Monday, November 4, 2013

The Early Church III-2: Christology in Scripture

 (Note: My sincere apologies for the giant hiatus on the following part. These were written in April and May of 2013. I had intended to heavily revise parts III and IV, only because as an academic I was dissatisfied with the lack of detail and nuance. I reminded myself that these pieces were intended for general audiences, meant to inspire them to discover the richness of the subject on their own. I have made some revisions, but now plan--against my former wishes--to post them as originally written)

Missed part III-1? I don't blame you! See it here. See also parts I here and II there.
I've edited III-1, taking and revising the Christology section and putting it here.


Christology is the study of Christ, specifically the person of Christ and his role as Messiah. The Church began reflecting on the phenomenon of Jesus—His incarnation, life, ministry, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension—almost immediately. The earliest written records we have of such activity comes from St. Paul.

Paul, who wrote from about 40AD to 65AD, is a powerful indication to the understanding of the faithful as it developed. Much like the office of bishop, priest, and deacon the understanding of Christ developed over time. Why wasn't the understanding of Christ immediate? Christ is both the savior of all as well as a personal savior. Christ came to call sinners, yet each one of us sins differently. He approaches Christ differently, struggles differently, and lives differently. For indeed he "called us out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Pet 2:9). Just as the sun rises and its light spreads gradually over the horizon, so too is the life and light of Christ who dawns on each man. But it is not enough that we should simply experience God or even understand Him. Rather, we must also respond to Him. The encounter is important, yes, but so is the journey. In learning and growing with Christ we learn about ourselves in a profound way. This is why there is no immediate understanding of Christ as if one became privy to a secret knowledge. We are not so much called to know as we are called to become pilgrims.

Paul offers to us a window into the Church as a whole and at the same time was himself a master theologian. Scripture will provide the data for our understanding of Christ for the early Christians.

In his letter to the Philippians (written about 49AD) Paul quotes the famous lines, “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God, something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness … he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. ...[So now may] may every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (cf. Phil 2:5-11). This quote here is said to be a hymn, and hymns in Scripture are often said to be older than their composition date. We see in this shortened form how aspects of Christ's life are mixed with the significance of His life—e.g., he died on the cross and as a result God “greatly exalted him” (2:9).

The structure of this is believed to be a hymn because (1) the style of composition is not Pauline, and (2) it doesn't read like normal prose and ends with a doxology, typical in sung prayer.

This is significant because we have in our possession a prayer of the early Church. Paul writes to the Philippians after doing some significant travel as well as living the life of a Christian for 15 or so years. Paul came to Philippi on his second missionary journey, which would mean that this prayer was already a part of life in many other churches. Similarly, this prayer was given to the people of that church as an exhortation and edification of a life in Christ. We can be confident in this prayer reflecting how the early Christians viewed Christ.

The letter to the Colossians presents a different angle. Whereas Philippi was a growing Church in need of instruction, Paul's letter to the Colossians is meant to safeguard the faith. Paul approaches Christ from a different angle, namely his divinity. Paul here says “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and invisible … he is before all things … he is the head of the body the church … for in him all fullness was pleased to dwell” (cf. Col 1:15-20).

The first passage I've presented emphasizes Jesus' earthly ministry and its significance. In Colossians Paul mentions these things but goes at length to express Christ's divinity here.

Paul was an example of one so saturated in the love of his Jewish faith that the event of the Messiah, the fulfillment of an ago-old promise, prompted him to consider and evaluate a future after the fulfillment of such a promise. What had Christ revealed about God, the world, man, and salvation the the prophets and patriarchs longed for? No easy task.

These were early 'Christologies' and ones that were made to both help others understand Christ while also protecting those same believers from what was false.

As time progressed more elaborate and precise understandings emerged. For our purposes we shall look at one of the most famous: John's Gospel. His Gospel, a work that “soars like an eagle above the clouds of human infirmity, and gazes upon the light of the unchangeable truth with those keenest and steadiest eyes of the heart” (Augustine, De consensu evangelistarum 1.6.9, courtesy of

It is here that we are introduced to the notion that Jesus is the Word, the Logos. John states clearly that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life … grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn 1:1-4, 17).

John's words incorporate what came before him but more clearly identify who Jesus is. His whole Gospel is dedicated to that prologue and Benedict XVI himself had said that this is the primary creation account in Scripture. Jesus is the Word, the Greek word being “logos,” which carries—intentionally—a Jewish and Greek understanding. In Greek, logos would signify reason, order, harmony, and completeness in certain contexts. In Scripture and Judaism, a word carried power. In Psalm 29 it states “The voice of the Lord is over the waters” which hearkens back to the moment of creation. It continues “the God of glory thunders … the voice of the Lord is power; the voice of the Lord is splendor” (Ps 29:3-4). In creation God speaks and so it is. The “word” is power and might, and creation does not resist the Word or the master who speaks that word. As such, this was the dual-sense of John when he calls Jesus the Word: reason and power, order and splendor. This is just the surface of John's bottomless wisdom on Christ.