"The Person of Christ" by Donald Macleod

Evan C. Hock
Thursday, July 5th 2007
Jul/Aug 2000

This orthodox work on Christology, which is part of InterVarsity's "Contours of Christian Theology" series, is long overdue. Such books are necessary given the ever-mounting challenge by many contemporary biblical scholars to discredit and dismantle Chalcedonian orthodoxy. That challenge pushes to the forefront yet again the central question: "What makes Christ different?"

In answer, Scottish theologian Donald Macleod presents a Christology that integrates Holy Scripture and the great ecumenical creeds with sound reasoning that is spiced with debate and laced with challenge, comfort, and wit. All of this serves to drive home his thesis: Jesus Christ "is different because he is God incarnate."

Macleod writes consciously from the perspective of the Christian community and for its benefit. He argues unapologetically from a position of faith that swims against the contemporary current by opting "for a 'Christology from above.'" This, he explains,

does not mean that I do not take the humanness of Jesus seriously. I take it very seriously indeed…. But if I had opted for a Christology from below, it would have been a pretence. I am not starting from below. I am starting from faith, convinced before I put pen to paper … that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God. [16]

This involves more than method, for Macleod is troubled by how modern Christologies that begin with Jesus' humanity fall short of the "above" dimension. Witness the rash of adoptionist-oriented Christologies that start "from below," and then subtly reflect the arrogant assumption that "we can assert nothing of Christ which we cannot assert of man." Yet the New Testament's approach is based upon Christ's deity, for "by the time [the Gospels] were written, Christ was already 'above,' and the selection, arrangement and presentation of materials were determined by that fact." The gospel writers-who, Macleod asserts, are most qualified to give us access to the real Jesus-looked at him in the resurrection's light. If this approach seems biased, it is no more so "than that which insists that we must treat Christ as 'just another ordinary man' and the gospels as ordinary literature."

It is refreshing to see a Christian scholar build his case upon the objectivity of the God who creates, reveals, sustains, and judges life justly rather than navely to assume that objectivity can be found within the limits and corruptions of the creature. More credulity is required by the latter assumption than the former.

Macleod develops themes by referencing key creedal statements and then "surveying the questions and answers proffered by Christian thought from Tertullian to Barth … from Praxeas to Edward Irving." It is presumptuous, he reminds us, to speak before we have listened to the giants upon whose shoulders we must stand to be farsighted. Of course, we must not just parrot the past-a vigorous Christology must continually reappraise the evidence and express truth anew. Readers will appreciate his respect in representing past and present figures. He states their objections, sifts their logic, clarifies their questions, acknowledges known difficulties, debates them at their strongest points, and gives credit where due. He does not shrink from exposing the harmful implications a view may have for other doctrines, worship, and faith.

He is scriptural throughout. This will delight those who lament the fog often arising between Scripture and theology. He skillfully uses God's Word-and especially John, Hebrews, and Paul-as a plumb line by which to harmonize his various foci. At the risk of being at times thick and ponderous, but not unnecessarily technical, he highlights essential texts, defines terms, specifies meanings, and elaborates significance.

Macleod establishes that only the Jesus of the New Testament can explain the Christ of faith. Central to the Church is Jesus' own self-consciousness of his divine status. How central is it? "Christianity, as a religion, depends on the deity of Christ as it does no other single doctrine." The implication of this truth is set down unambiguously: "The bottom line here is that Jesus of Nazareth saw himself as the Son of God. Whatever we do afterwards, we must first decide what to do with this. If he was correct, we must fall down and worship him. If he was not correct, we must crucify him."

Thus, a serious dilemma and danger accompanies the skepticism of critical scholarship, for their "attenuated Christ … could not have built a mousetrap, let alone a church." By rejecting the biblical evidence, such scholars fail to see that unbelief as well as belief are spiritual matters:

The central feature of Christianity is (and always has been) the worship of Jesus. Any credible account of its origins must explain the rise of such worship. Where can that be found except in Jesus' understanding of himself as divine? To reject that is not only to deprive Christian worship of its legitimacy but to convict the church itself of self-deception and duplicity. [119]

Comforting is the overall sense that Macleod can be trusted with his topic, as well as that he is able to lead us to the heart of an issue and confront the pivotal questions.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part develops the Nicene motif "Very God of Very God" in chapters on "The Virgin Birth," "The Pre-existence of Christ," "Christ, the Son of God," "The Jesus of History," and "The Christ of Faith: 'Very God of Very God.'" The second part examines the motif "Very God, Very Man," heralded at Chalcedon, in chapters on "The Incarnation," "Chalcedon: 'Perfect in Godhead, Perfect in Manhood,'" "Kenosis: Making Himself Nothing," "The Sinlessness of Christ," and "No Other Name: The Uniqueness of Christ in Modern Times." There is also an epilogue that opens new horizons, an abundance of meaty endnotes, and an adequate indexing of biblical references and subjects.

Some, especially North American, readers may be dismayed to find Macleod's scholarship somewhat dated (e.g., Bultmann, Hick) and limited in scope (e.g., Anglican Unitarians, Liberation theology). In spite of the value of all of what Macleod has done, we are still left facing the serious challenges of narrative views, reader-response theories, feminist philosophies, and others such as the notorious "Jesus Seminar." Those of a Lutheran persuasion will certainly want to take issue with his general critique of the doctrine of the communication. And while salvation is central, more elaboration would have been warranted concerning the Christ of eschatology.

Macleod, nevertheless, has laid the groundwork for us to anticipate and meet future as well as current heresies. But his own goal is not so much to chase down the latest theory as to give to the evangelical church sufficient grounds for confidently declaring, in this eclectic age, the absolute sufficiency of Christ. He has also magnificently reminded us that the Church rightly honors Christ's name and rule when, and only when, its theology remains closely tied to the clear meaning of the Scriptures.

Thursday, July 5th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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