The Doctrine of Christ in History

by Louis Berkhof


THERE is a very close connection between the doctrine of man and the doctrine of Christ. The former deals with man, created in the image of God and endowed with true knowledge, righteousness and holiness, but through wilful transgression of the law of God despoiled of his true humanity and transformed into a sinner. It points to man as a highly privileged creature of God, still bearing some of the traces of his original glory, but yet as a creature that has lost its birthright, its true freedom, and its original righteousness and holiness. This means that it directs attention, not merely, nor even primarily, to the creatureliness, but to the sinfulness of man. It emphasizes the ethical distance between God and man, the distance resulting from the fall of man, which neither man nor angels can bridge; and is as such virtually a cry for divine help. Christology is in part the answer to that cry. It acquaints us with the objective work of God in Christ to bridge the chasm, and to remove the distance. It shows us God coming to man, to remove the barriers between God and man by meeting the conditions of the law in Christ, and to restore man to His blessed communion. Anthropology already directs attention to the gracious provision of God for a covenant of friendship with man, which provides for a life of blessed communion with God; but it is a covenant which is effective only in and through Christ. And therefore the doctrine of Christ, as the Mediator of the covenant, must necessarily follow. Christ, typified and predicted in the Old Testament as the Redeemer of man, came in the fulness of time, to tabernacle among men and to effect an eternal reconciliation.


1. UP TO THE COUNCIL OF CHALCEDON. In the early Christian literature Christ stands out as both human and divine, the Son of Man, but also the Son of God. His sinless character is maintained, and He is regarded as a proper object of worship. Naturally, the problem presented by Christ, as at once God and man, and the difficulties involved in such a conception, were not fully felt by the early Christian mind and only dawned on it in the light of controversy. It was but natural that Judaism, with its strong emphasis on monotheism, should exercise considerable influence on the early Christians of Jewish extraction. The Ebionites (or part of them) felt constrained, in the interest of monotheism, to deny the deity of Christ. They regarded Him as a mere man, the son of Joseph and Mary, who was qualified at His baptism to be the Messiah, by the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Him. There were others in the early Church whose doctrine of Christ was constructed on similar lines. The Alogi, who rejected the writings of John, because they regarded his doctrine of the Logos as in conflict with the rest of the New Testament, also saw in Jesus a mere man, though miraculously born of a virgin, and taught that Christ descended on Him at baptism, conferring on Him supernatural powers. In the main this was also the position of the Dynamic Monarchians. Paul of Samosata, its main representative, distinguished between Jesus and the Logos. He regarded the former as a man like every other man, born of Mary, and the latter, as the impersonal divine reason, which took up its abode in Christ in a pre-eminent sense, from the time of His baptism, and thus qualified Him for His great task. In view of this denial it was part of the task of the early Apologetes to defend the doctrine of the deity of Christ.

If there were some who sacrificed the deity to the humanity of Christ, there were others who reversed the order. The Gnostics were profoundly influenced by the dualistic conception of the Greeks, in which matter as inherently evil is represented as utterly opposed to spirit; and by a mystic tendency to regard earthly things as allegorical representations of great cosmic redeeming processes. They rejected the idea of an incarnation, a manifestation of God in a visible form, since it involved a direct contact of spirit with matter. Harnack says that the majority of them regarded Christ as a Spirit consubstantial with the Father. According to some He descended upon the man Jesus at the time of His baptism, but left Him again before His crucifixion; while according to others He assumed a merely phantasmal body. The Modalistic Monarchians also denied the humanity of Christ, partly in the interest of His deity, and partly to preserve the unity of the Divine Being. They saw in Him merely a mode or manifestation of the one God, in whom they recognized no distinction of persons. The Anti-Gnostic and Alexandrian Fathers took up the defense of the deity of Christ, but in their defense did not altogether escape the error of representing Him as subordinate to the Father. Even Tertullian taught a species of subordination, but especially Origen, who did not hesitate to speak of a subordination as to essence. This became a steppingstone for Arianism, in which Christ is distinguished from the Logos as the divine reason, and is represented as a pre-temporal, superhuman creature, the first of the creatures, not God and yet more than man. Athanasius took issue with Arius, and strongly defended the position that the Son is consubstantial with, and of the same essence as, the Father, a position that was officially adopted by the council of Nicea in 321. Semi-Arianism proposed a via media by declaring the Son to be of a similar essence as the Father.

When the doctrine of the deity of the Son was officially established, the question naturally arose as to the relation in which the two natures in Christ stand to each other. Apollinaris offered a solution of the problem. Accepting the Greek trichotomic conception of man as consisting of body, soul, and spirit, he took the position that the Logos took the place of the spirit (pneuma) in man, which he regarded as the seat of sin. His chief interest was to secure the unity of the person in Christ, without sacrificing His real deity; and also to guard the sinlessness of Christ. But he did so at the expense of the complete humanity of the Saviour, and consequently his position was explicitly condemned by the Council of Constantinople in 381. One of the things for which Apollinaris contended was the unity of the person in Christ. That this was really in danger became quite apparent in the position taken by the school of Antioch, which exaggerated the distinction of the two natures in Christ. Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius stressed the complete manhood of Christ, and conceived of the indwelling of the Logos in Him as a mere moral indwelling, such as believers also enjoy, though not to the same degree. They saw in Christ a man side by side with God, in alliance with God, sharing the purpose of God, but not one with Him in the oneness of a single personal life, — a Mediator consisting of two persons. In opposition to them Cyril of Alexandria strongly emphasized the unity of the person in Christ, and in the estimation of his opponents denied the two natures. While they in all probability misunderstood him, Eutychus and his followers certainly appealed to him, when they took up the position that the human nature of Christ was absorbed by the divine, or that the two were fused into a single nature, a position involving the denial of the two natures in Christ. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 condemned both of these views and maintained the unity of the person as well as the duality of the natures.

2. AFTER THE COUNCIL OF CHALCEDON. For some time the Eutychian error was continued by the Monophysites and the Monothelites, but was finally overcome by the Church. The further danger that the human nature of Christ would be regarded as entirely impersonal was warded off by Leontius of Byzantium, when he pointed out that it is not impersonal but in-personal, having its personal subsistence in the person of the Son of God. John of Damascus, in whom the Christology of the East reached its highest development, added the idea that there is a circumincession of the divine and the human in Christ, a communication of the divine attributes to the human nature, so that the latter is deified and we may also say that God suffered in the flesh. He shows a tendency to reduce the human nature to the position of a mere organ or instrument of the Logos, yet he admits that there is a co-operation of the two natures, and that the one person acts and wills in each nature, though the human will is always subject to the divine.

In the Western Church Felix, bishop of Urgella, advocated adoptionism. He regarded Christ as to His divine nature, that is, the Logos, as the onlybegotten Son of God in the natural sense, but considered Christ on His human side as a Son of God merely by adoption. He sought to preserve the unity of the person by stressing the fact that, from the time of His conception, the Son of Man was taken up into the unity of the person of the Son of God. Thus a distinction was made between a natural and an adoptive sonship, and the latter did not begin with the natural birth of Christ, but had its inception at the time of His baptism and was consummated in the resurrection. It was a spiritual birth that made Christ the adopted Son of God. The Church saw the unity of the person in Christ once more endangered by this view, and therefore it was condemned by the Synod of Frankfort in 794 A.D.

The Middle Ages added very little to the doctrine of the person of Christ. Due to various influences, such as the emphasis on the imitation of Christ, the theories of the atonement, and the development of the doctrine of the mass, the Church retained a strong grasp on the full humanity of Christ. “The deity of Christ,” says Mackintosh, “came into view rather as the infinite co-efficient raising human action and passion to an infinite value.” And yet some of the Scholastics in their Christology set forth a docetic view of Christ. Peter the Lombard did not hesitate to say that in respect of His humanity Christ was nothing at all. But this Nihilism was condemned by the Church. Some new points were stressed by Thomas Aquinas. According to him the person of the Logos became composite at the incarnation, and its union with the manhood “hindered” the latter from arriving at an independent personality. The human nature of Christ received a twofold grace in virtue of its union with the Logos, (a) the gratia unionis, imparting to it a special dignity, so that it even became an object of worship, and (b) the gratia habitualis, which sustained it in its relationship to God. The human knowledge of Christ was twofold, namely, an infused and an acquired knowledge. There are two wills in Christ, but ultimate causality belongs to the divine will, to which the human will is always subject.


1. UP TO THE NINETEENTH CENTURY. The Reformation did not bring any great changes in the doctrine of the person of Christ. Both the Church of Rome and the Churches of the Reformation subscribed to the doctrine of Christ as it was formulated by the Council of Chalcedon. Their important and deep-seated differences lay elsewhere. There is one peculiarity of Lutheran Christology that deserves special mention. Luther’s doctrine of the physical presence of Christ in the Lord’s supper led to the characteristically Lutheran view of the communicatio idiomatum, to the effect “that each of Christ’s natures permeates the other (perichoresis), and that His humanity participates in the attributes of His divinity.”[Neve, Lutheran Symbolics, p. 132.] It is held that the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence were communicated to the human nature of Christ at the time of the incarnation. The question naturally arose, how this could be harmonized with what we know of the earthly life of Jesus. This question led to a difference of opinion among Lutheran theologians. Some held that Christ laid aside the divine attributes received in the incarnation, or used them only occasionally, while others said that He continued in possession of them during His entire earthly life, but concealed them or used them only secretly. Some Lutherans now seem inclined to discard this doctrine.

Reformed theologians saw in this Lutheran doctrine a species of Eutychianism or of the fusion of the two natures in Christ. Reformed theology also teaches a communication of attributes, but conceives of it in a different way. It believes that, after the incarnation, the properties of both natures can be attributed to the one person of Christ. The person of Christ can be said to be omniscient, but also, to have but limited knowledge; can be regarded as omnipresent, but also as being limited at any particular time to a single place. Hence we read in the Second Helvetic Confession: “We acknowledge, therefore, that there be in one and the same Jesus our Lord two natures — the divine and the human nature; and we say that these are so conjoined or united that they are not swallowed up, confounded, or mingled together, but rather united or joined together in one person (the properties of each being safe and remaining still), so that we do worship one Christ, our Lord, and not two. . . . Therefore we do not think nor teach that the divine nature in Christ did suffer, or that Christ, according to His human nature, is yet in the world, and so in every place.”[Chap. XI.]

2. IN THE NINTEENTH CENTURY. About the beginning of the nineteenth century a great change took place in the study of the person of Christ. Up to that time the point of departure had been prevailingly theological, and the resulting Christology was theocentric; but during the last part of the eighteenth century there was a growing conviction that better results could be attained by starting closer at home, namely, with the study of the historical Jesus. Thus the so-called “second Christological period” was ushered in. The new point of view was anthropological, and the result was anthropocentric. It proved to be destructive of the faith of the Church. A far-reaching and pernicious distinction was made between the historical Jesus, delineated by the writers of the Gospels, and the theological Christ, who was the fruit of the fertile imagination of theological thinkers, and whose image is now reflected in the creeds of the Church. The supernatural Christ made way for a human Jesus; and the doctrine of the two natures, for the doctrine of a divine man.

Schleiermacher stood at the head of the new development. He regarded Christ as a new creation, in which human nature is elevated to the plane of ideal perfection. Yet his Christ can hardly be said to rise above the human level. The uniqueness of His person consists in the fact that He possesses a perfect and unbroken sense of union with the divine, and also realizes to the full the destiny of man in His character of sinless perfection. His supreme dignity finds its explanation in a special presence of God in Him, in His unique God-consciousness. Hegel’s conception of Christ is part and parcel of his pantheistic system of thought. The Word become flesh means for him God become incarnate in humanity, so that the incarnation really expresses the oneness of God and man. The incarnation of Christ was, so it seems, merely the culmination of a racial process. While mankind in general regards Jesus only as a human teacher, faith recognizes Him as divine and finds that by His coming into the world the transcendence of God is changed into immanence. Here we meet with a pantheistic identification of the human and the divine in the doctrine of Christ.

Something of this is also seen in the Kenotic theories, which represent a rather remarkable attempt to improve on the construction of the doctrine of the person of Christ. The term kenosis is derived from Phil. 2:7, which teaches that Christ “emptied (ekenosen) Himself, taking the form of a servant.” The Kenoticists take this to mean that the Logos literally became, that is, was changed into a man by reducing (depotentiating) Himself, either wholly or in part, to the dimensions of a man, and then increased in wisdom and power until at last He again became God. This theory appeared in various forms, of which the most absolute is that of Gess, and for a time enjoyed considerable popularity. It aimed at maintaining the reality and integrity of the manhood of Christ, and to throw into strong relief the greatness of His humiliation in that He, being rich, for our sakes became poor. It involves, however, a pantheistic obliteration of the line of demarcation between God and man. Dorner, who was the greatest representative of the Mediating school, strongly opposed this view, and substituted for it the doctrine of a progressive incarnation. He saw in the humanity of Christ a new humanity with a special receptivity for the divine. The Logos, the principle of self-bestowal in God, joined Himself to this humanity; the measure in which He did this was determined at every stage by the ever-increasing receptivity of the human nature for the divine, and did not reach its final stage until the resurrection. But this is merely a new and subtle form of the old Nestorian heresy. It yields a Christ consisting of two persons.

With the exception of Schleiermacher, no one has exercised greater influence on present day theology than Albrecht Ritschl. His Christology takes its starting point in the work, rather than in the person of Christ. The work of Christ determines the dignity of His person. He was a mere man, but in view of the work which He accomplished and the service He rendered, we rightly attribute to Him the predicate of Godhead. He rules out the pre-existence, the incarnation, and the virgin birth of Christ, since this finds no point of contact in the believing consciousness of the Christian community. Christ was the founder of the kingdom of God, thus making the purpose of God His own, and now in some way induces men to enter the Christian community and to live a life that is motivated entirely by love. He redeems man by His teaching, example, and unique influence, and is therefore worthy to be called God. This is virtually a renewal of the doctrine of Paul of Samosata.

On the basis of the modern pantheistic idea of the immanence of God, the doctrine of Christ is to-day often represented in a thoroughly naturalistic way. The representations may vary greatly, but the fundamental idea is generally the same, that of an essential unity of God and man. The doctrine of the two natures of Christ has disappeared from modern theology, and instead we have a pantheistic identification of God and man. Essentially all men are divine, since they all have a divine element in them; and they are all sons of God, differing from Christ only in degree. Modern teaching about Christ is all based on the doctrine of the continuity of God and man. And it is exactly against this doctrine that Barth and those who are like-minded with him have raised their voice. There are in some circles to-day signs of a return to the two-nature doctrine. Micklem confesses in his What Is the Faith? that for many years he confidently asserted that the ascription to Christ of two natures in one person had to be abandoned, but now sees that this rested on a misunderstanding.[p. 155.]

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY. What was the background of the Christological controversy in the early centuries? What ancient errors were revived by Roscelinus and Abelard? What was the Christological Nihilism in vogue among the disciples of Abelard? How did Peter the Lombard view Christ? Did the Scholastics bring any new points to the fore? Where do we find the official Lutheran Christology? How can we account for the seemingly inconsistent representations of the formula of Concord? What objections are there to the Lutheran view that divine attributes may be predicated of the human nature? How did the Lutherans and the Reformed differ in their interpretation of Phil. 2:5-11? How does the Reformed Christology differ from the Lutheran? What is the main difference between recent and earlier Christologies? What objections are there to the Kenosis doctrine? What are the objectionable features of modern Christology? How do Barth and Brunner view Christ?

LITERATURE: The Formula of Concord and the Second Helvetic Confession; Seeberg, History of Doctrine II, pp. 65, 109 f., 154 f., 229 f., 321 f., 323 f., 374, 387; Hagenbach, History of Doctrine II, pp. 267-275; III, pp. 197-209, 343-353; Thomasius, Dogmengeschichte II, pp. 380-385; 388-429; Otten, Manual of the History of Dogmas II, pp. 171-195; Heppe, Dogmatik des deutschen Protestantismus II, pp. 78-178; Dorner, History of Protestant Theology, pp. 95 f., 201 f., 322 f.; Bruce, The Humiliation of Christ, pp. 74-355; Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ, pp. 223-284; Ottley, The Doctrine of the Incarnation, pp. 485-553, 587-671; Sanday, Christologies Ancient and Modern, pp. 59-83; Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus; La Touche, The Person of Christ in Modern Thought.


From Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof

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