During each of our Lay Dominican chapter meetings, we feature an Ongoing Formation talk, which means that we get to take turns preaching to and teaching one another. Some times we review books, some times we feature lives of the saints, Dominican spirituality, devotions, and other times we do little “refreshers” for one another on matters of doctrine. Every one of our chapter members has a different level of education and exposure to formal theology, yet even those of us with masters degrees in the subject learn something fantastic and new through these presentations.
My latest contribution to Ongoing Formation was a talk on basic Christology, which I presented at our meeting on Palm Sunday (as if “basic Christology” were actually a thing one could present!). Today I offer you the first part of my talk, which for the sake of post brevity, will be the first in a series looking at stages of Christological arguments. Hopefully the whole series will serve as a primer for some of the most fascinating, heated, and often forgotten debates that the Church has had!
If you’d like to skip ahead, you can find a downloadable version of the text in the library portion of our chapter’s website: www.boston3op.weebly.com
Who is This “Jesus”?: PART ONE
What Does it Mean to be the Son of God?
Luke 22:39-44, 23:33-37, 44-46
Then going out, he went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives,
and the disciples followed him.
When he arrived at the place he said to them,
“Pray that you may not undergo the test.”
After withdrawing about a stone’s throw from them and kneeling,
he prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing,
take this cup away from me;
still, not my will but yours be done.”
And to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him.
He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently
that his sweat became like drops of blood
falling on the ground…
…When they came to the place called the Skull,
they crucified him and the criminals there,
one on his right, the other on his left.
Then Jesus said,
“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
They divided his garments by casting lots.
The people stood by and watched;
the rulers, meanwhile, sneered at him and said,
“He saved others, let him save himself
if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.”
Even the soldiers jeered at him.
As they approached to offer him wine they called out,
“If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.”…
…It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land
until three in the afternoon
because of an eclipse of the sun.
Then the veil of the temple was torn down the middle.
Jesus cried out in a loud voice,
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”;
and when he had said this he breathed his last.
Luke’s account of the Agony in the Garden (perhaps my favorite of the synoptics) and the passion and death of Christ are richly saturated will all sorts of Christological questions. Why does Jesus seem to have a different will from the Father as he asks that the cup of his passion be taken away? What does it mean to be the Christ of God? The King of the Jews? The “Son” calling on His Father? How is it that Christ seems so powerless on the cross and allows himself to be mocked?
Sometimes I am tempted to envy the early Church because they were so close to Christ, to his disciples and apostles—not just physically close, or even proximate in time, but they also lived in the same culture he did and had so many insights into his teaching that are lost on our modern ears. Yet the early Church struggled hardest with some of the most basic questions of all: who exactly was this Jesus?
Today, we are going to briefly touch on some of the major Christological controversies that occurred within the first seven centuries of Church history, so that we can better understand how, why and what the Church came to officially pronounce about the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.
What Does it Mean to be the Son of God?
One of the more attractive and simple ways people tried to understand Christ’s identity as the Son of God was known as “adoptionism,” which gained popularity at the end of the second century. The idea is pretty much summed up in the name: adherents believed that while Jesus was born a mere human, at his baptism he was “adopted” as Son by God. Mark’s gospel especially lines up with this idea because while John’s gospel has the prologue (the Word was with God and the Word was God), and Matthew and Luke have infancy narratives that point to Jesus’ divinity even as a baby, Mark’s Gospel simply begins with John the Baptist, the baptism in the Jordan and the commencement of Jesus’s preaching ministry. In our own baptism, we are said to become “adopted” sons and daughters of God, so why wouldn’t that also be true of Jesus? Adoptionism makes sense, but only in that isolated treatment of scripture. In other gospels, Jesus’ identity as God’s Son is very clear from the beginning (think about Luke’s account of the boy Jesus in the Temple—“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”). So attractive as it may seem in some ways, adoptionism was deemed heretical and the Church realized she needed to assert Christ’s Sonship throughout His entire life.
What is the Nature of the Son?
So if Jesus wasn’t adopted as a Son, and has always been the Son, what does that mean? Is the Son divine, or human, or something else? One attempt to understand Christ’ nature as the Son was put forward by the bishop Arius—who taught that that Jesus was not God, but that He was a created being… not a human, but some unique creation known as the ‘Son’ that later became incarnate. If you talk with Jehovah’s Witnesses today, this is what they believe as well, so you can see that forms of Arianism have been around and will continue to be around for a very long time. Part of the reason this system is so attractive is because it emphasizes the unity and singularity of God. There is no Trinity to contend with: God is One, perfect and whole, completely undivided. It maintains the distinction between God and the Son, so we can answer the question of why Jesus seemed to want to avoid the passion: he and God didn’t share a will. Jesus wasn’t God. This belief was condemned at the Council of Nicea in 325 (where we have the famous story of St. Nicholas punching Arius during a heated conciliar debate). In many ways, we should be thankful to Arius and his multitude of adherents, because incorrect teachings are most often the impetus for the Church to clarify and solidify true teaching. Without someone to push us on the point of the Son’s Divinity, our Christology would be severely hindered. Thus, after Arius the Church formally declared the Father and the Son are “consubstantial,” that is—homoousious (of the same stuff). But as soon as you assert that, a new question arises: now you have to figure out how that divine substance of the Son was able to mix with humanity.
Join us tomorrow as we continue looking at these early Christological debates!