It is a truth universally acknowledged that the confession of Jesus as fully God and fully human has been a hallmark (if not the hallmark) of “orthodox” Christianity since at least the middle of the fourth century CE, and many would argue since much earlier still. But should that confession be regarded as a necessary requirement for authentic Christianity? Or, to state it differently, does a denial of that confession place someone outside the bounds of Christianity? Many Christians regard even the asking of these questions to be flirting with heresy. Nevertheless, Jesus’ own example is one of evaluating the efficacy of long-standing traditions and deeply held interpretations of scripture and so, with that in mind, we shall press on.

It is important to note from the start that despite the fact that the confession of Jesus as fully God and fully human has held such a prominent place in Christian doctrine, it has also been one of the most fiercely debated doctrines in the history of Christianity. New Testament scholar James Dunn accurately observes that the particular language of our creedal confessions was meticulously crafted and “finely tuned by the controversies over the precise status of Jesus that racked the first few centuries of Christianity.”[1] He goes on to say that “most Christians…would find it hard to recover and to appreciate that fine-tuning without an intensity of immersion in ancient philosophical debates.”[2] In other words, the Christian creeds and confessions that have gained such ascendency in Christianity were not produced in a vacuum; they were actually the result of decades, if not centuries, of intense dialogue and debate within a very specific cultural, philosophical, and political milieu. The language contained in these documents was intentionally chosen in order to both affirm some and deny other theological concepts over which self-professing Christians had been intensely debating.[3] This brings us to an important consideration: exactly how authoritative are the ancient creeds and confessions in terms of the formulation of Christian doctrine? Do we believe they are as equally inspired and authoritative as scripture or do we see them as helpful yet human historical artifacts that help us understand the way the early church made sense of scripture? If the former, the answer to the question of confessional necessity must be an unequivocal “yes.” If the latter, which seems to be at least the espoused belief of most non-Roman Catholic Christians, how free are we to question and critique them?

Perhaps it is best to begin by pointing out a very obvious fact: the “early church” came to develop these creeds precisely because different groups of people, each claiming to be “Christian,” had come to different conclusions about the nature(s) of Jesus Christ. In Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman explains that there were actually several different brands of Christianity in the first few centuries CE. Ehrman advances the position that was made popular decades earlier by the German scholar Walter Bauer, namely that what came to be known as “orthodox” Christianity was only one of several different versions of the faith that developed in the decades following the death of Jesus. Over time, they argue, this particular group (which Ehrman calls the “proto-orthodox”) rose to prominence and rewrote history to make it look as if their views had always been the majority and orthodox opinion while all other versions were later heretical departures.[4] Of course scholars in recent times have challenged this premise; however, no one contests the fact there were deep Christological disagreements among several different groups of people, all of whom believed themselves to be Christian. In Lost Christianities Ehrman discusses a number of these different groups. Their views represent a wide range of beliefs on many different topics, including which writings should and should not be regarded as scripture. For example, the Ebionites, an early sect of Jewish Christians, denied both the virgin conception/birth and Jesus’ pre-existence, believing him to be a mere human until he was adopted as the Son of God at his baptism. They also vehemently rejected the writings of Paul and may have had their own version of a gospel narrative.[5] On the opposite end of the spectrum were the Marcionites, docetic Gnostics who believed Jesus only appeared to be human, but wasn’t human at all. Their version of the scriptures was a collection of the gospel of Luke plus ten Pauline letters, all of which had been heavily redacted by Marcion to reflect his docetic beliefs.[6] Naturally, if different Christians had different ideas as to what constituted an authoritative body of scripture, then it makes sense that they would also have different ideas regarding the nature(s) of Jesus.

Interestingly enough, however, Ehrman goes on to explain that even among the proto-orthodox, who adhered to the same set of scripture, there were differences of opinion and evolutions of belief regarding the person and nature(s) of Jesus Christ.[7] (Among the proto-orthodox, the primary debate was in regard to Jesus’ divinity, not his humanity.) Some of these early explanations were “completely acceptable among the proto-orthodox of the moment, only to be condemned as heretical by orthodox theologians in later centuries.”[8] The significance of this observation should not be taken lightly: Christians approached the same set of scriptures and came to different conclusions regarding the nature(s) of Christ. In other words, this was not a matter of what the biblical text said, but a matter of what it meant.

As a matter of fact, we know that even the early orthodox thinkers recognized the fact that scripture was more ambiguous than they would have preferred in regards to Jesus’s nature(s). In The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, Ehrman states that “within this milieu of controversy…scribes sometimes changed their scriptural texts to make them say what they were already known to mean” (emphasis original).[9] He goes on in the remainder of the book demonstrate this claim by providing textual evidence from early manuscripts and other writings.

Richard Rubenstein, professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs at George Mason University, approaches this topic from a different perspective in his book When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome. Rubenstein, whose interest is less theological and more sociological, argues that it was not until the fourth century that the full divinity of Jesus was settled in the minds of the majority of Christianity. He also argues that this decision was as much about establishing political unity as it was about determining religious doctrine.[10] According to Rubenstein, the battle to determine the nature of Christ was so severe because “it was a contest to decide a genuinely undecided issue.”[11] He goes on to write, “during the first three centuries after Jesus’ crucifixion, the idea that the Savior was separate from God and subordinate to Him was not particularly shocking,”[12] and, “in many great cities of the Eastern Empire, furthermore, the division of popular opinion between Arians and anti-Arians was quite even.”[13] Rubenstein quotes fourth-century churchman Gregory of Nyssa of Constantinople who wrote,

If in this city you ask a shopkeeper for change, he will argue with you about whether the Son is begotten or unbegotten. If you inquire about the quality of bread, the baker will answer, ‘The father is greater, the Son is less.’ And if you ask the bath attendant to draw your bath, he will tell you that the Son was created ex nihilo.[14]

Rubenstein argues that this “implies that Arianism, which orthodox Christians now consider the archetypal heresy, was once at least as popular as the doctrine that Jesus is God” (emphasis original).[15]

Richard Hanson (1916-1988), who was Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham and Bishop of Clougher in Ireland, had a similar perspective of the Arian Controversy. He wrote the following:

On the subject which was primarily under discussion there was not as yet any orthodox doctrine. The accounts of what happened which have come down to us were mostly written by those who belonged to the school of thought which eventually prevailed and have been deeply coloured by that fact. The supporters of this view wanted their readers to think that orthodoxy on the subject under discussion had always existed and that the period was simply a story of the defence of that orthodoxy against heresy and error. But it ought to be obvious that this could not possibly have been the case. If the solution to the problem was clear from the start, why did the controversy last sixty years?…The defence of well-established and well-known orthodoxy could not possibly account for such widespread and long-lasting disturbances. Both sides – indeed all sides, for there were more than two – appealed confidently to tradition to support them. All sides believed that they had the authority of Scripture in their favour. Each described the others as unorthodox, untraditional, and unscriptural.[16]

In other words, the reason that the creeds came to employ such specific language regarding nature and personhood is precisely because such language didn’t exist in scripture itself. Had the New Testament texts clearly stated that Jesus was fully God and fully human, there would have been no need to battle over such language. The fact of the matter is that some early Christians reading those texts came to believe that Jesus had to be fully God and fully human while others read them and came to the conclusion that Jesus couldn’t be fully human and also be fully God. It is also a well-known fact that the definitive decisions reached in those councils were at least partially politically motivated and enforced. Even if we agree with the decisions, we ought not disregard that fact.

As time went on and the Church gained more and more political power, Christological debate became much less prominent. Differences of opinion came to be solved by the sword rather than by the pen.[17] More than a thousand years after the council of Chalcedon, however, the protestant Reformation was driving Christians ad fontes. As they waved the banner of sola scriptura and read the scriptures for themselves, some of them came to realize that creedal language with which they had become so familiar was nowhere to be found in the text of the New Testament. This led to the formation of some unitarian and antitrinitarian sects who, according to Earl Wilbur, “contended that their faith was simply a revival of that primitive Christianity, a return to the original pure teachings of Jesus and his Apostles.”[18] So, once again Christians approaching the same authoritative text came to different conclusions regarding the nature(s) of Jesus.

Recent decades have seen a resurgence of scholarship on the topic of biblical Christology and, once again, differences of opinion abound. Did Paul believe Jesus was God? Did the earliest Christians worship Jesus as God? Apparently it depends which scholar you ask.[19] Notable and erudite scholars such as James Dunn, Bart Ehrman, Larry Hurtado, and N.T. Wright, just to name a few, have all examined the biblical evidence and they each end up with somewhat similar yet significantly different conclusions.[20] Unfortunately we do not have the space to evaluate them here.

In short, there are many good reasons to confess that Jesus is fully God and fully human. Scripture is clear that Jesus is fully human and it undoubtedly intimates that Jesus also somehow shares in God’s identity. Additionally, the confession of Jesus as fully God and fully human pays tribute to the important role of tradition in the Christian faith. If, however, we hold to the idea that the biblical text is truly the primary authoritative source for Christian doctrine, we must allow for the fact that some Christians can read that text and come away with the conclusion that Jesus is fully God and fully human and others can come away with different conclusions. Therefore, unless we hold the creeds to be more authoritative than scripture, the confession of Jesus as fully God and fully human should not be used as a litmus test of theological orthodoxy in non-Roman Catholic Christianity.

[1] James D. G. Dunn, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?: The New Testament Evidence, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 1-2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 323-25.

[4] Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 4, 172-9. See also Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, Ed. by Robert A. Kraft and Gerhard Krodel. Trans. by a team from the Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins. (Philadelphia: Fortis Press, 1971. German Original 1934), xxii.

[5] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 99-103.

[6] Ibid., 103-108.

[7] Ibid., 151-157.

[8] Ibid., 154.

[9] Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), xii.

[10] Richard E. Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome (Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1999), 64.

[11] Ibid., 9.

[12] Ibid.,10.

[13] Ibid., 13

[14] Rubenstein, 6-7. Rubenstein quoting W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 636. Frend seems to be offering his own translation of Gregory of Nyssa, De deitae Filii et Spiritus sancti from Patrologia Graeco-Latina which I was unable to locate.

[15] Ibid., 7.

[16] R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381 (New York: T&T Clark, 2005, First published 1988), xiii-xiv.

[17] Victor I. Ezigbo, “Jesus as God’s Communicative and Hermeneutical Act: African Christians on the Person and Significance of Jesus Christ,” in Jesus Without Borders: Christology in the Majority World,  ed. Gene L. Green, Stephen T. Pardue, and K. K. Yeo (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2014), 892, Kindle.

[18]Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism: Socinianism and its Antecedents (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1945), 7.

[19] Fred Sanders, “The State of the Doctrine of the Trinity in Evangelical Theology,” Southwestern Journal Of Theology 47, no. 2 (March 1, 2005): 155-58, accessed March 1, 2015, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.

[20] See Dunn, Did The First Christians Worship Jesus; Ehrman, How Jesus Became God; Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus become a God; and Wright,  “One God, One Lord” in Christian Century and Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

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