Christology


A few days ago I quoted a great summary passage from Irenaeus, and the last part of the paragraph was especially striking:

He [God] it is whom the law proclaims, whom the prophets preach, whom Christ reveals, whom the apostles make known s to us, and in whom the Church believes. He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ: through His Word, who is His Son, through Him He is revealed and manifested to all to whom He is revealed; for those [only] know Him to whom the Son has revealed Him. But the Son, eternally co-existing with the Father, from of old, yea, from the beginning, always reveals the Father to Angels, Archangels, Powers, Virtues, and all to whom He wills that God should be revealed. (Against Heresies 2.30.9 [ANF])

Irenaeus is very clear on the deity of Christ. He is not a creation; he is “eternally co-existing with the Father”. Thus, the Council of Nicea did not invent the idea of the Trinity as some like to affirm. Irenaeus is very clear about the topic some 150 years before Nicea. As God himself he is able to reveal God to others, not just to humans but other cosmic beings. Of course, scripture is revelation from God, but Irenaeus gives us a good word that we should look first to Christ as the true revelation of God. Barth would be proud.

N.T. Wright’s volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God was eagerly anticipated by many and broke the back of many mail carriers. For those looking for some help through the massive two-volumes, Larry Hurtado is posting on some key issues. After an introductory post, in which he comments on the length of the work, Hurtado focuses on Wright’s Christology. In the second post, he questions Wright’s claim that in Paul’s view Jesus is the personal return of YHWH. In the third post, he challenges Wright’s understanding of how Jesus’ messiahship functioned in Paul’s thought and its significance for Pauline theology. All three posts are very helpful for seeing the differences between these two leading scholars. Also, in the comments Richard Bauckham and Crispin Fletcher-Louis have weighed in.

The posts can be found here: “Paul and the Faithfulness of God”: Wright’s big Opus; “Paul and the Faithfulness of God”: 2nd Posting; and Messiah and Worship.

A vision for theosis:

Almighty God,
who wonderfully created us in your own image
and yet more wonderfully restored us
through your Son Jesus Christ:
grant that, as he came to share in our humanity,
so we may share the life of his divinity;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

The following is an extended quote from Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 30.5 (one of his Five Theological Orations), written near the time of the Council of Constantinople (AD 381).  The work is a refutation of the Eunomians/Anomeans/Neo-Arians, who thought that the Son did not eternally share the same nature as the Father.  As part of his argument he discusses the relationship of the Father to the Son when he is hanging on the cross.

If the Father and Son share the same essence/nature, how can they be separated at the cross? What could Jesus have meant when he exclaimed (quoting Ps 22.1), “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Gregory answers:

Why? You will say.  Is [the Son] not subordinate now?  If he is God, does he need at all to be made subordinate to God?  You are talking as if he were a bandit or an opponent of God!

No–look at this fact: the one who releases me from the curse was called “curse” because of me; “the one who takes away the sin of the world” was called “sin” and is made a new Adam to replace the old.  In just this way too, as head of the whole body, he appropriates my want of submission.  So long as I am an insubordinate rebel with passions which deny God, my lack of submission will be referred to Christ.  But when all things are put in submission under him, when transformed they obediently acknowledge him, then will Christ bring me forward, me who have been saved, and makes his subjection complete.  In my view Christ’s submission is the fulfillment of the Father’s will.  As we said before, the Son actively produces submission to the Father, while the Father wills and approves submission to the Son.  Thus it is that he effects our submission, makes it his own and presents it to God. “My God, my God, look upon me, why have you forsaken me?” seems to me to have been the same kind of meaning.  He is not forsaken either by the Father or, as some think, by his own Godhead, which shrank in fear from suffering, abandoning the suffer.  Who applies that argument either to his birth in this world in the first place or to his ascent of the cross? No in himself, as I have said, he expresses our condition.  We had once been forsaken and disregarded; then we are accepted and now are saved by the sufferings of the impassible.  He made our thoughtlessness and waywardness his own, just as the psalm, in its subsequent course says–since the Twenty-First Psalm [LXX, English = 22nd], clearly refers to Christ.

When representing humanity on the cross, Christ does not cease to be divine.  He subordinates himself on our behalf, but he can only humble himself if he were exalted in the first place.  The Father and the Son did not have separate intentions because sharing the same nature entails sharing the same will.  Miroslav Volf captures this idea when he recently tweeted: “Christ is not a third party inserted between an angry God and sinful humanity; he is the God who was wronged embracing humanity on the cross.”

The Bible as a whole, and the NT in particular, is Christocentric.  That is, the gospel as the center of the Bible is a story of how Jesus as Israel’s Messiah has come to restore the world through is death and resurrection.  Other attempts as bringing in other “center” language has brought about quick corrections, e.g., Richard Hays rightly corrected his original framing of Paul’s reading of scripture as “ecclesiocentric” to be described later as “ecclesiotelic” in a “Christocentric” framework.  I heartily agree that the Christ-event is at the heart of the biblical story and of the Christian faith, but there is a consistent problem that I have noted among scholars and students: this Christocentrism has become a Christomonism, or we might also say the Trinitarianism of the Christianity is regularly becoming binitarian because we have lost sight of the Spirit in our theology.

Though this problem is not limited to Evangelicals, we often experience this because as a “Word” centered movement, Jesus and the Bible are are the heart of our spirituality and practice.  A robust Trinitarianism, which entails a strong view of the Spirit’s work, is often missing.  If any aspect of the Trinity is missing, it will be the Spirit, as the Father and Son are regularly represented.  When is the last time your church mentioned the Trinity, much less had sermon or a sermon series on the Trinity?

Let me offer for some examples for my case.

  • At the heart of my evangelical up-bringing was a heavy emphasis on reading and (properly) interpreting the Bible, an inheritance that I happily try to pass along to my students.  However, when I was learning my hermeneutical method, the Spirit played a minor role in the process.  Evangelicals have bought into the Enlightenment presupposition that one who employs the right method can get to the right meaning in the text.  I was taught the “historical-grammatical” method in distinction to the “historical-critical” method, but in either case the method entails the search for objective meaning.  Where is the Spirit in the method?  We were regularly encouraged to pray for the Spirit’s guidance, but I couldn’t tell you how a 1 Corinthians 2-3 epistemology was incorporated into the method.  There is much talk of the Bible as Spirit-inspired, but little training or emphasis on interpretation as Spirit-enlightened.  In the end, we relied/rely on a new holy Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Bible.  The Word is central, but where is the Spirit in our hermeneutics?
  • About a year or two ago I heard someone describe (folk) evangelical preaching and theology as “deistic therapeutic moralism”, that is, a focus on self-help practices focused on right living.  While evangelicalism has a more robust theology than this, I think it is an apt description of the average Christian mindset.  Many things over the past century have fed into this folk theology, but one of the main influences is again the Enlightenment deistic presuppositions.  People hear messages about repentance and holy living, but without a robust Trinitarian framework with the Spirit working in and transforming people, they are left with a call to morality without divine empowerment.  There is little place for a focus on New Covenant theology where God is restoring people’s hearts and not just giving them a right status.
  • The lack of a place for the Spirit was brought home to me clearly when I taught a class on Paul and His Letters this fall.  One of the textbooks I require is Gordon Fee’s Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God.  He has an excellent section on the trinitarian nature of Paul’s theology, and as we were discussing this an able student asked if I was worried about people thinking there are three gods since we are talking about the Spirit so much.  We talk about Jesus and the Father constantly, but are we worried about people thinking we believe in two gods?  No, but since we have no place for the Spirit in our theology of God, we work from a functional binitarianism rather than a Trinitarianism.
  • My last piece of evidence comes from a series of Biblical Theology lectures that I listened to.  I won’t mention the name because these otherwise helpful lectures were marred by a Christomonist portrayal of God’s work in the world.  In distinction to the Trinity as central or the Father working through Christ and the Spirit to establish his kingdom, or any other model of Biblical Theology, this speaker only mentioned Christ as the center of the biblical story.  Yes, Christ is central to God’s action in the world, but where is the biblical view of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit acting in conjunction.  The Spirit didn’t come into these lectures until the very end, almost as a side-note.  However, if God has revealed himself as Father, Son, and Spirit shouldn’t we begin with a Trinitarian framework for understanding his work, at least in discussing canonical theology?

As a mentioned above, I agree that the Bible is Christocentric: the gospel as the center of the Bible is a story of how Jesus as Israel’s Messiah has come to restore the world through is death and resurrection.  However, how can we understand the New Covenant work of the God-sent Messiah without understanding his Spirit-anointing which brings about a transformation of believers’ hearts as a fulfillment of the New Covenant?

In contemporary theology there has been a return to a focus on the Trinity as the center of the Christian faith, as affirmed in the Nicene Creed.  I think this is a healthy move, but if we are going to pursue a robust Trinitarian theology, the area that will need much refinement and focus is that of the third article of the Creed–the Holy Spirit.  With pentecostalism as the dominant growth force in the church globally, the importance of the Spirit will no doubt bring rise in prominence.  However, you don’t have to be a charismatic to be a Trinitarian.  If you think about your theology, do you have a robust Trinitarianism?  If not, I doubt it is because your view of the Father working through the Son is lacking.  Rather, do you have a place for the Spirit as essential to your view of God’s work in the world?  If not, I encourage you to seek out balanced voices like Gordon Fee and (re)discover the Spirit in the Trinity’s work in the world.

This post is a fruit of a review I’m doing on Najeeb Awad’s God Without a Face?: On the Personal Individuation of the Holy Spirit (Dogmatik in Der Moderne).

David Hay captures the Christology of Colossians nicely:

Christology does not replace theology, but interprets it . . . . Hence, in fundamental ways Christ can be understood only when his relationship to God is grasped; on the other hand, God is known through Christ and, evidently, adequately know only through Christ. (‘All the Fullness of God’ in The Forgotten God, 169–70)

I enjoyed two excellent papers last week, as the NT Research Seminar started up again here in Durham. There has been an attempt to include more research students this year, and the first papers were by two of them: Lionel Windsor and Wesley Hill, both third-years supervised by Prof. Francis Watson. Both papers looked at aspects of Romans. Lionel’s project focuses on Paul’s identity through the perspective of his vocation as a Jew. In this light, Paul’s missionary activity, for example, can be seen as a fulfilment of his Jewish calling: ‘providing God’s revelation to non-Jews’. Lionel offered a reading of Romans 2:17-29 from this viewpoint, raising issues about the Law and making the interesting suggestion, among others, that the setting imagined by the text was the synagogue. Wes’ thesis is equally ambitious, seeking to ground Paul’s Christology in the ‘matrix of trinitarian relationships’. In other words, the ‘place’ of Christ cannot be understood apart from the relationships with Father and Spirit. He sought to demonstrate this by reference to Romans 4, and in particular, that Paul is reading the example of Abraham through the relationship between God and Jesus, and that God raised Jesus provides a hermeneutic for reading the Abraham story.

For those who are interested, the rest of the term’s seminars are below.

17 October                  Dr Benjamin Schliesser (University of Zurich), “The Dialectics of Faith and Doubt in Paul and James”

24 October                  Prof René Bloch (University of Bern), “Who was Philo of Alexandria? Tracing autobiographic passages in Philo”

31 October                  Dr Simon Gathercole (University of Cambridge), “The Religious Outlook of the Gospel of Thomas

7 November                Prof John Barclay, Paul and the Gift  (book preview)

14 November              Dorothee Bertschmann, “The Good, the Bad, and the State: What is the meaning of to agathon in Romans 13.1-7?”

Leonard Wee: “Features in Paul’s Summaries of OT Historical Narratives”

28 November              Prof Lewis Ayres, “Grammar, Polemic and the Development of Patristic Exegesis 150-250”

5 December                 Dr Eddie Adams (King’s College London), “Were the Pauline Churches House Churches?”

12 December               Prof Francis Watson, Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (book preview)

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