by Jims | December 9th, 2009
The Person of Christ, by Donald MacLeod. Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1998, Pp. 300. Review by James L. Smyrl, Ph.D.
Donald MacLeod presents a historical, analytical work that underscores foundational elements within Christological studies. Although his subtitle is, “Contours of Christian Theology,” the book reads more like controversies in Christian theology. His research method appears to be extensive in its scope, including a balanced approach from each side of the various issues covered. Several times he seems to rely too heavily on one theologian, but the majority of subjects addressed are done so with multiple theologians contributing to the debate. His purpose is to demonstrate the attacks against orthodox Christology throughout the history of the Church. He spends too little time on the councils, but his verbiage presents the profound impact each council had on the perpetuation of sound doctrine in the Church. MacLeod traces the major doctrines that systematically comprise Christology including: the virgin birth, pre-existence, sonship, historical ditch, deity, incarnation, perfection, kenosis, sinlessness, and uniqueness. Obviously each of these subjects, in relation to Christ, overlap each other, but MacLeod presents each in such a way that the non-negotiable nature of each in Christological studies is clearly evident.
MacLeod notes that in the early years of the Church, they neglected the humanity of Christ and focused too much on Jesus being from heaven. He delves into the dilemma of whether Christology should primarily be from above or below, noting that the early Church had a view of Christ as fundamentally from above. He presents a balancing of the issue by noting statements in John’s gospel and Hebrews that demonstrates not only a focus on the deity of Christ, but also a clear elevation of His humanity in the subject matter of revelation.
An excellent section is devoted to the dilemmas that often arise in theological debates over the birth narrative. MacLeod somehow takes the complex issue of the virgin conception and narrows it down to, “Mary became pregnant without sexual intercourse” (25). He demonstrates how the issue of the virgin conception was not an issue for over eighteen hundred years. MacLeod traces the controversy through recent history noting the major issues that have arisen out of the subject. He notes that there are objectors to the validity of the narratives. A foundational polemic against these objectors of the virgin conception is also provided. He states that many will argue that outside of Matthew and Luke’s narrative there is no other reference to the virgin birth in the New Testament. Obviously, those who propose such an attack against the doctrine must first deny the inerrancy of Scripture, but must also discount the testimonies of the two gospel writers. MacLeod’s defense is that in the portions of Scripture that record the event there is one hundred percent consistency in the story. He also notes that Matthew and Luke would have been so readily known by others that a repeat of the story was not necessary to the theme in other New Testament works. He gives three other points to consider in this section. First, he notes the painstaking attention to detail that Luke employs in his gospel account. It is unlikely that such a story as the virgin birth was not widely circulated as fact. Second, MacLeod states that the virgin conception, at the time, would have been a very closely guarded secret. Third, the fact that the virgin conception did not circulate in the preaching of the early Church is evidence that Matthew and Luke did not simply read the event back into the original account as some have postulated about their works. MacLeod notes that sixteen hundred years passed before anyone began to suspect that there were inconsistencies in the story. Surely if this much time lapsed, there must have been issues at the time of question rather than at the time of the actual event.
Several places in MacLeod’s section on the pre-existence of Christ leave the reader with some questions about his position. He begins with a simple word study of the issue from the gospel of John. He notes that the present tense use of “I am” in John 8:57-58 “emphasizes the ageless open-endedness of Christ’s existence and because it brings out the continuity between incarnate life and his pre-incarnate past” (46). He also unfolds the value of John 17:5 in understanding Jesus’ view about His own pre-existence. John A. T. Robinson questioned whether John really taught the personal pre-existence of Christ. Robinson notes, “the language he uses to designate Christ in his profoundest relationship to the Father is the same language that he applies in a weaker and more general sense to man in general” (47). It appears that this is one time that Robinson misses the beauty of the ocean by looking at a small thimble full of salt water. MacLeod notes that the similarity in the language possesses one dividing point, namely that when referring to believers, Jesus did not use exalted language as He did when referring to Himself. The conclusion is that the similar language is different, for when referring to Jesus it is ontological in nature rather than merely a relation of fellowship as with the believers. MacLeod follows this with similar patterns of discussing pre-existence in Hebrews, Pauline writings, and the synoptic gospels. Pannenberg is used to conclude the discussion stating, “If God has revealed himself in Jesus, then Jesus’ community with God, His Sonship, belongs to eternity” (64).
‘Christ, The Son of God’ is a section that deals with the self claims of Jesus as God’s Son. In a sense, MacLeod reveals how Jesus somewhat appears to take the gloves off from the synoptic gospels to John’s gospel in making clearly known that He is indeed God’s Son. He dissects the phrase monogenes hyios stating, “it usually suggests not only that the person referred to had no brothers or sisters but that his parents never had but this one child. It thus indicates not only ontological but ontogenetic uniqueness” (72). He deals extensively with the issue of adoption. This seems to be the prevailing attack against orthodox Christology over the years that continues to assault the sonship of Christ. Subordination is also addressed and MacLeod comes down on the side of equality in His substance, but functionally submissive in His sonship.
Addressing Lessing’s ugly ditch theory, MacLeod unfolds the issues relating to the manner in which Christology was handled throughout history. He focuses on the incongruities that exist in modern Christology and the historical record of the person of Christ. He notes that the early Church simply believed Christ to be divine. This was the historical record they accepted as common fact and knowledge. He notes that much of the material disputed today was not in any dispute for the first believers. The reason is that the “prominence of such material . . . accurately reflects the specific interests and usages of Jesus” (115). The accusation that the early believers embellished or even originated the stories of Christ is strongly dismissed by MacLeod. He lists multiple attacks against such accusations, providing the reader with a strong apologetic in the face of such debates.
He adequately works his was through the various councils. Much information, especially the details of what led to the councils, is left out, which is the only major flaw in the entire work. He notes that the Council of Nicea gave the most important statement of their effort when they declared that Christ was consubstantial with the Father. His conclusion in all the work through the councils is “It [the essence of the Son] could not be subordinate to that of the Father for the simple reason that it was not only generically but numerically identical with that of the Father” (151).
His strongest section in the work is his treatment of the incarnation of Christ. He systematically works through the issues of the major heresies of Docetism and Apollinarianism. In a sense he takes each of these heresies apart, demonstrating the theological and historical weakness of each.
Perhaps one of the unique contributions of this work is MacLeod’s section on ‘human emotions. He notes that if one denies the sinless human emotions of Christ, one must also deny the complete humanity of Christ. To think that Christ could have been fully man, yet not experience all the sinless emotions of man is contradictory. He notes that although the Scripture does not portray Jesus as smiling or laughing, it does not mean the absence of joy. Even though He was a man of sorrows, does not negate the presence of happiness. MacLeod states that if Jesus was joyless, He must have been sinful, because Scripture clearly teaches that the absence of joy is the presence of sin. MacLeod uses a phrase in this section that is disturbing to the reader. He comments repeatedly on the “moment of dereliction of Calvary,” but never explains fully what he means by such a statement. He also notes, “But there, on Golgotha, he was a sinner” (177). He seems to take Scripture as well as his quoted statement by Luther way out of context in this assessment. It is not clear if MacLeod truly means what he states here, as this phraseology is grossly inconsistent with the rest of his discourse.
His concluding section on the uniqueness of Christ in modern theology eliminates the arguments espoused by modern theologians who seek to undo what Chalcedon and the other councils established. MacLeod dismantles the historically inconsistent Christology of Bultmann, Hick, Unitarians and Process Theologians. His polemic against Liberation Theology gives too much to the positives of the theological discipline, but he presents a strong argument against one adopting the tenants as a fully developed Christology.
“The miraculous conception receives 100% attestation from the available records” (30).
“Whatever the ethical merits of these procedures they completely nullify the argument that ordinary procreation is essential to genuine humanness” (35).
“To deny the virgin birth and introduce instead human sexual activity is to distance God unacceptably from the production of the Holy One” (39).
“Holiness can exist in human life only by virtue of divine action and so far as Jesus Christ is concerned that action occurs in the very commencement of his existence” (41).
“It surely required the impulse of more than ordinary human loyalty to divinize a man crucified for blasphemy and Messianic delusions” (114).
“The attenuated Christ of recent Christian skepticism could not have built a mouse-trap, let alone a Church” (116).
“Take away the synoptic Jesus, replace him with a demythologized one, and Christianity becomes an insoluble historical enigma” (117).
“Christ has put on our feelings along with our flesh” (170). John Calvin
“The homoagape requires the homoousion. Without that, we cannot say that God loved me and gave himself for me (Gal. 2:20); or that the love of God constrains us (2 Cor. 5:14); or that God loved the Church and gave himself for it (Eph. 5:25).” (245).