The study of the nature and person of Jesus Christ, known as Christology, has provoked much debate and controversy from the early Christian period up to the present day. To answer the question whether Jesus was only human or whether he was divine or both is the task for the practitioner of the Gospel when faced with those who challenge the historical understanding of Jesus. To illustrate this task, the position of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and contemporary writers on the identity of Jesus will be compared to the Arian heresy.
The Word became flesh
The Gospel of John begins with a statement about the nature of Jesus Christ.
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:1-5, 14, ESV
The Word, in Greek Logos, is Jesus Christ and the Gospel writer calls him God, but also states that he became flesh, or incarnate, as a man. The writers of the New Testament use many Christological titles when referring to Jesus. Alister McGrath lists these as Christ, Son of God, Son of Man, Lord, Saviour and God. Christ, from the Greek Christos, is a translation of the Hebrew word mashiah or Messiah, meaning anointed one.
McGrath notes that “the New Testament was written against a background of the strict monotheism of Israel.” So to call Jesus God “would have been blasphemous within the Jewish context.” Nevertheless, this is what the New Testament writers did. They also refer to Jesus, continues McGrath, “in terms which identify him as performing certain functions or tasks associated with God;” namely Jesus is the saviour of humanity, Jesus is worshipped and Jesus reveals God.
The divinity of Jesus Christ
McGrath writes that “the church wrestled with the question of the identity and significance of Jesus of Nazareth” in the first four centuries. One approach to Christology rejected as inadequate, and subsequently considered as heretical, was called Ebionitism, which “regarded Jesus as an ordinary human being, the human son of Mary and Joseph.” Ebionites saw Jesus as having a special gift of the Holy Spirit like one of the prophets of the Old Testament.
This low Christology was rejected, explains McGrath, because “it was perceived to be inadequate to do justice to the full significance of Jesus of Nazareth.” Ebionitism saw Christianity as a Jewish sect rather than a new universal faith for Jew and Gentile. Another viewpoint saw Jesus as totally divine. Docetism, from the Greek verb dokein – to appear, believed Jesus’ appearance as a human was an illusion. Thus they denied that Jesus had a human body and that he therefore did not suffer. Docetism was popular with the Gnostic writers in the second century and, McGrath notes, would later be eclipsed by other viewpoints.
The Arian controversy
The process in the church of defining the nature of Jesus Christ came to a head in the fourth century. Arius (c.250 – c.336), a priest in Alexandria, stated his belief that Jesus Christ was not divine; rather that he was created, although he was “first among the creatures.” McGrath summarises Arius’s teaching in three statements:
- The Son and the Father do not have the same essence (ousia).
- The Son is a created being (ktisma or poiema), even though he is to be recognised as first and foremost among them, in terms or origination and rank.
- Although the Son was the creator of the worlds, and must therefore have existed before them and before all time, there was nevertheless a time when the Son did not exist.
Arius circulated his views in a work known as the Thalia (Banquet), however few documents written by him have survived. McGrath explains, “Most of Arius’s views are known through the writings of his opponents.” One letter, from around 321, written by Arius to Eusebius of Nicomedia summarises his belief, “that the Son is not unbegotten, nor part of the unbegotten in any way, nor is he derived from any substance; but that by his own will and counsel he existed before times and ages fully God, only-begotten.” He adds, “We are persecuted because we say: ‘the Son has a beginning, but God is without beginning.”
For Arius, God did not become incarnate, that is to say, God did not enter into history as the Son. The title Son of God is therefore honorific rather than implying being of the same nature as God. Arius felt that as a creature the Son was “subject to pain, fear, grief and weariness … [and therefore] … inconsistent with the notion of an immutable God.”
Athanasius of Alexandria On the Incarnation
There was some support for Arius’s views, but they were also widely criticised by his contemporaries, including Athanasius of Alexandria (c.293 – 373). In around 318, Athanasius wrote the treatise On the incarnation in which he defended and explained the doctrine of the incarnation. Athanasius argued that Jesus was God incarnate in order to be the saviour of humanity. He writes, “[the Word] has yet of the loving-kindness and goodness of his own Father been manifested to us in a human body for our salvation.”
McGrath writes, “Athanasius’ basic argument is that humanity required redemption, and that only God is able to bring that redemption.” This was something that only God could do, and could not be accomplished by another creature. Athanasius writes, “For by men’s means it was impossible, since they are but made after an Image; nor by angels either, for not even they are (God’s) images. Whence the Word of God came in his own person, that, as he was the Image of the Father, he might be able to create afresh the man after the Image.”
Athanasius gives the example of a portrait which has faded over time. To restore the portrait the subject must sit again before the artist so that the image can reflect the true likeness. So it is with humans that were created in God’s image. To restore the image that is tarnished by sin, it needs the original likeness and Jesus, God incarnate, is that image. As Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”
McGrath comments, “If Jesus Christ was only a human being, he would not have the ability to redeem humanity.” The only logical conclusion for Athanasius was that Jesus was God incarnate. Furthermore, it was the widespread practice at this time for Christians to worship and pray to Jesus. McGrath records that Athanasius argued, “If Jesus Christ were a creature, then Christians were guilty of worshipping a creature instead of God.”
The Council of Nicaea and the Nicene Creed
These debates were causing instability within the empire. As a result, writes J. N. D. Kelly, “Constantine turned his attention to the affair, determined to re-establish doctrinal unity in the Church.” The Council of Nicaea met in June 325 and was attended by around 250 to 300 bishops. Although perhaps as many as ten percent of the bishops supported the Arian view, the council condemned Arianism and Arius was declared a heretic.
The council formulated the statement of belief known as the Nicene Creed in which the identity of Jesus Christ as God incarnate was affirmed.
We believe … in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten
from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance
of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from
true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the
Father, through Whom all things came into being, things in
heaven and things on earth, Who because of us men and
because of our salvation came down and became incarnate,
becoming man, suffered and rose again on the third day,
ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living
and the dead;
The Council of Constantinople in 381 affirmed the Nicene Creed, amending some of the phrases to emphasise the agreed Christology. McGrath concludes that, “by the end of the fourth century, the following propositions had gained widespread acceptance within the church: 1) Jesus is fully human. 2) Jesus is fully divine.” The Christological debates led to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity and the Nicene Creed has remained the most widely used statement of faith in the Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox and most of the Protestant churches.
The challenge to orthodox Christology
In our own time, the belief that Jesus Christ is God incarnate is under attack from outside the church and within. N. T. Wright cites several contemporary authors as challenging the orthodox view of Christology. Barbara Thiering, A. N. Wilson and Bishop John Spong have all published books which claim to portray the real historical Jesus.
Spong advocates a non-literal reading of the Bible. For example, he does not believe “in the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus,” nor in the virgin birth, suggesting instead that Mary “was quite likely the victim of rape.” For Spong, Jesus is not God incarnate, but a human whose origin is surrounded in myth and whose life is largely symbolic; a viewpoint not dissimilar to Arianism.
Wright comments that “without a literal sense as the anchor, the Bible can be made to mean anything at all.” He concludes that Spong is driven by current issues and that his arguments do not stand against rigorous academic criticism. This, then, is the challenge for the practical theologian; to communicate the orthodox message of the Gospel in the light of those who present opposing views.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Arianism
Another challenge to mainstream Christology is presented by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The movement began in the late nineteenth century with the teaching of Charles Taze Russell. They do not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity and therefore do not believe that Jesus is God. Instead “they believe that God is only the ‘Jehovah God’ referred to in the Old Testament.” They use the name Jehovah to distinguish God from Jesus.
In the Old Testament the sacred name for God is YHWH, also known as the Tetragrammaton. McGrath explains that, “it was regarded as improper within Judaism to pronounce the name of God; an alternative word adonai (meaning Lord) was therefore used.” The actual pronunciation of YHWH was lost sometime after the exile to Babylon during the second Temple period. During the eighth century the vowels of adonai were written below YHWH in Hebrew manuscripts to indicate that adonai should be pronounced. This, however, led to an error when the Bible was translated into Latin where the vowels of adonai were added to YHWH to make YaHoWaH, which became Jehovah.
So the name ‘Jehovah’ is actually based on a mistake. Modern English versions translate YHWH as the Lord. In the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible kyrios, meaning Lord, is the Greek word used to translate the name of God. It is interesting to note that kyrios is also the word used in the New Testament verses which proclaim that Jesus is Lord.
Jehovah’s Witnesses argue that “[Christ] is ranked with God’s creation, being first among them and also most beloved and most favoured among them. He is not the author of the creation of God; but, after God had created him as his first born Son, then God used him as his working Partner in the creating of all the rest of creation.” This belief sounds very similar to Arianism and is based on their translation of the Bible called the New World Translation. However, the translators have added words not contained in the original Greek manuscripts to support their beliefs.
Their understanding of Jesus Christ means that Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot be viewed as part of the Christian church. They have fallen into the same mistaken belief as Arius. This is because they place the authority of the writings by their founders above that of Scripture and the tradition handed down by the church. In this way the doctrine of Christology can be used to benchmark the orthodoxy of a group which claims ownership of Jesus.
The church received its Christology from Scripture, tradition and revelation given to early church fathers like Athanasius. It has been debated by Christians and handed down through statements of faith such as the Nicene Creed. What an individual or movement believe about the person and nature of Jesus Christ is an indication of their orthodoxy. The task for the practical theologian is to challenge wherever experience or current issues attempt to reinterpret Christology without regard to the authority of Scripture and the inheritance of church tradition and attempt to deny that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.
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Athanasius, St Athanasius on the Incarnation, (tr. Archibald Robertson, London: D. Nutt, 1891).
Berry, Harold J., ’Jehovah’s Witnesses,’ What They Believe, (Lincoln, NE: Back to the Bible, 1990).
Brueggemann, Walter, The Prophetic Imagination, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001).
Croft, Steven & Walton, Roger, Learning for Ministry – Making the most of study and training, (London: Church House, 2005).
Kelly, J. N. D., Early Christian Doctrines, (London: Continuum, 1977).
Kinast, Robert L., What are they saying about Theological Reflection? (New York: Paulist Press, 2000).
McGrath, Alister E., The Christian Theology Reader, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).
McGrath, Alister E., Christian Theology: an Introduction, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).
McGrath, Alister E., Heresy, (London: SPCK, 2009).
McGrath, Alister E., Theology: The Basic Readings, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008).
Wikipedia, ‘Nicene Creed,’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicene_Creed, Accessed 16th July 2011.
Williams, Rowan, Arius, (London: SCM, 2001).
Wright , N.T., Who was Jesus? (London: SPCK, 1992).
 Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: an Introduction, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 268-271.
 Ibid., p. 268.
 Ibid., p. 271.
 Ibid., p. 271.
 John 1:1, John 20:28, Hebrews 1:8, and others.
 McGrath, Introduction, p. 272.
 Ibid., p. 272.
 McGrath, Introduction, p. 265.
 Ibid., p. 273.
 Alister E. McGrath, Heresy, (London: SPCK, 2009) p. 106.
 Ibid., p. 110.
 Ibid., p. 111.
 McGrath, Introduction, p. 273.
 Ibid., p. 275.
 Ibid., p. 274.
 Alister E. McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), p. 227.
 McGrath, Reader, p. 226.
 Ibid., p. 226.
 McGrath, Introduction, p. 275.
 Ibid., p. 276.
 Alister E. McGrath, Theology: The Basic Readings, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), p. 68.
 Athanasius, St Athanasius on the Incarnation, (tr. Archibald Robertson, London: D. Nutt, 1891), p. 2.
 McGrath, Basic Readings, p. 68.
 Athanasius, p. 24.
 Ibid., p. 24.
 Colossians 1:15, ESV.
 J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, (London: Continuum, 1977), p. 231.
 Rowan Williams, Arius, (London: SCM, 2001), p. 67.
 Ibid., p. 67.
 McGrath, Introduction, p. 17.
 Kelly, p. 232.
 McGrath, Introduction, p. 280.
 Ibid., p. 17.
 Wikipedia, ‘Nicene Creed,’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicene_Creed, Accessed 16th July 2011.
 N.T. Wright, Who was Jesus? (London: SPCK, 1992), p. vii.
 Ibid., p. 65.
 Ibid., p. 70.
 Ibid., p. 91.
 Harold J. Berry, ’Jehovah’s Witnesses,’ What They Believe, (Lincoln, NE: Back to the Bible, 1990), p.55.
 McGrath, Introduction, p. 270.
 For fear of breaking the third commandment, Exodus 20:7.
 Romans 10:9, Philippians 2:10-11.
 Berry, p. 56.
 Ibid., p. 56.