For reasons not wholly obvious to me–possibly because I have not been caught up in the swirl of American conservative evangelical Protestant theological debate for a while, now–the parachurch teaching arm of R. C. Sproul’s personal ministry, Ligonier, has released a “Statement on Christology” that they are promoting far and wide. Unlike, say, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, this does not seem to be the result of a convergence of many teachers from various places on the evangelical spectrum, working hard to be as ecumenical (that is, as whole-church) as possible for evangelicals. This is a branded product of one particular ministry, which is being advertised post hoc as of and for the whole church. As a Catholic, of course, I disagree that Ligonier represents a church, let alone the Church that Jesus Christ founded, and that is by His promise and the Holy Spirit’s effectual work an indefectable historical Bride and Body of Christ, in one-flesh union with Him; but even as an evangelical I would have taken note that Ligonier is not actually even a particular communion, but a publishing brand. The statement is formatted to echo various evangelical ecumenical efforts, and nods to the ancient creeds, but it is an inadequate expression whose adoption would dilute, rather than concentrate, the knowledge of Christ among the Christian faithful.
I cannot disagree, however, that there has been some confusing teaching and speculation about Christology, especially in those corners where “no creed but Christ” has led to a shrinking of doctrinal clarity to the point where recognizing Mary as “Mother of God” sounds “too Catholic” for many a Biblicist, on the one hand–and no speculation is too heterodox to project on the Scriptures to too many eager innovators, on the other. (Mary’s role as theotokos is, of course, a settled matter of Christian doctrine and a mark of those who understand Jesus as the Christ attested in Scripture and received in faith by the Church.) Sproul explains his reasons for rolling out this statement as follows:
Confusion abounds regarding Christology—the doctrine of Christ—both in the West and around the world. As the church continues to grow, it is imperative that believers are taught the truths of Scripture as summarized in such documents as the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the Westminster Confession of Faith. Such confessions provide guidelines to help the church develop a more biblical and consistent theology, and we believe the Ligonier Statement on Christology is a tool that can be used to renew the church’s understanding of its historic Christological position. It can also be used as a rallying point around which believers from different churches can come together for evangelism and discipleship. Our goal is not to replace any historic confessions but to draw together their Christological insights in a helpful, summary form so that believers can know what the church has historically taught. That teaching has continuing relevance in our own era.
(source: Announcing the Ligonier Statement on Christology)
I hasten to credit them for being specific that they do not intend their statement “to replace any historic confessions,” but I think one need only read the statement itself to see how inadequately it accomplishes its goal “to draw together their Christological insights”:
We confess the mystery and wonder of God made flesh and rejoice in our great salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord.
With the Father and the Holy Spirit, the Son created all things, sustains all things, and makes all things new. Truly God, He became truly man, two natures in one person.
He was born of the Virgin Mary and lived among us. Crucified, dead, and buried, He rose on the third day, ascended to heaven, and will come again in glory and judgement.
For us, He kept the Law, atoned for sin, and satisfied God’s wrath. He took our filthy rags and gave us His righteous robe.
He is our Prophet, Priest, and King, building His church, interceding for us, and reigning over all things.
Jesus Christ is Lord; we praise His holy Name forever. Amen.
(source: The Ligonier Statement on Christology)
By “inadequate,” I do not mean false or heretical. No, the short creed-like statement itself, if a little anemic, is sound enough. It reads like a “contemporvant” reworking of the Apostle’s Creed, with bits of Isaiah and a Presbyterian flavor. The statement wanders from Christology proper into a typically Protestant emphasis on the means of personal salvation in Christ. Yet, even in these areas where it wanders from Christology into soteriology, the statement, like the actual Creeds of the Church, does reflect a Catholic understanding of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. To demonstrate this, I’ve supplied links to the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirming each of the following points:
- He kept the Law (CCC 577ff)
- atoned for sin (CCC 615-16)
- satisfied God’s wrath (CCC 613-17)
- took our filthy rags, gave us His righteous robe (CCC 615)
- Prophet, Priest, and King (CCC 436 hence 783)
- building His church (CCC 551-53, 787-89, 756)
- interceding for us (CCC 662)
- reigning over all things.(CCC 664, 541ff esp. 550)
- Jesus Christ is Lord (CCC 446ff)
In its brevity the statement, despite its allusions to the WCF, differs strikingly from that document. The WCF, of course, is not a creed but a lengthy replacement for the Anglican 39 Articles; and whatever the excellencies of the WCF may be, had as its major purpose consolidating the arguments in favor of heresy and schism, arguments which by their very nature cannot form a basis for unity in the faith. The statement’s own high degree of concord with the historic faith of the whole Church is, of course, a sign of high hope for the enduring degree of union that all Christians share by baptism in the Triune Name; but it is, ironically, thin precisely in its language of Christology proper. Compare its language to the Nicene Creed itself:
I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
(source: What We Believe)
This creedal language, richly related to the narrative language of the Gospels and the theological discourse of Athanasius and other saintly contenders for the “faith once for all delivered to the saints,” of which the Church is the custodian, is far superior to the comparatively aseptic and disconnected language of the Ligonier statement. Even though that statement does not disagree with the Creed, it accomplishes nothing on par with “God from God, Light from Light, true God from True God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father” in locating the Son of God thoroughly within the Trinity and in relation to the Creation; its “through him all things were made” makes him not just an agreeing will, but a particular metaphysical agent in Creation, like the language of John 1 (in which the Logos both “was God” and “was with God”).
The Ligonier statement’s sparse creedal language seems intended to gain assent from widely different evangelical Christians while avoiding the harsh particularity of agreeing on specific propositions about metaphysics in an anti-metaphysical era. By avoiding this, however, the statement falls short of both a “statement of faith” and a “creed” in their purposes; it does not represent, as nearly as possible, a determination of the whole Church about what has definitely been learned from Christ’s teaching and the whole of the Scriptures.
It’s when the statement moves past the creedal setting and into the affirmations and denials, though, that things get really interesting. Such “affirmations and denials” are, of course, a common feature of such documents. Stating a positive truth and indicating clearly what positive error it excludes, when done properly, creates a logical “box” for meaning. So, for example, to state that the Son of God is “consubstantial with the Father,” and to anathematize any who propose that Jesus is a creature of the Father, makes the rejection of Arianism and the embrace of the unicity and simplicity of the Triune God a solid basis for developing clear teaching about divine and human nature, and the purposes and extent of the Incarnation. In this statement, however, Ligonier frequently fails to structure the denials as properly orthogonal to the affirmations. It is hardly alone in this, but it is nonetheless a flaw. It is especially awkward that several denials appear to be gratuitous assertions not conditioned upon a particular affirmation.
Let me take a few examples. Of course, nobody will be surprised that several of my examples also specifically deal with matters in which WCF adherents, or in a vague way most Protestants, are still downstream from certain errors that arose in the course of various heresies and schisms with which Europe became rife during the Reformation.
In the first case, I get to point to one in which all the words are, taken as plainly as possible, correct:
Now, I think the language “the historical Jesus” and “in His humanity” are poor choices for an affirmation, because it is hard to read them except as qualifiers, as making distinctions, that would limit the meaning of the clause. Yes, “the historical Jesus” indicates that we are not merely referring to a “kerygmatic Christ” who was proclaimed by faith in response to a divine revelation that may or may not have been strictly *about* the “historical Jesus.” Insofar as that is the intent of the phrase, it is well done. And yes, “in His humanity” is likely intended to prevent any confusion between “Jesus…was conceived” and “Jesus…began to exist.” But the net effect is still to suggest an interpretive distance between the Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, and “the historical Jesus…conceived…of the Virgin Mary.” It is not a good writing choice for a formal statement on Christology (a context in which the Schweitzer/Bultmann sort of language about Jesus, the “historical” versus “kerygmatic,” really has no place at all). I would suggest, without having carefully edited this together with the exact wording of previous statements, something like the following instead: “The eternally begotten Son of God was, by the power of the Holy Spirit, miraculously conceived of the substance and born of the Virgin Mary[, so that the man Christ Jesus was truly God and also truly human].”
In addition to this, I suspect that the denial is intended to be aimed at both certain Protestant misunderstandings of the Virgin Birth (the view that the Virgin Birth was necessary so that Jesus could be sinless is not at all uncommon in the circles I grew up in) and also the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin. Of course, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception does not at all say that Jesus could only be sinless if Mary was first sinless. (Here, go read the dogmatic definition for yourself!) Who does say that? Ill-informed Protestant apologists who are confused about the history of teaching on the Incarnation, determined to put the Church in the wrong without regard for constructive affirmation of durable truth, and who often use with regard to the Virgin Birth logic they reject with regard to the Immaculate Conception, when they are wrong on both counts! To its credit, the Ligonier statement does not actually fall into this trap; but as I have reason to believe this confusion will begin to swirl at the evangelical/Catholic boundary again, I want to be abundantly clear about what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception really means.
It always surprises me when I find myself using a Scripture in the course of explaining Christian, that is to say Catholic, doctrine–only to have someone use that same Scripture as though it opposed the Church’s clear teaching! This happens when the Ligonier statement seems to be attempting to fence off any proper understanding of the Church’s character on earth:
First, this is a key example of the failure to make the denials orthogonal to the affirmations. The three part denial appears to respond to three different senses in which “sole mediator” could be applied to Jesus. Contra “other incarnations,” Jesus would be seen as the one and only human who is also God; contra “[other] human mediators of redemption,” Jesus would be seen as the one and only human in that role (which requires definition not here given); to get the sense required to set this over against “means of salvation apart from [Jesus],” we would have to equate the terms “sole mediator” and “means of salvation.”
We also have a duplication of sense, probably masking an equivocation, at “Christ alone.” The implicit negations or disjunctions in “alone” and “apart” and “sole” do not make for clarity in a situation where the denial of a positive error should correlate clearly with the affirmation of a positive teaching. If we go for the clearest and most sensible reading possible, “Christ alone is the sole mediator between God and men in the sense of ‘means of salvation'” is the effective sense yielded by the affirmation and the third denial. If the “alone” is not merely nugatory, that is, if it is meant to have an additional affirmative thrust, then it must mean “Christ, affirmatively excluding all others.” But this will hardly do, because it is senseless–it is not conceivable–to affirmatively exclude “everything other than” Christ, that is, more things than we can possibly be aware of; it is spiritually harmful to labor under the need to constantly separate this “means of salvation” Jesus from the Jesus of teaching, healing, understanding, etc. It is profoundly opposed to the embrace of Christ to attempt to affirmatively exclude all “means” except Christ Himself from Christ’s all-embracing work of salvation:
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen.
(source: Romans 11:36 RSV-CE)
The work of Jesus Christ includes all things, reconciling them to Himself; as the “one mediator between God and men.” But Jesus Himself appointed messengers and ministers, and even the Westminster Confession recognizes that it is possible for these to speak with divine authority even in matters of salvation.
It is senseless to say that the Incarnation was essential to our salvation, that Jesus Christ founded the Church and taught us the Gospel and gave specific instructions and promises, but that nothing and no one involved is a “mediator” or “means of salvation” in any sense of the term. Plainly, it is necessary to make a distinction between the utterly unique sense in which Jesus Christ is the “sole mediator” and an analogous sense in which others, too, mediate between Jesus Christ and each of us in His work of salvation. Simply put, God’s use of lesser mediatiors does not in any way impair Christ’s unutterably unique role as the “one mediator between God and men.” Nobody makes more of the unique work of God in the Incarnation than the true Church that Jesus founded! The idea that one must affirmatively reject what God has given to lead us to Christ and to incorporate us into His life, in order to rely on Christ *rather than any means Christ might choose to employ*, is too incoherent to be held seriously upon examination. We may safely reject any serious application of this formula.
Reading charitably, then, we are left with an effective affirmation and denial pair whose denial would be better rewritten thus: “We deny that any other human has been or ever will be God Incarnate, or that any mediator apart from Christ could reconcile God and man.”
I will continue with more later, but I trust you are getting the drift. The creedal statement is mostly orthodox and sound, and so are most of the affirmations, but the denials stumble a lot, and occasionally conjure errors that may not exist in their efforts to hedge out Catholic views.
Later, we’ll look at some actually serious soteriological errors smuggled into this “Christology,” but for now–it’s just unnecessary, and probably unwise, that this statement should be issued at this form at this time.