Allow me to describe an all too common phenomenon in human experience. A previous generation of human beings strive and struggle to make or accomplish a great achievement only to see later generations squander the hard earned fruits of the previous generation’s labors. For example, a father who works and slaves to build a business empire to leave to his son only to see the son (or maybe the grandson) run the business empire into the ground. This doesn’t always happen, but it frequently happens.
OK, so what does this have to do with Christianity? A lot! Today’s average American evangelical Christian does not have a strong grasp on theology and church history, and this is a bad thing. It’s not to say that every Christian has to be a professional theologian or church historian, but Christians should have some rudimentary knowledge of what they believe and how what they believe came to be. In our educational institutions, we teach our children American history and we also teach them the U.S. Constitution. Now you can make all sorts of arguments as to the quality of this education; that’s not the point. The point is that as a society, we feel it’s important to impart to our children the history of our nation and the principles upon which this nation was founded.
Why is it that generally speaking we do not take this same urgency in teaching our children the history and founding principles of their faith? Why is it that the typical church goer in America doesn’t have a basic knowledge of theology and church history? The basic answer to this question is that the church isn’t teaching it to them, and the reason why the church isn’t teaching it to them is because it’s not considered “practical.” Most American churchgoers want to hear stuff that is relevant to their lives; something they can apply to the here & now. Not necessarily a bad thing, but Christianity is an objective faith; it’s based on something that happened 2,000 years ago. It’s based on a man named Jesus of Nazareth who made some claims. These, and other things, make up what Jude called “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). So I’m going to spend a few articles over the next few days/weeks expounding some of the historical and theological significance of the Christian faith beginning with Christology, or the doctrine of Jesus Christ.
If I were to ask the average Christian what it means to be a Christian, I might get an answer similar to: “A Christian is a person who follows Christ.” Clearly, the man Jesus of Nazareth, who was called the Christ, is important to Christianity. Christians place their faith and trust in this person, but what do we know about this person? What did he do? That’s what Christology is all about — a study of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Let’s start with the person of Jesus Christ.
Orthodox Christianity makes four essential claims about the person of Jesus Christ:
- Jesus Christ is fully God
- Jesus Christ is fully man
- The human and divine natures of Jesus Christ are united in one person
- The human and divine natures of Jesus Christ are distinct
Now it’s easy to list out the orthodox doctrine on the person of Christ, but what is missed by this is that it took the early church nearly 150 years to hammer out these four claims about the person of Christ. Furthermore, it wasn’t like a bunch of guys sat around in a room and calmly discussed this. That 150 year period of the church was one of the most turbulent eras of church history.
Since apostolic times (near the end of the first century) and going all the way through to the beginning of the 4th century, the early church spent more of its time fighting for survival that there wasn’t a whole heck of a lot of theological development during this period (from about 100 AD to 300 AD). Then came 313 AD and the edict of Milan, which made Christianity the ‘official’ religion of the Roman Empire. As the persecutions began to die down, the church began to grow in influence and importance within the empire. It was at this time that some of the great doctrinal disputes over the Trinity (to be discussed later) and the person of Christ came to the forefront.
As it typical in other disciplines, theological orthodoxy was formed against the backdrop of heresy. It wasn’t until error was being taught that the church rose up to denounce the error and affirm the truth. For each of the four doctrinal claims listed above, there was a heresy that it was addressing. Each of those four doctrinal positions was the orthodox response to a particular error being taught in the church, and each of them was affirmed at one of the four great ecumenical councils of the early church.
- Jesus Christ is fully God. This was in response to Arius who taught that Jesus Christ was not fully God, but was created by God as the first created being. Arius’ teachings were condemned at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD
- Jesus Christ is fully man. This was in response to Appollinarius who taught that Jesus was not fully and completely human. The divine Logos subsumed the human spirit so that Jesus did not possess a “reasonable soul.” The teachings of Appollinarius were condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD
- The human and divine natures of Jesus Christ are united in one person. This was in response to Nestorius (though there is evidence now that Nestorius did not believe the heresy that bears his name) who was thought to have denied unity of the person of Christ. The Nestorians taught that Jesus was comprised of two persons — one human and one divine. This was an attempt to distinguish between the human and the divine in Jesus. Nestorianism was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD
- The human and divine natures of Jesus Christ are distinct. This was in response to Eutyches who taught that the human and divine natures of Christ formed a third, unique substance — a divinized human nature (or a humanized divine nature). This error was condemned at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD
The official doctrine of the person of Christ was summarized in the Chalcedonian Creed which came out of the Council of Chalcedon. This creed represents the pinnacle of Christology and has defined the orthodox teaching of the person of Christ ever since:
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us. (Emphasis added)
Now you may be thinking, “So what? What does this have to do with my Christian walk?” Plenty! First of all, if you don’t acknowledge that Jesus Christ is fully God, fully man, in one person with two distinct natures, then you’re not following the right Jesus. I’m not saying that at the moment one places his faith in Christ, he has to acknowledge this definition of Jesus. What I am saying is that Christians need to be taught that this is the Jesus they follow!
Furthermore, we need to be able to recognize heresy when it appears. There are many, many people who claim to believe in Jesus, but deny one, some or all of those four orthodox positions. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus was a created being. This amounts to a form of modern-day Arianism. Oneness Pentecostals teach that God is not a Trinity and that Jesus was really God inhering in a human form (a form of modern-day Nestorianism). All of these ancient heresies have modern-day equivalents, and every form of aberrant Christianity is usually centered on a defective Christology. That is why knowing theology and church history is vitally important.
The edifice of Christianity was built on the blood, sweat and tears of those who labored before us. It is necessary to know from where we came if we’re ever to know where we’re going. If we forget the history of our doctrine, it won’t be long before we lose our doctrine all together.