Monday, September 17, 2007

Christology from Below vs. Christology from Above

(John 1:1-4, 14, 18)
by The Very Rev. Dr. Curtis I. Crenshaw, Th.D.
© 17 September 2007

It is becoming ever more common for modern Christian scholars to speak of a Christology from below. The problem is not so much the statement itself as it is with what they do with it. By this they mean that we must begin with the human Jesus and work our way back to the divine Son of God. They may challenge us that though John unequivocally begins with the Word as the second person of the Holy Trinity, yet Matthew begins with the Virgin Birth of the lowly Jesus. True, but Matthew quickly adds that He was Immanuel, which means “God with us.”

Yet the modern approach—contra 2,000 years of church history—begins with the historical man Christ and seeks to work back to God, if indeed it ever arrives at God, and whoever “God” may be. Of course, this nearly always results in a thoroughly human but not divine Christ. As Carl Henry rightly observes of this position:

Despite its deep ecclesial inroads, modernistic theology failed to stifle transcendent Christology. Modernism’s christological inconsistency Lawton traced to a vulnerable and indeed “wrong starting-point.” “In the realm of pure Christology,” he commented, it is “inexcusable . . . to begin with Christ’s humanity and human life, and . . . to work upwards . . . to the confession of his Deity. Those who do not begin with the fundamental Christian assumption that ‘the Word was made flesh,’ but . . . attempt to show how . . . a complete man as they suppose Christ to have been was united to God” cannot but end in confused and self-contradictory views.[1]

But the modern approach is basically to ignore John’s Gospel and to begin with a human Jesus, who—surprise, surprise—never quite reaches full divinity. James Dunn even says that it would be “irresponsible to use the Johannine testimony on Jesus’ divine sonship in our attempt to uncover the self-consciousness of Jesus himself.”[2] Yet St. Athanasius in his masterly defense of the deity of Christ in the early church (from the Council of Nicea 325) constantly uses the Gospel of John for the self-consciousness of the Son of God, as did the other early fathers.

But how does the Gospel of John begin? It begins with the diivine Word, eternal in being (“in the beginning was the Word”), states that He was with the Father from all eternity (“the Word was with God”), was Himself of the same essence as the Father (“the Word was God”), and that He was the Creator (“All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made”).

It is only after the Christology from above is given in clear terms that John gives us the Christology from below: “And the Word became flesh and [tabernacled] among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). We cannot appreciate verse 14 and the Word becoming flesh unless we first know who He was.

But the Christology from below is allegedly the “scientific” approach of modern criticism, allowing the documents to speak once the faith of the Church has been stripped out, which in turn means no supernaturalism. As Henry rightly says: “The notion that the biblical writers believed in miracles because as pre-scientific men they were ignorant of the laws of nature is preposterous.”[3]

Such arrogance assumes that the last one hundred fifty years is the measure of all things, that those who were there and saw the miracles invented them (read: lied), and that only now in this scientific age can we truly know what happened then. Of course, no historical fact can be scientifically tested by a repeated experiment, and the only way we can know any historical event is by documents and eyewitness testimony. It is not the objective history of the early church and the Gospels that is the problem, but the assumptions of the modern scholars and their neverending search for the “historical Jesus” that predetermine what they see.

Of course, Chalcedon and the whole Church for 2,000 years have a Christology from above, beginning with the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son of God. But there is much talk today of a functional Christ, meaning that it does not matter who Christ was, only what He did was important. But as the Church has noted from Nicea in 325 on, what He did is predicated on who He was. Functionality is based on ontology. To restate this: “Ontology and soteriology mutually condition one another.”[4] Or to put this in our terms, what Christ did was based on who He was.

The modern theologian considers his philosophical views as more substantive than God’s revelation. Once again, Henry is on target:

The recurring appeal to regnant modern philosophy as sufficient reason for abandoning incompatible views [such as rejecting Chalcedon] rests on a presumptive culture-pride more than on truth. Modern philosophy is not necessarily superior to ancient philosophy; at its best it even sometimes echoes enduring aspects of ancient philosophy. Nor has “modern philosophy” achieved a consensus. Nor is it necessarily superior to the philosophy of the future; the philosophy of the end-time will prevail over it.[5]

Let us forever remember that the Incarnation is not from below, not from mankind, but it is from above, from the realm of eternity. To put this another way, the Incarnation is by addition, not by subtraction. It was the eternal, divine Son of God who added to Himself perfect humanity that constituted the Incarnation, not the boy of Mary who somehow realized He had a divine mission one day when He was about thirty years old. Even at age twelve He said that He had to be about His Father’s business (Luke 2:49).[6] It was God the Son who became man, not a son of man who became in “some sense” divine. It was the eternal Son of God who constituted the Person of the Incarnation, for He had been the Son from all eternity, not a human person who “somehow” became divine or cognizant of some divine mission, as is often stated today. Amen.

[1] Carl F. H. Henry, The Identity of Jesus of Nazareth (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), p. 20.
[2] James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making, p. 31. Italics are Dunn’s.
[3] Henry, 29.
[4] Henry, 94.
[5] Henry, 102.
[6] If we translate this “My Father’s house,” the idea is the same.