The Doctrine of Christ (part 3)March 31, 2008 Time: 00:44:18
Craig continues on the Doctrine of Christ (Christology). Early Christian apologists. Modalism. Heresies. Arianism. Council of Nicaea and the Nicene Creed.
§ 13. Doctrine of Christ
I want to thank all of you who prayed for me and for the editing of that ABC program because it was so important what got into the program and what got left on the editing room floor. [Editor's Note: Page no longer available] It was remarkable – wasn’t it? – to see the way it was edited in such a sympathetic way compared to programs in the past. I was especially tickled to find John Shelby Spong edited so as to come across as a powerful conservative spokesman for the resurrection of Jesus! [laughter] Having debated Bishop Spong a few weeks before, it was delightful to see the tables turned and the left-wing folks victimized by the ungracious editing of one’s remarks.
I received an email from my research assistance, Joe Gorra, out at Talbot School of Theology Saturday night after the program. I just wanted to share with you Joe’s reflections on the program because I think they encapsulated so well and he shares some very interesting information about some of the fall out after the program. He says,
I cannot begin to express how elated I am by your presence on 20/20 last night. Even watching Vargas’ facial expressions, one could clearly see her affinity to you, your accessible persuasion, and articulation of our Lord’s resurrection. I think this broadcast is a genuine milestone in prime time broadcast coverage of Christianity if for no other reason than the fact that just maybe a precedent may be set for publicly appreciating evangelical scholars that passionately believe the truths of their faith and who also have rational and truthful reasons to believe why they believe what they believe. That is, you didn’t have to be a Jesus Seminar scholar in order to be considered scholarly and reasonable. I think the tide is turning.
ABC News has an online forum about the broadcast. Currently, since 11pm last night, there are over 8,000 individual posts and 1,500 self-started topics amidst those posts. Pretty impressive. [So the emails are flooding into ABC News about this program, reacting to it.] Contrary to past presentations by ABC’s Peter Jennings, such as From Jesus to Christ, I found Vargas’ questions to be journalistically curious but not cynical and yet trustworthy of the genuine narrative flow of the resurrection account. Therefore practically accepting the truthfulness of those accounts. Just to close the broadcast with the global ecumenical worshiping and believing community of faith was itself a breath of fresh air. She didn’t verbalize the final word or tell us what to think, but let the believers speak for themselves.
For your information. Beliefnet has an informative interview with Vargas about her interest in the topic. See:
INTERVIEWER: What led you to start working on this special?
MS. VARGAS: I first got the idea to do this an hour after the movie "The Passion of the Christ" came out. There was talk about the fact that it focused solely on the crucifixion and that only at the very end of the movie is there a fifteen-second, tantalizing hint at a resurrection. I remember reading in all the newspapers and listening to everybody debating about the fact that it's the resurrection that is so important and central to Christianity, not the crucifixion.
INTERVIEWER: You've interviewed a range of Bible scholars. How did you choose them?
MS. VARGAS: We very carefully selected the most respected scholars and leading theologians from the evangelical world, from the Jewish world to the Catholic world to even the liberal Christians--the Jesus seminar is represented as well. Even one of our Jewish scholars has studied the resurrection. I found it an interesting thing for a Jewish man to study and dedicate his life to, but that's what he's done. I'm very proud of the evangelicals who we have represented in this special. They were absolutely wonderful and brought the story to life.
INTERVIEWER: How would you answer critics who would say it's insulting to believers--or just pointless--to "investigate" a matter of faith like Jesus' resurrection?
MS. VARGAS: I asked every single person I interviewed this question: Is it disrespectful to even be talking about this? And every single person to a man and a woman said absolutely not. It's wonderful to debate this and talk about this. What can be wrong with enlightening people and enriching the debate?
As a person who was raised Catholic and sat in Mass every Sunday and listened to homilies and scripture readings, I learned so much in doing this project. It's brought the whole story of Jesus' life, death and the story of his resurrection... it's all in Technicolor now where it was before in black and white.
I didn't know that for centuries historians could actually verify that there was this really dramatic change in the disciples' behavior and nobody can really explain that. And that nobody did argue that really the tomb was full, they all agreed the tomb was empty, even nonbelievers.
It's true that at the end of the day faith is a leap that you must make or not make. But I appreciate and really enjoy the intellectual investigation into everything.
I thought that was just a marvelous word of testimony from Elizabeth Vargas. As a Catholic, it was all in black and white before, but it is in Technicolor now as a result of doing this special. That was just a wonderful encouragement. I feel so thrilled and privileged to have been a part of it. I wonder if any of you had any reactions that you wanted to share.
Dr. Craig: They mentioned Talbot.
Dr. Craig: I do, too. I appreciate what you said. I hope for those of you who have been in this class, you do realize this was just skating on the surface, as you said. One can appreciate the fact that even this much hasn’t happened before, I don’t think, in these other things like the one From Jesus To Christ that Joe mentioned.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, when you are interviewing that many people, there is a lot of editing. It was a two and a half hour interview. You see what is left of it – just a few minutes. I thought it was interesting the way they would edit it such that Lee Strobel and I would actually complete each other sentences. I would say the antecedent and he would say the consequent of the sentence. It was remarkable. Yeah, that is par for the course, I think.
Dr. Craig: No, I haven’t heard any ratings. The total time I spent with Elizabeth Vargas was about two and a half hours. We went through all the evidence for the resurrection. She asked very intelligent questions. She was very well prepared. We had a really, really good time. If they did want to use any of that material for something in the future, they must have a wealth of material because everybody was interviewed probably for that length of time. I would encourage you, if you have an interest, to send in an email to ABC saying that you enjoyed the show and you would like to see more because a lot of the reactions they are getting – Jan saw on their website – are people who are from the other side and are accusing ABC of having become a branch of the religious right. [laughter] Really upset! It would be good for us to weigh in as well and say we appreciate the balance and fairness.
Dr. Craig: That is a very good point that you are making. He is saying you can’t defend both that the disciples stole the body and then they hallucinated visions of Jesus. That is incoherent. You are quite right. Elizabeth Vargas and I spent quite a bit of time talking about the hallucination hypothesis. They had material to refute it, but they just chose to leave it, I guess, with that word. I do wish they had allowed some more interaction with that hypothesis. It is interesting the way these interview programs work. They just ask you what do you believe, but they don’t ask what are your reasons for it. You know what I mean? They had a number of people like me and Strobel and Paul Meier say “We think the resurrection was a physical event” but they edited out any of the evidence that we gave or why we don’t think it is hallucinatory experiences or merely visionary experiences. That was something that I remarked on, too.
Dr. Craig: ABC did a tremendous job promoting this in advance. I was impressed with that, too.
Dr. Craig: Really? Wow! As I say, I sensed in the interview that she was someone that believed in the resurrection, that she believed in Christ, but I was being interviewed at kind of the tail end of this process. My interview with her was only a couple months ago. As she says here in this interview that I quoted, I think doing this program just opened her eyes, and it made her faith become very real to her apparently in a way that it wasn’t before. I am so pleased to hear this about this other interview. That is very exciting to hear.
Dr. Craig: That is really encouraging. It is such a good example that Clinton sets for us in having these non-Christian friends over to watch it with him. I’m sure that led to some good discussions.
We want to resume our lesson today, but I again just thank you for the prayer support from so many of you that has gone into this. Jan and I were just very conscious of the privilege it was to take part in this interview.
[Opens with prayer]
We’ve been talking about the subject of Christology, or the doctrine of Christ. Last time we surveyed the biblical material for the deity of Christ as well as for the humanity of Christ. Then we began to look at reflection upon this biblical material by early church fathers. We discussed the early Logos Christology of the Christian apologists. They believed that God existed alone without the universe, without creation, but in his mind he had his Word and his wisdom. This Word came forth out of the mind of God as a separate person, separate individual, who became incarnate as Jesus Christ. So Christ was begotten from the Father before the creation of the world, and is therefore God himself – the very mind of God, the Word of God.
This Logos doctrine of the early Christian apologists was taken up into Western theology by the church father Irenaeus in his great work Against Heresies. Irenaeus identifies God’s Word with the Son of God – the second person of the Trinity. He identifies God’s wisdom with the Holy Spirit – the third person of the Trinity. But during the following century after Irenaeus (that is, during the 200s AD) a very different conception of the relationship between the three persons arose called Modalism. Practitioners or advocates of Modalism included figures like Noetus, Sabellius, and Praxeas.
They espoused a unitarian view of God according to which God is just one person; the Son and the Spirit are not distinct persons from the Father. There is one person who assumes three different modes of activity or three different roles. Or else they will say that it was the Father who became incarnate and suffered and died on the cross. The Son is just the human side of Christ, not the divine side.
This point of view is sometimes called Modalism, sometimes it is called Sabellianism (after Sabellius), sometimes it is called Monarchianism. One of the most important refutations of Modalism was by the church father Tertullian who was a North African church father who wrote a treatise called Against Praxeas. In his work against Praxeas, Tertullian formulated many of the ideas and much of the terminology that would later come to be embodied in the great Christian creeds like the Nicene Creed and the Constantinopolitan Creed. Tertullian was very anxious to preserve the idea of the divine monarchy – that is to say, monotheism, that there is one God and only one God. But he also insisted that we must not ignore the divine economy. This was a term he borrowed from Irenaeus. By this he seemed to mean the way in which this one God exists. What the error that Tertullian saw in the Modalists was, “Their thinking that one cannot believe in only one God in any other way than by saying that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are the very selfsame person.” The error of the Modalists is that they thought the only way the one God could exist is by these three persons being the selfsame person. But Tertullian says that while all are one by a unity of substance, nevertheless
the mystery of the economy . . . distributes the unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Three, however, not in condition but in degree, not in substance but in form, not in power but in aspect, yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as he is one God from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned under the name the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Here Tertullian picks up Greek philosophy, Aristotelian philosophical terms that he had borrowed from Aristotle. Aristotle talked about substance in two different ways. A substance could either just be a thing like a podium, a horse, a chair, a man, a mountain – that is a substance. It just means a thing. Or a substance could be the essence or the nature of a thing. In that sense, many different things might have the same nature or the same substance. They have the same essence. For example, all people have the same human nature and so have that same essence. What Tertullian wants to say is that there is only one God in the sense that there is one thing – there is one being – called God. But there are three persons who share that same essential nature. When he deals with the Monarchian prooftext, “I and the Father are one” when Jesus says in John 10:30. This was a favorite text that the Modalists would use. Tertullian says notice that this sentence has a plural subject – “I and the Father.” That intimates that there are two entities, namely, two persons. But the predicate, he says, is an abstract noun – “one.” He uses the word in Latin “unum” for this. It is an abstract noun meaning one. He says this is a neuter term; it does not imply a singularity of number but unity of essence, likeness, conjunction, on the Father’s part and submission on the Son’s. When he says “I and my Father are one” in essence (unum) he shows that there are two whom he puts on an equality and unites in one. So “I and the Father are one” means there are two persons who are one substance, one in essence. It was the failure of the Modalists to realize that one substance – one thing – could exist in a plurality of persons in this way.
In proving that the Father and the Son are personally distinct, Tertullian uses the many passages in the Bible that use first person personal pronouns and second person personal pronouns of the Father and the Son. For example, in Psalm 110:3 God says, “Though art my Son, today I have begotten thee.” There you see God uses the first person pronoun “my” but he says to Christ “thou [or ‘you’] are my Son, today I have begotten thee” showing that they differentiate the persons. Tertullian says to the Modalist, If you want me to believe him to be both the Father and the Son, show me some other passage where it is declared “The Lord said unto himself, ‘I am my own Son. Today I have begotten myself.’” Of course, there is no such passage. All of these different passages where you have the I-thou relationship between the Father and the Son shows that you have a plurality of persons in the one God.
So Tertullian clearly thinks of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as individuals who can employ first person and second person pronouns (I or you) to differentiate themselves. He says in these few quotations from the New Testament, the distinctions of the persons in the Trinity is clearly set forth. Tertullian distinguishes against the Modalist a unity of essence in God but three persons within that one being.
Through the efforts of people like Tertullian and other church fathers like Nepolitus, Origen, Novation, and others, the church came to reject Modalism as a proper understanding of God and to affirm that there are three distinct persons within God called the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In the following century, the church would be confronted with a heresy from just the opposite end of the spectrum. Modalism collapsed all of the persons into one God. During the next century, a different heresy will arise called Arianism which separated the persons but as a result denied the deity of the Son in comparison with the Father.
Dr. Craig: This is a really hard question. Would a Modalist be a Christian? Would a Modalist be saved? Because there are Modalists today. There are certain Pentecostal groups that are in a movement called Jesus Only where they believe that Jesus – the person of Christ – is the entire Godhead. When Jan and I were living in France we met a missionary from one of these Pentecostal groups. To all appearances, this guy seemed to be a born again Christian, but he had a heretical doctrine of the Trinity.
I am not sure what to say about people like this because on the one hand it seems that this is essential and at the heart of Christianity, and yet they don’t deny the deity of Christ. They affirm the deity of Christ. They just blur the distinction between the persons. I can simply leave them in God’s gracious hands to judge them and to leave it up to him. I don’t think this is good Christian doctrine, but whether a Modalist is separated from salvation I just don’t feel capable of making that judgment myself. I certainly would not engage in fellowship or ministry cooperation with people who are Modalists because this is heresy. It is not something I think that we can cooperate with. I would separate myself from any person who held to this kind of doctrine in terms of joint ministry or fellowship – other than on a personal level to share Christ. I wouldn’t allow them to be a member of one’s own church, for example, because it is heretical. But I am not prepared to say these people are therefore damned rather than that they are simply deeply confused and perhaps God will have mercy on them. Because all of us have bad theology in some respect or another, though this is more serious. If they denied the deity of Christ, that would be different. But you see they don’t. They are willing to confess Jesus is Lord. If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved, the Scripture says. They meet that condition.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, where there is one error, there will often be others, won’t there?
Dr. Craig: Not that I know of. In Against Praxeas, he is using a Latin translation. He contrasts “unum” with “unus.” “Unus” he says would be a personal pronoun. “I and the Father are one unus [person].” But unum he says is an abstract noun – one in essence. He is evidently working with the Latin text of the New Testament, not with the Greek text.
Dr. Craig: That is correct. This is a narrow segment of Pentecostal. Please don’t anybody misunderstand me to be painting with a broad brush here. Most Pentecostals are wonderful Christian brethren. But there is this segment of Pentecostalism – United Pentecostal Church – that holds to Modalism, this ancient Christian heresy.
Dr. Craig: It is a misinterpretation, but it is one that is so foundational and serious that you don’t want to cooperate in a way that would lead other people to be involved in it. That is my concern about cooperative ventures. Suppose you do an evangelistic outreach in your town, and some of the follow up on inquirers is done by this denomination's representative. People might be taken into this, and therefore be led away from a very, very fundamental truth of Christianity – namely, the doctrine of the Trinity. I am just suggesting that we shouldn’t be cooperating in that kind of way with groups that hold to Modalism.
Let me say something about Arianism. In the year 319 a presbyter by the name of Arias began to propagate as a doctrine that the Son was not the same substance or essence with the Father but rather was created by the Father before the beginning of the world. Arias’ appearance marked the beginning of the great trinitarian controversy in the early church which eventually resulted in the Nicene and the Constantinopolitan Creeds.
Arias claimed that the reason the orthodox theologians found his view unacceptable was because he affirmed that the Son of God had a beginning whereas God is without a beginning. Arias said that the Son was created before the beginning of the world, therefore he had a beginning and God is without a beginning. But that is really not correct. That is not why the early church was so opposed to Arias. Rather, as Athanasius, who was the great church bishop who opposed Arias, pointed out it wasn’t that Arias so much said that the Son had a beginning, rather it was that on Arias’ view the Son was a creature; he was a creation by God. In his Orations Against the Arians, Athanasius says, “On Arias’ view the Son is a creature and a work, not proper to the Father’s essence.” That was the real problem with Arianism. Not simply that it posited a beginning of the Son, because even some of the Logos theologians did that. They said the Word came forth out of the Father’s mind prior to creation and in that sense the Son had a beginning of his distinct existence from the Father. But for these Logos theologians, the Father and the Son have the same essence. The Son was the very word and mind of God. But for Arias, the Son belongs to the realm of creation. He is like us. He is part of the universe in that sense. Therefore, it would be blasphemous and idolatrous to worship him.
In the year 325, the Council of Nicaea condemned Arianism and affirmed the full deity of the Son and that he has the same essence as the Father. Let me just read to you what the Council of Nicaea promulgated. It states:
We believe in one God, the Father all-governing, creator of all things visible and invisible;
and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father as only begotten, that is from the essence of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father through whom all things came into being, both in heaven and in earth, who for us men and for our salvation came down and was incarnate becoming human. He suffered, and on the third day he rose and ascended into the heavens, and he will come to judge both the living and the dead.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit.
But those who say [and now come the condemnations of the Arians] once he was not or he was not before his generation or he came to be out of nothing or who assert that he, the Son of God, is a different hypostasis or ousia [a different individual or substance] or that he is a creature or changeable or mutable, the Catholic and apostolic church anathematizes them [condemns them].
Let me just highlight some of the central features of the Nicene Creed. The central point of the Creed is that the Father and the Son are homoousias. Homo means “same” as in homogenized milk or homosexual – same. Ousias means substance or essence. So it says the Father and the Son have the same essence, therefore the Son cannot be a creature as Arias claimed. He is God himself
Secondly, notice that the Creed says that the Son is begotten from the Father, not with respect to his human nature but with respect to his divine nature. This is the vestige of the Logos Christology of those early Greek apologists. The person of Christ in his divine nature is begotten from the Father and therefore since like begets like he is God himself. Dogs beget dogs. Cats begets cats. And so forth. Humans beget humans. So God begets God. Therefore, begotten of the Father shows the full deity of the Son.
Finally, when they say that they condemn those who say that Christ is a different hypostasis or ousia these were taken by the crafters of the Creed to be synonymous. The word ousia in Greek means substance. Hypostasis is just the Greek equivalent of that. Hypo is to be under, like a hypodermic needle – under the skin. Then stasis is to stand. So it means sub-stance – a substance. That which stands under something and bears the properties. So for the drafters of the Nicene Creed, hypostasis and ousia means the same thing. It means a substance. Therefore they condemn anyone who thinks the Father and the Son have a different substance.
The difficulty is that Greek speaking theologians in the early church didn’t understand hypostasis in that way. They didn’t think hypostasis was a synonym to substance – the Latin word. For them, a hypostasis meant an individual. So when they heard the drafters of the Nicene Creed say that the Father and the Son are the same hypostasis, to them that sounded like Modalism. They are the same individual. They are the same person. So they said that can’t be right.
So after the promulgation of the Nicene Creed there was this great controversy as the Greek-speaking and Latin-speaking theologians tried to come to terms with each other. After decades of debate, this was finally resolved in the year 362 when the Latin-speaking theologians saw that the Greeks were using hypostasis in a different way. So they said, All right, we will go along with you. There are three hypostases (that is, three individuals, three persons) in the one substance. That was the doctrine that came to be enshrined in the Constantinopolitan Creed in 381 – that there were in God three hypostases, three persons, three individuals in one substance. These three hypostases, as I say, were of course the three persons.
While Modalism affirmed the equal deity of the three persons but denied their distinction and Arianism affirmed the distinctness of the three persons but denied they were all the same substance, orthodoxy affirmed both the distinctness of the three persons and their unity as one substance – their full deity. Do you see the contrast between these three views? On the one hand was Modalism, which affirmed the full deity of the persons but denied their distinctness, on the other hand was Arianism which denied the full deity but affirmed their distinctness. Then there was orthodoxy which affirmed both the distinctness of the three persons and their full deity and unity in the one substance who is God.
Dr. Craig: Very good! I’m glad you picked that up. None of these cults is new, are they? United Pentecostal Church holds to Modalism. The Watchtower Society – Jehovah’s Witnesses – are modern day Arians. This is precisely their doctrine. It is the doctrine of Arias – the Son is the first created being, the greatest being of creation. They even call him “a god” with a little-g. You are very perceptive in seeing that. That’s right.
Dr. Craig: Begotten – to give birth to, if you will. It is different from creation. I can create something that is different from my own essence. I can make a statute, a table, write a book. An artisan creates an artifact that is different from him in essence. But when you beget something, you do it of your own nature. I beget a son or a daughter who is a human being as I am a human being. Cats begets cats. Dogs begets dogs. So it means to sire, if you will. To bear offspring; to have offspring.
Dr. Craig: Not necessarily. This is a good question. The question was: does this imply a beginning. For people like Tertullian and the Logos theologians, I think that they did think the Logos had a beginning. His distinct existence had a beginning. He was always in the Father’s mind as the Word of the Father. But he proceeded out of the Father at a certain point. But this doctrine eventually came to be supplanted in favor of the doctrine that this begetting is eternal. The church father Origen said that the begetting of the Son from the Father never had a beginning. It is eternal. That is what you have in the Nicene Creed where it says that he is eternally begotten of the Father. The analogy that Origen would use was that of the sun and the sunbeam. The sunbeam is begotten from the sun, but the sun never exists without its sunbeam. It always has its sunbeam when its shining. So the sunbeam has no independent existence from the sun, but nevertheless the sun is never without its beam. That would be an illustration of an eternal begetting that the church fathers would like to use.
Dr. Craig: Right.The idea of the Holy Spirit was that this was an eternal procession. There they didn’t use the word begetting because they didn’t want to say there were two Sons of the Father, but they would say the Holy Spirit is eternally proceeding from the Father. Then there arose a great discussion that has never been healed within the church between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism as to whether the Son and the Father together generate the Holy Spirit, or whether the Holy Spirit is generated directly from the Father without the Son. Eastern Orthodoxy (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox) says the Spirit is generated directly from the Father. The Roman Catholic Church says, no, the Spirit is generated from the Father through the Son. So you have a different route, but this would also be an eternal procession.
Dr. Craig: That is quite mistaken. This is why we study Christian doctrine! You can have good people who want to serve the Lord, then they get into these terrible mistakes because they don’t understand these distinctions properly. To say that man is created is to say he is not begotten, because creation and begetting are entirely different. God creates that which is distinct from himself in nature. So everything that God creates is a creature that is not God. That is the difference that Athanasius saw between his doctrine and Arias’ doctrine. So this is important stuff.
Dr. Craig: Oh my! That would imply our divinity. That would lead right into this New Age thinking of Shirley MacLaine and all the rest that we are all God. We just need to get back to our fountainhead that we realize we are all really divine.
Dr. Craig: I am not one of these types who, on fine points of doctrine, say we need to separate. We can’t have fellowship and things like that. On the contrary, I think of myself as very ecumenical for the most part. But when it comes to issues like the Trinity and the two-natures of Christ, this is foundational stuff. Here these distinctions are important and they really do matter.
You will notice that the orthodox tradition affirmed the deity of Christ and the Father and the Son and yet there is central unity as one God. But they also affirmed in the Nicene Creed that he became human – he took on the form of a servant and perished on the cross. No attempt is made to explain that. How in the world can Christ be the same essence as God the Father – imperishable, necessary, eternal, uncreated in his existence – and yet become a human being who dies on the cross? How do you make sense of that?
In fact, just this past two weeks when I was teaching at Wheaton College in the philosophy class, one of the girls in the class came to me and said she was troubled by my argument that God exists necessarily and eternally because she said how do you make sense of the death of God on the cross? She obviously didn’t understand the orthodox doctrine of the incarnation. Well, this question is the next one that was taken up by the church fathers. With the close of the trinitarian controversies, opened another chapter in church history called the Christological controversy. As the church sought to hammer out an orthodox conception of the incarnation involving the full deity and full humanity of Christ. That is the subject to which we shall turn next time.
 For a script of the program “The Resurrection: Searching for Answers” that aired in May 2005, see http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=772399&page=1&singlePage=true (Editor's Note: Page no longer available).
 Total Running Time: 44:18 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)