One of the crucial moments in the Gospels is Peter’s confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Jesus himself called for this confession. He knew that people often talked about him and that many regarded him as an extraordinary person. This is shown by the answer to the first question he asked: “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” That answer shows a great variety of opinions: “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus asked the question directly and personally: “But who do you say that I am?” This is the question no one can avoid when he is confronted with the Gospel. Ultimately every one has to give his own answer to it.
In recent years this question has captured the attention of many theologians, and quite a few important studies in Christology have appeared. Not so long ago the European Division of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches met for a conference at Amsterdam, and the main theme was Jesus’ own question: “Who do you say that I am?” The answers being given, however, are quite different from the one given by the church throughout the centuries.
The Early Church
The great battle over Christology was fought in the early Church. We cannot, unfortunately, look here at the whole course of the battle; it must suffice to mention the important decisions taken by two of the ecumenical councils. The Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) stated that Jesus is the Son of God in the full sense of the word. The key word was homo-ousios, i.e., Jesus is “of the same substance” with the Father. Later on in the so-called Nicene Creed (“so-called” because the present form of the creed dates from the Council of Constantinople, A.D. 381) that doctrine was stated in the following words: “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” This creed also clearly states that he was true man: “Who … was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Thus Nicea confessed: very God and very man.
This confession, however, immediately raised new questions. How are these two statements related? How can one person be both God and man? The Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) answered this question by speaking of one Person and two natures: a divine and a human nature:
We confess one and the same Christ, the Son, the Lord, the Only-Begotten, in two natures unconfused, unchangeable, undivided and inseparable. The difference of the natures will never be abolished by their being united, but rather the properties of each remain unimpaired, both coming together in one person …, not parted or divided among two persons, but in one and the same only-begotten Son, the divine Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Church has always been aware that this, too, was an inadequate formulation. It realized full well that the Being of Jesus Christ is a mystery. This was also the reason why to a large extent the statement of Chalcedon was put in a negative form. The Fathers, so to speak, put up four fences (unconfused, unchangeable, undivided, inseparable) and said: The mystery lies within this area. At the same time they were deeply convinced that, despite the inadequacies of the formulation, the decision expressed the truth about Jesus, that he is very God and very man in one Person.
In the following centuries the Church adhered to the statements of Nicea and Chalcedon. Even the division between the Eastern and Western Churches (1054) did not change this; both churches retained the Christology of the early Church. Likewise the Reformation, the great division within the Western Church, left the situation unchanged. All major Reformation churches (Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican) accepted the ancient creeds. It was only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that serious opposition arose from the new liberal theology, but even then the churches themselves, at least officially, retained the old Christological dogma. As far as I know, none of the historic churches has ever officially abandoned it. One may even say that throughout this whole period and also in our own century it remained the shibboleth that distinguished orthodoxy from liberalism.
In recent years, however, we observe the remarkable fact that the ancient dogma is opposed by people who up till now were never regarded as liberals. Earlier this year a book appeared by Dr. Ellen Flesseman, a Dutch theologian, entitled Believing Today. It covers the whole field of systematic theology, and the author naturally deals with the doctrine of Christ and discusses the confession of the early Church: Jesus Christ, very God and very man. Although she appreciates the confession’s intentions and even admits that this very confession protected the early Church against deviations that would obscure our salvation, she nevertheless has serious objections to it. The ancient dogma gives the impression that Jesus had a human side as well as a divine, that he was man and, in addition, also God. Dr. Flesseman therefore wants to drop the formula “God and man” and replace it by speaking of “God’s presence in this man.” The title “Son of God,” given to Jesus by the New Testament Church, must be interpreted as an indication of the exceptional relationship that existed between God and this man Jesus. Dr. Flesseman writes:
Because Jesus lives in an absolute relationship with God, God also wants to have full fellowship with Him. Because Jesus is so completely “true man,” God also wants to be one with Him. Therefore we can speak about Jesus only by using two words. In Him we are confronted with a man who realized the God-given destiny of humanity—and in Him we are at the same time confronted with God.
In lecturing to the European Division of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches at Amsterdam, Professor H. Berkhof of Leyden reached the same conclusion. His lecture closed with the following personal confession:
You are the true Man, as God has intended you from the beginning: the true, obedient Son, the man of love, the one who, accepting all consequences, was willing not to keep but to lose his life for others, and who, by this exceptional life of love and obedience, has started the counter-movement of resurrection in this world. And as the true Man, you are also the Man of the Future. You are not just a strange exception, for then you would only be an accusation against us. God has given you as the Pioneer and Forerunner, as the Guarantee that through your sacrifice, your resurrection and your spirit, the future is opened for us, obstinate and enslaved people.
These are not lonely voices; the ideas they express are now in the theological air. The same Christology is found in a systematic theology published this year in Germany, Neues Glaubensbuch (A New Book of Faith). It was written by some forty prominent Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians from Germany. Each chapter, written by either a Roman Catholic or a Protestant, was carefully checked by a theologian of the other confession, who then was willing to put his name under that chapter. The book has had a very strong appeal: in less than half a year it went through five printings.
In some of the chapters one finds a Christology similar to that of Flesseman and Berkhof. Admittedly, tremendous statements are made about Jesus. According to all the authors Jesus is the central and indispensable figure of the Christian Gospel. Without him there would be no Gospel. Again and again Jesus is called the “Son of God,” and it is asserted that this title was rightly given to him, for, as one author puts it, “in Jesus’ works God’s own work becomes manifest, in Jesus’ death God’s love, in Jesus’ resurrection God’s power.” Elsewhere we read:
The New Testament writers draw the following conclusion from the Easter event: the Presence of God, which the believers experience in Jesus Christ, surpasses all previous experiences of God. Or to put it in another way: God has surpassed all his previous revelations in the final revelation in his Son (cf. Heb. 1:1 f.). And by his Spirit God has made men the brothers of his Son and united them into the fellowship of his children. This overwhelming experience of their faith moved the disciples of Jesus to proclaim Him as God’s revelation and to offer to all men the salvation which was inaugurated in Him [p. 245].
The same author also gives a very positive interpretation of Chalcedon.
But all these statements are taken from the historical part of the book. Things become quite different when the authors attempt to state the truth of the ancient dogma in words that are understandable for and acceptable to modern man. Even here some tremendous things are said about what God did in Jesus. God raised him from the dead and thus showed his faithfulness to Jesus and his cause. Yes, in doing this God showed his faithfulness to all mankind.
But who is Jesus himself? Again the title “Son of God” is discussed, and the following interpretation is offered. In the cross Jesus opened himself entirely and completely to the love of God. This human surrender and obedience of Jesus are at the same time the manifestation of God’s love for man. They are the instrument God used to make his love present in the world. One may even say that in his person Jesus is the way in which the Kingdom of God’s love for us is present. “In his human openness to God and to men Jesus is God’s love personified.”
These are beautiful words, and as a believer one can only say “Amen.” But—they are only figurative! They do not mean that Jesus is essentially the Son of God; it is only “by way of speaking.” In himself Jesus is man and no more.
End Of A Doctrine
It is obvious that this view of the person of Jesus means the end of the doctrine of the Trinity. In the New Book of Faith this doctrine is hardly spoken of. It does receive a mention in the chapter on the Council of Chalcedon (on the whole a very positive chapter), but in the rest of the book it plays no part at all. This is, of course, a natural consequence. If Jesus is only the “true man,” then there is no place left for the idea that God is triune in his innermost being. At the most one can speak of an “economical” Trinity or a Trinity-of-revelation, but one can no longer speak of an “essential” or “ontological” Trinity.
In Believing Today Dr. Flesseman is very consistent on this point. She writes:
I cannot believe in a trinitarian God, as if there would be a three-ness in Him: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The Son Jesus Christ is not God, but a man who was so one with God that in Him I meet God; and the Spirit is not an entity beside God the Father, but He is God Himself, communicating to me Himself, the power of his presence, the power of his holy love. That is why I cannot speak of a trinity within God. And yet I do have to speak about Him in a trinitarian fashion, for I need three words to speak about the encounter with Him [p. 125].
This shows how far-reaching the new Christology is. It really changes the whole structure of the Christian faith. For the doctrine of the Trinity, as formulated in the ancient creeds and in the Reformation confessions, was never meant as an abstract truth about God, but for the Church it was a confession about the deep mystery of God’s being. The Church spoke about God in this way because it believed that in the depth of his being God is as he has revealed himself in his Word. The revelation given in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit is not just a façade but a real revelation—i.e., unveiling—of who God is in his innermost being. This new Christology is therefore not a matter of theoretical speculation; the Gospel itself is at stake.
Why The Change?
The general reason for the emergence of this new Christology is a feeling of dissatisfaction with the answer given by the early Church at the Council of Chalcedon. Even though all express great appreciation for the council’s intentions, they are critical of the terms used. For they were not just Greek terms but originated from a specific philosophical climate that was primarily interested in the “essence” of things. One can also say that it was a purely static way of thinking, while today our way of thinking is primarily “functional.” We ask, not, “What is this thing?,” but “How does it work?” or “What is its use?” Berkhof’s main criticism of Chalcedon never touched upon the work of Christ; it just dealt with the question of his being.
Admittedly, the terms of Chalcedon were by no means perfect. They were not directly derived from Scripture itself but grew out of the thought framework of that particular period of time. Therefore they are not sacred, and we have every right to replace them by other terms, provided—and this is an absolute condition—that we are not saying less than Chalcedon did in its time. As we have seen, the Fathers of the council wanted to say that our Saviour Jesus Christ was both true God and true man. This double qualification was not a matter of theological or philosophical speculation; but the council was deeply convinced that this was the testimony of the whole New Testament concerning Jesus. They found it clearly stated in the Epistles of Paul, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, and in the Gospel according to John. Each one of them speaks of Jesus as the Son sent by the Father into the world.
But if this is so clearly stated in the New Testament, why then do so many modern theologians arrive at quite a different conclusion? The answer is that they start at the other end. They start with the historical Jesus, as portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels. There we see Jesus as the God-given Messiah. This term “Messiah,” however, does not designate him as a supernatural person; he is the Messiah as the man Jesus of Nazareth. When we follow him on his way through life, we see that this way ends at the cross, on which he is forsaken by God and by men. Yet in spite of all this he himself clings to God in a supreme act of faith and also embraces his enemies in an attitude of utter love. For this reason his life does not end in failure; God himself takes his side, raises him from the dead, and thus shows his faithfulness to Jesus and in him to all mankind. For this reason we may indeed call Him the “Son of God.”
Undoubtedly, all this is in agreement with New Testament teaching about Jesus. For instance, Paul writes in the opening section of the Epistle to the Romans of “the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:3, 4).
The great question, however, is whether this is really all that the New Testament says about Jesus. Does it not go further and much deeper? When one studies the whole New Testament one sees that under the guidance of the promised Spirit (cf. John 14–16) the apostles reflected upon the question who Jesus was, and that during this whole process of reflection they increasingly realized that the title “Son of God” has depths that are beyond all our understanding. Jesus not only became the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead; even before the resurrection he was the Son of God. His Sonship is, for example, also related to what happened at his baptism by John, when the voice from the cloud said: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 17:5). Yes, we have to go back to his birth, concerning which the angel Gabriel said to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). We have to go even further back, into the depths of eternity. From all eternity he is the Son of God. In this connection systematic theology usually speaks of the pre-existence of Jesus. This too is not a matter of theological speculation, but it is clearly stated throughout the whole New Testament. We find it in the Pauline Epistles (Phil. 2:5 ff.; Gal. 4:4; Col. 1:15–17), in the Epistle to the Hebrews (1:1–3), in the Gospel according to John (1:1–3), but also in the Synoptic Gospels, where time and again Jesus himself says, “I have come.…”
The New Book of Faith is aware of these statements, of course, but calls them “Greek mythology.” It says concerning the idea of Jesus’ pre-existence that mythological concepts of that time have played a part in these expressions, and that it would therefore be wrong to take them literally. They are only indications of Jesus’ universal significance in creation and redemption.
In my opinion this “solution” is too easy and too cheap. What are the objective grounds for calling this essential aspect of the New Testament testimony concerning Jesus “mythology”? And why then call it “Greek mythology”? Is this not clearly contradicted by the fact that all the texts mentioned above were written, not by Greeks but by Jews? Let us face it, the very idea of an incarnation of God was completely foreign to the Jewish mind. The entire Old Testament stresses the unbridgeable gulf between the transcendent God and man, a creature of flesh and blood, taken out of the ground (Gen. 3:19). And yet here Jewish writers speak of the pre-existence of the man Jesus of Nazareth as the Eternal Son of God. The Jewish writer John does not hesitate to say: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1–3). And this eternal Word “became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (v. 14). “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (v. 18).
All this is beyond our human comprehension; every attempt to explicate it and to put it into a dogmatical formula remains inadequate. The Church has never claimed that Chalcedon was the final word. The formula of Chalcedon was no more than a feeble attempt to indicate the mystery of Jesus’ being in words and concepts that were familiar in those days. It would therefore be incorrect to assert that we may not say it differently. But we are not allowed to say less than Chalcedon. If we want to do full justice to all biblical data we cannot go back behind Chalcedon (and Nicea). In The Person of Christ G. C. Berkouwer rightly says:
He who violates the confession of Christ’s pre-existence, will inevitably also violate the mystery of Christ and lose sight of the background of all Christ’s words, which in the New Testament are inseparably connected with this mystery.
The Doctrine Of Scripture
The crux of the matter is that those who advocate this new Christology hold a different view of Scripture. Undoubtedly they regard it as indispensable, but in the final analysis it is no more than a human witness. It is the attempt of the early Church to express in human words what they have seen in Jesus. Of course, we have to listen attentively to what these witnesses say, but ultimately it is our duty to state in our own words what we in our day see in Jesus.
Berkhof puts it thus. The early Church in Palestine wrestled with the question of who Jesus is. In the New Testament we see that they attributed many titles to Jesus: Son of man, Messiah, Son of God, Word, Lord, and others. But no one of the titles can say everything. Jesus does not offer a Christology; he offers himself. And He invites us to find the name by means of which we can confess what he means to us.
With much of this we can agree. It is indeed the duty of today’s Church to say in words of this day what Jesus means to us. Yet Berkhof’s statement does raise the question: What is the authority of the apostolic testimony in all this? Is it normative? That is, are we bound by it, so that we are not allowed to deviate from it? Or does the New Testament give us only some general directions, leaving us to make our own decisions? He who accepts the latter view will perhaps be able to embrace this new Christology. He who accepts the former view is forced to reject it, because this Christology falls far short of the New Testament testimony.
All this is much more than a mere dispute over words. The early Church fought the Christological battle because it believed that the Gospel itself was at stake. I fully agree. The divinity of Jesus is not a dispensable “extra” that has no real significance for our salvation. On the contrary, our salvation depends on it. We can be saved only by God himself.
I do not deny that the advocates of the new Christology also see Jesus as their Saviour and Redeemer. There are no traces of the superficial moralism of the older liberal theology, which regarded Jesus only as a great teacher and example. Yet I also believe that this new Christology moves in a direction that can easily lead (or perhaps is even bound to lead) to such deviations. If Jesus is no longer seen as the Eternal Son of God, who “for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven … and was made man” (Nicene Creed), if he is only the “true man” who is the Pioneer and Forerunner, then the deepest safeguards against a moralistic transformation of the Gospel are removed.
The seriousness of the situation should not be underestimated. There are clear indications that the Christological battle of the early Church has to be fought all over again. Once again the Church is faced with the question: “Who do you say that I am?” Once again the Church is being challenged about its very existence. Today, just as much as in the fourth and fifth centuries, our salvation depends on the answer given to this fundamental question. For according to the New Testament our salvation is nothing less than this: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ who, though he was rich, yet for your sake became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). These words, which show no trace of mythological speculation, contain in a nutshell the whole Christology of the New Testament. And it was this very Christology that was upheld by the Church both at Nicea and at Chalcedon.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more