Book review: “The Many Faces of Christ”

I believe The Many Faces of Christ: The Christologies of the New Testament and Beyond by Ben Witherington was another recommendation made by Goodreads that was eerily on-point. OK, so many you don’t have to have too complicated a machine learning algorithm to figure out that I like to read some good scholarly work on Christian theology and history. But I am quite pleased whenever I glance to the sidebar on Goodreads and find a book I wish I were reading right now.

When I judged the book by its cover, I was anticipating that the book would highlight how different New Testament authors understood Christ. The idea that the apostles may have viewed him differently– or even that the early apostles and disciples had differences of opinion or gospel understanding at all– may be a new or foreign concept to Latter-Day Saints. From my perspective, I grew up thinking that the gospel as preached in the scriptures and across the pulpit was one great whole, without breaks or overlaps. I could jump from the Old Testament to the Book of Mormon to a general conference talk, and assume they were all just continuing the same conversation. Surprise. Recent authors I have read, such as Peter Enns, have helped changed my perspective to view the scriptures as a library. There are different genres and different authors in the scriptures, and they had different purposes and different understandings of God, different contexts, and different agendas in writing. Witherington does a painstaking job at parsing apart how New Testament authors understood Christ. There was a great podcast over at LDS Perspectives on the Gospel of Mark, talking about how it portrayed Christ a lot more human that the other gospels, and that it focused more on what Christ did rather than what he said. The author being interviewed even said that Mark would be like the stake president who would probably go against protocol and let the homeless sleep in the chapel for a night or two if they needed it.

The Many Faces is different than a lot of other books I’ve read recently in that it doesn’t seem as geared toward a general audience. From the first couple pages, I got overwhelmed in how dense it was, but I’m glad I was able to plow through. It got easier over time, but man, scholarly talk turns you off sometimes. He meticulously identifies every name by which Jesus Christ is identified by each author, to show how some many use The Lord, while other authors may be more comfortable with just Jesus or Son of Man. Some fall into disuse over time, while others become more common as a gentile audience comes to the fore. One thing that often made it difficult to follow is Witherington will cite scripture references without directly quoting them in the text and assume you were able to read them. I wasn’t able to have the scriptures open side-by-side as I’m reading this on the bus, so I just kind of got the gist and moved on. Probably missed some things, but hey.

Witherington’s conclusion is excellent. I like getting down into the weeds of things too, but his overall picture is beautiful. He states four main conclusions after poring over New Testament references of Christ:

1. There is a great deal of very high Christology, including the predication of theos of Christ in various strands of tradition in the New Testament… The ascription of not only divine functions and attributes but also divine names and titles is not a development that can be said to have arisen only in the last decade of the first century.

To clarify, I believe high Christology refers to viewing Christ as God, and low Christology refers to viewing Christ as human. Latter-Day Saints accept without thinking the significance of the incarnation. We don’t realize the tangle it got the early Church into, as it seems to be a major sticking point in the early Church councils. Witherington too seems to agree that both are important.

2. Any evolutionary view of the development of Christology– for example from low to high Christology– is unsatisfactory and probably historically inaccurate.

Some have accused Christianity of inventing Christ’s divinity after his death, so you would expect the source material to reflect that evolution. Witherington shows that this trend isn’t found within the scriptures, and is quite consistent in even the earliest documents.

3. There are various Christologies in the New Testament, and they do not blend or dovetail nicely together.

Witherington includes a really beautiful analogy here of how to view all these different understandings of Christ:

Perhaps the model of the sun with various beams radiating out from it is more apt than the linear development model. Some of the beams are closer together and more similar in intensity than others… All these christological expressions were later deemed by the church to be true light, but not all are on the same wavelength nor do they illuminate the same subjects.

Finally,

4. Some christological forms proved more serviceable than others when Gentiles began to become the majority in various congregations.

Specifically, it seemed that gentiles didn’t like the term Son of Man or the suffering servant motif of Christ, and these kind of fell to the wayside later on for terms like Lord Jesus Christ.

May I add here at the end an interesting note on the early Church. Witherington notes:

The agendas of the New Testament writers were not always, some would say not often, the agendas of the later formulations of the creeds. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that these councils said anything that really contradicted what the New Testament sources said or suggested, except perhaps in the matter of the impassibility of God. By and large these councils were simply extrapolating what was implied in various New Testament texts, or putting together ideas that were found separately in different New Testament texts. In other words, the fathers were undertaking the task of systematic theologians more than that of exegetes.

Another example of how the councils differed from the New Testament authors was that they used negative formulations (what Christ wasn’t) rather than positive expressions (what Christ was). This difference of agendas is interesting. And if you were say, a James Talmage, writing his book The Great Apostasy, you might be quick to cite such a change as evidence of the apostasy. Latter-Day Saints don’t even use the word theology that much, because it seems tainted. For that reason, it might be why our doctrine is so hard to formulate and sometimes had contradicting strands: we haven’t systematized it for nearly as long. But before we point the accusing finger of apostasy, we should be quick to note that our doctrinal development also saw a change after Joseph Smith died. His creative approach to theology and active state of revelation gave way to a mode of preservation rather than innovation, just like these early church fathers did. Something to think about.

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