The Fullness of Christ in the Early Church: a book review

One of the theology profs at my grad school used to say something like, “All the new heresies are the old heresies with fresh make up and a mini skirt.” Leaving aside his troubling gendered association of apostasy, his point is a good one: there is nothing new under the sun, there are simply variations of an old theme.

9780830851270This is demonstrated in The Earliest Christologies: Five images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age James Papandrea, associate professor of church history at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary,  explores the various views of Christ in the second and third centuries (before Constantine and councils). Some thinkers in the area were Adoptionists, denying the divinity of Jesus; Others were Docetists, denying  Christ’s humanity. The middle position was Logos Christology—affirming Jesus Christ’s full  divinity and humanity and paving the way for Nicea and Chalcedon.

Papandrea explores five images of Christ in the early church. He distinguishes two different types of adoptionists: Angel Adoptionists and Spirit Adoptionists. The Angel Adoptionists held that the human Jesus was rewarded by God for his perfect obedience and given an indwelling angel. This happened proactively at the moment of his conception because of God’s foreknowledge (25-26).  Thus they accepted the Virgin Birth but neither the man (Jesus) or the indwelling angel (the Christ) were considered divine (27). They accepted the gospel of Matthew as canon and prominent teachers include the author of The Shepherd of Hermas and Lucian of Antioch (Arius’ teacher) (29-30). With this Christology, salvation is based on merit and human effort (31). Little is known about the actual lifestyle of the Angel Adoptionists (31).

Most adoptionists were Spirit Adoptionists, believing that Jesus became the Christ through the anointing of the Spirit at his Baptism (35). This gave Jesus power to perform miracles in his ministry; however the Spirit withdrew at Jesus’ passion (35). Thus the union of human to God was temporary, focused on the concept of anointing rather than indwelling (35-36). They likely used an edited form of Matthew’s gospel, excising the birth narratives (39)  The Spirit Adoptionists affirmed the preexistence of the Spirit, safegarding Jewish monotheism by removing Jesus from the realm of divinity (42). Jesus was just a man filled by the Spirit, and as such not unique (36).  Adherents of Spirit Adoptionism included Theodutus the Elder, Theodutus the Younger and Paul of Samasota (36-37). As with the Angel Adoptionists, Spirit Adoptionists were ‘optimistic about human nature’ advocating strict  adherence to the Jewish law (41). This manifested itself as a strict asceticism among adherents, vegetarianism and the use of water at the Eucharist (43).

The Docetists were also (broadly) of two types: those that denied that Jesus had a body at all (Docetism and Docetic Gnosticism),  and those that thought Jesus had a “ethereal” body which appeared human (Hybrid Gnosticsm. Hybrid Gnosticism (or quasi-docetism)  developed somewhat later, possibly in conversation with the mainstream church and a concession that Jesus did seem to actually have a body (70)  Both forms of gGnosticism demeaned matter in favor of the ‘spiritual,’ though in practice it manifested itself differently. Those who thought that Jesus’ body was an illusion, denigrated their bodies as evil and practiced asceticism (64). The Hybrids were more hedonistic, though possibly no-more than Roman society at large (82-83).  Neither type of docetist believe in Jesus humanity. Thus he has no birth,  or resurrection. Jesus was simply the offspring of gods in a polytheistic pantheon.

Papandrea presents Logos Christology as ‘the middle way’ between adoptionism and docetism:

Logos Christology, as the middle way between these alternatives, refused to allow either of Jesus Christ’s two natures to be diminished. Logos Christology embraces a full divinity that is preexistant and a true humanity with a real human body. This is a hristology of descent because the divine Logos starts out in the dine realm as equal to the Father and descends to humanity to take on our human condition (Phil 2:6-8). Furthermore Logos Christology refuses to separate Jesus from “the Christ” as though they were two separate entities, but rather consider the whole incarnate Jesus Christ as one person. (88-89).

Thus Logos Christology affirms Jesus humanity and that he is the divine Son of God, his bodily resurrection, his virgin birth, his incarnation. The practical payoff of this view is a belief in the doctrine of grace, and Christ’s atoning sacrifice, resurrection and the dignity of creation. Rather than legalism or a strict asceticism, Christians could have a more balanced approach to their bodies and matter (104).

Papandrea’s final chapter explores why Logos Christianity won, instead of these other alternatives. But he also show how these early heresies had a legacy. Adoptionism evolved into Arianism in the forth century (119). Docetic Gnosticism paved the way for modalism (120). In his final pages he observes the modern forms of Adoptionism and Doceticism (125-127). Modern day modalists and practical docetists in the church, continue to deny the dignity of embodied life. Adoptionism is seen in contemporary scholarship that draws a strong distinction between “the historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith” (125). Old heresies remade for today.

Papandrea has produced an accessible guide to these early Christologies. It is an introductory overview, so could certainly be more detailed at points; yet Papandrea does give a good analysis of the controversies and the implications for sotierology and anthropology. This would be a good supplementary text for a systematic or historical theology course. It also has the advantage of describing the significance of these histories for today. As a pastoral leader, this book clarified my understanding of the roots of contemporary issues facing Christology in the church.  I give this four-and-a-half stars.

Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

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