Modern Christology, Part 2

Having covered the general topic in my earlier post, I’m going to pull a few additional topics from a book by Jesuit scholar Gerald O’Collins: Christology: A Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Study of Jesus (OUP, 2d ed., 2009). As a Mormon writing for a largely Mormon set of readers, I’m naturally drawn to topics that complement or contrast with LDS Christological views.


With the second century an inevitable shift of Christian language began setting in: from the first-order, pre-philosophical language of the Gospels, of the New Testament generally, and of the liturgy, there came a change to the second-order, somewhat “philosophical” language of doctrinal debate. In this move from narrative to theological Christology, apparent or real differences of meaning between particular biblical texts fuelled a great deal of sharp and even fierce discussion. (p. 165)

Mormonism has not developed a philosophical or technical language to clarify particular concepts or doctrines. We continue to use the “pre-philosophical language” of the New Testament and have never really moved from narrative approaches to more systematic thinking about doctrine in general or Christology in particular. We tend to either gloss over differences in meaning between various biblical texts or simply choose the most convenient text and ignore the others.


How could the Word of God, a divine being by nature eternal, incorruptible, and incorporeal, appear in a mortal, human body? (p. 168)

That is one of the central questions of Christology. For Mormons, Incarnation is not a uniquely Christological event or mystery — in the Mormon view, we are all incarnated beings, having (like the pre-existent Jesus) existed as corporeal spirits before somehow being implanted or incarnated in mortal bodies. For Mormons, incarnation is nothing special; we talk about it in such casual terms that we just take it for granted. For other Christians, the Incarnation (of the Word of God into the man Jesus) is a central mystery of the faith.

Against Penal Substitution

Despite some improvements … the way Aquinas adjusted Anselm’s theory of satisfaction helped open the door to a monstrous version of redemption: Christ as the penal substitute propitiating the divine anger. (p. 211; extended discussion at p. 216)

There are several theories about what the Atonement of Jesus Christ is and what exactly it does in securing salvation for humankind. Mormon explanations import language and concepts from all of them at various times, generally leaning toward the penal substitution model. O’Collins calls the penal substitution view “monstrous.”

Any talk of placating the anger of God through the suffereing of Christ as a penal substitute seems incompatible, above all, with the central message of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, better called the parable of the merciful father (Luke 15:11-32). (p. 304)

The Atonement is rooted in the love of God, not divine anger, and the result of the Atonement is a change in those estranged from God (we humans), not a change in God. God doesn’t need to change. He isn’t angry. Mormon commentators need to re-think their reflexive reliance on the penal substitution approach to the Atonement.

Universal Salvation

One persistent objection to the incarnation of the Son of God claims that it is religously and morally unacceptable. Like J. J. Rousseau and others, John Hick has dismissed faith in the incarnation as being non-egalitarian: it extends an unfair advantage to those who know about and believe in the incarnation. Christians are thus alleged to enjoy a crucial opportunity, a head start in salvation, not extended to others. Apropos of those who have never had a chance of learning about the incarnate Son of God or have learned about him in a distorted fashion, Evans cites Kierkegaard to articulate the difficulty: “it seems unjust to allow accidents of history and geography to decide the eternal destiny of an individual.” (p. 247)

It seems fair to include a topic where Mormonism scores well. Lots of modern Christian commentators wring their hands over “the problem of other faiths” or the seemingly unfair plight of the millions of humans who lived and died without hearing a word about Jesus Christ: what of their salvation? The Mormon gospel takes a broader view of the availability of Christian salvation to the whole human family. Furthermore, rather than merely speculating on the topic, the LDS Church puts it into practice by devoting huge amounts of time and money to building a network of temples throughout the world and performing ordinance work for the dead to (within the Mormon gospel view) extend salvation to all mankind, regardless of “accidents of history or geography.”

A concluding thought: The Church badly needs a successor volume to James E. Talmage’s Jesus the Christ. But who would write it?

23 comments for “Modern Christology, Part 2

  1. I think the problem in traditional Christianity is more the unfairness of life makes judgement seem unfair. Mormonism tends to see life as useful developmentally but then appears to see the spirit world where most individual judgments are made so that judgment is fair. Yet oddly it is this realm we have the least information about – D&C 138 is the basis for much of our theology but despite this being so key to our temple theology it is surprisingly undeveloped theologically outside of various folk traditions.

  2. Mormonism is a tribal, folk tradition religion strongly rooted in the notion that God has a chosen people. Even though that chosen people allows adoption doesn’t mean the notion of tribal struggle is less important. Importing Christogical notions from outside the folk is selling one’s birthright.

  3. Furthermore, we are plenty clear about who Christ is, what we need to clear up is who the Whore of Babylon is.

  4. I may be coming across as overly negative. My point is negative but not overly negative. You can’t save religion by believing in false Gods. I’m dismayed by the idea that we can strengthen our religion by finding more in common with other religious ideas. We can strengthen our religion by caring more about other people, but it is fundamental to Mormonism that most religions, and christian religions in particular have their hearts far from God. We are not more righteous in action but we have no faith if we don’t believe we have a better understanding of God. Where ideas of God are concerned, assimilation is iniquity. This is a very difficult thing to pull off given beams and motes, the need for humility and all that. To me, it is just obvious that we are not particularly righteous as a people right now, myself at the top of the list, but the answer is not looking outside for ideas, it is looking inside to better live the faith.

  5. I disagree that it is fundamental to Mormonism that christian religions have their hearts far from God. You have that statement made once in Mormon scripture, and it’s not at all clear that “those professors” is supposed to apply to all members of christian churches rather than to the clergy during the great awakening.

    And also, the criticism against the creeds and professors of religion found in the 1838 version of the first vision is not saying primarily that they are bad because they get the doctrine wrong. The problem is one of motivation (their hearts are far from me) and lack of faith (they have a form of Godliness, but deny the power thereof). The criticism against doctrine is that they are confusing human teaching for revelation and causing people to be bound to human doctrine “teach for doctrine the commandments of men.”

    Learning about how other faiths have answered doctrinal questions does not require us to accept all or any of their conclusions, but if we truly believe in seeking after anything that is virtuous, or of good report, then we should learn about other faiths. And learning what other faiths believe can be an important part of the process to study out in our minds doctrinal questions so we can be prepared to receive revelation.

  6. JKC,
    I’m not really hanging my hat on that one reference but using it as a placeholder for the whole idea of Christ’s church, being a peculiar people and all of the ways that LDS theology and practice looks very different from other Christian religions if you take the historical roots seriously. Just ask them.
    The part that set me off was where he said mormons need to rethink the penal substitution model. Apparently because someone else thinks it is monstrous? The argument seems to be that the atonement is rooted in the love of God. The atonement is also rooted in the opposition of good and evil and punishments being affixed allowing for agency.
    You have to admit it gets a bit circular when the virtue and good we are seeking is an understanding virtue and the good itself.
    I’m not saying we don’t need to understand, care about, and learn from others. I’m saying that taking the LDS religion seriously means that we should expect the understanding of God to be asymmetrical in our favor with other traditions.
    I also think it is very, very difficult to pull off because one’s beliefs come to seem as biased in one’s favor. This is why I think in our search for virtue and things of good report we need to define what other God’s, idols, Babylon and worldliness represent. What do we assimilate as virtuous and what do we reject as other Gods? Incorporating concepts of Christ seem to be on the risky side to say the least. In the search from common ground on morality and brotherly love, we should zealously guard against religious assimilation including linguistic and conceptual terms. All our scriptures seem to caution against it.

  7. Martin, I was more alluding to the idea that it’s key to Christianity as much as Judaism that some are chosen. So when you talk about “importing Christogical notions” in opposition to choice struck me as kind of funny. The very notion of salvation entails being chosen. And some forms of Christianity such as Calvinism go far, far farther in the “chosen” route.

    So there’s lots of reasons to worry about Mormonism importing ideas from other types of Christianity. (New Earth Creationism being the example I like to point to) It just seems the ones you picked were a bit odd.

    To me Christology is an important topic. At least for people who find theology interesting. (I recognize most don’t) I think Mormonism precisely because of our theology of God and our rejection of creation ex nihilo are in a better position than traditional Christianity. Yet most of the main atonement theories have proponents in the history of Mormonism and even ways of reading Mormon scripture. So it’s worth looking at the arguments regarding these theories if only because they help getting down to the premises upon which they rest. Often we can then judge those premises in terms of other aspects of Mormon theology.

  8. Clark,

    That makes sense. I just want to tie the calvinistic measure of choseness to mormon folk practices like large families and patriarchy. It just strikes me that some of the interest if Christology is trying to sweep the peculiar aspects of mormon theology and history under the rug to make peace with changing modern moral notions of what religion is for. I understand the urge but think it doesn’t solve much in the long run. Much of modernity is a demographic and religious dead end as Elder Oaks has pointed out.

  9. “Mormonism has not developed a philosophical or technical language to clarify particular concepts or doctrines. We continue to use the “pre-philosophical language” of the New Testament and have never really moved from narrative approaches to more systematic thinking about doctrine in general or Christology in particular.”

    Surely ancient Christianity was not well served by its changes in religious language.

    Edwin Hatch noted (In “The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church”):

    It is impossible for any one, whether he be a student of history or no, to fail to notice a difference of both
    form and content between the Sermon on the Mount and the Nicene Creed. The Sermon on the Mount is the promulgation of a new law of conduct; it assumes beliefs rather than formulates them; the theological conceptions which underlie it belong to the ethical rather than the speculative side of theology; metaphysics are wholly absent. The Nicene Creed is a statement partly of historical facts and partly of dogmatic inferences; the metaphysical terms which it contains would probably have been unintelligible to the first disciples; ethics have no place in it. The one belongs to a world of Syrian peasants, the other to a world of Greek philosophers. The contrast is patent. If any one thinks that it is sufficiently explained by saying that the one is a sermon and the other a creed, it must be pointed out in reply that the question why an ethical sermon stood in the forefront of the teaching of Jesus Christ, and a metaphysical creed in the forefront of the Christianity of the fourth century, is a problem which claims investigation.

  10. “Mormonism has not developed a philosophical or technical language to clarify particular concepts or doctrines. We continue to use the “pre-philosophical language” of the New Testament and have never really moved from narrative approaches to more systematic thinking about doctrine in general or Christology in particular.”

    This (correct) observation is presented as if it describes a deficiency in Mormonism, or a lack of development that ideally should be remedied. Maybe. But consider another way of thinking about this.

    As Christianity spread beyond Israel into Greece, Rome, and other places, the Good News naturally needed to be translated into Greek, Roman, and other languages. This was a blessed achievement, but it was not an advance, exactly; it was simply a necessity. Greek and Latin were not superior to Hebrew and Aramaic; but they were the languages many of the new converts and potential converts understood. Similarly, as Christianity spread to classes who thought in the terms, categories, and questions of a “philosophical language”– of Hellenistic philosophy– the Good News needed to be “translated” into that “language”: this was a blessed achievement secured over centuries. Once again, the translation was not an absolute advance, exactly, and neither was it necessarily a degradation (as Mormons among others have often supposed); it was simply a necessity. If you want to speak to people, you need to speak in a language they know, in categories and terms they understand; and you need to speak to questions that are real ones for them.

    By modern times and today, as it happens, not many people speak Latin. Likewise, not many people think in the terms, categories, and questions of Hellenistic philosophies. So there is no compelling need to translate the Good News into “philosophic language,” just as there is no compelling need to translate it into Latin (though there may be no harm in trying to do so, for those few who are genuinely interested). The omission to do this sort of translation is not a deficiency; it is merely a result of the fact that these are not the terms and categories in which the Good News needs to be presented today.

    On this view, there is no need to be continually castigating others for ostensibly corrupting the Gospel by seeking ways to present it in a “philosophical language,” or mocking formulations of the Gospel that sound like gibberish (as speech in a foreign language typically does to those who don’t know the language). But neither is there any reason for embarrassment because of our own omission to develop a more “philosophical” theology (or, if you think that “philosophical theology” is a redundancy, for our omission to develop a “theology”).

  11. Pres. Benson clearly thought we should use the language of scripture and critiqued our appropriation of other language. He said,

    It is important that in our teaching we make use of the language of holy writ. Alma said, “I … do command you in the language of him who hath commanded me” (Alma 5:61).

    The words and the way they are used in the Book of Mormon by the Lord should become our source of understanding and should be used by us in teaching gospel principles.

    That said a big problem with everyone using scriptural language is figuring out if we mean the same thing by it. When we try to make distinctions between how we understand similar terms we’re almost forced to use other terms for clarity. Balancing these two moves can be difficult. Adopting a lot of the language of traditional debates can be helpful here, if only to distinguish our understanding from our Protestant and Catholic friends. That said an other problem with using the language of academic debate in these matters is that often our positions are subtly different from the positions the academic terms represent. This gets us into the same problem we have when we share scriptural language but mean different things by it.

  12. “The part that set me off was where he said mormons need to rethink the penal substitution model. Apparently because someone else thinks it is monstrous?”

    Well, since the penal substitution idea as we know it today didn’t really get developed until the middle ages, it might make even more sense, given our belief in the apostasy, to rethink it and look to more ancient models of the atonement.

  13. The penal theory doesn’t make much sense on Mormon grounds even ignoring the historical issues. Some point to D&C 19 but I’d note that passage really doesn’t push a penal theory at all. If anything it pushes the idea that the suffering is due to being cut off from God and *that* is what Jesus suffered.

    Interestingly that seems somewhat at odds with Gethsemane and pushes Jesus’ suffering back to the cross if it’s there that he experiences with full withdrawal of the Father. On the other hand versus 18 ties it to Gethsemane. It’s an odd text that I think we’ve not grappled well with.

  14. Clark,
    It would seem to me that the mormon version must be penal in some sense because it is described in terms of law and punishment. You can argue about what punishment is but isn’t it still a penal model?

  15. I think you can have legal and punishment language without buying into the details of the penal theory. The main justification for it is Isaiah 53 and to a lesser extent Romans 7. However the idea that Christ suffered for us without being a substitution for some legal requirement seems much more conducive to various LDS passages. Main LDS support is 2 Ne 2:7, 10 but that hinges on the meaning of the “ends of law” which those following N. T. Wright would likely disagree with. That is the “end of the law” in say Rom 10:4 is literally Christ. As well I think verse 10 can and ought be read more as leaving God’s presence rather than a legal punishment – this would be more in line with D&C 19 as well.

    It’s interesting that the emphasis in 2 Ne 2 is that the judgement is made possible by the atonement. So 2 Ne 2 is more complex than usually read. “because of the intercession for all, all men come unto God.” That is it’s literally the atonement that brings us back to the presence so judgement is even possible. “to be judged of him…wherefor the ends of the law” (Christ if we follow Rom 10:4) “punishment…in opposition to that of the happiness” “to answer the ends of the atonement.”

    For Lehi, the atonement makes possible a kind of dualistic choice where we choose either God or Satan. It’s not this legalistic judgment based upon a list of commands. (Although one often does find a reading of Abraham 3 that comes closer to that theology)

  16. Again, I’m not sure what is at stake in “the penal theory”. I’m not saying “the penal theory”, I just think it must be “a penal theory” because inflicting punishments affixed under a law is the definition of a penal theory.
    The question I have is “do the alternatives to the penal theory” depend on them not being a type of penal theory? If the payoff is to show that God is not angry, that seems out of step with D&C 19 verse 15.

  17. Think of it this way. A king makes some crime a capital crime. Someone steps in and is executed in your place. Now in one way this makes zero sense on the face of it since how legally can someone take your place? (This is the big problem with the penal theory) However the bigger issue is that if this is such a big problem why doesn’t God just change the law? I mean he’s omniscient, right?

    Within the Reform tradition in creedal Christianity this isn’t an issue due to how they see natural law and God being a necessary being.

    Within Mormonism it seems to be a much bigger problem due to our view of this life as a trial largely created by God for functional reasons. Even those who see there being essential laws independent of God have the problem explaining what they are and why they take the form they do. Often when pursuing the idea of essential laws God is subject to we end up not with a penal theory but a repair theory of atonement. It’s just hard to make the penal theory work in an LDS setting.

  18. Sorry. Typo. That should say “omnipotent.” The idea is that a King could pardon anyone they want from a crime.

    The move that is close to the penal theory yet somewhat similar is the idea that the issue isn’t breaking the law but rather impugning the stature of the king. So the worst crimes really aren’t crimes because of hurting people but because of how it affects the power of the throne. That’s what Jeff is getting at over at NCT with his Foucaultean view of justice and punishment.

    To my eyes there are several problems with this not the least tying it textually to Mormon scriptures. (You’ll note Jeff ties it more to cultural views at the time scriptures were written – although his examples actually are all from medieval and early modern Europe I believe) However the problem with the penal theory apply here as well. Is God’s prestige really in trouble? If he has to repair it, exactly how does killing Christ rather than the sinners do this? It doesn’t make much sense.

  19. It only seems a problem to me if you have very un-mormon ideas about good and evil as things created by God and mainly existing socially and relationally rather than existing independent of beings. To me it confuses agency and law with a person”s being rather than something external to them. That is why all of the social analogies to human theories of justice seem to make good an evil what we make of it not something that exists independent of us.

  20. Yes, but in the creedal forms of Christianity the Good and God are intwined. So the good isn’t really internal or external with God but coternal and necessary. I don’t think Mormonism really has any theology of the good in terms of ontology although various individuals obviously do. Utilitarianism is pretty popular for many while virtue ethics are popular among a lot of philosophical types. There’re even natural law proponents.

Comments are closed.