Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Highs and the Lows of Christology

Christina recently left the following comment:
I have a question about low vs high Christology. I was once in a debate with someone where I mentioned that Jesus was a man as well as God and was accused of low Christology. In his response I got the impression that high Christology was, in essence, the belief that Jesus was not man (or ignoring that part of him). I've since been under the impression that low Christology was a focus on Christ's humanity and high Christology a focus on Christ's divinity, at the expense of the other. I've asked if there was an orthodox middle Christology, but was told that high Christology is the orthodox one and I'm most puzzled. Can you shed some light on this?
First of all, here is what an orthodox Christology must declare:
  • Jesus is fully man
  • Jesus is fully God
  • The human and the divine nature of Jesus Christ are united in the Second Person of the Holy Trinity
  • Both natures co-exist without confusion, admixture, separation or the creation of a tertium quid, or "third thing"
  • The two natures are distinct but not separate
  • Jesus has a divine will and a human will
  • Jesus has a divine intellect and a human intellect
  • Jesus has a human soul
Anything contrary to this is heresy.

Now, let's define what a "low Christology" is and what "high Christology" is.

A low Christology takes as it's starting point and it's foundation all that we know about Jesus as a human being, a historical figure. It is supremely indebted to historical-critical research of the Gospel accounts, which provides for us much of the information regarding Jesus' life on earth. This type of Christology is also called an "ascending Christology" because it starts with the human being Jesus and then rises upwards towards God as it contemplates the relationship between Jesus and He who is entirely "other-wordly" and "other than." There's no reason why a low Christology cannot also affirm the true divinity of Jesus Christ, but I've also never found a low Christology that didn't weaken Jesus' divinity in some way.

A high Christology takes as it's starting point and it's foundation the pre-existent Logos, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. The quintessential, high christological statement comes from John's Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God .... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father" (Jn 1:1,14). This type of Christology is also called a "descending Christology" because it starts with the Second Person of the Trinity and moves downward as it contemplates the Incarnation, when God took on a perfect human nature. I suppose certain Christological heresies of the first 5 centuries (such as Gnosticism, Docetism, Monophysitism, and Monothelitism) could be called high Christologies that deny the full humanity of Christ, but most high christologies that I come across today are good about affirming both the full divinity and the full humanity of Jesus.

That said, I would like to respond to each point that you made in your question.

I was once in a debate with someone where I mentioned that Jesus was a man as well as God and was accused of low Christology.
That person was wrong to say that you were a proponent of low christology just b/c you affirmed that Jesus was a man. It is the teaching of the Church that Jesus was fully man, and I think that you can make such a statement no matter where you start in your inquiry about Jesus.

In his response I got the impression that high Christology was, in essence, the belief that Jesus was not man (or ignoring that part of him).
A high Christology could lead to a denial of Jesus' full humanity (as with the heresies I previously listed), but I don't think that it need necessarily result in such a conclusion. I think a high Christology can still affirm the full humanity of Christ. There is nothing inherent to that system of understanding that would prevent someone from declaring that Jesus had a true human nature.

I've since been under the impression that low Christology was a focus on Christ's humanity and high Christology a focus on Christ's divinity, at the expense of the other.
They do have a difference in emphasis, but again, I don't think that either one has to necessarily lead to heresy. I think that even a low Christology could be redeemed, but it is also true that most of the proponents of low Christology today hold to certain presuppositions that do in fact prevent them from affirming that Jesus IS God. Such presuppositions include a denial of the miraculous, an agnosticism regarding the inner life of the Trinity, and a hermeneutic of suspicion regarding anything that cannot be scientifically or empirically verified.

I've asked if there was an orthodox middle Christology, but was told that high Christology is the orthodox one and I'm most puzzled. Can you shed some light on this?
Basically, whether you start with Jesus as a human being or His pre-existent Personhood, as long as you affirm that Jesus is fully man and fully God, and properly understand how these two natures come together in the hypostatic union, then you're ok. Where we start in our inquiry is not as important as coming to the proper conclusions.

I hope that helps. For more on God and Jesus Christ, see the God/Trinity topical index page, as well as the following entries from New Advent:Pax Christi,
phatcatholic

2 comments:

Christina said...

That was very helpful, Thank you! :)

Laudate Dominum said...

Contemporary scholarship seems to indicate that the Pauline Hymns (representative of earliest Christian belief) are indeed expressive of very high Christology. Just something interesting to look into because a lot of "critical" scholarship postulates an initially low Christology that underwent stages of embellishment. Even if the Markan priority were true (which I doubt) Mark is still later than the Pauline Hymns.

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