EDITOR’S NOTE: This groundbreaking series is being offered in celebration of a previously top-secret project and now unprecedented new 3-Volume book series (over 10-years in the making) from best-selling scholar Dr. Thomas Horn and biblical history and theology majors Donna Howell and Allie Anderson: THE MYSTERY OF JESUS FROM GENESIS TO REVELATION—YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW
By now, it seems silly to stipulate this, but please note: The most responsible and effective Christology (the study of who Jesus was and what He came for) comes from the Bible’s narrative about the historical Jesus.
Duh, guys… Where else would we derive our concepts about Jesus?
It sounds like a ridiculous stipulation, all things considered. However, some readers would be surprised to know that many wise and famous men of Church history, from antiquity through today, have sought to explain and understand Jesus from pools of thought other than from the Bible. It’s human nature to try to understand enigmatic concepts from within the powers of our own mind (such as philosophy), rather than rely on the testimony of a book, no matter how sacred. Sometimes we make the mistake of considering the Bible as a thing to debate rather than as the Great Commission directive of Christ; and, more often than not, the debate takes place within the Body of Christ.
Where and How Some Went Wrong
Key Christian theologians, though often sincere in their work, traded the simplicity of New-Testament-narrative Christology in favor of “a more abstract, propositional view”[i] due to the championing of philosophical debate and analyses in the Greco-Roman culture. These discussions centered on the ontological nature (or “substance”) of God (otherwise coined the “Immanent Trinity,” how God exists within His own intra-divine nature) instead of the historical Jesus operating in the Spirit to complete God’s redemptive plan (known in some theological circles as the “Economic Trinity”: God’s redemptive plan to reconcile humanity to Himself). Such emphasis on the intra-divine reality of God contributed to the more speculative and philosophical view that the Father is a different substance than the other members of the Trinity.[ii]
Yet, even after that was largely settled through the early councils, “the Western theological method that prioritizes ontology as a substance over ontology as a relation was set on its course”[iii] and would remain a trend for centuries.
The early Church was fractured with division as sincere men of God debated who Jesus was. Over time, Jesus’ mission to reconcile God with humanity was traded for complicated theologies or a marriage of Church and politics, which led to a neglect of spreading the Gospel in its biblical simplicity. For some who might be new to the history, the Church councils were efforts of the early Church to resolve disagreements and establish consensus about beliefs by sending bishops to debate conflicting theology and establish creeds. Let’s take a brief glance at the development of Western Christology from portions of the early Church forward.
Arian of Alexandria believed and taught (circa AD 318) that Jesus and God the Father were of a different, yet similar “substance,” Jesus being a creation of the Father, instead of always existent with the Father. This belief—termed “Arianism”—denied the eternality that Christ and the Father shared; in simpler terms, it introduced the concept that Jesus’ divinity was less potent than the Father’s. The debate became one of whether Jesus was equal to the Father or similar to Him. This heresy reduced the salvation impact of His death on the cross.
So, the first ecumenical council—the Council of Nicaea in AD 325—met to, among other things, bring closure to the controversy of Arianism. To make a super long and complicated story short and simple: Arian’s use of the Greek word homoiousios (“of similar substance”) as a descriptor of the Logos (Jesus) and the Father was rejected by the majority of scholars equally learned in Scripture and Greek, and it was replaced with homoousios (“of the same substance”). This acknowledged Jesus in His rightful place—in a state of eternal existence with the Father, as described in the Gospel of John and supported by 1 Corinthians 1:24 (i.e., the biblical narrative). The Nicene Creed that resulted from the council reads, in part: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty.… And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God…very God of very God…being of one substance with the Father.”[iv] The bishops then proceeded to “affirm twenty canons, or doctrinal propositions, thus laying a foundation for canon law.”[v]
Awesome. Heresies silenced, Church united, canon established. Things looked good for a while.
Then, the Council of Chalcedon met in AD 451 to address more deeply the relationship between Christ’s two natures—His humanity and His divinity—when new heresies popped into the picture. Archbishop Nestoria of Constantinople claimed Jesus’ divine nature and human nature were separate, creating a “two Sons” theology (a “human Son” and a “God Son”). Comparably, Apollinaris of Laodicea held that Christ’s body was only human, while His soul was only divine, thereby cancelling the fully human-mind rationality Jesus would have used to make the choice to submit to the cross. Apollinaris maintained that Jesus’ human side was subordinate to His divine side. This meant “Jesus the person…[was] divine and only materially human in appearance.”[vi] Alexandrian bishop Cyril, who argued against Nestoria at the Council of Chalcedon, adopted a form of Apollinarianism, teaching that Christ’s divinity dominated His humanity, “virtually swallowing it up.”[vii]
In a sense, this idea helps our finite brains make sense of how Jesus could have been the only perfect human who was tempted in all the same ways we are and yet never sinned (Hebrews 14:15), because He had a “God side” that mechanically controlled His human side and forced Him, like a robot, to remain in line with the Father’s will. However, again, it does not fit the biblical narrative of Jesus being fully human and fully divine and, inadvertently of course, promotes the heresy of Docetism (a popular theology in opposing world religions that states Jesus’ human body was a phantom or shadow—a mere “appearance” of flesh and blood—while His mind and consciousness were operating through the ghostly illusion). Just a glance at Scripture (see Luke 24:39; 1 John 4:1–2; 2 John 1:7; 1 Corinthians 15:17; John 20:27; and others) shows how these man-made notions fall short of the truth about Jesus’ wholly-human, wholly-God existence during His time on earth.
The council rejected these “two Sons” heresies on the basis that redemption through the sacrifice of the cross would be impossible unless Jesus was fully human and simultaneously “undiminished deity.”[viii] The Chalcedonian Definition therefore affirmed that Christ’s “hypostatic union” (the union of Jesus’ two natures into one being) was “without confusion,” “without change,” “without division,” and “without separation.”
During the Middle Ages, Christology took on a bizarre, metaphysical emphasis under the teachings of Anselm, Abelard, Augustine, and others who confused the purpose of Christ even further.
Anselm developed the “substitutionary atonement theory,” which viewed Christ’s sacrificial work on the cross as a judicial transaction that paid a debt to the Father for the sins of humanity. Anselm’s error was in his objective approach that Jesus, through His redemptive work, accomplished all that was necessary for salvation within the intra-divine nature of the Immanent Trinity. It thereby required little to no action on the part of the human recipient but to acknowledge within his or her rational mind the work that had been done on their behalf. Put in simpler terms, Anselm’s teaching made salvation a thing of intellectual assent instead of an internal heart transformation for the saved Christian. (One only needs to agree to Christ being God to be saved, as opposed to living for Him.)
Abelard contrasted this with the subjective moral influence theory, which claimed that the purpose of Christ’s work was to set a behavioral example for followers, that His death on the cross was only as an expression of the love of God (as opposed to expiation for sin), and that “there is no obstacle on the part of God which would prevent Him from pardoning their sins,” because God is only love always.[ix]
Augustine Christianized Neoplatonism: In short, the human soul reflected the Trinity and the image of God within itself already, to the point that knowing one’s self completely equaled drawing nearer to God. The soul of a human had “fallen” into a body—the “lower part” of the inner person was the flesh, while the “higher part” of the inner person could comprehend God. Salvation in this theology requires people to look “in, then up” within themselves until they find Christ and salvation.
These are only a couple of examples of how the early Church had to gather to weed out false teachings by theologians, scholars, and others who made studying Scripture the main purpose of their lives for hundreds of years. Much can be said for the personal integrity of most of these precious men of God who meant well and only ever attempted to make the Bible and Jesus easier for us to grasp. Unfortunately, what is remembered of many of them today is that they were heretics, because they did not follow the biblical narrative of Scripture when they began to teach the multitudes their various philosophies. The malady that follows this grievance is not limited to what is taught about Jesus’ divinity. As we will briefly show, abandoning the biblical narrative is also often the cause for the misguided marriage of Church and state. (Please note that these authors believe wholeheartedly in Christians engaging in responsibly following their nation’s national administrations, legislations, and voting processes. We certainly should try to reflect our moral convictions upon those in governmental leadership so that we do our part in attempting to make our lands pleasing to God. However, that’s different from interpreting the Bible to say we should focus on creating a theocracy, because Jesus’ Kingdom is “not of this world” anyway [John 18:36], and our chief focus is to reach the lost, not establish world governments [Matthew 28:16–20].)
The “Constantinian arrangement”—which could be reworded as the merger between the Church and state from the time of Constantine through the next thousand years—assimilated the Roman Catholic Church with the secular Roman Empire to the point that the two were nearly inseparable. The era began when Constantine (and Augustus Licinius), through the Edict of Milan in AD 313, legalized Christianity and formally ended persecution of believers.
This event is documented in encyclopedias as “an era of the utmost importance in the history of the world” for its impact upon Christian freedom.[x] That’s understandably true, as it legalized Christianity everywhere, allowing anyone in a previously hostile region to follow Christ without peril. However, there was a negative impact upon the Christian theological method as well.
What first began with the Constantinian arrangement further bled into the longstanding marriage of Church and state, resulting in corruption of Church leadership and practices. In 800, Pope Leo II oversaw the coronation of Emperor Charlemagne, which “blurred the jurisdictions of church and state,” exalting Charlemagne above the pope as “the highest authority figure in the church.”[xi] By the mid-sixteenth century, following this trend, King Henry VIII replaced Christ as representative over the whole church and the secular, political world.
This religio-political pact allowed for new extremes of exploitation of the poor and desolate. As one example: The sale of indulgences (money in trade for a shorter time in purgatory during the afterlife) was instigated by the papacy to raise money for projects—such as St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome financed by the indulgence-fundraiser of Johann Tetzel in 1506.[xii]
However, Jesus was anointed to help the “poor,” “brokenhearted,” “captive,” “blind,” and “bruised” (Luke 4:18). He frequently expressed that these were the folks we, too, should feel called to help (Luke 6:20–21; 12:16–21; 14:12–14; Matthew 25:34–36; Mark 10:21–22; 12:41–44). In regard to world government, He expected us only to pay our taxes (Mark 12:17).
Thus it is shown how the resolute inseparability of Christianity and world government can lead to accomplishing the opposite of Jesus’ instructions and therefore the opposite of the Church’s missions. The Reformation was, in part, the passionate resistance to this tragedy. Nevertheless, some of the most popular voices against these developments still missed the mark and created another form of the same problem.
The Anglican Church took the most theocratic approach of all churches that split from the Catholic Church during the Reformation. Though the Christology of the Anglican Church reflected that of the Roman Catholic Church, an early goal was for the king to be chief leader over the whole Church of England in place of the pope.
The Reformed movement under Huldrych Zwingli positioned Christ as the ultimate example of moral, Christian living. Zwingli also held that Church and state were inseparable, that the Church could have intense sway over society and politics and, therefore, believers would get involved in national reform as evidence of Christ doing an inner work.
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Reformer John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination claimed God revealed Himself to only select humanity through the Incarnation, making Jesus “a category of study. A person needed only to recognize himself or herself as one of God’s elect in order to be a Christian.”[xiii] Calvin believed a Christian’s purpose is toward ordering society, which naturally merges Church and state.
We said all of that to say this: When even the sincerest Christians move away from the biblical narrative in their thoughts, theology, or actions, human nature takes over and produces an imperfect gospel that confuses the reason Jesus came in the grand picture of progressive revelation.
We will visit on a book-by-book basis how Jesus is central to the overall progression of redemption and humanity’s reconciliation unto God. However, as we’ve illustrated, it’s “just that easy” for anyone—even the most highly educated biblical scholars and theologians in the world—to get away from the basics regarding Christ and make Him and His mission different than they should be.
Biblical Narrative Christology: The Basics
In that interest, here we’ll pause for a crash course of Jesus’ role in the whole Bible, as it may help the bigger picture “click” more effectively later.
The original Hebrew states God created humans in His “image” (Genesis 1:27) and they became a living “breath” (Genesis 2:7). By this, we were created to be a “viceroy or representative” for God on earth and a “participant in God’s ongoing care” in our dominion over creation.[xiv] From this unique relationship, God intended an order: God over people, people over animals, and animals subject to both. The original sin was an inversion of this order, as the serpent convinced Adam and Eve they could be like God if they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—an action that violated God’s instructions.
After eating the forbidden fruit, humanity lost its state of perfection and acceptance in the eyes of God, yet gained knowledge that initiated a more driving desire to be like God, while the shame and death introduced through sin would make knowing God by one’s own efforts impossible. There would be only one way of overcoming this disaster: The curse would have to be God’s reversal plan of salvation and reconciliation with humanity.
God’s reconciliation plan began with Abraham, who had been called out of the existing nations to resettle in Canaan and establish God’s nation, Israel. These people were to stand in sharp contrast to the wickedness in the world—as people of priestly service rather than people in the outside world wrought with demonic warriors and kings who dominated with bloodshed.[xv] This would be an enormous task, achievable only through faith in God’s promises. From this early moment, God’s intention of blessing all people of the earth through Abraham’s family line was promised (Genesis 12:2–3) and it soon began with his son, Isaac (Genesis 21), who fathered Jacob, who was renamed “Israel.”
The subsequent centuries of judges, kings, and prophets rendered both ends of the extreme—unwavering-faith highs and idolatrous lows—for the Israelites toward God, illustrating the continual need of a Savior despite that they were given the Law through Moses.
Rapid-fire fast-forward to the Savior’s (physical) entrance into the story…
In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35; Matthew 1:20), rendering Him the Son of God, literally. Mary, in the song she sang while she was with child, recognized that this Baby Boy was the promised help to Abraham and his offspring (Luke 1:54–55). Mary’s cousin Elizabeth called the unborn Jesus “Lord” (Luke 1:43)—kurios in Greek—a reference that “overlapped” Christ’s identity with Yahweh, showing that the Spirit’s conception of Christ constituted Jesus’ existence as the Son of God and a member of the Trinity.
Matthew wrote of the Spirit coming upon Jesus at His baptism, which resulted in the Father’s audible, public announcement that this was His Son, in whom He was “well pleased” (3:16–17). Through this baptism, the Father began His work to reverse the human condition of sin. Jesus’ ministry began with the temptation in the wilderness (the Spirit led Him directly there; see Matthew 4:1). Afterward, Jesus announced Himself as the Messiah at the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:18–21).
The Gospel writers concur that, toward the end of Jesus’ life, more demonstrations of His divine Sonship fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, such as the crowd’s response as He rode a colt (Luke 19:38; Matthew 21:9). Another example is the cleansing of the Temple (Luke 19:46), which illustrated, among other things, the transition from the physical structure of the Jerusalem Temple to “another kind of temple” in the Kingdom that was never going to be “of this world” (John 18:36). But the culmination of Jesus’ life in the Spirit was exemplified through His ultimate obedience to death and suffering on a cross for the reversal of sin.
During His ministry, Jesus illustrated that God’s Kingdom was different. It didn’t look anything like what even the most pious Jews expected. Righteousness, goodness, and holiness under this superior Kingdom order inverted the Jewish perception, as shown through Jesus’ radical reversal-teaching of religious standards (Matthew 8:10–12). Those God would accept into His kingdom and allow to accomplish His work were sharply increased beyond the comfortable borders of Jewish expectation, as seen in Jesus allowing “outsiders” to cast out demons in His name (Luke 9:49–50), and in His extending the salvation invitation to non-Jews (such as Zacchaeus; Luke 19:1–10). At seemingly every turn, Jesus showed that the Kingdom of God was a deep contrast to the world’s system. It was not for earthly, political relief on behalf of an elect few devoted Jews that He came, but for spiritual freedom and the reconciliation of all sinners to God through the reversal of sin on the cross.
Because “everything about Jesus’ life and mission was accomplished in the Spirit,” His coming in this way was “for the sole purpose of establishing the kingdom of God.”[xvi] Jesus’ life example, therefore, defines the Spirit-filled life.
And, yes, you read that right: Being a Christian means more than just believing in something like a child believes in the boogeyman. The Bible says even the demons believe in that way (James 2:19). The very word “Christian” means “little Christ.”[xvii] Therefore, the paramount responsibility of Christians today is to conform as closely as possible to the character of Christ, in every way He lived His Spirit-filled life. However, there is also the good news that the Spirit who conceived Jesus in Mary’s womb, carried Him through His life and ministry years, and equipped Christ for radical obedience to the Father is the same Spirit that walks with confessed believers today.
Before His ascension, Jesus promised to send His followers the Holy Spirit for the purpose of spreading the Gospel (John 7:33; 14:16–26; 15:26–27; 16:7–11). According to Numbers 11:29, the people of God had anticipated the glorious day when the Spirit of God would be poured upon them. Following the ascension, the Day of Pentecost was the fulfillment of this hope, which took place just as Jesus had said (Acts 1:9; 2:3–22; Luke 24:51; Mark 16:19; John 16:28; 20:17). This gift of the Spirit created the potential for followers of Christ to do all the works Jesus had done—and more, if you can believe that (John 14:12)!
Without this historical Jesus—the fully human being who was also paradoxically wholly God—the doctrine of salvation becomes a product of internal reflection or rational assent, as opposed to a heart transformation. Western Logos Christology (the typical theology in the West regarding who Jesus is and what He came to do) fails in expressing the importance of Jesus’ earthly works and is “most closely related to certain wisdom motifs in Alexandrian Judaism.”[xviii] Spirit Christology is the study of how God related to the human Jesus and, therefore, “God’s redeeming work in Jesus.”[xix] This is where the West must return in its theological endeavors: back to the original, scriptural narrative to reprioritize the spread of the salvation message.
The Christological focus of the New Testament Church was born of the simplicity of having witnessed either Jesus, Himself, or the movement that came about as a result of His life, miracles, death, and Resurrection. To these, the Church was a perilous but simple activity of spreading the Gospel throughout every region they could travel. Self-denial became a heavily adopted theme among followers of Jesus (Luke 9:23; Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34), and they embraced the understanding that one may be martyred for their cause. In fact, such a fate was considered the seal of a life lived and sacrificed for the Lord. The New Testament Church first approached Christology from the narrative of Jesus’ life as it naturally showed the fulfillment of God’s revelation and salvation plan throughout the Old Testament and subsequent history. The earliest approach identified all three members of the Trinity at work in this way: God the Father sent His Son to earth to carry out His plan of redemption through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit (the Economic Trinity).
With this as a central method, the goal of Christology does not lean on our intellectual comprehension of and connection to God, but on proclaiming the Good News of Christ by allowing Christ’s identity and person to be revealed through His life. This proclamation first identifies the lost, sin-nature of humanity, then provides the narrative of how God arranged for the salvation of humanity through the Son, without being pigeonholed into our cultural, ethnic, or religious boxes. It is with this in mind that we write this book.
Before We Proceed
We’re almost ready to dive in and see how Jesus’ many appearances throughout the Word align with this ultimate progressive plan, but we need to address a few things before we begin in order to streamline the flow later on.
“Traditional” Authorship and Dating
This work isn’t intended to discuss each book of the Bible in the same way as historical criticisms; we won’t be deeply discussing authorship or the dates the books of the Bible were written beyond what’s indicated by tradition. (Note that “criticism” isn’t meant as a synonym for “disapproval” or “condemnation.” It merely refers to looking at books’ origins and trying to reliably show who wrote them, when, and in what context.) We fully understand and submit to the examination of authorship as other scholars and historians have done, and we believe such work to be crucially important for many works today.
We’re likewise familiar with many of the arguments surrounding the traditional delegations, such as whether King Solomon really was the author of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs). Scholars throughout history have looked at internal and external evidences that ultimately question these attributions in responsible ways.
The Word “Sage”
A quick note here about terminology—specifically, the word “sage”: In today’s usage, the “sage” is sometimes associated with pagan or New Age ideologies, or is seen as synonymous with “guru.” For the reader today, “sage” may even inspire imagery of a robed mystic trained in religio-philosophy burning dried plants to “cleanse evil spirits” from a haunted house, a graveyard, or an old church property. (In fact, one of the authors of this book just days ago saw the word used with that very connotation in a documentary about the paranormal world.) However, in this study, we use the term in its most basic historical application: “Sage” simply means “wise man” and refers to one who sought the wisdom of the elders of Israel—whether personally or through their writings—and taught from the experience of that knowledge. In fact, many scholars refer to Jesus Christ, Himself, as the supreme Sage, due to His expert retorts against His agitators while He walked the earth.
[i] Snavely, Andréa, 2017. Christology: Jesus, Son of God in the Spirit, an Independent-Study Textbook (Springfield, MO: Global University, 2017), 40.
[ii] Ibid., 42.
[iii] Ibid., 68.
[iv] Ritzema, E., “Nicene Creed,” Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
[v] Feldmeth, N. P., Pocket Dictionary of Church History: Over 300 Terms Clearly and Concisely Defined (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 45.
[vi] Snavely, Christology. 89.
[viii] Feldmeth, Pocket Dictionary. 59.
[ix] Berkhof, L., Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1938), 386.
[x] Orr, J. L. Nuelsen, E. Y. Mullins, & M. O. Evans (Eds.), International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia: Volume 1–5 (Chicago: Howard-Severance, 1915), 2,327.
[xi] Rusten, S. with E. Michael, Complete Book of When & Where in the Bible and throughout History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005), 152.
[xii] Ibid., 211.
[xiii] Snavely, Christology. 148.
[xiv] Ibid., 250.
[xv] Ibid., 256.
[xvi] Ibid., 277.
[xvii] Corduan, W., Pocket Guide to World Religions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 38.
[xviii] Rainbow, P. A., “Logos Christology,” in R. P. Martin & P. H. Davids (Eds.), Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 665.
[xix] Newman, Dr. Paul., A Spirit Christology Recovering the Biblical Paradigm of Christian Faith (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, a division of Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 18.