The most unique and important aspect of the Christian faith is what Christians believe about the person and work of Jesus Christ. For Christians, the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth are not just the defining moment of our faith tradition but the defining moment for the entirety of creation. Christians don’t believe that Jesus was simply a good man, or a good teacher—though of course he was each of those—but that he is God in the flesh, God with us and God in us; these are the fundamental ideals of Christianity.
Many people today can accept much of what Christians believe; they can respect and may even try to adhere to the moral principles found within the Christian faith, but many—some of whom probably refer to themselves as Christian—can’t accept the major stumbling blocks, one of which being the concept of the incarnation, the idea that God took on human form. It is precisely this belief however that became central to the early Christian community even before they could explain their conviction theologically. It is a belief that is essential to the Christian faith as set forth in the traditional confession of the Church, the Nicene Creed (see attached).
The Creed is an appropriate place to begin any discussion of Christian theology because it exemplifies the major consensus of the Christian faith and nicely summarizes core teaching which is accepted, at least tacitly, by all Christian bodies today. Because of this, the Creed serves as a symbol of the essential unity of Christianity in the key understanding of Jesus Christ as the incarnation of God and Savior of the world.
Prior to mentioning Jesus the creed contains important elements for understanding who Christ is. The creed begins with the basic statement that Christians believe in one God, the basic tenet of all monotheistic religions. One can already see something of the peculiarly Christian conception of God emerging from the second line onward: “the Father, the Almighty.” Here, God is given two titles which are meant to reveal something of his nature or the way in which God interacts with the world. God is Father, not in the biological sense of the word as regards procreation in the natural world, but rather, God is Father because of the act of creation in which the universe was created. Some might protest that the term “creator” would carry the same connotation and would have fewer negatives, yet the Christian conception of God is one which simply calling God “creator” wouldn’t fully communicate. And while Father too fails to fully communicate who Christians conceive God to be, it does provide more insight into the relationship between the Father and creation that Christianity testifies to. This insight is born out more fully in the texts of scripture where it is indicated that God is Father in a way which human fathers can only approximate. It is not, to paraphrase CS Lewis, that we have labeled God Father in an attempt to anthropomorphize the deity because of the ideal relationships we see between human fathers and their offspring; rather we call human parents father—and mother—because of the ideal relationship that exists between God and creation and the fact that we desire our human parents to aspire to that goal. I mention motherhood because, while fewer in number and more circumspect in nature, there are many places in scripture where God is referred to as carrying out motherly roles. The most well-known example of this being God’s lament over Jerusalem in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels where God speaks of gathering the people of Jerusalem (and Israel—indeed all nations) like a hen broods over her young.1
Calling God “the Almighty,” conveys something more of the Christian conception of God. Just as “Father” was descriptive rather than proscriptive of God, so too is the term “Almighty” an approximate description of God’s characteristics. God is obviously very powerful; so powerful in fact, that our words fail to convey the true magnitude—hence we say that God has all might, all power and is all-knowing, all-seeing and all-pervasive.
The last two lines of this section: “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen” demonstrate the Christian understanding that our God is indeed the creator of the universe and it also sets forth a cosmological position that there are elements within the earth that may be seen or sensed that those that may not be seen or sensed but that God is the creator of all things.
The next portion of the Creed begins the process of Christian differentiation in earnest and has as its background a great deal of theological thought and insight, it is a distillation of the consensus arrived at by the early Church as to the nature of Christ, and it is this consensus that marks Christianity as Christian.2 By this statement Christians are proclaiming the Lordship of Christ, which is to say that we believe all of creation to be subject to Christ, under his divine authority (Eph. 1:19-23, Hebrews 2, 1 Cor. 15:28 etc..). Of great importance given the theological controversies that raged during the first four centuries of Christianity is what is stated regarding Christ’s origins and relationship with God the Father.
As you can see, theology is a web of interconnected ideas and beliefs; additionally, the way in which Christians believe Christ to interact with the world and with God necessitates an understanding of both the divine and human realms. The core doctrine that undertakes to explain Jesus’ relationship with the Father and us is the doctrine of the incarnation, or the “enfleshment” of God. The Christian understanding of God as Trinity was a doctrine that was reasoned “backwards,” beginning as it did with an understanding of Christ as God. One could say that the doctrine was empirical in origin; Christians believe what they do about Christ because of eye-witness accounts and lived experiences. The doctrine of the incarnation set out to explain what kind of nature God had revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ whom the earliest believers proclaimed as God through the Scriptures, their language and worship. It is also important to keep in mind that Christianity sees no distinction between the God who makes his presence known in the history of the people of Israel and the God who reveals these things to us in the person of Jesus Christ; instead Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to the people of Israel.
Once the Trinity was established as a given, Christians sought a way to explain how it was that the second person of the Trinity—the Word or Logos—became incarnate. The Nicene Creed contains what might be called the findings of their deliberations. We see in the Creed that Jesus is the only son of God, i.e. he was not simply a semidivine offspring amongst others, as was common among pagan religions. Instead Christ was uniquely the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, which is God the Son whom the Creed identifies as being eternally begotten of the father. This means that there was never a time when the Son was not. Though there is a historical record of the man Jesus of Nazareth, and it is obvious that his life had a beginning—with the entirety of the Christian faith resting upon his resurrection from the dead—the second person of the Trinity is eternal with no beginning and no end.
The second person of the Trinity in the incarnation achieved and maintained a unity with the humanity of Jesus Christ. We say that in Christ God became flesh, though we do not say that God “left heaven,” instead the nature of God is such, being eternal and all pervasive and existing in the Trinity of persons that God can be everywhere, there is no sense in which there could be “less” or “more” of God. Because of the perfect unity within the Godhead wherever one member of the Trinity is the other two are there also.3
We say that Christ had both a divine and human nature existing in harmony within his person. The unity that exists between the divinity of the Logos and the humanity of Jesus is what bridges the gap between God and humanity. In Christ, God becomes human, and humanity begins to participate in the full reality of God through the incorporation of Jesus into God. And so Christ serves as a conduit through which humanity can come to discern as much of God’s nature as it is possible for us to grasp.4
So one aspect of Christ’s work was to reveal God’s nature to humanity. Consider the Christian understanding that God is love in light of the cross and the sacrifice of Christ. Christians believe that Christ demonstrated God’s nature in his life and that through an imitation of Christ we can come not only to be holy ourselves as our God is holy, but to be truly human because we believe that Christ demonstrates what it means to be truly human. Christians do not believe that Christ was divine despite his humanity but we believe that his divinity was essential to his humanity. In other words the man Jesus Christ was not merely a shell or a casing for the divine Logos, instead the unity between the Logos in Christ were such that it is only in knowing Christ’s totality that we begin to understand the Father. Additionally, by being made members of Christ and accepting him as our Lord and Savior we gain the capability to lead a truly human life, because it is Christ who was able—through his divinity—to live a perfect life, a life consistent with the original intent of God for humanity. Because of this, any life that does not have Jesus at the center has to be seen as somewhat less than human, insofar as it is not lived in conformity with God’s intent for humanity.5
This understanding comes through the connection between God and humanity that had been broken by sin being restored through Christ. Christ is the point of intersection between God and the world, humanity and God.6 Saint Athanasius speaks of Christ’s work on earth as the renewal or refurbishing of an Icon. In other words, God created humanity in his image, yet sin damaged that image and made it a less perfect approximation of the original.7 Because of this the only way to correct the damage of sin was through a “recreation,” or through renewing the original image of God in the creation thereby restoring it to its original glory and intent. Additionally, Christ’s renewal of humanity is not limited to a restoration, it is also an extension, a stretching of human nature beyond the bounds which had constrained it previously, both natural and sinful. In demonstrating what it means to be human and the nature of God, Christ forces us to recognize both our potential—and therefore our failings—and what is impossible for us to do, not only through sin but by the very nature of human finitude. This places Christ not only in the position of re-presenting or renewing the original creation, but in the position of continuing the work of the Word through which God creates, thereby bringing to fulfillment and completion the original intent of God: perfect communion between creation and God, a hope of the last days made present in Christ Jesus but not to be realized until the end of time.8
In speaking of sin and human limitation it is natural for the discussion to turn from Jesus’ life to questions surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection and thus, to the question of the atonement. The atonement is a somewhat more ambiguous doctrine within Christianity, never having been narrowed or codified into one specific theory. In many ways that makes it one of the more interesting doctrines to examine. But there is no doubt that the doctrine(s) of the atonement are some of the most important when dealing with the work of Christ. The basic question of all atonement theories is: “what did Jesus accomplish on the cross?” or perhaps, even more particularly “what did Jesus’ death mean?” The reason for framing the question in the second form is that the first is too simply answered. What did Jesus accomplish on the cross? He restored us into fellowship with God and gave us the fruits of everlasting life in him. The question of how this happened and what this means is much more speculative. We know what Christ accomplished because of the witness of scripture and our own salvation—but how did this come to be so. Most theories of the atonement begin with a declaration of guilt on the part of humanity. Where they differ is in how they go about explaining the guilt or debt incurred by our sin. Some would say that the fact that Jesus had to die on the cross indicted human sin and wickedness because a sacrifice was needed to atone for our sins—in other words, God required a sacrifice to overlook our iniquity, and because such a sacrifice had to be perfect and without blemish, Jesus’ life was necessary. Another understanding is that Jesus’ death was necessitated not by the need to satisfy the wrath or justice of God, but rather because in sinning humanity had become subject to death and only the sacrifice of Jesus—being in union with the divine Word—was sufficient to allow the full force of death to run its course and for life to remain a possibility. In other words, for us, death would be like a tsunami from which we could not escape, but Jesus was like a continent, allowing death to wash over him and remaining when its tide receded, thereby breaking its power. Yet another theory is known as the “ransom theory” because it entails a belief that our sin somehow left us subject to the devil and that God had to ransom us back from the clutches of Satan through a sort of divine SWAT-team or something of that sort. Regardless of the way it is explained, it is clear that the death of Christ on the Cross both implicates us in our sin and vindicates us as Christians, and therein lies the hope of Christ: that dying to sin and living in Christ we gain the hope of eternal life with God.9
DuBose, William P. High Priesthood and Sacrifice: An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1908.
Hart, David Bentley. The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
Moltmaan, Jurgen. The Crucified God. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
Rahner, Karl. The Trinity. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.
Temple, William. Christus Veritas. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1962.
Williams, Rowan. On Christian Theology: Challenges in Contemporary Theology. Edited by Gareth Jones and Lewis Ayers, Challenges in Contemporary Theology. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2002.
———. Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2002.
- Matthew 23:27 and Luke 13:34 [↩]
- Jurgen Moltmaan, The Crucified God (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 82.; as Moltmaan states: .“In spite of all the cultural, philosophical and spiritual riches of historic Christianity, Christian faith basically lives only as a profession of faith in Jesus. On the other hand, when critics of Christianity trace its cultural and humane traditions to non-Christian origins in antiquity or the present time, they come up against an irreducible core in the profession of faith in Jesus. Wherever Jesus is acknowledged as the Christ of God, Christian faith is to be found. Wherever this is doubted, obscured or denied, there is no longer Christian faith, and the riches of historic Christianity disappear with it.” [↩]
- Karl Rahner, The Trinity (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997), 24-25.; “We should not even envisage the possibility of taking the statement about the hypostatic union as a paradigm for similar statements which would likewise open the Trinity towards the world, and thus lead to the thesis of an identity between the economic and immanent Trinity. The reason we cannot consider the incarnation as an ‘instance’ of a wider state of affairs is simple and preemptory. In God everything is identically one whenever we are not speaking of the opposition of the relations of origin which gives rise to the three persons.” [↩]
- William Temple, Christus Veritas (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1962), 124-25.; Temple states: “We have seen that every grade in reality finds its own fulfillment only when it is possessed by a higher grade, and that each higher grade uses those which are lower than itself for its expression. From this it follows that humanity only reveals its true nature when it is indwelt by what is higher than itself—and supremely when it is indwelt by the Highest; and that the Highest uses what is lower to express Himself and does this more adequately as this lower approximates to likeness with Himself, so that of all things known to us human nature will express Him most perfectly. But if this is so, and if in Jesus Christ God lived on earth a human life, then it must be true that in Jesus Christ we shall find two things. In Jesus Christ we shall find the one adequate presentation of God—not adequate, of course,, to the infinite glory of God in all His attributes, but adequate to every human need, for it shows us God in terms of our own experience. But in Jesus Christ we shall find also the one adequate presentation of Man—not man as he is apart from the indwelling of God, but Man as he is in his truest nature, which is only made actual when man becomes the means to the self expression of God.” [↩]
- David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 320.; “To speak of Christ as God’s supreme rhetoric, as a way of understanding his character as the eternal Word and express image of the Father, is also to call attention to the ‘rhetoricity’ of his earthly career: for, despite the ‘messianic secret’ of his mission, there is nothing occult in his teaching, nor do his mysteries seal a hidden deposit of cryptadia to which admission can be gained, by a special few, only through trial, initiation and a secret gnosis. Christian initiation consists only in instruction in what is openly proclaimed by the church (which refers to what is made utterly manifest in the person and life of Jesus of Nazareth) and in sacramental integration into the community that constitutes Christ’s body. One speaks of the hiddeness of the Son’s Godhead in the flesh of Jesus, but one does not mean by this anything like the cunning concealments of a Gnostic savior: it is the very flesh of Jesus that reveals the nature of his divinity—the essential condescension of divine love—and it is by way of his flesh that his divinity is imparted to others, in the breaking of his body.” [↩]
- William P. DuBose, High Priesthood and Sacrifice: An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1908), 4.; “According to [the Epistle to the Hebrews] the place and part of Jesus Christ in the world is an eternal and universal one. His function is not only human but cosmical, and not only cosmical but divine. He is equally on one side identified with, and on the other distinguished from—man, creation, and God. He is the unity of them all, while not effacing in himself but rather maintaining the distinctions of them each.” [↩]
- In On the Incarnation Athanasius argues that the reason death enters the world was not a punishment from God because of disobedience, but rather the natural effect of creatures created ex nihilo loosing their focus on the divine and eternal image of God. Once the image of God within humanity was covered by the original sin of our first parents, they lost the aspect of their nature which prevented them from returning to their original state, i.e. nothingness. [↩]
- Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology: Challenges in Contemporary Theology, ed. Gareth Jones and Lewis Ayers, Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 142-43.; “For the event of Christ to be authentically revelatory, it must be capable of both ‘fitting’ and ‘extending’ any human circumstance; it must be re-presentable, and the form and character of its re-presentation are not necessarily describable in advance.” Also, William Porcher DuBose in High Priesthood and Sacrifice (p 5) makes the following statement: “Jesus Christ did not more come into this world than He was always in it; He was at no single point more creative cause ab extra as he was creative principle ab intra. That with which Christianity identifies Jesus Christ eternally and essentially and inseparably is not only God but creation and ourselves.” [↩]
- Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (Clevland: The Prilgrim Press, 2002), 3.; “The court and city that condemned Jesus is still engaged in judging and condemning him as it confronts his church. And insofar as it continues to judge and condemn, it continues to invite the judgment of its victim, whom God has approved and exalted. So, at the simplest level, we have to do with a straightforward reversal of roles: the condemned and the court change places, the victim becomes the judge. And this as it stands would have been a readily intelligible theological move. The idea that those who are now poor and despised will at the last day be endowed with the authority to judge those who judged them is familiar enough from Jewish apocalyptic literature, from Daniel to Qumran and later. But the gospel of the resurrection goes on to a more profound and startling reversal. The exaltation of the condemned Jesus is presented by the disciples not as threat but as promise and hope. The condemning court, the murderous ‘city’, is indeed judged as resisting the saving will of God; but that does not mean that the will of God ceases to be saving. The rulers and the people are in rebellion; yet they act ‘in ignorance’ (Acts 3:17; cf. Luke 23:34), and God still waits to be graciously present in ‘times of refreshing’ (Acts 3:19). And grace is released when the judges turn to their victim and recognize him as their hope and their savior.” [↩]