By Vic Minish –
Jesus has always been an interesting figure. People representing just about every conceivable position under the sun quote him and want to have a “Jesus” who endorses their own viewpoint. Recently, it seems that everyone who has an opinion on the matter is publishing his or her version of Jesus. For example, novelist Dan Brown hopes that we will believe in a Jesus who had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. Elaine Pagels desires that we would accept a Christian form of gnosticism. And Bart Erhman wants the church to become inclusive of a variety of historically heretical groups because he believes that without them we are missing out on the grand diversity of ancient Christianity.
The universal church has always fought against these aberrant views. But, to many church-goers all of this theological wrangling seems difficult to understand. The average evangelical asks, “Why don’t those people just leave things alone?” What, after all, could be added to our understanding of Christ after two thousand years? While those sentiment s are certainly understandable, it must be understood that many of these “alternative” views of Christian belief have appeared primarily to make accept able a Christ that is accommodating to certain moral perspectives previously eschewed by Scripture and the church; or else to refashion Christ to be more acceptable in the eyes of a global culture that is based upon the twin presuppositions of pluralism and materialistic naturalism.1
Contemporary Controversy: Nothing New Under the Sun
In the years following the writing of the Scriptures, the church assembled at general church councils amid controversy to make clarifications and to continue to affirm by making explicit the views that it had always affirmed implicitly from the Scriptures, namely , that Jesus is fully God (Nicea, 325), and fully man (Constantinople, 381); that Jesus is one person not two (Ephesus, 431); that there are two natures in Jesus, one divine and one human (Chalcedon, 451); and finally that Jesus possessed two wills, one divine and one human (Constantinople, 680). Even during the Protestant Reformation, (c.1517 and ff.) the church had to deal with what theologians call the communicatio idiomatum or, the communication of properties (how it was that Jesus being fully God and fully man, grew bodily as well as in favor with God and men). Today, amid much controversy, the church continues to reassert what the church has believed throughout the ages that the Christ of Faith, that is, the Jesus that we believe in, is the same Jesus as the one who really existed in history.
The view that we have of Jesus from the Bible is not that of videotape, a photograph, or even a painting in oils. It is rather a “word picture.” The writers of the gospels make no attempt to write a simple historical account for the biographical reader to dissect. Rather, they write thematically and in order to press the reader to crisis. This is pointedly expressed in the central focal passage of Mark’s gospel as Jesus asks Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:27). In return, Jesus responds that this was revealed to Peter from heaven. The church throughout the ages has been built upon Peter’s confession.2
In fact, as J. N. D. Kelly explains, “Jesus is Lord,” was the most primitive confession of the church. From the earliest times, Jesus was regarded as preexistent and of a two-fold order: “according to the flesh,” (i.e., human), and “according to spirit” (i.e., God). This simple confession would be elaborated upon for the whole of the early years of the church and would come to be the foundation of all later Christological developments.3
Of course, this is the question that meets us today, whatever does it mean that Jesus is the Christ? And if we come to a positive affirmation of that question, we must ask another, what is the significance of the affirmation, that “Jesus is the Christ?” In other words, what difference does it make if Jesus really was who he claimed to be?
The Doctrine of Christ in Context
To make any sense of Jesus’ claims we must briefly consider the context of his announcement that the kingdom of God had arrived with his coming. The Jews of Jesus day believed they were still living under the chastisement of the LORD, and that the exile was not yet over. They saw themselves living in bondage to Rome, Herod, and even Caiaphas the corrupt high priest of the Temple. For Jesus to be announcing the kingdom was to be appealing to the Jewish hope for liberation from all their oppressors. They were looking for nothing less than the Exodus. They lived in expectation of the day when Yahweh would return to the Temple and squash their oppressors before them.
When Jesus came preaching the kingdom they understood that Jesus was saying in cryptic language that this climactic event was before them. To be called “Christ” or “Messiah” means to be “anointed” or set aside for special office. Prophets, priests, and kings were all anointed to their office. And in this case, they were expecting anyone who took claim of this title to bring liberation.4 They were not thinking of the promise of heaven as, “pie in the sky, in the sweet by and by” as we so often think about salvation. For them, that would have been a mere abstraction of the meaning of salvation. They were looking for an event and a person that would rearrange the world.5
Peter’s View of Jesus Before the Crucifixion
Jesus’ humanity (and therefore his existence) is taken for granted in the gospels. There is quite simply no thought of Jesus as some kind of app arition.6 The Jesus presented in the gospel narratives is born, lies in a feeding trough, grows up, learns, hungers, and feels emotion (see, Luke 2:40; 7:9; Mark 2:15; 15:34; Luke 2:51; 4:16; John 1:14). As Saint Luke explains it, his humanity is so much a glaring feature of his presence that John the Baptist sends messengers to see if he is the one (Luke 7:20), and Nathanael initially doubts precisely because he knows Jesus was raised in Nazareth. (John 1:46)
“Son of Man” is Jesus’ favorite title for himself, borrowed from Daniel 7:13. In that text, Daniel has a vision about the earthly powers that would rise and fall until the sovereign one comes. The Son of Man was seen in contrast to the cruelty of the four beasts that Daniel saw in his vision.
The term “Son of God” is used on occasion in the scriptures as a description of finite beings: angels, kings, Israel, Adam, and even believers.7 But, when Scripture refers to Jesus as the Son of God it is speaking prophetically about his nature and office as uniquely divine. While it is true that the scriptures refer to believers as God’s children, ours is one of adoption. Only Christ is spoken of as the “only begotten” son of God. Only of Jesus do the scriptures say that he was with the Father before the world began (John 17:5-26). Retrospectively, this same son is the one who tells us that to remain in him is to remain in the Father (John 15).8
During his ministry Jesus accepts and uses these titles in reference of himself. However, it is quite evident from Luke 24:10ff. that Peter and the other disciples, while believing in Jesus, did not fully understand to what grand reality these names referred. Peter s hopes of seeing his enemies cast down (a belief that he apparently held from his former life as a Zealot) and what he previously understood to be the meaning of the coming of the messiah would die with Christ on the cross. That is, until the resurrection and ascension. It is only in the aftermath of these two events that Peter’s view of Jesus would begin to develop into the doctrine of Christ as it is believed by the church today.
Peter’s View of Jesus After the Resurrection
Critics of Christianity have often made the charge that the church invented the doctrines of Christ. As evidence of this charge, they point to the fact that the doctrines of Christ develop over time. But this accusation is quite unfair. One would expect that our understanding of who Christ is and what he has done for us would grow, just as one grows in understanding of his mate through years of marriage. Our understanding of Christ has developed to become more nuanced. It has not changed into something that it was not before.9
After the resurrection, Peter and the other apostles began to realize more fully who Jesus really was and is. Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. As the gospels were written and their letters composed, it was that confession which would become the central claim of the New Testament. John Frame lists ten passages that directly identify Jesus as God: John 1:1, 18; 20:28; Acts 20:28; Rom. 9:5; 1 T im. 3:15-16, 2 Thess. 1:12; Titus 2:13; 2 Pet. 1:1; Heb. 1:8; 1 John 5:20; Phil. 2:6; Col. 2:9. Of these he reminds the reader that though these passages have been disputed, it is due more to theological resistance than to genuine exegetical difficulties.10
The Twin Natures of Christ
As was said before, Scripture is very clear in establishing that Jesus had a real human nature. All the attributes of humanity were present in him. The gospels record that he needed food, drink, and sleep. In terms of his human nature, it had a physical beginning when he was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit. His suffering and death were real. He was like us in every respect except for sin. He was not born with a sin nature and had no sinful desires or thoughts, and did not commit sinful acts. The notion that Christ not only did not sin but also that he was never in danger of actually sinning is generally referred to as the doctrine of Christ’s impeccability. Christ is impeccable because he possessed no desire to sin even in his human nature, and because he was in fact God.
As the doctrine developed, the early church began to explain what was meant by the union of the twin natures of Christ by the formulation of a Jesus Christ is God in the flesh series of negations called the Alpha-Privatives (the prefix “alpha” (or , a-) on the statements distinguished the Person of Christ by what he was not). The two natures and two wills of Christ were present in one body:
- Without confusion (distinct)
2. Without conversion (not mixed)
3. Without division (not against one another)
4. Without separation (never separated once joined)
Then, a further description of how the two natures were united was formulated. These two natures of Christ, one human, the other divine, are united in the one person by a hypostatic union ; the two natures and two wills are held together in one person. The Socinians (16thCentury) as well as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, claim that if the human mind cannot understand some particular doctrine it cannot be true. However, scripture nowhere declares that we can or should be able to comprehend everything the Bible declares. There is mystery when it comes to God, intellectually as well as relationally.
The Work of Christ
The work of Christ, that is, those actions presented to God in order to satisfy God’s Holy anger towards sin and death, is represented in two ways: negatively, through his death and passion in the removal of sin from those that have faith in him, and then positively through his righteous life credited to the account of man in order to merit for them justification in the eyes of God. These two aspects are often summarized by reference too what John Calvin popularized as the three fold offices of Christ: Prophet, Priest and King.11 By his work on the cross and by virtue of his life, Christ fulfills the role of the mediator between God and man.
As a prophet Christ proclaimed God’s truth of the coming of the kingdom in his work. As priest, Jesus would be both mediator of the new covenant (Gen. 14:18; Heb. 5:6-10) and the atoning sacrifice that would established it (John 1:29; Rev. 7, 14). And, finally, after finishing his earthly work, it is Christ that has taken up the crown to reign over the world forever (Luke 23:2; Rev. 11:15-17).
By following the flow of thought developed by the Apostles Creed, the resurrection marks the end of Jesus’ “state of humiliation,” (his birth to his death) and begins what is commonly referred to as the “state of exaltation” (his resurrection, ascension, and session). When Christ raised from the dead and ascended into heaven, he began his session at the right hand of the father. It is from this place of honor that he intercedes with the Father (Col. 3:1; Heb. 7:25; 8:1)
The Clear Teaching of Peter and the Other Apostles on the Person and Work of Jesus Christ12
The clearest teachings of the New Testament are of the reality of the union between God and Man in the person of Christ. If the incarnation of God into true humanity is denied, Christianity is no different than many other religions of the world who speak of God, but who have no tangible connection or covenant with him. It is as if we are trying to cross a great chasm on a bridge that has been broken on the near side. If the deity of Christ is denied, or if Jesus is granted only as a guide to discover the sense of the divine within each one of us, then the bridge is shown to be broken on the far side. From a Biblical standpoint, the salvation of humanity can only be accomplished through Divine grace and that grace can only come through a savior that is both God and Man.13 The combined force of all of these doctrinal bit s is clearly that salvation in any sense, and especially in its ultimate sense, comes only through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
The controversies spawned from the distortion of Biblical truth, and the contemporary church s struggle to protect the orthodox doctrine of Christ is nothing new. Since the gospel was first delivered that God would inevitably and always triumph over his enemies (Gen. 3:15), unbelieving man has tried to find ways to suppress or reject that central Biblical truth. It is a battle that has raged since the beginning, and it will continue until Christ the Lord returns. The church should not be mislead into the theological drif t that insists that Jesus is merely human, or seduced by the view that Christ was the most ultimate guide to an inheritance of divinity that is already inside of us and needs only to come out. Jesus taught us out of his own mouth that the truth concerning him would be divisive. Jesus said, “So every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:32-34).
The Rev. Vic Minish is an ordained minister in the Episcopal Missionary Church, and heads ARC’s office in Anniston, Alabama.
1 D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 317. Please note, we are not discouraging the continuing quest for doctrinal and historical scholarship and development. We are only acknowledging that much of what passes under the guises of scholarship appears to be done with the ulterior motive of stripping away what the canonical gospels and orthodoxy have held.
2 Darrell L. Bock, Jesus According to the Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 23.
3J .N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines , (Originally published by Harper Collins, 1960. Peabody, MA: Prince Press Edition, 2003) 138.
4 See 1 Sam 16, Kgs 1.34, 1 Chron 29.22.
5 See N.T. W right s, Christian Origins and the Question of God , in three volume (to date) (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992, 1996, 2003)
6 Burridge and Gould comment that they do not know of any respectable critical scholar that argues that Jesus is a figment of the Churchs imagination. There is a lot of evidence for Jesus existence. See, Richard Burridge and Graham Gould, Jesus Now and Then (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) 34.
7 See Job 1;6; Ps 29:1; 2 Sam. 7:14; Mal. 1:6; Deut. 14:1; Luke 3:38; Matt. 5:9; John 1:12
8 John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2002) 659.
9 C.F.D. Moule, The Origin of Christology (Cambridge University Press, 1977) 135.
10 John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2002) 663.
11 John Calvin, (Institutes Book 2, section 15)
12 Here the use of the “teaching of Peter and the other apostles” is used in the same way as the clear teaching of Scripture itself. As their views are recording for us as scripture, and the church’s subsequent understanding of their views is in keeping with them, a continuity is established rather than the critical idea that nothing can truly be known about Jesus because all the writings tell us is about the mindset of the author.
13 W. H. Griffith Thomas, The Principles of Theology (London: Church Society and Vine Books, Sixth Edition Revised, 1978, Reprinted 1988) 38-39.