Christological heresy arises through failing to affirm of Christ all that Scripture asserts: by either denying the divine or human nature at the expense of the other, confusing or conflating his natures, or dividing his person. I remember Sinclair Ferguson teaching at PRTS on the importance of knowing Jesus Christ to the ends of the page found in chapter 8 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, but then strongly warning us, anything beyond that page is heresy. Looking back to that lesson from 2010, it still surprises me that I receive more questions regarding Christology than any other loci. Just like the title Son of Man, the scope of Son of God encompasses Jesus’ humanity as well as deity. Jesus Christ is both the eternal Son and the true and faithful human son; he is both the one who speaks the divine law and the one who answers the summons with perfect obedience for us.
Sonship: Ontological and Official
The New Testament claims Adamic and Abrahamic senses of sonship for Christ: he is Son upon condition of obedience, according to the image of God, and he is Son unconditionally and forever—except that in the latter sense, Jesus’ unique divine sonship is not by grace but is his very nature as the one and only Word and Son, eternally begotten of the Father (e.g., Matt. 22:41–46; John 1:1–3, 14, 18). The narratives of Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration, Paul’s consistent witness to the humbled and exalted Lord (e.g., Rom. 1:3–6; 8:3–4; Gal. 4:4–5; Phil. 2:5–11; Col. 1:15–17, 18–23), and many similar passages clearly testify to the character of Jesus’ relationship with the Father and the Spirit, as the fully divine and fully human Son of God.
The trajectory of liberal theology since the Enlightenment has been essentially Arian (or Adoptionist, discussed below). In this view, “the Jesus of history” was a pious rabbi who was transformed into “the Christ of faith” through the influence of Greek philosophy on developing Christian orthodoxy. Yet even critical scholarship has found no basis for any sharp distinction between Jewish and Hellenistic Christologies in the early church. Jesus was crucified for claiming equality with God; he claimed to be “Lord” prior to David (Matt. 22:41–45), the “Word” prior to creation, and the “I AM” prior to Abraham (John 8:58). The New Testament authors urge faith in and worship of the man Jesus as God and Lord. The doctrine of the incarnation is the center of Christology, bringing together Scripture’s testimony to the full humanity and full deity of Jesus Christ, as summarized in the Definition of Chalcedon (451).
While the Word “was” God (John 1:1), he “became” flesh (v. 14) by taking to himself our human nature in all its aspects in Mary’s womb, yet he was without sin (Heb. 4:15), by the power of the Spirit. Each nature is entirely preserved in its distinctness, in an incomprehensibly intimate union in and as one integral person, Jesus Christ. Scripture gives no place to a view of Christ that pits his divine nature against his humanity, nor assigns some actions of Christ to one nature and some to the other. Jesus, God and man, does all things from the Father by the Spirit. Likewise, Jesus’ growth and limitations and temptations were real; without surrendering or compromising his divinity, the Son fully assumed our humanity and redeemed us in and through it.
This section concerns the main traditional heretical christological views, rather than specific persons who may be associated with them. As with the doctrine of the Trinity, the formal delineation of Christology arose, not from academic or philosophical speculation, but from the concrete faith and practice of the Christian community. The chief historical heresies regarding denial of the incarnation (defined above) are the Ebionite heresy, Adoptionism, Docetism, Gnosticism, and Arianism. The chief heresies regarding the relation between Christ’s divinity and humanity in one person (also defined above) are Apollinarianism, Monophysitism (or Eutychianism), and Nestorianism. The Monophysite and Nestorian heresies represent the extremes of two tendencies of christological reflection: the Alexandrian and Antiochene, respectively. Alexandrian Christologies tend to emphasize the unity of Christ’s person, sometimes to the extent that his humanity is absorbed into his divinity. Antiochene Christologies, on the other hand, emphasize the distinction of Christ’s natures, sometimes to the point that Christ seems to be two persons acting in tandem, one divine and one human. The Council of Chalcedon condemned both views, affirming the ancient catholic consensus that Christ is one person in two natures. During the Reformation, as a result of controversy over the Lord’s Supper, the Reformed came to suspect Lutherans of Monophysitism (because they affirmed the omnipresence of Christ according to both natures), while the Lutherans suspected the Reformed of Nestorianism (because they affirmed the omnipresence of Christ’s divine nature only). The Lutheran-Reformed debate turns on two key concerns: (1) the communicatio idiomatum and (2) the extra Calvinisticum. With the rise of Socinianism and then Protestant liberalism, Arianism returned to the fore; often by way of either Nestorian or Monophysite trajectories, Jesus’ true and full divinity was rejected.
Barth did much to revive a salutary emphasis on Christology “from above,” stressing that God was at work in Christ for redemption and that the Son is eternally divine and became fully human (but not without problematic elements in his views). Theologians like Karl Rahner and Wolfhart Pannenberg have come from a different direction in line with broader modern trends, emphasizing Christology “from below” by beginning with the character of Jesus’ humanity to illuminate the character of his divinity. The latter approach, however, tends to end up with a divinized man who is quantitatively, rather than qualitatively, distinct from all other persons. Only in the distinctiveness of each nature, united in one person, do we find the complete Savior who can bring total redemption from sin and death.
All of God’s covenantal purposes converge in Jesus Christ. As the eternal Son who would take on our humanity, he is Mediator of the covenant of redemption; as the second Adam, he has fulfilled the covenant of creation on behalf of the elect; as the incarnate, crucified, and risen Savior and Lord, he is head and heir of the covenant of grace, along with all whom he has redeemed.
The Faithful Adam and True Israel
Like Adam, Israel failed to drive the serpent out of God’s sanctuary, succumbing to his seduction. But God promised to preserve a remnant from destruction, from whom the Messiah would come, who would finally crush the serpent’s head and deliver not only Israel but the nations.
Messianic Savior: Son of David
The Davidic covenant is like that with Abraham: an unconditional, unilateral promise of God’s own faithfulness to his Word—in David’s case, the promise of an heir who would reign everlastingly (2 Sam. 7:11–17 and reiterated throughout the prophets). The New Testament takes pains to identify Jesus as this royal son of David’s line. Yet he would not restore the temporal theocracy of the Jewish nation but rather would reign over all the earth in righteousness and peace, bringing Jews and Gentiles together in the unending kingdom promised to David.
Son of Man, the Second Adam
The Son of Man is God’s earthly messianic representative, who is given everlasting dominion over all the kingdoms of the earth—although his kingdom does not arise from any earthly regime (see esp. Dan. 7:9–27). In the Gospels, this title is Jesus’ favorite self-designation, emphasizing his mission to judge, to save, and to reign. Although Son of Man, as the fulfillment of Adamic sonship, often emphasizes Jesus’ humanity (e.g., Matt. 20:28; Mark 2:27–28), especially in John’s gospel this title carries a simultaneous emphasis on Jesus’ deity (e.g., John 3:13; John 6:53–58; 8:28).
Servant of the Lord
In Isaiah’s Servant Songs (esp. chaps. 42, 49, 50, 52–53, 61), Israel’s corporate commission as God’s covenant servant is embodied in the person of the Messiah to come, the true and faithful Israel, who will secure redemption through obedience and suffering. Jesus proclaimed himself to be this servant (Luke 4:16–21), as did the apostles (e.g., Matt. 12:17–21).