A friend recently sent me a link from the official website of The United Methodist Church. Specifically, he sent me a link to a page describing our church’s beliefs about Jesus. The content I found there prompted me to offer a few reflections on proper Christology and why it matters. For those who are concerned about such things, I hope these reflections are helpful.
Explaining what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God, the page reads as follows:
Son of God
We believe in Jesus as God’s special child. We call this the Incarnation, meaning that God was in the world in the actual person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel writers explain this in different ways. In Mark, Jesus seems to be adopted as God’s Son at his baptism. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit. In John, Jesus is God’s pre-existing Word who “became flesh and lived among us” (1:14). However this mystery occurred, we affirm that God is wholly present in Jesus Christ.
The information on this page is not original content. Rather, it’s a quotation from United Methodist Member’s Handbook (rev. by George Koehler, Discipleship Resources, 2006: 76-77). In light of the great preponderance of lay-friendly literature on the person and work of Christ, the use of this description of Jesus is hard to fathom. Apart from the vague and confusing description of Jesus as “God’s special child,” there are three main problems with this paragraph:
1. It avoids the language of “fully divine” when talking about Jesus.
Instead, it describes Jesus as one in whom God was “wholly present”– an entirely different claim than the Christian affirmation that Christ had a fully divine nature. God can be present in many different contexts. (And why we have to describe God as “wholly” present is unclear. What would it mean for God to be partially present?) In Christ, however, God was uniquely present in nature.
The next paragraph on the webpage describes Jesus as fully human, which, of course, he is. But without the “fully divine” part, the “fully human” part doesn’t work. In Christ, God took on our full humanity and thus redeemed it. These matters were worked out carefully in the first five centuries of the Church, and simply to ignore the Church’s conciliar decisions gives the lie to United Methodism’s ostensible commitment to Christian tradition.
2. It describes adoptionist Christology in a way that would lead one to believe it is a perfectly legitimate expression of the Incarnation.
The writer suggests that Mark affirms adoptionism, Matthew and Luke affirm the Virgin birth, and John affirms pre-existence. What’s the big deal? They’re all ways of expressing the mystery of the Incarnation, right?
Wrong. Adoptionism is the idea that Jesus became the Son of God at his baptism. God adopted Jesus, who was just another person like you or me (or an angel, or a demigod), and from that point forward Jesus was the “son of God.” In such a scenario, however, Jesus is clearly not God incarnate. Adoptionism is actually a repudiation of the theology of the Incarnation. It holds that Jesus was not God, but rather a being less than God whom God invested with special powers and authority.
But wait… doesn’t adoptionism show up in one of our four canonical Gospels? After all, this page describing Jesus on our official UMC website states, “In Mark, Jesus seems to be adopted as God’s Son at his baptism.”
This brings us to the third problem:
3. Mark does not affirm adoptionism.
Let’s look at Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism in 1:9-11:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
In Mark’s description of the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove. At the same time, God declares that Jesus is “my Son, the Beloved,” or “my beloved Son,” depending on how you read the Greek. Matthew and Luke both retain this account of the baptism of Jesus, at least in its major contours.
Yet Matthew and Luke also contain birth narratives that teach us that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Mark does not. Is it possible, then, that Mark understood the Spirit’s descent upon Jesus and the divine pronouncement about Jesus to represent an adoption?
I suppose anything’s possible, including that Mark held an adoptionist Christology. It’s just exceedingly unlikely. Considerable evidence militates against such a position, and very little supports it.
Here’s where things get a bit technical, but please bear with me.
God’s declaration of Jesus’ sonship at his baptism alludes to Psalm 2:7: “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten (LXX gennaō) you.’” Note, however, that Mark includes only the first part of God’s decree: “You are my son.” If Mark affirmed adoptionism, why in the world would he have stopped there? The next part of the sentence, “today I have begotten you,” would effectively make the point that Jesus was not God’s son before, but with the baptism he has become such.
Yet the declaration in Mark leaves off this second part of God’s decree in the psalm. In place of the language of “begetting,” we have what appears to be an allusion to Isaiah 42:1: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him.”
To put it simply: a lengthier quotation from Psalm 2:7, with its language of “begetting,” would have been perfect if Mark held an adoptionist Christology. Yet this language is conspicuously absent.
A comparison with the Gospel of the Ebionites is instructive here. This ancient non-canonical text describes the baptism of Jesus as follows:
When the people were baptized, Jesus also came and was baptized by John. And as he came up from the water, the heavens opened and he saw the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove that descended and entered into him. And a voice sounded from heaven that said: You are my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased. And again: I have this day begotten thee” (emphasis mine).
Note that this account retains the language of “begetting” that Mark omits. Why? The Ebionites were adoptionists. Mark wasn’t. As Epiphanius (4th cen.) describes the Christology of the Ebionites, “They say that he [Christ] was not begotten of God the Father, but created as one of the archangels.” Perhaps, then, the idea was that God adopted an archangel as his son.
Yes, there were adoptionist Christologies in the early church, but not in Mark’s gospel, nor in any other work of the New Testament. Our forebears in the faith realized that adoptionism undermined our basic claims about salvation. If Christ is not God incarnate, then God has not taken on our humanity. If God has not taken on our humanity, God has not redeemed our humanity (h/t to Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus). Thus we are still in our sin and without hope.
Further, if Christ is not God incarnate, then God did not take upon himself the sins of the world, but sent a finite being to a torturous death for sins committed by other people.
Most importantly, the Incarnation is the truest expression of God’s self-giving love. God came in person to teach us how to live, atone for our sins, and defeat sin, death, and the devil. Theologies that abandon the Incarnation thus abandon one of Christianity’s most beautiful, elegant, and powerful doctrines.
The core teachings of our faith are not menu items that we may dine upon à la carte. They are pieces of an intricate and carefully crafted structure. When we remove one piece, we weaken or destroy the others. Yes, there are of course beliefs that are not essential for Christians. We call these adiaphora. The Incarnation, however, is not one of them.
*Note: Sometime on the morning of 12/30 the passage I have quoted was removed from the website. I commend and thank whoever made this decision. For purposes of reference, you can view the cached version here.