Towards a Revised Christology

by Mark Mattison

from The Making of a Tradition


Now that we have examined biblical theology, we can develop a systematic theological approach to the person of Christ.  This approach must do full justice to all the biblical evidence and yet remain fully practical and relevant to our lives today. Further, no amount of systematic reflection must diminish our awe and respect of our exalted Savior or downplay the significance of his sacrificial death for our lives.


Let there be no mistake: the New Testament does indeed apply the title "God" to Jesus Christ. This does not mean that Christ is God in the traditional sense; however, he is called "God".


Several verses may describe Jesus in this way.  Romans 9:5, 2 Thessalonians 1:12, 1 Timothy 3:16, Titus 2:13, Hebrews 1:8, 2 Peter 2:1, and 1 John 5:20 are all possibilities. However, the Greek in each case is so ambiguous that scholars and translators are divided over these verses. There are two verses, however, which certainly call  Jesus "God." The original version of John 1:18, which calls Jesus "the only begotten God," and John 20:28 both make that identification.


Do these verses contradict what I have written about the  Messiah? Further, do they contradict the rest of the New Testament?  According to Acts 2:22, "Jesus of Nazareth was a man...".  How can could he be both "God" and "man"? How can he say "The Father is greater than I" and "I and the Father are one"?


This is precisely the question that has plagued the church for two millennia. The answers have been inadequate because they have been sought with a Graeco-Roman mindset; Western civilization today is permeated with this Greek world view. As Greeks, we think in terms of metaphysics; when we ask how Christ can be both God and man, we are seeking a "scientific" explanation of what Jesus was made of and how "God substance" and "man substance" can be combined to make a being who is truly God and truly man. Thus we define the "divine substance" as being something different from, and better than, the "human substance." We then seek to explain how this divine second member of the Trinity can descend to earth and somehow "become" man.


Already, however, we are off on the wrong foot. If we define "divinity" and "humanity" in terms contradictory to each other, we are barking up two different trees, pulling the person of Jesus in two directions, trying to explain a mysterious paradox. To overcome this dilemma, we must attempt to leave behind this Greek mode of thinking and adopt the mindset of the Palestinian persuasion of the first century.


Jesus' divinity must be understood in terms of his humanity. According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus was like us in all respects except one (2:11-14,17; 4:15); he was without sin. If, in addition, we recognize that Jesus had a "Godship" or divine status that we do not have, then it logically follows that the absence of sin and the presence of God-nature is the same thing. If we understand Jesus' divinity any other way, he becomes less like us, less human. As Mackintosh writes, "all that is Divine in Christ is human, and all that is human, Divine".  (John Knox, The Humanity and Divinity of Christ (Cambridge University Press), 1967, p. 104.)


This explanation goes a long way in telling us how Christ could be both equal to God (John 10:30) and yet subordinate to Him (John 14:28) at the same time. The principle is most clearly seen in John 5:18,19. There, several Pharisees state that Jesus claimed equality with God. This was not a misunderstanding on the part of the Pharisees, but a valid understanding of Jesus' claims. Their first two accusations were true; Jesus was breaking the Sabbath and he was claiming God as his Father. Therefore, the third statement should also be true, namely, that he was claiming to be equal with God. But how could this single human being be said to be equal to God? Jesus himself answers this question in the very next verse, v. 19:


Jesus gave them this answer: I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself.


Thus, Jesus is equal to God by virtue of his complete subordination to Him. To illustrate this principle, think of a window (Jesus) without stain or smudge (sin). The sunlight (God) shines through the window. Thanks to the fact that the window is crystal-clear, utterly transparent, and completely clean, the divine rays of the sun can shine unhindered through it.  No matter where one looks on the window, all he can see is the sunlight; the selfless window is completely absorbed by the sunlight.  Yet it does not cease to be a window.


Likewise, Jesus, by virtue of his obedience (and only by virtue of his obedience) is divine. This is the idea behind Philippians 2:6-11 in which Christ "did not consider equality with God something to be grasped" yet "humbled himself and became obedient.... Therefore God exalted him." It was precisely by not trying to exalt himself that Christ was exalted. In Christ's full humanity, there is full deity. It is a moral or functional Godship, not a literal or metaphysical one.


This tends to run against our grain, and necessarily so, for we as "enlightened" 20th century Westerners have inherited the Greek way of thinking. We tend to interpret the nature of Christ in metaphysical terms, as the use of the Greek word homoousia shows.  The question as to what kind of "stuff" Jesus is made of, and whether it is similar to or identical to the "stuff" that God is made of, is a question for the Greek mind which only concerned the church in the second century and beyond. The later New Testament writers (such as John and the writer to the Hebrews), who shared the Hebraic theological world view, thought more in terms of the Jewish halakhic agency principles, in which "the agent ranks as his master's own person".  (Stated in the Babylonian Talmud, Nashim 8, and cited by Peter Borgen in "God's Agent in the Fourth Gospel," Religions in Antiquity, (Goodenough volume, Leiden, Brill), 1968, pp. 137-148.)  A messenger is considered identical to the person who sent him as long as he accurately says what his master sent him to say and does what his master sent him to do. So it is with Christ. As the mediator, the perfect (obedient) human, Jesus acts as God to us and for us, just as he acts as us to God and for God. Thus, Jesus is subordinate to the Father in literal, metaphysical terms, but equal to Him in functional terms. It is only from the viewpoint of later orthodoxy that there is an irreconcilable difference between Christ's subordination and his equality.


The fact that Christ's divinity and humanity function not only side-by-side, but as one, can be easily detected in the writings of John. Robinson writes:


"In fact the double entendres of this Gospel, clustering around the 'whence?' of this man, clearly presuppose that the question can be answered at two levels, neither of which is to be denied. He is from or out of Nazareth and he is from or out of the Father, and not one at the expense of the other.  There can be no question of Jesus not being of human origin like everyone else or of his not being a man. Jesus stands in solidarity with all other men in pupilage to the Father."  (The Priority of John, pp. 367-369.)


He quotes J. E. Davey as writing that "the Christ of John is actually more human than in almost any of the other New Testament writings".  ( The Jesus of St. John (London), 1958, p. 89.)  This is a significant observation, considering that John appears to be the only New Testament author who undoubtedly calls Jesus "God."


Obedience is the key word in all of this.  Christ's obedience, his willingness to make so little of himself, is what made him divine.  John Knox writes that "we do not experience the humanity and divinity of Christ in ways as separate as this language suggests; we are aware of them together".  (The Humanity and Divinity of Christ, p. 113.)  Christ had no superman characteristic, no divine battery-pack built into his back, no supernatural immunity to evil. His divinity was his morality, his sinlessness, and he had to struggle constantly to maintain that divinity.  If Christ were incapable of sinning, then why was he tempted (Mark 1:12)? And if he had some extra-human capability to deal with temptation (such as being the Creator and Sustainer of life), then how can Paul ask us to identify with such a being (Phil. 2:5)? The fact that Jesus "made it" gives me confidence that I, too, can "make it," because he was no different from me and had no advantages over me. In fact, the only time the words "divine nature" appear in the New Testament, they are applied not to Jesus but to us (2 Pet. 2:4)! We are capable of attaining some degree of "Godship." That is the relevance of a proper Christology. My human Lord worked with the same material that I work with; he faced the very obstacles which I face, and yet he overcame them. Therefore, I can follow in his footsteps.


This does not mean that Jesus simply happened to be the one who managed perfection, as if he were the one random arrow that happened to hit the bull's eye. The virgin birth clearly sets him apart from other men in that he alone was created without the sin of Adam. As we have seen, Jesus was created as the perfect human being, sinless, like Adam before Adam sinned. At any time, like Adam, Christ could have sinned: yet he did not. He maintained that perfection, that divinity, and thus is the only person who can be a sacrifice for our sins. It is often said that Jesus had literally to be God to make an effective sacrifice, but the writer to the Hebrews makes exactly the opposite statement-a blood sacrifice of the Creator never entered the mind of this writer - the blood sacrifice of the perfect man was needed to redeem mankind.


"For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted" (Heb.2:17,18).


These verses sum up this Christology in a nutshell.  Christ is both the basis for our inspiration to conquer sin (2:18) and the means to cleanse us when we fail (2:17).  This has direct ethical application, whereas a Chalcedonian interpretation of Christ, with its metaphysical talk of God becoming man, has little relevance to the Christian life. The Chalcedonian God-man could not have failed. The New Testament God-man could have failed, but did not.


The objection will undoubtedly be raised, "But Jesus was more than just a man." I am not saying that Jesus was just a man, as if I am degrading him; I am saying, yes, Jesus was a man! Jesus was the man! Jesus was the full and true man, the sinless human being that you and I were created to be. He was more human (and thus more divine) than any of us have managed to be.  Jesus had red blood in his fleshly veins, just like you and me (Heb. 2:14). He is different from us in degree, granted, but not in kind.  Jesus Christ was not an alien from outer space.  He was a man, and now he is an exalted and glorified man because of his Godlike, divine obedience.