Christology Interview with CTR (1) – Introductory Issues
I had the privilege of doing an interview with the Criswell Theological Review on the topic of “Issues in Christology,” and they have graciously allowed me to post that here. I will divide it up into (1) Introductory questions [this post], (2) Systematic Theology questions, (3) Historical Studies questions, (4) Ethics questions, and (5) a final question related to Current and Looming Issues. This interview appeared in the Fall 2015 (13.1) edition of the CTR, where the entire issue was dedicated to Christology. I encourage you to check it out.
(1) Knowing that you have written on the subject of Christology, what fundamental tenets of this central doctrine would you say need to be stressed the most today by pastors, church leaders, and evangelical scholars?
It is always the case that pastors and scholars need to stress the clear teachings of the Bible concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ. We always get in trouble when we move away from the biblical text into the world of theological and especially philosophical speculation. Of course there is a place for such thinking, especially biblical, historical and systematic theology, but to maintain fidelity to who Jesus Christ is we must ground our teachings again and again in the Scriptures. This means that we look at both testaments. First, we examine how the Old Testament provides an unfolding and developing portrait of the promised deliverer of Genesis 3:15. This divinely promised rescuer is revealed to be the Messiah, the hope of Israel and the Savior of the nations. We discover that the Old Testament provides also the context for helping us understand why the Son of God came to earth; what He accomplished in His life, death and resurrection. Then, we need to move into the New Testament recognizing the wisdom of both a Christology from above and a Christology from below. The latter obviously starts with His life as revealed in the Gospels, particularly the Synoptics. However, a sharp dichotomy between the Synoptics and the Gospel of John is misguided. All four are united in their portrait of Messiah Jesus who is the eternal Son of God (Matt. 16:16; Mark 1:1; Luke 3:22; John 1:1, 18, 34; 20:31).
Wisdom approaches the study of Christology in the New Testament holistically. It especially takes into consideration the great Christological texts. When I teach Christology, I always begin by looking in some detail at John 1:1-18; Phil.2:5-11; Col. 1:13-23; and Heb. 1:1-4. These texts, in particular, lay the foundation for a faithful biblical Christology. From there we consider other crucial texts that speak to His person and work, but I always argued that these four, in a real sense, are foundational. They provide the first century understanding of the crucified Galilean.
Today, with the prevalence of anti-supernaturalism and the attacks of skeptics toward the reliability of the Gospel materials (e.g. the so-called Jesus Seminar), I think we need to emphasize the reliability of the biblical text and the portrait that it gives us concerning the life of Jesus. Craig Blomberg, Darrell Bock, Don Carson, Bob Stein and Ben Witherington especially have served us well in this regard. Further, from the theological perspective, there needs to be a continued emphasis upon Christ’s uniqueness as the eternal Son of God, deity come in the flesh. We need also to point to the exclusive nature of His work and not be seduced into walking down the paths of inclusivism and universalism. I would also add that in recent years, some have made a distinction between our Lord being sinless and errorless. Some argue for his sinlessness while at the same time maintaining that in his incarnate state he committed error (with respect to certain judgments of fact). I do not find this in the biblical text when properly interpreted, and I believe it to be a serious theological error that opens the door to all sorts of false teaching and even heresy. Such false teaching raises questions about the inseparable union of Christ’s divine and human nature.
(2) What theological ideas pertaining to Christology do you think are currently coming under the most scrutiny, or even assault, from scholars in and outside of the ranks of evangelical biblical scholarship?
In a sense, I alluded in question one to the concerns raised with this second question. Even though Jesus studies have debunked the radical notions that were so popular with the advent of the quest for the historical Jesus and the skeptical conclusions arrived at by many scholars in that movement, there are still those today who will question the reliability and the trustworthiness of the biblical portrait of Jesus. We must maintain that we recognize, like any writing, that the Gospel writers wrote with a particular purpose, intent and perspective in mind. Indeed they are intentionally evangelistic with the goal of conversion. The apostle John makes it very clear at the end of his Gospel that he writes with the expressed desire that we might believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that by believing in that truth we might inherit eternal life (John 20:30-31). This honest admission on the part of John—an admission we seldom find in any type of historical work—in no way prevents him or the other Gospel writers from writing that which is true and accurate about the life of Jesus. The differing perspectives we find in the Gospels in no way cancels out or undermines the accuracy and truthfulness of each perspective. We grant the same leeway to modern biographies. That the biblical Gospels are not given the same opportunity is simply a reflection of modern bias and presuppositions of those who approach the scriptures with a hermeneutic of suspicion from the beginning. My good friend Timothy George sums things up well in his vintage flair, “Destructive biblical criticism, . . . eviscerates the gospel narratives of all theological power and leaves us, at best, with a Jesus made in our own image—political agitator, cynic sage, new age guru, etc. The words of weeping Mary in John 20:13 are appropriate: “They have taken my Lord away, . . . and I don’t know where they have put him.” But the Jesus of the Gospels cannot be confined to the straitjacket of such pseudo-scholarly speculation. He bursts through those Scriptures today just as he rose bodily from the grave that first Easter morning.” (“The Neglected God,” First Things Web Exclusive, 6-1-15).
I also think that when it comes to the work of Christ, the assaults on the doctrine of penal substitution must be confronted and shown as a serious error. I readily acknowledge that the Scriptures present a multi-faceted understanding of the atonement, and I have taught that since I began teaching in 1988. However, recognizing the other atonement metaphors should not lead us to ignore the fact that penal substitution is clearly taught in Scripture and is foundational to the other understandings of the atonement. Both Leon Morris and John Stott have made this very clear in their excellent writings (I believe there is no better book on the atonement that Stott’s The Cross of Christ), and I find their arguments compelling. To say it another way, I would believe that the Scriptures teach that Jesus died as a penal substitute even if I did not believe the Bible. Why? Because that is clearly what the Biblical text teaches both in the flow of redemptive history as well as specific texts in Scripture. I think for example of Isaiah 52:13 -53:12 in the Old Testament and Romans 3:21-31 in the New Testament. These areas, in particular, I think will have to be addressed repeatedly in the foreseeable future because they seem to be pressure points at this particular moment. Of course the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is a perennial question and area of assault. I’m very thankful that there have been excellent studies in defense of this cardinal doctrine in recent years. I think of the works of men like Gary Habermas, Mike Licona and N. T. Wright.
Christology Interview with CTR (2) – Systematic Theology Issues
I had the privilege of doing an interview with the Criswell Theological Review on the topic of “Issues in Christology,” and they have graciously allowed me to post that here. I will divide it up into (1) Introductory questions, (2) Systematic Theology questions [this post], (3) Historical Studies questions, (4) Ethics questions, and (5) a final question related to Current and Looming Issues. This interview appeared in the Fall 2015 (13.1) edition of the CTR, where the entire issue was dedicated to Christology. I encourage you to check it out.
(3) Recognizing the importance that the concept of the hypostatic union has in helping establish an orthodox understanding of the incarnation, how do you think we should look at the relationship between the single personhood of Christ and his two natures? Likewise, how do you think evangelicals should talk about the will(s) of Christ?
I have always believed that the four great Christological Councils, debated and written out of pastoral concerns, did an excellent job in representing biblical Christology. While they did not tell us everything we would want to know, they did provide excellent parameters to help us understand what is in and out of bounds. In other words, Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism and Eutychianism are outside acceptable Christological boundaries. We can never surrender in any way that Jesus Christ is perfect in his deity and perfect in his humanity. He has two distinct natures joined beautifully and genuinely in one person. On this point, we can rest with great confidence. However, once we move into more theological and philosophical speculation, we begin to walk on ice that becomes thinner each step of the way.
When it comes to the debate about two wills, I have always maintained with the church that two natures requires two wills. Personally, I don’t see how you can get around that without diminishing one nature or the other. Of course, the nature that is almost always diminished is his human nature. I find no difficulty at all in seeing the two wills working in perfect harmony: the human will in perfect submission to the divine. To think otherwise is theologically dangerous. How could the divine will ever operate in submission to the human will?! Further, I think we have to recognize, especially from the gospel of John, that the Son during the incarnate state lived a life of dependency on the will of the Father and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Never was there a time when he ceased to be full and undiminished deity. However, there was a time when he willingly set aside the free exercises of his divine attributes for the purpose of redemption (note Phil 2:5-11). This is what the Scriptures teach. This is what the apostolic and patristic church affirmed. This is also what the church believed throughout the Medieval and Reformation period until the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on autonomous reason, began to chip away at orthodox Christology as it operated out of an anti-supernatural world view. So there are many things that evangelicals and Christians can say about the person of Christ, though we will always recognize that there is significant mystery in understanding the person of Jesus. In these mysteries we rejoice.
(4) For various reasons, there is much discussion among evangelicals regarding the eternal generation of the Son in terms of his relationship to the Father and the larger framework of Trinitarianism. How do you think we should approach this issue and define it in terms that are faithful to Scripture while at the same time avoiding unhelpful conjecture?
This question is a landmine for many. Good theologians draw different conclusions. It has become more acute in recent years because it is often wed to the issue of gender relationships between men and women. In other words, some people confuse, at least in my mind, ontological and functional categories. Working backwards for a moment, many egalitarians struggle to understand how a woman can be ontologically equal to a man but, 1) within the covenant relationship of marriage and 2) within the covenant community called the church with respect to its leaders, also be in submission. As a result, they tend to say that any talk of submission leads to ontological and essential inferiority. They see this as true both in the divine and human relationships.
Let’s return to the doctrine of the Trinity. When I look at the biblical text, it seems very clear to me that the Son is absolutely and completely equal with the Father, both essentially and ontologically. The same of course would be true about the Holy Spirit. Any denial of this is heresy and must be rejected. At the same time, the Scriptures are clear there is no inferiority in submissiveness. We see this in so many different relationships of life (see 1 Peter 2:13-3:7), and I believe that is a natural outgrowth and reflection of what we see in the Godhead.
With respect to the eternal Sonship of the Father, it seems to me the doctrine has biblical warrant. It is the Father who sent the Son. The Son will turn all things back over to the Father for the glory of every member of the Trinity. Jesus himself made it clear that he was ontologically equal with his Father when he said “He who has seen me has seen the Father” and “The Father and I are one”. Further his declaration in John 8:58 connects him with the God of Exodus 3:14. The Jews certainly understood this as a declaration of deity because they sought to stone him. But, in that same Gospel you will hear Jesus say, “The Father is greater than I” and “I’ve come to do the will of my Father”. While some restrict his subordinate position simply to the time of the incarnation, the language that He uses and the emphasis in Scripture points us in a different direction. There is indeed an eternal subordination within the Godhead wherein the Son submits to and seeks to glorify the Father, and the Holy Spirit submits to both and primarily seeks to glorify the Son. Scripture reveals that each delights in His assignments. Of course I left out the fact that the Father is most glorified when the Son is glorified as Philippians 2:9-11 makes abundantly clear.
Therefore, though I do not make it a matter of fellowship or orthodoxy, it seems to me that the Son is eternally and forever the Son in His relationship to the Father. The Son’s willing submissiveness to the Father is also eternal and forever, and it is the emphasis of Scripture. The inner relationship within the Godhead beautifully provides a pattern for many of life’s relationships as they relate to the home, the church and even government.
Christology Interview with CTR (3) – Historical Issues
I had the privilege of doing an interview with the Criswell Theological Review on the topic of “Issues in Christology,” and they have graciously allowed me to post that here. I will divide it up into (1) Introductory questions, (2) Systematic Theology questions, (3) Historical Studies questions [this post], (4) Ethics questions, and (5) a final question related to Current and Looming Issues. This interview appeared in the Fall 2015 (13.1) edition of the CTR, where the entire issue was dedicated to Christology. I encourage you to check it out.
(5) How would you respond to the entrenched notion in mainline biblical studies that the Synoptics pose models of Christology that are antithetical to the one provided by John’s Gospel?
I would try to help them understand that differences in perspective do not necessitate differences in content and fact. It has long been recognized, from the very beginning, that John’s perspective and presentation of Jesus is significantly different than that of the Synoptics. If fact, it is 92% unique. However, even in the early church John’s Gospel was viewed as a complement to the Synoptics. I agree with this perspective. Further, the audience that John is addressing is Judean and urban, whereas the Synoptic audience is more Galilean and rural. That in and of itself ought to tip us off to expect some differences.
I am not optimistic that this is going to satisfy the more critical scholars because they are starting with presuppositions and a bias that prevents them from seeing how John complements the Synoptics. However, I think the works of men like D.A. Carson and Leon Morris demonstrate clearly, and even quite easily, that the content and emphases of John’s Gospel can harmonize quite well with the Synoptic Gospels if one simply has an eye and an expectation for this harmony. However, and once again, a “hermeneutic of suspicion” will always find irreconcilable differences. How one starts and their presuppositions clearly play a very important role.
(6) In light of recent projects spearheaded by scholars such as Richard Bauckham, N.T. Wright, James Dunn, and Larry Hurtado concerning the deity of Christ and how it relates to ancient views of monotheism, what precautions and theological observations would you propose regarding how evangelicals should evaluate such discussions?
All of the men mentioned in this question are superb scholars. Now, I don’t endorse everything they have written. For example, Dunn’s approach to Philippians 2:5-11 is problematic. I am still convinced Wright misunderstands justification by faith. However I gladly admit that I have learned a great deal from each one of them. They have done excellent work in terms of historical investigation of the person of Christ in the first century context and 2nd temple Judiasm. I think they make the argument that the early church came to believe in the full deity of Christ within the context of the Jewish monotheism that the Jews of that day had inherited. I believe they demonstrate that within monotheism, there is room for a perspective or understanding that allows for plurality within the one true God. Their research demonstrates that this was not a later development in the 2nd century. It was not even a later development in the late 1st century. It was something that came about rather quickly following the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
The one caution I would note in this discussion is that our ultimate authority in these discussions is the inspired biblical text. Historical investigation can serve as a confirmation. However, our faith rests in the more sure word that God has provided in Holy Scripture (2 Peter 1:20-21).
(7) Recognizing the current emphasis in New Testament studies regarding the context of 2nd Temple Judaism and Jesus’ historical identity as a 1st century Jew, how would you say that Jesus saw himself as divine, or more specifically, God?
The Gospels present a consistent and coherent picture of Jesus and his “developing messianic consciousness.” Already as a 12 year old boy he recognizes and communicates his understanding of a unique relationship to God as Father. Following his baptism, it is crystal clear he accepts the identity of Messiah and one who will be a suffering Messiah. Repeatedly he weds the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 to the Royal Messiah of Psalm 2 and the apocalyptic figure of Daniel 7. I believe Jesus, especially as reflected in the Gospel of John, saw himself as the I AM of Exodus 3:14. Interestingly, he often would point his hearers to his mighty acts as an evidence of who he was. This is not to say that he shied away from verbal declarations of his deity, but he repeatedly showed that the works that he was doing were the works of YAHWEH of the Old Testament Scriptures.
I think great insight is provided for us in his high priestly prayer of John 17 where he makes clear in verse 5 that there was a previous glory that He enjoyed with the Father that had been willingly laid aside during the time of the incarnation. Therefore, one could criticize Jesus for being delusional. However, any honest reading of the Gospels would lead to the conclusion that He saw Himself as indeed very God of very God and nothing less than YAHWEH of the Old Testament.