Christ Alone: Reading Notes

Piotr J. Małysz

crucifixionAll good Christian theology is Christocentric in some manner. When the Reformation insisted on Christ alone (solus Christus), with this slogan it thus sought to make a stronger—exclusive—claim. But the Reformation in no way advocated a Christomonism, the reduction of all theology only to a consideration of Christ. The exclusive particle, Christ alone, was meant to make a more focused claim. Its thrust was the sufficiency, or better still, the overabundance that the believer as believer finds in the person and work of Christ. The particle has its home in the order of salvation (ordo salutis)—chiefly the doctrine of justification—and it is from this location that it brings the whole body of theology into a Christocentric focus.

The particle is not, of course, foolproof. Martin Luther—even as he drew attention to Christ, and declared that “the cross alone [!] constitutes our theology [CRUX sola est nostra theologia]” (Operationes in Psalmos, WA 5:176)—thought it wise to elucidate further the salvific role of Christ as gift, given to the believer, over against Christ’s role as example, in which he is of no more help to us than some other saint (A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels; in Luther’s Works 35). Oswald Bayer warns against the modern tendency to moralize the solus Christus and, in reality, to compromise it (Martin Luther’s Theology, 64). A notorious example of this tendency is John Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity. Locke pits Jesus’ simple message as a teacher of virtue, which Locke believes he finds in the Gospels, against the ethically unproductive speculation of the New Testament epistles and, even worse, the dogmatic corruption of Jesus’ teachings in the creeds and the church’s theology. This is not the meaning of “Christ alone” that the Reformation intended.

What specific soteriological emphases did the Reformation intend, with its affirmation of solus Christus and Christ as gift? First, in his Lectures on Galatians (1531/1535; in Luther’s Works 26:122-138), Luther insists Christ, and he alone, gives faith its “form.” What is in the background here is the medieval view that faith, as a disposition, stood in need of being made concrete by the believer’s works of love. Luther denies that what constitutes faith is intellectual assent to the truth of God, still in need of taking shape through the believer’s actions. Rather, faith is formed and made concrete—it is everything it can and needs to be—only in so far as it grasps the work of Christ, and does so as if the believer had done this work him- or herself. This alone is what it means to believe. Christ, says Luther, is present in faith itself, and his work gives faith its essence, shape, and reality. In other words, faith lies not in giving credence to the improbable and confirming this posture through one’s own acts of charity. Rather, the irreducible reality of faith—safeguarded by Christ alone—is to take God at his word and trust God enough to stake one’s entire identity on the work of Christ. To believe is to declare God-in-Christ alone to be the generous giver of all that is good, righteousness and holiness included. Faith justifies alone precisely in this sense. As a believer one already is infinitely more than one could ever make of oneself.

In his polemic against Erasmus, On the Bondage of the Will (1525; in Luther’s Works 33), as well in his Lectures on Genesis (1535-45; here LW 5), Luther explores a different facet of “Christ alone.” In this work Luther is concerned with the nature and work of God and with divine revelation. A central question he pursues is how one finds the God who saves. The Bondage of the Will is without a doubt a complex work which poses a number of interpretive challenges. What we need to say about it is that Luther challenges here medieval accounts of God’s transcendence which placed divine and human agencies in a strictly non-competitive relation and, as a result, either practically or conceptually privileged human initiative in relation to God. Luther worries that, in consequence, the soteriological focus is taken off Christ and the burden of assuring one’s salvation is placed on the believer. In order to bring Christ back into focus, Luther articulates what is speculatively the strongest possible doctrine of divine agency. God, by virtue of being God, cannot but work life and death and all in all. Luther wants believers, first, to pay attention to God, and God alone. With this specter of God hidden in his own majesty, whose actions are inscrutable, Luther wants to lead reason to acknowledge that God cannot ultimately be confined to a sphere of action, however fitting, carved out for him by human speculation. God is free in relation to human cogitations about the divine. Reason must despair of itself when it reaches out toward God. But when it does so, when it finds itself at God’s mercy, it is now ready to recognize, through the proclamation of the gospel, that in his freedom God is none other than the Triune God he is. As this very God, God relates to history, time, and human agency on his own terms. Thus, paradoxically, Luther’s goal in The Bondage of the Will is not to affirm some sort of inscrutable God over and above the God revealed in Christ, a God at cross-purposes with his own revelation (this is the God that reason must run up against). Luther’s goal is to affirm that in Christ alone God is who he is. Not just because he happens to show himself to us there, but because he can be none other than the Father of his Son in their mutual Spirit. “Christ alone,” as articulated in The Bondage of the Will, emphasizes God’s freedom to reveal himself in his own being as the merciful God who brings comfort to a restless and disturbed conscience. Outside of Christ there is no revelation, no peace, and hence no salvation, for outside of Christ there simply is no God (see also Luther’s Works 5:42-50).

Like Luther, Jean Calvin points to Christ as the sole source of the believer’s righteousness before God (Institutes, III, esp. xi and xv). Calvin admits believers can be said to possess righteousness, but they do so only as partakers in Christ. Christ’s righteousness is communicated to the believer by imputation. For this reason, Christ, and he alone, remains the beginning and the fulfillment of a person’s salvation. What, throughout the history of the church, has detracted from this singular focus on Christ is, according to Calvin, the early adoption of the unscriptural term “merit.” This was initially intended to distinguish between works done from, and outside of, grace. However, when this distinction is divorced from a consideration of the work of Christ, what results is the effectual sidelining of Christ’s power to save and, in the end, also his dignity. Christ is, Calvin insists to the contrary, the Christian’s sole focus. Not only does one’s righteousness come exclusively from Christ. It is in Christ alone that one must also, without self-deception, contemplate one’s election. “Those whom Christ has illumined with the knowledge of his name and has introduced into the bosom of his church, he is said to receive into his care and keeping” (Institutes, III.xxiv.6).

More recent Protestant theology has, by and large, received appreciatively the Reformation’s witness to Christ alone, seeing in it an important voice and qualification within the larger catholic tradition. However, even where this reception is affirmative, it has not been uncritical of how the Reformation articulated the content of the exclusive particle or how it delineated its scope. Karl Barth, for example, though he acknowledged Calvin’s insistence on Christ as the sole mirror of the believer’s election, famously criticized the Reformed tradition for relegating Christ to the role of an executor of the Father’s inscrutable will to save only some. Unless the eternal Son, as the man Jesus Christ the Father intends him to be, is also the electing God, electing the Father’s will to be the God of love not just for God’s self but for a created other, the biblical concept of election, Barth maintains, is compromised (see Church Dogmatics II/2 [1942]). Here Barth articulates what is still inchoate in Luther. The absolute freedom of God is only the limit of human speculation about the divine. God’s actual freedom—including the divine will—is never naked and hence inscrutable but is the act of God’s own Triune being as love.

Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Jesus—God and Man (1964), by contrast, articulates the exclusivity of Christ by drawing attention to Christ’s resurrection. The resurrection is a singular divine vindication of Jesus’ human life radically open and faithful to God. As such, it shows that Jesus’ divinity lies in the very depth of his humanity. Humans admittedly are characterized by openness to their world, which entails openness to God, but no person is capable of such openness without being personalized by total dependence and trust in God. The resurrection of Jesus, as the unfolding of God’s eschatological plan for humanity and indeed all creation, makes such dependence on God—such faith—possible.

Finally, Eberhard Jüngel, in Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith (1999), draws attention to the connection between “Christ alone” and the affirmation of Jesus’s divinity. Christ alone means that there are no other lords who can save. Now, for that to be the case, it must be true that in Christ God himself suffered and underwent our death, standing in his humanity as a representative of all humanity. Without God’s substitutionary and reconciling act, Christ would be only the example of a hero subjected to an inhuman death. But he would be no savior who is the death of death on behalf of all. Christ’s exclusivity, Jüngel argues, emphasizes his divinity and thus also his inclusive dimension as the human in whom all people are included.

The Reformation’s focus, in insisting on Christ alone, was more on the subjective dimension of Christ’s work, whether this was understood strictly soteriologically or epistemologically. The Reformation emphasized the believer’s comfort, assurance and peace of conscience. By and large, contemporary Protestant theology’s reception of the solus Christus has investigated more the objective aspects of the exclusive particle, that is, the matchless and conclusive character of Christ’s work. The particle points to the proper interpretation of this work, showing it to be none other than the self-expression and action of God himself, not only in time but also as reflected in the eternity of God’s triune life. In this objective emphasis, the more recent theology has argued for continued usefulness of the particle not so much from the perspective of the subjective criterion for true assurance as from the perspective of the concrete identity and character of God.

This article first appeared in Zondervan's Common Places series.
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Some Remarks on Lutheran Christology

By Piotr J. Malysz

The Person of Christ

Luther’s critique of the disastrous anthropological consequences of late medieval piety ultimately aims at the right view of God as Saviour, who exchanges his righteousness for his people’s sin.  Luther does not begin, like Anselm, with a theoretical consideration of why God should have become a human but proceeds instead from the reality, impact, and sacramental availability of redemption.  It is the self-authenticating validity of Christ’s work, with justified humans in turn justifying God (LW 26:233), that presupposes the personal union and the communication of properties between Christ’s divine and human natures.

Although Luther has been frequently charged with docetism or monophysitism, and although many of his successors were reluctant to embrace some of his christological insights, Luther does construct his Christology within a fundamentally Chalcedonian framework of Christ’s being one person in two natures.  In fact, he consistently maintains the soteriological focus of the Chalcedonian definition, which leads him where Chalcedon ultimately failed to go and where post-Chalcedonian reflection ventured only timidly.  Though the council carefully distinguished between hypostasis and natures, it failed, according to Robert Jenson, to determine what sort of ontological category ‘hypostasis’ was.  In light of what Chalcedon says about the natures, one may, in fact, conclude that “the ‘one hypostasis’ is nothing actual, and that the natures’ union has no material consequences for the state or activity of either nature.”[1]

Luther’s soteriological emphasis leads him to begin with the actuality of the communication of properties between the divine and human natures in Christ’s person.  Because there is life-giving exchange between CImagehrist and the sinner, there must also be an exchange of properties between Christ’s natures.  Luther firmly believes that nothing less will do if one wishes to do justice to the salvation which Christ accomplished for sin-bound and moribund humanity: “if it cannot be said that God died for us, but only a man, we are lost; but if God’s death and a dead God lie in the balance, his side goes down and ours goes up like a light and empty scale. … God in his own nature cannot die; but now that God and man are united in one person, it is called God’s death when the man dies who is one substance [ein ding] or one person with God” (LW 41:103-4).  This is a novel point of departure, in that Luther does not begin with the natures, carefully circumscribing them in separation from each other before bringing them together.  Moreover, Luther does not begin with an assertion that the properties of each nature are merely predicated of the other nature by virtue of the personal union.  The properties are actually shared and not only verbally ascribed to the other nature.  The communication is actual, because Christ is a single person, and it is Christ’s person, as both God and man, who is the agent behind all his works that the natures enable.  It is not the natures that do the doing; it is rather the single and actual person.  In his eucharistic confession against the Swiss, Luther defends this position: “[The Zwinglians] raise a hue and cry against us, saying that we mingle the two natures into one essence [ein wesen].  This is not true. We do not say that divinity is humanity, or that the divine nature is the human nature, which would be confusing the natures into one essence.”  That was actually the error of Schwenckfeld, who taught the complete absorption of Christ’s humanity by his divinity in the state of exaltation.  Luther continues: “Rather, we merge the two distinct natures into one single person, and say: God is man and man is God. … But if the works are divided and separated, the person will also have to be separated, since all the doing and suffering are not ascribed to natures but to persons. … Therefore we regard our Lord Christ as God and man in one person, ‘neither confusing the natures nor dividing the person’ (LW 37:212-3).

In line with the Chalcedonian tradition, Luther does conceptually distinguish between the two natures, designated by the abstract terms, divinity and humanity.  But he also realises that semantic logic, governing the use of these terms, may be as much an obstacle as it is helpful.  He writes: “reason wants to be clever here and not tolerate that God should die or have any human characteristics, even though it is used to believing like Nestorius, that Christ [only in a manner of speaking] is God.”  Luther turns against much of the medieval tradition with its merely notional understanding of the communicatio and asks: “Who knows how many Nestorians may still be in the papacy?” (LW 41:105).  Responding to the argument that the same thing cannot be predicated of both God and man, in the Disputatio de divinitate et humanitate Christi, Luther admits that it is true, but only in philosophy, where “there is no relation between the creature and the Creator, between the finite and the infinite.  But we not only establish a relation, but a union of the finite and the infinite” (WA 39II:112).  He attacks Aristotle for doing incalculable damage to theology.  As Anna Vind argues in her commentary on Luther’s statement, “Christ is … made sin for us metaphorically” (LW 32:200), metaphorical language, with its capacity to assign new meanings, offers to Luther a way of escaping the confines of semantic logic and achieving more clarity of expression.  But Luther breaks with the rhetorical principles dating back to Roman antiquity when he rejects that similarity be the basis of metaphor and when he claims that metaphor involves not merely verbal transfer but an actual translatio rerum.  This makes metaphorical speech closer to reality than non-metaphorical speech, crippled as the latter is by its internal logic.  It also makes metaphorical language the prerogative of God, who through his Word speaks (new and unexpected) reality into being: God became a human being, more than that, sin for us.

In addition to the salvific exchange between Christ and the sinner, Luther’s insistence on the reality of the communicatio idiomatum between Christ’s natures (considered not as rigid philosophical concepts but retrospectively through the work of the person) also enabled him to dismiss eucharistic transubstantiation as a constraining and unnecessary philosophical construct based on Aristotelian substance-metaphysics.  In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), Luther articulated his christological principle: “what is true in regard to Christ is also true in regard to the sacrament. In order for the divine nature to dwell in him bodily, it is not necessary for the human nature to be transubstantiated and the divine nature contained under the accidents of the human nature. Both natures are simply there in their entirety…  Even though philosophy cannot grasp this, faith grasps it nonetheless” (LW 36:35).  Luther applied the same principle in his polemic with Zwingli, this time arguing not for the real presence of the bread and the wine but of Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament.

Dissolution

Luther and his followers faced a tremendous challenge when they began to spell out the metaphysical consequences of this realist view of the communicatio, given canonical form in Luther’s statement, “wherever you place God for me, you must also place the humanity for me” (LW 37:219; later cited in Formula concordiae SD VIII.84).  Things were exacerbated when the Lutherans began to construct their dogmatic systems and, in doing so, never quite allowed themselves to be influenced in their locus on God, which ordinarily preceded the locus on Christ, by Luther’s emphasis on redemption effected by the God-man Christ (one notable exception was the very first edition of Melanchthon’s Loci).  Instead, they resorted to standard metaphysical accounts, thus establishing the parameters for the discussion to follow by means of natural theology and treating divinity as an ontologically fixed category.  This posed tremendous problems when it came to divine attributes such as omnipotence and omnipresence.  While Luther allowed divine omnipotence to be qualified by the event of God’s death (which later, too, became subject to controversy), for his successors the impact of the hypostatic union on Christ’s divinity, absolutely immutable by definition, was out of the question.

What aroused heated debate, instead, was the precise character of the communication from the divine nature to the human, especially the presence of Christ’s body’s and the reality of Christ’s earthly life prior to the resurrection and ascension.  The Swabian theologian, Johannes Brenz, in his treatise De vera maiestate Domini nostri Iesu Christi (1564), argued that heaven was not a spatial realm but was rather the place of God, who is his own place and to whom everything else is present.  While this took care of the omnipresence of Christ’s exalted body, insofar as ubiquity meant being above every place, Brenz was less successful in accounting for how this body was therefore capable of being available in particular localities.  Chemnitz, on the other hand, in his work, The Two Natures in Christ (1570), made the divine will responsible for the communication of attributes from the divine to the human nature, which introduced a degree of insatiability and threatened the integrity of Christ’s person.  In a way, this was a return to a mere supposital understanding of the unio personalis, which Luther had sought to overcome in the scholastic theology he had inherited.[2]  But Chemnitz’s conception was, arguably, better suited to a realistic treatment of Christ’s earthly life.  The Formula of Concord presents an interesting combination of these two positions.  First, in keeping with Luther’s axiom, it affirms that Christ exercises his majesty “in, with and through” his human nature (SD VIII.66).  It then tries to make sense of it by applying it to Christ’s life on earth.  On the one hand, it states that Christ “possessed this majesty from his conception in the womb of his mother.”  He thus had, and never ceased to have, this majesty in consequence of the incarnation, even as he forever retains his human nature.  What, then, is one to make of the assertion that, when exalted, he “was installed into the full possession and use of his divine majesty according to his assumed human nature”?  This second statement – by trying to do justice to the servant-like character of Christ’s life – seems to imply that the majesty was Christ’s, according to his human nature, only after his exaltation. Further, even if one naturally maintains that Christ was already, in the incarnation, in full possession of the divine majesty, did he simply “keep it secret” or did he actually “empty” himself of it in an act of self-humiliation? (SD VIII.26).  That this was a real problem was evidenced by the controversy that erupted in the early seventeenth century between the theological faculties of Giessen and Tübingen.  The debated issue was whether, in the state of humiliation, Christ, according to his human nature, participated in the full exercise of the divine attributes and merely hid it, as the Tübingen scholars held; or whether, by assuming the form of a servant, he had surrendered the human nature’s share in the divine majesty altogether, which was the position of the Giessen faculty.  The decision rendered at the time (1624) came in favour of Giessen, presumably because of this position’s more historically, narratively dynamic character.  However, one wonders whether the view expressed by the Tübingeners was not more consistent with Luther’s christological principles.

Luther’s successors were fully aware of the radical nature of their Christology, especially vis-à-vis the scholastic tradition, with its carefully laid-out distinctions – although, because of their own metaphysical assumptions, they were also closer to it than they thought.  Luther might have regarded scholastic theology as too philosophical and too timid; his successors thought only that it was timid.  But this still led them to invest a considerable amount of effort into demonstrating that the communication of divine attributes to Christ’s human nature was, in fact, the teaching of the Bible and had also been taught by the ancient church.  The fruit of that effort was the Catalog of Testimonies – a collection of patristic citations, mostly from the Greek fathers – appended to the early editions of the Book of Concord.

 

Excerpted and abridged from: Piotr J. Malysz, “Luther and the Lutherans,” The Oxford Handbook to the Reception History of Christian Theology (Oxford: University Press, 2013), forthcoming.


[1] Robert W. Jenson, “Luther’s Contemporary Theological Significance,” Donald K. McKim (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther (Cambridge: University Press, 2003), 274.

[2] Jörg Baur, “Ubiquität,” Oswald Bayer and Benjamin Gleede (eds.), Creator est Creatura: Luthers Christologie als Lehre von der Idiomenkommunikation (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007), 227-54

Theological Fragments: Christology and Soteriology

“The divinity of Jesus and his freeing and redeeming significance for us are related in the closest possible way. To this extent, Melanchthon’s famous sentence is appropriate, “Who Jesus is becomes known in his saving action.” Nevertheless, the divinity of Jesus does not consist in his saving significance for us. Divinity and saving significance are interrelated as distinct things. The divinity of Jesus remains the presupposition for this saving significance for us and, conversely, the saving significance of his divinity is the reason why we take interest in the question of this divinity.”

–Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus- God and Man, (The Westminster Press: Philadelphia, PA, 1968, 1977), 38.

Theological Fragments: Christology

“The gospel…is always some form of the claim, ‘Jesus, the one who…, is risen from the dead,’ with the ellipse filled by whatever narrative identification is needed in a context. The doctrine of Trinity and the canonical Gospels given, a necessary form of the gospel is: ‘Jesus, the one who…, is one of the Trinity,’ with the ellipse filled from the Gospels. Proper ‘Christology’ would be hermeneutic of this form of the gospel.”

–Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 1: The Triune God, 134.

A Brief Introduction to Christology (Part 3)

Go to Part 2

By Dr Paul R Hinlicky

This Christology of Luther became explicit in the conflict with Zwingli over the promised presence of Christ in His own body and blood at the Meal. Here Luther distinguished between the faith that believes –his celebrated fiducia, justifying faith from the heart—and the faith that is believed, but not as modern theology thinks, at the expense of the latter. “First, what one should believe, that is, the objectum fidei, that is, the work or thing in which one believes or to which on is to adhere.  Secondly, the faith itself, or the use which one should properly make of that in which he believes.  The first lives outside the heart and is presented to our eyes externally, namely, the sacrament itself, concerning which we believe that Christ’s body and blood are truly present in the bread and wine.  The second is internal, within the heart, and cannot be externalized.  It consists in the attitude which the heart should have toward the external sacrament… Up to now I have not preached very much about the first part, but have treated only the second, which is also the best part.  But because the first part is now being assailed by man, and the preachers, even those who are considered the best, are splitting up into factions over the matter… the times demand that I say something on this subject also.”[1] What Luther went on to say amounts to a correlation between Pelagian man (whom he had opposed with the doctrine of fiducia as the helpless sinner’s justification) and the Nestorian Christ (which he now opposed with his Cyrillian doctrine of the communication of idioms):  the human person who is capable of justifying himself does not need the divine-and-human Christ who became the justice of God by taking on Himself the sin of the world; nor does he need to feed at the Meal of such a Christ, where His sacrifice is remembered and His victory proclaimed on behalf of the perishing, until He comes in final glory.

Luther’s Christological dispute with Zwinglian Protestantism has continued through the modern period. That the person Christ is this divine-human object of Christian faith does not entail, as liberal Protestant scholarship beginning with Schleiermacher held, that Luther’s Christology is naively docetist. In fact, the reverse accusation might be made. Schleiermacher knew that admitting the Cry of Dereliction would fatally compromise his doctrine of the human Christ’s perfect God-consciousness: “I cannot think of this saying as an expression of Christ’s self-consciousness.”[2] Appropriating the Antiochene Christology of the Indwelling Logos, Schleiermacher in his dogmatics regarded “the theory of a mutual communication of the attributes of the two natures to one another” as something “also to be banished from the system of doctrine and handed over to the history of doctrine,” since in such a communication “nothing human could have been left in Christ since everything human is essentially a negation of omniscient omnipotence.”[3] But for Luther, it is the latter metaphysics –finitum non capax infiniti—which is to be revised by the concrete reality of Jesus Christ. Indeed, for Luther, the person of Christ is the personal communion of idioms, that is to say, Jesus’s divine Sonship consists in His self-giving obedience to death on the cross, theologically, to His abandonment to the anti-divine powers by His Father in order to become His Father’s very love for those so captive and enthralled.[4]

The crucial point of Trinitarian personalism at this juncture was made by the early Lutheran scholastic Martin Chemnitz, who clarified Luther’s speculative exploration of the deity’s “repletive presence” (divine immensity or omnipresence) as a property communicated to the glorified Christ, hence as the condition for the possibility of Christ’s promised Eucharistic presence.  Were there such a metamorphosis of natures in Christ, however, it would follow that the man Christ would be present as His personal promise everywhere, just as God is present by nature, automatically, as it were. Such ‘pan-Christism,’ so to speak, is not Luther’s intention; he drew back from this implication already during the controversy with Zwingli by making this distinction: “It is one thing if God is present and another if he is present for you.”[5] Or again, “both God and Christ are not far away but near, and it is only a matter of revealing themselves…”[6] But to be revealed “for you” is a free act of personal will. To substantiate Luther’s distinction here, Chemnitz therefore spoke of the ubivolipraesens of Christ,[7] i.e. that Christ the divine-human person is present as He freely wills to be for us, according to His promise.[8] With this move, Chemnitz was correcting Melanchthon in Luther’s direction. Fearing the confusion or mingling of divine and human natures proscribed by the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon, Melanchthon had already retreated in Luther’s lifetime from the latter’s doctrine of the communication of idioms. For the mature Melanchthon, the ascription of suffering to the incarnate Son of God is a way of talking, not of being.[9]

At root, that divergence going back to Luther and Melanchthon is why Lutheran Christology is and remains controverted. When Melanchthon’s Christology forms the lens through which Luther is read, and this bias is further underwritten by the modern Kantian-Zwinglian framework of liberal Protestant theology, Luther’s actual Christology is not only rendered inert, but becomes the familiar embarrassment of ‘objectifying the personal’ as body to be consumed in the Eucharist, ‘historicizing the eschatological’ in the exclusive claim for the name of Jesus, ‘capturing the infinite’ in allegedly pure doctrine, and so on.  In place of such remnants of “catholicism” in Luther, the reduction of Christology to soteriology, and of soteriology to the felt needs of the present hour, is lifted up as the cutting-edge “Lutheran” contribution to modern theology. But this commendation is as confused as it is historically baseless.

In conflict with the liberal Protestant rendering of Lutheran Christology at the time when Hitler was being welcomed as the new savior sent from God to deliver the German people,[10] Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted on Luther’s principle that it is “the person which interprets the work;” this is the reason why Christology precedes and governs soteriology. How, Bonhoeffer asked in the voice of the post-Kantians, “can the person of Christ be comprehended other than by his work, i.e. otherwise than through history?” Bonhoeffer replied: “This objection contains a most profound error. For even Christ’s work is not unequivocal. It remains open to various interpretations.” Only “when I know who he is, who does this, I will know what it is that he does.”[11] Yet decisively, since only the God who knows and searches the heart knows who anyone is, only God knows the person. Then knowledge of the person of Christ also seems to be blocked off from us. That is correct. It is God’s knowledge of the person of Jesus that is decisive, not ours. That is the point of saying that “Christology is not soteriology.”[12] Just as Luther’s Catechism has the believer confess: “… by my own reason and strength I cannot believe in my Lord Jesus Christ or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel…”

Epistemically, we can know Jesus Christ, present for us –truly, as Bonhoeffer went on to say, for us, the Man-for-Others because the Man-from-God– only as a function of God’s apocalypse, that is to say, of the Father’s sharing with us His own Easter knowledge of His Crucified Son by the sending of His own Spirit who had raised him from the grave. The young Wolfhart Pannenberg made the same argument. “There is no reason for the assumption that Jesus’ claim to authority taken by itself justified faith in him. On the contrary, the pre-Easter Jesus’ claim to authority stands from the beginning in relationship to the question of the future verification of his message through the occurrence of the future judgment… Thus has been shown the proleptic structure of Jesus’ claim to authority… This means, however, that Jesus’ claim to authority cannot by itself be made the basis of a Christology, as though this involved only the ‘decision’ in relation to him. Such Christology –and the preaching based upon it—would remain an empty assertion. Rather, everything depends upon the connection between Jesus’ claim and its confirmation by God.”[13] If that is so, then Lutheran Christology cannot sustain the doctrine of the justification of the ungodly apart from a robust Trinitarian personalism, that is, without the Father who recognized His own divine love for the ungodly in His dead and buried Son, nor without the Spirit who recognizes the ungodly as those for whom Christ lived and died by raising them together with Him to faith and new obedience. To proclaim Christ alone requires more than Christology.


[1] See LW 36:335; WA 19 482:25 – 483:19; for more on this return to dogmatic theology in the older Luther, see Dennis Bielfeldt, Mickey L. Mattox, Paul R. Hinlicky, The Substance of the Faith: Luther’s Doctrinal Theology for Today (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008).

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Life of Jesus ed. J. C. Verheyden (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975) 423.

[3] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, Vol. 2 ed. H. R. Macintosh and J.S. Steward (Harper and Row, 1963), § 97,5  (412).

[4] On this see further Chapter Two in Paul R. Hinlicky, Luther and the Beloved Community (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010).

[5] “This is My Body,” LW 37:68.

[6] Ibid., 66.

[7] See, e.g., Martin Chemnitz, The Two Natures of Christ, trans. J.A.O. Preus, (Concordia: St Louis, 1971) 278.

[8] On this point, see further Paul R. Hinlicky, “Luther’s Anti-Docetism in the Disputatio de divinitate et humanitate Christi (1540)” in Creator est creatura: Luthers Christologie als Lehre von der Idiomenkommunikation ed. O. Bayer & Benjamin Gleede (Berlin & NY: Walter De Gruyter, 2007) 139-185.

[9] On this, see further Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken, 162-169.

[10] Bergen, Doris L., Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Steigmann-Gall, Richard,The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity 1919-1945 (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[11] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center trans. Edwin H. Robertson (NY: Harper & Row, 1978) 37-39.

[12] Bonhoeffer, Christ, 39.

[13] Wolfart Pannenberg, Jesus: God and Man trans. Lewis L. Wilkins & Duane A. Priebe (Philadelphia: Westminister, 1975) 66.

A Brief Introduction to Christology (Part 2)

Go to Part 1

By Dr Paul R Hinlicky

Oswald Bayer has rightly called attention to the Sitz im Leben of the confessional as the very Western place where the question of justice and justification before God was posed in the conscience of distressed individuals. This is the place where in his struggle Luther finally conceived the priest’s words, Ego te absolvo, as the self-promising words of the present Christ.[1] The words of Christ are performances of the act of assurance, unilaterally realizing, as it were, the Preface to the First Commandment: “I am yours and you are mine.” “That the signum itself is already the res, that the linguistic sign is already the matter itself – that was Luther’s great hermeneutical discovery, his reformational discovery in the strict sense.”[2] In ipsa fide Christus adest – in faith Christ Himself is there, both as performer of the promise as well as worthy object of believing trust.  So the Finnish scholar Tuomo Mannermaa made the same Christological point about Luther’s teaching of the Christ who is present and active to save.[3]

Bayer, however, drew two problematic “rules” from this analysis of Christ’s presence as promissio: first, he argued that one cannot transform a promissory statement into a descriptive statement, and second, that one cannot transform the promise into an imperative.[4] This is overdrawn. Bayer’s fear was that by description one would seek to find another basis for trust than the Word itself, as if one then sought to legitimate its speaker by means of an modern historical-critical or old-fashioned supernatural verification; moreover, the promise would lose its true divinity as creative power, if it were transformed into an imperative, thus making its truth dependent upon an independent human response. These are legitimate concerns. However, a promissory statement entails analytically a description of the promissory agent, especially when the promise is one of self-commitment. Otherwise the believer would be in no condition to test the spirits to see that the One who so promises is indeed the crucified and risen One (as per Mark 13[5]); nor then would he be able to give an account of the justice of justification in the work of the crucified and risen Christ in the time of confession,[6] leaving the hapless believer in a dumb state of blind faith rather than of understanding faith ready for battle with principalities and powers. Second, the evangelical imperatives of Paul are not demands of the law which return the believer to her own resources, even if there is a danger of taking them that way. In fact, they are exhortations to the Spirit’s “new creation” already now to live indeed by the Spirit of Christ. The evangelical imperatives are not a third use of the law but a second use of the gospel.[7]

Christological doctrine is the theological description of Jesus Christ that designates Him, and Him alone, as the speaker of the divine promise on the grounds that His saving work on the Cross and Easter victory is the right by which He forgives sins and breathes the Spirit upon believers. Such Christology identifies the object of faith, when faith, activated in love and persevering in hope, is taken the Spirit’s own hearing in believers of Christ’s self-donating Word, summoning them thereby to walk in newness of life.

Not surprisingly, then, Luther’s Christology was already present in his pre-reformational writings, although it had not yet achieved the clarity and centrality that would later emerge.[8] A letter to George Spenlein dated April 8, 1516 articulates what would become the consistent pattern of thought, or model, of the life of faith which stands behind Luther’s development of the Reformation doctrine of justification: “… learn Christ and him crucified. Learn to praise him and, despairing of yourself, say, ‘Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, just as I am your sin. You have taken upon yourself what you were not and have given to me what I was not.’ Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner, or to be one. For Christ dwells only in sinners. On this account he descended from heaven, where he dwelt among the righteous, to dwell among sinners. Meditate on this love of his and you will see his sweet consolation. For why was it necessary for him to die if we can obtain a good conscience by our works and afflictions? Accordingly you will find peace only in him and only when you despair of yourself and your own works. Besides, you will learn from him that just as he received you, so he has made your sins his own and has made his righteousness yours.”[9] This motif appears at every stage of the Reformer’s career; it is his operative Christology, since Christ truly exists as the Man-for-others (Bonhoeffer). “The joyful exchange of our sin and Christ’s righteousness provides the operative model in Luther’s mind of how the event of justification transpires in uniting the believer with Christ in His death and resurrection. According to this model, forgiveness and the new birth are double-sided aspects of the one saving event of encounter with Christ in divine faith of the Spirit through the gospel, such that the sinner dies and a new creature is born.”[10]

The model works because the One who descended to dwell among sinners as the Man-for-Others is the incarnate God, even though dwelling among sinners seems to make Him indistinguishable from those whose company He keeps. Because it is “this man [who] is God,” then, the reference to the Spirit is not nugatory, who must provide a new language for notitia in the new perspective of fiducia.[11] “Faith” for Luther is divine faith, the work and gift of the Spirit, over which the Spirit disposes, since neither human wisdom nor human willpower can overcome the incognito of His humanity and the scandal of His cross. As the Creator Spirit raised Jesus from death, so also the Spirit raises the believer to faith, ubi et quando Deo visum est (“where and when it pleases God, Augsburg Confession V), that is, according to the Father’s good pleasure. Luther’s Christology is manifestly embedded in a vigorous Trinitarian personalism; Christology cannot do all the theological work for Luther, but itself refers to the Father who sent the Son, and the Spirit whom the Father and the Son send. With Trinitarianism, then, we are provided the kind of full-orbed theological description of Christ that is analytic to the saving presence of this crucified Man as the Speaker of a unilateral and unconditional promise of true good.

Go to Part 3


[1] Bayer, Oswald, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation trans. Thomas H. Trapp (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007) 49ff.

[2] Ibid., 52.

[3] Mannermaa, Tuomo, Der im Glauben Gegenwaertige Christus: Rechtferigung und Vergottung Zum oekumenischen Dialog, Arbeiten zur Geschichte und Theologie des Luthertums, Neue Folge Band 8 (Hannover: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 1989).

[4] Ibid., 54

[5] See Dennis Bielfeldt, Mickey L. Mattox, Paul R. Hinlicky, The Substance of the Faith: Luther’s Doctrinal Theology for Today (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008) 174-89..

[6] Paul R. Hinlicky, “Status Confessionis,” The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Five Volumes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans & Brill, 2008) V:198-201.

[7] See Paul R. Hinlicky, Luther and the Beloved Community, Chapter Four (Grand Rapids, MI: Erdmans, 2010).

[8] See the classic articulation of it in great Reformation statement, “The Freedom of a Christian” (LW 31: 343).

[9] LW 48: 12-13; cf. LW 35: 49.

[10] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology from Luther through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans, 2009) 146.

[11] See Paul R. Hinlicky, “Luther’s Anti-Docetism in the Disputatio de divinitate et humanitate Christi (1540)” in Creator est creatura: Luthers Christologie als Lehre von der Idiomenkommunikation ed. O. Bayer & Benjamin Gleede (Berlin & NY: Walter De Gruyter, 2007) 139-185.