Last year, Ligonier published the results of a study which showed that a concerning number of Americans don’t understand the essentials of the faith. I’m not sure that this was a surprise, but to see the numbers on paper was troubling. A large percentage of respondents answered in sub-Christian ways regarding essential statements regarding the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Ligonier has since published an official statement on Christology which is their attempt to offer a clear doctrinal statement regarding this central dogma of the faith. Since Christology is kind of my thing… I figured it would be a good idea to spend a little time in assessment and critique of this document.
An Important Contribution
First, I want to underscore the importance of this document. There is a generation of young Christians (both Reformed and otherwise) who look to Ligonier as an authoritative theological source. For many, RC Sproul’s lectures and books have been their entry way into Reformed theology, so we cannot underestimate the influence that a document like this is likely to have. If you don’t believe me, consider the fact that RC Sproul was essentially the primary author of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which was the gold standard in terms of Bibliology for evangelicals for many years. The departure from it reflects a departure from the truth of what Scripture is, and we ought to lament it. Anyone who is familiar with the CSBI will immediately see Dr Sproul’s influence on the structure of the Christology Statement.
Because of this we must have the highest expectations for it. These are professional theologians, producing a document they intend to have use for the whole Church, and in some senses that it fulfills a need which currently has not been fulfilled by other documents. While it is probably not the case that these documents are viewed by their writers as an improvement on the Nicene Creed, Chalcedonian Definition, and the Reformed Confessions… they certainly are putting these forward as a supplement and clarification of those documents. For a generation of “Reformed” Christians who are at times completely unaware of the confessional statements of the 16th and 17th centuries, this document will serve as the first formal creedal statement that many of them will really own as their own.
For this reason, I think it is incumbent upon us to hold it to the highest scrutiny.
The first section takes the form of a Creed and reads like an expanded version of the Christological segment of the Nicene Creed. This section really is a beautiful bit of theological expression, and overall I have no major concerns or critiques of it. However, there are a few things I think could have greater clarity, or should have been expressed differently.
With the Father and the Holy Spirit, the Son created all things, sustains all things, and makes all things new.
While it may seem nit picky, it is important for us to recognize that every act of the Trinity toward creation (or in creating) is a three-fold act. The Father is the initiator and source of the action, is executed through the agency and mediation of the Son, and is brought to completion and application through the work of the Spirit. While this statement is intended to guard against forms of neo-Arianism (Jehovah’s Witness) and neo-Ebionitism (Hebrew Roots), it blurs this vital reality.
He was born of the Virgin Mary and lived among us. Crucified, dead, and buried,
While I know that this is a statement regarding the person and work of Christ, we must never divorce the person and work of Christ from the person and work of the Holy Spirit. That which the Son accomplishes, the Spirit applies. It concerns me that the central role of the Holy Spirit in the act of incarnation has here been neglected. While it is true that a document like this is intended to be understood in toto, and the proper phrasing is used in the affirmation section, this creedal statement will be used on its own. The fact that this section is titled the Statement will add to that effect, and seems to indicate that Ligonier on some level has intended it to be so.
Affirmations and Denials
Where the first section is intended to be a creedal overview, the second is intended to provide clarity and specificity to the document. This is where the nitty-gritty of the theology is worked out.
I want to emphasize here that as a whole this document is a fine broad overview. The assessment and critiques I have are technical and involve fine distinctions. While some may want to chafe against that and say “You’re being too critical!” I would point you back to the opening of this post. Ligonier published this, ostensibly, in response to the fact that Americans are deeply confused about Christology, so the clarity and specificity of this document are important. I’m going to narrow my focus to the articles that I think are less than optimal.
Article 2 is a statement of the Son’s eternal divinity. It correctly affirms that the Son is consubstantial with the Father, but fails to note that the Son and Father share a singular nature. Given that this is not a document on Triadology, I suppose this is sufficient, however as it is written does not exclude Tritheism (and thus does not exclude Mormon theology).
Article 4 is the first article that I had any major concerns about. The affirmation in this article is excellent and I would not change a single word. It is essentially an extract from the Chalcedonian Definition, and explicitly states that Christ is a single divine person. Where I have some concerns is in the denial.
We deny that to distinguish between the two natures is to separate them.
While this certainly is in line with Reformed thinking when read prima facie, I have commented in the past that there is a concerning lack of clarity regarding the way Ligonier, and Dr Sproul specifically, speaks about Christ’s natures. While I have joyfully come to the conclusion that this is a matter of infelicitous speech, words have meanings and the language we use often times shapes our thinking on a subject. While Dr Sproul has clearly stated, and as the affirmation of this article clearly states, that Christ is a single person… his language often treats the natures of Christ as though they were personal subjects. I often find that those who have received their primary theological education by listening to and reading Dr Sproul are confused on this vital aspect of Christology, and this denial may unfortunately add to that confusion by giving formal support to the semi-Nestorian way of speaking.
Article 6 is interesting, and to be honest I’m not sure exactly what to make of it. This is one of those areas that I think will unfortunately add to the lack of clarity rather than subtract from it.
We affirm that Jesus is the perfect and supreme image of God, and that to be truly human is to be conformed to His image.
At first blush this seems to have no issues. However, according to the Explanatory Essay, this is the first article regarding Christ’s humanity. So that would lead me to conclude that when it says that Jesus is the perfect and supreme image of God, that they are referring to him according to humanity. However, the proof texts that they select are generally understood to be a reference to the Son according to his divinity. The fact that the second clause is a reference to being truly human (a sort of strange insertion of Anthropology into this Christological statement) bolsters the idea that we are talking about Jesus according to humanity. I’m left asking the question, what about those who are not Christians? Are they subhuman? What about those in eternal punishment, are they no longer human? What implications does this have for the unborn?
Article 7 begins with an affirmation of Christ’s true and genuine humanity. It goes on to say that Christ shares in our infirmities. While this article in itself has no issues, there seems to be some inconsistency with the denials of Article 9. While it is clear from the context that Article 9 is denying that Christ’s human nature was corrupted or oriented toward sin, on its face it denies that Christ “inherited from Adam the effects or consequences of Adam’s fall or that He had in His humanity the corruption of original sin.” The structure of the sentence seems to indicate that the effects or consequences of Adam’s fall are a separate consideration from the corruption of original sin. Thus it is saying that Christ did not inherit the effects or consequences of Adam’s fall, nor was his humanity corrupted by original sin. However, this seems to be contradictory to the affirmation of Article 7 which indicates that he shares our common infirmities. Unless Ligonier is willing to say that those common infirmities are inherent in the human nature, rather than a consequence of the fall, we have a problem. If asked “Could Christ have become sick or injured?” we come up with different answers between Article 7 (Yes) and article 9 (No). This is one of those areas where I am tempted to say “I’m being too nit-picky” but am reminded again that these are professional theologians writing formal theology that will shape a generation of Reformed thinkers.
Article 14 is a straightforward statement of Sola Fide. However, I think it again suffers from a lack of clarity. The statement “a sinner is declared righteous before God by faith alone in the person and work of Christ alone, apart from any personal merit or works” seems at first to be no problem. However, I would not that it is not by faith alone that we are declared righteous. It is through faith alone that we are declared righteous. God does not look at our faith and say “because you have faith, I am declaring you righteous.” Rather, faith is the instrument through which his grace is extended. It is by grace that we are declared righteous, through the instrumental means of faith.
There is a third component to the statement that I will not be treating in detail. That is the Explanatory Essay. This essay lays out the structure of the Statement, and provides a rationale for its existence. That rationale is what I want to spend a little time on.
As I mentioned above, this document is intended to supplement and clarify previous creedal statements. While there are a few articles that are clearly responses to Modernist and Postmodern thinking, most of them are not. The essay is self-conscious of the fact that people like me will ask this question. Why do we need this document? Apart from the articles I mentioned which address issues that came after the Reformation, there is nothing in this statement which is not simply a restatement of the theology of the Nicene and Chalcedonian Definition. I would also add that these issues were codified and crystallized in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Furthermore, as I pointed out above, some of these restatements actually are less clear than the aforementioned documents, or add confusion by connecting things in a strange way.
While it is true that every generation needs to take the patterns of sound words it has inherited from the previous generation, compare it to Scripture, and reform that which is found lacking… it seems to me that when we do this we ought to point back to that which is not found lacking rather than attempting to rephrase or repackage it. I think that the generation of “Reformed” Christians who are unaware of the Westminster Standards, the 3 Forms of Unity, the Savoy Declaration, or the London Baptist Confession of Faith would be better served by Ligonier if they simply pointed to those confessions rather than giving them something new. Rather than foster a return to the historic confessions of our faith, this new statement will likely supplant them (which I’m sure is contrary to Ligonier’s intentions).