Catholicism is not about doctrine or philosophy or even about the Bible. At its core, Catholicism is about a person, Jesus Christ. The study of that person within Catholic theology is called Christology.
In this paper, I will endeavor to provide a brief introduction to a subject that is exceedingly rich and complex. I will discuss how Christology developed in the Church and the two main types of Christology. Lastly, I will address Christology’s importance in the Catholic faith.
The Development Of Christology
In the years following the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, the early Church began to address the central question in Christology; who is Christ, and how could He be both a creature and the creator, both man and God?
As Christians began to examine these questions, several controversies, and ultimately heresies, emerged. Of particular note were three such heresies; Ebionism, Docetism, and Arianism.
The Ebionites were a Jewish sect in the late first and early second centuries. They maintained the authority of the Hebrew Bible and held to the necessity of observing the Mosaic law despite the teachings of the apostles that Jesus had fulfilled the Mosaic law and brought forth a new covenant. (See Romans 6:15 and Acts 15).
The Docetists agreed that Jesus is God, but that He only appeared to be a human being. The Arians took the contrary view, arguing that Jesus was just a unique human being with an extraordinary relationship with God.
It was only until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 that the Church rejected these various heresies and affirmed that Jesus possessed two natures, one human and one divine. This teaching, known as the hypostatic union, became the foundation for Christology.
In the period after the Council of Chalcedon, most theologians made no distinction between Jesus as a human being and Jesus as God. That is to say that any systematic study of Jesus took into account both His divine and human natures.
This unified view of Jesus began to change in the eighteenth century as historians, and even biblical scholars began to study Jesus as a historical figure.
The fact that Jesus has two natures has led to a division of sorts within Christology. It is to this division that I turn next.
Types Of Christology
As a subject increases in sophistication, it tends to become ramified, and those who study the subject become increasingly specialized. This is true of Christology as well.
Because of Jesus’ two natures, it is possible to study the person of Jesus in one of two ways. The first is to focus on His divine nature. This is known as high Christology. High, because one commences the study from the perspective of Jesus’ divine nature. The second way to study Jesus is to focus on His human nature. This is low Christology.
A high Christology takes as its starting point and foundation the Logos, Who is the Word and Son of God and the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Inherent in the concept of a high Christology is the understanding that God is transcendent and “above” human beings as the creator vis-a-vie His creation. A high Christology descends from the Second Person of the Trinity and moves down to humanity and toward the Incarnation.
The Gospel of John provides the quintessential example of a high Christology, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1).
A low Christology takes as its starting point and foundation Jesus as a human being and a historical figure. Low Christology utilizes historical data and analysis of the Gospels to create a framework for understanding Jesus as a human being. This type of Christology ascends from Jesus’ human nature toward Heaven and Jesus as the God-man.
It is important to note that high and low Christologies should be only methodological as a theological endeavor. Regardless of how one goes about studying Christ, one must never lose sight of the fact that Jesus is both God and man.
Two additional forms of Christology should be mentioned here. Ontological Christology seeks to study who and what Christ is in Himself. In contrast, a functional Christology will often focus on a particular aspect of Jesus’ work, for example, how Jesus’ redemptive work brings about salvation for mankind.
Having sought to provide a sketch of Christology, we must ask, why is Christology important for Catholics?
Why It Matters
“Jesus said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter said in reply, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
As indicated above, Christology seeks to address the question, “who is Christ?” How one comes to answer that question is of the greatest importance. If, as is too frequently the case today, one thinks Jesus was a “good” person or a teacher of ethics, then Jesus becomes one among many. If, however, one answers as Peter did, then one’s life becomes about Jesus – and that is what Catholicism asserts. Peter also answers the reason why this is so. After several followers of Jesus abandoned Him, Jesus asked His apostles, “Do you also want to leave?” To which Peter responds, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:67-68).
Ultimately, the importance of Christology lies in the question that it asks, “who is Christ”? If Jesus is Who He says He is, if Jesus is God, then we must answer as Peter did, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
In this paper, I have sought to provide an introduction to the subject of Christology. As early Christians struggled to understand Jesus, the Church developed its doctrine of Christology by explaining that Jesus is both God and man.
As a topic of study, Christology can focus on the divine nature of Jesus (high Christology) or choose to focus on His human nature (low Christology).
The question that Christology asks, “who is Jesus” is the most important question that Catholics must answer. Only in answering as Peter did, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” can we hope to understand the Gospel message.