No, 71% of Evangelicals Don't Reject the Deity of Christ

In a recent survey assessing the theological beliefs of lay Christians, called The State of Theology, run by the late R. C. Sproul’s ministry Ligonier, evangelicals indicated their agreement and disagreement with various theological statements. Some of these statements were expressions of orthodoxy, while others express heresy. This survey tested to what degree common evangelical beliefs aligned with Christian orthodoxy. One statement of orthodoxy is: “God is a perfect being and cannot make a mistake,” with which 87% of evangelicals strongly agreed. Likewise, most evangelicals strongly disagreed with the statement: “The Holy Spirit can tell me to do something which is forbidden in the Bible.”

Most self-identified evangelical respondents to the survey aligned with Christian orthodoxy and repudiated heresy. But there was one point of confusion regarding the statement, “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.” 71% of evangelicals either agreed or strongly agreed with this statement. Many evangelicals expressed surprise at this agreement, since the statement itself, Ligonier claims, is “False.” Ligonier explains:

“The Son of God—whom we now know as the God-man Jesus Christ—is God and was in the beginning with God (John 1:1). He is from all eternity and has always existed according to His divine nature (John 5:58; Col. 1:19). Thus, the Son of God, according to his divine nature, is uncreated, and there has never been a time when He did not exist.”

Everything in this explanation is true, except for one thing. Many evangelical theologians and amateur theologians have decried the evangelical agreement with this statement. A lot of the rhetoric generated around the rejection of this statement is a condescending condemnation of the average lay evangelical—as if those who read the survey are the minority of critical-thinking, sharp, orthodox theologians, while the rest of evangelicals are uneducated and uninformed heretics. I don’t think this is the case. I think that the outrage against the evangelical agreement with this Christological statement does not reflect widespread Arianism within the church. And I think that the common acceptance of the notion that this data implies such is in fact diagnostic of the amateur state of modern theological readers who are not able to see the problem with this data.

Predicates Are Based on Nature

Before we explain why 71% of evangelicals strongly agree that Jesus was God’s first and greatest created being, we have to understand the Reformation concept called the communicatio idiomatum, which means “communication of properties.” This concept indicates that whatever properties we predicate of the second person of the trinity, those properties are always according to a certain nature. Accordingly, there are certain predicates which are proprie of God—meaning that they are proper, or literally true of him—and other predicates which are improprie.[1]

When we predicate realities about God—that is, when we make claims about his nature—we explicitly describe a particular nature. In the case of the second person of the Trinity, this person has two natures—divine and human. The Chalcedonian creed describes it this way:

“one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably

the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

We can make two observations here. First, whenever we speak of the second person of the Trinity, we must be very clear about which nature we are describing. Are we describing the divine nature or the human nature? In order to be nuanced about our Christology, whenever we make a claim about the second person of the Trinity, we must clearly indicate which nature about which we are making a claim. It’s very easy to confuse the divinity of the second person of the Trinity, the humanity of the second person of the Trinity, and the exalted lordship of the second person of the Trinity, which are three different realities, the latter two of which are spoken according to his humanity.

Second, we must be sensitive to the unique monikers that each domain has accumulated to itself in order to indicate which nature is being spoken about. Traditionally—and this is true in the Nicene Creed, Chalcedonian Creed, and Athanasian Creed—when you want to refer to the divinity of the second person of the Trinity, you refer to him as “The Son,” when you want to refer to the humanity of the second person of the trinity, you refer to him as “Jesus Christ,” and when you want to refer to his post-humiliation, resurrected, exalted attributes, then you refer to him as “Lord.”

There is one person at the epicenter of all these predicates, which accumulate to the divinity of Christ, the humanity of Christ, and the exaltation of Christ—the divinity according to his divine substance, and the humanity and exaltation according to his human nature. This is why the Chalcedonian creed uses all of these predicates to indicate claims about all of these realities—“one and the same Christ, Son, Lord.” For example, when the Athanasian creed describes the divinity of Christ, it refers to him exclusively as “Son”:

But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord.

The Athanasian creed doesn’t even mention the name “Jesus Christ” until they explain the human nature of Christ:

Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man … Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood into God. One altogether; not by confusion of Substance [Essence]; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead.

This idea is called the commmunicatio idiomatum is the doctrine that properties are predicates of the Son according to each nature (divine and human), yet while maintaining a strict respect for the distinction between those natures.[2] David E. Wilhite provides a straightforward summary of the doctrine: “Things pertaining to Jesus’s human nature can also, via the incarnation, be spoken about ‘God’ and vice versa.”[3]

The Ligonier Statement

This brings us to Ligonier’s survey in The State of Theology. The original statement on which evangelicals gave their agreement or disagreement was this: “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.” Should this statement be in an orthodox Christian creed? No. But the problem comes in their explanation of the falsity of the claim:

“The Son of God—whom we now know as the God-man Jesus Christ—is God and was in the beginning with God (John 1:1). He is from all eternity and has always existed according to His divine nature (John 5:58; Col. 1:19). Thus, the Son of God, according to his divine nature, is uncreated, and there has never been a time when He did not exist.”

If the statement read, “The Son is the first and greatest being created by God,” then I would, as a theologian, strongly disagree with this claim without qualification. But about this particular formula that Ligonier put forward, trained theologians and uneducated lay people may feel a sense of hesitation about disagreeing with it because of the profound respect that Christian orthodoxy gives to the humanity of Christ, which is indicated by the name Jesus.

As a confessional Christian, I of course disagree with the notion that the Son, according to his divine nature which he shares with the Father, was the first and greatest being created by God. But regarding the statement, “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God,” I do not disagree with this statement without qualification. In fact, I could conceive of several senses in which this statement is true, taken according to what it says, in light of what the words mean in light of the history of Christian theology.

Jesus the man was most certainly created by God (Matthew 1:18-25). Everything physical was created by God (Gen. 1:1; Col 1:16). According to his human nature, it is both proprie and accurate to say that Jesus was God’s greatest creation. If human beings are created in the image of God, and Christ fulfilled the potential of that image through perfect active and passive obedience, then it does not seem odd at least to say that Jesus was God’s best creation—again, using that word as it has been used in the creeds to signify reference to the second person of the Trinity’s human nature.

Therefore, the lay Christian, who might be less discerning than the trained theologian, may have sensed that in denying the superlative accomplishment of Christ’s ministry on earth, he may have committed sacrilege against the mission of God on earth. Therefore, I attribute the agreement of evangelicals with this statement not to a widespread Arianism among lay evangelicals, but to the poor formulation of the statement by the surveyors, who should have more accurately and clearly communicated the heresy with which evangelicals ought to have disagreed. As the statement stands, the words included therein do not sufficiently disambiguate the statement from truthfulness to warrant unqualified rejection by the lay evangelical.  

In what sense could Jesus be God’s first creation? Perhaps lay evangelicals conceived in their mind that the mission and idea of God’s accomplishment of the gospel prompted his activity in creation before he had created anything—that is to say, that “He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake” (1 Peter 1:20). This could be what evangelicals read in the poorly formulated statement which prompted them to strongly agree with the statement. 

Conclusion

The basic feel of how this survey has been publicly received is one of theological snobbery—that moderately trained theologians are somewhat mocking the theological ineptitude of lay Christians. And I want to push the onus of responsibility back on the survey itself by suggesting that the poor answer they received regarding Christology really reflected a poorly formulated proposal. Technically, it’s just as inappropriate to predicate eternity of the second person of the Trinity according to his humanity as it is to predicate finitude to the same person according to his divinity. That’s the unequivocal, unwavering orthodox position.

The fact is that the statement is poorly worded. It should not be included in a statement of affirmations and denials. A better statement would be: “The Son’s divinity is less divine than the Father’s” — or, perhaps, “The Son’s divine nature was created.” That was Arius’s actual view. Arius wrote, according to Socrates of Constantinople: “If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evidence, that there was a time when the Son was not.” This Ligonier survey does not indicate clearly that lay evangelicals would affirm this statement. In fact, they might have done well simply to quote Arius—if they had, I think a majority of lay evangelicals would have strongly disagreed with it.

I blame this hysteria on a poorly formulated theological assertion that ought to have expressed a heretical view better than it did in order to give due credit to the orthodoxy of common evangelical Christology. Evangelicals who read this survey data ought to stop slandering the church by accusing the average evangelical of Arianism. They ought not perpetuate the false notion that the average Evangelical rejects the orthodox conception of the divinity of Christ. They don’t. Most of them were probably just confused by a poorly worded and ambiguously articulated theological claim.

The Son of God shares a single divine essence with the Father. He is God, without beginning, eternally generated, according to his divinity. And he is a man, with a birth, a death, and an exaltation to Lord of the earth according to his humanity. His Lordship is both according to his divinity as God of the earth, and as kingly heir of David according to the flesh (Romans 1:4). He is as much God as the Father is God—and he is as much a human as we are human, as the Chalcedonian and Athanasian creeds clearly state. And this is the common belief of lay evangelicals.

FOOTNOTES

[1] For a survey of these ideas, see Jon Whitman, “The Other Side of Omnipotence: Anselm on the Dialectics of Divine Power,” The Harvard Theological Review 104, no. 2 (2011): 129-145; Ralph M. McInerny, Studies in Analogy (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1968), 42.

[2] This notion follows the Chalcedonian Creed, which dictates that the Son is “one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseperably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in the one Person and Subsistence, not parted or divided into to persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Ingolf U. Dalferth highlights the Chalcedonian grammar of the communicatio idiomatum: the Son is “both the subject component of christological statements (Jesus Christ) and the predicate component (divinity and humanity) as well as their link (Jesus Christ is vere homo et vere deus).” Ingolf U. Dalferth, Crucified and Resurrected: Restructuring the Grammar of Christology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 147.

[3] David E. Wilhite, The Gospel According to Heretics: Discovering Orthodoxy through Early Christological Conflicts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 162. Wilhite continues: “While God the Son is eternal, immutable, impassible, and immortal, he (not another subject or person) assumed human nature and aged, changed, suffered, and died in that human nature (thought not in the divine).” Wilhite later argues that without the communicatio idiomatum, there is nothing to hold a Christology back from Nestorianism (p. 164). For the historic background for much of this debate, see Andrew Louth, “Christology in the Easy from the Council of Chalcedon to John Damascene,” in The Oxford Handbook of Christology, ed. Francesca Aran Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 139–153; Brian Lugioyo, “Martin Luther’s Eucharistic Christology” in The Oxford Handbook of Christology, 267–283; Mark W. Elliott, “Christology in the Seventeenth Century,” in The Oxford Handbook of Christology, 297–314.

 
 

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