Chapter 1. Introduction to Christology

Chalcedonian Categories for the Gospel Narrative

Fred Sanders

Introduction to Christology: Chalcedonian Categories for the Gospel Narrative

Chapter Summary

Christology begins as an intellectual attempt to account for the mystery of salvation that every Christian experiences, but it is a task that demands the labors of biblical, historical, philosophical, systematic, and practical theologians. We are living in an age when contemporary theologians have begun appropriating the conceptual wealth of the great tradition of Christian doctrine, and Christian philosophers are turning their attention to examining the doctrinal content of Christian truth claims. This situation makes possible an interdisciplinary investigation of a new kind. The fourth ecumenical council, Chalcedon (451), is widely accepted as a standard of orthodox thought on Christology, and this chapter briefly explains the logic of Chalcedon. However, Chalcedon raises questions that are answered by the next ecumenical council, Constantinople II (553). This post-Chalcedonian Christology, representing a clarification of Cyrillian insights that were implied but not directly stated at Chalcedon, yields an anhypostatic-enhypostatic Christology. More importantly, it puts the two-natures categories of Chalcedon back into motion by affirming identity between the second person of the Trinity and the person who is the subject of the incarnation, providing the conceptual categories evangelicals need to tell the story of their personal savior the way they need to. He is one of the Trinity, and he died on the cross.

Axioms for Christological Study

  1. Christology is an interdisciplinary theological project requiring insight from biblical, historical, philosophical, practical, and systematic theologians.
  2. To think rightly about the Trinity, the incarnation, or the atonement, the theologian must think about them all at once, in relation to each other.
  3. The good news of Jesus the Savior presupposes the long story of the eternal Son of God's entering into human history, and the doctrinal categories provided by Chalcedon are a helpful conceptual resource for making sense of it.


ecumenical council
systematic theology
hypostatic union
philosophical theology
biblical theology
constructive theology
Chalcedonian Definition
historical theology
practical theology
theanthropic person
Cyril of Alexandria
Heresies Arianism
Greek terms homoousios

Christology is one of the most difficult doctrines in all of theology, perhaps second only to the doctrine of the Trinity. Since the goal of this book is to explore the theological project of Christology accessibly and at an introductory level, what sense does it make to combine one difficult doctrine with another? Putting Christology into trinitarian perspective sounds like multiplying complexity times complexity, or explaining one unclear thing by another thing even more unclear: obscurum per obscurius! For the sake of analytic clarity, it would seem more promising to isolate the doctrine of Christ as strictly as possible from all other considerations and make sense of it on its own terms first. But the thesis of this book, and the conviction of each author, is that the intellectual work of Christology is best undertaken in the context of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Even at the introductory level, trinitarian resources best equip the student of theology to grasp Christian teaching on the incarnation, person, and work of Christ. We could say many things about Jesus and the salvation available through him, but the logic built in to the central Christian truths requires us to confess what the fifth ecumenical council said in the year 553: “that our lord Jesus Christ, who was crucified in his human flesh, is truly God and the Lord of glory and one of the members of the holy Trinity.” To say the truth about Jesus, we must keep him in trinitarian perspective and say, with this ancient council, that one of the Trinity died on the cross.

Recognizing Jesus as one of the Trinity is a conceptual breakthrough that throws light on all the great central beliefs of Christianity. The six chapters of this book explore the implications of Jesus' identity as one of the Trinity, tracing the long arc from God's eternal being to humanity's redemption. We begin (insofar as is humanly possible, and strictly on the basis of God's self-revelation) above all worlds in the homeland of the Trinity, with a richly elaborated doctrine of the eternal Trinity as an interpersonal fellowship of structured relations among the perfectly coequal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Horrell, chap. 2). From that height we trace the act of infinite condescension in which the preexistent eternal Son of God becomes the incarnate Son of God by taking on a full human nature. The resulting doctrine of the person of Christ is elaborated with guidance from the church fathers (Fairbairn, chap. 3), and its terms are clarified, disciplined, and disambiguated by analytic philosophy (DeWeese, chap. 4). Because the incarnation took place “for us and for our salvation”, as the Nicene Creed states, we complete the trajectory by attending to the way the incarnate Logos accomplished our redemption in his death and resurrection (Ware, chap. 5), and how, as the Son, he is the example of a truly human life of faith, radical dependence on God, and being filled with the Holy Spirit (Issler, chap. 6).

In this introductory chapter, I will do four things. First, I will explain why it takes an interdisciplinary team of authors—three systematicians, a historical theologian, a philosophical theologian, and a practical theologian—to put Jesus into trinitarian perspective and make the case that one of the Trinity died on the cross. Second, I will summarize the classic ground rules laid down in the logic of the fourth ecumenical council's Chalcedonian Definition of 451 for thinking biblically about Jesus: that he is one person in two unmixed, unconfused, undivided natures. Third, I will argue that contemporary Evangelical theology can and should take one step beyond Chalcedon, embracing as well the guidance of the fifth ecumenical council (Constantinople II, 553), which took the decisive step of placing Christology in its proper trinitarian context. Finally, I will summarize the five remaining chapters and give an overview of the way they relate to one another and to the total project of placing Christology in trinitarian perspective.