Theology: Did We Get the Right Jesus?

A few weeks back, I went to Biola University to hear a free public lecture. The speaker was Prof. Fred Sanders (click and scroll down for bio) and the event was part of the Christian Apologetics program at the school.

Sanders is far from a stuffy humanities professor. He was hilarious! He worked in comic strip images to make some of his points. He also showed some paintings from Art History to give us a flavor for the life and times he was describing.

The premise of his talk was: if you walked into "the Hall of Putative Jesi" how would you know which Jesus is the right one of the dozen or so individuals walking around in that hall claiming to be Jesus?

He mentioned that one approach is to examine the historical reliablity of the Gospel records and that much valuable scholarship is in that realm.

However, for this evening's presentation, he said he would focus on the historical development of our understanding of Jesus.

He said there were seven ancient church councils that met to discuss "who was Jesus?" In the fast paced presentation, he sketched out five of the councils in terms of what was the issue being debated, some of the players on both sides and other historical factors surrounding the council.

To summarize, he described the results of these councils as the "Chalcedonian Box." He believed the "box" provides the fundamental catagories to discuss Jesus and the identifies boundaries for describing what we know about Jesus from the Scriptures.

Sanders described the Council of Nicea (325 AD). The debate was whether Arian, a priest in Alexandria, was right in questioning whether Jesus was fully God, the position long held by the church. Athanasius critiqued Arian's arguements. As a result of this council, the Nicene Creed was drafted with its famous passage that affirmed the divinity of Jesus:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
The next council Prof. Sanders summarized was Constantinople I (381 AD) which addressed Apollinarianism that questioned whether Jesus was fully human. The problem with this view is that would salvation by Jesus' life, death and resurrection be meaningful if he were not fully human?

The third council discussed in the presentation was at Ephesus (431 AD). There the question on the table was Nestorianism which said Jesus was two persons, a divine one and a human one. The council addressed the question and in particular, Cyril of Alexandria described Jesus as the union of two natures in one person.

The fourth council Dr. Sanders explained to the audience was Chalcedon which occurred in 451 AD. The council addressed the issue of Eutychianism held that Jesus had two natures but the human nature was so trivial that it was essentially absorbed within the divine nature. As a non-specialist, this sounded like a subtle variation on Apollinarianism mixed with Nestorianism?

The fifth council Sander's talked about was Constantinople II in 553 AD.

This council pretty summed up all the other councils in affirming there is one God with three persons (Trinity) and that the 2nd person of the Trinity is Jesus Christ who was one person with both a divine and human nature which the Son took on at the Incarnation.

Sanders was refreshingly honest about the fact that it is pretty hard to wrap our minds around all these things. The Incarnation is a statement of faith. It is much easier for us to have simple categories. But what we know from Scriptures points to a Jesus who defies simple categories and that Jesus was fully God, fully human, one person with two natures. We also know from the Bible that Jesus is the Son, the second person of the Trinity. How that actually "works" we don't know but we can attempt to describe it:

The Father is not the Son.
The Father is not the Holy Spirit.
The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
The Father is God.
The Son is God.
The Holy Spirit is God.
3 persons, 1 God.

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All in all a very mind blowing but informative evening.

It is really great to know that there are some theology professors who are energetic, humorous, creative and honest about how mind-blowing somethings are! If I had $1200 laying around, I'd consider taking a theology class with Prof. Sanders!