Christology: Sum or Hypothesis?

I was reading an excellent article by Peter Widdicombe called “Athanasius and the Making of the Doctrine of the Trinity” (in Pro Ecclesia 6, no. 4 (1997), 456-478), when a question arose in my mind. Recently I had seen some discussion on the blogiverse about the Synoptic Gospels having a “low-Christology” as opposed to the “high-Christology” of later writings such as the Gospel of John and Hebrews. I’m not sure of all of the details, but I guess the whole point is to say that the Jesus of the Synoptics looks more like a man than God. Yet, I often wonder how this can be said in light of high-ish Christological statements in Pauline documents dated before the writings of the Gospel and the (apparently) blatant assumption that the Gospels were written as objective (here I use the word in the Enlightenment/Hegelian sense) documents in which the author attempts to write from the viewpoint of that previous time (20 or more years earlier) with post-resurrection experiences having no bearing on how the past was re-visioned and re-shaped. But, of course, I haven’t looked into that much.

Back to my question. I wonder if such distinctions between low and high-Christology are consequences of viewing Christology (and any other doctrine for that matter) as the sum of certain biblical passages. That is, the Patristic authors of Nicene Christology (that really “high” stuff we shouldn’t read back into the Bible) added up all of their verses against the Arians (and any one else they didn’t like–we must try to make them look as bad as possible, right?) and when their calculations were done: voila! Nicene Christology.

However, what if that is not what the Patristic authors were doing. What if, in their interaction with all the biblical texts, they put forth an hypothesis. Remember science class? Formulate an hypothesis and test the living day-lights out of it. Rinse and repeat. So, what if the Nicene Christology is the hypothesis, and all of that debating was putting the hypothesis to the test. Thus, a “high-Christology” would be the hypothesis that explains all of the evidence the best. I think one might also add that this process did not end at Nicene but continued on in the other early councils (one thinks of Maximus the Confessor).

I guess my proposal is now a hypothesis that must be tested by the evidence. Is that what the Patristic authors are doing? And if so, does it really explain all of the evidence the best?


6 thoughts on “Christology: Sum or Hypothesis?

  1. And wasn’t that exactly the point? That if Jesus wasn’t somehow fully God, Lord over all things, then He would not have the power to save? The Nicene hypothesis, when pushed, holds the water that Arianism did not – and, might I add, what Pelagius’ position later did not (i.e. the additional ‘data’ of the depth of human sinfulness).

    • Yes, and there was the fact of Christian worship. It only makes sense to worship Jesus if he is God. Applying it to Pelagius might also work as well. When Dr. Bennett presented Original Sin in our Medieval History class, he framed it as a alternative to Origen’s Soul-Fall-into-Bodies hypothesis and showed how it made more sense of the data.

    • Ah, I see. Yeah, I would take Augustine over Origen at this point, but a modified Augustine as you guessed. I’m not sure how exactly it would be different, but there would be some sort of modification on his idea of traducianism (i.e., he thinks our Souls are passed on from our parents) and concupiscence (i.e., I don’t think that concupiscence in sex is the cause of disordered desires as the seed passes from man to woman). Both of these modifications probably have more to do with what we know of biology today with a little bit of philosophical inquiry than a full theology of the fall.

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