Christology, Part 1
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal
I have found myself spending quite a lot of my free time in conversations via the internet over many different theological subjects. From the doctrines of the Holy Trinity, Pneumatology and Christology, to Scriptural Authority and Ecclesiology, no subject has escaped consideration as I have explored the strange medium of computer communications. I have made new friends over the internet, most of whom I have never met but with whom I share a close bond of ministry and common need. These friends, and our conversations, are extremely important—at least for me—because they cause me to read and think and consider opinions and beliefs that I have long held but may not have adequately considered in recent months or years. Indeed, I believe that all Christians should spend at least some time each week reflecting upon the fundamental theological positions of our Faith.
Just as “theology” is the field of thought which deals with the nature of God, so also “christology” is the field of theological thought which deals with the person and work of Jesus. Some of the questions that christological thought attempts to address are very common in the Church today, and I often find myself being asked many of these kinds of questions:
“How can Jesus be fully human and fully divine at the same time?”
“What do we mean when we say that Jesus is the `only begotten Son of God’?”
“How could Jesus be sinless?”
“Why was Jesus Baptized?”
And, my personal favorite: “Did Jesus have blood in his veins after the resurrection?”
All these questions are christological, and many of them have been hotly debated by Christians over the centuries. Whole Church councils have been held, with many Bishops and many theologians meeting for weeks and weeks of debate and Scriptural study and — yes — politicking in order to arrive at conclusions which hold true to the witness of Holy Scripture, tradition, and our God-given reason. And, it’s often been the conclusions of these Church councils which have held my attention in the conversations I have been having.
You see, while Scripture speaks in many places of the nature of Jesus Christ, it has been the interpretation of these references which has gotten us into serious trouble. We all have our favorite passages regarding Jesus, and if we allow one single perspective--even a Scriptural one--to dominate our thinking to the exclusion of all the others, we can find ourselves quickly falling into one of a number of different heresies. The Church has dealt with almost all of these heresies in the past, and so it is to our advantage if we know what the greater thinkers of the Church have said regarding, for example, the humanity and divinity of Jesus.
Most major denominations, including The United Methodist Church, have some sort of “official” statement of faith regarding the person and work of Jesus. Our statement is in full accord with catholic [universal] and orthodox [correct] theology. In other words, our denomination is not some cult or fringe group, doing theological reflection out on the edge of nowhere. Quite the contrary, even when the most brilliant of our “high-powered scholars” are thinking on the “cutting edge,” as it were, they are still supposed to be doing so with at least one foot firmly planted in the Biblical, historical, experiential, and rational traditions of catholic Christianity.
I believe that the Articles of Religion serve our denomination well by providing a broad outline of what we believe. These doctrinal standards are not, as some radicals have complained, straitjackets upon our freedom to think; quite the contrary, they serve as aids and foci around which our reflections might orbit as we search the depths of what we mean when we say that Jesus is:
These are high and lofty words, but does anyone really know what they mean? This is where we, as United Methodists, are blessed with the freedom to think; we are given scriptural, traditional, experiential, and rational boundaries within which to work, and then we are set free to apply these four areas somewhat subjectively within our lives. Yes, Holy Scripture is always determinative as our final source of authority, but to ensure against forays into “unorthodox” thought, Scripture should always be interpreted through the 3-fold locci of tradition, experience, and reason.
. . . the Word of the Father, the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father, took man's nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin; so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided; whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be sacrificed, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men. (Article II, the Articles of Religion)
Some of our more conservative brethren and sistren might want to ask “but why can’t we just let Scripture interpret itself?” Good question! The answer is an easy one, but one that none of us really want to hear. The simple fact is that, without exception, each of us brings to the Scriptures a substantial amount of personal baggage: preconceptions, theological assumptions, hopes and aspirations, goals and objectives . . . the list of our luggage is inevitably a long one. We all have it, and if that is all we bring to our biblical task, we come ill-prepared to allow scripture to judge itself. It is an unavoidable trap which we set if we fool ourselves into believing that nothing but the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the witness of the entire Scriptural account are going into our study of Sacred Scripture. And so we in the Wesleyan tradition, following the example of the Catholic side of our heritage, have recognized that we need to bring not just our own individual experiences and preconceptions, but the entire collective wisdom of Church Tradition, coupled with our rational faculties, in order to help us filter the subjective baggage we bring. Such a filtering process is incredibly important when addressing a doctrinal subject as complex as Christology, and it has been the failure to consider and filter the baggage that has produced most of the historical heresies on the subject.
The Scriptures tell us much about the nature of Christ, but they don’t do so in any systematic way; that is what the traditions of the Church, embodied in Creeds and Confessional Statements, are for. They serve to provide structure, order, and a filter to an otherwise jumbled-up collection of affirmations about the nature of Jesus. In the second Article of Religion, which we quoted above, we find a number of statements about the Person of Jesus Christ that really need to be explicated.
The article says that Jesus is “the Word of the Father, the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father....” This statement has been taken almost directly out of St. John’s Gospel, where the evangelist says:
This means that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is in fact God as much as the first person of the Trinity, the “Father,” is God. As the Nicene Creed says (880 in the Hymnal): the Son is “... true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father....” God the Father and God the Son are one and the same God. They have one Divine substance--one Divine being--but are, nevertheless, two different “persons” even while still being the same God. The mystery of the Holy Trinity is that the first person (scripturally known as “the Father”) and the second person (scripturally known as “the Son”) are both one God and yet two different persons, in union with the third person, the Holy Spirit, who “proceeds” from them both. If we are now even more confused, that is good. The simple fact is that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is wholly a mystery of eternal proportions, and one to which we cannot expect any immediate, logical, ready-made answers. However, it is still important for us to state the mystery of faith regarding the Trinity so that we might rightly understand that Jesus Christ is God just as certainly as the “Father” is God, and that this has always been the case. Even prior to the incarnation, the Son was as much God as was the Father.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. (St. John 1:1-2)
All of this may highlight my problem with some of the language we are hearing these days for the Trinity -- for example: “God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.” Such language is inherently flawed for it leads to the conclusion that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are not as much God as the first person, whom we are here naming simply as “God” in direct distinction to the second and third persons. All three are equally and consubstantially God, and hence it is highly improper to name the first person as simply God. Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are also God, just as is the Father. And, this is what our doctrinal standards say.
© 1998, Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved
As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.