The Early Church and The Person of Jesus

Posted: October 11, 2013 in Uncategorized

Last week I had the privilege of lecturing for three hours on the doctrine of the Trinity. Next week I will spend six hours on the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. Because I think understanding a bit of historical context is important as we study theology, I usually try to read historical theological works that trace the development of various doctrines. Two books that are particularly helpful are Gregg Allison’s Historical Theology and John D. Hannah’s Our Legacy: A History of Christian Doctrine. It is the former that I used in preparation for the lecture on the Trinity and the latter I am using in preparation for speaking about the person and work of Jesus. Both books are well written and would be nice editions to any bookshelf!

Tonight I spent some time reading the first half of Dr. Hannah on the person of Jesus. In tracing the development of this point of theology in the early church, the readiness of the early church fathers to affirm that Jesus was both God and man, while not speculating on how these two truths held together, was fascinating. For instance, after quoting Clement of Rome (d. 101?), Dr. Hannah notes that while he “affirmed the deity and humanity of Christ, he did not speculate on the relationship between the two in His single being” (Hannah, 112). The same is said about Ignatius (c. 35-c. 107).

The Apologists (A.D. 150-300) would continue to defend the deity and humanity of Jesus.  Men such as Origen (c. 185–c. 254), Irenaeus (c. 130–c. 200), and Hippolytus (c. 170–c. 236) would all argue for both the humanity and deity of Jesus. Irenaeus would write that “[t]here is therefore…one God and Father, and one Christ Jesus our Lord…in every respect, too, he is man, the formation of God: and thus he took up man into himself, the invisible becoming visible, the impassible becoming capable of suffering, and the Word being made man, thus summing up all things in himself” (Against Heresies, III.16). According to Hannah, the “influence of Irenaeus’s view of Christ was such that a phrase the he used of Him, ‘Jesus Christ the Son of God is one and the same…” (Hannah, 114) became commonplace.

Holding the two natures (divine and human) together was something the early church sought to do, even though they may not have been able to explain how this worked in complete detail. Melito of Sardis, according to Hannah, may have been the first to speak of “two natures” (The Guide, 13), but was not the first to affirm this was what the Bible put forth. It would fall to later theologians to try and articulate how the two natures could exist in one person.

At this point I find myself in the same proverbial boat as the early Apologists. I see in the Bible a Jesus who was God of very God; in whom the fullness of deity dwells bodily (Col 2:9). And I see a Jesus who was born a baby (Matt 2), did not know everything (Luke 2:40, 52), and could die like a man (see the Passion narratives!). We see a Jesus who is both God and Man. I am ready to affirm this and yet I am far from adequate to try and explain how the two natures of Jesus existed in the one man without confusion or mixture of those natures.

Oh, the depths of theological inquiry. And what fun that inquiry is as we seek to know Jesus more.

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