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 The Principles of Theology - Article 2

by W.H.Griffith Thomas


<< Introduction

Part 1. The Divine Nature Of Christ

Although this is involved in the teaching of Article 1 it is necessarily repeated here.

1. The title, “Son”. The term “Son” is used in several connections in regard to the earthly life of Christ, meaning thereby His Sonship by the Incarnation, e.g. Luke 1:35; John 1:34; Rom. 1:4; Heb. 1:2-5.[1] But here the word is, of course, to be referred to our Lord’s personal relationship with the Father.[2] No two titles are more frequently used in the Fourth Gospel than “Father” and “Son”, and these are correlatives, for as God was eternally Father, so Christ was eternally Son. It is a serious error to limit our Lord’s Sonship to the Incarnation even while we hold to His eternity as the Word. Doubtless the term “begotten” seems to imply an event in time, but care is needed in the use of human language to express transcendental truths. The New Testament is clear that Christ’s full title as “Son of God” is part of His Divinity, and is not to be limited to the Incarnation. This is the force of such phrases as, “The Son of His love”; “God sent forth His Son”; “Sent His Son to be the propitiation”. These and similar passages clearly imply a Sonship prior to the Incarnation, and point back to eternity. Then, too, the word “Son” in Scripture often means something more and other than mere descent, e.g. “Sons of Thunder”; “Son of Consolation”; “Sons of Disobedience”.[3] May not “Son of God” in its fuller meaning be used without any reference to the Incarnation? If it be said that μονογενής implies “begetting”, it is noteworthy that the Hebrew term, found nine times, is translated μονογενής by the Septuagint, with the meaning, “Darling”, or “Beloved” (Gen. 22:2, 12; Jer. 6:26; Amos 8:10; Zech. 12:10). This is the thought in Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38. May it not be so with Christ as well (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9)? It is, of course, true that the ordinary meaning of πρωτότοκος, “firstborn”, is that of a first child (see Matt.1:25; Luke 2:7). But in Heb. 12:23 it has a spiritual meaning, implying dignity and privilege, so that it is impossible to limit it to the Incarnation (cf. Rom. 8:29; Col. 1:15, 18; Heb. 1:6; Rev. 1:5). Further, we can see this view of the meaning of “Son of God” by contrast with the term, “Son of Man”, which is used eighty times in the New Testament, and all except three by Christ Himself. The fundamental idea seems to be the impersonation of humanity.

The title, “Son of God”, is found in three forms in the Greek, sometimes with the article before each of the two words, sometimes with the article before “God” only, sometimes the article is omitted altogether. It seems impossible to think that there is not some distinction intended by these different usages. In the first of the three, at least, it must be a title of Deity, and it is found in this form twenty-five times (cf. Matt: 16:16; Rev. 2:18). In these words the Sanhedrin adjured Jesus Christ to declare Himself, and on His acceptance of the title He was condemned (Matt. 26:63; Luke 22:70; John 19:7). It was not a claim to Messiahship, but to Deity (John 8:58, 59: John 10:31, 33). So at the close of His ministry the disciples confessed not what He became at Bethlehem, but what He had been from eternity (John 16:30).

2. The title, “Word”.  This is found in two places (John 1:1, 14; Rev. 19:13). Two questions are usually asked in regard to it: (1) Whence it was; (2) What it means. Opinions differ as to whether the Apostle John was influenced by Philo in his use of this word, but there is now a general opinion that whether derived from this source or not the meaning is fundamentally different. There seems to be no doubt that as used by St. John the term is intended to express One who is a personal revelation of God, who is also essentially one with God Himself. The eternity and the identity with the Father are both implied and understood in it.

These two terms, “Son” and “Word” are complementary. The former guards the personality and emphasises the distinctness of the Son from the Father, though by itself it might easily suggest an essential subordination as of a Son to a Father. The latter guards the identity and emphasises equality with the Father, though by itself it might easily suggest impersonality. When, however, the two are taken together we have at once the doctrine of a Son Who is distinct from the Father and of a Personal Word who is one with the Father. As Son, He is the impersonation of the character and attributes of God; as Word, He is the perfect expression of the mind of God. Both connote essential Deity. Thus the two together express the two sides of the truth concerning our Lord’s Divine nature.

3. “Begotten from everlasting of the Father.” This is an attempt to express in human language the two aspects of our Lord’s relation to the Father. For this it is essential to distinguish between priority of order and superiority of nature. “Begotten” calls attention to priority in order of the Father to the Son; “from everlasting” calls attention to the Son’s co-existence with the Father. Thus the phrase teaches us that we must not regard this “begetting” as an event of time, or else there would have been a time when the Father was not Father, and the Son was not Son. It is an eternal relation or fact of the Divine nature. It is only so that the truth can be safeguarded and the various passages of Scripture harmonised. If it be urged that “begotten” implies inferiority, the following phrase must be at once associated with it, “from everlasting”. There is a constant and yet an inevitable danger in the use of human terms to express Divine realities. Thus, it has been pointed out that we may say:
            Mary was the Mother of our Lord.
            Our Lord was God.
            Therefore, Mary was the Mother of God.

Our premisses are absolutely correct; our logic perfectly flawless, and yet we know that the conclusion is strictly untrue, since there is another thought implied (our Lord’s humanity) which finds no place in the syllogism. So, in the same way, our use of the word “begotten” must always be safeguarded by the association of “from everlasting”.[5]

4. “The very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father.” This naturally follows from the foregoing statement:
“The logic of the position seemed to be: Christ is known to be God, and if now God, He must have been God eternally. If not God eternally He is not God even now.”[6]

Arianism rendered it necessary to speak of Christ as “the very and eternal God”, “the One Who is absolutely, genuinely God”, “Deity”, according to Article 1. The term, “Of one substance with the Father”, is the great word of the Nicene Creed, which formed the battleground of controversy. It was rejected by the Arians, but insisted upon by Athanasius as the only way of expressing the truth of the essential Deity of the Son. The Arians were ready to place our Lord at any point above manhood so long as He was kept lower than Deity, but this only predicated a Being neither man nor God, who was unknown and really unthinkable. It was this more than anything else that led to the Nicene Fathers insisting upon the proper Deity of the Son and the truth that He was not merely “like the Father” (ὁμοιούσιος), but without any qualification identical with the Father (ὁμοούσιος).[7] Although there was a natural hesitation about using it because it had been employed in a different connection before, yet circumstances made it necessary to use it to express the oneness of essence with the Father, and this was an entirely new meaning to the term and altogether different from former interpretations. There was no thought of addition to Scripture, but only the explanation of that which was implied and involved in the Scripture teaching concerning Christ. The truth safeguarded by this word is seen in such passages as Matt. 11:27; John 1:1; 3:13; 5:19, 20; 8:54; 17:10; Phil. 2:6 (Greek; see Lightfoot); Col. 2:9).

The Deity Of Christ

Two great truths occupied the attention of the early Church in regard to the Lord Jesus Christ: the fact and the method of the Incarnation. The problem in regard to the former was as to how Christ could be both Divine and human. At first the Ebionites went to one extreme and denied His Deity. Then the Docetæ went to the other and denied His humanity. Then later came Arianism, which denied both and made Christ a sort of tertium quid. Docetism, which taught the illusory appearance of the Deity, had but few followers, but Ebionism was more prevalent, and in the Monarchianism of Paul of Samosata it assumed a refined form similar to the Humanitarianism of modern days. Socinianism and Arianism show the same fundamental tendency.[8]

The prolonged discussions argue powerfully for assuming the reality of the union between God and man in Christ. The notion of a real Incarnation does not appear to have been inherited from Judaism or Hellenism, but was indigenous to Christianity itself, and the idea took firm hold of the entire Church, including the keenest minds. This belief in a real union between God and man arises inevitably out of the claim and character of Christ as depicted in the Gospels. It is impossible to deny the New Testament picture of our Lord’s unique relation to God,[9] and the significance of His claim to authority cannot be exaggerated in its relation to Christology.[10]

Modern solutions of the union between God and man in Christ call for attention. One is that of the essential oneness of Divinity and Humanity, so that we may speak of the humanity of God and the Divinity of man, thereby making the union credible. But this is too easy for the solution of the problem, and is merely poetical or rhetorical. If Divinity and Humanity are identical terms, then we can dispense with one of them. This would solve the problem by denying its existence. Another suggestion is that the union between Christ and God, and therefore between God and man, is moral and not metaphysical. But this only amounts to moral likeness, not essential union. The fact is that Humanitarianism under any form cannot provide a satisfactory explanation of the Incarnation. It is helpless before the problems. The New Testament has to be accounted for. Christ is unique. If there was no real Incarnation we have no real knowledge of God in relation to man’s life, especially in regard to sin and deliverance from it, except so far as the (by itself) imperfect revelation of the Old Testament is concerned. Unitarianism is a failure, because it cannot bear the stress of the doctrine of the Divine Fatherhood.[11] If the Incarnation be denied Christianity cannot long survive. Besides, the truth is that of God becoming Man rather than of man becoming God. No mere Immanence will suffice, and certainly no apotheosis.[12]

It must never be forgotten that there is vital, essential, and intimate connection between our Lord’s Deity and His work of redemption. It is not merely that one man is made unique, but it is a case of God coming to the world in human form, “for us men and for our salvation”.

“The Incarnation may be inexplicable as a psychological or ontological problem; but it satisfies the yearnings of those who are seeking after God and His righteousness.”

It is this that has made the Church so persistent in her determination to be satisfied with nothing less than the real and complete Deity of Christ. “A Saviour not quite God is a bridge broken at the farther side.”[14]

Herein lay the vital problem raised by Arianism at Nicaea, and it is imperative that the bearings of the conflict should be thoroughly known. It is a very shallow and superficial view that regards that great battle as merely metaphysical and intended for doctrinal accuracy. In reality it was something infinitely more important, because reaching deep down to the needs of human life. Christian men were conscious of salvation from sin associated with Jesus Christ. For generations they had inherited the primitive interpretation of the connection between His work of redemption and His unique Person, and the real spiritual experience of Apostolic and sub-Apostolic times was potent at that period and could not be set aside. They worshipped Christ as God, and recognised that His redemption was nothing short of a Divine work, while instead of this Arianism offered them One Who, after all, was only a creature of God. It is the consciousness of this remarkable but significant fact that leads the truest thinkers to believe that the victory of Arianism would have swept Christianity entirely away. It was with no desire to indulge in mere metaphysics that Athanasius insisted upon the doctrine of the Homoousios, but because of the real subtilty of Arianism. Up to that time ordinary practical experience had sufficed, but now it was proving inadequate, and so the Church was compelled to insist upon the truth of Jesus Christ being “Very God of very God, Begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father”.

It has often been pointed out that today’s peril lies in Agnosticism in Christology. Ritschlianism teaches that Christ has the value of God for us, but will not allow any discussion of His fundamental relation to God. And yet if Jesus Christ has for man the value of God He must in some way or other be Divine and not simply human. No creature could remain a creature and still act for God and on behalf of man beyond the range of finite power and experience. It is therefore essential to have a Christology that answers to the facts of Christian experience, since life, not philosophy, is at stake. Agnosticism in Christology inevitably tends to empty the work of Christ of its redemptive power. If Christ be a creature, however great, there is no redemption, because there is no real point of contact between the sinner and the Holy God. Our Christology must be adequate to the facts of redemptive experience. In connection with certain recent discussions it has been pointed out[15] that the importance of Christ made flesh lies in its bearings on Christ made sin, since this is the true proof and reason of the Incarnation. No mere Immanence will suffice for redemption, for while Immanence overcomes the Deistic position it cannot touch the Unitarian, since many Unitarians hold the Immanence of God in nature. Then, too, Immanence alone is defective in regard to guilt and grace. It “antiquates the Reformation, and every tendency is to be discredited that does that”. Redemption must, therefore, be preserved and not lost in evolution. “Immanence gives us a lapse, but not sin, a relative Saviour, not an eternal one.” Herein, therefore, lies the vital question of the Deity of Christ, since no salvation can possibly come to us except by means of miracle, and miracle implies the ultimate power of the spiritual to control the material. Amid all the changes and chances of this mortal life, amid all the principles of science and the revelations of law, the heart demands salvation; salvation is only possible by Divine grace, and grace can only come through a Divinely human Saviour. It will be seen from this that the very nature of Christianity is at stake, and all that Christianity means in regard to salvation from sin.

>> Part 2. The Incarnation of Christ


[1] Pearson, On the Creed, Article 2, Ch. 3.

[2] Note the Greek (ἴδιος) of John 5:18 and Rom. 8:32. See also Matt. 11:27 (Greek).

[3] The distinction between “children” (τέκνα) and “sons” (υἱοὶ) is frequently ignored by the English Versions. See Rom. 8:14-17.

[4] “The conception of the Logos as taken over in the Johannine Theology was undoubtedly enriched by the notion of a personal life and of personal relations to the Father; and it cannot be supposed that the Catholic theologians fell back from the Apostolic testimony on the position of Philo, and regarded the Logos as a mere impersonal link between God and the world” (Paterson, ut supra, p. 219).
For further consideration of the contrasts between St. John’s doctrine of the Logos and other ideas of the “Word”, see Alexander’s Leading Ideas of the Gospels, p. 185.

[5] “Many times, and even in recent years, we have been told that this eternal generation, or begetting, of the Son of God is empty verbiage, a sort of theological rhetoric, incapable of conception by the human mind. I entirely fail to respond to the objection; and I fail to comprehend how any thinking man, familiar with the struggle over the Athanasian contention, can ever have even the slightest difficulty in clearly grasping the meaning of Athanasius. … I will dare to affirm that this eternal generation of the Son is not only conceivable, it is also one of the most fruitful conceptions in all Christian thinking. It helps us to understand all those sayings of Christ where, at one stroke, He insists upon both His equality with the Father and His dependence upon the Father, for these sayings reach widely beyond our Saviour’s temporary condition of humiliation” (O. A. Curtis, The Christian Faith, p. 228).

[6] Paterson, ut supra, p. 209.

[7] “Upon this term substance a surprising amount of learned research has been expended with a small amount of philosophical insight. The instant meaning of the word is of little concern, for it was nothing but a weapon, and an accidental weapon at that, to protest an underlying and extremely important idea, namely, that the Father and the Son are what they are by means of one and the same organism; that they are, therefore, structurally necessary to each other, so that neither can exist at all without the other” (O. A. Curtis, ut supra, p. 227).

[8] Paterson, ut supra, pp. 209, 213.

[9] The evidence can be seen in Whitelaw, How is the Divinity of Christ depicted in the Gospels?; Parkin, The New Testament Portrait of Jesus; Holdsworth, The Christ of the Gospels; Hoyt, The Lord’s Teaching concerning His own Person.

[10] Streatfield, The Self-Interpretation of Jesus Christ: The Incarnation; Johnston Ross, The Universality of Jesus; Griffith Thomas, Christianity is Christ, with Bibliography.

[11] Gwatkin, The Knowledge of God, Vol. 2, p. 298.

[12] Warfield, Princeton Theological Review, Vol. 9, p. 689.

[13] Mead, Irenic Theology, p. 257.

[14] Bishop Moule, Preface to Sir Robert Anderson’s The Lord from Heaven.

[15] This section is greatly indebted to a paper by Principal Forsyth, written during the “New Theology” controversy. The latest and in some respects the best argument in favour of an agnosticism in Christology will be found in Loof’s What is the Truth about Jesus Christ? But there could not be adduced a better testimony to the uniqueness of our Lord’s Personality as stated in the traditional Christology.

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