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Home > Dictionaries > Holman Bible Dictionary > CHRIST, CHRISTOLOGY

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Christ, Christology
CHRIST, CHRISTOLOGY

“Christ” is the English rendering of the Greek Christos, meaning “anointed.” See Messiah which translates the corresponding Hebrew term mashiach, the anointed one.

Old Testament and Jewish Background See Messiah.

Various groups of individuals in the Old Testament were recipients of a ceremony involving anointing with oil. Notable examples were priests (Exodus 29:7) and kings in Israel from the time of Saul onward (1 Samuel 10-16). The appellation, “the Lord's anointed” came to be used to mean the king of Israel, (1 Samuel 24:6, 1 Samuel 24:10). The psalmist looked forward to an ideal anointed king who may or may not have been already seen dimly portrayed in the contemporary Israelite kings (Psalms 2:2; Psalms 18:50; Psalms 20:6; Psalms 132:10, Psalms 132:17). A good illustration of what anointing implied is seen in Psalms 105:15 (1 Chronicles 16:22) where the term “anointed” (here used in the plural) refers to the Hebrew patriarchs as those set apart for God's service and called to be His representatives. An unusual occurrence of this idea is in Isaiah 45:1 where “his anointed” refers to Cyrus the Persian ruler whom God appointed to serve Him.

The failure of the Hebrew monarchy, certified by the Babylonian Exile (587-538 B.C.), paved the way for the emergence of a messianic hope. The prospect entailed a coming deliverer, usually of the Davidic family but also with priestly connections, who would restore the kingdom to Israel and be a kingly figure. Such a prophetic figure is not actually called the Messiah in the Old Testament. The Song of Solomon, written in the period 70-40 B.C. by a Pharisee, gives the first positive identification of the coming redeemer of Israel with one whom the Lord anoints as His Messiah. The prayer runs: “See, O Lord, and raise up for them their king, the Son of David [and] their king is the Lord's anointed” (Song of Solomon 17:21,Song of Solomon 17:32; compare Song of Solomon 18:7). This usage, however, is exceptional. The scarcity of allusions to the Messiah before the New Testament period is probably to be explained by the fact that Israel's hope took on various shapes. Often it was God Himself who was expected to visit the nation in deliverance; sometimes it was His angel or messenger who would herald the onset of the new age (Malachi 3:1-2; Malachi 4:5-6). The term “Messiah,” where it is found, relates to a human figure who, as a member of David's family, would usher in the restored kingdom and promote Israel's interests in the world, usually implying a triumph over Israel's enemies in a war of liberation (Song of Solomon), or in the creation of a purified people (as in the hope entertained by the sect of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran).

Jesus as the Christ in the Gospels The first three Gospels give less prominence to the title “Christ” (the Messiah) than we might have expected. Jesus never openly paraded His Messiahship, nor did He overtly claim to be the Messiah in the sense of announcing an aspiration to be Israel's warrior king. Yet He did claim to be the One in whom the kingdom of God was present (Mark 1:14-15; Luke 11:20). His parables enunciated both the arrival of the kingdom and its character, setting a pattern for living for those who would enter God's realm as His children (Matthew 13:1; Mark 4:1). His mighty acts in healing the sick and casting out demons were demonstrations of the power and presence of God at work in His ministry (Luke 5:17). His teaching on prayer was based on the awareness He had of God as His Father in an intimate sense, calling him “Abba,” my dear Father, which is a nursery word used of an earthly parent by Jewish children (Mark 14:36; Luke 10:21-22; Luke 11:2). See Abba. His entire mission was seen as heralding the coming of the divine kingdom which, He believed, was closely tied in with His final journey to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51; Luke 13:32-35) and His sacrifice there on the cross (Mark 8:31-32; Mark 9:31; Mark 10:32-34). Only in this way, Jesus knew, could God's kingdom come and God's will be done by His anointed Servant and Son (Luke 4:16-19).

For this reason—that God's redemption of Israel would take place only by the suffering of the Messiah—Jesus took a reserved and critical attitude to the title “Christ.” When Peter confessed “Thou art the Christ” (Mark 8:29), Jesus' response was guarded: not denying it, but distancing Himself from the political and social connotations which a nationalist Judaism had accepted as commonplace in the expected Deliverer. (See Mark 10:35-45; Luke 24:19-21; Acts 1:6 for the evidence that even the disciples entertained such a hope.) At the trial Jesus was interrogated on this point. The balance of the evidence points in the direction that He still maintained a reserve (Matthew 26:63-64; Luke 22:67-68), with the same reluctance to be identified with a worldly messiah-king evident, too, in the interview with Pilate (Mark 15:2: “Art thou the King of the Jews?” asked Pilate. “Thou sayest it,” Jesus replied; but the answer is probably noncommittal meaning, “It is your word, not mine”). At all events, Jesus was sentenced to death on the trumped-up charge of being a messianic claimant and a rival to the emperor in Rome (Mark 15:26,Mark 15:32). The Gospels make it clear that there was no direct and supportable evidence that Jesus so claimed to be such a figure. Instead, He consistently viewed His life and mission as fulfilling the role of the “Son of man” (a title drawn from Daniel 7:13-14 where it stands for God's Representative on earth who suffers out of loyalty to the truth and is at length rewarded by being promoted to share the throne of God) and God's chosen Servant, a pattern for ministry which Jesus evidently found in Isaiah's servant songs (Isaiah 42:1-4; Isaiah 49:5-7; Isaiah 52:13-53:12). If this is the correct background to Jesus' self-awareness, both of His relationship to God and to His mission, it helps to explain how He looked confidently beyond defeat and death to His vindication by God in the resurrection. Whatever destiny of suffering and rejection by His people awaited Him, He saw, like Isaiah's servant, that God would bring Him ot of death to newness of life. Also, the significance Jesus attached to His death as an atoning sacrifice in such sayings as Mark 10:45; Mark 14:24 requires some such background as the vicarious sacrifice of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:5,Isaiah 53:10 to give it coherent meaning.

In the apostolic church this understanding of Jesus' life and ministry was given clearer definition (Acts 2:22-36; Acts 8:26-40), and in the hands of the New Testament theologians such as Paul (Romans 3:24-26) and the author of Hebrews (Romans 8-10) the conviction regarding the person, work, and glory of Jesus Christ is clearly articulated. At this point we have entered the realm of Christology, the teaching about the person of Jesus Christ.

Christology: Methods Any approach to Christology (that is, the teaching on Christ's person as both a figure of history and the object of the church's worship) must face the issue of methodology. Specifically, this means that a choice has to be considered whether the interpreter will begin with creedal formulations that confess that Jesus Christ is “true God” and “true man,” and then work backward to the way this teaching arose in the early church and the New Testament. This method is called seeking Christology “from above.” The alternative approach, called by modern scholars a Christology “from below,” begins with the factual data of the historical and theological records of the New Testament Scriptures, and from there it proceeds to trace the way the church's understanding of the Lord developed until the creeds were framed. Another way of putting this choice—which we shall stress is not so momentous as it appears, since both methods add up to the same conclusion—is to ask whether New Testament Christology is ontological (that is, concerned with Christ's transcendent role in relation to God, the world, and the church) or primarily functional. The latter term means that the New Testament writers were concerned mainly to relate the person of Jesus Christ to His achievement as Savior and Lord and to set this in the context of His earthly ministry.

The two methods do seem to proceed from different starting points. The first one asks, “Who is Christ and how is He related to God?” The second raises the questions, “What did Jesus do in His human life, and how did it come about that the church accorded Him titles of divinity?” At a practical level we can see that the choice is one which can be put in personal terms. Is Jesus rightly called the Son of God because He saves me? This is the standpoint of functional Christology. Or is it true that He saves me because He is the Son of God? That is the language of ontological Christology. Yet the two approaches reach the same goal in the end, we believe. As methods, they are different. In what follows we adopt the approach of “Christology from below” on the ground that this method more adequately respects the way the New Testament teaching has come to us and so can be seen in the pages of the New Testament. We do not deny that there are ontological overtones, in such places as John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:6-11; and Hebrews 1:1-4. They are implicit rather than explicit. One of the exciting discoveries in recent scholarship has been to see how even the indirect evidence of the Gospels and Epistles witnesses to the truth enshrined in the creeds, and provides the “raw materials” out of which the later church built its confession, “Thou art the King of glory, O Christ. Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father” (The Te Deum of the fifth century liturgy).

The Course of New Testament Christology In accordance with our chosen approach, it becomes possible to plot the path that the New Testament writers took as they formulated their understanding of the person and work of Christ in response to situations that arose among the first Christian congregations.

The early believers in Jerusalem were Jews who had come to faith in Jesus as Messiah and risen Lord (Acts 2:32-36). Their appreciation of who Jesus was took its point of departure from the conviction that, with His resurrection and exaltation, the new age of God's triumph, described in the Old Testament and the intertestamental writings, had indeed dawned, and the Old Testament Scriptures (notably Psalms 110:1) had been fulfilled. The cross had also to be explained, since Jesus' death at the hands of the of the Roman political powers stood in direct and obvious contradiction to all that pious Jews believed about the Messiah, God's expected Deliverer of His people and a glorious Figure. The crux is seen in Deuteronomy 21:23 which prescribed that anyone hanging on a tree died under God's curse (the verse is quoted in Galatians 3:13) A rationale was found in two ways: it came by asserting (1) that Jesus' rejection was already foreseen in the Old Testament, notably Psalms 118:22; Isaiah 53:1, and that His implicit claims to be the Messenger and embodiment of God's kingdom revealed only human unbelief; and (2) that at the resurrection God had reversed this verdict, vindicated His Son, and installed Him in the place of honor and power. The first Christological statement therefore was based on the fact of two stages in Jesus' existence: He was the Son of David in His human descent, and since the resurrection He is known as the Son of God with power and alive in the Spirit (Romans 1:3-4). The implicit messianic claims of His earthly life were made overt since His exaltation, and the hiddenness of His true being was revealed in glory. The proof of the new age He inaugurated was seen in the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:16-21, quoting Joel 2:28).

At a practical level this way of seeing Jesus' life and resurrection gave these believers a personal relationship with Jesus as a present reality. He did not appear as a simple figure of the past, however recent. Hence the first Christian prayer of which we have any record is “Maranatha” (meaning “our Lord, come”) addressed to the risen Lord and placing Him on a par with Yahweh, Israel's covenant God (1 Corinthians 16:22; Romans 10:9-13; compare Acts 7:55-56,Acts 7:59) as worthy of worship. This is the startling novelty of what the resurrection and enthronement of Jesus meant.

Further meditation on Old Testament Scripture gave a clue to Jesus' secret identity and explained His use of the mysterious title “Son of man.” Drawn from Daniel 7:13-18, the Son of man title is one of authority and dignity, two ideas that the resurrection of Jesus confirmed (Acts 7:56). The church preserved this teaching on the Son of man from Jesus' lips and set it in the framework of His earthly life to accomplish several objectives: (1) to show how Jesus was misunderstood and rejected as a messianic pretender, since “Son of man” spoke of God's kingdom and made Him a sharer of the divine throne; (2) to indicate how Jesus brought in a new age in which God's revelation was not tied to the law of Moses but was universalized for all people. The “Son of man” in Daniel 7:22, Daniel 7:27 is the head of a worldwide kingdom, far outstripping the narrow confines of Jewish hopes; and (3) to find a missionary impulse which led these believers, notably under the leadership of Stephen and his followers, to reach out to non-Jews (Acts 7:59-8:1; Acts 11:19-21; Acts 13:1-3).

Such a mission brought the church into the world of Greek religion in the setting of Greco-Roman society. The most relevant title in this religious milieu was “Lord,” a title used of gods and goddesses in the mystery religions which were partly oriental, partly Greco-Roman. More significantly, “Lord” was an appellation of honor and divinity that came to be associated with emperor worship and applied to the Roman Caesar. Both areas proved fertile ground for the application to Jesus of the commonest New Testament Christological title, Lord. It was already in use as the name of Yahweh in the Greek Bible of the Old Testament, and it now was applied to the exalted Christ. It became useful as establishing a meeting point between Christians and pagans who were familiar with the deities of their religious world (1 Corinthians 8:5-6). Later, the term “Lord” became the touchstone for marking off Christian allegiance to Jesus when the Roman authorities required that homage should be paid to the emperor as divine (as in the setting of the Book of Revelation in the 90's A.D., when the Emperor Domitian proclaimed himself “lord and god.” (See Revelation 17:14.)

The final step in New Testament Christology was taken in the churches whose life we see reflected in the Letter to the Hebrews and the Johannine writings. The author of Hebrews sets out to prove the finality of Christ's revelation as Son of God (Hebrews 1:1-4) and great “high priest” (Hebrews 5:5; Hebrews 7:1-9:28). John's writings are clearest in their ascription to Jesus of the names Logos (Word) and (only) God. (See John 1:1,John 1:14,John 1:18; John 20:28, along with the claims of Jesus registered in the affirmations of “I AM,” recalling Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 45:5; Isaiah 46:9; compare John 8:24; John 10:30,John 10:33.) John's indebtedness is evidently to the Old Testament and intertestamental or early Jewish wisdom teaching where “wisdom” and “word” (often linked with the Mosaic law) are treated as mediators in God's act of creating the world (Proverbs 8:1) and as a preexistent revelation of God (in the early Jewish book The Wisdom of Solomon, written in the second century B.C.). John boldly claimed both roles for Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:3,John 1:18; John 14:6,John 14:9). He set the earthly life of Jesus against the backdrop of His eternal Being as one with the Father and the visible glory of the unseen God, thus superseding the law of Moses (John 1:17; compare John 5:46-47) and the claims of the Roman emperor (John 20:28: “My Lord and my God”).

Yet even these most explicit statements, along with other teachings in Paul (Philippians 2:6; Colossians 1:15; Titus 2:13; possibly Romans 9:5) and Hebrews (Hebrews 1:1-4) never compromised the belief in the unity of God, an inheritance the Christians took from their Jewish ancestry as a cardinal element of Old Testament monotheism (belief in one God in a world of many gods). Nor did they lend countenance to the view that Jesus was a rival deity in competition with His Father (John 14:28; 1 Corinthians 11:3; Philippians 2:9-11). God the Father is always regarded as the Fount of deity; Jesus is His Son in a unique way, but He is never confounded with Him. The worship of the church is properly directed to God who has revealed Himself once-for-all and uniquely in the Son whom He loves (Colossians 1:13), and who mirrors the perfect expression of the divine nature (2 Corinthians 4:4-6). How to relate the two sides to Jesus' person—the human and the divine—is not explained in the New Testament; and the writers there bequeath a rich legacy to the later church which formed the substance of the Christological debates leading to the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451. There it was decreed and expressed that Christ's two natures are united in one Person, and this belief has remained the centralist position of the church ever since. See Messiah; Son of God; Lord.

Ralph P. Martin


Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor.. "Entry for 'CHRIST, CHRISTOLOGY'". "Holman Bible Dictionary".
<http://classic.studylight.org/dic/hbd/view.cgi?number=T1284>. 1991.


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