"Who Do You Say that I Am?: Christology and The Church" edited by Donald Armstrong

Paul F. M. Zahl
Thursday, July 5th 2007
May/Jun 2000

The English historian Patrick Collinson describes the Church of England in its founding decades as "putting down its anchors in the outer roads of the broad harbor of the Calvinist or (better) Reformed Tradition." (1) I hope it is possible to say that Anglicanism floats its ship even closer to the center of the somewhat wider harbor of Reformation or Protestant orthodoxy.

A new book on Christology in the Anglican communion confirms this impression, although it does not represent what many contemporary Anglicans or Episcopalians, especially clergy, think they believe. Many North American Anglicans would not agree with the driving theses of this book. Many would find the essays too conservative, too dependent on its Bible, too evangelical. Most Third-World Anglicans, however, will drink it in by the jot and tittle.

The book is called Who Do You Say that I Am? Christology and the Church and is edited by Donald Armstrong, the Rector of Grace Church, Colorado Springs. It is a written report, beautifully presented by Eerdmans, of a conference held in the autumn of 1998 in Paris and sponsored by the Anglican Institute.

The essays offered are almost all worthwhile in themselves as thoughtful orthodox explorations of Christ's Christness. In addition to their intrinsic importance, as positive statements of creedal Christianity in the contemporary context, they also say quite a bit about where the majority, if not the governing majority, in the worldwide denomination of Anglican Christians find themselves at the start of the New Millennium. This review surveys the ideas governing the book and the unified-field theory that unites all of the essays. It then ponders the implications of the book for Anglican Christianity as a whole.

Who Do You Say that I Am? opens with almost its best entry. This is the stirring introduction by Donald Armstrong. He sees the book's purpose to be an "articulate and credible antidote" to the "devastating, despairing, and inaccurate picture of God" represented by the weak "Christologies of many who are "charged with the protection and proclamation of the apostolic truth" (p. xiv). Mr. Armstrong is tilting against the North American Episcopal bishops who are uncomfortable with the authority of the Bible, and hence with the strong Christology of the New Testament. This discomfort with the Bible on its own terms is no new thing in Anglicanism. Then, again, it is no new thing in Protestantism in general, or, for that matter, in modern Roman Catholicism. Armstrong quotes H. Richard Niebuhr's famous prediction that "mainstream" American Christians would one day embrace "a God without wrath bringing men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."

Christopher Hancock's essay on "The Christological Problem" presents the many introspective and theological issues that orbit around the affirmation that Jesus of Nazareth was both Christ and God. The essay is a little diffuse. It contains at least one sentence that will cause many readers of MR to stop and wonder. Dr. Hancock refers on p. 13 to "a classical Anglican biblical hermeneutic, which is both christocentric and coherent." What is this "classical Anglican biblical hermeneutic"? Is it different from the Reformation's doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, the idea that the Bible is generally self-interpreting? The writer doesn't tell.

Often the phrase "Anglican" is used in popular and also scholarly parlance to denote something apparently substantial. Does "Anglican" mean incarnational in emphasis? Does it mean sacramental in emphasis? Does it mean an interpretive "back bench" of tradition and experience for understanding Scripture, in that order; or experience and tradition, in that order? Is "Anglicanism" Richard Hooker, or is it Thomas Cranmer, or is it John Keble, or is it Charles Gore? Is it "liberal Protestantism"? Is it "liberal Catholicism"? This reviewer has never been able to locate an "Anglicanism" that is not either a forum of historic Protestantism or a form of historic Catholicism. What history shows is that Anglicanism is an accident of history by which a national Church of England sheltered under its covers a generally Protestant theology with permission given to certain Catholic sensibilities to remain, albeit dormant. These dormant Catholic sensibilities, especially in their secondary forms of fascination with liturgy and aesthetics, not to mention a certain "Englishness" or cultural moderation in spirit, have given to Anglicanism the tension that makes such a book as Who Do You Say that I Am? necessary.

Dr. Hancock makes one point that is characteristic of current Anglican theologies. He says that the "christological problem" remains an ecclesiological problem. This is because the Church has to state the parameters of proper versus improper Christology. Yes and no. In a tradition of free theological inquiry, which is an enduring feature of Protestantism, there has to be some touchstone or canon of authority. But the Anglican church is so weak and dispersed in terms of its ability to make authoritative statements about anything, that it will probably never be able to establish lasting parameters. The christological problem is not an ecclesiological problem at root. It is a Bible problem: How do we weigh the role of the Bible in establishing healthy versus unhealthy doctrine?

The outstanding contribution in this set of Anglican essays on Christology is called "The Necessity of a Biblical Christology." It is by the retired dean of Virginia Theological Seminary, Richard Reid. The essay is easy to follow and also logically argued. It is also convincing. Dean Reid believes the biblical accounts of Jesus are essentially true (i.e., that the Gospels provide us with a reliable picture of Jesus; see p. 37), that sin is the basic human problem, and that the Christology of the New Testament unites the great plan of God with the great problem of human existence. Reid speaks of the Atonement and its necessity, although he states the Atonement's necessity in a relatively mild and modest way. (2) Here, in his understated acceptance of the Atonement of Christ's Cross, Dean Reid is in fact being characteristically Anglican. Anglicanism has inherited a culturally English discomfort with strong or disjunctive (either/or) statements. Reid's essay concludes with a sentence that the readers of MR will welcome: "Any Christology which is not rooted in the Bible … will always be inadequate, or worse, just plain wrong" (p. 45).

The famous N. T. Wright, former Dean of Lichfield and now Canon of Westminster Abby, presents an important essay entitled "The Biblical Formation of a Doctrine of Christ." Wright puts together a view of Christ and earliest Christianity that is strongly influenced by the "new perspective on Paul" and by "post-Holocaust" approaches to the New Testament. Canon Wright so strongly stresses the Jewishness of Jesus, and the Jewish roots of Christianity, that he almost loses hold of the discontinuity of Christ. Wright's conclusions about the divinity of Christ, or more accurately the Christ-ness of God, are, like everything in this book, thoughtfully orthodox. But the way he arrives at them is questionable. Too little New Covenant!

Two other fine pieces close out this volume on Christology. They are Alister McGrath's "Christology: On Learning from History" and the Archbishop of Canterbury's extremely substantial piece entitled "Christ and His Church: The Implications of Christology for the Mission of the Church Today." Principal McGrath's essay will please all those who love orthodox historical theology. McGrath also loves the Reformation. Dr. Carey's piece seeks to tie the affirmations about Jesus Christ in the Bible to the orthodox essence of the Christian church.

The Archbishop's Christology is magnificent. It is rare that senior figures, such as he, in the Church of England are so courageous and decisive in underlining the sine qua non of the centrality of the Biblical Christ. Dr. Cary is particularly committed to the unity and also the truth of the Church. Here both themes shine through. If Dr. Carey's ecclesiology is a little higher than we all might accept, he is allowed! Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi.

Christology in that section of worldwide Reformation-rooted Protestantism that is represented by the Anglican Communion is safe with the authors and editor of this marvelous book. But the fact that writers such as Dean Reid, Principal McGrath, with Dr. Carey, not to mention the eloquent layman Alan Crippen, are not in the driver's seat everywhere, and certainly not in the U.S.A., is important to note. Christological confusion is pervasive in many sections of the Church. Even the popular Episcopal novelist Jan Karon said recently that she does not care "a whit for (the Episcopal church's) slovenly theology." Too true.

But the fact remains: Earnest, thoughtful, clear heads, prayerful men and women, are working towards the renewal of Anglicanism along Christological lines. That goes even for Lambeth Palace. The Word goeth forth not in vain.

1 [ Back ] See his "England and International Calvinism 1558-1640" in International Calvinism, 1541-1715. Edited by Menna Prestwich (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), pp. 215-16.
2 [ Back ] A confirmation of Anglican "mildness" or even lite-ness of expression concerning the Atonement is found in the book of essays by Church of England scholars entitled Atonement Today, edited by John Goldingay (London: SPCK, 1995). These essays, almost all composed by evangelical Anglicans, are remarkable for their circumspection, even their worry concerning "overstatement" of the Atonement-idea. None of these essays is unorthodox, but only one, Christina Baxter's "A Reconsideration of Penal Substitution," is forceful. Anglican reserve is a blessing, but it can also be a curse. We are too wary of strong expressions in theology.
Thursday, July 5th 2007

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

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church