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The Formation of Christology:
Challenges to the Christian Faith in Jesus Christ from the New Testament and Beyond:

With the spread of Christianity beyond its original environment in Judea and into the Hellenistic world of the Roman Empire came the challenge of finding ways to express the foundational Christian faith in Jesus Christ in the thought categories of the Greco-Roman world. The task set before the apostles, and those who came after them, was to adopt the philosophical language of the time without 'Hellenising' the faith. Instead, in seeking to proclaim the Christ-event to all nations, the Church had to find ways to 'Christianise' Hellenistic thought and culture and this they did. That God's salvific testimony of faith in Jesus Christ was meant for all nations, and that therefore the task at hand was a necessary one, is evidenced in the New Testament Scriptures in that, Paul, for example saw his 'ministry of reconciliation' (2 Cor 5:18) as a message meant for all people, both Jews and Gentiles. More than half of the book of Acts is devoted to recounting the story of Paul's missionary journeys throughout the Roman Empire.

Indeed the apologists who came after Paul, like Justin Martyr (d. 165) and Clement of Alexandria (d. approx. 215), in their dialogue with the surrounding culture of their time tried to illustrate the extent to which Greco-Roman philosophies contained 'seeds' of Christian truth in their different writings. This process of 'enculturation', as it is referred to today, brought with it a new language and new terms, which either had to express Jesus Christ as the self-revelation of God, and in so doing had to defend His full divinity. Or, other times, the Christian faith, grounded in the historical life of Jesus had to defend the full humanity of Jesus Christ. That is to say, the early Church did not only have to relate the saving mission of Jesus Christ (what is known as functional Christology) but also Christ's relationship with God on the one hand and with the human race on the other. Furthermore the difficult task of elucidating how Jesus Christ sustained both these relations seemed to demand further formulations, not simply functional, but also about His person and identity (what is known as ontological Christology).

It has to be said right from the outset that the task of articulating the faith correctly was not the result of any curiosity on the part of the apostles, apologists or fathers, but rather had to do with the salvation of the human person and by extension the entire world. Far from being purely abstract or merely theoretical, Christological thinking and salvation were inextricably linked, since unsatisfactory teachings were seen to undermine this very salvation. Already the gospel according to St John had made this important connection:

"And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" (Jn 17:3).

These and similar words from Scripture show how salvation and a true knowledge in Jesus Christ could not be thought of apart since Christ became human in order to lead all of humankind to divine life. And so as we read statements of fathers or confessions of councils as to the person of Christ (what is known as Patristic Christology) we must keep in mind their intimate relationship with soteriology.

Before examining the various challenges faced by the early Church regarding its belief in Jesus Christ, it must be remembered that the Christological doctrinal formulations, which arose in the Church were produced primarily when the lived experience within the ecclesial community came to be threatened. That is to say, the Christological doctrine emerged as a result of many disputations, disagreements and problems which were taking place in regards to the real identity and mission of Jesus Christ. Already within the New Testament Scriptures there were quarrels as to who this person, Jesus was. The second letter to Peter warned against those, who, upon having received St Paul's message about Christ, were trying to twist its meaning to suit their own needs:

"So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him… There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures" (2 Pt 3:15-16).

The above verse explicitly points out that already in the apostolic Church, there were some who were trying to distort other writings of the canonical New Testament Scriptures (in this case St Paul's). Indeed the major theme of the entire letter of 2 Peter is focused on the true knowledge of Christ which Christians were encouraged to uphold and pursue in contradistinction to others who, not only did not believe, but were distorting the truth of Christ.

Furthermore, in his letter to the Corinthians, St Paul in fact argued that schisms and false teachings had to take place so that the genuine faith could surface from the 'tested ones' (oi dokimoi) who had remained firm in these difficult times:

"For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine" (1Cor 11:18-19).

This New Testament passage reveals that from the very beginning the ecclesial community was characterised by quarrels, debates and disagreements. That is to say the story of Christianity from the very beginning, and specifically speaking Christology is characterized by such heretical tendencies. Indeed if looked at from a purely sociological or historical perspective, what the Christian Orthodox tradition would claim to be the true teaching regarding Jesus Christ was in fact one of the many testimonies about the identity and mission of Jesus of Nazareth. What came to be known as the canonical Scriptures were only one group of writings, amongst a plethora of others, which a group of Christians were convinced to be a true testimony to Christ.

Yet despite these historical factions, the Eastern Orthodox Church would claim that by the end of the first century, there was a group of Christians who had one mind and one common interpretation of Jesus the Christ and so came to affirm the veracity of what is known today as the New Testament believing these writings to be a true testimony to the truth of Jesus. Indeed the Orthodox tradition would also argue that all statements about Jesus in the books of the New Testament and subsequent conciliar creeds and Patristic writings were valid interpretations of the proper testimony of Christ. Now, as to why this is the case can only be answered by examining each of the controversies which arose in the Church separately so as to see how all these, far from embracing the entire experienced truth about Christ, made one aspect absolute thereby making all others relative. Usually this was done either by affirming the divinity of Christ at the expense of His humanity or highlighting only his human side without regard for His divinity - that is to say failing to see Christ in a fully theanthropic manner, as the incarnation of God, of the God-manhood of Christ. And so now we turn our attention to two of the first major heresies which the apostolic Church had to face, namely Docetism and Gnosticism.

Docetism

The central fact of the Christian faith that the Son of God really appeared on earth as an genuine human being in the flesh by being born of the virgin Mary in time, in order to die and rise again so as to bestow life to the world was first questioned by a group who came to be known as the Docetists. Coming from the Greek word dokein (to seem, to appear), Docetism downplayed the real humanity of Christ claiming that Jesus had only given the impression, or looked as if He had become a man but in reality that He had not. That is to say, they claimed that the birth, life, humanity and sufferings of the earthly Christ to be apparent rather than real. Indeed this tendency also went so far as to argue that Christ had somehow miraculously fled from the humiliation of death by exchanging places with Judas Iscariot or Simon of Cyrene. And so Jesus Christ was reduced to some ghostlike phantom, that is to say, an optical illusion. In this way the Docetists were able to avoid implicating divinity from the processes of human birth and death which they believed was unbecoming for God.

Their belief regarding the impropriety or even impossibility of the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus inevitably led to the very essence of the Christian message being destroyed. In wanting to safeguard the transcendent God from the fluidity of fallen life and, what they considered to be the evil materiality of the world, they denied the real humanity of Christ. Furthermore, in denying that Jesus was the subject of all the human experiences attributed to him in the canonical Scriptures, they were rejecting his ability to save as well since if He did not resurrect from the dead then, according to St Paul the Christian faith was all in vain:

"and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain" (1Cor 15:14).

Far from being an illusion or a mere semblance devoid of any reality, the resurrection of Christ was real and it was upon this that the Christian faith was based. Furthermore, the Gospel according to St John identified such a group denying the humanity of Christ and wrote explicitly against such a tendency in very strong terms:

"Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist!" (2Jn 1:7).

From this passage it is clear that the early Church had to defend the central fact that Jesus, being the Son of God in human flesh, really lived on earth, was raised from the dead and was glorified as the only Lord and God of the world.

Gnosticism

Another group known as the Gnostics , which came into prominence in the second century further postulated such a non-incarnational Christology. Gnosticism was a broad and diverse movement which had primarily Hellenistic, but also Jewish and Christian strains. Their name also derived from a Greek expression - the word for knowledge (gnosis) - came to be associated with different teachers (such as Valentinus, Basilides and Marcion) who attached particular importance to supposed 'secret' knowledge. Despite the variations depending upon whose group the different followers belonged, the Gnostic movement basically claimed to have received this 'special' or 'secret' knowledge either from the apostles themselves or directly from their leader.

Characteristic of Gnostic teaching was not only that Jesus, whom they called the Redeemer/Revealer or Demiurge (meaning creator god) was distinguished from God the Father, resulting in a total separation between the 'Demiurge' and the supremely unknowable and remote Divine Being, but also that His descent into the world did not entail an incarnation. As to their first basic teaching, this distinction between God and Jesus Christ was explained by the concept of aeons (or emanations) from where, they claimed, Jesus came into being. Upon falling from the Pleroma (the ultimate realm where only the Father dwelt) and into a number of aeons, their Jesus-figure, who was believed to be an inferior god, brought the material world into existence, which was in opposition to the purely spiritual and divine realm. The Gnostics, however, who had knowledge of this phenomenon, could be rescued from the evil material environment thus returning to the spiritual world and becoming purely 'spiritual' themselves – that is devoid of any fleshly or material existence.

In regards to Jesus Christ the Demiurge, though, the Gnostics believed that He was a purely 'spiritual' entity and therefore they were led to reject his humanity. And so the rejected the central gospel proclamation that Jesus had become 'enfleshed' in the world opting instead to teach that Jesus had simply appeared to 'put on' human flesh, much like one put on a piece of clothing temporarily only to take it off again. Just as he was not trapped within a physical body, so too those whom the Redeemer figure had awoken from ignorance (that is the Gnostic believers) could be freed from materiality. The redeemer figure, Christ, was thus depicted in Gnostic texts as delivering special discourses of revelation (the true gnosis) to his true followers. Because of their radically anti-cosmic dualism, the Gnostic lifestyle was often very ascetic in character since they denied the importance of the human body. For this reason they considered themselves to Pneumatics (the spiritual ones) over against those whom they believed were enslaved to and in the human body. The Gnostics ultimately believed that the entire cosmic order would be dissolved and that those who had received the divine sparks of secret knowledge would return to the Light or Pleroma.

Already in the New Testament the importance of the incarnational character of Christianity is stressed with an emphasis on the historical reality of Jesus. Indeed the first letter of John begins with this stress:

"We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life" (1Jn 1:1).

Far from denying the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the letter demonstrates that Christ's actual body was central to the message of the Christian gospel thereby rejecting any purely spiritual saviour. Against this 'spiritualising' movement, many fathers, especially Irenaeus insisted on the humanity of Jesus Christ, his birth, life, crucifixion and resurrection and in this way were able to declare not only the absolute deity of the Logos-Son of God but also his full humanity in harmony with the Johannine conviction that "the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth" (Jn 1:14).

Furthermore such teachings were rejected by the Patristic tradition since the various books of the New Testament make explicit references to Christ's humanity: beyond the numerous human titles attributed to Him (son of David, teacher, prophet, king of Israel) there are accounts in the Gospels which irrefutably indicate his human nature – Christ is said to have grown in wisdom (Lk 2:52); to have felt abandoned by God on the cross and therefore crying out "my God, my God why have you forsaken me?" (Mt 27:46); on the issue of the second coming, He declared that He did not know the hour or the day (Mk 13:32). It was these and other passages which led the fathers of the early Church to affirm his full humanity without of course denying his divinity.

Footnotes

1. Up until the twentieth century, most of our knowledge of Gnosticism came from their opponents since there were no writings which were known to exist. In 1945, however, a discovery of a large group of texts near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, (known as the Nag Hammadi texts, usually designated NHC – Nag Hammadi Codices) gave scholars the opportunity, for the first time to discover the ancient Gnostics from their own writings.

Philip Kariatlis

Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer

St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College

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