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Post-Reformation Christology - Part I


The Person of Christ


Our focus here is on the more significant post-reformation developments in Christology, specifically, the person of Jesus Christ. We begin by noting several important developments in 19th century German thought.


A. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834)


Schleiermacher, often referred to as the father of modern liberal theology, sought to relocate the focus of true religion away from cognitive affirmation of orthodox dogma and place it in universal human “feeling” and “intuition”. Schleiermacher “tried to show that the essence of religion lies not in rational proofs of the existence of God, in supernaturally revealed dogmas or in churchly rituals and formalities, but in a ‘fundamental, distinct, and integrative element of human life and culture’ – the feeling of being utterly dependent on something infinite that manifests itself in and through finite things” (Grenz/Olson, 44). He objected to the concept of salvation as deliverance from divine wrath. Rather, sin is the absence of God-consciousness and a consequent failure to be utterly dependent upon him. Awareness of and participation in God was perfectly embodied in Christ, whose consciousness of God was so profound that one may rightly speak of a unique divine presence in him, an actual entrance of the divine into human life. Insofar as he was at all times perfectly conscious of God and in absolute dependence on him, he was free from all moral fault or religious error. This, in essence, constitutes his divinity. Jesus, then, is the Ideal Man in whom the life of God was most perfectly manifest. Says Cave:


“. . . the Redeemer is like all men in that He possessed the same human nature; He is distinguished from them in that the God-consciousness, which in us is weak and clouded, was in Him at all times entirely clear and determinative” (The Doctrine of the Person of Christ, 168).


Salvation, said Schleiermacher, is thus a vital union with Christ in which we are infused with the energy and power of his fellowship with and dependence upon God. In this way there is awakened within us the dormant God-consciousness which gains ascendancy over the sensuous element of our nature. By faith in Christ and consequent mystical union, we experience his consciousness of God and feeling of absolute dependence. Believers thereby become, although in lesser degree, what Christ was: God manifest in the flesh.


The Bible, said Schleiermacher, is neither supernaturally inspired nor inerrant. Truth, therefore, was not primarily to be derived from Scripture. Rather, all doctrines “must be extracted from the Christian religious self-consciousness, i.e., the inward experience of Christian people” (The Christian Faith, 265). Schleiermacher denied the reality of miracles, the efficacy of intercessory prayer, and seriously questioned the doctrine of the Trinity. Whereas he was not guilty of pantheism, as some have charged, “Schleiermacher’s doctrine of God suffers from an overemphasis on immanence. God’s activity becomes virtually identical with nature to the extent that evil and suffering are as much God’s activity as is redemption. Furthermore it is unclear whether God has any existence above and apart from the world. Schleiermacher’s doctrine of God is best described as panentheistic in that it correlates God and the world, making them inseparable” (Grenz/Olson, 50). Karl Barth put it best when he said of Schleiermacher that he tried to speak of God by speaking about man in a very loud voice!


B. Albrecht Ritschl (1822-89)


Ritschl would deny that he held to any Christology. For him, questions such as the doctrine of the two natures, Trinitarianism, the pre-existence of the Word (Christ “pre-existed” only in the sense that “he and his work are eternally known and willed by God” [Grenz/Olson, 57]), etc., lie outside the proper domain of theology, the focus of the latter being what Christ does for us, not who or what he is. Mackintosh summarizes well:


“Like every other doctrine, our view of Christ [says Ritschl] must be stated in judgments of value or appreciation . . . which affirm his significance for the soul; or, to put it otherwise, we see the Divine quality of Christ’s person in the Divine character of His work. The impression He makes is most fitly expressed by saying that He has for us the religious value of God. He redeemed men by fulfilling perfectly the vocation given Him to establish the Kingdom of God, and patiently enduring all things even to death: and on the basis of this achievement the society gathered round Him is forgiven, has imputed to it the position or relationship towards God, which Jesus held for Himself inviolably to the end, and is raised ‘above the iron law of necessity’ into the freedom and joy of God’s family” (The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ, 279).


In other words, since the functions of Jesus are divine, He is divine. Ritschl rejected the concept of Christ as prophet, priest, and king, embracing only the latter. Jesus was the “founder of the Kingdom of God” and the “bearer of God’s moral lordship over men.”


C. The History of Religions School (die religionsgeschichtliche Schule)


Two foundational concepts gave shape to this school of Christological thinking:


First, Christianity is explicable apart from any appeal to the supernatural. A naturalistic presupposition permeates their thinking.


Second, particular focus is given to the cultural environment within which early Christianity emerged. This led to the conclusion that the principal ideas of Christianity could be explained in terms of derivation from ideas current in first-century pagan society. There is little that is truly original in the Christian gospel. The early church simply borrowed existing mythological categories and applied them to the person, work, and community of Jesus.


The most influential and enduring work produced by this school of thought was that of W. Bousset (1865-1920) entitled, Kyrios Christos (1913; it appeared in a 5th ed. in 1964 with a preface by Rudolph Bultmann). The basis ideas in this volume are as follows:


·Jesus was conceived as a religious genius or hero who, like many prophets who preceded him, sustained a special relationship with God. He, like them, experienced visions that transcend the external world of mere phenomena.


·Jesus lived in a first-century milieu saturated with Jewish apocalyptic speculations about a coming Messiah.


·The followers of Jesus freely borrowed from these concepts to describe Jesus, around whom a messianic cult soon developed.


·The title “Lord” was applied to Jesus in order to focus on him as the present, reigning Lord of the church rather than the future, messianic Son of Man.


·As he came to be viewed as God’s unique gift to mankind, all manner of worship and honorific titles were given him.


·Eventually Paul himself saw in Jesus a spiritual power with whom he might enjoy a mystical relationship. He thus soon became the Lord who governs the entire personal life of the believer. The development reached its zenith in John and the later Christian community who viewed Jesus as the eternally pre-existent Word, Son of God, and coming King.


The distinction was thus made between the Jesus of history, i.e., the carpenter from Nazareth, and the dynamic Christ of personal faith. Whereas the former “Jesus” was real, the latter “Christ” was the religious creation of the early church, born of existential need. We “know” the Jesus of history, but we “believe” in the Christ of the church. Any suggestion of an ontological continuity between the two was summarily dismissed.


D. The Doctrine of Kenosis


Here we will focus on three theologians.


1. Gottfried Thomasius (1802-76) – A Lutheran, Thomasius believed that Luther and subsequent Lutheran orthodoxy had suppressed the genuine humanity of Jesus. Luther’s concept of the communicatio idiomatum (communication of attributes), according to which the humanity of Christ shared in the majesty and attributes of his deity, seemed to detract from the authenticity of the former. It also failed to explain the earthly life and obvious limitations of Jesus.


Thus, purportedly in the interests of preserving the true humanity of Christ, Thomasius argued that the pre-existent Word emptied (Gk., kenoo, Phil. 2:5-11) himself of all attributes deemed incompatible with our manhood and exchanged the form of God for the form of a servant. The concept of kenosis was not new in Christian theology. Others had earlier affirmed a kenosis by which Christ temporarily emptied himself of the use of divine attributes, suspending their employment during the time of his humiliation. But in the kenotic theology of Thomasius, Christ did not merely suspend his use of said attributes: he divested himself of them and utterly forsook them. It was more than a mere concealment of his divine attributes beneath the guise of his humanity. It was an actual deprivation of the former upon assumption of the latter. “Kenosis,” said Thomasius, “is the exchange of one form of existence for another” (Christi Person und Werk, II:15; 1853/55).


Christ did not cease to be God, but simply ceased to exist in the form of God, and so utterly emptied himself that his self-consciousness was human, not divine. Thomasius argued that we must distinguish between, on the one hand, the absolute / essential / immanent attributes of God, such as truth, holiness, intelligence, freedom, love, and, on the other, the relative attributes of God such as omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. The former are essential to the Godhead and always remain in the incarnate Christ. The latter, however, do not strictly belong to the essence of God but are evoked through his relationship to the world and may consequently be forsaken or set aside in Christ’s act of self-limitation.


2. Wolfgang Friedrich Gess (1819-1891) – Gess advocated a more extreme kenotic theory in which all of God’s attributes, both absolute and relative, were forsaken. “He reduces Himself,” said Gess, “to the germ of a human soul.” This view has been called incarnation by divine suicide.


3. Isaac August Dorner (1809-84) and the theory of Gradual Incarnation – Dorner was a German Lutheran who strongly reacted to the kenotic theory (see his History of the Doctrine of the Person of Christ, 5 vols., 1861; and System of Christian Doctrine, 4 vols., 1879-81).


Dorner did not believe that the incarnation was a singular, momentary act that was consummated at the point of the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary. It was, rather, a continuous, progressive, augmentative process, by which the Word of God, the second person of the Trinity, gradually united himself in ever-increasing measure with the man Jesus, until such was consummated at the time of the resurrection. The result of this final union was a single consciousness and a single will in the God-man, Jesus Christ. Simultaneous with Jesus’ experience of genuine human growth was his experience of progressive appropriation of the human by the divine. Dorner believed this was the only way to explain both the deity of Christ and his earthly limitations.


E. The Contemporary Assault on the Doctrine of the Incarnation


In 1977 a group of prominent British theologians and NT scholars released a book that landed like a bombshell in the church: The Myth of God Incarnate, edited by John Hick (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press).


In the preface the claim is made that Christianity must continue to adapt itself into something which can be believed by rational people. In the 19th century two such adaptations can be identified: (1) evolutionary theory on the origin of the race (2) and repudiation of verbal inspiration of the Scriptures. Says Hick:


“The writers of this book are convinced that another major theological development is called for in this last part of the twentieth century. The need arises from the growing knowledge of Christian origins, and involves a recognition that Jesus was . . . ‘a man approved by God’ for a special role within the divine purpose, and that the later conception of him as God incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity living a human life, is a mythological or poetic way of expressing his significance for us” (ix; emphasis mine).


In other words, as Maurice Wiles asks in the chapter titled “Christianity Without Incarnation?”, “Are we sure that the concept of an incarnate being, one who is both fully God and fully man, is after all an intelligible concept?” (5). There are ten articles in the book, three of which are here noted.


(1) A Cloud of Witnesses (pp. 13-47, by Frances Young, lecturer in NT studies at the Birmingham University). Young’s thesis is that each individual in the NT or early church who either met or knew Jesus or learned of him by oral tradition sought categories in which to express their impression of him and response to his claims. The common stock of christological titles found in the NT, says Young,


“derive from the surrounding cultural background and were used by the early Christians to express their faith-response to Jesus of Nazareth. The early Christians were searching for categories which could adequately express their sense of salvation in him. It is significant that some saw him as a Rabbi, others as a prophet, others as a zealot, others as a miracle-worker and healer; that some called him Lord, some Messiah, some Son of God and so on. Both in his lifetime and in the context of the early church, groups and individuals responded to him in their own way as the one who fulfilled their needs and hopes” (18).


Later in her chapter Young writes:


“So far what we have said in interpretation of Paul could be given the anachronistic tag ‘adoptionistic’, and indeed, it implies not just the adoption of Jesus but of all men in him. It certainly does not imply the incarnation of an essentially divine being” (20).


“His Sonship to God is not expressed in terms of ‘divine nature’, but as a result of divine creation and election on the one hand, and on the other hand, his own perfect obedience in doing God’s work and obeying God’s will” (21).


(2) Jesus, the Man of Universal Destiny (pp. 48-63; by Michael Goulder, University of Birmingham) – Goulder begins by classifying certain individuals in history as “men and women of destiny” (55). “It is a part of such a person’s life,” says Goulder, “to know himself as destined for leadership at this moment. They believe themselves to be inspired. They hear voices” (55). He mentions people such as Joan of Arc, Churchill, Ghandi, Mao, Martin Luther King, and of course, Jesus. But Jesus is more. He is not just one in the class of “men of destiny”, he is the man of universal destiny. However, like Ghandi, King, and Joan of Arc, he died a martyr’s death, a necessary step in founding the society of love. And what of the resurrection?


“. . . so great is the power of hysteria within a small community that in the evening, in the candlelight, with fear of arrest still a force, and hope of resolution budding in them too, it seemed as if the Lord came through the locked door to them, and away again. So was Jesus’ life’s work sealed. The experience of Easter fused a faith that was to carry Jesus to divinity, and his teachings to every corner of the globe” (59).


(3) Jesus and the World Religions (pp. 167-85; by John Hick, University of Birmingham) – The doctrine of Christ’s deity, says Hick, is the result of the exaltation of a good but wholly human teacher into a divine figure of universal power:


“Thus Buddhology and christology developed in comparable ways. The human Gautama came to be thought of as the incarnation of a transcendent, pre-existent Buddha as the human Jesus came to be thought of as the incarnation of the pre-existent Logos or divine Son. And in the Mahayana the transcendent Buddha is one with the Absolute as in Christianity the eternal Son is one with God the Father” (169).


Jesus, says Hick, was intensely conscious of the reality of God. His life was a continuous response to the love of God and its demands, namely, loving others:


“He was so powerfully God-conscious that his life vibrated, as it were, to the divine life; and as a result his hands could heal the sick, and the ‘poor in spirit’ were kindled to new life in his presence” (172).


“Thus in Jesus’ presence, we should have felt that we are in the presence of God – not in the sense that the man Jesus literally is God, but in the sense that he was so totally conscious of God that we could catch something of that consciousness by spiritual contagion” (172).


Given this perception of the man Jesus, pressure mounted within the tightly-knit Christian community to predicate of Jesus titles which more explicitly affirmed his divine origin and nature:


“Once men and women had been transformed by their encounter with Jesus, he was for them the religious centre of their existence, the object of their devotion and loyalty, the Lord in following whom they were both giving their lives to God and receiving their lives renewed from God. And so it was natural that they should express this lordship in the most exalted terms which their culture offered” (174).


In the Epilogue, Dennis Nineham draws the only conclusion the book can offer:


“In a situation of galloping cultural change, which has brought the doctrine of the literal divinity of Jesus into question, is it any longer worthwhile to attempt to trace the Christian’s everchanging understanding of his relationship with God directly back to some identifiable element in the life, character, and activity of Jesus of Nazareth?” (202).


In other words, in the final analysis, the Jesus of historic Christian orthodoxy is irrelevant.