A scene from the Leben der heiligen Altväter (1482)

Biblical Grounding for the Christology of the Councils

Criswell Theological Review 13/1 (Fall 2015), 93-104

When theologians take up the crucial catechetical task of teaching about Jesus Christ, what principle of ordering should they follow? Which sub-topics within this rich field should be taught first, which ones postponed until later, and under what overarching categories should they all be gathered? In this article, I would like to commend one particular organizational schema for introducing Christology to students, and then demonstrate the advantages of that schema by offering a brief example of its key points. The method I recommend is this: follow the leading ideas of the ecumenical councils of the early church and then support them with biblical argumentation. Conciliar Christology is thus the framework for teaching Christology, with biblical material brought in to fill it out.

It may seem odd for an evangelical theologian committed to the final authority of Scripture alone {sola scriptura) to give such strategic organizational importance to the decisions of the early church, or in short, to tradition. Indeed, several presuppositions are at work here to make such a decision possible. Three of them are worth mentioning explicitly.

The first presupposition is that in this case, content is sovereign over form so that biblical content in post-biblical or church-traditional form remains biblical. This is a wide-ranging principle, permitting not only biblical translation (biblical content in a new receptor language) but also doctrinal paraphrase (biblical content in different terminology, idiom, and conceptualities). Not just the words, but even “the sense of Scripture is Scripture,” as B. B. Warfield once wrote, defending the proposition that the doctrine of the Trinity was truly biblical. The Westminster Confession of Faith, likewise, consistently assumes throughout what it announces as a principle in section six: “The whole counsel of God… is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture,” and to this revealed doctrine which is either explicit (set down in Scripture) or implicit (“by good and necessary consequence deduced”), “nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”

The second presupposition is that Scripture does not mandate any particular organizational scheme for teaching the truths of Christology, so the church and its theologians are not only permitted but even required to shape their teaching as seems best to them. From this it follows that there may be multiple possible and permissible ways to organize the subject matter, and that as long as the material is all present, it is probably not productive to fret about the sequence of the material. In such matters, the Protestant theologians of earlier days had a motto: methodus est arbitraria, “the method is a matter of choice.” The late eighteenth-century theologian J.C.W. Augusti pointed out that “what the old theologians intended by this saying was by no means to give free play to a desultory license, but only to show how toe order, sequence and position of toe individual parts can be changed, so long as toe general rules and determinants of the relationships are maintained.” The decision about how to handle Christology is one that must be made carefully, precisely because toe format is not determined in advance by Scripture.

The third presupposition is that in this case, toe 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 a harmonious agreement of Scripture and tradition is possible is an option worth considering to general, but to prove that it is actually toe case when it comes to Christology is the substance of what will be argued in this entire article.