Christology Interview with CTR (2) – Systematic Theology Issues

I had the privilege of doing an interview with the Criswell Theological Review on the topic of “Issues in Christology,” and they have graciously allowed me to post that here. I will divide it up into (1) Introductory questions, (2) Systematic Theology questions [this post], (3) Historical Studies questions, (4) Ethics questions, and (5) a final question related to Current and Looming Issues. This interview appeared in the Fall 2015 (13.1) edition of the CTR, where the entire issue was dedicated to Christology. I encourage you to check it out.

(3) Recognizing the importance that the concept of the hypostatic union has in helping establish an orthodox understanding of the incarnation, how do you think we should look at the relationship between the single personhood of Christ and his two natures? Likewise, how do you think evangelicals should talk about the will(s) of Christ?

I have always believed that the four great Christological Councils, debated and written out of pastoral concerns, did an excellent job in representing biblical Christology. While they did not tell us everything we would want to know, they did provide excellent parameters to help us understand what is in and out of bounds. In other words, Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism and Eutychianism are outside acceptable Christological boundaries.  We can never surrender in any way that Jesus Christ is perfect in his deity and perfect in his humanity. He has two distinct natures joined beautifully and genuinely in one person. On this point, we can rest with great confidence. However, once we move into more theological and philosophical speculation, we begin to walk on ice that becomes thinner each step of the way.

When it comes to the debate about two wills, I have always maintained with the church that two natures requires two wills. Personally, I don’t see how you can get around that without diminishing one nature or the other. Of course, the nature that is almost always diminished is his human nature. I find no difficulty at all in seeing the two wills working in perfect harmony: the human will in perfect submission to the divine. To think otherwise is theologically dangerous.  How could the divine will ever operate in submission to the human will?! Further, I think we have to recognize, especially from the gospel of John, that the Son during the incarnate state lived a life of dependency on the will of the Father and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Never was there a time when he ceased to be full and undiminished deity. However, there was a time when he willingly set aside the free exercises of his divine attributes for the purpose of redemption (note Phil 2:5-11). This is what the Scriptures teach. This is what the apostolic and patristic church affirmed. This is also what the church believed throughout the Medieval and Reformation period until the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on autonomous reason, began to chip away at orthodox Christology as it operated out of an anti-supernatural world view. So there are many things that evangelicals and Christians can say about the person of Christ, though we will always recognize that there is significant mystery in understanding the person of Jesus. In these mysteries we rejoice.

(4) For various reasons, there is much discussion among evangelicals regarding the eternal generation of the Son in terms of his relationship to the Father and the larger framework of Trinitarianism. How do you think we should approach this issue and define it in terms that are faithful to Scripture while at the same time avoiding unhelpful conjecture?

This question is a landmine for many. Good theologians draw different conclusions. It has become more acute in recent years because it is often wed to the issue of gender relationships between men and women. In other words, some people confuse, at least in my mind, ontological and functional categories. Working backwards for a moment, many egalitarians struggle to understand how a woman can be ontologically equal to a man but, 1) within the covenant relationship of marriage and 2) within the covenant community called the church with respect to its leaders, also be in submission. As a result, they tend to say that any talk of submission leads to ontological and essential inferiority. They see this as true both in the divine and human relationships.

Let’s return to the doctrine of the Trinity. When I look at the biblical text, it seems very clear to me that the Son is absolutely and completely equal with the Father, both essentially and ontologically. The same of course would be true about the Holy Spirit. Any denial of this is heresy and must be rejected. At the same time, the Scriptures are clear there is no inferiority in submissiveness. We see this in so many different relationships of life (see 1 Peter 2:13-3:7), and I believe that is a natural outgrowth and reflection of what we see in the Godhead.

With respect to the eternal Sonship of the Father, it seems to me the doctrine has biblical warrant. It is the Father who sent the Son. The Son will turn all things back over to the Father for the glory of every member of the Trinity. Jesus himself made it clear that he was ontologically equal with his Father when he said “He who has seen me has seen the Father” and “The Father and I are one”. Further his declaration in John 8:58 connects him with the God of Exodus 3:14. The Jews certainly understood this as a declaration of deity because they sought to stone him.  But, in that same Gospel you will hear Jesus say, “The Father is greater than I” and “I’ve come to do the will of my Father”. While some restrict his subordinate position simply to the time of the incarnation, the language that He uses and the emphasis in Scripture points us in a different direction. There is indeed an eternal subordination within the Godhead wherein the Son submits to and seeks to glorify the Father, and the Holy Spirit submits to both and primarily seeks to glorify the Son. Scripture reveals that each delights in His assignments. Of course I left out the fact that the Father is most glorified when the Son is glorified as Philippians 2:9-11 makes abundantly clear.

Therefore, though I do not make it a matter of fellowship or orthodoxy, it seems to me that the Son is eternally and forever the Son in His relationship to the Father. The Son’s willing submissiveness to the Father is also eternal and forever, and it is the emphasis of Scripture. The inner relationship within the Godhead beautifully provides a pattern for many of life’s relationships as they relate to the home, the church and even government.