Modern Christology

I recently read Alan Spence’s Christology: A Guide for the Perplexed, a short but very helpful discussion of the topic. I’m going to use it to reflect a bit on Mormon Christology, particularly as it relates to modern Christological commentary on and criticism of the doctrines that emerged from theological debates in the early Church. First, let’s define the problem.

Christology confronts a uniquely Christian puzzle: How can Jesus be both God and man? Jews don’t puzzle over the divinity of Moses, Muslims don’t puzzle over the divinity of Muhammad, and Mormons don’t puzzle over the divinity of Joseph Smith, but Christians (including Mormons) have to puzzle over and explain the simultaneous divine and human natures of Jesus. To put the issue more directly, Christians have to explain how a wandering Galilean peasant came to be regarded by his disciples and their early converts as divine shortly after his death at the hands of the ruling Romans. The author defines Christology as

the faltering attempt of the [Christian] Church to provide a coherent conceptual and theological explanation of Jesus’ person, in harmony with the scriptural testimony, which is able to account for his role in its worship and faith. (p. 6)

As the author notes, “scholars have shown that a high level of divine reverence was paid to Jesus by the Jewish-Christian community almost from the start” (p. 4). This means that the Christological problem did not develop incrementally, as the early Church’s view of Jesus gradually came to view him as partly divine, then later as fully divine. Rather, that belief in full divinity was there almost from the very beginning. Surprisingly, this quick recognition of Jesus as God triggered little concern from monotheistic Jewish Christians, but did initiate a long tradition of explaining how and in what sense Jesus was God and also how Christians could recognize Jesus as God yet still claim to be monotheists.

Classical Christology, covered in the first half of the book, recounts how the early Christian Church, over the first five or six centuries, worked out a detailed explanation of just that problem. The prologue to the Gospel of John is an early statement of high Christology, the view the Jesus was fully divine prior to his mortal birth: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The Nicene Creed of 325 is a more developed statement of that view, which became orthodox Christology, often termed incarnational Christology:

One Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father … very God of very God, begotten, not made; … Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven.

While Mormonism formally rejects creeds, LDS beliefs are often surprisingly similar to many of the particular statements in the creeds. So Mormon Christology, while not spelled out in great detail, often follows Classical Christology rather closely. As LDS scholar Lincoln Blumell observes:

Latter-day Saints would likely take no issue with the relatively straightforward confession about God the Father from the first section [of the original Nicene Creed] or the simple assertion about the Holy Spirit in the third section. Similarly, in section 2 where confession is made about the Son there are a number of elements that Latter-day Saints would not contest. [Note 1]

Later refinements affirmed that Jesus was not merely God and man but fully God and fully man (not some half-and-half mixture) and that Jesus had both a divine and a separate human nature. It is this developed classical Christology that gets the most attention in surveys of Christian theology. It was not really challenged until the sixteenth century. While modern Christological critiques eventually became widely accepted, they have not displaced classical Christology, which continues to be embraced by many conservative Christian churches, including for the most part the LDS Church.

Modern Christology, covered in the second half of the book, emerged with the Reformation, but not from Magisterial Reformers like Luther or Calvin. It was the Socinians, part of the Radical Reformation, who directly challenged Trinitarian theology and classical Christology. “According to them, he [Jesus] had no existence prior to his conception in Mary’s womb. He was not the agent of the creation of the world, neither did he sustain it” (p. 80). They endorsed a form of Adoptionism, the idea that Jesus was born a mere mortal and only later (say at his baptism or following his resurrection) was made the Son of God, a view with some scriptural support. Socinians rejected the Christian tradition and its theology, instead making a fresh start by relying solely on a plain reading of the Bible and “right reason.” They rejected, for example, the two natures doctrine. The LDS view does follow the Socinians in seeing the divinity of Jesus as being a step below that of God the Father (this is “subordinationism”) and in (formally) rejecting Christian tradition in favor of a plain reading of scripture. Their willingness to chuck out fifteen hundred years of doctrinal tradition and start anew with a plain reading of the scriptures by the light of “right reason” seems like a good description of how, centuries later, Joseph Smith approached doctrinal and Christological thinking.

Historical Jesus scholarship is another reaction to the classical view. It took form in the 18th century and peaked with the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus in the early 20th century. The Jesus Seminar is a recent example of the continuing influence of historical Jesus scholarship, at least in academic circles. LDS leaders very firmly reject this “from below” approach to Christology.

A less controversial modern approach is Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Enlightenment shift to religious experience rather than dogmatic theology as the foundation for Christian belief. His insistence on construing Christian belief in light of the scientific advances of his day and the empirical approach of Enlightenment thinking in general gave rise to liberal Protestant theology in the 19th and 20th centuries. While the LDS emphasis on personal religious experience as the basis for an LDS testimony might seem to be in line with Schleiermacher’s initial emphasis on religious experience as the basis for Christian belief, the fact is that LDS doctrine rejects liberal theology on almost every point. Another dead end.

Karl Barth’s neo-orthodox declaration of the Word of God in the early 20th century offers perhaps the best candidate for modern influence on Mormon thinking. Barth can be viewed “as one who sought to lead theology back to the dogmatic tradition of the historic Church, to heal the breach that had been created between modern and classical christology” (p. 128-9). Barth opposed the liberal theology of his day, stressing instead revelation (God is known not by examination of the natural world but by God’s self-revelation) and the Word of God (a technical term in his theology the meaning of which extends to “the preaching of the Church, the written Scriptures, and Jesus Christ,” p. 131).

But for Barth, we must distinguish between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith.

The kerygmatic Christ or the Christ of faith, as the proper subject of the Church’s proclamation, came to be viewed as an ontological entity in some way distinct from that of Jesus of Nazareth, the figure of history. This kerygmatic Christ is the one to whom Barth normally refers when he uses the expression “Jesus Christ.” (p. 133).

While Barth’s emphasis on revelation as the vehicle for knowing God and his move back toward classical formulations should be viewed favorably by Mormons, the LDS view certainly emphasizes continuity between Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ of faith rather than any ontological difference. In LDS doctrine, there really is no difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. A book-length argument in favor of neo-orthodox influence on late-20th-century LDS doctrine is found in O. Kendall White Jr.’s Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy: A Crisis Theology (Signature Books, 1987).

So what does all this say about Mormon Christology? Summarizing the above discussion, Mormon Christology borrows more or less by default the main features of classical Christology, except when superseded by specific LDS doctrinal statements, while quietly absorbing some influence from certain branches of the modern Christological critique of the classical view. It’s frankly a bit surprising to me that LDS views have absorbed *any* of the modern critique.

Let me save a fuller discussion of Mormon Christology for another post and simply point to some good sources. In By the Hand of Mormon (OUP, 2002), Terryl Givens reviews Mormon Christology at pages 198-202, acknowledging that “the Mormon Christ has some important distinctions from the Messiah of other Christians” but also noting that “the murky intricacies and inconsistencies of these divine relationships [between members of the Godhead] receive scant attention” from Mormons. Matt Bowman published an article on the development of Mormon Christology during the key period from 1880 to 1930, from John Taylor’s Mediation and Atonement through the systematizing early 20th-century works of B. H. Roberts and James Talmage. [Note 2] Finally, Melodie Moench Charles, after looking specifically at Christology in the Book of Mormon, concluded that “Book of Mormon theology is generally modalistic. In the Book of Mormon, God and Jesus Christ are not distinct beings.” [Note 3]

So there is plenty to talk about in a future post.


1. Lincoln H. Blumell, “Rereading the Council of Nicaea and Its Creed,” in Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy, edited by Miranda Wilcox and John D. Young, Oxford Univ. Press, p. 196-217, at 203.

2. Matthew Bowman, “The Crisis of Mormon Christology: History, Progress, and Protestantism, 1880-1930,” Fides et Historia, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Summer/Fall 2008):1-25.

3. Melodie Moench Charles, “Book of Mormon Christology,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, edited by Brent Lee Metcalfe, Signature Books, 1993, p. 81-114, at 110.

10 comments for “Modern Christology

  1. Robert C.
    January 3, 2016 at 8:52 pm

    Nice post, Dave. I look forward to your future ones. In case it’s not on your radar, Givens’s Wrestling the Angel has a chapter on Christology with some nice thoughts and references too.

  2. ji
    January 3, 2016 at 9:12 pm

    I’m fine with the Jesus of the New Testament and the Book of Mormon, and the whisperings of the Holy Spirit. Dear God, please save us from intellectual and academic re-interpretations.

  3. Clark Goble
    January 3, 2016 at 10:25 pm

    It seems to me that by rejecting the “omnis” attached with Greek philosophy that the two natures of Christ pose relatively little problem for Mormons. Christ’s divinity is seen as either a characteristic of authority, or his pre-mortal spirit’s stature and development, his attunement with God the Father, or potentially for a certain subset of Mormon’s the nature of his literal father in terms of his birth.

    This is quite unlike traditional Christianity where honestly to me it seems like the demands of how they take God are fully at odds with mortality.

    To me it’s the mortality of Christ that is the great stumbling block for traditional Christianity. Unsurprisingly it’s that rather than the “god of the philosophers” that gets dropped first. (For a good example of this consider this old discussion by Bill Vallicella – I get Bill to see the conflict he raises poses problems for a divine Jesus. His reaction is to drop Jesus.)

  4. Terry H
    January 4, 2016 at 9:54 am

    This issue is currently in a bit of flux with three new works from Christian scholars: Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham and Crispin H.T. Fletcher-Louis. Hurtado has just released a 3rd edition of his classic “One God, One Lord, Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism”. It came out right before Christmas. This 3rd edition updates the last one (from 1988, I think) and contains a 20,000 word Epilogue with notes addressing all of the recent research and issues since the last one. He even deals with Margaret Barker’s Great Angel and Crispin H.T. Fletcher’s reviews of his work. Bauckham’s last one on this issue, so far [not counting his Jesus: A Very Short Introduction from Oxford (2011)] is Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of the Divine Identity (2008). Crispin H.T. Fletcher has just released Jesus Monotheism: Vol. 1 which discusses the entire issue and builds upon Hurtado and Bauckham. I have to confess that this is an issue which I’m just beginning to study, but all three of these scholars have something to add. All of the books I’ve mentioned above are available electronically. The Jesus Monotheism is the most detailed and longest, although Bauckham is apparently working on a two volume work on this subject. Crispin-Fletcher in particular uses more pseudepigraphical (sp?) work than the others. In 2011, Brill published 4 volumes in what is called “The Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus” ed. by Tom Holmen and Stanley E. Porter. Its over 3700 pages and has contributions (sometimes more than one) from nearly everyone in the field except N.T. Wright. All three of those I mentioned are in this. I found it online for free but I can’t remember how I did it and have lost the links. Its over 20 megabytes, but its an excellent asset as well.

  5. Clark Goble
    January 4, 2016 at 11:50 am

    Terry, how many of those are primarily theological works and how many are primarily historical works? It seems to me that is a significant issue. Also which traditions accept what theology matters a lot. So-called mainline protestantism has been moving to a fairly liberal theology with frankly many theologians largely abandoning a lot of christology as a practical matter. (Or giving only lip service) This was true even decades ago, although the process has accelerated more.

    Put an other way, my sense is that if anything people who might acknowledge the history as being much more complex than traditional theology paints are also those least likely to accept a more anthropomorphic conception of God and instead move much closer to a vague theist or even deist model. More conservative groups like the Calvinistic dominated Evangelicals are perhaps less likely to adopt a lot of these revisionist views.

  6. January 4, 2016 at 2:32 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    It was Hurtado’s recent work that established how quickly Jesus came to be regarded as divine in the early Christian communities. That is why the author’s statement of the problem is not merely theological but relates to religious worship and practice: early Christian communities were worshipping Jesus as divine before they resolved or even posed most of the Christological questions that exercised theologians for the following several centuries. The idea that practice precedes doctrinal development, rather than the other way around, should not be a shock to Latter-day Saints. For example, we’ve been practicing the Word of Wisdom for 150 years but still can’t explain it coherently. “Don’t drink tea” is easy to state and practice but tough to explain in detail. “We worship Jesus as divine” is easy to state and practice but much, much tougher to explain in detail.

    As for the history versus theology distinction — it’s not like a better biography of Jesus would solve the theological issues raised by Christian claims about his nature or divinity. Historical Jesus scholarship is of great interest to scholars and believers alike, but faith issues, whether these generic Christian issues or specifically LDS issues, simply do not turn on historical facts. I think this is the sense in which the distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith is so relevant to modern Christological discussions. But, as noted in the post, that distinction does not really enter into Mormon discussions.

  7. Clark Goble
    January 4, 2016 at 4:07 pm

    Dave, I guess my question is that someone may concede the historical issues but deciding how to develop an established theology is far more unclear. To give an example from our own history consider the ontology of spirits versus recent work the last decade arguing that the conception of spirits vs. spirits origins were quite different. i.e. no intelligence/spirit divide. A person may well concede the history but not think it matters historically.

    Now admittedly for traditional Christians the way to deal with this is different from Mormons due to the whole notion of continuing revelation vs. closed canon. But even a lot of people who concede a closed cannon might think that the creeds, especially the early ones, are quasi-inspired as representing theology.

    Put simply it just doesn’t seem true that acknowledging the history concedes the history. Once you throw in a strong skepticism of the texts (i.e. reject inerrancy in the Bible) then of course all bets are off. This may lead to more skepticism of traditional theology or simply think the development means the early beliefs don’t matter as much.

    To me the most interesting thing in traditional Christianity, as I noted, is how many people exposed to the textual, historical and theological conundrums end up abandoning traditional Christianity. To my eyes (perhaps incorrectly) it seems the move is often a de-mythologizing move where Christ as symbol is held as important but Christ as historically divine is thrown out. (And often most activities of an interventionist God) I’m constantly surprised by just how common those views are among the educated in Christianity.

  8. Clark Goble
    January 4, 2016 at 4:10 pm

    To add, I think Mormons have it much easier mainly because we reject inerrancy of any sort, continuing revelation allows fairly radical change, but also because we just don’t have much that’s akin to creeds. (The closest is the articles of faith but they function fairly differently) While I’m very sympathetic to people like Jim Faulconer saying Mormonism is ethics/practice oriented rather than theologically oriented I’m a bit skeptical of that. I do think that our theology is best seen as anthropology rather than ontology though. (You see this especially in the Pratt versus Young conflict) This leads to a rather different approach to theology IMO. This isn’t to deny theological conflicts – often over the age and nature of the earth – but to perhaps contextualize them more. (I’d also argue that the political dimension of such things matters more contemporarily rather than the ontological ones – further we’re more open to change than what we seen in traditional creedal Christianity)

  9. ricke
    January 8, 2016 at 10:36 pm

    With regard to what the Book of Mormon says about God, I believe that it might be too easy to classify it as modalistic as apparently Moench does. In the first volume of his six-volume commentary on the Book of Mormon, Brant Gardner has a very enlightening excursis titled The Nephite Understanding of God. He develops the thesis that the Book of Mormon writers were very much in tune with one variant of the ancient Hebrew understanding of God in which El Elyon is the Father God, Jehovah is his son, as are others of the Great Council, and there are sons of Jehovah among humans/Israel. For one example, his commentary is quite helpful in understanding how Mary could have been called the “mother of God” in the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, rather than as we have it today “the mother of the Son of God.”

  10. Clark Goble
    January 9, 2016 at 10:38 pm

    Ricke, I think Brant is getting that from Mullen’s, The Assembly of the Gods: The Divine Council in Canaanite and Early Hebrew Literature, While that book is somewhat dated. (It came out in the late 80’s as I recall – I sadly lost my copy which makes me even sadder now that I see what it’s selling for!) A lot of other scholars picked up on that in the 35 years since though and I think it’s fairly ubiquitous now.

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