A Brief Introduction to Christology (Part 1)

By Dr Paul R Hinlicky

In some respects the Christology of classical Christianity has not found a more clearly focused statement: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of His Father in eternity, and also a true human being, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord.” So Luther penned words in the Small Catechism which would echo through lips of catechumens for centuries after. Luther went on to say that Jesus Christ is a saving Lord, not a tyrant Lord, a deliverer by “His own precious body and blood” from sin, death and the power of the devil. The Lord Jesus by His resurrection from the dead has not only set free from those anti-divine powers, but won the delivered “to belong to Him, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in eternal righteousness, innocence and blessedness.”[1] A polemically sharpened statement of the same Christology is found in Luther’s Smalcald Articles: “Here is the first and chief article: That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, ‘was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification’ (Rom.4[:25]); and He alone is ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1[:29]); and ‘the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 54[:6]); furthermore, ‘All have sinned,” and “they are now justified without merit by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… by His blood” (Rom. 3{:23-5)].”[2] Elevated to authoritative status in the Confessional Writings of the Church that descended from his reform, such Luther texts make a Christological statement as central as unmistakable: faith alone justifies because faith is placed in Christ alone, who is the justice of the believer’s justification. This is the justice which comes for God and which avails before God, the justice both of the obedience to death of the man Christ and of His vindication by the Father on the third day.

Yet Lutheran Christology is a matter of controversy. A familiar but misleading take on it would be to think of Christology as a variable in relation to the constant of the chief doctrine, justification by faith. Christology would then be construed as a function of soteriology, as eminent modern Lutheran theologians like Bultmann and Tillich have argued. There is a basis for this construction in Melanchthon’s well-known battle slogan, “To know Christ is to know his benefits.” But the truth is, both historically and theologically, the other way around. The so-called “Reformation break-through” came in Luther’s realization of the active presence of the crucified and risen Christ in the Church’s word of absolution. This realization led to a radical and consequent thinking of this reality of Christ in the doctrine of the communication of divine and human properties in the person of the Incarnate Son of God. This Jesus Christ is the actual constant of theology in Luther’s tradition, while it is the preaching of justification which is and must be contextual (as per the art in the concrete historical situation of rightly preaching both divine law and promise and yet properly distinguishing them as God’s alien and proper works respectively).

The real presence of the crucified and risen Christ in the Church’s proclamation is the matter of the Church’s Christological doctrine; the present Christ in Word and Sacrament can in any case be experienced either as threatening or as promising. This variable of contextual experience is a matter over which the Spirit disposes, even, if not especially when the future threat of Christ as coming judge and the present promise of Christ as merciful Savior are rightly distinguished. That means that the Church’s authentic proclamation of Jesus Christ cannot guarantee an experience of grace; for the proclamation of grace alone may as readily harden hearts. The reason for this is that the presence of the risen Christ brings with it the stumbling block of His Cross. In Luther’s own words: “Now, all who regard and know Christ from a fleshly point of view are inevitably offended at him, as was the case with the Jews. For since flesh and blood thinks no further than it sees and feels, and since it sees Christ was crucified as a moral man, it inevitably says: ‘This is the end; he is gone; he can help no one; he himself is lost.’ But he who is not offended at him must rise above the flesh and be raised by the Word so that he may perceive in the Spirit how Christ precisely through his suffering and death has attained true life and glory.”[3]

Of course, one could abstract a message of grace from the presence of the crucified and risen Christ and offer this distillation as the Church’s message. One may proclaim grace in place of Christ, grace as a general divine principle which Christ does not bring and put into effect so much as illustrate. Dietrich Bonhoeffer identified this abstract preaching of grace as a general principle apart from the stumbling blocks of the cross of Jesus, of cross-bearing discipleship in His train, of daily and life-long repentance as ‘the Lutheran heresy:’ “Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means the forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. The Church which upholds the correct doctrine of grace has, it is supposed, ipso facto a part in that grace. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.”[4] Bonhoeffer’s last sentence is meant with full seriousness. A Christological heresy lies close at hand in the controverted legacy of Lutheran theology today. What is the truth?

Lutheran teaching about humanity before God in the doctrine of justification may be historically described as an “Eastern answer to a Western question.”[5] The question of the justice of God in history, the retrieval of the Pauline word-complex of justice and justification as hermeneutically central, and the inquiry into Christ’s saving work as an act of justice as well as mercy are all aspects of the Western question which can be traced to the seminal thinking of Augustine of Hippo. All in the great line of Western theologians ask such questions in their interpretation of Jesus Christ and His significance for human salvation. Where Luther stands out in this line is with his “Eastern answer,” that is to say, in his Neo-Chaledonian, not merely Chalcedonian, Christology.[6] That is to say: while one must avoid confusing divine and human natures, the point of this very rule is to specify the person Jesus Christ as that “one of the Trinity who suffered.” Of course, by putting Eastern Christology to work as an answer to the Western question, Luther’s Christology also transformed the notion of theosis or divinization practically with a new understanding of Spirit-wrought holiness in worldly vocations (as opposed to ascetic discipline in flight from the world).

Go to Part 2


[1] The Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb & Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000) 355.

[2] Ibid., 301.

[3] “Confession concerning Christ’s Supper,” LW 37: 202.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship trans. R. H. Fuller (NY et al: Simon and Schuster, Touchstone Edition, 1995) 43.

[5] Paul R. Hinlicky, “Theological Anthropology: Towards Integrating Theosis and Justification by Faith,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies (Winter 1997: 34/1) 38-73.

[6] The reference here is to Cyril of Alexandria, and the teaching of the Third Ecumenical Council against Nestorius, and its reiteration in the teaching of the Fifth Ecumenical Council that “one of the Trinity suffered.” Of course, Luther also adhered to Chalcedon’s rejection of mixing or confusing the divine and human natures; his rejection of Osiander and Schwenkfeld, in whom he saw Eutyches redivivus, is sufficient proof of that.

5 thoughts on “A Brief Introduction to Christology (Part 1)

  1. Before I begin, I would like to make clear that I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Hinlicky’s erudition, even if I do not always agree with his theological stances. Below, I make a number of critical responses to some aspects of Dr. Hinlicky’s piece. These are based on a number of posts I have made on my web blog. I hope that they add something to the discussion regarding the Lutheran doctrine of Christ.

    First I would like to address Dr. Hinlicky concern regarding making Christology a function of soteriology. In this piece, Hinlicky criticizes “Lutheran” theologians like Bultmann and Tillich for making Christology a function of soteriology. They follow the tradition begun by the young Melanchthon’s statement in Loci Communes 1521: “Christ is known by his benefits.” Hinlicky’s alternative is to see justification and soteriology a function of Christology.

    I would make a couple of remarks about this.

    First, is making Christology a function of soteriology such a bad thing? I would argue no and my question to Dr. Hinlicky would be, how else would one formulate a Christology? In other words, the entire point of Christology is soteriology. Unless we are willing to engage in abstract speculation about whether or not the Incarnation would have happened without the Fall (like Osiander, Irenaeus and Dun Scotus), then there is no point to the Incarnation other than rendering infinite satisfaction to the Father in the form of active and passive righteousness and deifying our nature by the power of his resurrection.

    Secondly, I believe that Hinlicky makes a category mistake here. He confuses the reductiveness of Bultmann and Tillich’s theological formulations with the effect of the starting point of their theological propositions. In other words, Bultmann and Tillich (who, I would have a greater difficulty classifying as Lutheran than does Dr. Hinlicky) have weak and pathetic concepts of what Christ does for us so they have weak and pathetic concepts of Christ. For them, Christ doesn’t have to really be God, because at the end of the day all he really does is change our existential self-understanding. This is simply a continuation of Schleiermacher’s tradition, where again, all Jesus really needed to do was communicate his God-consciousness and change our interior feeling.

    If your starting point is that Christ saves us from “sin, death, the Devil, hell and the law” then we will not have a reductive Christology at all. In fact, this is the classical basis of the great Fathers of the Church’s Christology. Read Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word. Christ, argues Athanasius, must be God, because he saves us from sin, death and the Devil. He must be God active within our nature because he deifies us, by which he merely means that he facilitates the “corruptible putting on the incorruptible.” We look to what Christ does, and therefore conclude who he is. He is a human being, who does what only God can do. Therefore he must be true God and true man in one person.

    This way of doing Christology not only possesses catholicity, but as Johann Gerhard shows (Commonplaces Exegesis IV), goes back to the beginning of creation and is the basis of Christology found in the protoevangelium. Only a man would be the “seed of the woman.” Only God could “crush the Serpent’s head.” For these reason, I do not think we can escape saying that “Christ is known by his benefits.” To do so is evangelical, catholic, and logical.

    The second difficulty I have with Dr. Hinlicky’s piece is his attempted repudiation of Oswald Bayer’s stricture against making the gospel a proposition or imperative. Bayer claims that in considering the promise of the gospel one must be careful to follow two rules. In this, Bayer believes he is following Luther and considers these rules to be at the heart of his Reformation breakthrough.

    Regarding the promise of the gospel, one must not turn the promise into an imperative. The gospel is not a commandment, it does not tell you to do anything. Secondly, the gospel is not a proposition. Hinlicky, dismisses these claims by stating 1. That there is such a thing that is an “Evangelical imperative.” Paul says that his congregations should live a new life because of what Christ has done. This is not the law, but rather the gospel- the second use of the gospel, rather than a third use of the law! Here Hinlicky takes a page from Werner Elert who rejected the third use of the law in his book The Christian Ethos and essentially replaced it with the category of “Evangelical imperatives.” This category apparently involves fun and happy law that doesn’t demand, but invites. So, in other words, law that isn’t law! Secondly, regarding the propositional content, Bayer doesn’t want to ground belief in the promise by a speculative knowledge of the promissory agent. Clearly though, Hinlicky says, we must know who the promissory agent is- namely, Jesus Christ, true God and true Man.

    Some thoughts.

    First, I don’t know how a person can be thought to be a Lutheran theologian and think that the promise of the gospel is translatable into a imperative. Imperatives are fine and good, but they must be defined as law if we follow the usage of Scripture and the historic confessional definitions. Law has its threefold function in the Christian life and there’s nothing wrong with that. For the gospel to remain pure, it must be pure promise. If we start talking about “Evangelical imperatives” then we go down the road that either mixes law with gospel or on the other hand, kid ourselves about whether or not demand is law. Demand or imperative, as gentle as it may be, are always a threat and an accusation.

    Secondly, Hinlicky’s second criticism is a little bit more on target. But I still don’t think he’s getting what Bayer is driving at. On one level, one could say that what Bayer is saying is false. Obviously the promise of the gospel is about a very specific agent, Jesus Christ and his relationship to me which he has established by his cross and empty tomb. These things are propositionally true. Even if you existentialize these things, the promise given to me really expresses something propositionally true. So on this level Bayer would be wrong.

    Nevertheless, I think Hinlicky is missing the point and I don’t think that what Bayer means by propositional content is merely that there is propositional content to the promise of the gospel. Rather, Bayer’s point is that the Word of the gospel cannot be translated into a generally true proposition about God secured ahead of time. The gospel is always “pro me.” Here, Hinlicky acknowledges Bayer’s concern as being valid, but then doesn’t pursue Bayer’s concern to its logical conclusion.

    What would this be?

    As I read him, Bayer is reacting against the Barthian tendency of using analogy to make the gospel into a stepping stone into God’s hidden majesty. In other words, Barth finds that the Word of the gospel is universal and therefore concludes that everyone is elect. If this true, there can be no God of wrath or a hidden God. There is a transcending of all of God’s temporal activity, (which as every Lutheran knows is divided between the activities of wrath and grace) and collapsing of the divine will into a universal will of grace and love.

    As Gerhard Forde points out in The Law-Gospel Debate, this more or less secures God’s hidden being “pro me” above the his Word of promise prior to the event of proclamation. In other words, through analogy, it secures the generally true proposition for me that God in general is “gracious.”

    In terms of the activity of proclamation, this has the practical effect making the gospel into a law. For Barth, the great grandchild of Calvin, this is unproblematic. At the end of the day, the main point is law. God has elected us in Jesus, therefore the gospel’s goal is try to make us act like it. The gospel is good because it makes the law work. In proclamation, there is no breaking through the relationship of wrath and hiddenness to establish the word of the gospel “pro me” as with Luther. We are simply informed of what God is in general (electing love) and then told to conform it (i.e. by obeying the law). The preaching of the gospel doesn’t change God’s relationship to us in any way. We’re just told what the situation is and then what we have to do because of it.

    Luther, with his doctrine of deus absconditus and division of divine agency, advocates the inexplicable paradox of law and gospel and refuses any such synthesis. The word of the gospel then is said “pro me” and does not transcend the conflicts in divine agency, thereby giving us a transparent vision of the inner divine life. For this reason, the gospel cannot be a proposition about God’s being in general. If Bayer is trying to avoid this (as I think he is), then he’s correct.

    What the gospel tells me about is God’s activity toward me. It does not tell me a propositional truth about God’s being in general. A general statement about God would have the existential effect of bidding me to conform to the general reality of God. In other words, it would be more law. It would not be the event of God giving himself to me in the form of promise. It would be a new demand.

    All this being said, I have enjoyed Dr. Hinlicky’s piece. I look forward to engagement over these issues in the future with Dr. Hinlicky and others interested in these questions.

  2. Jack,
    I wonder about your first objection to Paul’s problems with “To know Christ is to know his benefits.” Isn’t Paul’s point that Christ is not known through his benefits by all and yet is still known (in the sense of a recognition of the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, etc).

    And yet it goes deeper than that: Paul says that knowing Christ is contextual in the sense that indeed some know Christ by knowing that he is their Saviour from sin and death (know him in a relationship of faith) while some “know” him as a stumbling block to salvation (knowing him in by a relationship of offence and rejection); “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles…”

    Hence, Christology is an examination and confession of who the person of Christ was and is, his works included even though those works are not received as “benefits” to all? For, many people have known and still continue to know of the person Jesus of Nazareth without knowing the benefits claimed to be connected to his Incarnation, life, death and resurrection. I understand that one “truly” knows Christ via a relationship of faith (ie. knows his benefits) but this does not exclude a different type of knowing of which there are more than one (historical knowledge of an historical person, a knowledge and relationship of offence as a rejection of the claims made by and about that person, etc.)

  3. Well, you are correct that there’s knowing and then there’s knowing. The Apostle Paul distinguishes between knowledge “according to the flesh” and “according to the Spirit.”

    My point is that doing Christology is always done from the standpoint of faith. We can know something of the concrete narrative of Christ from secular history. I also agree with Wolfhart Pannenberg that there is a historical objectivity to Jesus identity. I make an argument regarding the historical objectivity of Christinity here:

    http://jackkilcrease.blogspot.com/2010/01/presentation-for-my-class-friday.html

    Nevertheless, what I have noticed from debates with unbelievers is that you throw lots evidence at them regarding Christ’s identity and they simply reject it out of hand. It’s not that they acknowledge it and then just say “Christ I don’t want your benefits,” rather they simply refuse to acknowledge the evidence of who Christ really is because they have not received his benefits.

    This I think illustrates my point. If does not first receive Christ’s benefits, one will be unable to acknowledge who he is or even most the concrete facts about his existence. With unbelievers, he generally comes out to being a great moral teacher or something of this sort. It doesn’t matter how many facts about they have or how undeniable they are, they just won’t accept them.

    I would also point to the practice of the Biblical authors. Christ is described in Genesis 3:15 by what he does. The Apostles in Acts 2-3 describe Christ’s narrative, but in such a way as to convict of sin and to create faith. The great emphasis here is that although the audience clearly knew some of the events of Jesus’ life, the Jews present in Jerusalem for Penecost didn’t really know who he was until by the preaching of his redemptive role. Peter says repeatedly “what you did, you did from ignorance.” The Apostle Paul also states that without knowing it, the “rulers of this age” crucified “the Lord of Glory.”

  4. Paul Hinlicky

    I wish that Dr. Kilcrease would simply reread my opening paragraph and see that in the order of exposition and understanding, Luther in the Small Catecheism and the Smalcald Articles reasons from Christology to soteriology. In the order of being, the person and work of Christ are inseparable, for Christ is God’s eternal Son incarnate in the man Jesus’ existence for us.
    One implication of this is that radically “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in my Lord Jesus Christ…” That is to say, the conviction of faith concerning Christ’s person is not something biblical proof texting can supply, or apologetic arguments can bestow, but only the Spirit ubi et quando Deo visum est. Hence Dr. Kilcrease’s appeal to his experience in arguing with unbelievers does not touch on the matter of Luther’s Christian teaching which I was expositing.
    I trust these brief comments will indicate that monergism of divine grace in our conversion to the person of Christ, that we may enjoy the benefits of His saving work.

  5. I believe that Dr. Hinlicky is missing my point. I am addressing the basis from which Christ is known. The Small Catechism is not a valid example because it is directed at people who already believe. My point was that Christ’s benefits are, to Bayer’s term, “suffered” prior to his Person being acknowledge. My example of arguing with unbelievers is valid because the point is that they cannot “know” the truth about Christ’s Person with they have no suffered his benefits. I agree completely that person and work of Christ are inseparable. The benefits of Christ, that is the reception of his work is another matter though. Correct knowledge of his person will lag without reception of his benefits.

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