Soundings

Christology ‘touchstone of all knowledge of God’

Sep 2002    

PART 5 OF THE SERIES OF MEDITATION ON ‘FAITH TO LIVE BY’


How we understand Jesus has implications in ways we conceive of God

WITHOUT doubt, both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed gave careful attention to the second article that deals with the second Person of the Trinity. After all, the Council of Nicea was convened in AD 323 primarily to respond to the heresies surrounding the Person and Nature of Jesus Christ.

Christology – that is, the doctrine of Christ – is important for the simple reason that how we understand Jesus of Nazareth has profound implications in the way we conceive of God and the basis of our salvation. Needless to say, Christology is of paramount importance in a religiously plural world like ours. Karl Barth’s assertion, made in the first quarter of the last century, that Christology is the touchstone of all knowledge of God takes on a new relevance today.

“Tell me how it stands with your Christology, and I shall tell you who you are,” Barth used to say. The same “litmus test” for theological orthodoxy applies today as well. We have already alluded to the fact that it is impossible to think of God without thinking first about Christ, for Christ is the supreme revelation of God. Similarly, the first and the third article of the Creed, which describe the Father and the Spirit respectively, cannot be fully understood without constant reference to the second article.

The Creed describes Jesus as God’s Son, and it took the controversies in the 3rd Century for the Church to clarify what this means and what it entails. This does not mean that the Church did not understand the relationship between God the Father and Jesus until the 3rd Century. But the heresies with which the Church had to struggle caused it to bring to clearer expression what it already knew and understood by faith.

The heresies that plagued the Church show us how not to think of the Son in relation to the Father. We have already alluded to the first heresy, Arianism, in a previous essay on the fatherhood of God. Arianism maintained that the Son was the greatest of God’s creation, and that it was through the Son (Demiurge) that the Father created the world. Athanasius, the defender of orthodoxy, argued that if there was a time when the Son was not, then it follows that there was a time when God was not Father.

There is another heresy, called adoptionism, which was also mistaken in its understanding of the Son. Adoptionism maintains that Jesus was a man who was anointed by the Spirit in a measure that surpasses all the prophets of the Old Testament. At His baptism by John the Baptist, Jesus was “adopted” by the Father and became God’s Son. He was given a mission to preach the good news of the Kingdom, and empowered to work miracles. According to this view, Jesus belongs to the same lineage as all the prophets of the Old Testament – He was different in degree but not in kind.

These ancient heresies have reared their ugly heads once again in the modern discussion on the person and nature of Jesus Christ. Of the two heresies discussed above, adoptionism has re-appeared in various forms in modern theology. Friedrich Schleiermacher, writing in the 19th Century, could argue that Jesus Christ was a mere man, albeit one who was profoundly conscious of God. For Schleiermacher, Jesus Christ was different from us in degree and not in kind. Many theologians have followed in the footsteps of Schleiermacher.

I have briefly discussed John Hick’s religious pluralism, and must now return to him again. In his 1993
book “The Metaphor of God Incarnate”, he argued that the traditional doctrine of the Person of Christ enshrined in the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds cannot be presented in a logically coherent way and so must be subjected to revision. His revision has to do with the way in which the incarnation is understood.

For Him the incarnation is “not a metaphysical claim about Jesus having two natures, but a metaphorical statement of the significance of a life through which God was acting on earth. In Jesus we see a man living in a startling degree of awareness of God and of response to God’s presence”. (p. 106).

Christ is Saviour and He is therefore also Lord

But such a view fails to do justice to the full testimony of scripture regarding Jesus Christ. In a review published a year after the appearance of Hick’s book, I wrote:

“If Hick is right, then the Church throughout the centuries has been wrong in her understanding of the person and work of Christ. If Hick is right, the creeds, confessions and liturgies of the Church must be re-written (and the Church must repent of her idolatrous past). If Hick is right, those who believe that Christ died for the sins of the world (Romans 3:21-26) have done so in vain since the cross of Jesus, according to Hick, challenges us in a way that ‘does not involve the atonement theories developed by the churches’. (p. 132-3). If Hick is right, then we who believe in the traditional teachings of the apostles and the Church are, in the words of St Paul, ‘of all men most to be pitied’.” (1 Cor 15:19).

Against these erroneous ways of understanding the relationship between the Father and the Son, the early theologians of the Church insisted that Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the eternal Son of God. The Son is not God’s finest creature as the Arians claim, but the second Person in the Godhead, co-eternal with the Father.

The Greek term homoousios was employed to clarify the relationship between the Son and the Father. The Son is homoousios (of the same substance) with the Father, and therefore is co-equal and co-eternal with him. To describe Jesus Christ as the “only Son of the Father” is therefore to refer to the Deity of the Son. Against the Arians, the early theologians of orthodoxy asserted that there was never a time when God was not Father. Similarly, they must also maintain that there was never a time when the Son was not. The early theologians were fully aware that such an assertion might fly in the face of the Church’s claim to a monotheistic faith. If the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God, then are there not three Gods?

We will not discuss the doctrine of the Trinity at length here, postponing it to a later essay in this series. What must be stressed is that the early theologians insisted on the doctrine of the Trinity because it is the way in which God has revealed Himself in the Bible.

It is important to understand that the fathers of the early Church were not indulging in pure metaphysics in their debate regarding the nature of the Son. The assertion of the Creed, that Jesus Christ is “God’s only Son, our Lord” points to the relationship between the two declarations.

The title “Lord” is used in the Old Testament for God alone. God is Lord because He is the sovereign one. This title is now used univocally for Jesus Christ, and thus points to His Deity. Furthermore, the title “Lord” also refers to the redemptive or saving activity of God. God is not only Lord because He is Creator, He is Lord also because He is Saviour: He is Lord of His people.

The nation of Israel knew, as did the theologians of the Creed, that only God can save. No creature, no matter how great, can do this. Thus, if Jesus Christ has brought salvation to humanity, as the Creed declares that He has, then He must be God. If Jesus Christ is something other than God – that is, a creature – then the salvation that He brings, if it is efficacious at all, must be defective and incomplete, as the work of any creature must necessarily be. But if we cannot say this of the salvation that is made available in Christ, then we must conclude that He is God.

The motivation for defending the Deity of Christ is soteriological – it has to do with the status of our salvation. The writers of the Creed echo the teaching of the New Testament that Christ has come to die for the sins of the world and to bring salvation to those who believe. Christ is the Saviour of the world, and because He is Saviour, He is also Lord.

Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, is also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. He is a member of Fairfield Methodist Church.

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