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Christology

Updated on August 22, 2011

Christology is the doctrine of the person and work of Christ. Christology is concerned with Christ's nature, both human and divine, His incarnation, His revelation of God, His miracles, or "mighty works," His death (which effected the atonement, or redemption of mankind from sin), His resurrection and ascension, His glorification, His heavenly intercession, and finally His coming again in glory to hold the Last Judgment.

This is the teaching of the Apostles' Creed, the oldest of the Christian creeds. Its beginning, as the simple affirmation of belief made at Baptism in Rome about the middle of the 2nd century, implied that it set forth the apostolic teaching as contained in the New Testament.

Its final form dates from the 7th or 8th century. It has many translations. The one found in the Book of Common Prayer is almost a century older than the King James Version of tile Bible-hence its archaic (and beautiful) style and its slight divergences from the Latin original. This creed was designed originally to repudiate such false teachings as Gnosticism or Docetism, which would have denied the true humanity of Jesus.

The Nicene Creed, also found in the Prayer Book in an equally archaic translation, was the work of the Council of Nicaea (325) supplemented by Constantinople (381) and Chalcedon (451). It reaffirmed and amplified the Apostles' Creed and was designed to refute Arianism, which made Christ a creature, "the firstborn of all creation."

It became the standard creed of both East and West but led to dissension, as the Eastern formula read: the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father through the Son," while the Western Church insisted on "and the Son." This change was one of the causes leading to the separation between East and West in 1054.

The so-called Athanasian Creed, a 6th century formula, is chiefly concerned with the exact definition of the relations between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit-the three "persons" in the Blessed Trinity. It takes for granted the earlier statements on Christ's deity, as at Nicaea, Constammople, and Chalcedon. Christ has two natures, human and divine, which are united "inseparably" in the Incarnation, and yet "unconfusedly"; he is both "truly" God and "perfectly" man. These four terms set the boundaries of speculation and definition for all later orthodox theology. Later creeds and confessions, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, and other, have not altered the doctrines relating to Christology.

But it is not only in the creeds, or in the systematic theology which expounds them, that the doctrine of Christ is set forth. Hymns, prayers, homilies and sermons, the liturgy, devotional books, and works of art likewise state it; two important examples are The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis and Johann Sebastian Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. Like all basic or fundamental religious doctrines, the doctrine of Christ too is no mere result of theological speculation or of rational inference from sacred texts; it expresses the deep personal conviction and faith which lie at the heart of the Christian religion.

Conceptions and Titles of Christ

The origin of this conviction can be traced in the New Testament. The disciples of Jesus, who at first looked upon him as a teacher and prophet, "mighty in deed and word before God and all the people" (Luke 24:19; Acts 10: 36-38) , came to believe that he was the Messiah (or Anointed) , the glorious future king of Israel who was to inaugurate the reign of God over the whole world (Mark 11:9-10; John 12:12-16; 1:41; Acts 1:6). As reflected in the Gospels, this growing faith was essentially a religious conviction, derived from the impression of Jesus' teaching, character, and "mighty works" of healing and exorcism, and the authority (Matthew 7:29) with which he spoke and acted as God's agent and representative. His works of healing and exorcism were proofs, not of personal prerogatives so much as of the approach of the divine reign or "the kingdom of God" (Matthew 12:28), although the implication that Jesus is "more than a prophet" is also clear (as in Matthew 11: 2-6, where Jesus does not define his own title explicitly- he is simply "the coming one").

In lieu of signs and wonders, which men desired to see as evidences of supernatural authority, Jesus himself was the "sign" to his generation (Mark 8:11-12; Luke 11 :29-32). The heart of Jesus' message was the proclamation of the near arrival of the kingdom of God; his mission consisted in preparing men to enter it, in "binding the strong man," and in rolling back the powers of darkness. It was all but inevitable that his disciples should look upon Jesus as the destined Messiah (Mark 8:27-30).

At the same time the Gospels bear witness to the early use of another term, "The Son of Man," which had even more exalted supernatural connotations (Mark 13:26). In the Jewish Bible, the term "son of man" meant simply "human being" (Ezekiel 3: 10; Psalms 8: 4) ; but the title "The Son of Man" (derived from Daniel 7: 13) had come to mean, in some areas, as in the apocalyptic First Book of Enoch (46: 3-6), the heavenly being who was with God when He created the world and who will come on the clouds of heaven to judge the world on the Last Day (Matthew 25:31-33)- a figure reminiscent of Zoroastrian speculation. In the Gospels (for example, Mark 8:38; 14:62) this title is implicitly claimed by Jesus, although the references to his impending rejection, sufferings, death, and resurrection ( as in Mark 8:31; 9: 31; 1O: 32ff.) only hint at the identification, and may be later insertions into the tradition. They stress the tremendous paradox of the cross: the divine, heavenly Son of Man must die. Whether or not the disciples already looked upon Jesus as the Son of Man, in addition to viewing him as the Messiah, is uncertain, as is also the precise sense in which Jesus used the term. But after the Resurrection there was no hesitation in ascribing to him the more transcendent title, with its connotations of exaltation, divine rank, and future coming (parousia) to hold the final judgment.

In the earliest stage of Christian doctrinal development, in the early Christian-Jewish communities in Palestine, this concept was normative.

The ancient Aramaic invocation that survives in I Corinthians 16:22 attests this early Christology: Maranatha, meaning "Our Lord, come!" (Revelation 22: 20; Didache 10: 6.) The title is not so much theological as religious, and reflects the faith of the early Christians in Jesus as a divine, supernatural being, upon whom all their hopes of salvation, both here and hereafter, depend. This faith requires expression, and the only adequate term available to the early Palestinian Christian-Jews, who were monotheists, and whose Bible was the Old Testament, was this transcendental one found in contemporary apocalyptic writings.

It was when the church spread beyond the borders of Jewish territory, to the east and west outside Palestine and also outside the settlements in the Jewish Diaspora, especially in the west, that other terms or titles became necessary. "Son of Man" was not understood by Greek-speaking Gentiles. To them it seemed to mean "the son of the man" or "son of a man," since they were unfamiliar both with Semitic idiom and with the Jewish apocalypses. Even the term "Messiah" was meaningless; it meant, literally, "anointed with oil" ( chrism) , and was either merely transliterated into Greek or, if translated, was understood either as a proper name or as a bizarre Oriental title, Christos, often confused with the Greek word chrestos (gentle).

In the letters of Paul and also in Hebrews, "Christ" is used almost exclusively as a proper noun, part of the name "Jesus Christ," and no longer as a title, although its divine connotations are retained. Paul never uses the title "Son of Man," "Messias" (the Greek transliteration of Messiah ), or "King of Israel," nor does he use the title "Rabbi" for Jesus. The great Christological passage in Philippians 2:5-11 might suggest the title "Son of Man," but instead the title used is "Lord." (I Corinthians 15:47 is sometimes cited as an example; but here no title appears, and the passage is an exposition of Genesis 2:7.)

It was inevitable that the Greek-speaking Gentile churches should use Greek religious terms and titles, and they chose those that were richest in meaning. "Son of God," which was not a common Messianic title among the Jews in spite of Psalms 2:7, was perhaps the earliest to be adopted. "Saviour" (Soter), another such title, had the advantage of being equally applicable to a divine or to a human being, and therefore to one who was both. Commonest of all, in the early Gentile churches, was "Lord" (Kyrios), which meant, in religious circles, the head of a cult, a divine being who was worshiped by a group, such as a city, a nation, or, later, a church.

It was also known to Greek-speaking Jews and Christians as the translation of the Hebrew name for God (YHWH) in the Septuagint. The earliest Gentile creed was probably simply "Jesus is Lord" (I Corinthians 12:3) or possibly Kyrios Christos ("Christ is Lord"). The consequence of the adoption of this title, which could not have been adopted in Palestine, was that many passages in the Old Testament referring to God were interpreted as referring to Christ. Finally, in circles where Gnostic or theosophical speculation was growing, the term "Logos" (Word, Thought, Reason, Purpose, or Utterance of God) was adopted (John 1:1-14; in Colossians 1:15-20 the idea is present, but not the term).

The term "Logos" was originally derived from philosophical speculation, and was widely popularized by Stoic teaching; however, its use in the 1st century was not limited to the philosophers.

The idea of a divine Logos was found in many different cults and sects, as an expression of the principle of mediation between God and the world, not only in creation but also in the maintenance of the universe (Colossians 1:17).

Other titles were used in the Gentile churches, some of them derived from the Old Testament, as Mediator, Sacrifice, Lamb of God, Passover, High Priest, Prince, Captain, Child of God, Servant of God. Others came from the noblest religious teaching and aspiration in the Gentile world, as Invincible Sun, Splendor of God, Life, Light, Water of Life, Living Bread, Master, King, and King of Kings.

The variety in the titles applied to Christ by the early church is surprising. They match, and even exceed, those ascribed to the other deities in the ancient world. The church was entering upon its whole inheritance, not only from Judaism and the Old Testament, but also from the age-old religious devotion and aspiration of the entire civilized world. It used to be maintained that the church abandoned the purity of its pristine faith, as it spread through the Greco-Roman world; that it accommodated itself to Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Syrian mythology, and let its message be silenced or neutralized by philosophical speculation, until centuries of controversy completely stifled the original gospel of Jesus.

But modern scholarship recognizes that these controversies were inevitable. The variety in the conceptions of Christ set forth even in the New Testament, the philosophical or scientific problems which they set (chiefly the profoundest problem of all : How can one person be both God and man?), the necessary reinterpretation of the Old Testament from the standpoint of the Christian view of Christ ( especially as "Lord"), the requirement of a whole new set of terms for expressing the Christian dogma (or of old terms, such as 'nature," "person," "substance," "will," with new meanings ) - all these were problems which no Greek or Hellenist of the 2nd to 5th century could leave unsolved.

Moreover, modern research in social psychology and the history of religions has shown that the symbols used by the early church (especially those of Messianic King, Divine Teacher, Perfect Man, Savior, Redeemer, Revealer, Lord, Final Judge, Son of Man, Logos, and High Priest) have deep and permanent significance for the total life of mankind. They belong to the primeval structure of human thinking; what the church did was to provide for these basic needs a supernatural satisfaction.

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    • viveresperando profile image

      viveresperando 6 years ago from A Place Where Nothing Is Real

      very informative! v esperando

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