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Jesus in Early Christian Thought

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Jesus Christ in early Christian thought

It does not lie within the scope of this book to give a full discussion of Christological problems, but no account of Jesus Christ would be complete that failed to consider the place He gained in the theology of the developing church. For this reason a brief survey will be given of the different though complementary lines of approach found in the various NT books.

Primitive thought

First to be considered must be the view of Jesus found in the primitive Kerygma (the content of preaching), the sources for which are the early Acts speeches and some earlier traditional material taken over by Paul. To this must be added any data that can be deduced from the manner in which the evangelists commented on their materials. That Jesus Christ immediately became the center of the Church’s proclamation is not only an undeniable fact, but in the nature of the case could not have been otherwise. It was His Resurrection which transformed the tragedy of the cross into a triumph. The Church was founded on the fact that Jesus was not dead, but alive.

Various titles are used of Jesus in the speeches in Acts which reveal what the early Christians understood of the nature of His mission. He is certainly identified as the Messiah (Christ), as is clear from Peter’s first sermon (Acts 2:36), where the messiahship is linked with lordship. This shows a remarkable penetration into the real nature of Jesus of Nazareth, which was basic to all primitive Christian theology. The human Jesus is now the exalted Lord. For a further clear identification of Jesus as the Christ, cf. Acts 3:20; 4:10; 5:42; 8:5.

More distinctive of the Acts speeches are the titles “Servant” and “Prince of Life.” The former connects Jesus with the Servant passages of Isaiah, and it seems reasonable to suggest that the early Christians made this identification on the strength of the marked similarity between Isaiah 53 and the death of Jesus. Some have disputed this identification as an element in primitive theology (e.g. M. D. Hooker, Jesus and the Servant [1959]), but it cannot be excised from all the streams of early Christian thought where it appears. It occurs in Acts 3:13, 26; 4:27. In the first two occurrences it is God who takes the part of the Servant and exalts him. This Servant concept played an important part in the primitive interpretation of the death of Christ, and also supplied a power example for Christians under trial (cf. 1 Peter 2:21ff.). The description of Jesus as “Prince of Life” (or “Author of Life,” Acts 3:15) brings out the fact that He is for the Christians the dispenser of Life, i.e., Life as understood in a new way, Life dominated by the power of the risen Christ. Stephen in his defense before the Sanhedrin, introduces Jesus under the name of the “Righteous One” (7:52), which must be understood as a confession of the sinless character of Jesus. It is noteworthy that in neither of the mission speeches of Paul recorded in Acts does Paul use any specific title for Jesus other than “Savior” in 13:23, which even then is more a description than a title.

Although interest in the historical life of Jesus is overshadowed by the dominant focus upon the Resurrection, such references are not entirely lacking. Peter’s speech to Cornelius is of the greatest importance (Acts 10:37ff.). This shows interest in Jesus’ preaching ministry in Galilee and Judea, in His endowment with the Spirit (understood as a divine anointing—evidently at His baptism by John), in His works of healing and exorcism, and in His death and Resurrection. The exalted Lord was none other than Jesus of Nazareth, whose doings and words could be recalled by those who saw and heard them.

In the editorial sections of the gospels, a similar exalted concept of Jesus is seen. Matthew and Luke, for instance, in their different ways include supernatural elements in the birth story. Mark begins his gospel with a description of Jesus as Son of God (Mark 1:1). In Matthew and to a lesser extent in Mark and Luke the coming of Jesus is set against the background of OT prophecy. The evangelists never thought of Jesus except as the One foreshadowed by the prophets. Both Matthew and Mark made it clear that the dynamic works of Jesus were restricted through unbelief (Matt 13:58; Mark 6:5), showing how the Incarnation was in some ways conditioned by man’s response.

The Kerygma is seen in the works of Paul in those sections where he is indebted to others for the tradition. The most notable passage is 1 Corinthians 15:3ff., in which certain facts about Christ are said to have been received. These include the fact of His death and its interpretation as “for our sins,” the fact of His burial, the fact of the Resurrection on the third day and of His appearances to various people, many of them named witnesses. It is clear, therefore, that while Paul is not unmindful of the importance of the facts, he is more interested in their significance, and this becomes most evident in his own distinctive Christology.

Before considering this, reference must be made to two other Scripture sections singled out by C. H. Dodd in his Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments as belonging to the primitive Kerygma. Romans 10:9 presents a primitive confession of faith—Jesus is Lord. Since this confession is said to be sufficient for salvation, the idea of the Lordship of Christ, as a Gr. creed over against a Jewish (as Bousset maintained), for Paul’s doctrine shows a combination of the two. Dodd also sees Romans 1:1-4 as a possible early Christian creedal statement; if this is true it shows the recognition of His Davidic descent, of His Sonship, of the powerful effects of the Lordship. All these features are fully developed by the apostle in his doctrinal teaching.

Pauline thought

Preliminary observations

The history of criticism shows that Paul has often been accused of imposing upon the primitive Gospel his own concepts of Jesus Christ. For this reason it is essential to recognize the unity of Paul’s view of Jesus Christ with that of the primitive community and, indeed, with that taught by Jesus concerning Himself. Some of the earlier critics, such as F. C. Baur, maintained that Paul’s concept of Christ was due directly to his logical processes of mind. This theory failed because it did not take into account sufficiently the objective reality of Paul’s Damascus road experience. More recent interpreters of Paul have regarded his Christology as a Hel. of Christianity, a process which is also claimed for Johannine Christology. Again, the thoroughly Jewish character of some of Paul’s fundamental concepts (e.g., his concept of righteousness) cannot be so explained. The same goes for supposed pagan influences upon Paul’s mind (as in Bultmann’s theory of the redeemer myth and the heavenly man). Quite apart from the fact that supporting evidence is much too late to be valid for the period of Paul’s ministry, the claim that Christianity was mixed in Paul’s mind with such pagan myths would require indubitable evidence to substantiate it. Probability is heavily weighted against it. It is more credible to see Paul’s view of Christ as a development of what was inherently present in the primitive ideas.

Attention has already been drawn to the apostle’s knowledge of the earthly life of Jesus. This must presuppose that he accepted some connection between the historic Jesus and the Jesus who met him on the Damascus road. His experience at that time confirmed the activity of the risen Lord in the experience of His people. It was essentially Christ, not the Christians, who was the object of Paul’s persecuting zeal, a realization which may well have caused him to ponder the indwelling of Christ in His people through the Spirit, which became a cardinal feature of His Christology. There can be no doubt that in Paul’s case he did not begin with detailed knowledge of the historical Jesus and then work up toward an exalted Christology. It was the risen Christ who arrested him in his religious quest and it was the risen Christ who dominated his theology. There is no evidence in his epistles that it was immaterial to him whether the Jesus of the Damascus road was the same Jesus who lived in Pal. and died on a cross. His Christology makes sense only if such an identification is assumed.

Summary of Paul’s Christology

A brief summary of the main elements in Paul’s own special understanding of Christ is needed to set the historical Jesus firmly in the faith of the Christian Church.

a. The new Adam. Paul is deeply conscious of the need of man, summarized in the failure of the first Adam with its consequent disastrous effects on the whole race (Rom 5:12ff.). He sees, however, in Christ the head of a new race as Adam was of the old. The contrast is striking, for whereas Adam is believed to be carnal, Christ is seen as spiritual, and whereas Adam could only bring death, Christ brings life. There is no need to look to non-Jewish ideas of a heavenly man, although some parallels may exist. It is sufficient to see in this concept of the apostle a development from the comparison of the old order with the new.

b. The pre-existent Christ. There are certain indications that Paul accepted the preexistence of Christ. It was in the fullness of time that God sent forth His Son (Gal 4:4). It is possible that when Paul identified the Rock which followed the children of Israel as being Christ (1 Cor 10:4), he was thinking of the existence of Christ in the period of the wilderness wanderings. When the apostle refers in 2 Corinthians 8:9 to the fact that though Christ was rich yet He became poor for our sakes, there may be the suggestion of a voluntary act. There is no denying this in the great Christological passage of Philippians 2:5-11. This passage, with its concept of Christ not grasping at equality with God, but humbling Himself to the death of the cross, shows the profound understanding which the apostle had of the Incarnation. Even if it be maintained that Paul is using an existing hymn to Christ, his use of it shows his own endorsement of this conception of Christ. The idea of Christ’s pre-existence does not, however, depend on a few passages, but is basic to Paul’s Christology. It is directly connected with his idea of the cosmic significance of Christ.

d. Relationship with the Father. Some passages in Paul’s epistles suggest the subordination of Christ to the Father, but these must be understood by a direct comparison with the statements of Jesus. The Son is sent by God (Gal 4:4). It is God who highly exalted Him (Phil 2:9). He will deliver up the kingdom to the Father (1 Cor 15:28). The idea that God spared not His own Son (Rom 8:32) may also suggest the same idea. There is much that is akin to the teaching of Jesus about Himself in the fourth gospel, esp. the constantly reiterated theme of His being sent to do the will of the Father. Jesus was speaking in a historical context, and it is equally clear that Paul is thinking of Him in such a context rather than stating an absolute truth.

e. Relationship with the Spirit. According to Paul, there is an indissoluble union between Christ and the Spirit, as there is between Christ and the Father. So close is it that some, on the strength of 2 Corinthians 3:17, have suggested the idea of identity, but when Paul speaks of the Spirit of the Lord, a distinction is in mind. There is a close affinity between his concept here and that found in Acts, where the work of the Spirit and the continuing work of Jesus in His Church are essentially related.

It will be seen that Paul’s view of Christ is inseparably linked with the historical Jesus who is everywhere assumed, and reaches out toward a full-orbed concept of Him in harmony with the revelation of the Easter event. The Resurrection did not make Jesus what He was not before in His essence, but it did reveal His true nature and released divine power for salvation.

Johannine thought

The teaching of Jesus about Himself in the fourth gospel has already been mentioned, but there are features in the presentation of Jesus by John in this gospel which throw light on early Christology. The most significant is the Logos doctrine in the Prologue (John 1:1-18). The choice of such an opening is illuminating by way of comparison with the synoptic gospels. It at once draws attention to the pre-existence of Christ, to His creatorship, and to His Godhead. What the origin is of the term Logos, used in this sense, is not of vital importance for our present purpose, for it is the characteristic rather than the origin, of the Logos which reveal John’s concept of Christ. Unlike Philo’s Logos, John’s Logos reaches His fulfillment in incarnation (1:14). Since, after mentioning this, John does not again refer to the Logos, it cannot be regarded as the key for the understanding of his gospel. Nevertheless, in his account of the historical Jesus, he does not intend the reader to be unaware that this Jesus possessed a divine nature. He never thought of his narrative as the record of a man, however perfect, but as the record of the eternal Son of God in human form.

The stated purpose of the Gospel in John 20:30, 31 must be noted, for it shows not only John’s evangelical purpose, but also his essential view of Christ. “That you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” reveals a double aspect of His person. His messiahship and His divine Sonship are reckoned to shine through His words and works. To John, Jesus is nothing less than “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father” (1:18). That this means that John’s account is theological in purpose rather than historical cannot be denied, but this does not mean that the history was unimportant. John’s whole purpose is, in fact, to show the entry of the divine into history. It has earlier been mentioned that John records more specific examples of the real humanity of Jesus than the synoptics. He is wearied with travel, suffers thirst (John 4), expresses strong indignation (cf. John 11:33, 38), and weeps (John 11:35).

The Johannine epistles share the same exalted view of Christ as the fourth gospel. His Sonship is frequently stressed. He is called Our Advocate (1 John 2:1) and is named as Jesus the righteous. His Messiahship is insisted upon (1 John 2:22; 4:2; 5:1) in such a way as to exclude any Docetic notion of drawing a distinction between Jesus and the Christ. He is moreover named as Savior of the world (1 John 4:14). Indeed, there is much in 1 John which echoes the language and ideas of John’s gospel and shows that both books share the same Christological viewpoint. Second John reflects the same position as 1 John (cf. 2 John 7, 9).

In the Apocalypse, a further aspect of Christology is seen. The central figure is the Lamb, who is a slain yet triumphant figure. The link with the historical Jesus is unmistakable, but the Lamb’s exaltation shows His commanding position in the cosmic drama. Although many setbacks come to God’s people, there is never any doubt about the ultimate result. The most dominant factor is that the Lamb has become the Judge to execute judgment upon those opposed to the divine will. This aspect is seen in the writer’s vision of the one like the Son of man in the midst of the candlesticks (Rev 1:12-16). From His mouth there issued a sword, in His hand were securely held the stars which represented His people. It is important to note that the name He bears at the moment of judgment is “The Word of God” (Rev 19:13), which provides a direct link with the prologue of John’s gospel. He is, moreover, King of kings and Lord of lords, the Alpha and the Omega, all titles which suggest the sovereignty of the Lamb.

Other aspects of Christ

The mission of Jesus historically is viewed in sacrificial terms. The difference between the offering of Jesus and the offerings of the Aaronic order rested in the character of both offering and offerer. The perfection of Christ insured the complete adequacy of His offering. This interpretation of the work of Christ shows the exalted concept of His character which the writer held. His exposition is also valuable because it draws attention to the present mission of Jesus in His exalted position. It is a ministry of intercession (4:15; 7:25). There is a constant representative of man at the right hand of God, who, in spite of the fact that He is a consuming fire (12:29), is nevertheless a God of mercy (4:16).

Another view of Christ brought to the fore in Hebrews is that of ratifier of the New Covenant (8:6ff.; 9:1ff.). Because of the inadequacy of the Old Covenant, the inauguration of the New was of vital concern to mankind. What Jesus Himself foreshadowed at the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the writer to the Hebrews develops. Here is seen the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jer 31, cf. Heb. 8:8), which emphasizes the essential inwardness of the New as contrasted with the Old. In this is shown once again the superiority of Christ over Moses, and, ipso facto, the superiority of Christianity over Judaism.

There are undoubtedly affinities between the Christology of 1 Peter and that of Paul. It is quite unnecessary to suppose that in all these relationships, Peter is dependent on Paul, for most are basic to the primitive Kerygma. Both Peter and Paul develop these basic concepts in their own way. It is possible that the affinities between 1 Peter and Romans and Ephesians may be due to literary influences. But it is certain, whatever the decision on that matter may be, that both apostles held the same exalted view of Christ and the same conviction about the continuity between this concept and the historic Jesus. The most individualistic feature in Peter’s Christology is his reference to the descent of Christ into Hades, presumably in the interval between His death and Resurrection (3:18f.). Whatever the precise explanation of this difficult statement, it is evident that Peter conceived of an extension of the preaching ministry of Jesus even after His death.

James is remarkably sparse in its references to Christ, the only specific instances being in James 1:1 and 2:1. In both of these He is called the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the latter also the Lord of glory. Yet this is not the extent of the witness of this epistle to Christ. There are more echoes of the sayings of Jesus in this epistle than in any other NT book, particularly from the Sermon on the Mount. It may be inferred that James knew much of the historical Jesus, but he nonetheless conceived Him to be the Lord of glory. If his interests are mainly ethical in this epistle, this is no criterion for supposing that the two references to Christ are the total extent of his Christological understanding.

The brief epistle of Jude shares a Christology similar to 2 Peter. Christ is Master and Lord (v. 4) and the same title Lord Jesus Christ is used three times (vv. 17, 21, 25).