Early Christologies

So, I was preparing this for a ladies Bible study tomorrow night, but think I might go another direction. Saving as a blog post instead.

“Who do you say that I am?”

It’s the question central to this week’s lesson. It’s the question the early church had to answer. It’s the question each of us must answer.

The early church had the writings of the apostles, but there was also a lot of other, non-canonical information floating around. According to our study guide,  what we consider the New Testament wasn’t all written until about 120 years after Christ’s birth. Over the  next 200 years, early church Fathers wrote prolifically, trying to nail down what was and wasn’t to be considered orthodox belief.  It wasn’t until 367 that there was even a list of the books of the New Testament, although it wasn’t until the Council of Trent in 1546 that this list was stated authoritatively.

There were many writings that were not considered worthy of canon that still give us an interesting look into the mind of some groups of early believers. The infancy Gospels attempt to fill in the blanks of Jesus’ early life. The passion gospels offer differing viewpoints on the life and death of Christ as early believers struggled with the question, “How could God suffer?”  The Gospel of Thomas records sayings not recorded in the canonical gospel. These non-canonical gospels were often the result of early believers struggle to understand that very important question: “Who is Jesus?”

Early believers had a lot to think through regarding the interplay between Christ’s divinity and humanity. To early Hebrew believers, it was a natural assumption that a divine Christ would be both eternal and uncreated. For a second century pagan, neither would be assumed. Their gods were not eternal and were often the result of procreation. A Jew would not see degrees of divinity, whereas a Greek could. Neither the Jews or Pagans ever imagined a God who suffers, and died, making Christ crucified a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.

The following information (and the previous paragraph) about early understandings of Christ comes from the book “The Earliest Christologies: Five Images of Christ in The Postapostolic Age” by James L Papandrea. I recommend reading the book, as I really can’t do it justice in a blog post.

So, first the misunderstandings:

Angel Adoptionism assumes that a human named Jesus was justified in the eyes of God by His perfect obedience to the law. As a reward, he received the gift of an indwelling angel spirit, called the Christ. This spirit is neither divine nor preexistent. There is a separation between Jesus and the indwelling Christ angel. Neither are truly divine. Those who believed thus were often called Ebionites, or “Poor Ones” as their renunciation of worldly good in an imitation of christlike obedience was a mark of this sect. The most well known example of angel adoptionism in the early church can be found in a document called The Shepherd of Hermas. Angel Adoptionism gives rise to practices of  Judiazers and ascetics.

Spirit Adoptionism confuses the second and third persons of the Trinity. In this belief,  Jesus the biological son of Joseph, verses the Son of God. He is only a man indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who became the Christ at baptism. Jesus is not preexistant, nor did he rise from the dead. Believed by a group called the Melchizedekians. Angel and Spirit adoptionism are both refuted in the book of Hebrews. As a primary text, they used an edited version of Matthew called the Gospel of Hebrews or Gospel of the Nazerenes (their version does not include a miraculous birth). Also used apochryphal Acts of the Apostles (Acts of Thomas, Acts of Paul). These were ascetics who paid strict attention to Jewish law.

Docetism or Docetic Gnosticism sees Christ as a phantom who only appeared as a man. Gnostics, in general, see the flesh as evil, so there is no way God would have actually taken on flesh. John contended with Doectists when he said: “This is how we know the Spirit of God, every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God, and every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus does not belong to God”.(1 John 4 NAB). Some docetists conceded that Jesus had a tangible body that could be touched, but pure docetism would say that Christ was entirely immaterial, incorporeal, and intangible, only a phantom. Their error came in their attempts to reconcile the humanity of Christ with the divinity of Christ. Like I said, as gnostics, they’d already bought into this dualistic worldview that spirit was good and flesh was bad. The word becoming flesh just didn’t compute. How could a good God become “evil”? The non-canonical books of Thomas (the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Thomas, and the Book of Thomas the Contender)tended toward this belief, though the Infancy Gospel of Thomas at least portrayed a Jesus that could be bumped into. The Acts of John portrays a Jesus that is sometimes invisible. The Acts of Andrew, The Concept of Our Great Power, The Sophia of Jesus Christ and the Testimony of Truth are all early non-canonical documents that wander into this error.

Docetism in general lead to a spirituality that didn’t concern itself too much with care for this “evil” world. This lead to a Stoic asceticism, and a disregard for humanity.

Hybrid Gnosticism sees Christ as a cosmic mind. It starts with Docetism and syncretizes just enough to day that Christ might have been material or tangible, but He could still not be human. His body is made from some fiery divine substance, not flesh like ours. Some thought the passion an illusion, other developed a form of gnostic adoptionism that the Christ put on the body of Jesus. and that this body was stripped off when He was nailed to the cross. Jesus, in fact, laughs through the crucifixion, as God cannot possibly suffer. Some early non canonical writings by this group include the Apochryphon of James, the Second treatise of Great Seth, the Valentinian Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Phillip, and the Treatise on the Resurrection.

Who is Jesus?

It all comes down to the cross, and what happened there. Remember, the crucifixion is foolishness to the Gentiles and a stumbling block to the Jews. Hence we have the proliferation of “other gospels”, gospels whose writers Paul called accursed.

Who is Jesus?

Pagans attempted to define him by combining His testimony with their philosophies and their understanding of the divine. Some Jews sought to distance themselves from Divinity, as they did at Sinai.

Who is Jesus?

He is the Word made flesh. He is God who put on corruptible flesh, making all flesh incorruptible. He came to earth, born of a human woman. He suffered, and died on a cross. On the third day He rose again. He was and is both fully God and fully human, the second Adam, and the redeemer of mankind. This is the understanding of Christ spoken of by John and Paul. It is the faith early church fathers contended for, putting down various forms of adoptionism and Gnosticism. It is the truth attested to by the majority of  early bishops and theologians.

There were other gospels, other testimonies, of Christ. If we examine them, though, we must view them critically. We must ask: Who wrote this and why? Who used this document and how was it used? Does what this text say about Christ line up with canonical scripture? Often, we will find, that the beliefs embraced by these documents were quickly dispensed with by the apostles as false. There is a reason that 27 books of the New Testament were accepted as canon and many other things were not. While the accepted canon offers differing perspectives on Christ, these perspectives consistently testify of the same truths concerning Him, and other gospels do not.


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