Christology, Part 2
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal
The United Methodist Church looks to Scripture as our primary source of authority for theological reflection. The Discipline of our Church makes this very clear: “United Methodists share with other Christians the conviction that Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine” (Paragraph 68). This means that, while tradition, experience, and reason are all important, critical, and helpful for interpreting and applying Scripture and for aiding us in dealing with issues that are not defined by the Bible, the Scriptures are our primary source of authority for life, faith, and witness.
Since Scripture is primary for us, one of the best places for us to go when talking about Christology is St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. There are few places in Scripture which make such a complete and resounding affirmation of our Lord’s Divinity.
In Christ Jesus “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” This is what we mean when we say, in the words of the Nicene Creed, that Jesus is “true God from true God” and “of one being with the Father.” Jesus is God. Jesus is not God the Father, Jesus is not God the Holy Spirit; Jesus is God the Son. He is the creative agency through whom God fashioned the universe. He was not created by God, for he is not a creature; he is the “firstborn of all creation” because he has, from God the Father, the essence of his existence, just as we have the essence of our existence from our parents. In other words, our parents don’t build us with their hands and their creative abilities—our parents give birth to us through their mutual love for each other and through the giving of their very beings in their combined DNA.
He [Jesus Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers -- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)
Now, saying that Jesus is the “firstborn” and “only begotten” Son of the Father doesn’t mean that sometime, way back in the dim misty recesses of the past, God the Son didn’t exist, just as I didn’t exist in 1960. No, it means that, in terms of time and events and apart from the incarnation, God the Son was never actually “born.” There was never a time when God the Son was not. When we're talking about God the Son, the meaning of “born” is “shared essence.” He shares fully with the Father and the Holy Spirit the same Divine nature which fills the Father and the Spirit. In Christ “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” That is to say, Jesus is God just as much as the Father is God and the Holy Spirit is God; they are the same essential being, even though distinguishable by us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It is clear from the Articles of Religion that we believe that Jesus is not only fully God, but also fully human. For us to say that Jesus is fully God but not say that Jesus is fully human is to fail to maintain historic, orthodox Christology. As I quoted from Article II in the previous weeks installment on Christology:
Jesus is 100% God and 100% human, and it is impossible to divide the two full natures. God was “pleased to dwell” in Jesus of Nazareth, as fully God, and yet Jesus is also fully human. This is a paradox, but it is nevertheless the truth: Jesus is not any less God than the Father or the Spirit, nor is He any less human than you or I.
...two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided; where of is one Christ, very God and very Man....
How could Jesus possibly be fully human and fully Divine at the same time? This is one of the questions which has occupied many of the great thinkers of the Church through its long history. We are not the first to consider such questions, and we are certainly blessed by the record of many Church councils in which these and many other theological issues were considered and, in many cases, answered. The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds are examples of a couple of centuries of deep scriptural and theological debate on the subject of the Holy Trinity and the nature of Christ. The formulation of the faith, as articulated in these great ecumenical creeds, was brilliant but, however, not so totally comprehensive as to avoid the possibility of misinterpretation. In other words, while the creeds served as sound guides for the orthodox interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, even with the council decisions and the creeds to guide us, the Church has still managed to stumble into heresy from time to time.
Put simply, many of the early heresies (and, indeed, most of the later ones) revolved around this question of how Jesus could be God and human at the same time. Some avoided it by denying the Scriptural evidence: the Gnostics said that Jesus was fully Divine but lacked a human nature; the Arians said that Jesus was a human being who was “adopted” by God at some point in his life. Others attempted to say that Jesus was, somehow, part God and part human: the Nestorians believed that Jesus was a human being who was “possessed” by God’s Spirit, just as a human being might be possessed by a demon. Such a division between Jesus and God was wholly destructive to our Lord’s identity as divine because, as a result, Jesus could not be said to be God; according to the Nestorians, only God the Son can be said to be God — and, according to them, God the Son and Jesus are two different beings. In this way, the Nestorians attempted to avoid the problems inherent in the proclamation that Jesus, a human being, was indivisibly united with “the fullness of God.” For example, how do we handle his earthly birth? Since Jesus is God, is it proper to say that the Virgin Mary is “The Mother of God?” Most people who want to deny this title for Mary will say “Mary was the mother of Jesus as a human being, but not of Jesus as God.” And this, my friends, is Nestorianism, for it is impossible for us to say that Jesus did something as a human being but not as God. He did everything as both God and as a human being … and that includes being born.
Accepting this, however, didn’t end the stumblings of the Church into the realms of heretical reflection. The Church still had to deal with the appealing question of which part of Jesus was God and which part was human. Yes, his consubstantial identity as both was readily accepted by this second class of heresy, but now they wanted to divide Jesus into parts so as to explain how this was so. The effort became known by many different names, but the basic form of the heresy is known as Apollinarianism.
Apollinarius was an honest, deeply spiritual, and committed philosopher and theologian who tried to deal with the perplexing problem of the dual nature of Jesus by saying that, relative to his physical body, Jesus was fully human while, relative to his soul, Jesus was fully Divine. This is, in my opinion, an incredibly appealing theory because it appears to settle the problem in a way which we, as limited mortals, can comprehend. And, in many ways, it sounds correct. The Soul is not a physical thing, but exists on a spiritual plane apart from attachments to the base elements of life. In other words, while the soul may indeed find its formation and development in and through our experiences in this life, it is not dependent solely (no pun intended) upon physical matter for its continued existence. It is a spiritual thing, and as such bares some resemblance to things Divine since God is Spirit (John 4:24). Hence, it makes sense that if Jesus is human and Divine, the Divine part would be spiritual, and what could be more spiritual about a human being than the soul? Likewise, our physical, mortal, fleshly nature is the most evidently human thing about us. We exist in time, on a physical plane, with a corporeal existence which is limited. Hence, Jesus’ physical nature was seen as His humanity, while His soul was seen as His Divinity.
There are two substantial problems with the Apollinarian formulation: firstly, if Jesus possessed a Divine soul and not a human one, then He was not fully human. Humans have souls, but even though they are spiritual they are, nevertheless, not Divine — our souls have a beginning, whereas God the Son never “began.” For Jesus to be fully human He would have to also have a human soul. Secondly, if our Lord’s physical nature was simply human, and not in any way Divine, then what good was our Lord’s suffering, death, and resurrection? Put another way: if our Lord’s blood was just simply human blood, and not also Divine blood, then what good would it have served on the cross?
While Apollinarianism is superficially appealing, it fails to supply us with an accurate answer to the “problem” of how our Lord can be fully human and fully Divine. Essentially, it both diminishes our Lord’s humanity and it de-values the eternal merit of our Lord’s shed blood.
Indeed, any attempt to identify the specific way in which Jesus is human and Divine does violence to the doctrine that Jesus possesses either of these natures. It is impossible to differentiate between His nature as human or as God in any given action and remain fully within the orthodox, catholic faith of the Church. As much as it might be appealing, it is nevertheless not permissible to say that Jesus was God when He walked on the water and healed the sick, but that He was human when He was being born. Why? Because doing so results in Jesus being neither fully God nor fully human; to divide His Divinity and humanity in this fashion produces a Christology which makes Him a mutt ... neither sharing in our human condition, nor being capable of saving us from our sins. In other words, if Jesus isn’t fully human then He is not related to us, doesn’t share in our temptations, and cannot have been a sufficient sacrifice for our sins. Likewise, if Jesus isn’t fully Divine then He has nothing to offer us, no ability to save us, no ability to heal us, and no ability to shelter us now and throughout eternity.
Jesus’ personhood consists of two natures, one fully human and one fully Divine. These two natures are united in one person, Jesus Christ, in such a way that they act in full accord each with the other, there being nothing that one nature does that the other nature does not also do by virtue of the other’s nature. Hence, God the Son is born of Mary because He is fully united with His human nature to form one person. As such, it is proper for us to say that the Virgin Mary is the "Mother of God" (God being understood as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in His incarnate form). Nestorius opposed this phrase because he believed that Jesus was a human being who was possessed by the Son of God and because it lent itself far too much to an elevation of the blessed Virgin Mary. Apollinarius opposed this phrase because he believed that Jesus’ physical nature cannot properly be called God, and that only Jesus’ soul was God. The Church Councils supported this phrase because it affirmed, in no uncertain terms, that Jesus Christ is, indeed, God — God incarnate, not adopted and not assumed sometime during his life, but fully God and fully human from the instant of His conception in Mary's womb.
© 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.