Who is Jesus Christ? This question marks the starting point of Christology, a major branch of theology that studies the nature and being of Jesus.
Christology has had a prominent role in Christian history, helping to shape major areas of doctrine. Perhaps most notable is the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451, which rebuffed several controversial beliefs undermining either the human or divine nature of Jesus. The council’s findings became a point of reference for future contributions in Christology, as found in the thought of theologians such as Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Today, mainstream Christianity agrees that Jesus is the incarnate God, one person with two complete natures, human and divine. This foundational statement in Christology, rooted in Scripture, holds unparalleled practical and theological significance.
The Basics of Christology
What Is Christology?
Christology is primarily concerned with the identity of Jesus. Because Christianity asserts that Jesus is human and divine, the discipline asks how both of these can exist in one person.
Christology also investigates how this relates to the life and works of Jesus. How and why did the incarnation and resurrection occur? Why is salvation offered through Christ? These questions and topics lead to a greater understanding of who Jesus is, what he did and what all of this means.
Christology is linked to several theological disciplines. Soteriology, or the study of the doctrine of salvation, requires an understanding of Jesus’ nature. The same is true for subjects such as ecclesiology, or the study of the Christian Church, and Trinitarian theology, or the study of God in the Trinity (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit).
Christology relates to many areas of theology, but most important is its place in the life of the believer. Recognizing who Jesus is, what he did and why — these are essential to knowing him. Only then may someone believe in Jesus and have eternal life (John 3:11-21).
Christological Roots in Scripture: Key Terms for Jesus
Dozens of names and titles are used to refer to Jesus, and many have Christological significance. The following terms in the Bible are among the most relevant to understanding the nature of Jesus.
“Messiah” and “Christ”
Messiah and Christ are interchangeable terms. Messiah comes from the Hebrew word mashiach, and the Greek equivalent is christos, or Christ.
A messianic figure means one who is anointed. In the Old Testament, messianic figures were kings, priests and prophets who were anointed, such as Saul in 1 Samuel 10:1. Yet in other places, the Old Testament speaks to prophecies of a redeemer for Israel. This figure, who became known as the Messiah, would be God (Isaiah 7:14; 9:6-7).
The New Testament affirms that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah. John states that this is the purpose of his work: “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31, New Revised Standard Version). And in an exchange with Peter, Jesus acknowledges that he is the Messiah:
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
According to William Lane Craig in Reasonable Faith, the apostles used connections from the Old Testament to demonstrate how Jesus fulfilled prophesies of the Messiah: “In dealing with Jewish audiences, the apostles appealed to fulfilled prophecy, Jesus’ miracles, and especially Jesus’ resurrection as evidence that he was the Messiah” (Acts 2:22-32).
Furthermore, Jesus’ role as a messianic figure is established in Scripture. He fulfilled all three messianic roles: prophet (Luke 24:19), priest (Hebrews 4:14) and king (John 18:36).
“Son of God” and “Son of Man”
Son of God and Son of Man are separate phrases that have similar Christological implications.
The Old Testament uses son of God to refer to one who belongs to God (Exodus 4:22, 2 Samuel 7:14). In the New Testament, the name was refined to apply to believers who are children, or adopted sons, of God (Galatians 3:26). But another meaning in the New Testament for Son of God is found in the description of Jesus’ unique relationship to God (1 Thessalonians 1:10; Romans 1:3-4; John 5:17-29, 10:30-39). The term applies to both Christians and Christ — sons of God by adoption and the Son of God by Jesus’ divine sonship.
Son of Man was similarly redefined in the New Testament, especially the Gospels. In the Old Testament, son of man routinely denotes an ordinary person, although there is theological debate concerning whether it was a messianic title and whether Daniel 7:13-14 is a prophecy about Jesus. But in the Synoptic Gospels (Luke, Matthew and Mark), Jesus uses Son of Man to speak to his authority, suffering and resurrection (Mark 2:10; 8:31, 38). In John’s Gospel, Son of Man refers to Christ being “lifted up” (John 3:14, 8:28, 12:32), linking to his crucifixion and exaltation.
Jesus affirms all these titles at his trial:
Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death.
Craig says that “Here in one fell swoop Jesus affirms that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, and the coming Son of Man … The trial scene beautifully illustrates how in Jesus’ self-understanding all the diverse claims blend together thereby taking on connotations that outstrip any single term taken out of context.”
Lord may be the most striking term used for Jesus, due to its relationship to YHWH — God’s name in Hebrew, as represented in English letters.
Out of fear of taking God’s name in vain, Jews began a tradition of not saying his name out loud. Another practice developed for not writing out the name, due to its holiness. Instead, two primary words — which both mean Lord — replaced YHWH, or Yahweh, in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word adonai was used, and in the Septuagint, or the primary Greek translation of the Old Testament, kyrios was used.
The New Testament continued using the term kyrios, or Lord, to refer to Jesus. By doing this, the writers were saying that Jesus is the Lord, applying what the Old Testament said about Yahweh to Jesus. Paul says that “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9), later quoting Scripture in saying that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13). This is a direct reference to Joel 2:32, taken verbatim from the Septuagint.
Thus, the New Testament writers used the same name for God from the Old Testament. They applied these texts to Jesus, confirming his deity while retaining a distinct identity from God the Father:
Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things and through whom we exist.
1 Corinthians 8:6
Moving Toward an Identity for Christ
Christological titles can have significance for understanding the identity of Christ. Many other topics in Scripture, such as Jesus’ miracles and proclamations of divine authority and place in the kingdom of God, are significant Scriptural starting points in the field of Christology.
These areas form an important background to understanding the historical developments of Christology, specific topics in current Christological study and the relationship of Christology to other topics in theology and ministry. And, of course, knowledge about Christ is significant for any Christian to grow in his or her relationship with the Lord and Savior.
Individuals with a passion for furthering their knowledge of Christ can consider an online degree from Campbellsville University. Programs are available in Christian ministry, Christian studies, pastoral ministries and theology, which can help transform one’s career path toward a specific calling. All programs offer the flexibility and convenience of studying online, with a quality curriculum that can help graduates make an impact on the lives of others.