Christology, Ancient and Modern: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics

Christology, Ancient and Modern: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics

by Oliver D. Crisp, George Hunsinger, Peter J. Leithart, Katherine Sonderegger

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A Fresh Look at the Doctrine of Christ,
Essential for Modern Theological Work

Christology was the central doctrine articulated by the early church councils, and it remains the subject of vigorous theological investigation today. The study of the doctrine of Christ is a field of broad ecumenical convergence, inviting theologians from all

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A Fresh Look at the Doctrine of Christ,
Essential for Modern Theological Work

Christology was the central doctrine articulated by the early church councils, and it remains the subject of vigorous theological investigation today. The study of the doctrine of Christ is a field of broad ecumenical convergence, inviting theologians from all denominational settings to fruitful collaborative exploration. In the contemporary setting, it is especially crucial for theologians to investigate the scriptural witness afresh, to retrieve classical criteria and categories from the tradition, and to consider the generative pressure of soteriology for Christology proper.

The first annual Los Angeles Theology Conference sought to make a positive contribution to contemporary dogmatics in intentional engagement with the Christian tradition. Christology, Ancient and Modern brings together conference proceedings, surveying the field and articulating the sources, norms, and criteria for constructive theological work in Christology.

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Christology, Ancient and Modern

explorations in constructive dogmatics

By Oliver D. Crisp, Fred Sanders


Copyright © 2013 Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-310-51496-1



Oliver D. Crisp

Thus the official record of both substances represent him as both man and God: on the one hand born, on the other not born: on the one hand fleshly, on the other spiritual: on the one hand weak, on the other exceedingly strong: on the one hand dying, on the other living. That these two sets of attributes, the divine and the human, are each kept distinct from the other, is of course accounted for by the equal verity of each nature.–Tertullian

These are my principles, and if you don't like them ... well, I have others.–Groucho Marx

On what basis should we construct our Christologies? What method should we adopt? To what authorities should we appeal? These may seem like questions that admit of obvious answers, but in the history of modern theology, they have been given anything but traditional responses. Some want to develop Christologies on the basis of what can be shown via historical investigation independent of any appeal to traditional theological authority, such as the catholic creeds, or the Bible understood as Christian Scripture. Usually, this involves an appeal to a certain cluster of practices and methodological assumptions that are loosely collected together under the name Historical Biblical Criticism (or HBC). Some (though by no means all) practitioners of HBC seem to think that this is the only viable means by which to get at what can be known about the historical Jesus. This often goes hand-in-hand with a rather condescending attitude toward theological accounts of Christ that take, say, the Bible as Scripture or the catholic creeds as data for the generation of theological claims about Christ. A celebrated example of this can be found in the work of Rudolf Bultmann, who writes:

Also finished by knowledge of the forces and laws of nature is faith in spirits and demons. For us the stars are physical bodies whose motion is regulated by cosmic law; they are not demonic beings who can enslave men and women to serve them.... Likewise, illnesses and their cures have natural causes and do not depend on the work of demons and on exorcising them. Thus, the wonders of the New Testament are also finished as wonders; anyone who seeks to salvage their historicity by recourse to nervous disorders, hypnotic influences, suggestion, and the like only confirms this.... We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.

Accounts of the person of Christ that begin with history and progress to theological claims about Christology are usually termed "Christologies from below." Those that begin with certain theological givens, data that are thought to be divine revelation or approved and authoritative theological statements that depend on divine revelation like the creeds, are usually called "Christologies from above." Neither term is helpful as a description of what the particular theological trajectories involve. Christologies from below often make tacit assumptions about who Christ is at the outset, just as Christologies from above make judgments about how to treat differing reports about Christological texts in the canonical Gospels. And, for the most part, sophisticated Christology involves both textual work (including the sort of work familiar to practitioners of HBC) as well as appeals to what we might call ecclesiastical tradition, broadly construed.

Nor is it true that approaches to Christology that privilege a method "from below" will inevitably yield "lower" Christologies than those that adopt a "from above" approach. (Here "lower" and "higher" refer to where one pegs Christ metaphysically. If a particular Christology assumes that he is more than merely human, it is a "higher" Christology than one in which he is assumed to be merely human.) This may often be the case, but it need not be. There is certainly nothing like an entailment between, say, Christology "from below" and low Christology, or, for that matter, between Christology "from above" and high Christology. We can point to historic examples that buck this trend, the supreme instance of which is the disciples of Jesus that became the apostles of the early church. Their knowledge of Christ was largely (though not exclusively) "from below," so to speak. But they came to think of Christ in the most exalted terms, as the Son of God. As Richard Bauckham puts it, the "earliest Christology was already the highest Christology." He goes on to say that this

was not a mere stage on the way to the patristic development of ontological Christology in the context of a Trinitarian theology. It is already a fully divine Christology, maintaining that Jesus Christ is intrinsic to the unique and eternal identity of God. The Fathers did not develop it so much as transpose it into a conceptual framework more concerned with the Greek philosophical categories of essence and nature.

There are also historic examples of those whose Christology emphasizes a "from above" approach, but whose conclusions are not as high as classical Chalcedonian Christology. Arianism might be thought of as a candidate here, where certain metaphysical assumptions about the unique and undivided nature of God and of how to fit Christ into the divine identity, led to a doctrine of the person of Christ according to which Christ is only of like substance to the Father (i.e., homoiousios).

Rather than wade into this debate, something I have attempted elsewhere, I will simply stipulate that responsible Christology ought to pay attention to the biblical and postbiblical traditions in formulating arguments for substantive conclusions about the person and work of Christ. This is not to deny that discrimination and judgment will have to be exercised in appeals to different sorts of theological authority. Allowing that Christology should attend to biblical and extrabiblical sources, including canonical and confessional documents, is one thing. The weighting of these different sources in forming Christological judgments is another, and I will not go into that in detail here. Instead, I will assume with the great majority of Christian theologians down through the ages that Scripture is the norming norm in theology this side of the grave. Other theological norms, such as the canons of ecumenical councils or the confessions of particular ecclesial communities, or even the arguments of theologians, are to be understood in light of Scripture and as ancillary to Scripture.

To my mind there is also considerable merit in approaching the theological task in general, and the Christological one in particular, with what Thomas Oden has recently called "consensual Christianity" in mind. That is, paying attention to the consensus about a wide range of theological matters especially matters pertaining to what is central and defining within the Christian tradition. Marginal voices often do help us to see things in a different light and can lead to reevaluations of the canonical consensus. But in formulating Christian doctrine, especially Christological doctrine, more weight should be given to the consensus than to those at the margins. Part of the reason for this is that the consensus view on matters Christological was reached via a complex process of debate, discussion, and ref lection in the first five centuries of the life of the church during which the language of Christology was forged. Pains were taken to ensure the church had certain Christological parameters in place, and certain dogmatic markers that indicated the bounds of orthodoxy in this matter.

This is not true of every theological topic. For instance, there is no real consensus view on the atonement, though this is hardly a marginal topic in Christian theology. On the face of it, this seems rather odd. However, the early church debates about Christology were generated because the church was trying to get clear who and what Christ was. Surely he is more than a mere human. But how is he different from other mere humans? Is he a sort of superman, an angelic being, or a divine entity who merely appears to be human? Or is he both divine and human, not a hybrid of these two things but God and man both together in one person? And if he is both God and man, is he fully God and fully man? How can these things be predicated of one individual when it appears that such a view yields contradictions of the sort that imply one person is both omnipotent and impotent, both omniscient and yet limited in knowledge, both omnipresent and yet circumscribed by a human nature, and so on?

The fact is the same attention was not paid to the doctrine of atonement as was paid to the incarnation, which is why the church today continues to wrangle over how we should understand the nature and scope of this aspect of the work of Christ. But two things must be borne in mind here. The first is that the early Christians all believed Christ was the Savior of the world and that salvation was obtained through his work. This much was not in dispute. The second thing is that many of the theologians of the early church did not think of the atonement as a separable constituent of the work of Christ that could be hived off and analyzed independent of other aspects of his work, or, more importantly, from his person. They believed that the incarnation and atonement were two aspects of one organic whole. Both were parts or phases of the one seamless work of Christ.

The idea was not merely that the incarnation is a necessary prerequisite to the atonement (though this is true). It was that the incarnation is part of the work of Christ that culminates in the atonement and resurrection. This makes a considerable difference, not only to how we view the person and work of Christ, but also to how we think of their relative places in Christian dogmatics. We might put it like this. The mechanism of atonement and its scope (i.e., the extent of Christ's salvific work in its accomplishment and application) were not matters that were so controverted that they required dogmatic definition. The question of who and what Christ was, that is, what it means to say he is the Savior of the world, and how it is that he can be such a Savior — these were matters that were pressing problems for the church, as she sought to establish what the faithful should believe about Jesus of Nazareth.

It is often said that the Christological settlement at which the church arrived after much vituperation was as much a political as a theological resolution; some might say, a merely political resolution. It is undeniable that the Christological controversies were hard and often bitterly fought, that some theologians were misunderstood or even misrepresented, and that politics played a significant role in the outcome. However, this fact alone says nothing one way or another about the truth value of the outcome. A decision can be reached for complex religious and political reasons and still be the right result. I suggest that God would not permit the church to come to a substantially mistaken account of the person of Christ and to encode this in a canonical decision in an ecumenical council, for what we think about the person of Christ touches the heart of Christian doctrine, and therefore the heart of the gospel. It is an impoverished doctrine of providence that claims otherwise.

Before turning to consider the Christology bequeathed to Christian theology by Chalcedon and the dogmatic desiderata its canons provided, one other preliminary matter requires comment. In some recent theology there is a concern to approach the theological task "without metaphysics" or in a "postmetaphysical" manner. In the hands of some theologians, this claim has to do with addressing a particular philosophical project, usually the project associated with the continental tradition, especially Martin Heidegger and his interlocutors. Other theologians seem to think that one can (even, ought to) approach the theological task absent metaphysics per se. But without further explanation this claim is liable to misunderstanding. For it is not that such theologians eschew the project of presenting theological arguments that are ontological in nature. What they reject is the idea that one can make ontological claims on the basis of the most general, metaphysical categories and notions. Instead, it is said, the theologian should begin with the specific and concrete and work from this to general ontological claims. Bruce McCormack articulates a specifically Christological version of this "postmetaphysical" method. He says:

The word "metaphysical" has often been taken as synonymous with "ontological." It is not so used here.... "Metaphysics" is a way of speaking about transcendent (supramundane) realities, which begins with general concepts rather than concrete particulars. A move is made from a general concept (often a totality that has been abstracted from the individuals of which it is composed) such as "world" or "humanity." The problem is that a totality is only an idea; it is not given to us directly to know. We do not encounter it anywhere. It is simply postulated in order to introduce and explain the unity of a group of items. As such, it lacks reality.

McCormack goes on to relate this specifically to Christology: "It is also possible to construct an ontology ... on the basis of an individual as a possibility made necessary by the belief that Jesus Christ is God incarnate. In him, that which 'deity' is and that which 'humanity' is are 'universals' made concretely real in an individual." This Christological method is not "metaphysical," he says, "since it does not draw inferences from general concepts." But because it does result in an account of what a divine and human being is, it counts as "ontological." It is a postmetaphysical method because it was only recognized "after the failings of both classical and modern metaphysics had become clear."

There is certainly something to be said for the claim that Christian theology should be shaped in fundamental respects by the doctrine of the incarnation, or by Christological concerns more broadly construed. But that is not the same as a method that proceeds on the assumption that ontological claims must begin with the concrete moving from there to the abstract. What is more, we have just seen that on McCormack's reckoning abstract metaphysical notions are ideas that lack reality independent of the concrete things from which they are abstracted. Yet they are also universals made concretely real in an individual. Whatever one makes of these claims about universals, concrete particulars, and kind terms like "humanity" or "deity," they are nothing if not metaphysical in nature. We might think of McCormack's comments as the recommendation for a particular sort of metaphysical method. On this reading of his remarks, he begins with the presumption that concrete particulars are the most fundamental ontological things, and that any conceptual apparatus that may be devised on the basis of these concrete things is a kind of purely mental construction, which does not carve nature at the joints. But this is not novel and it is not postmetaphysical in the sense of being nonmetaphysical or beyond metaphysics or even ametaphysical in nature. It is representative of the sort of approach to metaphysics advocated by those who are nominalists about predicates and concepts. Rather than exchanging metaphysics for ontology, McCormack appears to be rejecting one way of conceiving metaphysics (a way often associated in traditional theology with realism about universals and abstract objects) for another.

But I can see no reason why a Christian theologian might not adopt McCormack's general proviso that theology ought to be framed by means of Christological concerns (e.g., that Christology be the "lens" through which we view a particular theological locus, such as the church or Scripture) without commitment to the sort of nominalism he seems to think necessary for the successful execution of such a project. To put it another way, McCormack's approval of a Christologically focused theology is appealing (at least to this reader). But for those who are nonplussed about his claim that classical and modern metaphysics have failed, there are other options available. In fact, systematic metaphysics is back in vogue among Anglo-American philosophers, including neo-Aristotelian metaphysics, which is willing to countenance much that would be recognizable to our medieval and patristic forebears. Far from "failing" or heading toward extinction, such "classical" metaphysics is alive and well, and, if anything, flourishing once more.

A Note on the Chalcedonian "Consensus"

With these methodological considerations in mind, we can turn to the question of desiderata. Since I am approaching this question from the perspective of consensus Christianity, and since there is a classical consensus of sorts encapsulated in the Christology of the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon of ad 451, it is its so-called "definition" of the person of Christ that is our point of departure. I do not deny that there are other ways of thinking about the person of Christ, some of which have been historically important. It is just that we will be concerned to think about Christology within this dogmatic frame of reference, the frame of reference that has been accepted by the vast majority of Christians in history as a trustworthy summary statement about the person of Christ, which encapsulates important theological notions found in Scripture.

Excerpted from Christology, Ancient and Modern by Oliver D. Crisp, Fred Sanders. Copyright © 2013 Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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