A Summary of Orthodox Christology
by Mark Jones
There is no more important question than the one Jesus asked His disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). No question has been more hotly debated, completely and partially misunderstood, ignored to one’s peril, and answered correctly to one’s great gain. The correct answer to that question is, in some respects, simple enough for a child to be saved, but also complex enough to keep theologians busy for all eternity. If eternal life is to know Jesus Christ (John 17:3), we cannot afford to be ignorant about the one who is “chief among ten thousand” (Song 5:10).
Peter confessed Jesus as the “Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). John spoke of Jesus as “the Word” who became flesh (John 1:14). Paul describes Jesus not only as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15), but also as “the man, Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Similarly, the author of Hebrews identifies Jesus both as “the radiance of the glory of God” (Heb. 1:3) and the one who partook of flesh and blood (2:14). After touching Christ, Thomas memorably claimed Jesus as his “Lord” and his “God” (John 20:28). In the Old Testament, Isaiah had a vision of Christ wherein he calls Him “the King, the Lord of hosts” (John 12:41; see Isa. 6:5), but also called this King the servant of the Lord who had “no beauty that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2).
Jesus had a great deal to say about Himself, too. In John’s gospel, home of the well-known “I am” sayings, He refers to Himself as the “bread of life” (John 6:48), “the light of the world” (8:12), “the door” (10:9), “the good shepherd” (10:11), “the resurrection and the life” (11:25), “the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6), and “the true vine” (15:1).
Elsewhere Jesus is called Teacher (Mark 1:27), Prophet (Matt. 21:11), Son of David (9:27), Servant (12:18), Son of Man (12:8), Lord (14:30), Lamb of God (John 1:36), Holy One of God (6:69), the Beginning (Col. 1:18), High Priest (Heb. 5:1-10), Living One (Rev. 1:18), Deliverer (Rom. 11:26), and the Bright Morning Star (Rev. 22:16).
To this impressive array of biblical names and descriptions could be added many more; indeed, far more than we can think or imagine. Yet these manifold declarations of Christ’s person are not always easy to make sense of. In fact, the early church battled long and hard before coming to a concise, accurate description of the person of Christ at the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451).
History: Heroes and Heretics
Each century from the time of Christ and the Apostles onward has witnessed one or more aberrant views. Without being exhaustive, in the late first century, the error of Docetism made its mark. Serapion, bishop of Antioch (190-203), put forth the view that the flesh of Jesus was “spiritual.” Jesus did not have a true human nature, but only appeared (Greek dokeō, “to appear”) human. This false view was held by some even while the Apostles were still alive (2 John 7).
In the second century, the Ebionites (“poor ones”) rejected the virginal conception of Jesus. They claimed Him as the Messiah, but did not accept that He was divine.
The early third century saw the emergence of Paul of Samosata, who was bishop of the church in Antioch (c. 260). He had a peculiar view of Christ that incorporated several heresies. For him, Jesus was an ordinary man who became inhabited by the Logos (Word) and thus became the Son of God. The Logos that inhabited Jesus was not a distinct divine person from the Father and the Spirit, but rather the divine attribute of the Father that indwelt Jesus.
One of the two major antagonists to sound views on Christ in the fourth century was Apollinaris of Laodicea (c. 315-92). Apollinaris was reacting in part to other heretical movements. In his reaction against a view like Paul of Samosata’s, Apollinaris contended that the Logos assumed a human body but not a human mind. His opponents correctly responded that this theory meant that the incarnation was simply divinity inhabiting mindless and soulless flesh. Many Christians today fall into a similar error, thinking that Christ’s mind and soul are His divine nature. But this is false. The other heretic of this time was Arius of Alexandria (c. 250-336). He denied that the Logos was coequal with the Father, and maintained that there was a time when the Son of God was not.
By the fifth century, a more precise Christology emerged, but only after much political and theological fighting. Indeed, even before Chalcedon, there were councils that sought to understand the biblical data regarding the person of Christ. During this century—the most significant century in the early church for christological development—the theologians of Antioch, where Nestorius received his training, were very keen to do justice to the full humanity of Jesus. Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376-444), perhaps the most significant theologian to write on the person of Christ in the early church, appreciated this concern, even if he sometimes said things that seemed to contradict this belief. In fact, Cyril and the Antiochene theologians had, for a time, some agreement. Of course, the agreement was not complete. And the more extreme followers of Cyril, such as Eutyches, tended to “deify” His humanity.
All of this points to the fact that theologians up to this point all had in common a belief in the two natures of Christ. But their differences focused on the quality or integrity of the two natures as they related to each other in the person of Christ. Some so emphasized the divine nature that very little, if anything, was left of the human nature of Christ; others did the opposite. Chalcedon appears, with great success, to have sorted out the problems that plagued the church for the first five centuries.
The Chalcedonian Creed (451)
As the Christological crises of the fifth century continued to intensify, the Empress Pulcheria and Emperor Marcian called for a council in Chalcedon. The council was strictly monitored. Not only were certain bishops allowed and others disallowed, but also certain documents were admitted and others banned. At the council of Ephesus (431), the Tome of Leo, bishop of Rome, was not admitted. But at Chalcedon, the Tome of Leo was allowed to combine with Cyril of Alexandria’s emphases to reach a sort of compromise statement. Cyril, who died years before Chalcedon, strongly emphasized the union of the two natures into a flawless “oneness” (Greek henōsis). The emphasis on the two natures—a product of Western dual-nature Christology (typical of Augustine and other Westerners)— reflected an emphasis of Leo that also finds its way into the creed. The central paragraph of Chalcedon reads:
Following the holy fathers we confess one and the same our Lord Jesus Christ, and all teach as one that the same is perfect in Godhead, the same perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man; the same of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father in Godhead and the same consubstantial with us in manhood; like us in all things except sin; begotten before the ages of the Father in Godhead; the same one in these last days, and for our salvation, born of Mary the Virgin Theotokos [Godbearer] in the manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, unique; recognized in two natures, unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of natures being by no means taken away because of the union, but rather the distinctive character of each nature being preserved, combining in one person and hypostasis; not divided or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only Begotten God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets of old, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself, have taught us in his regard, and as the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.
This statement on the person of Christ remains a beautiful statement of orthodoxy that must be adhered to if one wishes to remain orthodox and faithful to the whole of the biblical witness. It has stood the test of time. Admittedly, the definition lends itself to varying interpretations. For example, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed theologians have developed Christologies that cannot be harmonized on some points. Again, if the relationship between the two natures proved to be the source of much conflict pre-Chalcedon, one cannot deny that some conflicts remain today, even if they lack the political ferocity of the early church. Now, building off the statements in the Chalcedonian Creed, we will seek to give a comprehensive answer to the question asked by Christ, “Who do men say that I am?”
Perfect in Godhead
The evidence that Jesus of Nazareth is fully divine—homoousios (one substance) with God—is so overwhelming that it is very difficult to sympathize with those who struggle with this truth. If Jesus is not fully God, the New Testament writers went to extreme lengths to confuse and to lie to the church (for example, see Phil. 2:5-11; Col. 1; Heb. 1).
The prologue to John’s gospel provides enough explicit evidence by which the church can rest its case that Jesus is “truly God.” Consider the opening words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Later in the prologue, John makes the startling point—perhaps the most unbelievable verse for any first-century Jew to believe—that “the Word became flesh.” The word “was” in verse 1 should be contrasted with “became” in verse 14. The Word (Logos) did not “become” in the sense of coming into existence. Rather, the Word simply “was.” Other passages in John’s gospel only serve to confirm and buttress this truth (John 3:13; 6:62; 8:57-58; 17:5; 20:28). Moreover, when Isaiah saw “the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isa. 6:5), John quotes a large section from Isaiah 6, and then asserts that Isaiah “said these things because he saw [Jesus’] glory and spoke of him” (John 12:41). In Isaiah, we are told that God gives His glory to no one else but Himself, yet in John 17:5, Jesus asks the Father to glorify Him in His Father’s presence “with the glory that [He] had with [His Father] before the world existed” (John 17:5). If Jesus is not God, then He is not only deluded, but His request is an abomination.
In the book of Revelation, there are likewise many places that demonstrate Christ’s divinity. In describing Jesus in the book of Revelation, John clearly makes a connection between Jesus and Yahweh (the Lord):
“The Lord, the first, and with the last; I am he” (Isa. 41:4). “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one” (Rev. 1:17).
“I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god” (Isa. 44:6). “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life’ ” (Rev. 2:8).
“I am he; I am the first, and I am the last” (Isa. 48:12). “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:13).
These striking parallels leave us in little doubt as to who Jesus believed Himself to be: none other than Yahweh Himself.
Perfect in Manhood
Jesus is not only divine, but also truly human. As Chalcedon states: “truly man; the same of a reasonable soul and body; … the same consubstantial with us in manhood; like us in all things except sin.” Hence, He is called “the man, Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5), who shared in “flesh and blood” in order to defeat the devil through death (Heb. 2:14). He is like us “in every respect” (2:17), even to the point that He was tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin (4:15).
The evidence for Christ’s true humanity is as conclusive as the evidence for His true divinity. Being truly human, Jesus experienced physical reactions such as hunger (Matt. 4:2), thirst (John 19:28), and fatigue (4:6). He wept (11:35), wailed (Luke 19:41), sighed (Mark 7:34), and groaned (Mark 8:12). As B.B. Warfield said, “Nothing is lacking to make the impression strong that we have before us in Jesus a human being like ourselves.”
But because He was without sin, all of His passions were kept in perfect proportion and balance. He was properly angry when He was angry, as well as completely joyful when He was joyful. Indeed, He experienced “not mere joy but exultation, not mere irritated annoyance but raging indignation, not mere passing pity but the deepest movements of compassion and love, not mere surface distress but an exceeding sorrow even unto death, [and yet] they never overmaster him” (Warfield). All of His affections were kept in total submission to the will of His Father.
Born of Mary the Virgin Theotokos
How do we make sense of the fact that Jesus is fully God and fully man? One word: incarnation (Luke 1:26-38). God’s greatest wonder is the incarnation of the Son of God. Heaven kissed earth. Consequently, the Creator is forever identified with the creature. In the union of the two natures in the person of Christ, we see eternity and temporality, eternal blessedness and temporal sorrow, almightiness and weakness, omniscience and ignorance, unchangeableness and changeableness, infinity and finitude. Or, as Stephen Charnock put it: “That God upon a throne should be an infant in a cradle; the thundering Creator be a weeping babe and a suffering man, are such expressions of mighty power, as well as condescending love, that they astonish men upon earth, and angels in heaven.”
But what of the language that Mary is theotokos (the God-bearer)? The truth of this statement should not be rejected because of how it has been misunderstood by Roman Catholics and used to venerate Mary as “the Mother of God.” The title God-bearer says something about Jesus, not Mary.
When the Son became flesh (John 1:14), He assumed a human nature, not a human person. The human nature subsists in the personhood of the Son of God: “not divided or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only Begotten God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ.” Theologians have called the incarnation of the Son of God the “hypostatic union.” The union of the two natures in the one person means that when we speak about Jesus, we do not say that His human nature did this or His divine nature did that. Rather, we say that Jesus did this or that, according to either His human or divine nature. Paul makes this point at the beginning of Romans: “concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3).
The One to whom Mary gave birth was not merely human, nor did He merely have a human nature. The One whom Mary bore was a divine person who possessed both a human nature and a divine nature. That person is the Son of God, which means that Mary may be called “the Godbearer” so long as we are clear what that means. The title theotokos affirms that Jesus remained fully divine even as He took on a human nature. It does not say that Mary is worthy of veneration as “Queen of Heaven” or as “co-mediatrix” with Christ, as Roman Catholic doctrine teaches.
The Distinctive Character of Each Nature Being Preserved
Most Christian theologians affirm the distinction between the two natures of Christ. But how these two natures relate to one other has been a source of great contention among various theological traditions. At this point, the Chalcedonian Creed allows for a variety of interpretations.
Reformed theologians hold to a theological maxim that the finite (humanity) cannot contain the infinite (divinity). This maxim is true of Christ’s two natures, even now in heaven. For that reason, Christ has limitations according to His human nature. He developed from infancy into manhood, and experienced a growth in knowledge that was appropriate to each stage of His life (Luke 2:52). He had to be taught by His Father (Isa. 50:4-6). According to His humanity, He had to be content that not everything was revealed to Him during His time on earth: “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matt. 24:36). He “learned obedience” through suffering (Heb. 5:8).
Since the relationship between Christ ‘s two natures has been hotly debated since Chalcedon, the Westminster Confession of Faith (8.7) provides an explanation of the “communication of properties” that clarifies the point above: “Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures, each nature doing that which is proper to itself; yet, by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture attributed to the person denominated by the other nature.” A warning is in order here, however. Although the attributes of either nature can be and are predicated of the one person, the attributes of each nature are not to be predicated of the other nature. For example, Jesus did not die according to His divine nature because you cannot predicate death—something only a human nature can suffer—of the divine nature. Jesus died according to His human nature, not His divine nature.
To get an idea of what the confession means here, let’s consider Acts 20:28: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” In this verse, the one person of Christ is denominated by the divine nature. In other words, He is referred to as “God” even though He is both God and man, divine and human. However, being a Spirit, God does not have blood. Blood is proper only to the human nature, not to the divine nature. What the confession is saying is that because the two natures are united in one person, blood (which is proper only to the human nature) is attributed to the one person of Christ (which in this verse is being named or denominated “God” even though the name God is proper only to the divine nature). Because Christ possesses two natures united together, we can speak of the “blood of God,” since “that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture attributed to the person denominated by the other nature.” The attributes of either nature can be predicated of the one person of Christ even when Jesus is being referred to with a name or in a manner that is true only of one of those natures.
Subordination: Jesus voluntarily submitted Himself to the will of the Father. In the high-low-high movement of Philippians 2:6-11, the Son of God, being in “the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (high), but freely humbled Himself by becoming a servant, and obeyed the Father to the point of death on a cross (low), which in turn led to His exaltation whereby He is given the name above every name (high). All statements in the New Testament concerning Christ’s “subordination” (John 14:28) need to be understood in light of the agreement between the persons of the Trinity that the Son would take on human flesh and subordinate Himself to the Father’s will.
Impeccability: Could Jesus, because He was tempted, have possibly sinned? Theologians have disagreed on this question, but the answer must be “no.” There are two reasons why Jesus could not sin. First, if Christ could sin, then a problem emerges regarding the relationship between Christ’s human will and His divine will. The definition of faith from the Sixth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople (680-81) says: “And these two natural wills are not contrary the one to the other as the impious heretics assert, but his human will follows and that not as resisting and reluctant, but rather as subject to his divine and omnipotent will.” The human will cannot be contrary to the divine will in Christ, but only subject to it. Second, because of the unity of the person, Christ could not sin without implicating God. Christ’s human nature may be “peccable” (able to sin); but since in His constitution He is the God-man, He is therefore an impeccable person.
The Holy Spirit: If Christ was fully divine, why do we read of so many references to the Holy Spirit’s work upon Christ during His earthly life? From the time of the incarnation (Luke 1:31, 35), to His baptism (Mark 1:10), to His temptation (Mark 1:12; Luke 4:14), to His preaching (Luke 4:18), to the performance of miracles (Matt. 12:28), to His death (Heb. 9:14), to His resurrection (Rom. 1:4; 8:11), and to His ascension and enthronement (Ps. 45:1-7; Acts 2:33), we find that the Holy Spirit was Christ’s constant and inseparable companion.
Christ chose not to regard His equality with God as something to exploit or take advantage of (Phil. 2:6). Therefore, in complete dependence upon the Holy Spirit, Christ obeyed His Father perfectly, without grasping at His own divine nature. As John Owen argued, “whatever the Son of God wrought in, by, or upon the human nature, he did it by the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit produces in Christ the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). So believers can expect not only a formidable Savior who has defeated the powers of darkness, but also a merciful, patient, kind, and loving Savior, because He is filled with the graces of the Holy Spirit. Because of this truth, Thomas Goodwin claimed that the sins of God’s people move Christ more to pity than to anger. Indeed, Goodwin adds, “If there were infinite worlds made of loving creatures, they would not have so much love in them as was in the heart of that man Christ Jesus.”
Because of the entrance of sin into the world through man, man must make satisfaction to God. But sinful man cannot make satisfaction for his sin. A mere sinless man could only potentially make restitution for one sinful man. Satisfaction for many men (“as the sand on the seashore”) can only take place through the God-man, Jesus Christ, because of the infinite worth of His person. He is God’s appointed Messiah, who alone can bring salvation to sinners through His death and resurrection. Peter recognized this great truth to His great gain. By faith, Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God (Matt. 16:16). By sight, Peter now beholds the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Those who behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ in this life by faith (2 Cor. 3:18) can confidently expect to do the same in the life to come by sight (5:7). This is our hope; this is our joy. That is why the only hope for the church today is not a mere man, but the God-man, who asks you, “Who do you say that I am?”