This statement is a very concise summary of the language that had been used during this controversy to explain the incarnation. Notice the use of different phrases to describe the completeness of the divinity and humanity of Christ. The statement uses phrases such as: "the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood"; "truly God and truly man"; "consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood"; and "to be acknowledged in two natures." The emphasis here is the on the two natures of Christ.
In the doctrine of the Trinity, we describe God as one being and three persons. In the doctrine of the incarnation, we describe Christ as one person and two natures. Those two natures are each present in Christ in their fullness. This is called dyophysite christology, or two-nature christology, and was considered the only orthodox position, as opposed to monophysite christology, in the Council of Chalcedon.
There are other questions to be answered concerning christology and the incarnation, but this post is already looking a little long. Finally, we'll discuss why this is important.
So why is it important to get christology right? I'll briefly highlight three points. First, this particular doctrine is one of the few that are central to the truth of Christianity and even salvation itself. Second, the doctrine is essential to a proper understanding of the Trinity. Third, the doctrine is essential to a proper understanding of the atonement.
For the first point, I need to be careful. You might be reading this post and learning plenty of new things. You might have read the statement from the survey and initially, thought, "Yeah, of course I agree with that." Now, you're reading what Scripture says and what Christians early in the history of the church have said, and you're thinking, "How could I have misunderstood who Jesus is so easily?" So you read above that getting christology right is central to salvation, and you get discouraged. Am I claiming that you might not truly be a Christian. To be clear, I am not claiming that. To be a follower of Christ, you must repent of your sins, believe that Jesus has died for your sins, and trust in Him for your salvation. If you've done that, then you are His. I had to learn clearly who Jesus is, and I misunderstood along the way. To misunderstand is one thing. To knowingly believe and teach error is another thing.
What I mean to say is that to understand, even rudimentarily, who Jesus is is essential to orthodoxy and salvation. Here is an example from Matthew 16:13-16 (NASB):
"Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, 'Who do people say that the Son of Man is?' And they said, 'Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.' He said to them, 'But who do you say that I am?' Simon Peter answered, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.'"
Jesus commends Peter for his answer. He is not only Christ (i.e., the Messiah) and the divine Son of God, the physical revelation of God the Father. To confuse Jesus with merely a prophet or someone else is to confuse who Jesus revealed Himself to be.
For the second point, I'll simply refer to my last post on the Trinity. To be confused about the divinity of Jesus is to confuse the nature of God. Without a divine Son, there is Godhead. Without a physical incarnation, there is no revelation of the will and person of the Father.
For the third point, I'll briefly discuss the work Cur Deus Homo by St. Anselm of Canterbury. Written in the late 11th century, the title means, in Latin, Why the God-Man?. In this work, St. Anselm sought to explain why it was necessary that the incarnate Son by incarnate. Why couldn't it have been a normal human being, or just a God? To make a long answer short, St. Anselm's answer is the atonement. Jesus must have shared with us in His humanity so that He'd be a proper substitute for us in His death. The death of a bull or goat wouldn't suffice. Jesus must have shared with God in His divinity so that He could make atonement for the sins of all mankind and not just His own. Had He been a mere man, then He would have been a sinner and could only die for His own sins. Therefore, to be confused about the incarnation is to confuse the atonement.
For each of these three reasons, it is vital that we understand, the best we can, the nature of Christ. In this, we can see His glory and the amazing miracle that God caused in the virgin Mary. Jesus is the God whose hand we can shake, the God who took on flesh and all the humility and weakness therein for us for eternity. And it was that same body that was raised and glorified, which grounds our own hope in the resurrection at the end of the world on judgement day.
I hope you enjoyed and found edifying this longer post on another topic that's tough to understand. Next week, we'll discuss a group of statements in the survey surrounding the topic of sin and hell. What exactly is that from which Jesus saves us? And why exactly do we need salvation in the first place? This one will be easier to understand, but harder for many in our culture to accept.
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If you would like the full statement from the Council of Chalcedon, see Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. "Chalcedonian Creed (A.D. 451)." Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. 2 May 2020. https://carm.org/christianity/creeds-and-confessions/chalcedonian-creed-451-ad.
If you would like the full Nicene Creed to read, see Christian Reformed Church. "Nicene Creed." Christian Reformed Church. Christian Reformed Church in North America. 25 April 2020. https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/creeds/nicene-creed.
For this post, a major source for me is from a chapter of Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. See Craig, William Lane, and J.P. Moreland. "Christian Doctrines II: The Incarnation." In Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Illinois: IVP Academic, 2003.
If you want to check out the content of the survey in detail, see The State of Theology. "Key Findings." The State of Theology. Ligonier Ministries, 2018. https://thestateoftheology.com/. and The State of Theology. "Data Explorer." The State of Theology. Ligonier Ministries, 2018.https://thestateoftheology.com/data-explorer?AGE=30&MF=14®ION=30&EDUCATION=62&INCOME=254&MARITAL=126ÐNICITY=62&RELTRAD=62&ATTENDANCE=254.