Trends in modern Christology


WD Jonker

  1. Up to the 17th century the decisions that were reached about the doctrine of Christ in the 4th and 5th centuries were accepted throughout the universal church by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians. Especially the formulations of the Council of Chalcedon were regarded as unassailable. They expressed the catholic faith of the church that Jesus Christ was truly God and truly man, the one person of the eternal Logos who had become flesh, existing in two natures, divine and human, bound together in the hypostatic union, In the 17th century, however, a process of critical rejection of this dogma started, which has continued to this very day and is perhaps today a greater challenge to the church than ever before, because it has become popularized to an extent that was previously unknown. The origin of this process must be sought in the rise of the new concept of the autonomy of man and especially of human reason as it manifested itself in the 17th and 18th centuries, resulting in a completely new world view and self-understanding of man, of which the philosophical thought of Descartes and his successors was the rational reflection. Modern man was born in the 17th century and it is generally believed that since then he has come of age. In any case it is clear that he adopted a new set of presuppositions that form the basis of his approach to reality and also to the truths of the Christian faith. These presuppositions inevitably led to the conclusion that the old Christological dogma of the church was incompatible with what could be regarded as reasonable. The result was that it was regarded a necessity to criticize the Christological dogma and to reformulate the element of truth that it contained, if the Christian message about Christ was not to lose its meaning and relevance for modern man.
  1. The main characteristic of the modern era is its anthropocentricism. Not only did man become the focus of interest, but he also became the criterion for all the values of human life. He regarded himself as autonomous and could no longer accept any other authority than that of his own reason and judgement, not even that of the church or the Bible. Consequently, modern man demanded that religious faith should be rational or at least capable of being rationally defended if it should be acceptable to him. The pre-modern world view with its faith in a God “up there” who could directly act in history, with its convictions about angels and devils and with its belief in the possibility of miracles, was swept aside by a scientific world view which could at best leave room for natural religion and deism. Within this context there was no place for the Jesus of ecclesiastical faith. The only place he could possibly occupy was that of the great teacher of natural religion and morality. In any case he could be nothing more than a man. In order to prove that the quest for the historical Jesus was born. At first the main interest was to prove that the dogmas of the incarnation and the Trinity were a falsification of the biblical message itself. Soon, however, it became a critique of the New Testament testimony to Christ, which was seen as a biased and mythical account of the facts about Jesus, that was either deliberately invented by the first Christians or simply the product of their primitive religiosity as it was influenced by the surrounding world of religious thought and practice. In the first stormy days of Reimarus and Lessing the critical approach to the New Testament was often reactionary and emotional, lacking in objectivity, historical sense and scientific skill. Fortunately it did not remain like that. As the barren rationalism of the Enlightenment gave way to romanticism, evolutionism and existentialism during the course of the following ages; and as there arose a deepened sensitivity in the handling of historical texts, the historical-critical method was refined and lost much of its original reactionary character.

And yet – even so it must be clear that the basic presuppositions of the historical-critical approach to the New Testament have remained the same. It has not been able to rid itself of its positivistic heritage. Consequently it cannot seriously reckon with the incarnation as it has always been understood by the church. From the vantage point of the search for the historical Jesus the only possible Christology is a Christology from below, which means that we have to start with the man Jesus of Nazareth, trying to explain how it could possibly come to pass that the first disciples could see him as divine. Mostly this approach cannot bring us further than a Jesuology or to a kind of ebionic Christology. Operating within the orbit of historism, it can hardly do more than painting a plausible picture of the beliefs of the early church, leaving open the question whether what the early church believed about Jesus was true or not.

  1. It is not strange that this approach to the New Testament message about Christ provoked resistance in church and theology. There has always been an orthodox kernel in the church who simply could not accept it, and there were always theologians who defended the Christology of Chalcedon. But these theologians were not able to stem the tide. Their influence remained limited, because their rejection of the historical-critical method was regarded as unscientific, and the formulations of Chalcedon which they defended were seen as belonging to the sphere of a philosophic conceptuality that had become unacceptable to modern man. Since the eighteenth century the critique of the doctrine of the two natures of Christ has never stopped. In this connection we may remind ourselves of Schleiermacher’s disavowal of the use of the concept of “nature” in classical Christology. We can also think about the way in which Ritschl and his school abhorred the use of metaphysical and ontological concepts in theology, and Adolf von Harnack’s thesis that the dogmas of the church were the result of the influence of Greek philosophical thought on the faith of the ancient church. In the main stream of theological thinking it has never been possible to go back behind these convictions. The result was that the only theologians who were able to have some influence in counteracting the ebionic Christology resulting from the quest for the historical Jesus were those who could qualify on two points. Firstly they had to accept the historical-critical approach to the New Testament themselves, and secondly they had to keep a critical distance from the concepts of the classical Christological dogma. Sometimes they were even more critical than the others about the historicity of the biblical data and the acceptability of the traditional Christological concepts, being caught in the ban of historism just as much as those from whom they differed. The only thing that distinguished them from the others was that they asserted that the historical facts recorded in the New Testament were not really important in themselves. What really mattered was the idea, the universal truth contained in the message of the New Testament. They tried to counteract historism by taking an a-historical stance. They distinguished between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith, and they insisted that only the latter was important to us. In this way they tried to capture the real meaning of the gospel of the incarnation, while at the same time they were able to agree, at least in principle, with the critical approach to the Bible and the demand for a reformulation of the Christological dogma in terms that will be in conformity with the philosophical presuppositions and terminology of modern man. This approach is just as relevant today as it was in the nineteenth century, not only because Barth and Bultmann were both thinking on these lines, but also because some of the most well-known contemporary German theologians like Pannenberg, Jűngel and Moltmann should be placed in this category too.
  1. Of course, it was not possible to reformulate the Christological dogma without using a new set of philosophic concepts to replace the old ones. It is of the utmost importance now to note that it was mainly German idealism that presented itself to the theologians at the turn of the eighteenth century as the new supplier of the necessary concepts. It was very attractive, for it had at its center the idea of the unity, or rather the identity of the divine and the human, of God and man. Rooted in the pantheistical ideas of Spinoza and enriched by the spirit of romanticism, it could easily capture the imagination of those theologians who were bent on maintaining the truth of the message of the incarnation of God. It was especially Hegel whose thought made a tremendous impact on theological thinking and has retained its influence up to this very moment.

If we ask why Hegel could make this impact, the answer must be that he seemed to show a way out of the deadlock of historism by teaching that history is not just a succession of events – a view that must of necessity lead to relativism and nihilism – but that it is actually the process of the realization of the idea, or rather: of God himself. Hegel taught that there was an ultimate identity between the Infinite Spirit and the finite world, and that the history of the world was nothing else than the process of the Infinite Spirit becoming self-conscious in human consciousness. Within this context it was possible to see the whole of human history as a process of incarnation and to assert that the Christ of faith was the expression of the fundamental idea of the unity between God and man. Hegel himself could speak reverently about the doctrines of the incarnation and the Trinity as basic expressions of the most profound philosophical truths, and more than one theologian welcomed his philosophy as an ally in the defence of some of the most basic concepts of the Christian creed. The only snag was, of course, that in this way the historical Jesus and the historical facts of his life, cross and resurrection became, if not irrelevant, in any case nothing more than illustrations of the idea of the incarnation of God in the whole human race. The faith of the church was to be regarded as a naive and poetical expression of philosophical truth.

There were not many theologians who accepted the system of Hegel as such. But there were many who were influenced by his idea of the essential unity of the divine and the human as well as by his ascribing of a supra-historical significance to Christ that transcended the actual historical facts of his earthly existence. And there were also those who learned from Hegel that it was possible to see the human person, Jesus of Nazareth, as the result of the kenosis of God in the sense that, for the first time, it became philosophically possible to speak about the deity being changed into humanity, God actually becoming man. These elements, extracted from the thought pattern of Hegel, have played a decisive role in Christological thought ever since.

  1. In summarizing what we have said, we may state that, apart from a small group of orthodox theologians who defended the Chalcedonian formulations, the common conviction of theologians in the modern era has been that the Christological dogma badly needs reinterpretation and reformulation. In passing we may add that it has always been a common conviction too that the centrality of Jesus and the message of his significance as Saviour and Lord should be maintained, whatever form the reformulation of the Chalcedonian doctrine might take. Starting together from these common convictions, there were two possible depending on the attitude taken towards the historical Jesus. Those who were favourably quest for the historical Jesus actually had ways to follow, question of the disposed towards the only one way to go.

They had to prove from the authentic historical material that the significance ascribed to Jesus by the early church was well grounded, because what they had experienced of him was enough to convince them that he was the Messiah and the Saviour. Of course, he could only be the Saviour because he had a unique relation to God. Seeing, however, that from the vantage point of the historical Jesus it is impossible to describe this unique relation of Jesus to God in any terms that would jeopardize his identity as man, this type of Christology describing unique relation of Jesus to God in functional terms. They claim that the New Testament itself does not go further than this. The New Testament, they say, is interested in the event of the coming of the Kingdom and proclaims the role of Christ as the messenger of the Kingdom whose kerugma as such turned out to be the very power that brought about the coming of the Kingdom. But they do not want to go further than saying that this unique function of the man Jesus qualifies him as the Saviour of the world.

On the other hand, those that reject the possibility of reconstructing Christology from the point of view of the historical, stress the supra-historical significance of Christ. It is not his earthly history, but his living presence and his history as the ever-relevant decisive reality of the presence of God himself in human history, that makes Christ unique. Theologians who hold this view point consequently insist that the relation between Christ and God is not just a functional relation of a unique human person to God, but that it is an ontic relation, a unity of being. Consequently this type of Christology is normally called ontological Christology. It stresses that the redemptive significance of Christ can only be maintained if Christ is more than just a man. He must in an ontological sense be Immanuel, God with us.

  1. If we look at the Christological thought of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is easy to see that some theologians clearly opted for the functional model, while others developed the ontological approach. Schleiermacher may be regarded as the first representative of the functional type of Christology. He rejected the doctrine of the two natures of Christ, stating that Jesus was nothing more than a human being. However, Jesus was no ordinary man, because he was the Saviour through whom God redeems the world. Schleiermacher understood salvation as the liberation from a wrong consciousness of the world to the freedom of a pure consciousness of -God. Jesus could be our Saviour, because he had a perfect God-consciousness and was the archetype of true religion in his utter dependence of God. Being the archetype, Jesus was not only the pattern of true godly life, but he was a pattern charged with assimilative power, causing all those who came under his influence to share in his sinlessness and perfection. For the cross and the resurrection Schleiermacher did not really have a place in his Christology. Still he was convinced that he was faithful to the true intention of the church doctrine. He asserted that he could do justice to the doctrine of the divinity of Christ, because, using concepts from the philosophy of identity, he argued that the consciousness of God in Christ should be regarded as the real presence of God in him. It is clear, however, that the Christological model of Schleiermacher has no place for the concept of incarnation in the original sense of the word.

The influence of the Christological model of Schleiermacher can be traced right through the 19th and the 20th centuries. For Ritschl, Christ was the archetype of true moral life, inspiring us to a life of total commitment, to the moral ideals of the kingdom of God. It was Ritschl who said that we are not really interested in the question who Christ was, but only in the question what value he had for us. Seeing that Christ saves us, we may say that he has the value of God for us, and there is no need to speculate about his natures. We can see this same trend in our century in a theologian like Bultmann. Bultmann called Christ the revelation of God. By that he did not mean that Jesus Christ was God, because in himself Jesus was nothing more than a Jewish rabbi. In so far as Christ in the kerugma of the kingdom of God is the instrument of the eschatological revelation of God to us, he may be equated to God himself in a functional sense, although it would be wrong, according to Bultmann, to call Christ God in any ontological sense.

The same kind of functional Christology is also present where Christ is called the Representative. We may think here of the Christology of Sölle, Wiersinga, Hans Küng, Hendrikus Berkhof, Flesseman-Van Leer and others. The main idea is that Christ is the Mediator who represents God to us and at the same time represents us before God. Within this context Christ may also be called the revelation of God, the Image of God or, looking from the other side, the New Man, the Eschatological Man, the one true Covenant Partner of Cod etc. But all the time it is clear that in the last resort, Christ is not really called God. Even the titles Son of God and Kurios are interpreted in a functional sense, indicating that Christ could be called by these names because he is the unique agent of redemption, used by God to accomplish the work of revelation and salvation.

The latest edition of functional Christology is the so–called Spirit Christology, in which Christ is seen as the Man filled with the Spirit and completing the work of redemption in the power of the Spirit (Berkhof, JDG Dunn, Robert North, Lampe a.o.). We have a return here to one of the oldest forms of Christology in the history of Christian theology, dating back to the time before the struggles around the Logos–Christology, the Trinitarian dogma and the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. It is obvious that theologians thinking along the lines of a functional Christology must have grave problems with the doctrine of the Trinity.

  1. If we have to name a few representatives of the ontological Christological model, we restrict ourselves to those theologians who are convinced that there is a unity of being between Christ and God, but who do not want to express that unity in terms of the two natures doctrine of Chalcedon. We have already mentioned the influence of German idealism on their thought. Tillich could be mentioned as a clear example of the influence of Schelling. Tillich sees God as Being itself and the ground of our being, the essence from which we are estranged in our existence. Christ, however, is the New Being, that is, the being of God under the conditions of existence. He reunites us with God, because from him emerges the healing power of the new being. Karl Rahner may be mentioned as one example of the influence of Hegel on modern Christological thought, although Rahner hardly mentions Hegel at all. Hegel seems to provide possibilities to overcome the static character of the two natures – doctrine and to enable especially Roman Catholic theologians to adapt Christology to an evolutionary world view.

Although the Christology of Rahner is very interesting, I will not go into it now, because I would like rather to say something about Karl Barth. Undoubtedly, his Christology must be regarded as the most significant attempt in recent times to defend the truth of the incarnation in an ontological sense. Indeed, Barth pledged his loyalty to the Chalcedonian Christology. We should not overlook, however, the fact that Barth translates the Chalcedonian Christological formulas into dynamic terms that would have been inconceivable without the Hegelian pattern of thought. To be sure, Barth is very critical of Hegel on many decisive points. He maintains the transcendence of God in a very strict sense, denies that God is in any sense dependent upon creation and history for his self-realization and rejects the Hegelian pantheism by stressing the absolute unique character of the incarnation as the only point of (indirect) identity of God and his creation. It would be wrong to suggest that Barth accepted the philosophical ideas of Hegel. And yet, it is true that some of the most basic concepts of Barth’s Christology reveal at least a striking similarity with Hegelian thought. Although in another way than Hegel, Barth can also speak about the history of God, and for Barth the most decisive point of the gospel is exactly that man has been taken up into the history of God by God’s primal decision to demonstrate his grace to mankind as such in Christ Jesus. In the most literal sense of the word, God has identified himself with man in Jesus, with the result that the humanity of Christ is enclosed in the deity of God. When Barth speaks about the humanity of God, he literally means that the humanity of Jesus is the humanity of God. In Jesus the estrangement of God from his own glory is manifested, while at the same time man is elevated to participate in the being of God. If we understand this, we can easily see why Barth’s theology bears such an universalistic character, because in Christ there is an indirect identification of all mankind – with God. It also becomes clear why Barth had very little interest in history as such, least of all in the historical Jesus, because for him everything depended upon the historic Christ (geschichtlicher Christus) as the actual reality of the identification of God and man in the event of the atonement, which is in itself a supra-historical reality.

We lack the time to illustrate how the thought of Barth has been worked out by Jüngel, one of his most consistent disciples, or to follow the interesting developments of some trends of his thought in the theology of Moltmann and Pannenberg. Suffice it to say that the younger generation is far more outspoken about its use of Hegelian concepts and patterns of thought than Barth or Rahner had been.

  1. We have distinguished between functional and ontological Christologies, and I believe that this distinction is valid and helpful. We should, however, keep in mind that these two models are not always clearly distinguishable. There is a constant tendency on both sides to swerve into the orbit of the other model. The obvious reason for that is that the functional model has to supply reasons for the extraordinary position of Christ as agent of God’s redemptive activity, while on the other hand the ontological model must steer clear of playing down the full humanity of Jesus Christ. The result is that theologians holding a functional Christology sometimes use concepts to describe the unique relation between Jesus and God in such a way, that it tends to imply an ontic unity. They are willing to say that Christ is divine in an adjectival sense, not that he is God in a substantival sense (to follow the distinction of J Hick), but sometimes they even try to argue that, seeing that Christ is the only instance of such a unique relation to God, one might just as well regard Christ as the real incarnation of God (Matthews, Hook). Theologians holding an ontological Christology on their part often reject the idea of the anhypostatic character of the humanity of Christ or reinterpret the concept of anhypostatic so as to allow for the full human personality of Christ. Normally that would have contained the possibility of ending up with a Nestorian type of Christology, and sometimes it does, especially amongst theologians who tend to favour certain aspects of a Spirit Christology. When that happens, the distance between the functional and the ontological models has disappeared. However, where theologians holding an ontological Christology make use of concepts derived from idealism, it is possible for them to speak of the identification of God with the man Jesus Christ in such a way, that the personality of Jesus and his individuality is retained. Clear examples of this would be the Christologies of Jüngel, Pannenberg, Moltmann and – recently – Leonardo Boff (Jesus Christ Liberator, 1978). Pannenberg’s Christology is especially interesting, because it is a Christology from below, trying to do full justice to the historical Jesus, but at the same time making use of Hegelian concepts and the philosophy of identity in such a way, that it is possible for him to maintain that the man Jesus belonged to the eternal existence of God and is the self-revelation of God in such a final sense that he simply is God. Just as Pannenberg, theologians who are indebted to process theology hold a pan-en-theistic view of the relation between God and the world. Consequently one could expect that a process Christology would also often oscillate between functional and ontological categories in their definition of the reality of Christ. I have the impression though that most of them are less sophisticated than Pannenberg and that they consequently mostly can be classified under the heading of functional Christologies.
  1. I must conclude with the question: How should we evaluate these efforts to reformulate the Christological dogma? Of course we do not think that the formulations of Chalcedon are infallible. We know that the doctrine of the two natures of Christ is formulated in terms of a philosophical system that has long ago become antiquated. It would be wrong to say that in principle it is impossible to reformulate the Christological dogma in other terms. However, we are convinced that up to this moment there has not been a reformulation of which we are satisfied that it really maintains the full content of the biblical message about Christ as it is expressed in the two natures doctrine. Although we must concede that Chalcedon used concepts that belonged to another cultural era than the one in which we are living ourselves, we are convinced that it brought to expression exactly in those terms the reality of the incarnation, the reality that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man. This confession is the heart of the gospel. It is, for us, not liable to dispute. But as long as we believe that to be the message of the Bible, we cannot easily discard the Chalcedonian formulations. It is a fact that the examples of functional Christologies known to us cannot do justice to the fact of the incarnation. They cannot go further than the assertion that God was in Christ (Baillie), but they cannot with the church of all ages confess that Christ is truly God. They may be able to say many things about Christ that are valuable and in themselves true, but they stop short of the confession that God has really become man. We cannot regard that as an acceptable reformulation of the Christological dogma. We have to say that it is heretical.

Unfortunately we are not in a position to welcome the endeavours of those who have tried to reformulate the dogma in ontological terms as successful either. The philosophical concepts that they have chosen are not better than those of the two natures doctrine. Moreover, they tend to blur issues that are distinguished clearly in the classical formulations. The tendency towards pantheism, or alternatively pan-en-theism and universalism built into the concepts of the idealistic philosophy from which they derive their terminology, and the consequent playing down of the historical meaning of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ may not be ignored. It is not yet clear where the new Christological concepts of men like Jüngel, Moltmann and Pannenberg are leading us to. But up to now they did not succeed in reassuring us that they do not ask us to subscribe to philosophical speculation rather than to the message of the gospel of the incarnation. Of one thing at least we may be sure: We know the weaknesses of the formulations of Chalcedon and we have learned to interpret them in such a way that do justice to the gospel of the incarnation as much as we are to do with our present human insight. We do not know, however, whether the reformulations known to us can eliminate these weaknesses without abandoning aspects of the doctrine that should be retained. In fact, we feel sure that they are not able to do that. And so we have other choice than to conclude that the doctrine of the two natures, with all its weaknesses, is still of abiding significance, and that the churches have every reason to retain and defend it.