Christology Interview with CTR (1) – Introductory 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 [this post], (2) Systematic Theology questions, (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.

(1) Knowing that you have written on the subject of Christology, what fundamental tenets of this central doctrine would you say need to be stressed the most today by pastors, church leaders, and evangelical scholars?

It is always the case that pastors and scholars need to stress the clear teachings of the Bible concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ. We always get in trouble when we move away from the biblical text into the world of theological and especially philosophical speculation. Of course there is a place for such thinking, especially biblical, historical and systematic theology, but to maintain fidelity to who Jesus Christ is we must ground our teachings again and again in the Scriptures. This means that we look at both testaments. First, we examine how the Old Testament provides an unfolding and developing portrait of the promised deliverer of Genesis 3:15. This divinely promised rescuer is revealed to be the Messiah, the hope of Israel and the Savior of the nations. We discover that the Old Testament provides also the context for helping us understand why the Son of God came to earth; what He accomplished in His life, death and resurrection. Then, we need to move into the New Testament recognizing the wisdom of both a Christology from above and a Christology from below. The latter obviously starts with His life as revealed in the Gospels, particularly the Synoptics. However, a sharp dichotomy between the Synoptics and the Gospel of John is misguided. All four are united in their portrait of Messiah Jesus who is the eternal Son of God (Matt. 16:16; Mark 1:1; Luke 3:22; John 1:1, 18, 34; 20:31).

Wisdom approaches the study of Christology in the New Testament holistically. It especially takes into consideration the great Christological texts. When I teach Christology, I always begin by looking in some detail at John 1:1-18; Phil.2:5-11; Col. 1:13-23; and Heb. 1:1-4. These texts, in particular, lay the foundation for a faithful biblical Christology. From there we consider other crucial texts that speak to His person and work, but I always argued that these four, in a real sense, are foundational. They provide the first century understanding of the crucified Galilean.

Today, with the prevalence of anti-supernaturalism and the attacks of skeptics toward the reliability of the Gospel materials (e.g. the so-called Jesus Seminar), I think we need to emphasize the reliability of the biblical text and the portrait that it gives us concerning the life of Jesus. Craig Blomberg, Darrell Bock, Don Carson, Bob Stein and Ben Witherington especially have served us well in this regard. Further, from the theological perspective, there needs to be a continued emphasis upon Christ’s uniqueness as the eternal Son of God, deity come in the flesh. We need also to point to the exclusive nature of His work and not be seduced into walking down the paths of inclusivism and universalism. I would also add that in recent years, some have made a distinction between our Lord being sinless and errorless. Some argue for his sinlessness while at the same time maintaining that in his incarnate state he committed error (with respect to certain judgments of fact). I do not find this in the biblical text when properly interpreted, and I believe it to be a serious theological error that opens the door to all sorts of false teaching and even heresy. Such false teaching raises questions about the inseparable union of Christ’s divine and human nature.

(2) What theological ideas pertaining to Christology do you think are currently coming under the most scrutiny, or even assault, from scholars in and outside of the ranks of evangelical biblical scholarship?

In a sense, I alluded in question one to the concerns raised with this second question. Even though Jesus studies have debunked the radical notions that were so popular with the advent of the quest for the historical Jesus and the skeptical conclusions arrived at by many scholars in that movement, there are still those today who will question the reliability and the trustworthiness of the biblical portrait of Jesus. We must maintain that we recognize, like any writing, that the Gospel writers wrote with a particular purpose, intent and perspective in mind. Indeed they are intentionally evangelistic with the goal of conversion. The apostle John makes it very clear at the end of his Gospel that he writes with the expressed desire that we might believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that by believing in that truth we might inherit eternal life (John 20:30-31). This honest admission on the part of John—an admission we seldom find in any type of historical work—in no way prevents him or the other Gospel writers from writing that which is true and accurate about the life of Jesus. The differing perspectives we find in the Gospels in no way cancels out or undermines the accuracy and truthfulness of each perspective. We grant the same leeway to modern biographies. That the biblical Gospels are not given the same opportunity is simply a reflection of modern bias and presuppositions of those who approach the scriptures with a hermeneutic of suspicion from the beginning. My good friend Timothy George sums things up well in his vintage flair, “Destructive biblical criticism, . . . eviscerates the gospel narratives of all theological power and leaves us, at best, with a Jesus made in our own image—political agitator, cynic sage, new age guru, etc. The words of weeping Mary in John 20:13 are appropriate: “They have taken my Lord away, . . . and I don’t know where they have put him.” But the Jesus of the Gospels cannot be confined to the straitjacket of such pseudo-scholarly speculation. He bursts through those Scriptures today just as he rose bodily from the grave that first Easter morning.” (“The Neglected God,” First Things Web Exclusive, 6-1-15).

I also think that when it comes to the work of Christ, the assaults on the doctrine of penal substitution must be confronted and shown as a serious error. I readily acknowledge that the Scriptures present a multi-faceted understanding of the atonement, and I have taught that since I began teaching in 1988. However, recognizing the other atonement metaphors should not lead us to ignore the fact that penal substitution is clearly taught in Scripture and is foundational to the other understandings of the atonement. Both Leon Morris and John Stott have made this very clear in their excellent writings (I believe there is no better book on the atonement that Stott’s The Cross of Christ), and I find their arguments compelling. To say it another way, I would believe that the Scriptures teach that Jesus died as a penal substitute even if I did not believe the Bible. Why? Because that is clearly what the Biblical text teaches both in the flow of redemptive history as well as specific texts in Scripture. I think for example of Isaiah 52:13 -53:12 in the Old Testament and Romans 3:21-31 in the New Testament. These areas, in particular, I think will have to be addressed repeatedly in the foreseeable future because they seem to be pressure points at this particular moment. Of course the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is a perennial question and area of assault. I’m very thankful that there have been excellent studies in defense of this cardinal doctrine in recent years. I think of the works of men like Gary Habermas, Mike Licona and N. T. Wright.