Friday, April 13, 2012

The Christology of the New Testament

There seems to have been a round of dust-ups over Christology in recent days.

The opening words of David King’s work struck me hard when I first read them, and they strike me hard now, in the matter of Christology:

Christianity is preeminently a revealed religion (religio revelata); a revelation of the one true and living God manifested in the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. When we speak of revelation in general terms, we mean that process by which God has disclosed what otherwise could not be known of himself. Only God can reveal God. Scripture states that ‘the secret things belong only to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law’ (Deut. 29:29). (From David King, “Holy Scripture: The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith,Vol 1”. Battle Ground, WA: Christian Resources, Pg 25.)

Thus, only God can tell us the things he tells us about himself. And does so in a way that what is revealed “belongs to us and to our children forever”. That way is through the Scriptures.

The editors of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, in their introduction to the section on “The Person of Christ”, note: “The doctrine of Christ is the central point of the whole system of dogmatics.” And this is merely the result of the understanding of Hebrews 1: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word”.

So we had better get our Christology, our study of Christ, correct.

Steve linked to some articles on Christology at a relatively new site called I believe the writer here, Steven Wedgeworth, is precisely correct when he says:

Reformed theologians … should be profoundly confident in their own tradition of doctrine and reflection. In fact, B.B. Warfield wrote some extremely insightful essays in his collection, The Person and Work of Christ, ... The Reformed masters interact with ancient and modern arguments without skipping a beat. Bavinck's third volume of Reformed Dogmatics is magisterial, confidently interacting with world religions and philosophical concepts from the broadest of traditions. He consistently connects the right dots without getting side-tracked. 

The Reformed tradition's classic distinctive is that God is always and ever God, and man is always and ever man. Even in the unity of Christ, the two natures remain unmixed. And it is God who does the saving. Far from being a weakness, any reluctance to go beyond this is our foremost achievement: a biblical theology of Christ. Jesus didn't go around teaching people how to energize their hypostases. He preached the kingdom, judgment, and how to gain rest in Him. This is the gospel, and this also happens to be both catholic Christology and Reformed theology.

I hope to say more about this down the road. But Steve Hays makes the most important distinction of all when he says: “Now, our primary concern ought to be with NT Christology, not patristic or conciliar Christology.” The “magisterial” Bavinck, too, points to the Scriptures as our primary knowledge of Christ: “The Synoptic [Gospels] already contain all the things that the apostles and the Christian church later taught about taught about the person of Christ. True, before Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples did not yet have the right insight into his person and work. The Gospels themselves tell us that. It is for this reason that Jesus in his teaching also took account of the diciples’ capacity to understand, gradually introduced them to the knowledge of his sonship and messiahship, and left a great deal to the instruction of the Spirit (John 16:12). But the resurrection already marvelously illumined the person and work of Christ. From that time on, he was to all the disciples “a heavenly being”; the teaching of Paul and John concerning the essential character of Christ was in now way opposed by any of the other disciples.” (Bavinck, Vol 3, pg 252).

Oscar Cullmann, in his “The Christology of the New Testament” (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press (translated from the German Die Christologie Des Neuen Testaments, Tubingen, 1957), goes into some detail about this:

The ancient formulas (such as those found in 1 Cor 8:6 and 2 Cor 13:14, for example) are especially important for knowledge about early Christian thinking, because, as short summaries of the theological convictions of the first Christians, they show what these Christians emphasized, which truths they regarded as central and which as derived. We can therefore say that early Christian theology is in reality almost exclusively Christology. In so far as it concentrated its whole theological interest for several centuries in Christological discussions, the early Catholic Church remained close enough to the early Church….

It must be acknowledged from a historical point of view, of course, that it was necessary for the Church at a certain period to deal with the precise problems resulting from the Hellenizing of the Christian faith, the rise of Gnostic doctrines, and the views advocated by Arius, Nestorius, Eutyches and others. That is, it was necessary for the [later] Church to deal with the question of the natures and attempt to answer it. We may say, however, that although the Church attempted a solution to the problem by reference to the New Testament, its statement of the problem was nevertheless oriented all too exclusively in a direction which no longer corresponds to the manner in which the New Testament itself states it.

The New Testament hardly ever speaks of the person of Christ without at the same time speaking of his work … When it is asked in the New Testament ‘Who is Christ?’, the question never means exclusively, or even primarily, ‘What is his nature?’, but first of all, ‘What is his function?’ Therefore, the various answers given to the question in the New Testament (answers which are expressed in the various titles we shall investigate one after the other) visualize both Christ’s person and his work. This applies even to the titles of honour referring to the pre-existent Christ ….

As a result of the necessity of combating the heretics, then, the Church fathers subordinated the interpretation of the person and work of Christ to the question of the ‘natures’. In any case, their emphases, compared with those of the New Testament, were misplaced. Even when they did speak of the work of Christ, they did so only in connection with discussion about his nature. Even if this shifting of emphasis was necessary against certain heretical views, the discussion of ‘natures’ is none the less ultimately a Greek, not a Jewish or biblical problem (pgs 2-4).

So, we must know what we know of Christ primarily from the New Testament. To be sure, it was important, as Bavinck noted, to draw some “clear-cut boundaries” “within which the church’s doctrine of Christ would be further developed” (v. 3, pg 255). The formula of Chalcedon helped to do that. But the substance of the doctrine of Christ always must be Scriptural, not speculative. 


  1. What you're saying makes sense but I can't imagine the Trinitarians wanting to follow you there for they will not find the trinity in the New Testament unless they bring it with them.

  2. Mike, Steve has responded to this many times. There is nothing to "bring". Some assembly is required, just as the WCF says. But it's like the argument that Steve is making for the canon in the post just above this one: you have the Father, you have the Son, you have the Spirit, all are God, yet somehow distinct, and you have the Trinity in the New Testament.