- 1 2018 Article
- 2 Original 1957 Mennonite Encyclopedia Article, "Incarnation of Christ"
- 3 Original 1990 Mennonite Encyclopedia Article
- 4 Cite This Article
Christology, the church’s words and thinking about Jesus Christ, comprises what is perhaps the most important of all Christian doctrines. This theologizing began, of course, with the story of Jesus in the New Testament. New Testament writers extended and developed the meaning of the story in a variety of ways, using a number of images and emphasizing different dimensions of the story. These images, however, did not provide definitive answers to important questions: how to understand the relationship of Jesus to God the Father without contradicting Jewish monotheism; how Jesus’ human nature related to his divine nature; how Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished salvation. These questions occupied the church in the centuries following the New Testament, and featured some heated discussion about what constituted correct understandings. A number of ways of expressing the nature and meaning of Jesus developed through the centuries. Understanding early 21st century Mennonite views on Christology means following Mennonite responses and interaction with the classic positions, and the eventual emergence of competing claims about the nature of appropriate theology for Mennonites.
No one article can deal with all Mennonite statements of Christology. The following discussion presents the major voices and arguments concerning Christology that contributed to what became the largest published conversation about a specifically Mennonite approach to theology—in contrast to a standard Protestant approach—in North America, beginning with the late 19th century when Mennonites first engaged in higher education and began writing theology with a comprehensive scope.
The Classic Views
In western theology, what became the standard or classic views on the relationship of Jesus to God the Father and on the relationship of Jesus’ human nature to his divine nature were stated by the Council of Nicea (325 CE) and the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE). Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicea to deal with the controversy surrounding the view of Arius, who claimed that Jesus was divine, but of a slightly lesser deity than God the Father. Against Arius, the Council of Nicea asserted that Jesus was homoousios with the Father, that is, he was "one in substance" or "one in being" with God the Father. This phrase certified the full deity of Jesus, and was the key feature of the Nicene Creed produced by the council. This Creed was revised slightly by the Council of Constantinople (381 CE), and then proclaimed as the church’s official position by emperor Theodosius. Asserting the full deity of Jesus then made acute the question about the reality of Jesus' humanity, how his divine nature related to his human nature. The Council of Chalcedon provided the classic answer. It asserted that Jesus was of two natures, "fully human and fully divine," with the two natures being neither separable nor mixed. Although not given in a creed, this formula enjoyed creedal status over the centuries.
Although these formulas from the councils did not use biblical terminology, those who accepted these classic statements as foundational assumed that the formulas reflected the biblical view of Jesus and even served as summaries of biblical content. From this perspective, these formulas constituted the standard view of Christology, that is, the claimed "orthodox" belief by which all other statements of Christology should be judged.
Early 20th-Century: how orthodox?
In North America, for more than half of the 20th century, the lines of theological conversation and development for Mennonites tended to fall along the ethnic identities that resulted from immigration patterns. Thus, there was one conversation within the stream of more Americanized Mennonites descended primarily from 18th-century Swiss immigrants, and a quite different conversation within the late 19th-century Mennonite immigrants from Russia. Across the spectrum from Old Order to progressives in the Swiss line, it was those who accepted some measure of cultural accommodation and education that produced the writing that became part of the developing stream of Mennonite thought. There was a parallel variety of groups from Old Colony to progressives in the Russian tradition. Until Mennonite theologians merged into one theological conversation in the 1960s and 1970s, the ethnic lines were more important than denominational lines in accounting for theological differences.
For the first two-thirds of the 20th century most Mennonite writing fit under the classic formulas. Even when Mennonite writers professed to be biblical rather than creedal, and did not refer to the creeds explicitly, their writings assumed and used the classic terminology in versions shaped by the theological controversies of their time. The primary controversy among Mennonite writers concerned whether a given statement was orthodox as defined by the classic statements.
In the American Swiss tradition three volumes of Bible doctrine by the churchman Daniel Kauffman (1865-1944) defined theology for the Mennonite Church, and related Mennonite denominations for more than the first third of the 20th century. Kauffman spoke for Swiss-descended Mennonites then comfortable with the English language. His volumes reflected the growing influence of American Fundamentalism, which had a distinct stress on the deity of Christ. The Manual of 1898 had no section on the humanity and deity of Christ. Bible Doctrine of 1914 treated both "divinity and humanity" of Christ, emphasized that he was "both," had a brief reference to Nicea’s discussion of deity, and quoted "Articles of Faith" from the Church of England. Doctrines of 1929 accepted "humanity" and "deity" and the "God-man," as givens, with most space allotted to demonstrating deity. This Mennonite Fundamentalist approach assumed and asserted the classic language while distinguishing a Mennonite approach by arguing that Fundamentalism generally did not include enough fundamentals, such as Jesus’ rejection of the sword and nonresistance to evil.
In the middle third of the 20th century, Kauffman’s influence in the Mennonite Church was gradually replaced by that of John Christian Wenger (1910-1995), church leader and seminary professor. In his Glimpses of Mennonite History and Doctrine and Introduction to Theology, Wenger also assumed the classic categories but without reference to the creedal formulations. He described Jesus as having human and divine natures, and as true God and true man, but refused to speculate further as to their relationship. Wenger wrote in general agreement with Fundamentalism, but he had a much more irenic and flexible approach than Fundamentalism, and used biblical language more than the classic language in depicting the person of Jesus. Wenger also followed the pattern of accepting the classic formulations, but adding Mennonite distinctives, such as rejection of the sword, in a different part of the outline.
At the turn to the 20th the century, Cornelius H. Wedel (1860-1910), who had immigrated from Russia in 1874, produced a body of original theological writing that took a quite different path than that of the Fundamentalist-oriented Daniel Kauffman. Wedel was president of Bethel College, and a member of the General Conference Mennonite Church.
Wedel wrote in German. The primary sources for his theology are a four-volume Abriß der Geschichte der Mennoniten and an unpublished manuscript, Glaubenslehre. Since the manuscript for Glaubenslehre has the same format as his published works, and even included a notice of copyright, Wedel’s premature death likely halted publication plans.
Wedel's theology reflected his background in the Mennonite settlements in Russia, as well as his formal education in German idealism. The larger intellectual construct in which to understand his theology is what he called Gemeindechristentum (congregation Christendom), described in the Abriß volumes as a comprehensive ecclesiology that existed over against Staatskirchliche (state church) Christendom. Wedel believed that some form of Gemeindechristentum, the church of believers built on the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, had existed in an unbroken line from the early church in Acts to his own Mennonite people on the prairies of Kansas. Important characteristics of Gemeindechristendom were following the example of Jesus in rejection of the sword, a church independent of state control, and the ability of this comprehensive ecclesiology to incorporate art, literature, and science.
Within this larger framework of a Mennonite Christendom, Wedel assumed that Mennonites were in general agreement with orthodox theology, but differed from other Protestants in giving "only relative importance to external confessions of faith" (nur relativen Bedeutung äußerer Glaubensbekenntnisse). He followed the classic language on the humanity and deity of Jesus, and filled these concepts out with significant biblical material. But as he cited several councils, including Nicea and Chalcedon, Wedel also mentioned the political intrigue associated with them, and wrote that the two nature teaching "is stated within the framework of philosophical concepts whose biblical correctness is difficult to demonstrate" (im Rahmen in den philosophische Begriffe hineingelegt worden waren deren biblische Richtigkeit natürlicherweise schwer nachzuweisen ist). Wedel's writing displays awareness of the issues that motivated Fundamentalism, but his prudent willingness to engage with new scholarship and new perspectives placed him on a theologically progressive trajectory rather than the Fundamentalist one of Daniel Kauffman. Since Wedel's theology was written in German, his direct influence disappeared after World War I, when many American Mennonites dropped use of the German language.
Following in the progressive line of Wedel was Edmund G. Kaufman (1891-1980), also a president of Bethel College. In Basic Christian Convictions, Kaufman situated theology within a description of the nature of religion and religious knowledge. For Christology, he provided a progressive version of the humanity and the deity of Jesus. Kaufman mentioned no councils or creedal statements, but he did acknowledge the church’s traditional claim that Jesus is "true God and true man." However, his treatment of Jesus focused most on the New Testament's display of Jesus' humanity. Deity was described in terms of Jesus' belief that he was the Messiah, his assumption of divine prerogatives, performance of signs and wonders, and his character.
Late 20th-Century: Paradigm Shifts
By approximately the last third of the 20th century, the major theological representatives of the Russian and Swiss Mennonite ethnic traditions merged into the same theological conversation. And the discussion of whether Mennonite theology was orthodox as defined by the classic creeds morphed into a different but related question, namely, "What constitutes an appropriate Christology for modern Anabaptists or Mennonites or the peace church?" Much of the change was provoked by the writings of John Howard Yoder (1927-1997). Such was his influence that discussion of Christology sometimes came to include taking a position on Yoder as well as on classic Christology itself. Other writers who reflected the first stage of this shift in the question posed were C. Norman Kraus (1924- ) and Gordon D. Kaufman (1925-2011).
More than any other theologian, the work of John Howard Yoder stimulated the question about an appropriate theology for Anabaptists or Mennonites or the peace church. Published in 1972 and updated in 1994, Yoder's best-known book, The Politics of Jesus, was voted one of the ten most influential books of the 20th century by the evangelical periodical Christianity Today. In a challenge to prevailing assumptions, Politics stated the case for seeing Jesus, his life and teachings, as "normative for a contemporary Christian social ethic." In Practicing the Politics of Jesus, a book that researched the sources and stimulus for Yoder’s Politics, Earl Zimmerman showed that one impulse came from 16th-century Anabaptism, which Yoder believed was one historical movement that pointed to Jesus as norm.
The Politics of Jesus gave specific expression to assumptions and methodology in Yoder's other important writing on Christology, his less often cited Preface to Theology. This book consisted of his lectures from a seminary course first taught in the early 1960s, printed in an informal publication in 1981, and a formally edited, posthumously published version of 2002. These lectures presented a methodology as well as Christological content.
A first formal discussion of the question of Christology for Mennonites came at the Believers Church conference in 1980 at Bluffton University. The question for the conference was, "Is There a Believers' Church Christology?" Yoder gave the keynote address entitled "That Household We Are," later published in a revised version as "But We Do See Jesus." In an addendum to the address posted on his website after the conference, Yoder called the conference question important, and noted that one impetus for the conference was his "relativizing" of the Nicene formula in his Preface to Theology.
The methodology of Preface focused on development and change in the New Testament's statements about Jesus. Yoder identified the earliest statements as six sermons in Acts that identify Jesus (Acts 2:14-20, Acts 3:12-26, Acts 4:8-12, Acts 5:29-32, Acts 10:34-43, Acts 13:16-41). In these sermons, Yoder pointed out, the speaker identified Jesus by a narrative whose most important points were that Jesus was killed and that God raised him. Telling this story elicited a response from the listeners who were called to join the Jesus movement. Then using primarily writings of the Apostle Paul and other major New Testament theologians, Yoder displayed the variety of ways that New Testament writers extracted additional meaning from the story or emphasized different parts of it in varying contexts. In this analysis, Yoder made two points—to show diversity and change within the New Testament itself as the writers used a variety of ways to make similar points, and to put on display that these writers saw God working in the story of Jesus, divine activity that was a continuation of God’s working in Israel.
In his analysis Yoder pointed out that one had to go behind the classic formulas to the narrative of Jesus for ethics, but he made clear in Preface that his view was not an outright rejection of the standard Christological formulas articulated by Nicea and Chalcedon. Yoder displayed them relative to their context and worldview, but he wrote that within their particular context they were the best answers to the questions posed by the New Testament about the relationship of Jesus to God the Father and to humankind. He said that defining Jesus and God the Father and the Holy Spirit as homoousios was to define them in ontological categories, that is, in a description of their universal substance or essence. Such categories, he said, reflected a hierarchical cosmology no longer operative in the modern world. Thus, in a different ethos or cosmology there could be other true statements that did not use the classic terminology, so long as they dealt seriously with the same questions addressed by the classic formulas. Thus, Yoder wrote that whereas the ancients had used the metaphysical category of "substance" to describe the continuity between Jesus and the Father, perhaps in our time the categories of relationship might be "ethics or history" or "will and deed."
Yoder's stance was made abundantly clear in his essay, "But We Do See Jesus," in which he described five different New Testament Christological images: the Word in John 1, the new Adam in Philippians 2, Creator of principalities and powers in Colossians 1, High Priest in Hebrews, and the slain Lamb in Revelation 5. Each image resulted when the New Testament writer took the story of Jesus into a different cosmology and used the language of that cosmology to show that Jesus was above it as Lord and also identified with humanity at the bottom. Behind these different images, Yoder said, was a "deep syndrome" that featured the identification of Jesus with God and with humanity, and linked the work of Christ to his death and resurrection. Thus, in our context, Yoder said, rather than repeating the biblical terminology, which reflected the New-Testament-era worldview of "cosmologies with the top open for transcendent validation," we should follow their methodology and restate the meaning of Jesus in terms of our worldview. Yoder described the late 20th-century ethos as one of "relativism/pluralism." He suggested that we should restate the message that Jesus is Lord in that context, and that the way to testify to its truthfulness when there is no universal norm of appeal in a relativistic/pluralistic setting was to live by the story of Jesus when it was not required and even when it was dangerous.
Jesus Christ Our Lord, published by C. Norman Kraus in 1987, had a long gestation period, and made visible new elements in Mennonite theologizing. For one, Kraus's view of the Bible and approach to theology was thoroughly at home with neo-orthodox writers and historical, biblical scholarship that had become influential among Mennonite theologians. Further, the question about Christology for Mennonites was visible in the book’s subtitle, "Christology from a Disciple’s Perspective." Finally, the book reflected his experience in Japan where the book was written.
Kraus described the classic definitions as attempts to provide a "rational analogy of being," and pointed to problems they posed for a modern interpreter. For one, "the divine almost inevitably overpowers and dominates the human." Kraus’s impulse, then, was to develop a historical approach that began "from below." Thus, his Christology began not with philosophical definitions of deity and humanity, but with the New Testament's narrative witness to Jesus as the "mediator of God’s presence to us," with Jesus as a human being who revealed God. The Gospels were a witness to the "visitation of God" and a continuation of salvation history, and Jesus was the "fulfillment of God’s promised salvation." Influenced by the shame culture of Japan, Kraus shifted emphasis in atonement away from the traditional, guilt-based Anselmian motif. In its place, Kraus understood that Jesus' death occurred as the inevitable result of his effort to live the embodiment of God's love for humanity, and in that death and subsequent resurrection, overcoming of evil and reconciliation to God became possible.
Kraus's book attracted a vehement but short-lived movement of denunciation by Fundamentalists. A consultation on the book at then Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in October 1988 provided a more moderate response. Participants representing Mennonites, Evangelicals, and the Reformed tradition raised questions but generally recognized the value of the Kraus's work. A conference on the missionary implications of Christology met in August 1989. In presentations at this gathering, John E. Toews and Harry Huebner also wrote that Christology should start with the New Testament writings about Jesus rather than with the conciliar statements of the 4th and 5th centuries. Such writings indicated the increasing comfort among Mennonite theologians—although not yet a consensus—with Christology that was in conversation with but not specifically beholden to the classic categories
The theological writing of Gordon D. Kaufman (1925-2011), son of Edmund G. Kaufman, occurred in two stages. His Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective, was primarily a radical historicist expression and extension of neo-orthodox concepts that became common among Mennonite theologians. But following the appearance of this book, Kaufman abandoned traditional theology entirely. He came to understand theology as "imaginative human construction," and worked to construct a theology of the "symbol 'God'," shaped entirely by and within a modern cosmological worldview. Kaufman was impressed that the classic images of God and Christology reflected a now-defunct cosmology. He believed that the immense, virtually unfathomable size and age of the universe left no "place" for God as traditionally understood. Thus, Kaufman constructed theology that fit a contemporary cosmology and evolutionary perspectives. He defined the symbol "God" as the "serendipitous creativity" that calls men and women into existence as "biohistorical beings" out of the seeming chaos of the many evolutionary trajectories of our world.
The direction and presence of God in the historical-evolutionary process became visible to human eyes in Jesus. For "Christ," Kaufman defined a "wider Christology," the new, Christian community that included all the complex human reality surrounding and following the man Jesus, and later a "Jesus-trajectory" consisting of "the sequence of creative historical events beginning with Jesus' baptism, ministry, death, and resurrection, and then continuing on creatively through history all the way to the present." Since "Christ" could be characterized as the image of God, this approach produced a Christological paradigm that brought together the human and the divine on earth. In spite of Kaufman's radical departure from traditional formulations, he claimed his Mennonite identity, and his constructed theology retained an emphasis on the Christian community and a commitment to nonviolence and social justice. In that humans were part of the web of life called into existence by serendipitous creativity, faith in this "God" required living with love toward all, including the natural environment and enemies as well as neighbors. With these emphases, Kaufman's work belongs to the discussion of Mennonite theology. A Mennonite proposal with much affinity for Kaufman's project was Daniel Liechty's Reflecting on Faith in A Post-Christian Time. Because of its more radical character, Kaufman's theology did not have as great an impact among Mennonite writers as did that of John Howard Yoder.
The shift of debate from whether Mennonite theological writing was orthodox to the question about an appropriate theology for Anabaptists or Mennonites or the peace church resulted in the development of competing perspectives and challenges among Mennonite theologians. Divergent perspectives became clear in particular around the work of Canadian professor A. James Reimer (1942-2010), the Mennonite theologian most well known as a defender of classic theology. Reimer objected to what he called Yoder's and Weaver's (see below) "historical-eschatological" or "horizontal" approach to Christology, and Kaufman's "evolutionary-historical" model. Reimer defended the classic formulations and an "ontological-metaphysical" or vertical approach to Christology. He did acknowledge that there was a change in vocabulary and a loss of narrative and ethical dimensions of theology between the New Testament and Nicea-Constantinople. However, in contrast to Yoder's contextualizing of the classic formulas, Reimer denied any significant impact of the ecclesiastical ethos on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan terminology. He wrote that it stood in direct continuity with Scripture, and he declared these formulas "necessary" to the development of the "uniquely Christian view of God." Reimer would add Mennonite ethics to the classic formulas. For him, a Mennonite ethics of nonviolence depended on this classic, Christian view of God.
Others also raised various levels of question concerning Yoder's relativizing of the classic formulas. In the introduction to Yoder's Preface, ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, who embraced Yoder's pacifism, supported classic Nicene terminology. He wrote that Yoder's historical critique of standard ontological Christology stood in need of correction. In his book, The Heterodox Yoder, Paul Martens acknowledged Yoder's intent to be biblical but also underscored his departure from the classic tradition. More recently in 2012, a defense of the classic, Nicene approach to Christology in line with Reimer appeared in Darrin Snyder Belousek’s Atonement, Justice, and Peace.
In contrast to Reimer's recognition of Yoder’s historical approach and subsequent critique, other writers minimized Yoder's contextualizing of the classic categories in order to argue that Yoder linked his pacifist thought to a foundation in the standard Christological formulas. Craig Carter stated in his book length treatment that Yoder did not focus enough on the classic formulas, but Carter nonetheless argued that there was ample evidence to show that Yoder assumed a Nicene foundation. Mark Thiessen Nation has not written on Christology itself, but also voiced the idea that Yoder linked his ethics with the standard formulas. Critics argued that Carter and Nation read Yoder selectively, a critique supported by Earl Zimmerman, who had access to Yoder's correspondence in exploring the background that produced The Politics of Jesus. It was clear from Yoder's correspondence from that time that he intended his dissertation on 16th-century Anabaptist origins to point the way to a theology that reflected Anabaptist concerns and was not dependent on the classic formulations from Christendom.
The methodology of Thomas N. Finger produced what might be called a hybrid of Reimer's full endorsement of the classic formulas, and the approaches of Yoder, Kraus, Weaver (below), and Kaufman who all relativized these formulas and suggested ways to construct new forms that spoke to a contemporary context. Under the claim that they were "biblical" or expressed biblical truth, Finger accepted as givens the classic categories of humanity and deity from Nicea and Chalcedon, as well as other classic terms. However, rather than following Reimer in defending the classic versions of these terms, Finger argued that one can empty them of their original content (for reasons approximating those stated by Yoder), and then fill and redefine the classic terminology with new content using concepts and ideas gleaned from most Anabaptist and Mennonite writers in both the Reformation and modern eras. This approach appealed to those who wanted to identify with the classic theological tradition but retain identity with the Mennonite tradition as well. The result was a kind of hybrid of classic and Anabaptist and Mennonite emphases. Critics argued that this approach failed to recognize the historical context that produced the classic terminology, as pointed out by Yoder and Kaufman, and that in any case redefining the classic terminology produced a position that was no longer the classic tradition. It was further argued that Finger's selection of isolated ideas from a variety of writers across widely separated epochs to fill in the classic terminology treated theology as an essentially static entity that did not take account of historical contexts and the development of concepts over time. Since answers seemed to reflect past discussions and writers, this approach thus appeared to make it difficult for theology to address entirely new problems that may arise.
The writings of J. Denny Weaver, known as a follower of Yoder's theological methodology, drew out the implications of Yoder's relativizing of classic of Christological formulas and his description of ecclesiological changes symbolized by Constantine. For example, where Yoder said only that the narrative fell away between the New Testament and Nicea, Weaver wrote that the disappearance of the narrative, which would undergird ethics, corresponded to the rise of the church that accommodated the emperor's sword. According to Weaver, this correlation indicated why the peace churches should develop new formulations that used the New Testament narrative of Jesus as norm rather than the classic formulas. Developing farther the direction suggested by Yoder, Weaver used the narrative of Jesus as the basis for interrelated discussions of both atonement and Christology, which were then also extended to reflections on the character of God. These discussions accepted the classic formulas as true within their parameters, but pointed the way to narrative-based formulations in conversation with, but not always beholden to, the classic formulas.
Using the narrative of Jesus, the 2001 publication of The Nonviolent Atonement was the first major statement of an atonement image shaped by the nonviolence of that narrative. Weaver interpreted the narrative of Jesus from the Gospels as an atonement image called narrative Christus Victor. This image pictured a confrontation between the forces of God and of Satan, as in the classic version of Christus Victor, but brought the drama down to earth in the person of Jesus, who confronted the various evils that opposed the reign of God. In this new atonement image, the victory of the reign of God occurred in the resurrection, and salvation was an act of the God made visible in the narrative of Jesus.
Narrative Christus Victor avoided the divine violence of other atonement motifs. For moral influence, God the Father required the death of Jesus as a way to show love for God's other children. In satisfaction atonement, God required Jesus to die in order to satisfy the offended honor of God or to satisfy a requirement of divine law. In contrast, for narrative Christus Victor, the mission of Jesus as the representative of God was to make present the reign of God on earth and it was the forces of evil, however understood, who resisted the reign of God and killed Jesus. God then acted to overcome this evil by resurrecting Jesus. Thus, rather than featuring a divine requirement for death as the basis of salvation, narrative Christus Victor based salvation on God’s act to restore life.
The narrative from which the nonviolent atonement image was developed was also the basis for a narrative approach to Christology. In identifying Jesus by the narrative, this Christology depicted Jesus' mission as witnessing to the presence of the reign of God on earth. In other words, this narrative depicted the way that God and the reign of God were made present and visible in the world. And since God was revealed in the nonviolent narrative of Jesus, Weaver followed that logic to argue that God should also be thought of with nonviolent images, a logical step that Yoder himself did not take. Weaver's most complete linking of the narrative of Jesus, Christology, atonement imagery and the image of God occurred in his book, The Nonviolent God.
Another theologian steeped in Yoder's use of the narrative of Jesus was Ted Grimsrud. In Theology as if Jesus Matters, he argued that theology begins with the life and teaching of Jesus. Theology generally expressed our highest core convictions, with God at the top of our hierarchy of values. For Christian theology, the "ordering point should be Jesus' life and teaching." Parallel to the discussions above concerning the absence of the narrative from the classic creedal statements, Grimsrud described the "christological evasion of Jesus." With this term he referred to the creedal focus on the abstract question of the divinity of Jesus, which required belief, but which marginalized the words and acts of Jesus that are relevant for how Christians live. As an alternative, Grimsrud called for a "practice-first Christology," which focused on Jesus' actual life and teaching, and which displayed how God is in the world. As a result of this approach to Christology, confessing the identity of Jesus as "God Incarnate," as the Christ, would be a conclusion based on his life rather than a beginning assumption that rendered Jesus' life irrelevant for Christology.
Theologian Mark Baker in Recovering the Scandal of the Cross also found the narrative of Jesus and the plurality of atonement metaphors used by the New Testament writers to be a strong critique of the singular or foundational use of the penal satisfaction model of atonement. The western judicial system has shaped the satisfaction model to suggest that the cross is mostly about “assuaging God’s anger or winning God’s merciful attention.” Instead, Baker argued that atonement theology must “articulate the message of the cross in ways that are culturally relevant and remain faithful to the biblical witness.” This means continuing to develop numerous metaphors for preaching, teaching, and mission in the varied and global contexts of today’s world, as no one metaphor completely explains the saving significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Sixteenth-Century Anabaptist Christology
Discussions about an appropriate theology for Mennonites or the peace church have a counterpart in the evaluation of Anabaptist Christology in the 16th century. As they did for Mennonite theology, for much of the 20th century Mennonite writers assumed that 16th-century Anabaptists and Mennonites were generally compatible with the classic creedal statements, but with a recognized preference for biblical rather than creedal language. More recently, stimulated by remarks of John Howard Yoder, others have argued that the preference for biblical language and some deviation from the standard formulas displayed the beginning of a new ecclesiology that did not consider the classic creeds to be ultimate answers. The debate about the character of Anabaptist theology became most visible in evaluation of the long-recognized deviations by Anabaptists from standard views of Christology.
One deviation was the Logos Christology of Hans Denck (ca. 1500-1527). His focus on the Word within every person tended in a mystical and universalizing direction. For some writers, this stress on the inner Word seemed to separate eternal Word from the outer Word, the Jesus of history, who was mere teacher and example. Pilgram Marpeck (d. 1556) placed great stress on the humanity of Jesus. He maintained the unity of human and divine natures, but considered the human nature to be the way to the invisible God. Marpeck wrote that while on earth, "the Godhead did not dwell in him [Jesus] in that form," but did so after resurrection. Finally, the most well-known deviation was Menno Simons' (1496-1561) acceptance of celestial flesh Christology, which he apparently learned from Melchior Hoffman (ca. 1495-1544?). In this concept, Jesus' flesh had human qualities, such as the ability to bleed and to die, but its origin was in heaven. Thus, it could be nourished and pass through Mary without inheriting sin, analogous to the way seed is nourished by soil without taking on the characteristics of soil. In one way or another, these three views all deviated from strict interpretations of Chalcedon's stress that Jesus existed in two natures, "fully human and fully divine," "which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation."
Menno's Christology was rejected by Swiss Anabaptists and some 16th-century Dutch Anabaptist groups. Menno excommunicated Adam Pastor (d. 1560/70) for advocating a Christology that considered Jesus a human bearer of the Word while denying his pre-existence as Son of God. For those modern interpreters who wanted to stress Anabaptist alignment with the standard formulas, these somewhat deviant views constituted a bit of embarrassment, and required explanations in order to retain them for orthodoxy. It was claimed, for example, that Anabaptists were not careful thinkers, or had an awkward Christology, or stretched the tradition nearly to the breaking point, or engaged in clumsy borrowing. Another approach has argued that first generation Anabaptists displayed significant diversity, including some deviant views, but by the end of the 17th century, most Mennonite groups had fallen in line with orthodoxy.
In contrast, John Howard Yoder provided a way for a positive evaluation of these supposedly deviant views. In an oral conversation, Yoder suggested that rather than seeing the celestial flesh doctrine as evidence that Menno was a poor theologian, it was actually evidence of creative thinking in a new context, an effort to develop Christology that would undergird a visible, nonresistant church as the body of Christ. Gerald Mast developed this argument in detail. Sjouke Voolstra introduced a similar idea among Dutch Mennonites. Yoder's suggestion would apply to other Anabaptists as well. Weaver has articulated a similar argument concerning Pilgram Marpeck.
This brief description of Anabaptist and Mennonite views of Christology has revealed that no consensus existed among early 21st-century Mennonite theologians. Rather there were a number of approaches, each of which posed a claim to be the one best suited to serve the Mennonite church of the late 20th and early 21st century. The view adopted depended on presuppositions about the classic creedal statements, and on understandings of historical context and development of doctrine. These assumptions then impacted both modern theologizing and the evaluation of theologizing by 16th-century Anabaptists. For some contemporary North American interpreters, the classic creeds and past Anabaptist references to these creeds became precedents for the present; in essence, the description of past usage became prescriptive or normative for the present. Other interpreters understood history as an ongoing stream, with the present as its cutting edge. From this perspective, seeing how Christology developed from taking the narrative of Jesus into new contexts, with the Christological images arising from the use of the language of that context to proclaim the meaning of Jesus, along with noting deviations by early Anabaptists from the classic creedal statements, all indicated how the contemporary church could keep the stream going in the same direction, by developing theology for its context that was in conversation with but not beholden to past historical descriptions. The debate between these two perspectives has remained ongoing, and in this debate, both sides have appealed to the writings of John Howard Yoder.
This article emphasized methodological and developmental approaches to Christology among Mennonite writers. A different approach to theology has appeared in the various Mennonite Confessions of Faith. Confessions also reflected a perspective, but their purpose has usually been to identify the basis of unity in a given context. Until the late 20th century, these confessions have generally defined Christology in terms of the received terminology of humanity and deity, but with a variety of nuances. For data on confessions, see the article "Confessions, Doctrinal."
Baker, Mark D. and Joel B. Green. Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, 2nd edition. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2011.
Belousek, Darrin Snyder. Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012.
Biesecker-Mast, Gerald. Separation and the Sword in Anabaptist Persuasion: Radical Confessional Rhetoric from Schleitheim to Dordrecht. The C. Henry Smith Series, vol. 6. Telford, Pa.: Cascadia Publishing House, 2006.
Blough, Neal. Christ in Our Midst: Incarnation, Church and Discipleship in the Theology of Pilgram Marpeck. Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 2007.
Carter, Craig A. The Politics of the Cross: The Theology and Social Ethics of John Howard Yoder. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2001.
Finger, Thomas N. Christian Theology: An Eschatological Approach, Volume 2. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1989.
Finger, Thomas N. A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
Finger, Thomas N. "Response to J. Denny Weaver’s 'Parsing Anabaptist Theology'." Direction 35, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 134–53.
Grimsrud, Ted. Theology as if Jesus Matters: An Introduction to Christianity’s Main Convictions. Telford, Pa.: Cascadia Publishing House; co-published by Herald Press, 2009.
Grimsrud, Ted. "Whither Contemporary Anabaptist Theology?" In Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the Twenty-First Century, 23–36. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2007.
Juhnke, James C. Dialogue with a Heritage: Cornelius H. Wedel and the Beginnings of Bethel College. North Newton, Kans.: Bethel College, 1987.
Kauffman, Daniel. Bible Doctrine: A Treatise on the Great Doctrines of the Bible. Scottdale, Pa.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1914.
Kauffman, Daniel. Doctrines of the Bible: A Brief Discussion of the Teachings of God's Word. Scottdale, Pa.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1929.
Kauffman, Daniel. Manual of Bible Doctrines, Setting Forth the General Principles of the Plan of Salvation. Elkhart, Ind.: Mennonite Publishing Co., 1898.
Kauffman, Richard A., ed. A Disciple’s Christology: Appraisals of Kraus’s Jesus Christ Our Lord. Occasional Papers. Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1989.
Kaufman, Edmund G. Basic Christian Convictions. North Newton, Kans.: Bethel College, 1972.
Kaufman, Gordon D. In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1993.
Kaufman, Gordon D. Jesus and Creativity. Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg Fortress, 2006.
Kaufman, Gordon D. "My Life and My Theological Reflection: Two Central Themes." American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 22, no. 1 (January 2001): 3–32.
Kaufman, Gordon D. Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective. New York: Scribner’s, 1968; reprint 1978.
Koop, Karl. Anabaptist-Mennonite Confessions of Faith: The Development of a Tradition. Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press and Herald Press, 2004.
Kraus, C. Norman. Jesus Christ Our Lord: Christology from a Disciple's Perspective. Rev. ed. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1990.
Loewen, Howard John. One Lord, One Church, One Hope, and One God: Mennonite Confessions of Faith in North America: An Introduction. Text-Reader Series, no. 2. Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1985.
Marpeck, Pilgram. Later Writings by Pilgram Marpeck and His Circle. Volume 1: The Exposé, A Dialogue, and Marpeck’s response to Caspar Schwenckfeld. Translated by Walter Klaassen, Werner Packull, and John Rempel, with an introduction by John Rempel. Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press; co-published: Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1999.
Martens, Paul. The Heterodox Yoder. Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2012.
Mast, Gerald J. "Jesus’ Flesh and the Faithful Church in the Theological Rhetoric of Menno Simons." In The Work of Jesus Christ in Anabaptist Perspective: Essays in Honor of J. Denny Weaver, edited by Alain Epp Weaver and Gerald J. Mast, 173–90. Telford, Pa.: Cascadia Publishing House; Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2008.
Mast, Gerald J., and J. Denny Weaver. Defenseless Christianity: Anabaptism for a Nonviolent Church. Telford, Pa.: Cascadia Publishing House; co-published with Herald Press, 2009.
Nation, Mark Thiessen. John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006.
Reimer, A. James. Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatic Foundations for Christian Ethics. Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, Co-published with Herald Press, 2001.
Rempel, John D. "Critically Appropriating Tradition: Pilgram Marpeck’s Experiments in Corrective Theologizing." The Mennonite Quarterly Review 85, no. 1 (January 2011): 59–75.
Snyder, C. Arnold. Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction. Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 1995.
Voolstra, Sjouke. Het Woord is Vlees Geworden: De Melchioritisch-Menniste Incarnatieleer. Dissertation, U of Amsterdam. Kampen, Netherlands: J.H. Kok, 1982.
Voolstra, Sjouke. Menno Simons: His Image and Message. Cornelius H. Wedel Historical Series Vol.10. North Newton, Kans.: Mennonite Press, 1996.
Waltner, Erland, ed. Jesus Christ and the Mission of the Church: Contemporary Anabaptist Perspectives. By George R. Brunk III, John E. Toews, Harry Huebner, and J. Denny Weaver, respondents Daniel D. Garcia, Mary H. Schertz, and Thomas Finger. Newton, Kans.: Faith and Life Press, 1990.
Weaver, J. Denny, ed. John Howard Yoder: Radical Theologian. Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2014.
Weaver, J. Denny. Anabaptist Theology in Face of Postmodernity: A Proposal for the Third Millennium. The C. Henry Smith Series, vol. 2. Telford, Pa.: Pandora Press U.S., co-published with Herald Press, 2000.
Weaver, J. Denny. Becoming Anabaptist: The Origin and Significance of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism. 2nd ed. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2005.
Weaver, J. Denny. "A Believers’ Church Christology." Mennonite Quarterly Review 57, no. 2 (April 1983): 112–31.
Weaver, J. Denny. Keeping Salvation Ethical: Mennonite and Amish Atonement Theology in the Late Nineteenth Century. Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1997.
Weaver, J. Denny. The Nonviolent Atonement. 2nd ed., greatly rev.and expanded. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011.
Weaver, J. Denny. "Parsing Anabaptist Theology: A Review Essay of Thomas N. Finger's A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology." Direction 34, no. 2 (Fall 2005): 241–63.
Wedel, C. H. Abriß der Geschichte der Mennoniten, I-IV. Newton, Kans.: Bethel College, 1900–1904.
Wedel, C. H. Glaubenslehre. North Newton, Kans.
Wenger, John C. Glimpses of Mennonite History and Doctrine. 4th printing, rev. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1959.
Wenger, John C. Introduction to Theology: A Brief Introduction to the Doctrinal Content of the Scripture Written in the Anabaptist-Mennonite Tradition. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1954.
Yoder, John Howard. "'But We Do See Jesus': The Particularity of Incarnation and the Universality of Truth." In The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel, 46–62. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 1984.
Yoder, John Howard. The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1971.
Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster. 2d ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1994.
Yoder, John Howard. Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2002.
Yoder, John Howard. "That Household We Are." Keynote address. Is There a Believers’ Church Christology? Bluffton College, 1980.
Zimmerman, Earl. Practicing the Politics of Jesus: The Origin and Significance of John Howard Yoder’s Social Ethics. The C. Henry Smith Series. Telford, Pa.: Cascadia Publishing House; co-published with Herald Press, 2007
Original 1957 Mennonite Encyclopedia Article, "Incarnation of Christ"
By Cornelius Krahn. Copied by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 18-20. All rights reserved.
The Incarnation of Christ (Christology) is a doctrine which has been a subject of controversy at various times in church history. Those emphasizing the humanity of Christ at the cost of His deity are probably better known than those emphasizing the divinity more than the humanity. A large wing of the early Anabaptists emphasized the deity of Christ more than the regular Catholic and Protestant churches did, with their historic orthodox creeds. However, this emphasis did not originate with the Anabaptists, but had its roots in early Christendom. The Valentinians at the time of Tertullian emphasized the divinity of Christ and minimized His humanity to the point that they considered Christ born of the Virgin Mary as if He had been passing through her body "as through a pipe." taking none of her human flesh, in order to assure that the Saviour had "other flesh" than that of fallen man so that He would not have part in original sin. Even stronger is the emphasis placed on this by the Gnostic Marcion. Apollinaris and his followers continued this line of thought emphasizing that only thus humanity has a guarantee of salvation. "Our human nature was accepted by Him so that He became a perfect organ of God" (Schoeps, 13). During the Middle Ages this particular emphasis almost completely disappeared with the exception of such groups as the Bogomiles and Cathars. During the Reformation this concern reoccurs particularly among some of the "left-wing" reformers.
In a 1951 study devoted to this subject, H. J. Schoeps (Vom himmlischen Fleisch Christi) states that Caspar Schwenckfeld was the first of the reformers to emphasize the teaching of the "heavenly flesh" of Christ and that he was directly influenced by the Greek Fathers (26). Schwenckfeld believed in a sinless "glorified humanity" of Christ. "If Christ had the characteristics of a sinful creation, He could not represent us in the presence of God" (28). Schoeps states that Schwenckfeld's concern in this matter was that mankind can be "glorified" or become divine only if Christ was divine. His Christology was closely related to his views regarding the Lord's Supper. "Only through Christ's heavenly body is the spiritual influence from above guaranteed, because only through the glorified humanity of the risen Christ can believers be filled and fed with the Holy Spirit" (36). "Through His spiritualized, raised, and glorified (divine) flesh, Christ, as a second Adam, draws mankind toward Himself into spirituality" (36).Hoffman
Melchior Hoffman was the originator of this peculiar teaching regarding the incarnation of Christ, as far as the early Anabaptists are concerned. To what extent he was influenced by Schwenckfeld or Sebastian Franck, whom he met in Strasbourg, has not yet been conclusively established. Schwenckfeld says concerning his influence along these lines, "They have both (Hoffman and Franck) taken their errors from our truth, like spiders who suck poison out of a beautiful flower" (Corpus Schwenckfeldianorum V, 522 f.). Even though the above influences may have started Hoffman out on his way along these lines, he soon went his own way. It has been definitely established that Hoffman's ideas were taken over by Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, and other representatives of the early Dutch Anabaptists, who added hardly anything new.
This peculiar view regarding the Incarnation was widespread among the early Dutch Anabaptists. That it was also found among the followers of Melchior Hoffman in South Germany as late as 1555 is apparent in the introduction to the "Agreement of the brethren and elders congregated at Strasbourg regarding the question of the source of Christ's flesh," which stated that the ministers and elders had been approached to give an account along these lines by "the followers of Hofmann, as well as the Dutch brethren." This distinction between the two would indicate that some of them were located in South Germany or in the vicinity of Strasbourg (Brons, 97). At this Anabaptist conference it was emphasized that since the Bible states both that Christ had His flesh from heaven and that He received it from Mary we should "not attempt to know more than can be known," and "that reason should be subordinated to the obedience of Christ."
One of the basic differences between the early Dutch Anabaptist leaders and Schwenckfeld was the claim of the Dutch that Christ was born "in Mary" and not "of Mary," that Mary did not furnish the flesh of the Saviour, but merely His nourishment. Schwenckfeld does not go so far, stating that Christ received the "flesh and tabernacle of His body from Mary, the virgin," and emphasizes that he is not "Hoffmenisch," although he considers the flesh of Christ of "divine origin" (Corpus Schwenckfeldianorum VII, 304). Schwenckfeld's views are closely related to his peculiar view of the "deification" of the children of God, in which process he considered it necessary that the flesh of Christ be of divine origin. Hoffman's and Menno's views are closely related to their concept of the Christian church. The church of Christ, which is the body of Christ, can only be transformed into this fitting close relationship to Him if the sole cause of this act is Jesus Christ, her Saviour and head. The church, or the body of Christ, can be without wrinkle and blemish only if Christ was without sin and His human substance was of divine origin. Franck, who shared somewhat the Anabaptist emphasis on the divinity of Christ, did not have their concern regarding the establishment of a visible, pure church and he, therefore, did not agree with them along these lines.
It is here where an apparently speculative thought becomes a basic doctrine of salvation. It was because of this reasoning that the peculiar view regarding the incarnation of Christ became a very important doctrine for Menno and his followers. Although Menno asserts (Complete Writings, 430, 439) that he is not particularly teaching and preaching this view, but that he is constantly being lured to defend it, we must conclude that he would not have been so voluminous in writing about this subject and defending it if it had not been basic for him, and that he would not have been attacked by his opponents if he had kept this as a "secret" doctrine. At nearly all public discussions with opponents this matter was on the agenda and discussed in detail. For him and his followers this was an essential part of their doctrine. This is also evidenced by the fact that Adam Pastor was ousted because he stressed the humanity of Christ, and denied His essential deity because he thought God and man (Jesus) could not be of the same essence (Krahn, 67 ff.). In oral and written discussions, this doctrine was a matter of controversy between Menno and a Lasco, Micronius, and Faber, as well as at official religious debates at Leeuwarden and Emden. In the writings of Melchior Hoffman, Menno Simons, and Dirk Philips this subject matter is discussed, defended and elaborated on at length. They object seriously to speaking of two "persons" in Christ, the divine and the human, on the grounds that the divine act in the birth of Christ cannot be described in these terms.
At the great Anabaptist conference at Strasbourg in 1555 it was emphasized that since the Bible states both that Christ had His flesh from heaven and that He received it from Mary we should "not attempt to know more than can be known" and "that reason should be subordinated to the obedience of Christ." When pressed by the Reformed for answers along these lines at the Frankenthal disputation in 1571, the Anabaptists seem to have been intentionally unexplicit. The question posed was: "Concerning Christ. Whether Christ received the nature of His flesh from the substance of the flesh of the Virgin Mary or elsewhere." This question is definitely directed against the teaching of Melchior Hoffman along these lines. Diebold Winter finally said, "We request time to think it over. We are flooded with many words. If there is anything to them we cannot grasp it. We must fear God and cannot yet accept them in such manner."
In an undated edict against the Anabaptists Philipp of Hesse stated that "those who hold that Christ did not receive His humanity from the blood of Mary through the work of the Holy Spirit" (TA Hessen, 33) were not permitted to live in his realm. This would indicate that there were some followers of Hoffman in South Germany who shared his views on the incarnation. Also Caspar Schwenckfeld stated that "many Anabaptists, particularly in Alsace and the Netherlands," held this view and that he had "debated with many of them, also with M. Hofmann, and proven by Scripture that Christ had really taken His flesh from the Virgin Mary" (Schoeps, 28). This is a quotation from his book Vom Fleisch Christi ... (1561). Already around 1540 he had written a booklet Vom Fleische Christi ... in which he attacked Melchior Hofmann (Corpus Schwenckfeldianorum VII, 281 ff.). In his letter to W. Thalhäuser dated 1 February 1539 (Corpus Schwenckfeldianorum VI, 483), he states that he has succeeded in convincing some of the followers of Hoffman, including leaders, to accept the true teaching concerning the incarnation of Christ. How widespread Hoffman's views pertaining to this doctrine were in Middle and South Germany has not been studied. That they may have been present as late as 1577 is possible, since the Formula of Concord starts its condemnation of the Anabaptists under "Intolerable Articles Concerning the Church" with the statement: "That Christ did not receive His body and blood from the Virgin Mary, but brought them with Him from heaven." The body of Täuferakten, most of which have been published, must be examined to determine to what extent these views were actually represented among the Middle and South German Anabaptists if at all. There is no evidence of it among any of the numerous Hutterite documents.
The early Anabaptist confessions of faith and writings of the Low Countries emphasize this teaching strongly. The public debates between the Reformed and the Anabaptists of Emden (1578) and Leeuwarden (1596) cover it in great detail. During the 17th century some of the more liberal groups began to give up this doctrine and it thus became one of the first typical Dutch Mennonite characteristics to be dropped. However, the fact that the Catalogus (181-184) lists more than two dozen writings ou this subject printed during this century indicates that this was by no means a dead issue in the Dutch brotherhood at this time. When S. F. Rues visited the Dutch Mennonites during the first half of the 18th century, only the conservative groups such as the Old Flemish and the Danzigers were still adhering unitedly to this doctrine (Rues, Aufrichtige Nachrichten, 16), while the progressive Mennonites had given up Menno's view and agreed in this matter with the rest of Christendom (p. 97). The Lammerenkrijgh and other influences had overshadowed this teaching, and its significance in connection with the attempt to establish a true church "without spot or wrinkle" had been lost sight of. However, such books as the Old Flemish Onderwyzing des Christelyken Geloofs ... by Pieter Boudewyns of 1743, still strongly emphasized this view. This book was reprinted as late as 1825. By 1800 this peculiar view, with a few exceptions, had been forgotten as a "Mennonite doctrine." A complete study of this doctrine and its later development in Holland and other countries (such as Prussia) has not yet been made. — Cornelius Krahn
Original 1990 Mennonite Encyclopedia Article
By Marlin E. Miller. Copied by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 147-150. All rights reserved.
The responses to Jesus' question "Who do you say that I am" have been decisive for Christian faith and witness ever since Peter's first answer that Jesus is the Messiah (Matthew 16:16 and parallels). In many additional ways and with a rich variety of images and concepts, the New Testament recounts, testifies, describes, and teaches who Jesus is, what he has done, and what he shall yet do.
Since New Testament times, Christian churches have usually summarized this variety by speaking about both the divinity and the humanity of Jesus Christ (his person) and about what he has already done and will yet do for the salvation of human beings and the renewal of creation (his work). Christology addresses both major concerns. It thus seeks to articulate, in a disciplined way, a coherent and comprehensive account of the person and work of Jesus Christ for the church's life and witness, an account which is based on the Scriptures, learns from the church's teachings through the centuries, and meets the contemporary challenges to confessing him as Savior and Lord.
Because of its fundamental importance, Christology has been a focus of intense concern as well as controversy in church history. Especially from the 2nd through the 7th century, the churches hammered out basic formulations (dogmas) meant to establish guidelines for orthodox teaching and guard against heretical doctrines about the person of Jesus Christ. They sought to correct views which overemphasized his divinity at the expense of his humanity (sometimes called Docetism) or his humanity at the expense of his divinity (sometimes called adoptionism). Particularly the creeds of Nicaea (325) and Chalcedon (451) have been seen as foundational references for orthodox doctrine.
Throughout the centuries there has been less dogmatic unanimity about the work of Christ. Mainstream Western orthodox theology has generally adopted some form of the "satisfaction" view originally associated with Anselm of Canterbury (11th century). Other major views of the atonement have included the "moral influence" theory, originally elaborated by Peter Abelard (12th century), and the classical or "victory over the powers" motif, most popular in western Christianity from the 2nd through the 7th century, and revived more recently in revised forms.
Prior to the 19th century, Protestant theology generally adopted traditional Western Christian christological views. In addition, it placed great emphasis upon the Christian's appropriation of Christ's benefits through faith, rather than through a sacramental system (ordinances). And particularly in the Calvinist tradition, Protestant orthodoxy elaborated an understanding of Christ's work according to his threefold prophetic, priestly, and kingly "office."
Sixteenth-century Anabaptist and Mennonite Christologies were generally compatible with orthodox understandings in the sense that they affirmed both the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ and salvation through his atoning death on the cross. However, they usually couched these affirmations in selected biblical categories and made little constructive use of the traditional dogmatic vocabulary. This preference for biblical terms has had both positive and problematic consequences for Mennonite theology and ethics since the 16th century.
On the positive side, this preference contributed to the Anabaptist and Mennonite teaching about Jesus as the model and example for believers. While affirming his divinity they also emphasized Jesus' humanity, teaching, and actions. While teaching his atoning work on the cross, they also emphasized Jesus' way of the cross as the model for Christian discipleship. These emphases had tended to recede into the shadows of orthodox Christology since the controversies of earlier centuries. To be sure, Protestants and Roman Catholics also found ways of considering Jesus Christ normative for Christian life. But these ways fit predominantly within the patterns of Constantinian Christendom. For the Anabaptists and Mennonites, following Jesus Christ and his teaching in life resulted in an alternative pattern of Christian and church life.
On the problematic side, this preference contributed to some deviations from traditional orthodoxy as well as from scriptural balance and most likely contradicted either one or both. These included the "heavenly flesh" teaching, adopted by Menno Simons and Dirk Philips largely from Melchior Hoffman's apocalypticism, and the Logos Christology represented especially by Hans Denck.
Menno and Dirk asserted that Jesus' humanity (flesh) was nourished in Mary, but that it originated in heaven and did not receive its substance from Mary. They based this position partly on John 6 and 1 Corinthians 15, and partly on the Aristotelian view that the mother's seed is entirely passive. By emphasizing that Jesus' humanity came down from heaven in the Incarnation as an entirely new creation, they intended to support their distinctive views on salvation and the church. Through faith in the new Adam descended from heaven, human beings can be born anew and recreated to a new state of obedience. And this new creation manifests itself in the church without spot and wrinkle, the new community of those who are reborn and separated from the sinful world, having cast aside the weapons of violence and war.
The heavenly flesh doctrine became a major point of controversy between Mennonites and Protestants as well as between several Mennonite and Anabaptist groups in the 16th and into the early 17th century. Some maintained it until the middle of the 18th century. But it may have influenced some Mennonite concepts of church, salvation, and Christian ethics considerably longer, perhaps even until the present. The concept of the pure church, linked originally with the heavenly flesh Christology, has most likely contributed to both perfectionism and divisions among Anabaptists and Mennonites throughout their history.
In terms of traditional dogma the celestial-flesh Christology emphasizes the divinity of Jesus Christ at the expense of his humanity. It has therefore been accused of being gnostic in the sense of assuming that matter and spirit are irreconcilable. It has also been considered docetic. Contemporary scholars differ in their assessments: the Melchiorite-Mennonite teaching is docetic (Klaassen in Classics of the Radical Reformation 3), has docetic tendencies (Beachy), cannot be adequately described as docetic (Voolstra), or is not docetic (Keeney). Judgments differ along a similar scale on whether it is basically gnostic, has gnostic tendencies, or does not fall into gnosticism.
Denck's Christology has been markedly less influential. As are other areas of his thought, Denck's Christology is complex and difficult to categorize. Nonetheless, it had a mystical and universalizing tendency. It focused on the incarnate Word more than on the incarnate Christ. The eternal or inner Word suffered not only in the incarnate Lamb Jesus Christ, but had also suffered before and suffers since in the elect. Similarly, the eternal Logos which was victorious in Jesus Christ, has been victorious in the elect from the beginning and shall be so until the end.
This Logos Christology provides the basis for the theology of the divine in every human. Although the humanity as well as the divinity of Jesus is important for Denck, the two natures seem to remain somewhat separated from each other. The historical Jesus or the outer Word is important primarily as the teacher and example, namely, as the witness to the inner Word, which provides the means of deification for the disciple. Denck emphasized the unity of Christ's will with God's will, and the freedom of the will to be one with God. Some of his followers found his synthesis difficult to maintain and seriously questioned orthodox Christological and trinitarian doctrines.
Another Anabaptist theologian and church leader during the 16th century was Pilgram Marpeck. His influence at the time may have almost equaled that of Menno Simons. Although he shared an interest in relating Christology to the concepts of salvation and the church, he rejected the heavenly flesh Christology and articulated a distinctive view of Christ's humanity and its relation to his divinity.
Marpeck developed his views on the humanity of Christ partly as correctives to Lutheran and spiritualist (Schwenckfeld) Christologies. At the heart of Marpeck's thought is his view of the unity between the divine and the human natures in Jesus Christ. The essence (wesen) of reality is the unity between its inner and the outer dimensions. In Jesus Christ, the human (outer) serves the divine (inner). Simultaneously, the human (outer) also makes the divine (inner) visible and corresponds to it. In parallel fashion, the church as the visible and nonglorified body of Christ is enabled and called to correspond to the glorified and reigning Christ, who is the head of the body. Marpeck also extended this structure of thought to Christian discipleship, the sacraments, Christian liberty, and anthropology.
Contemporary scholars have devoted little attention to christological developments among Mennonites from the 17th through the 19th centuries. During that time, Mennonite confessions of faith generally perpetuated non-dogmatic views of Christ's person and work, which they nevertheless gradually adapted to traditional orthodox and Protestant concepts. This tendency is most pronounced in the major 20th-century North American Mennonite confessions from the early 1920s through the mid-1970s. These confessions have also been influenced by Fundamentalist and conservative reactions to modernism, reactions that emphasized Christ's divinity and sacrificial atonement and tended toward doceticism. Simultaneously, Mennonites have continued to preach and teach that Jesus Christ exemplifies how Christians are called to live. This has both tempered the Fundamentalist and traditional orthodox influences and opened Mennonites to modern christological views which begin with the historical Jesus, emphasize his humanity and ethical significance, and frequently have adoptionist tendencies.
A representative voice for the conservative view tempered with a non-dogmatic biblicism and Jesus as the example for Christian discipleship was J. C. Wenger. He generally adopted traditional orthodox and Protestant views on Jesus Christ's humanity and divinity and his three-fold office as the framework for interpreting New Testament Christology. Wenger summarized several biblical concepts for the atonement rather than attempting to develop a comprehensive synthesis. He also accepted several affirmations of conservative Christologies, including the preexistence, the virgin birth, the sacrificial death, and the bodily return of Jesus Christ. Wenger assumed the bodily resurrection without mentioning it in his account of Christology. His concept of discipleship appeared not to imply any basic modifications of traditional christological assumptions, but belonged to an understanding of Christian life and holy living. This included an emphasis on nonresistance and nonconformity.
The most influential book related to Christology by a 20th-century Mennonite theologian to date is likely John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus, which has been translated into several languages since the mid-1970s. In contrast to Wenger, it adopted current emphases on Jesus' humanity and his ethical significance. Yoder first put forth its major thesis in the context of conversations between the historic peace churches and mainstream Protestants in the late 1950s (Puidoux Conferences). It sought to correct traditional theological ways of avoiding the pacifist content of Scriptures and rejected modern systematic divisions between the Jesus of faith and the real Jesus.
For Yoder, Jesus' life, his calling of an alternative community, teaching, and crucifixion revealed and incarnated a qualitatively new possibility of human, social, and political relations. Jesus' life, calling of alternative community, teaching, and crucifixion therefore remain normative for Christian social ethics. Although Yoder did not attempt to construct a comprehensive Christology, he claimed to take Chalcedon's affirmation of Jesus' humanity more seriously than mainstream theologies which circumvent biblical pacifism and the way of the cross. In other writings, Yoder emphasized Jesus' lordship and affirmed that the ordinariness of Jesus' humanness and crucifixion, as well as his resurrection, demonstrates the general application of Jesus' work of reconciliation. Simultaneously, he criticized theological and ethical approaches which limit the distinctiveness of Jesus, discipleship, and the church entirely to modern historicist and moral categories.
More than any other Mennonite author, Gordon Kaufman has attempted to reformulate theology from an historicist perspective. Rather than beginning with a conservative framework for Mennonite concerns like Wenger or with the christological foundations for Christian pacifism in a biblical realist and Barthian vein like Yoder, Kaufman comes to Christology from modernist systematic and epistemological considerations and grounds Christology in an understanding of the humanness of Jesus compatible with critical New Testament scholarship and contemporary historicism (the view that all of reality is essentially historical rather than based on supernatural, transcendent reality).
Kaufman therefore fundamentally reformulates most christological concepts. Instead of focusing upon the person of Christ as the unity of divine and human natures, he speaks about Jesus as the Servant, the Word, and the Son understood in historical-personal terms. Instead of adopting any traditional view of the atonement, he interprets the Christ-event as having established a community of authentic love and thus inaugurating a historical process which is transforming human existence into God's kingdom. Instead of the resurrection referring to an experienced event, it is a theological interpretation of Christ's appearances and means that God is Lord of history regardless of what human beings may do. Instead of the virgin birth being a touchstone for the doctrine of the incarnation, it represents a crude attempt to express the belief that Jesus is God's Son.
The most recent (1980s) christological proposals from Mennonite theologians are being made by John Driver, Thomas Finger, and C. Norman Kraus. Finger reconstructs theology by adopting an eschatological orientation for the entire range of doctrine. Within this perspective, he understands Christ as the fulfillment of the promise of God's righteousness. He then develops a Christology around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, rather than with traditional dogmatic categories.
Driver has focused on the work of Christ. His radical evangelical approach to the doctrine of atonement has arisen in the context of cross-cultural mission (in Spain and Latin America) seeking to disengage itself from the Constantinian assumptions of traditional theories and to do justice to the multiple biblical images of the atonement. Driver discovers even more biblical concepts for the atonement than Wenger and suggests that they reflect the contexts in which the early church carried out the missionary mandate of its Lord. Rather than reducing the multiple biblical images to one system, Driver recommends using them to enrich the understanding of the entire work of Christ. This pluralism of motifs also means that the saving work of Christ includes his ministry, his resurrection, and the actualizing power of the Spirit, its well as his death.
Kraus may be the first North American Mennonite theologian who attempts to construct, as an alternative to conservative as well as liberal Protestant approaches, a comprehensive Christology from a modern reinterpretation of Anabaptism. Like Driver, Kraus' approach has also been influenced by cross-cultural mission (in Japan). He contends that Christology in a historical and social-psychological mode best reflects the biblical and Anabaptist understandings of Jesus Christ and fits a missionary theology.
Kraus replaces the traditional metaphysical concepts of person and work of Jesus Christ with the identity and mission of Jesus, the Messiah. The identity of Jesus is described in terms of the man Jesus, the Son of the Father and the Self- Disclosure of God. Kraus's account of Jesus' mission focuses on how Jesus as Lord overcomes sin with love by having taken the way of the cross, on salvation as the renewal of the image of God, and on the appropriation of salvation through Jesus' identification with us and our solidarity with him. In contrast to Western theological emphases on salvation from guilt, Kraus argues that reconciliation to God through the cross of Christ deals with shame as well as with guilt.
Driver and Kraus thus contribute cross-cultural mission concerns to current christological discussions. In addition to such attempts to address Christology from a missionary stance, contemporary Mennonite teaching, preaching, and piety reflect both diverse motifs, and some common interests. The diversity ranges from classical orthodox views filtered through pietist and evangelical lenses to modern images seen in historical and social perspectives. The common interests focus on discipleship and the community which confesses Jesus as the Christ. Some 16th century Anabaptists couched these common interests in terms vulnerable to Docetism. Some contemporary Mennonites express them in categories vulnerable to adoptionism. Christology therefore remains at the center of both doctrinal and ethical, as well as soteriological and ecclesiological discussion and debate, both among Mennonites and between Mennonite and other Christians. — Marlin E. Miller
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|Author(s)||J. Denny Weaver|
|Date Published||January 2018|
Cite This Article
Weaver, J. Denny. "Christology." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. January 2018. Web. 16 Jul 2018. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Christology&oldid=160893.
Weaver, J. Denny. (January 2018). Christology. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 16 July 2018, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Christology&oldid=160893.
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