Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Christological Center of Theology

Opening  section to an article I've been working on.
In the Smalcald Articles (1537), Martin Luther famously asserted that the doctrine of justification defined the identity of the Church.[1] Despite loud objections to the contrary, in principle other historic Christian communions must also concur with this judgment.  For Lutheran Christians, the article of justification specifies the content of the salvation that Christ offers.  Although other theological traditions may not wish to construe redemption in this exactly this manner, that fact remains that the explication of the redemption to be found in Christ must be understood as central to the theological enterprise of Christianity.  The Christian Church has no other reason for being than to witness to salvation in Christ. 
Moreover, work and benefits of the savior cannot be divorced from his person.  As both Athanasius[2] and the young Melanchthon[3]helpfully both pointed out, in positing particular works and benefits to be gained from Christ, one necessarily posits a particular ontic structure to his person.  For example, moral influence theories of atonement need only posit a fully human Messiah (who speaks about morality on God’s behalf) or a Messiah who is only divine (that is, who pretends to be human in order to more effectively communicate morality or special gnosis).  On the other hand, a divine and human Messiah will be posited if one claims that Christ has overcome sin, death, the law, and the Devil.  As vere homo, Christ can enter into these realities, as vere Deo he may overthrow them.  Though the person is not reducible to the work (an all too common mistake in modern theology), the works of the savior presuppose the reality of his person. 
Beyond this basic recognition that the person of Christ is inexorably tied up with his work, second article of the Creed is indubitably wedded to the first and third.  Just as the spokes of a wheel extend out from the axel, so too the other articles of the faith extend out from thehauptartikel of Christ and his benefits.  Christ and his solution to the problem of sin, logically implies a particular understanding of sin, fallen human nature, and a certain ontic structure of creation.  In this, Schleiermacher was essentially correct that anthropological heresies correlate to Christological ones.  Logically, the four natural heresies of the faith, which he posited, (Docetism, Nazarenism (Ebionism), Manichaeism, Pelagianism)[4] determine one another.  Moreover, human fallenness also presupposes a certain role of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace, and so the third article must cohere with the first and second.
For this reason, what we say about Christ, will ultimately determine what we say about the other dogmas of the faith.  Christology is the heart of the Christian faith from which (to speak figuratively) the arteries and veins of the other doctrines extends outward.  Even if in our systematic explication of Christian doctrine, our starting point is perhaps another article of the faith (this is indeed possible; we are by no means advocating “central dogma”[5] theory here), the final direction and structure of any discernibly Christian theology will ultimately be determined by how it answers Jesus’ question: “who do you say I am?”
It is for this reason that it has been deeply puzzling that ecumenical dialogue has largely ignored the article of the person and work of Christ.  This is particularly true with regard to the dialogues between the Roman Catholic and Lutheran communions in North America. Instead of Christology, the North American dialogues have largely tackled other topics, such as Church structure, the status of the Virgin Mary, and justification.[6]  Though many of these topics directly relate to that of Christology (justification being chief among these!), Christology has never been directly engaged.
For this reason, in the following essay it will be our goal to explicate the historic differences between the Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions as they find expression in competing Christological teachings.  The major interest of this study will not be to discern the antecedent causes of these differing Christological trajectories, although there will be a few minor historical suggestions in this regard.  Instead our main goal will be to demonstrate how certain structural priorities with regard to the person and work of Christ effect the conceptualization of the divine-human relationship and the nature of salvation.  It will be our thesis that these differences fundamentally shape and distinguish Roman Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran teaching. 
As our basis of comparison of these two different traditions, we will discuss the Christological teaching of Thomas Aquinas and Martin Chemnitz.  Though many Roman Catholics and Lutherans would not agree with every detail of these two theologians’ doctrines of the Incarnation, both thinkers have, historically speaking, had a significant impact on the formation of the official dogmatic teachings of their respective communions.  In the case of Chemnitz, this influence can be traced to his significant contribution to the Formula of Concord (1577), whereas in the case of Aquinas, one may point to his followers’ significant influence on the formation on the Decrees of the Council of Trent, as well as his status as the “Teacher of the Church” within the Roman Catholic communion since 1567.[7]  This being the case, the general parameters which Lutherans and Roman Catholics operate in have generally mirrored the Christological frameworks established by these two important thinkers.  In exploring their understanding of the Incarnation, we will primarily limit ourselves respectively to two major and highly influential works: the Summa Theologiae (1265–1274) of Thomas and De Duabus Natris in Christo (1561) of Chemnitz.

[1] SA II.5  in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed., Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 301.  Luther writes: “On this article [justification] all that we teach and practice against the pope, the devil, and the world.  Therefore we must be quite certain and have no doubt about it.  Otherwise everything is lost, and the pope and the devil and whatever opposes us will gain victory and be proved right.”  Also see Luther’s comment in WA 40/III: 352.
[2] Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, 19.3; Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 14 vols., ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 4: Hereafter cited as “NPNF.” Athanasius writes: “Thus, then, God the Word showed Himself to men by His works.”
[3] Philipp Melanchthon, Loci Communes Theologici, in Melanchthon and Bucer, ed. Wilhelm Pauck (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969), 21. “To know Christ is to know his benefits . . .” 
[4] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, trans. and ed. H. R. MacIntosh and J. S. Stewart (London: T & T Clark, 2005), 97-101.
[5] See Alexander Schweizer, Die protestantischen centraldogmen in ihrer entwicklung inerhalb der reformirten kirche, 2 vols. (Zürich: Orell & Fuessli, 1854-56).  See critique in Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520-1725, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 1:124-6.
[6]See Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue, 11 vols. (New York: Published jointly by Representatives of the U.S National Committee of the Lutheran World Federation and the Bishops' Commission for Ecumenical Affairs, 1965-2011).  
[7] See brief discussion of Thomas’ status in the Catholic Church in: Hans Küng, Great Christian Thinkers: Paul, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Schleiermacher, Barth (London: Continuum, 1994), 114.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thank you so very much. I believe this will be helpful for our Lutheran Confessions study in May when we examine SA, Part II; and in DeWitt where the group will be starting a study of FC in the near future when we examine Arts. III & VIII.

  3. This sounds like a great entrance into critically important territory. I am especially glad that you stated a number of distinctions regarding the "chief article" (a truth whose construal and rhetoric can result in many problems) and its necessary relation to the other articles of the Creed. Perhaps one of the main reasons for a number of deficient forms of Lutheran theology is that the second article (centering in justification) is effectively divorced from its mutual relation to the other two articles.

  4. Jack,

    I love the point you're making, but you also know that I'm a stickler about Latin grammar. It's vere Deus, not vere Deo (although vere homo is correct). You could also use the adjective verus in each instance rather than the adverb vere, but that is a matter of emphasis (true vs. truly). Also, Hauptartikel is capitalized.

    I'm just saving your editor time and trouble. (I'll send him the bill.) I do, however, look forward to reading the whole article when it is finished.

    James Kellerman

  5. James, thank! I appreciate the help. I fix these items in the article.