The Necessity of Doing “Christology From Above”
Throughout the ages, the Church has always confessed that Jesus is God the Son incarnate and thus the exclusive Lord and Savior. Why? For this reason: because the Church’s confession is grounded in specific theological convictions, warranted from the entire canon of Scripture. To know who Jesus is and to speak of him rightly, the Church has always done a “Christology from above,” namely, from the vantage point of Scripture. The Bible provided not only the raw data but also the theological framework for understanding Jesus’ identity. The Church argued that we can only rightly identify who Jesus is by placing him the context of the Bible’s teaching and storyline. In fact, any attempt to do Christology by some other means only leads to a Jesus of our own imagination.
However, since the rise of the Enlightenment, these theological and methodological convictions were no longer viewed as credible. As a result, when Christology was done on other grounds, Jesus was no longer viewed as unique but only as a masterful religious leader. Why did this occur? Although the answer is complex, it was primarily due to entire worldview shifts. Over the last 400+ years, we have witnessed the truth of the phrase, “ideas have consequences.” After the Reformation era, certain “ideas” arose that challenged and then rejected the way the Reformers and most people in the West thought about God and his relationship to the world. More specifically, ideas about the ability of human reason, the nature of reality, and our knowledge of it led to crucial shifts in “plausibility structures.” Beginning with the Enlightenment, and continuing through modernity and now postmodernity, the intellectual rules that determine how people think the world works and what is possible, have shifted away from orthodox Christianity to deny its basic presuppositions. This is why many in the West stumble over the Church’s confession of who Jesus is, in all of his uniqueness and glory. For many, it does not seem plausible. The question asked by Gotthold Lessing many years ago is asked today: “How can one man who lived and died so long ago have universal significance for all people?”
How should we respond? Ultimately, a full response would require a defense of the entire Christian worldview claim. But given the limitations of this article, my focus is only on the theological method undergirding that defense. My argument is this: what is needed is not a Christology “from below” but one that is “from above.” But before I give reasons why this is the case, let me first define how I am using the terms, from “above” and “below.”
Christology “from Below” vs. “from Above”
While these phrases are defined in different ways, from below is best understood as the attempt to do Christology from the vantage point of historical-critical research, independent of a commitment to the full authority of Scripture. This approach is critical of Scripture and assumes that the Jesus of history is not the Jesus of the Bible. Conversely, a Christology from above starts with Scripture as God’s authoritative word written and seeks to identify Jesus’ person and work from within the Bible’s own structures, categories, and theological framework.
A Christology from below, then, attempts to reconstruct the historical Jesus by critical methods to determine what we can know from Scripture. The problem with such an approach is that before theologizing about Christ, the critic must first establish what is and is not accurate in the Bible’s presentation of Jesus, which too often is governed by non-Christian theological assumptions. It is not surprising that the Jesus that results from such an approach often reflects the person doing the investigation, but not the Jesus of the Bible. Instead, what is needed is a Christology “from above” and for at least three reasons.
Why We Need a Christology “from Above”
First, if Scripture is not the necessary and sufficient condition to warrant our Christological conclusions, then questions of epistemology and authority will ultimately prevent us from saying anything objectively true and theological about Christ’s identity. A Christology from below must first decide which historical facts about Jesus in Scripture are true, and more importantly, when (if ever) the biblical author’s theological interpretation of Jesus is accurate. If the historical Jesus is not identical to the biblical Jesus, then critics must establish criteria outside of Scripture to warrant what is true and theological about Christ. But what exactly are those criteria and who decides? Human rationality? Religious experience? The “assured” results of biblical scholarship?
Since the Enlightenment, this path was tried by various “Quests for the historical Jesus.” But with each Quest the same problem of criteria and warrant emerged. If Scripture is unreliable because it is a mixture of fact and fiction, then it alone cannot serve as the theological warrant for our Christology. The authority and reliability of Scripture is the transcendental condition for the possibility of doing Christology in an objective, normative way. Without divine speech from above that gives the true facts about Jesus and the authoritative interpretation of his identity, Christology loses its integrity, uniqueness, and truthfulness, and it is set adrift to wander into the mire of pluralism. A Christology from below undercuts the epistemological grounds for a normative Christology. Only a Christology from above provides the warrant for the Bible’s and the Church’s theological confession of Christ.
Second, a Christology from below fails to ground the uniqueness and universal significance of Jesus because it removes him from the Bible’s storyline and framework. Orthodox Christology requires a specific soil in which to grow. A Christology from below removes Jesus from the life-giving soil of Scripture. Click To Tweet We can only grasp Jesus’ uniqueness and universal significance by leaving him firmly planted in the triune God’s eternal and universal plan that unfolds for us in redemptive history. If Jesus is removed from these facts in this framework, we will lose his true identity as God’s Son who has become human for us and our salvation (John 1:1-18). Apart from understanding Jesus within the Bible’s framework, he will simply become an enigma to us, susceptible to various imaginative and arbitrary constructions. This is the problem for those who think that historical facts about Jesus, specifically his bodily resurrection, carry their own meaning apart from interpreting Jesus’ resurrection within a universal framework that will alone make sense of it. In order to ground the theological claim that Jesus is the divine Son from eternity, and that his incarnation and work have universal significance, his entire person and work must be placed within the plan of the triune God as given to us in Scripture. Only a Christology from above that identifies Jesus’ person and work within Scripture’s own authoritative presentation will result in the theological Jesus of the Bible.
Third, a Christology from below cannot sustain Christian faith. As David Wells has astutely observed, “Christologies constructed from ‘below’ produce only a larger-than-life religious figure, the perfection of what many others already experience.” Doing Christology from below never leads us to faith in God the Son who came from above for us and our salvation. It is simply not possible to construct a biblical and orthodox Christology out of the fabric of human experience by historical-critical reconstruction. He will never be worthy of our worship.
For these reasons, it is necessary to do our Christology from above. Furthermore, in doing so, we stand in good company, namely with the Church. The Church has always begun with a Christology from above, grounded in the conviction that Scripture as God’s Word serves as the authoritative basis for a true, normative Christology. In no way does this depreciate Jesus’ humanity since speaking about Jesus according to the Bible’s own presentation requires that we do justice to Jesus’ deity and humanity. In fact, following Scripture, it will demand that we theologize according to Scripture by asking such questions as: What is the relationship between Jesus’ two natures? After the incarnation, how do the triune persons relate to one another? How did the eternal Son live his life as a human while simultaneously sustain the universe (Col 1:17; Heb 1:2-3)? Furthermore, a Christology from above will also help us see why we need the Jesus presented in Scripture as our only Lord and Savior. For when we read Scripture, we discover how serious our sin is before God and why Christ alone can save us. To stand justified before God, we need to be united to God the Son incarnate who obeyed for us as our covenant head and died for our sins as our penal substitute. Once we see this, we gladly confess a high view of Jesus as the only Savior and Lord and that apart from him there is no salvation and hope.
David F. Wells, The Person of Christ: A Biblical and Historical Analysis of the Incarnation (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1984), 172.