Posted by: mattcolvin | October 28, 2013

Are the Creeds Distracting Us from NT Christology?

My friend Jannai S. left a very helpful comment on my recent post about Richard Bauckham and Christology. In this post, I want to respond to his questions and objections, and provide a quotation from Bauckham that clarifies his approach to the Creeds.

I want to make clear that I approve of the Creeds as necessary rejections of errors. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But I don’t think we learn very much at all about what it means for Jesus to be God, or about His relation to the Father, by the term “homoousios”. I think that term is good and necessary for ruling out heresies that want us to say “heteroousios” and “homoiousios”. But after we are done refuting Arians and other heretics, why should we continue to play this Greek language game? Why not learn the language game that the gospels and Paul are playing?

Jannai writes:

[The task of the creeds] was to further elucidate/explain this Christology, since the heretics were distorting it. Am I wrong about that?

I agree that explaining is necessary, and is the best and fullest answer to heresy. I’m not sure that the Councils did much explaining. Under political and moral pressure, they mostly assert claims and simply contradict heresy. But for the Nicene Creed to affirm that Jesus is God without any reference at all to any of the ways in which Jesus Himself made that claim – well, I find that a very odd way of “explaining” or “elucidating”. Such verbs normally take their starting point in the statements they purport to elaborate. Otherwise we are not really explaining New Testament Christology, but replacing it. (That’s a scary thought, but there it is.) We may be replacing it with something equally true. But we are not really “explaining”.

Additionally, I don’t know what the phrase “fully developed Christology” means. One might think it means something like “there is nothing else to say on the matter; a complete description has been given.” Understood this way, it seems unlikely to me that the Biblical and 2nd Temple Jewish Christology was fully developed (I also don’t think the Church Father’s Christology was fully developed in this sense!).

What Bauckham means by “fully developed Christology” is not that “there’s nothing more to say”, but that the Bible already contains the claim that Jesus is God. It is not a bunch of inchoate data that the Church Fathers might someday use to make that claim. The Bible already makes the claim. And it makes it using different categories and ideas than the Creeds do.

Jannai suggests that…

The Creeds are attempting to explain and answer different questions than Christ. We have no Scriptural account of Christ’s explanation of how he is fully God and fully man, or how God is 3 in one. Presumably, Christ would do a better job of answering these questions, but he never bothered to answer them.

I think Bauckham would disagree. We do in fact have statements from the Scriptures – from Christ and His apostles – that tell us how to talk about Christ’s divinity and humanity, or about the 3 persons of the Trinity. We have a vast array of images and words testifying to these truths – Christ as God “tabernacling” among us, Christ as “the eikon of the Father”, “the Word became flesh”, “I and the Father are one”, “No one has ever seen God; God the only-begotten has revealed Him”, etc.

I used to have a two-volume set called The Jewish Book of Why. In it, Alfred Kolatch says that modern scholars doubt that Jesus even claimed to be the Messiah. “When he spoke of ‘the Son of Man’, he was referring to someone else.” But one of the great benefits of the work of N.T. Wright on Jesus is the way he makes us alive to the many ways Jesus used Old Testament imagery and symbolism to make the claim that He is the Messiah, and from there, that He is YHWH. Indeed, once we understand the background and symbolism at work in Jesus’ miracles and parables, it becomes clear that, to His Jewish hearers, Jesus did very little else but claim to be YHWH in a thousand little ways!


Jesus claiming to be God again.

Concerning the relation of the New Testament to the Creeds, Bauckham says (p. 209ff in my Kindle):

Broadly speaking, there seem to be two dominant ways of interpreting the development from New Testament Christology to the Council of Nicaea and beyond. The first sees the New Testament as containing, in embryonic form, the source of the development which culminated in the Nicene theology of the fourth century. In other words, New Testament Christology is moving in the direction of recognizing Jesus Christ as truly and fully God, but it was left to the theologians of the fourth century to bring such fully divine Christology to full expression and to find adequate ways of stating it within the context of a Trinitarian doctrine of God. Against this first interpretation, my argument has been that, once we understand Jewish monotheism properly, we can see that the New Testament writers are already, in a deliberate and sophisticated way, expressing a fully divine Christology by including Jesus in the unique identity of God as defined by Second Temple Judaism. Once we recognize the theological categories with which they are working, it is clear that there is nothing embryonic or tentative about this. In its own terms, it is an adequate expression of a fully divine Christology. It is, as I have called it, a Christology of divine identity. The developmental model, according to which the New Testament sets a christological direction only completed in the fourth century, is therefore seriously flawed.

The second way of interpreting the evidence supposes that a Christology which attributed true divinity to Jesus could not have originated within a context of Jewish monotheism. On this view, divine Christology is the result of a transition from Jewish to Hellenistic religious and, subsequently, Hellenistic philosophical, categories. Nicaea represents the triumph of Greek philosophy in Christian doctrine. This way of reading the history seems to me to be virtually the opposite of the truth. In other words, it was actually not Jewish but Greek philosophical categories which made it difficult to attribute true and full divinity to Jesus. A Jewish understanding of divine identity was open to the inclusion of Jesus in the divine identity. But Greek philosophical – Platonic – definitions of divine substance or nature and Platonic understanding of the relationship of God to the world made it extremely difficult to see Jesus as more than a semi-divine being, neither truly God nor truly human. In the context of the Arian controversies, Nicene theology was essentially an attempt to resist the implications of Greek philosophical understandings of divinity and to re-appropriate, in a new conceptual context, the New Testament’s inclusion of Jesus in the unique divine identity.

The conceptual shift from Jewish to Greek categories was from categories focused on divine identity – who God is – to categories focused on divine being or nature – what God is. The creedal slogan of Nicene theology – the homoousion (that Christ is of the same substance as the Father) – may look initially like a complete capitulation to Greek categories. But the impression is different when we understand its function within the Trinitarian and narrative context it has in, for example, the Nicene and Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creeds. This context identifies God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and identifies God from the narrative of the history of Jesus. The homoousion in this context functions to ensure that this divine identity is truly the identity of the one and only God. In its own way it expresses the christological monotheism of the New Testament.

However, if the patristic development of dogma secured for a new conceptual context the New Testament’s inclusion of Jesus in the unique divine identity, the Fathers were much less successful in appropriating the second key feature of New Testament Christology to which I have drawn attention: the revelation of the divine identity in the human life of Jesus and his cross. Here the shift to categories of divine nature and the Platonic definition of divine nature which the Fathers took for granted proved serious impediments to anything more than a formal inclusion of human humiliation, suffering and death in the identity of God. That God was crucified is indeed a patristic formulation, but its implications for the doctrine of God the Fathers largely resisted. Adequate theological appropriation of the deepest insights of New Testament Christology, such as we have observed in Philippians 2:6-11 and the Fourth Gospel, was not to occur until Martin Luther, Karl Barth and more recent theologies of the cross. (Emphases added.)

Thus Bauckham thinks the Creeds, far from being a fuller explanation of the NT’s Christology, have actually been an impediment to the full appropriation of some things that were taught clearly by the NT. For Bauckham, the NT Christology is fuller than the Credal Christology. That claim resonates with my Protestant instincts. (What are the implications of this for natural theology? That’s a question for another time.)

Now, I think Bauckham is underplaying his hand out of respect for the Creeds. To talk about the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed having a “narrative context” for the word “homoousios” is almost to abuse the term “narrative context”. It was not a narrative, but historical contingencies that required the use of the term “homoousios”: if the Arians had been blithering about Jesus having different quarks from the Father, the Creed would have answered them in terms of quarks. “Homoousios” was required by a polemical context, a historical context, a “new conceptual context”, a theological context, but not, I think, by a narrative context. The gospels give the narrative context for Jesus’ divinity and humanity, for the simple reason that they actually contain a fairly full narrative! The Creed has a narrative as well – its second article is basically a series of events. But none of these events is doing the heavy lifting of asserting Jesus’ divinity. That claim is made by the “homoousios” and epithets like “light of light, very God of very God” – in other words, by precisely those bits of the Creed that are not narrative.

And despite the fact that the Creed goes on to narrate about Jesus (starting with “for us men and for our salvation…”), nonetheless, it narrates very selectively. As N.T. Wright is fond of pointing out, most of the narrative of the Gospels is almost entirely omitted from the Creeds, which move from “born of the Virgin Mary” directly to “suffered under Pontius Pilate” without anything intervening. What happened between the virgin birth and the cross is what the Gospels are actually most concerned to tell us, and tell us four times over. And it is in those events – the ones omitted by the Creed – that Jesus and His apostles made the claim that He is Israel’s God.

We need to learn to hear that claim within the Jewish thought world. That’s a difficult task, and requires much historical and literary study and sensitivity. It requires pastors to preach creatively to help their congregations hear the NT with 1st century ears. In this task, the Creeds of the ecumenical councils are helpful as guards and boundaries: they rule out Arianism, Nestorianism, etc. If we ever find ourselves falling into these errors, we may be sure that we are also misreading the Bible. But when we begin to explain, in a positive way, what the Scriptures are saying, then the creeds are less helpful, and at some points they are actually a distraction from the language game that the NT’s authors (and Author) are playing.



  1. […] 25. Greek Ontology, Jewish Christology, and Ecumenism and Are the Creeds Distracting Us From NT Christology? […]

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