Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Friday, December 14, 2012

Chalcedon and Your Christmas

Whether you realize it or not, this Christmas season you are very dependent upon the Council of Chalcedon if you are a Biblical Christian. I do not mean to say or imply that the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation is not clearly contained and defined in the Word of God. Quite the opposite, the virgin birth of Jesus, the incarnation of the eternal Son of God and Christ being like us in 100% true humanity are all doctrines clearly articulated in the Word of God.

Yet, clearly the early church struggled to articulate this as views arouse that were not in keeping with the truth of Scripture. How is it that God became human? How does the humanity and deity come together? 

The early church struggled with some of the articulation of this as church fathers debated against aberrant views. In 451 AD it became necessary for a church council. The Council of Nicea (325AD) and Constantinople (381AD) had already clarified the Bible’s teaching for the whole church that Jesus Christ was truly God and equal with the Father. But in the next century the issue of how Christ’s deity united with His humanity became the crucial issue.

As one scholar writes “Chalcedon is the place in ‘the history of Christian thought where the New Testament compound was explicated in exact balance so as to discourage the four favorite was by which the divine and human ‘energies’ of the Christ event are commonly misconstrued.’” (John Leith, Creeds of the Churches, p. 35, quoting Albert Outlier).

Every time you and I reflect this Christmas season on how the Word became flesh and that Jesus was truly God and truly man, we are indebted not only to the Word of God but also the Council of Chalcedon.

As Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary has recently argued in his book The Creedal Imperative, creeds bring strength to the church and solve debates over the meaning of what Scripture is saying. Creeds are not unbiblical nor are they subbiblical. Creeds are not an authority over Scripture but an attempt to summarize, clarify and expound what Scripture says. The one who argues “I have no creed but the Bible” ironically is being swept away by more current traditions than the one who says “I believe this creed accurately summarizes core Biblical doctrine.”

When you and I come to Christmas, we need to remember who Jesus is (the Son of God) and what he became in the fullness of time (truly human). But how does the divine nature and the human nature come together?

The Bible is clear in its teaching Jesus is truly God. He always was and is truly God. So whatever Jesus does in the act of His coming, we need to be clear that He does not set aside His nature, divine attributes, or divinity. He cannot be truly God, who is unchanging, if He can take deity off like a coat.

But equally true, Jesus cannot truly redeem us if He does not assume our nature. I believe it was one of the Cappodocian Fathers who said “What is not assumed cannot be healed.” Therefore, as Hebrews teaches us, He had to become like us in all things. He had to take on 100% of human nature, yet of course he was without sin since sin was not intrinsic to human nature as God created it.

But how does the divine and human come together? Is Jesus a sort of God-man hybrid? Is he a third thing, a tertium quid? Is Jesus being the God-man sort of a Jewish Hercules?

When I was teaching as a youth pastor, on occasion I would say “Jesus Christ is not Chocolate Milk.” When you mix chocolate syrup (and please use quality stuff like Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup) with milk you get a new product. The chocolate milk contains chocolate and it contains milk. But because of the mixture it is neither pure or fully chocolate, nor is it any longer pure or fully milk. It is a third thing--a tertium quid.

When the divine nature and the human nature come together in the person of Jesus, Jesus Christ is not chocolate millk, i.e. a tertium quid. IF he was then he'd be not quite fully human and not quite fully divine, but a combination.

Enter the doctrine that is crucial for Christmas: the hypostatic union. When the divine and human nature unite in the person of Jesus Christ each retains fully all of its characteristics, properties and attributes. There is no mixture of the two nor degradation of either one. There is a union of the two so that both come together without any changing of attributes or ‘watering down’ of characteristics.

Christ’s humanity is not “added to" because He also is divine. Nor is His deity reduced as if humanity somehow dilutes His divinity. 

When you think of Jesus in the manager, you are to believe that He was at that moment truly God--upholding the world by the word of His mighty power. But at that same moment He was also truly man being held in His mother’s arms, consenting to be weak in His humanity. The one who was sustaining creation in His deity at the same moment needed in the humanity that He took on to be sustained by His mother’s milk.

This is a tremendous mystery, but it is what the Bible portrays. It is also a cause for great worship, marveling and standing at awe before the one who is truly God and truly man. It truly makes Christmas worthy of celebration.

This Christmas, as you think of these truth, you are indebted to Chalcedon.

The Creed says:
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable (rational) soul and body; consubstantial (coessential) with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather of the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God, the Word the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning (have declared) concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.
The most important words of the creed are arguably: “to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather of the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person...”

I for one am very thankful for the conciseness and clarity of these words. While I submit the Creed to the authority of Scripture, I find that this crystalizes and succinctly states that which the Scripture portray. 

My Christmas reflections into the Word of God and the marvelous acts of that first Christmas are guided and guarded by the words of Chalcedon.

It means something powerful to say that Jesus was truly God yet He assumed true humanity. Praise the Lord, his deity was not diminished. When we sing the words “veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail incarnate deity,” we readily know and understand that it was an assumption of true humanity. To see Jesus was to see the glory of God. 

When you sing carols with words like this, whether or not you know it you are indebted to Chalcedon. Chalcedon is of course itself indebted to Scripture.

The wondrous mystery of God incarnate is why the angels appear to the Shepherds and praise God. This is why the Magi bring gifts and bow before the King.

Chalcedon’s Creed is a powerful reflection on the meaning of Christmas. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Book Review: Carson's Jesus: The Son of God

D.A. Carson has written a helpful little book that will be of interest to pastors, missionaries, Bible students and aspiring theologians. This book was originally given as a short lecture series delivered at Reformed Theological Seminary, then repeated at Westminster Theological Seminary and Colloque Réformée held in Lyon, France. It is a helpful albeit brief examination of the title Son of God and its relationship to Christology. As we would expect from Dr. Carson it is a model of solid exegesis in order to address pressing theological issues. 

The first chapter is an examination of the title “Son of God” as a christological title. In this brief lecture Carson gives us a scope of the varied uses of the idiom ‘son of’ and how it is translated into English. Here he quickly condenses a lot of Biblical data into general categories. His larger point is that the phrase “son of” is more than a reference to genetic and familial identity as often limited in the English usage of such a phrase. This data is placed into two helpful charts on pages 21 and 23-24.

This discussion lays the groundwork for discussing how “Son of God” itself is used a title in various ways in some cases referring to angels, Israel, the Davidic King and New Testament believers. Anyone familiar with the Biblical data and the Biblical semantics will already be abreast with this treatment. Nevertheless, this work gives one a general survey and could serve as an introduction to the topic. Chapter one concludes with a brief reference to the unique use of the title Son of God, which will build into the next chapter.

Chapter two is a treatment of select ‘Son of God’ passages as it relates to Christ. The bulk of the chapter is spent in Hebrews 1 and John 5:16-30. Along the way, Carson will drop hints of what his argument would look like if sketched out in the Gospels and other New Testament books. Carson clearly shows how the title ‘Son of God’ as a Davidic reference comes together with a clear reference to deity. So for example, in Hebrews 1, Son of God clearly has a Davidic referent--that Jesus is the Messiah. But the flow of the passage and the use of the Old Testament clearly identifies Jesus as God. Thus, sonship language referring to Jesus “cannot be restricted to a strictly Davidic-messianic horizon” (59). This is not a novel thesis to those familiar with Biblical studies. However, Carson’s work serves as a healthy introduction to the issues.

Chapter 2 ends with a briefer discussion of John 5:16-30. Carson argues that 5:26 where the Father grants the quality of life-in-himself is an eternal grant from the Father to the Son. This sets some exegetical grounds for what becomes known in historical theology as ‘the eternal generation of the Son.’ It is in this discussion, to which Carson will return in the third chapter, that Carson models the connection between exegesis and systematic theology. This modeling will serve students, pastors and even Biblical scholars adverse to making systematizing claims.

In the final chapter, Carson turns his attention to the theological use of the title ‘Son of God’ to tackle a pressing missiological issue that has arisen. In recent years, some Bible translators have suggested that in Muslim contexts the title ‘Son of God’ should not be translated as such because of the potential misunderstanding. Depending on the verse, these translators often suggest a title that emphasizes Jesus’ messianic identity. While the Christian title ‘Son of God’ has never meant God the Father produced a son in union with Mary, seeking to avoid the title to correct this misunderstanding will lead to misunderstandings of its own. Carson draws out the pitfalls and reductionism such translation creates. Carson argues that one cannot reduce a translation of ‘Son of God’ to messianic identity precisely because the New Testament especially in Hebrews 1 uses Messianic identity together with divine identity. In one chapter we have “two analytically differentiable uses of ‘Son’ terminology” (p.106).

Overall, there is a lot of content back in this short book. It is a solid argument that moves along. Readers unfamiliar with the issues will receive a good introduction. The only criticism of this work that I would offer is its brevity. At times I found myself wishing that certain points could be developed more or that certain areas or works of scholarship could receive interaction. Along the way, Carson himself drops hints of what we be needed to fully defend his case or what other twists and turns the argument could take. One would hope that perhaps Carson would consider expanding this work into a full blown scholarly monograph. This is not to take away from the strength of what he has produced.

I would highly recommend picking up this work and reading it.


I wish to thank Crossway books for providing a review copy of this work. A favorable review was not a condition of review.

cross-posted at Christians in Context
"The Voyages..." Forays into Biblical studies, Biblical exegesis, theology, exposition, life, and occasionally some Star Trek...