Contemporary Issues in the Christological Methods


Millard Erickson emphasizes, in the history of the church, the most heated debate in Christology has been over the person and work of Jesus Christ. Erickson then presents several views pertaining to the “quest of historical Jesus,” and “Christology from above and below” illustrating how, “Some theologians have researched the life of Jesus based on their determination that Christ cannot be both human and God, while others either understood Christ from above, grounded in the church’s proclamation, or from below, basing their view of Christ on historical investigation.”[1] Against this framework of theologies, Erickson contends only, “A perspective utilizing faith to interpret the history of Jesus found through reason, may provide the most adequate Christological methodology.”[2] This is a crucial starting point in the debate, because an understanding of this principle is fundamental for Christians to comprehend. In addition, Christians must also grasp how and why a proper understanding of the person and work of Christ is rooted in the doctrine of humanity and sin.

The search for the historical Jesus attempts to uncover what Christ was actually like, but this liberal theological position attempts to view the Gospels as being unconsciously fabricated and Jesus as being a non-miraculous figure. Adolf von Harnack was a proponent of this view contending, “Jesus’s message was primarily not about Himself, but about the Father and the kingdom. [Harnack believed:] firstly, in the Kingdom of God and its coming; secondly, in God the Father and the infinite value of the human soul; thirdly, in the higher righteousness and the commandment of the love.”[3] The major distinction in this view came from Martin Kähler, who noted that the Jesus of history, the Jesus found in the Gospels had very little influence. Kähler further exhibits how, “[during Jesus’s earthly ministry, He] was able to win only a few disciples, and these to a rather shaky faith. [However,] the Christ of faith has exercised a very significant influence. This is the risen Christ, believed in and preached by the apostles. This historic Christ, rather than the historical Jesus, is the basis of our faith and life today.”[4] The search for the historical Jesus continues to this day, but as Erickson demonstrates, these endeavors have been marred by significant flaws and have been based on anti-supernatural presuppositions and unusual historical assumptions.[5]

As Erickson explains, “Christology from above was the basic strategy and orientation of the earliest centuries of the church… when there was no question as to the historical reliability of the whole of Scripture.”[6] Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, and Emil Brunner were proponents of this view characterized by: “the basic understanding of Christ not being historical Jesus, but the kerygma, the church’s proclamation regarding Christ. [Additionally,] there is a marked preference for the writings of Paul and the fourth Gospel over the Synoptic Gospels. [Finally,] faith in Christ is not based on nor legitimized by rational proof.”[7] Erickson illuminates one accepts historical statements by being rationally persuaded, thus accepting proclamation by faith. Erickson then explains how, “Brunner emphasizes the Christ in the flesh, but does not ignore the Christ after the flesh. For although faith never arises out of the observation of facts, but out of the witness of the church and the Word of God, the fact that this Word has come ‘into flesh’ means that faith is in some way connected with observation.”[8] Essentially, this means the picture of Jesus must always be present in both the witness of the church and in Scripture. The major problem with this approach is subjectivity and the sustainability of belief. Erickson then poses a great question to demonstrate the weakness behind this approach: “Is commitment to the kerygmatic Christ based on what really is, or is it an unfounded faith?”[9]

Christology from below or “the new search for the historical Jesus” attempts to discover a Jesus who was a human being and much more, despite previous “Jesusologies,” which found Jesus to be a human being and little more. Wolfhart Pannenberg, in Jesus – God and Man, while noting some benefits to the Christology from above approach, offers three reasons why he could never employ this method: “The task of Christology is to offer rational support for belief in the divinity of Jesus, for this is what is disputed in the world today; Christology from above tends to neglect the significance of the distinctive historical features of Jesus of Nazareth; and Christology from above is possible only from the position of God Himself, and not for us.”[10] Pannenberg further illustrates, “If we rest our faith upon the kerygma alone, and not upon the historical facts of Jesus’s life as well, we may find ourselves believing not in Jesus, but in Luke, Matthew, Paul, or someone else.”[11] Upon this premise, Erickson explains, “If kerygma is solely what one’s faith is put in, the remainder of the New Testament witnesses do not give us unity, but diversity, and on occasion even antithesis, [so] we must penetrate beyond these varied witnesses to discern the one Jesus to whom they all refer.”[12] The major issue with Christology from below has to deal with establishing its historical contentions with objective certainty. Essentially, as Erickson points out, “The real point of Christology from below has been compromised when one begins to appeal to such concepts as the need to naturalize reason.”[13]

A final alternative approach is offered by Erickson, which attempts to unite Christology from above and Christology from below, so as to preserve the best elements of both while minimizing the problems of each. The goal is combine the kerygmatic Christ and the historical Jesus with faith and reason. Erickson’s approach recognizes, “Since the Jesus of history is approached through reason and the kerygmatic Christ is seized by faith, we are apparently dealing with a case of the classic faith-reason dichotomy. Whereas in the traditional form, faith and philosophical reason are involved, here it is faith and historical reason.”[14] This alternative model is not Christology from below, which ignores kerygma. Nor is it Christology from above, which fails to recognize the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, Erickson presents a model that displays the historical Jesus being the confirmation of the Christ of faith. This model allows, “Neither the Jesus of history alone, nor the Christ of faith alone, but the kerygmatic Christ as the key that unlocks the historical Jesus, and the facts of Jesus’s life as support for the message that He is the Son of God. [Thus,] faith in the Christ will lead us to an understanding of the Jesus of history.”[15] Erickson’s model addresses the weaknesses of the other model and synthesizes each of the model’s strengths to present this alternative approach, which passes all tests of logic and reason.


Brunner, Emil. The Mediator. London, UK: Lutterworth, 1934.

Elwell, Walter A. ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2001.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2013.

Kähler, Martin. The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Publishing, 1962.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus – God and Man. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1968.

von Harnack, Adolf. What is Christianity? New York, NY: Harper & Bros., 1957.

[1] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology. 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2013), 603.

[2] Erickson, Christian Theology, 603.

[3] Adolf von Harnack, What is Christianity? (New York, NY: Harper & Bros., 1957), 33.

[4] Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Publishing, 1962), 65-66.

[5] Erickson, Christian Theology, 616.

[6] Ibid., 608.

[7] Emil Brunner, The Mediator (London, UK: Lutterworth, 1934), 158 & 172.

[8] Erickson, Christian Theology, 609.

[9] Ibid., 612.

[10] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus – God and Man (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1968), 35.

[11] Pannenberg, Jesus – God and Man, 25.

[12] Erickson, Christian Theology, 610.

[13] Ibid., 613.

[14] Ibid., 613.

[15] Erickson, Christian Theology, 615.