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Models For Christology (An Experiment)

July 27, 2016
Jesus - Supper in Emmaus (Caravaggio, 1606)

What is the best way to describe the person (or person and work) of Jesus Christ?  What I’m thinking of here sits at the intersection of theological conceptuality and method, drawing upon Scripture, reason, and the best of the history of Christian thought.

There are a number of strategies for Christology, over-arching models which give structure to a systematic presentation of the doctrine.  I’d like to briefly work through these models as I see them, and then invite you to help fill things out with a bit of crowd-sourcing.  Consider this a public experiment.  What model(s) are missing that you think are comprehensive enough to stand on their own?  Are there alterations or nuances you would suggest to what’s below?

We should say that the very best doctrinal models accomplish a number of things.  They attend to the fullness of the biblical witness.  They accommodate atonement theory organically, uniting the doctrines of Christ’s person and his redemptive work in a straight-forward and meaningful way.  And they are expansive in their scope, offering the theologian significant (if not exhaustive) explanatory power.

With these goals in mind, which model(s) do you think is best?

Of course these models are not mutually exclusive.  They overlap extensively, and theologians throughout the patristic, medieval, Reformation, and modern eras usually invoke some or all of them to greater or lesser degrees.  This isn’t a competition, and it isn’t about abandoning any model.  What it is about is asking whether one of them is decisively better for structuring our exposition of the doctrine.

(1) The Titles of Jesus

The Bible is layered with titles referring to Jesus and his work on the earth, as different authors draw upon varieties of imagery, and cultural and religious values, to articulate his identity and mission. Jesus is called “Messiah” and “Christ” (the Anointed One); “Son of God” and “Son of Man” (both with deep roots in the Old Testament); “Rabbi” and “Lord;” “Lamb of God” and “Emmanuel” and “Logos” and more.  Whole books have been written about each one of these names.

A Christology which begins from the titles of Jesus has the advantage of staying very close to the biblical text, and perhaps the pride of place as the church’s earliest form of christological reflection.  One cannot pursue the task in this way and drift away from Jesus’ Jewish roots, and from prophecy and its fulfillment.  It seems to me that this line of inquiry also (at least potentially) does a fine job balancing so-called “high” and “low” Christologies, understanding Jesus as a particular human person and also in some sense a divine agent.

(2) Two Natures: Divine and Human

As the church moved into the controversies of the fourth and fifth century, articulation of Christ’s person took on a more philosophical tone.  In their reading of Scripture the fathers sought to affirm both his full humanity (the incarnation was not a hoax) and his full divinity (the incarnation was the presence of God!).  In shoring up the church’s teaching against Arius, Apollinarius, Nestorius, Eutyches, and others, their Christology found expression in the metaphysical formula of the hypostatic union of two natures.

This macro-level model has a long and distinguished history (though it fell out of favor in some quarters after the Enlightenment), and so it feeds into centuries of Christian teaching on other topics.  Augustine described human nature as corrupted by original sin; Anselm draws upon nature language in his landmark atonement theory in Cur Deus Homo; Lutherans come to express the mystery of the Eucharist in terms of the sharing of these two natures’ properties; ad infinitum.  So this way of engaging Christology has going for it a long and rigorous history, the privilege of ecclesiastical confession, and a remarkable degree of conceptual precision.

(3) Three Offices: King, Priest, and Prophet

Perhaps most associated with John Calvin and the Reformation and post-Reformation eras, it should be said that the so-called munus triplex (three offices or the one, threefold office) has a longer history that.  This model takes its start from Christ’s work in its multi-dimensionality.  As King he exercises lordship over creation and cosmos, from the throne of heaven to the heart of believers.  As Priest he intercedes on behalf of sinners to God the Father, pleading their case and making the necessary sacrifice of atonement.  And as Prophet he teaches, both in the Galilean countryside and today through the ministry of his body as it is guided by the Holy Spirit.

Each of these offices comprehends a vital part of Jesus’ work, and by this work we understand who Jesus is — king, priest, and prophet, God, human, and the Mediator between the two.  No one office is sufficiently comprehensive; the totality of the “threefold” office is needed for a complete picture.  This model is steeped in biblical language, including the unity of the two testaments that is exemplified by the epistle to the Hebrews.  It also has the advantage of allowing no daylight between the doctrine of Christ’s person and that of his work.  He is who he is over us (King), among us (Prophet), and on our behalf (Priest).

(4) Two States: Humiliated and Exalted

Often mentioned in theology textbooks only as an echo to the three offices are the two states of Christ, the status duplex.  On the one hand Christ is described as the infinite God who has willingly reduced himself to finitude, humbling himself by taking on flesh in all its frailty.  On the other hand he is called exalted, honored by God the Father because of what he did (and who he is, as God the Son) and at the resurrection restored to that glory he voluntarily set aside.  The two states help to distinguish between his pre-incarnate and incarnate existence, closely following Phil. 2:5-11.

There is here a sense of movement, an exalted God coming down from above and then that same humble servant being lifted up in glory.  In this respect the status duplex fits nicely with the over-arching narrative of Jesus’ story as it appears in the New Testament, from the incarnation of the Word (John 1) to his eventual death (the nadir of this movement), resurrection, and ascension and heavenly session.  As a model for Christology it emphasizes the Son’s humble self-giving and his vindication by the Father, the depths of his obedience unto death and the heights of his glorification.

(5) Historical Jesus: Agency and Consciousness

Since the Enlightenment the modern period has seen a decisive shift in some quarters away from the dogmatic categories of the ancient church — hypostases, natures, communication of attributes, etc.  Without church authority to order their thoughts skeptics challenged the believability of the divinity of Jesus, turning instead to new explorations of his humanity and his place as a figure in the history of religions.  This broad model (if such a diverse range of thinkers can be reduced to a single ‘model’) has, especially since the eighteenth century, concerned itself with things such as Jesus’ historicity (the multiple “quests for the historical Jesus”) and his inner psychology, including questions of his consciousness and his self-understanding.

It should be said that, despite a typically uneasy relationship with ecclesiastical orthodoxy, this approach to the person of Christ has made fruitful contributions.  Christologies “from below” offer important points of balance to the ancient view “from above,” attending (in its better moments) to Jesus’ Jewishness, his place in the origins of the Christian faith, and the real profundity of the Son’s human life (and death).  They are also critical of the apparent distance between patristic and medieval concepts and Jesus as he appears in the gospels.  Even if its criticisms at times went too far, modernism has provoked Christian theologians to ask better questions.


We have identified five models
for structuring our exposition of Christology, that locus which is particularly concerned with the person of Christ and its (indispensable) intersection with his work.  Each has its advantages and, perhaps, its limitations.  Is there a model you have seen that I have not included here?  If you were to write a systematic Christology which model(s) would you favor, and why?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 29, 2016 9:14 am

    I might want to add the Redemptive-Historical/Eschatological view of Christ. Situating his person and work in the context of an already/not yet, semi-realized eschatology. I think this would have significant overlap with your number 5, but a unique contribution can be made by considering it from a distinctly Reformed biblical-theological perspective (lets say in the tradition Geerhardus Vos, Herman Ridderbos, etc).

  2. Nathanael Johnston permalink
    August 5, 2016 3:16 pm

    One question: how would you classify the second half of Thomas Aquinas’ christology in the Summa Theologiae in which he reflects theologically on the life of Christ?

  3. Myk Habets permalink
    September 15, 2016 4:36 pm

    I would do it by means of a Spirit Christology and look at the persona nd work from that methodology. I think it very biblical nd theologically robust.

  4. September 21, 2016 9:18 pm

    It’s almost not a fair question, you’ve seemed to cover all the ground quite nicely. 😉 I think Myk offers a unique proposal though.

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