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The earliest christology occurs in the New Testament itself. However, the Bible never provides a systematic presentation of this area of doctrine, although the Gospel of John comes the closest to doing so.
The golden age of Christology was the first few centuries of Christianity, marked by a series of disputes over the nature of Christ. The orthodox doctrine developed in response to these disputes, and in particular through the use of the tools of Hellenistic philosophy to attempt to refute the heretics. The major Christological controversies included:
- Docetism: Jesus did not have a physical body, but only appeared to
- Monarchianism: there is only one divine person, rather than three
- Adoptionism: Jesus was only the adopted Son of God
- Sabellianism: the three persons of the Trinity are just different appearances of the one person
- Patripassianism: the Father was crucified along with the Son; generally considered a form of monarchianism
- Arianism: Jesus was not God, but a creature, albeit the first and greatest of all creatures. Jehovah's Witnesses have a similar belief and add that Jesus was the Archangel Michael.
- Semi-Arianism: various attempts to compromise between the Arian and orthodox positions, for example the claim that Jesus was like God, but not the same as God. Mormonism is a modern version of this.
- Macedonianism: followers of Bishop Macedonius I of Constantinople — similar in their teachings to Arianism
- Nestorianism: Jesus was two separate persons in one body, one human and one divine. Mary was the mother of the human person, but not the divine person, thus the title Mother of God was inappropriate
- Eutychianism: followers of Eutyches of Constantinople — the divine and human natures in Jesus had merged into one single nature, in such a way that the divine dominated over the human, so that the resulting nature was one with the divine nature, but not one with the human.
- Monophysitism: Jesus had one single nature, rather than both a divine and human nature. This is often seen as the position of the Oriental Orthodox churches, which they adopted in reaction to Nestorianism. However, from their own perspective, this teaching condemned at Chalcedon is a misrepresentation of their own position, which they prefer to call miaphysitism.
- Monothelitism: Jesus was one person with two natures, human and divine, but only one will. This was an attempt to bridge the gap between the Chalcedonian and Monophysite positions, and was favoured by the Byzantine Roman Emperor Heraclius. However, it faced significant opposition from within the Eastern Church, and also from the Pope, and hence was rejected
- Monoenergism: Similar to monothelitism, and originating in the same historical context, it claimed that Jesus had one person, in two natures, but only one energy
The end result of this period of Christological controversy was the definition of the orthodox position at the Council of Chalcedon, followed by the rejection of monothelitism/monoenergism at the Third Council of Constantinople. After that point, major new developments in the field of Christology ceased; the Mediaevals were largely content to restate this position. Scholasticism was chiefly concerned with an in-depth analysis of the how of the unity of the human and divine natures. Even with the Protestant Reformation, the Reformers were largely content to accept the traditional Christology of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and restrict their objections to other areas of theology. For the Reformers, the in-depth Christological analysis of the Scholastics was not so much wrong as beside the point; but they were content to accept the teachings of the early ecumenical councils as an accurate statement of the Biblical doctrine. Of course, smaller sects have revived many of the ancient heresies in the modern day, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses (whose views are similar to Arianism) and Oneness Pentecostalism (whose views are similar to Monarchianism).
The major developments in the contemporary period have been:
- the distinction between Christology from above and Christology from below. The former begins with the preincarnate Christ, and then turns to the Jesus of history. The later begins with the Jesus of history, and then turns to the preincarnate Christ. This distinction does not necessarily entail a difference in final conclusions, but it does refer to a definite difference in strategies of presenting Christological doctrine in theological writing and education
- a related set of terms is the distinction between high Christology and low Christology. The former emphasises Jesus as divine, the later emphasises Jesus as human. This is a difference of emphasis, which need not necessarily result in a difference in belief, although certainly it may result in one
- A re-evaluation of the Chalcedonian consensus due to ecumenical rapprochement with the Oriental Orthodox churches. Although at the time, Chalcedon was seen as a rejection of Oriental Orthodox theology, contemporary views see the Council as rejecting a misinterpretation of the theology of those churches, and see no fundamental contradiction between Chacledonian and actual Oriental Orthodox theologies, even as they are presented in radically different terms.
Chief topics in Christology
- The relationship of the Son to the other two persons of the Trinity
- The humanity and divinity of Jesus, and how they are inter-related: how many persons, natures and wills exist in Jesus? How did the Incarnation occur? Was it necessary, or could God have provided salvation through some other means?
- The Virgin Birth
- The sinlessness of Jesus. Two questions arise here: (1) was Jesus actually without sin? (impeccantia) (2) was Jesus without even the ability to sin? (impeccabilitas). Is sinfulness, whether actual or potential, an inherent part of humanity — if Jesus is sinless, how do we reconcile that with his full humanity?
- The knowledge of Jesus. Was he omniscient; if so, how did that not knowing the day/hour thing work? Was he ignorant of any things? Was he mistaken about any things?
- Kenosis - the Son's willing self-emptying of his divine power and authority in order to become incarnate as a human being