Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Stephen J. Nichols' For Us and For Our Salvation (Crossway, August 2007)
“Who Do People Say That I Am?”: Christ’s Crucial Question
Thanks to a best-selling novel and to a movie with the likes of Tom Hanks, people everywhere inside the church and out are talking about the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, gnosticism, the Christology of the early church, and early church figures such as Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Arius. This is a theologian’s dream scenario, and in some cases a nightmare scenario as well. Imagine the shock of reading three whole paragraphs about the Nicene Creed in the pages of USA Today. Before the Da Vinci Code phenomenon, you would be hard-pressed to find three paragraphs on the Nicene Creed in a Christian book, let alone in America’s most read newspaper.
The overwhelming wake of The Da Vinci Code has, like a tropical storm, caused a great deal of damage. Yet, some good has come out of it, not the least of which is that people are talking about the Nicene Creed. What’s more, Christians are talking about it too. And some of them are looking at it for the first time. All of this is good, very good, for the church. The Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds express the bedrock of our faith. They put forth the biblical teaching of who Christ is and what he has done for us. This book’s title, For Us and for Our Salvation, comes right from the Nicene Creed. It is a way of saying that who Christ is has everything to do with the gospel, the church’s true treasure. If we learn anything from The Da Vinci Code phenomenon, it must be the lesson of the importance of getting the person of Christ right. The early church labored hard and long over this question, and they did so in the face of intense challenge. The contemporary church needs to do no less.
In our contemporary struggle to present Christ as the Bible portrays him, we should not work in a vacuum. We owe it to ourselves to look to the past and to learn from the church’s struggles. Perhaps in no area of theology is this more necessary or beneficial than in the doctrine of Christ in the early church.
The first four or five centuries of the church’s existence witnessed the launch of nearly every possible challenge. Further, one is hard-pressed to offer a better response to those challenges than that offered by the early church leaders. We may be able to devise fresh and contemporary ways to illustrate their teachings and expressions, or we may have to think of new ways to relate their teachings to the particular challenges that we face in our day, but there is practically no room for improvement on those teachings. What these early church leaders said and did is tried and true.
The early church fathers wrestled with the same problems presented by The Da Vinci Code phenomenon and its fanciful speculations about Jesus. They wrestled with the same problems presented by Islam and its adamant denial of the deity of Christ. And they wrestled with the same problems presented by the scholars working in the Jesus Seminar or in gnostic texts like the Gospel of Judas who quickly dismiss the four canonical Gospels as God’s true revelation to humanity. In the days of the early church, the names of the opponents were different from those faced by us today, but the underlying issues bear a striking resemblance. When the church fathers responded with the orthodox view of Christ, they did the church of all ages a great service.
This book explores these controversies over Christ faced by the early church. This book also looks to tell the story of the people involved—Arius and Eutyches, Ignatius and Irenaeus, Athanasius and Leo. These may or may not be known to contemporary evangelicals, but they should be. The following chapters unfold this struggle in the early church chronologically.
Chapter 1 starts with one foot in the pages of the New Testament and stretches to the first decade of the 300s. Chapter 3 tells the story of Athanasius and his arch-nemesis Arius, the two figures behind the Nicene Council in 325 and the Council of Constantinople in 381. Chapter 5 unfolds the events of the 400s, focusing on Leo I and the Chalcedonian Council in 451. In an unprecedented event, no fewer than 520 bishops met and actually agreed on a very nuanced and sophisticated theological statement that we know as the Chalcedonian Creed. The intervening chapters, 2, 4, and 6, all break from the narrative to provide primary source documents, allowing the major figures in this struggle to tell the story in their own words. A brief epilogue explores the variations on these themes that have occurred in the life of the church since Chalcedon in 451.
The early church was right in spending so much time and effort on the doctrine of Christ. They were right to contend that Christ is the God-man, very God of very God and at the same time truly human with flesh and blood. They were right to contend that Christ is two natures conjoined in one person without division, separation, confusion, or mixture, to use the language of the Chalcedonian Creed. They were also right to contend that the gospel collapses without this belief. In the words of Athanasius and the Nicene Creed, Christ is the God-man “for us and for our salvation.”
In the Beginning Was the Word: Christ in the Early Centuries
Even before we get out of the pages of the New Testament, Christ comes under fire. During his earthly life and public ministry, the crowds, the religious leaders, even at times his own chosen disciples got him wrong. His life of working miracles and his teaching of who he was and what he came to do were in plain view for everyone to see and hear. Despite this, he was misinterpreted, denied, and rejected. In the face of his healing, he was called the son of Satan (Matthew 12:22-32). In the face of his teaching, he was called the mere son of a carpenter (John 6:41-51). In the face of his death on the cross, he was mocked as the king of the Jews (John 19:19-22). And in the face of his resurrection, he was mistaken as a gardener (John 20:15). Fifty days after his death and after he had ascended back to heaven, Peter had to tell the crowd that Jesus, the very one whom they had seen and who had walked among them, was indeed the Christ, the Messiah, and that he was indeed the Lord (Acts 2:36). Those great crowds missed it, and, at least for a time, so had his closest followers. They had gotten him altogether wrong.
After his ascension and in the first decades of the church, the situation grew worse. The apostles and the early church contended with those teaching falsely about Christ. According to John, these false teachings centered around two poles. The first concerned the denial of Christ as the Messiah (1 John 2:2-22). The second concerned the denial of the incarnation, the teaching that Jesus was fully human and had truly come in the flesh (1 John 4:2; 2 John 1:7). These two poles of thought dominated not only the first century but the immediate following centuries. This chapter explores these false teachings and the response to them in the early church.
CHRISTOS AND COBBLERS
Mr. Christ. At least that’s the answer from the child in the Sunday school class to the teacher’s question concerning the one born in a stable in Bethlehem. In the child’s scheme of things, Jesus was the first name, Christ was the last. And, as his parents had taught him, he added the Mr. out of respect. Of course, in the case of Jesus, Christ is not the last name, it’s a title. However, many, even those who should have known better, missed this. To them he was Jesus of Nazareth, or Jesus, the son of Joseph, the ancient versions of last names.1 Acknowledging Jesus as the Christ, however, requires a great deal. The Greek word Christos means “anointed one” and is the counterpart to the Hebrew term meaning “Messiah.” Designating Jesus as the Christ requires that one see him as the long-awaited Messiah, the anointed one of God, who would be the redeemer and deliverer of the covenant people. That Jesus assumed the title Christ in both word and deed is undeniable. That those in his day and in the centuries following his birth denied him as the Christ is undeniable too.
The denial of Jesus as the Christ began among the leaders of the Jewish community. Jesus of Nazareth disappointed them as a candidate for the Messiah. He lacked charisma and gravitas, not to mention an army. The Israelite nation was faced with occupation by the Roman Empire, and Jesus failed to fulfill their dreams of a conquering Messiah. The Jewish leaders’ rejection of his claim to be their Messiah may be clearly seen in the exchange with Pontius Pilate. When that official ordered an inscription on the cross that would signify Christ’s crime as claiming to be “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews,” the Jewish leaders demanded that it be changed to read that he claimed to be the king of the Jews. Jesus claimed it, but they certainly did not want him. Pilate refused to change it (John 19:19-22).
One group in particular that was influenced by Jewish teachings denying the deity of Christ was the Ebionites. We don’t know much about this group. Epiphanius, the fourth century bishop of Salamis and later Cyprus, claims that Ebion founded this group. This may be a creative fiction. Other church fathers offered their own explanation of the name. The term likely comes from the Hebrew word for “poor.” They were the “poor” disciples. Later opponents of them would use the name sarcastically to refer to their less than stellar mental capabilities, calling them “poor” thinkers. We also speculate that this group probably arose in the first century, likely coming into prominence after the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70. The Ebionites were scattered from Jerusalem and Israel and congregated initially in Kochaba but soon spread throughout the empire. Scholars further tend to see this group as an extension of the Judaizers, the faction that Paul contended with in his Epistle to the Galatians. They were in effect trying to be Jewish Christians, not quite ready to accept the teachings of Paul or the book of Hebrews or John. All of which is to say that they were falling short of what constitutes true Christianity. It appears that the Ebionites were unable to sustain themselves in walking this tightrope between Judaism and Christianity. By the middle of the 400s they had virtually become extinct, some migrating to Judaism, others affirming orthodox Christianity.2
Most of what we know about the Ebionites comes from the writings of the church fathers against them. Irenaeus mounted the first sustained refutation of them. He, in fact, was the first to use the name “Ebionites” in print, around 190. Hippolytus and Origen would later contribute their own refutations. The Ebionites viewed Christ as a prophet, and some of them even accepted the virgin birth. But they all denied his preexistence and consequently denied his deity. Eusebius, the first church historian, writing in 325, put the Ebionite heresy succinctly: “The adherents of what is known as the Ebionite heresy assert that Christ was the son of Joseph and Mary, and regard him as no more than a man.” While viewing Jesus as a mere man, the Ebionites nevertheless exalted Jesus as one who kept the law perfectly, and as a group they stressed the keeping of the law in order to attain salvation. Like the Judaizers of Paul’s day, they insisted on circumcision. Their faulty view of Christ led to a faulty view of Christ’s work on the cross. Their misunderstanding of the incarnation led to a misunderstanding of the atonement. They did not grasp the fact that Christ is the God-man who is for us. This fact makes all the difference for our salvation.3