It is hard to imagine a Christological heresy in the contemporary setting.
The central theme of the New Testament is the person and work of Jesus the Christ, the risen Lord whom we worship. Therein lies the unity of its message. Once it was established in early church tradition that the best way to understand the biblical witness was to view Jesus as the incarnation of the eternal Logos and the Son of God, theologians fell into the habit of reading the New Testament material along those lines and lost sight of differences in its various documents.
Today we have seen a complete change of approach. The emphasis has shifted from the unity of the text to its diversity. It is no longer assumed that Mark, for example, said the same things about Jesus as Paul did. It became the custom to speak of John’s theology and Luke’s theology—of numerous theologies by no means always in agreement—and not to think of any New Testament position on anything.
The results for Christology have been far-reaching. New Testament scholars report not one but several different Christological models in the text. There is a second Adam model in Paul, a logos model in John, an adoptionist model in Jesus’ own words, and so forth. And they are thought to be mutually exclusive ways to understand Christology. John’s view, for example, rules out seeing Jesus as anointed prophet or adopted Son, and his view was the one that triumphed in the subsequent orthodox consensus.
According to this new approach, there is no “orthodox” view of Christ in the New Testament, no single doctrine to which all faithful Christians ought to adhere. The inference can also be drawn that even today the theological soundness of anyone’s position on Christ’s person cannot be questioned so long as it falls within the general range of the New Testament options and their logical extensions.
This contemporary approach reveals several weaknesses. First, circumstances play a large role in producing different modes of expression. It is precarious to assume that because Paul felt it proper to describe Christ in terms of wisdom and John to describe him in terms of logos they were somehow contradicting each other. The two admittedly different metaphors say almost exactly the same thing, and are entirely compatible.
Second, our literary sources are limited. Even if we were to approach the New Testament as a haphazard collusion of documents, we could not know the whole of Mark’s or Luke’s theology. We do not know how they might have regarded what John had to say about Jesus. It could well be that Mark would have seen his own efforts fitting in coherently with the other witnesses. Or, that Paul did not write about the life of Christ because Mark had already done so. None of these writers gives us an exhaustive account of all his beliefs. All the writings are directed to particular situations. It would be hazardous to charge them with outright contradictions unless the evidence were much stronger than it is. We have reacted too sharply against harmonizing. Besides noting the differences between what Luke and Paul have written, we ought also to take note of the agreements and links between them. It may just turn out that the various pieces in the total Christological witness do fit together neatly in a richly textured but unified whole.
Third, to say that there are several incompatible Christologies in the New Testament amounts to claiming that there are several different gospels in it too, given the absolute centrality of Christ in the total picture. Paul insisted in the strongest possible terms that this was not the case. He and the Jerusalem apostles preached the same message (1 Cor. 15:11). And when he did come across what he judged to be another gospel, it had to do with circumcision, not the doctrine of Christ (Galatians). Can we imagine Paul not commenting on the situation if indeed, as this theory has it, there was basic disagreement on Christology too?
To be candid, we should admit a presupposition here. We do not in fact approach the New Testament as a haphazard collection of disparate sources if we are Christians. We come to these documents as part of a community that has received them as its scriptures for nearly 2,000 years. Even if we did so, we would have to judge the current tendency to highlight the extreme diversity of New Testament Christology exaggerated. But we do not regard the sources this way, and we might as well admit it.
This does not mean our acceptance of the New Testament as canonical Scripture is a leap of faith without any solid justification. By analogy with the Old Testament, early Christians were looking out for written scriptures to interpret and explain new covenantal revelation. The various epistles came for the most part with their authority stamped upon them, and the four Gospels, while anonymous, manifestly bore both historical and intrinsic credentials of authority. Because we see the New Testament as an abiding revelation from God we are also disposed to receive its teachings not as contradictory snippets, but as in some sense a unified whole. Not that we wish to impose a dogmatic unity upon the text from the outside. Rather, we want to remain open to seeing the great themes that arise from the text and impress upon our minds the calling for further theological reflection.
Viewed this way we hear a remarkably consistent witness to the deity and humanity of Jesus in one person. All of the New Testament voices join in one chorus that proclaims that wonderful mystery. Of course there are different tones sounded and different angles explored, and we do not want to suppress them. They alert us to the fact that there are many ways to appreciate the uniqueness of Jesus, ways that are not contradictory but compatible and ultimately unified. It is crucial for the good of the church and our mission to the nations that we all add our voices to that same anthem.
Dr. Pinnock is professor of systematic theology at McMaster Divinity College, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
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