January 2019 Credo
The great twentieth century Swiss-German theologian, Karl Barth, once said: ‘Show me your Christology and I will tell you who you are’. In this statement, Barth emphasises the profound relationship between one’s Christology and one’s orthodoxy.
If we have a right understanding of who Jesus Christ is, we will also have a sound understanding of what the Christian faith is about. But the reverse is also true.
Throughout the history of the Church, there have been numerous heresies surrounding the person of Jesus Christ. These heresies emerged from Christian soil, and some of them even received life from the pens of Christian bishops and theologians who were trying to make sense of the biblical account.
Although these christological heresies vary to some degree, as we shall see, they seem to stem from one fundamental problem. That problem has to do with the attempt by their proponents to fit the biblical material about Christ into the mould of their preconceived ideas about God and about what it means to be human.
One of the earliest heresies related to the person of Christ is associated with the Jewish-Christian Sect in the second century called the Ebionites, meaning ‘the Poor Ones’. Unable to accept the orthodox conception of the Incarnation, this heretical group insisted that Jesus was just a human being, the biological son of Mary and Joseph.
God chose this humble carpenter from Nazareth to be the Messiah (the Anointed One) because of his exceptional virtue. At Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan by John the Baptist, the Spirit of God descended on him and anointed him for his ministry and mission.
Another early heresy that introduced distortions to the orthodox conception of the person of Christ is Docetism, whose name is taken from the Greek word dokeo, which means ‘to seem’. As its name suggests, Docetism teaches that the humanity of Jesus in the incarnation is not substantially real – the eternal Logos only ‘seemed’ to have taken up human flesh.
This means that the humanity of Christ is only an illusion, an apparition, and a phantasm. But this also means that the suffering and death of Christ are not real – he only appeared or seemed to have died on the cross. Docetism is closely wedded to Gnosticism, a branch of Greek philosophy that advocates a stark metaphysical dualism of spirit and matter.
Ebionitism and Docetism in their very different ways can be said to have committed the same theological error. Both seem to be working with some preconceived notions of Deity and humanity. And when the biblical materials concerning the Incarnation are unable to neatly fit into these conceptual moulds, they are conveniently snipped away and set aside.
For example, both these heresies refused to allow even the possibility that the divine and human natures can co-exist in one person. They pre-emptively rejected the Chalcedonian Definition of 451 that asserted that Christ is ‘very God and very man’. For them, this is simply impossible, like a square circle.
What was their solution? The Ebionites elected to emphasise the humanity of Christ and reject his deity. Jesus Christ was a human being, but who was exceptionally anointed with the Spirit of God to fulfil his mission.
The Docetics, on the other hand, ‘solved’ the conundrum in the exact opposite way: by privileging Christ’s deity over his humanity, thereby effectively rejecting the latter. Thus, the divine Christ only appeared to be human.
With Arianism, we come to a slightly different philosophical or theological issue, although broadly speaking it still has to do with certain preconceptions about deity. Arius was a charismatic preacher in the early decades of the 4th century who was unable to accept the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Jesus.
Arius wanted to jealously protect the monotheism of Christianity, which he mistakenly thought was threatened by the orthodox understanding of the Trinity. But Arius worked with a philosophical – chiefly Platonic – understanding of God as monad. He therefore could not make sense of the orthodox teaching that the one God is tri-personal – Father, Son and the Holy Sprit.
Consequently, Arius demoted the Son to the status of creature, arguing that he was not co-eternal and co-equal with the Father.
If we were to fast-forward to the 18th and 19th centuries, we find European scholars, carried away by the historical-critical method, embarking on quest after quest for the so-called ‘historical Jesus’. From Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1794-1768) to David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) to Albert Schweizter (1975-1965), these scholars tried to reconstruct the figure of Jesus according to their research, guided supremely by the scientific method.
After a brief lacuna, which scholars have somewhat blandly called ‘No Quest’ (1906 to 1953), the search was revived with the New Quest (1953 to the present day) and even the Third Quest (1980 to the present day).
These efforts betray that stubborn unwillingness of modern scholars to accept the Church’s understanding of Jesus Christ. Creating an unbridgeable wedge between the ‘Jesus of history’ and the ‘Christ of faith’, they have violently severed reason from faith.
We see the same problem manifesting in a slightly different form in the work of the German New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann and his programme of demythologisation. Guided by the modern scientific understanding of reality, Bultmann surgically excised supernatural events like miracles by discounting them as myth.
For the same reason, John Hick ‘mythologises’ the Incarnation in the book that he edited, The Myth of God Incarnate (1977). In 1993, Hick changed his language – but not his basic view – in an updated account published as The Myth of God Incarnate: Christology in a Pluralistic Age.
What was the fundamental problem of these ancient and modern thinkers and writers? They have created a metaphysical mould – a certain understanding of God and man – inspired by an alien philosophy or worldview – Platonism or scientific materialism – and tried to fit Christianity into it.
In Greek mythology, a story is told of Procrustes (‘the stretcher’), a bandit who mutilated his victims by either stretching them or cutting their limbs so as to fit them into the size of his iron bed.
The Procrustean bed is a framework constructed by alien philosophical assumptions into which the data of revelation and the teachings of the Christian faith are forced. What fails to fit into that iron bed is simply amputated.
Procrustean beds are dangerous devices. They distort and mutilate the truth. They disfigure the revelation to which Scripture testifies, and mangle the biblical data.
Procrustean beds create heresies.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.