Installment 8 of 20, translated from the book Christ Is the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Writings on the Basics of Faith and Doctrine. (Ed. Ari-Pekka Palola, SRK, 2018)
The branch of theology that pertains to Jesus Christ’s person, nature and role is called Christology. Christos is the Greek translation of the Hebrew
word Mashiach, Messiah. Both of these words mean “anointed.” It is a title of honor, which is associated with the Old Testament custom of anointing
a king or high priest into office with consecrated oil. As the title of Jesus, it also includes the early Christians’ confession of faith: “Jesus
is the Messiah.” The title was associated with Jesus because the Christians believed He was the Messianic king foretold by the prophets (Isa. 11:1–5;
Jer. 23:5,6; Mic. 5:1–4) and the New Covenant high priest who represented the priesthood of Melchisedec (Heb. 5–8).
In my article, I will examine Christ’s person, His divine and human natures and his salvation-historical duty as defined by the Bible’s own revelation and the church’s doctrinal discussion. These topics have been discussed in church circles – at times in heated debate – and only through great effort have mutually accepted definitions and confessions of faith that bind the whole church been reached. For this reason, it is still necessary to address Christological questions.
Paul’s Understandings of Christ’s Person and Essence
In his letters, Apostle Paul laid out very profound positions on Jesus’ person and essence. Meeting the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus and the gospel preached by Ananias had completely changed his previous perceptions. As Saul of Tarsus, he had like many other Pharisees evaluated what he’d heard about Jesus purely from a human standpoint (2 Cor. 5:16). After he learned to know Christ through faith, his teaching came to have a fundamental impact on all later Christology.
Paul touched on Jesus’ virgin birth surprisingly briefly. In his letter to the Galatians he succinctly mentioned, “when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal. 4:4,5). Martin Luther commented on this in his Commentary on Galatians: by using only the term woman, Paul clearly indicates that Christ was born a true human, born only of a woman. Christ was not born of a man and woman, but only of a woman. Therefore, the phrase “made of a woman” means the same as “born of a virgin.”
At the beginning of the letter to the Romans, Paul spoke more precisely about Jesus’ human and divine origin and essence. The core of the gospel he preached was that God had already beforehand promised in the holy writings to send His Son. He is Jesus Christ, our Lord. “According to the flesh,” i.e. in terms of His human origin, Jesus was a descendant of David, as the Scriptures say. At the same time He was “according to the spirit of holiness” the Son of God, who maintained the entire time the status of true Son of God. Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation to glory ultimately established this to be true (Rom. 1:2–4). In these verses of the letter to the Romans, one can see a clear outline of the so-called doctrine of two natures: Christ exists in two natures: He is simultaneously completely human and completely divine.
In the letter to the Philippians, Paul made even a clearer statement about the divine and human origin of Christ. It includes the thought of Christ’s pre-existence with God before His incarnation. Christ had the “form of God” and “likeness of God,” but He had to relinquish full use of these characteristics when He “took upon him the form of a servant,” was born of Mary and “was made in the likeness of men.” In order to appear as a human, Christ for practical reasons had to give up His radiant outward appearance of divine holiness (Phil. 2:5–8).
As the Son of God, Christ had the indisputable right to use His divine glory, power and authority. No one could rob Him of this right. However, He could voluntarily relinquish the use of this right, and so He did. Nevertheless, at no time did Christ ever give up His divine status as the Son of God or His divine power. He merely used His position and authority sparingly (e.g. Mark 15:4,5; Luke 4:29,30). His numerous miracles or abstaining from doing miracles were unquestionable testimony of this.
In continuing his portrayal, Paul switched his perspective and described the exaltation of Jesus in the resurrection to become the universal Lord of the cosmos. Jesus, the Son of man, was exalted to a new position. The name Jesus that He had received during His human life now gained higher value than any other name and also public recognition (Phil. 2:9–11). Because Jesus had been the Son of God and Christ the entire time he lived as a human, God restored His original status and supreme power.
The description in the letter to the Philippians shows a three-phase Christological formula: Christ’s pre-existence in heaven (2:6,7a), Christ on earth (2:7b,8) and Christ’s return to heaven and His position in glory there (2:9–11).
Christ as the Captain of Salvation and High Priest in the Letter to the Hebrews
In the letter to the Hebrews, the introduction to the high-priest theme is a description of Jesus’ Christological duty (Heb. 1:1–14): Jesus is the Son of God, to whom God Himself gave birth before the beginning of time. Jesus is His firstborn, “the brightness of His glory, the express image of His person.” Through Him God created the whole world and maintains it with the power of His Word. God has anointed Him King who has the scepter of righteousness, the King whose throne will stand for ever and ever. When the Son as the High Priest had cleansed all humankind from sin, He took His throne in glory at the right hand of the Majesty.
The letter to the Hebrews describes the salvation work of the Son of God with three terms: He is the Savior (2:10), the Sanctuary (2:11) and the High Priest (2:17). Salvation is first examined from a human perspective (2:14–16). The birth of Jesus in human form was a result of the condition of humankind. Since all people were partakers of flesh and blood and therefore subject to human weakness, the Savior had to become a partaker of flesh and blood as well. Only in this way could He function as the Savior. Jesus had to “be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people” (2:17–18). The goal of the salvation plan was a sacrificial death, because the will of the gracious Father was that “he…should taste death for every man” (2:9).
Atonement and the cleansing from sin meant that Jesus was subordinated for a moment to a position lower than the angels. It also meant that He would drink the bitter cup of agonizing death to the last drop. Jesus did all this voluntarily (Heb. 10:9). In the role of Sanctifier, He was simultaneously the New Covenant high priest (2:17; 8:1–13) and an innocent sacrifice (9:11–28). He sacrificed His own blood, thus fulfilling His duty once and for all, obtained eternal redemption for us, opened for us a new way that leads to life – a way that goes through His body (9:12; 10:20).
The Depiction of Christ in the Gospels
Matthew and Luke began their gospels with narratives of the birth of Jesus. These narratives center around the angel Gabriel’s announcements of the baby Jesus: He is of the Holy Spirit and He will be given the name Jesus, for He shall save the people from their sins (Matt. 1:20,21). He shall be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of His father David. He shall reign forever and of His kingdom there shall be no end (Luke 1:32,33). Matthew and Luke describe in the same way the virgin conception of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:23; Luke 1:35).
People marveled at Jesus’ miracles and teaching skills, “for he taught them as one who has authority” (Matt. 7:29; Mark 1:22; Luke 4:32). The Jews generally perceived Jesus to be a great teacher like some of the powerful prophets from times past. When Jesus asked His disciples who they thought He was, He accepted Peter’s reply: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responded, “For flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 16:15–17). Jesus indirectly identified himself as the Messiah when He was riding an ass into Jerusalem and allowed His disciples and others in the crowd to call out the Hosanna greeting, which was reserved for a messianic King (Luke 19:38–40).
Perhaps the most striking Christological characteristic in the Gospel According to Mark is that Jesus seems to purposely hide His messiahship and divine power. When He performed miracles, He occasionally forbade others to tell anyone about them (Mark 1:34,44). Mark repeatedly tells how even Jesus’ closest disciples did not recognize Him as the Messiah, although they saw His miracles (4:41, 8:21). Scholars have called this disparity the messianic secret. It was revealed to people only in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The salvation-historical significance of the death and resurrection is one of the main contents of the gospel of Mark.
The gospel of John represents the so-called high Christology, in which the nature and position of Christ are clearly equated with God Himself. This comes out in the opening hymn (John 1:1–18), according to which Jesus was with God before the creation of the world and along with the Father participated in the creation work. The title of ‘Word’ (Logos) is used for Jesus. John uses this word to indicate that Christ was the incarnate Word of God. In other places as well, John emphasized the oneness and equality of Jesus and God: Jesus came from above, the Father had sent Him, He spoke what He had seen and heard while with the Father and He returned to the Father (John 8). Jesus knew all things beforehand and ruled even the things to come. He voluntarily surrendered to His captors in Gethsemane and gave His life without anyone being able to take it from Him (10:18).
Jesus’ central role as the Savior of humankind is portrayed with the well-known “I am” statements in the gospel of John. Jesus said He is the bread of life, the light of the world, the door, the good shepherd, the resurrection and life and the true vine (6:35; 8:12; 10:9; 10:11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1). In describing the relationship between the Father and the Son, Jesus’ farewell prayer has special significance (John 17). There Jesus says that He is the Son of the Father and sent by the Father. The Father glorifies Him and has given Him His Word to speak. The Father and He are one. The Father has entrusted His chosen people into the Son’s care, and He will sanctify Himself as a sacrifice on their behalf.
The Church Fathers’ Christological Positions
The post-apostolic period of early Christianity was a time of innumerable doctrinal discussions and disputes. Especially the 2nd and 3rd-century church fathers began to shift Christological thinking in the direction of thoughtfully constructed theoretical frameworks. Several of them had studied various schools of philosophy of that time period before converting to Christianity. Thus they had the opportunity to use philosophical terminology and way of thinking even in serving the Christian faith.
Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (ca. 30–110 A.D.), was the first to outline a question centered around the relationship between the divine and the human in Christ. The term salvation plan, which Ignatius introduced, included the premise of Christ’s purposeful pre-existence prior to being born as a human. Christ’s incarnation did not sever his eternal connection with God. Only after He was resurrected was the true “nature” of the exalted Christ revealed: He is His Father’s equal.
The writer of the Epistle of Barnabas (ca. 130–140 A.D.) represented clear pre-existence philosophy: Jesus the man was the same as the pre-existent Son of God. Melito, bishop of Sardis (died ca. 190 A.D.), emphasized the doctrine of the dual nature of Christ. Christ has two “natures,” divine and human. Human nature absorbs divine characteristics and divine nature absorbs human characteristics. Nevertheless, in their essence they do not merge into each other. In the suffering of Christ, God Himself became a partaker of His Son’s suffering.
Irenaeus of Lyon (ca. 140–200 A.D.) clearly understood three important aspects of Christ. Christ has two “origins,” divine and human, but the subject of both is one and the same God incarnate. In order to save humankind, Christ had to be simultaneously true man and true God, two inseparably as one.
Early Church Council Decisions Regarding Debates on Christological Doctrine
The development of Christological thought was a continual struggle against the philosophical rationalization of the Bible-based, Christian depiction of God. This struggle was not in vain, for it eventually led to the so-called ecumenical creeds, which mutually bind all Christians. In the year 325, the First Council of Nicaea formulated the first mutually accepted doctrine of Christ: the Father and Son are in equal coexistence with each other. The Father and the Son are the same being, and as such are not hierarchically one above the other nor are they existentially separate from each other.
The faction with opposing beliefs did not completely accept the results of the First Council of Nicaea. That Council’s legacy was debated for fifty more years before the situation was settled at the First Council of Constantinople in 381. There, as the result of theological work efforts, the so-called Nicene Creed (Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed) was written. It became the official dogma of the old church in the doctrine of the Trinity and in Christology.
The part of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed pertaining to Christ is as follows: “I believe…in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made; being of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made: who for us all and for our salvation came down from heaven, was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made human: who for us, too, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried: the third day he rose according to the Scriptures, ascended into heaven, and is seated on the right hand of the Father: he shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end.”
After the First Council of Constantinople, the focus of the debate shifted to other questions: in what way do the divine and the human relate to each other in Christ? In what manner is He one? What is meant by the persons’ “existential connection” and “being one and the same?”
The purpose of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 was to determine definitively how the oneness and difference of the persons could be expressed accurately without resorting to extremes. This was not an easy task. The Confession of Chalcedon, which explains what exactly the Nicaea-Constantinopolitan Creed contains, was formulated into one long sentence, separated by commas, to which nothing could be added and from which nothing could be omitted.
“We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.”
The Confession rejected the doctrine of a single nature, which stated that the two natures of Christ would have mixed into one nature in Christ’s incarnation. Secondly, the Confession utilized four philosophical terms to describe the union of the two natures: there occurs no confusing (or mixing), changing, dividing or separating. One and the same person Christ, the Son of God, is perfect in His humanity and perfect in His divinity. Christ, however, differs from other people in that He is sinless. He is simultaneously one and the same being with the divine Father and with humans. The oneness of Christ is found at the level of persons; the differences are in the natures. The structure of the persons of Christ was nonetheless not defined in the Confession of Chalcedon. It was intentionally left open, for it is a mystery.
The Teaching of the Evangelical Lutheran Church [of Finland] Concerning the Person and Essence of Christ
The history of Christendom shows that throughout time human reason has attempted to unravel and explain the mysteries of faith pertaining to Christ’s essence and duty. In the heat of various battles, God has allowed creeds to be written that are approved by a majority of churches and which guide said churches’ teachings.
The Lutheran Confessional books join in the Apostolic and Nicene creeds. The Augsburg Confession explains the second article of the creed as follows:
“The Word, that is, the Son of God, did assume the human nature in the womb of blessed Virgin Mary, so that there are two natures, the divine and the human, inseparably enjoined in one Person, one Christ, true God and true man, who was born of the Virgin Mary, truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, that He might reconcile the Father unto us, and be a sacrifice, not only for original sin, but also for all actual sins of all humans. This same Christ descended into hell, and rose the third day from the dead; afterward He ascended into heaven that He might sit on the right hand of the Father, and forever reign and have dominion over all creatures, and sanctify them that believe in Him, by sending the Holy Ghost into their hearts, to rule, comfort, and quicken them against the devil and the power of sin. The same Christ shall openly come again to judge the quick and the dead, etc., according to the Apostles’ Creed.”
The Formula of Concord, which is part of the confessional writings, includes “Pure Doctrine of the Christian Church concerning the Person of Christ.” It leaves no room for different interpretations or emphases. I will therefore conclude my article with a summary of the aforementioned definition from the Formula of Concord, to which the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland adheres.
The divine and human natures in Christ are personally united, so that there are not two Christs. There is only one Son of God, and the same is Son of Man. Christ’s divine and human natures are not, however, mingled into one substance, nor has one nature become the other. Each retains its own essential properties. The properties of Christ’s divine nature are to be almighty, eternal, infinite, omnipresent and omniscient. These will never become properties of the human nature. The properties of the human nature are to be a corporeal creature, to be flesh and blood, to be finite and circumscribed and to suffer, die and experience hunger and thirst and other such things. These will never become properties of the divine nature.
The two natures are united personally, in one person. If two boards are glued together, neither of them gives anything to the other or takes anything from the other, but when God and man are combined there is the highest communion. In Christ, God is man and man is God. It could not be possible if the divine and human natures had absolutely no communion with one another. Hence Mary conceived and bore not a mere man, but the true Son of God. It was not a mere man who suffered, died, was buried, descended into hell, arose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and was raised to the majesty and almighty power of God for us. This was done by a man whose human nature has such a profound, ineffable union and communion with the Son of God that it has become one person with Him.
Therefore the Son of God truly suffered for us according to the property of the human nature which He assumed into the unity of His divine person and made His own. Thus He was able to suffer and be our High Priest for our reconciliation with God. The Son of Man, meanwhile, is really and truly exalted according to His human nature to the right hand of the almighty majesty and power of God. This was only possible because His human nature was personally united with the Son of the Highest.
This divine majesty Christ always had according to the power of the personal union, and yet He had emptied Himself of it in the state of His humiliation. After His resurrection He entirely laid aside the form of a servant, but not the human nature. He was established in the full use, manifestation and declaration of the divine majesty. Now not only as God, but also as man, He knows all things, can do all things and is present with all creatures. He has been given all power in heaven and on earth. To Him everything is possible and everything is known. Hence He is able to impart His true body and blood in the Holy Supper. This does not happen according to the mode or property of human nature, but according to the mode and property of God. Christ’s presence in the Holy Supper is not comprehensible in an earthly manner, and nevertheless it is true and substantial.
This is our faith, doctrine and confession. Christ is God and man in one undivided person and remains as such in all eternity. It is, as the Apostle testifies, the highest mystery upon which our only consolation and salvation depends (1 Tim. 3:16).
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