To some, early church debates about Christ read like a computer programming language: impossible to decode. To others, the early church theology seems as relevant as the dress codes of a Carthusian monastery.

To help us understand what the early church was driving at in the millions of theological words it produced, Christian History talked with Thomas Oden, who teaches theology at Drew University. He is author of the three-volume systematic theology: The Living God, The Word of Life, and Life in the Spirit (Harper San Francisco, 1992).

Christian History: Why did the early church spend so much energy trying to understand precisely how Jesus was human and divine, especially since ultimately it’s a mystery how he is both?

Thomas Oden: All ancient Christian writers and councils knew that it’s impossible to fathom fully the Incarnation. Attempts to articulate this mystery always fall short of absolute precision. On the other hand, they discovered that you can talk about the Incarnation in ways that fail to do justice to what we do know.

The early church had to deal with the apostolic testimony of the New Testament, and the New Testament clearly portrays Jesus as the Savior, as Mediator between God’s holiness and human sin. It portrays him as truly God and truly human. Any teaching that failed to do justice to the full witness of the Scriptures had to be challenged.

For example, Arianism failed to understand that in Jesus we meet the Uncreated One. Arius thought Jesus was a creature. That runs counter to the apostolic testimony, particularly in John’s and Paul’s writings. Theological definitions are precise because they look for language that rules out heretical interpretations—interpretations that fall short of the wholeness of biblical ...

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