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.



The Joy of Christology? a book review

The problem with much Christology, of both the high and low varieties, is that it can be dry-as-dust boring. Just the mention of the term, and eyes glaze over. The church historians may remember the fire and intrigue of earlier eras, theologians may happily enter the world of doctrinal abstraction, but for most of us, Christology remains opaque. We may be happy that someone is thinking about it somewhere, but we never delve too deeply ourselves.

Michael Reeves, author of the delightful Delighting in the Trinity and teacher of theology at Wales Evangelical School of Theology has once again helped us discover the joy of serious theological reflection. Rejoicing in Christ uncovers the joy in all that Christ is and has done for us. In five chapters (plus a brief introduction and conclusion), Reeves worshipful prose reflect on Christ’s divinity; his humanity;  his life, death, and resurrection; how we share in his life; and his victorious return and the renewal of all things. This is a short book, but meaty–doctrinally delightful and exuding with praise for the God revealed in Jesus Christ!

In writing this book, Reeves is picking up on the tradition of worshipful theology once common among the Puritans, “Once upon a time a book like this would have been utterly run of the mill. Among the old Puritans, for example, you can scarcely find a writer who did not write–or a preacher who did not preach–something called The Unsearchable Riches of Christ, Christ set Forth. The Glory of Christ or the like” (9). In fact these Puritans are Reeves dialogue partners throughout. He refers often to the works of Richard Sibbes, John Owens, Jonathan Edwards and the like. The caricature of the dour Puritan is not evident anywhere in these pages. Other theologians, pastors, poets and artists of other eras are also woven into his larger Christological song.

I love this book. I appreciate the way that Reeves reveals Jesus as the eternal Word. He declares, “Here, then, is the revolution for all our dreams, our dark and frightened imaginings of God, there is no God in heaven who is unlike Jesus” (14). Reeves invites us to reflect on how the person and character of Jesus shows us what God is like–not who he became when taking on flesh, but the sort of God, God always was. He reflects on who Jesus was and how he shared in the Trinitarian life before his Incarnation. But his Christological reflections also wrestle with Christ’s humanity and what Jesus shows us about what it really means to human–taking up again our function as ‘image bearers of God’ (52). In his incarnation we discover the Christ who has been ‘lifted up on the cross, lifted up from the grave, lifted up to the throne: all to share with the world his victorious life (81). Reeves chapter on our sharing in the ‘life of Christ’ and Christ’s return do not shrink back from reflecting on suffering and difficulty, but uncover the joy of abiding and the hope of restoration. This entire book will help you appreciate the way Christ has given us ‘every blessing in the spiritual realm’ (Ephesians 1:3).

My one small critique, if you may call it that, is that this is sold by IVP’s academic imprint (IVP Academic). While this book should certainly be read by scholarly folk, I would hope that regular readers would not be scared off by this being an ‘academic book.’ This book is great for any thoughtful Christian. I give it five stars!

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP academic in exchange for my honest review.

Jesus the Messiah: a book review

Christians insist that Jesus is the Messiah–the Anointed One foretold  in the Hebrew Bible. But what do Christians mean by the term? Herbert Bateman, Darrell Bock and Gordon Johnston have teamed up to explore just what we mean when we say Jesus is the Messiah. Drawing on the strengths of each scholar, they propose a ‘threefold hermeneutical reading strategy examining: (1) the promises and patterns of messianic expectation in the Old Testament, (2) the eschatological expectations evident in the Second Temple literature (between the testaments) and  (3) the Already/Not Yet Christological Readings of the New Testament which name Jesus the Messiah.

Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations and Coming of Israel’s King by Herbert W. Bateman IV, Darrell L. Bock & Gordon H. Johnston

Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promise expectations and Coming of Israel’s King divides into three parts. In part one of the book Johnston explores Messianic trajectories in the Old Testament. He does not offer simplistic Christological typology which reads Jesus back into every text. Instead he carefully examines the understanding of various passages in their literary and historical context before placing each prophecy in its canonical context, demonstrating what the passage came to mean.  His survey of the First Testament  examines passages from Genesis and Numbers, Samuel and Chronicles, the Royal Psalms and  the prophets. Johnston did not touch on every passage relevant to Messiahship but restricted his exploration to those passages that speak directly  of the theme. In a later Appendix he examines Genesis 3:15 which Christians understand as a messianic prophecy, but earlier readers did not draw this connection.

Bateman tackles part two of the book  discussing what messianic expectation was in the Second Temple era. Israel was marginal to most of the ancient world and many did not expecting a Messiah; however beginning with the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties, frustration over political corruption led many to long for messianic restoration. Bateman examines the literature of the period exploring what sort of Messiah was anticipated. He looks at direct references to “the Messiah,” as well as Messianic titles like “Branch,” “Prince,” and “Son.”  There is a plurality of  Messianic expectations in the era  but there was a common expectation of a Jewish leader over Judea.  Also Bateman illumines some of the continuities and discontinuities between expectations of the era with how the New Testament describes Jesus the Messiah.

In the final section, Bock examines the understanding of Messiah presented in the New Testament. He begins his survey by discussing Revelations and the Catholic Epistles before turning to Paul’s letters. Only then does he turn to Acts and the Gospels. Bock’s intent is to work from the least controversial ‘Messianic claims’ (that of the Catholic Epistles) to the parts of the New Testament which engender the the most contention (the Gospels). Different sections of the New Testament emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. For example, the Catholic Epistles discuss theologically Jesus coming and suffering, his work on our behalf,  Jesus’ continuing role as mediator and his future coming in glory. Paul on the other hand, speaks most often of being incorporated into Christ.  Acts speaks of how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament expectations of the Messiah and how God was at work in “Christ.” In the synoptic Gospels Jesus goes to great pains to not publicize his Messiahship  but does demonstrate his identity as the Anointed One by his actions (and his death and resurrection).

This is a good book and the discussions here are important. Jesus is the Messiah–the Anointed One of Israel. The term Messiah was understood variously as a  royal  prophetic, priestly, or apocalyptic function.  Jesus is revealed to us as the restored David King of Promise, the great high priest and  the Divine Son of God who came to restore all things.  Johnston, Bateman and Bock enrich our understanding by examining the way messianic expectations unfold in Scripture and History. All of the parts of this book are worth reading, but I especially enjoyed Bateman’s contributions.  Understanding the Second Temple context illuminates our understanding of the New Testament (and gives us clues as to how the human authors read the Old Testament).  Each of the authors enrich our understanding of  the Messiah by attending to the fullness of what the term means in various literary contexts. They refuse to flatten out the concept of Messiah but attempt to listen to all the term implies.

This is an academic book, although it is not too technical for an interested lay person.  But Bateman, Bock and Johnston carefully review  various texts in constructing their argument.  The chief value of this book is exegetical and descriptive. I find it to be a great reference for parsing what the Biblical authors meant by Messiah and what it means that Jesus is the Messiah. Of course each of the sections could have been developed further, but together they give a picture of the progressive nature of revelation. I would recommend this book for serious students of the Bible, and for pastors and lay leaders charged with teaching the scriptures to the church.  I give this book four stars. ★★★★☆

Thank you to Kregel Academic for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.