3. The One Person Who Is Jesus Christ: The Patristic Perspective

JITP.jpgSanders, Fred and Klaus Issler, eds.

Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective: An Introductory Christology

Nashville, TN: B&H, 2007. Pp. xii + 244. Paper. $24.99.

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Donald Fairbairn of Erskine Theological Seminary spends this chapter doing three things: (1) Correcting what he perceives to be a common error perpetrated by modern scholars concerning the portrayal of the reasons for the Definition of Chalcedon, (2) Showing the link between soteriology and Christology, and (3) Showing the patristic belief in the Logos as the personal subject of Christ.

Concerning #1, the error he finds common amongst many modern scholars, is framing the Christological controversy of the early fifth century as a debate between the schools of Antioch and Alexandria, with the Symbol of Chalcedon being a compromise between the two positions.  He takes some space to outline that according to this understanding, the Antiochenes took what many call the “literal” approach to Scripture, and emphasized the full humanity of Christ as it was represented in the historical accounts presented in the Gospels.  The Alexandrians on the other hand took the “allegorical” approach to Scripture and emphasized the deity of Christ.  When the debate is framed in this manner, “the Alexandrians often come off looking like the bad guys, since we are told they cared little for history.” [p. 86]  According to Fairburn:

“patristic scholarship over the last generation has demonstrated convincingly how inaccurate the [two-school] approach is. In fact, patristic scholars now recognize that the entire notion of a uniform and well-represented Antiochene school is problematic. [. . .] careful study of these writers’[1] exegesis over the past half century has shown that the differences among the Antiochenes were greater than the differences among the Alexandrians.” [p. 87-88, footnote mine]

Concerning #2, Fairbairn says:

I believe one of the most fundamental theological axioms is that all doctrine should be intimately and clearly connected to soteriology. It is a great mistake to isolate various Christian doctrines one from another, and this mistake is particularly dangerous when one is dealing with the trinitarian and Christological controversies. [p. 92]

He goes on to argue that the patristic concern wasn’t arriving at philosophically sophisticated definitions of God, but rather to answer the question: “What does God have to be like in order to give us the kind of salvation that we Christians know (from Scripture and the Holy Spirit’s witness) we have?” [p. 92]  I couldn’t agree more with Fairbairn’s assessment; not only were these Chalcedonian concerns, but they were the concerns that came with every Christological/trinitarian controversy of the early Church.  For the fathers, a savior who was less than God was no savior at all.

Fairbairn takes some space to acquaint the reader with the soteriology of the major players in this controversy, i.e., Theoodre of Mopsuestia (who was more influential on Nestorianism than Nestorius himself), and Cyril of Alexandria.  For Theodore there are: “two ages… the first age is one of mutability, corruption, and sin; the second age is one of immutability, incorruption, and perfection.” [p. 93]  The second age is the one to which we aspire, but God only gives us the tools necessary to get there ourselves.  Fairburn says: “[a]s a result, one can see that in Theodore’s soteriology, human effort plays a very significant role.” [p. 94]

Cyril on the other hand understood God to have originally created mankind in close personal fellowship with himself.  He also believed mankind to have fallen into sin through Adam and Eve, breaking our fellowship with God, resulting in God entering into the world via the Incarnation in order to restore the world to its original condition.  For Cyril, Christ was the only-begotten Son of God, and we are children through adoption, but we do not have some inferior relationship with God.  It is through God’s grace that we are adopted into the very same eternal relationship that the Father and Son have always been in with one another.  Such a soteriology only works if the Son is by nature God’s Son.  Fairbairn says:

No elevation of a man to divine status would accomplish anything for us, but such an elevation of the man Jesus to divine status is precisely what Theodore and Nestorius teach. In their soteriology, that is all we need, and we can follow in the footsteps of that man so as to reach the second age. But if one sees salvation as God’s action to give us his own natural fellowship, then God himself must come down to us through the incarnation. [p. 101]

Concerning #3, Fairbairn shows that in Cyril’s thought, it was the Logos himself (i.e., the eternal divine Logos) who personally experienced human life.  Cyril expresses this by speaking of the Logos as uniting flesh to his own person (in the womb of Mary, the theotokos).  The Nestorian model saw Christ as a “graced man” upon whom the Logos was conferred after his birth.  The implications of this are that for Cyril, it was truly God who suffered and died on the cross.  Fairburn examines the Definition of Chalcedon and notes that while it doesn’t explicitly say that the Logos is the personal subject of Christ, that the dominant statement of the definition is that Christ is “one and the same” (or “the same one”) in reference to deity and humanity.  These dominant statements are “three parallel framing statements” [p. 105] that show a progression:

  1. “one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ”
  2. “one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, and only-begotten”
  3. “one and the same Son, the only-begotten, God the Logos, the Lord Jesus Christ”

Fairbairn says: “The increasing specificity of the statements makes clear that the person who is one and the same is the Logos, the only-begotten himself.” [p. 105]  Throughout this section he does well to point out that error in stating that Christ “in his humanity” suffered and died, while “in his deity” he did not.  He is quite right to note that “suffering and death are not things that happen to a nature; they are things that happen to a person. . . . an insight that I believe is another fundamental axiom of Christology, is that one must not treat a nature as if it were a person” [p. 108]  I have criticized Oneness Pentecostal Christology on exactly these grounds, concluding that ultimately, it devolves into Nestorianism.

Thus far, Fairbairn’s contribution has been the best in what seems to be a collection of essays that gets better and better.  His treatment is fair, concise, clear, and cogent.  It’s writing like this that has me so interested in the early Church and the early Trinitarian and Christological controversies.  If I were to rate the book on this essay alone, it would easily be a five star volume, but the two essays that preceded it are equally worthy of such honor.  Let’s hope the momentum continues.

B”H

1 Eustathius of Antioch, Diodore of Tarsus, and John Crysotom in the fourth century, and Theodore of Mopsuestia, Nestorius, John of Antioch, and Theodoret of Cyrus in the fifth century.

4 thoughts on “3. The One Person Who Is Jesus Christ: The Patristic Perspective

  1. Nick,

    I just wanted to say thank you for all of the research you have done on the Trinity, and your email correspondence with me. I have purchased two books on the the Trinity based on your reviews and recommendations including this one which I just cannot put down.

    When I have questions on the Trinity your blog is the first site I come to do research on. Because I know that if you don’t have an answer to a particular question you will have more than one book to recommend on the subject, and as always your reviews truly help in making a choice.

    I hope you know that the work you are doing is a good thing and I hope that others who have a deep interest in understanding the Trinity will find your blog.

    Be blessed bro,
    Robert

  2. Robert: Thanks so much for your kind words! It’s nice to know that others can find something of use from me writing about my passion. BTW, I have you to thank here because without you giving me the contact info for B&H I never would have procured this book!

  3. I think your passion is starting to catch fire with me. I am really enjoying studying this subject much more than any other subject I have studied.

    Well that is cool that you got that book. After I bought it I realized it was from B&H and thought well good for them for publishing a book of this quality.

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