How to Teach Christology

by Brandon D. Smith

In an article for the Criswell Theological Review (13/1 [2015]), Fred Sanders lays out a proposal for teaching a fully biblical, fully orthodox Christology. In short, Sanders argues that we should

follow the leading ideas of the ecumenical councils of the early church and then support them with biblical argumentation. [The Christology affirmed and outlined by the councils] is thus the framework for teaching Christology, with biblical material brought in to fill it out. (93)

Sanders is not arguing for downgrading biblical priority here. Rather, he makes the case that the Bible does not offer a systematized schema for teaching the full range of Christological affirmations, so organizing one's Christology around the orthodox traditional categories provides an outline for presenting the biblical data about Christ. Indeed,

the church's tradition is not at odds with Scripture, but serves it well, having produced in the course of its development an organizing schema that has attained the status of a classic. That such harmonious agreement of Scripture and tradition is possible is an option worth considering in general. (94)

Sanders goes on to explain the Christology affirmed at four councils: Christ's divinity (Nicaea), his humanity (Constantinople), his unity of person (Ephesus), and his distinction of natures (Chalcedon). These four councils offer the four major components of Christology and are borne out of the early church's careful attention to Scripture.

Modern Christians sometimes fall into the danger prioritizing biblical data in such a way that tradition has no room at the table. In a way, Arius's strict biblicism (albeit philosophically rigorous) got him into trouble. Sanders notes that because Arians used scriptural language to defend their heresy, the orthodox group ended up using the non-biblical term homoousios ("of one substance") to specify what they thought the Bible was actually teaching about Christ's divine nature (98). This was a reminder to me, at least, that strict biblicism divorced from tradition can lead to heretical results, as we see with our Bible-quoting, heretic Jehovah's Witness neighbors, who shun tradition and only quote the Bible (or their translation of it, at least). Sanders's article is helpful here in reminding us that the Bible is our sole authority, but that tradition is a faithful summary, representation, and defense of the Bible's wide-ranging truths about Christ. The work done by the early church to clarify biblical truths over and against heresy is a fundamental resource for us.

On the other side, those who value tradition encounter the danger of over-emphasizing one council's affirmations over another. It is interesting to note that each of these four councils noted by Sanders end up taking extra steps to clarify or nuance affirmations from the previous council. Sanders's article is also helpful in this regard, reminding us that the council tradition is not isolated to one affirmation here and there, but rather encompassing of all of the biblical data about Christ. These affirmations were clarified and nuanced over hundreds of years as church leaders responded to various heresies that arose from misinterpretations of both Scripture and even some teachings of the councils. During debates about the Trinity and/or Christology, oftentimes we quote or refer to one council (often Nicaea or Chalcedon), without utilizing the full counsel of others (like Ephesus and Constantinople). Since these councils help pull together swaths of biblical data, we should be careful not to prioritize or highlight one at the expense of the others.

How do we teach a rich, maximal, orthodox, and biblical Christology? Sanders rightly shows that we "have good reason to make use of these traditional categories as the organizing principle for presenting the biblical content of Christology" (104). In doing so, we teach people that "The long narrative arc from the Son's eternal pre-existence in the Trinity, through his virgin birth, death, resurrection, and ascension, is the story of salvation" (104).