A Critical Review of Donald Macleod’s “The Person of Christ”

by | Jun 1, 2017 | Book Reviews, Reformed Theology, Soteriology

Introduction

Do the ancient creeds of Nicea and Chalcedon accurately describe the person of Christ? Is He truly, very God and very man as these documents teach? Donald Macleod, principal and professor of systematic theology at the Free Church of Scotland College in Edinburgh, Scotland, defends the reliability of these creeds against the onslaught of higher criticism in his book The Person of Christ. Macleod states, “This book…reflects my belief that the great creeds, far from betraying the gospels, faithfully encapsulate their central concern to portray Jesus as the incarnate Son of God” (15). Concerning his approach, Macleod begins his treatment of Christology with one that is “from above” and not “from below.” As he states himself, “The New Testament, almost unanimously, presents us with a Christology from above. It starts from the side of his deity, not from that of his humanity” (22). Part one, then, covers the deity of Christ while part two covers His humanity.

Summary

Chapter one deals with the meaning and defense of the virgin birth. Macleod shows how the virgin birth is a miraculous sign that points to the supernatural nature of Christ and the gospel message, the judgment on sinful man, and a new humanity. It also serves to teach us about the divine sonship of Christ, His sinlessness, and the positive roles of the Holy Spirit and Mary. In chapter two, Macleod moves backward one logical step from the virgin birth to the pre-existence of Christ. The Gospel of John, the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Pauline corpus of writings, and parts of the synoptic Gospels provide enough evidence for even the skeptic to conclude that Jesus possessed a self-consciousness prior to His being sent into the world by the Father. But can Christ’s pre-existence be affirmed apart from His deity? Macleod says no: “no formal distinction can be drawn between deity and pre-existence” (57)…A person who was divine could not but be pre-existent. His godhead proved that he could not have come into being in 4 BC” (70). Chapter three presents the reader with a necessary implication of Christ’s pre-existence: His divine sonship. Macleod begins by explaining the term monogenes hyios as it relates to Christ: it refers to the uniqueness, and not the begottenness, of Jesus. He then goes on to deny any ontological subordinationism in the Son and affirms the co-equalness of the Son with the Father. He does, however, affirm economical subordination as it came to be in the covenant of redemption. Chapter four deals with the reliability of the church’s witness to the deity of Christ. Macleod argues that the Jesus of history is the Christ of faith. The written testimonies of the early church concerning Jesus are both genuine and reliable, but only the testimony of the Holy Spirit will persuade men of their divine authenticity. Macleod comments, “Scholarship can give a substantial vindication of the facts, but it cannot enable us to see compelling beauty in the face of Jesus. That is possible only when God the Father, through the Holy Spirit, shares with us his own view of his Son” (118). Chapter five is concerned with explaining the theology of and circumstances surrounding the Nicean Creed’s famous declaration that “Christ, as the Son of God, was homoousios (consubstantial) with the Father” (121). The Arian heresy, which denied Jesus’ self-existence, eternity, and co-equality with God the Father, was the reason for such a statement to be drawn at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. If Christ was not God, Christianity was a failed and doomed religion. Macleod then goes on to define the contours of the Son’s consubstantiality with the Father: He is a distinct person, He was eternally begotten of the very essence of the Father (what he terms ‘eternal sonship’), and He was eternally generated, not originated or made. Macleod next explains that homoousios means that the Father and Son are “one being and one God” or “identically one and the same substance” (139), defines perichoresis in this manner: “within the one godhead the three persons co-inhere in each other and interpenetrate each other” (140), argues that filioque should be understood as the procession of the Spirit from the Father and Son relationally, not causally, and affirms that the essence of the Son and the Spirit is autotheos and not subordinate to the Father’s in any way.

Chapter six begins part two of the book, which is entitled “Very God, Very Man”—Chalcedon & Beyond. In this chapter he covers the incarnation. The heresies of Docetism and Apollinarianism drove the early church to formulate its doctrine of the incarnation around two premises: “Christ took a true human body and he took a reasonable human soul” (161). In other words, Christ partook of all human attributes, including ignorance and emotions, save sin alone in order to save us “from alongside us” (180). Chapter seven addresses the relationship of Christ’s two natures in the Council of Chalcedon. The heresies of Nestorianism and Eutychianism were combatted with the formulation of the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures. This formula encapsulates three truths: “that Christ is one person; that the union between his two natures arises from the fact that they both belong to one and the same person; and that this one person, the Son of God, is the Agent behind all of the Lord’s actions, the Speaker of all his utterances and the Subject of all his experiences” (189). Macleod ends with an extended discussion of the communication idiomatum in the person of Christ and the enhypostasia of His human nature. Chapter eight deals with the concept of kenosis. In this act of making Himself nothing, Christ did not abandon, retract, or transpose certain attributes of His deity to assume humanity but instead the pre-incarnate Christ, who “occupied a position of the highest imaginable eminence” (212), did not insist on His rights to be served, worshipped, and glorified but voluntarily veiled His glory and made Himself nothing (or vanity) by taking upon Himself a human nature and dying under the curse and wrath of God. Chapter nine touches on the inherent and actual sinlessness of Christ. It is to be remembered that He assumed a perfect human nature, not a fallen one, when He entered into a state of humiliation. Finally, chapter ten presents several modern approaches to the doctrine of Christ divorced from the Chalcedonian Creed. Denials of the incarnation, resurrection, and uniqueness of Christ from different nineteenth and twentieth-century theologians are discussed and dismantled by Macleod.

Critique

            Macleod certainly interacts with the entire spectrum of Christological issues and their differing viewpoints in this book. The sheer breadth of the theologians he quotes from and is conversant with is quite impressive. In other words, Macleod has done his homework! But if his goal was to uphold the creeds of the past, I think he was close but missed the bullseye of his target. As stated in the introduction of this paper, Macleod declares his belief that the Nicaean and Chalcedonian creeds “faithfully encapsulate [the gospels’] central concern to portray Jesus as the incarnate Son of God” (15). It is true that throughout this book Macleod constantly battles against those who reject these ancient confessions of faith in order to vindicate them as true summaries of what the Bible teaches concerning the person of Christ. I heartily commend him for entering into the arena of higher criticism and coming out the victor. But in the process, he does seem to modify or even reinterpret certain concepts and terms in these creeds to fit his own theological system. Nowhere is this illustrated more clearly than with Macleod’s understanding of the Son’s begottenness.

Macleod is quite clear about rejecting the historical and traditional meaning of the begottenness of Christ. Though he affirms His eternal sonship and begottenness, Macleod takes a modern approach to understanding the term monogenes. He states, “But what is that concept? There is little doubt that monogenes expresses the uniqueness of Jesus. He is the only one of his kind” (72). He goes on to ask,

But is there a uniqueness more fundamental than that the Son is uniquely loved? Is he uniquely loved because there is something either in the origin of his existence or in the mode of his existence that is unique? It is extremely doubtful where monogenes by itself refers to uniqueness of origin (73).

He also states that monogenes carries with it little conceptual content: “It is doubtful that begotten adds anything to Son, apart from laying down that he is Son in a unique way” (73). In another place he states,

The problem, as we have seen, is that although we know that the Son is distinguished by the fact that he is begotten, we know little or nothing of what divine begottenness is. It carries us little beyond, ‘Is the Son of’…The truth is, we are lost. We know that the Son is distinguished by the fact that he is begotten, but we do not know what begotten is” (137).

He then concludes,

The following conclusions, then, seem safe. First, monogenes says nothing about origins because the Son is unoriginated. Secondly, it emphasizes the uniqueness of Jesus’ sonship. Thirdly, this uniqueness consists in four things: he is an object of special love, he is the Father’s equal, he is the Father’s likeness and he is an eternal, not an adopted, Son (74).

Here are my issues with such an approach:

(1) This sort of agnosticism to the term mongenes is absolutely unnecessary. Certainly, if begotten only means “unique” I can understand the mountainous problems Macleod faces. All one would know is that the Son is unique from the Father, but the content of that uniqueness remains shrouded in mystery and only slightly revealed in God’s plan of redemption. If begottenness is stripped of derivation, causation, or origination, this term really has no meaning at all! In fact, “Son” loses all its practical meaning as well! We do, however, know what this term means if we don’t limit its definition to merely “unique” but include the necessary ideas of generation and subordination. Etymologically, there is a good case to be made that monogenes is related to gennao and not ginomai. Although he asserts the opposite, he is mistaken. The King James Version does not “probably rest on a misapprehension” (73) but on the correct interpretation of the word. Sadly, he even goes so far as to quote Raymond Brown, avowed critic of the orthodox faith, to back up his claim! If Macleod would simply allow begottenness to retain its etymological and historical meaning, the derivation and subordination of the Son to the Father would serve as a key distinction between the two divine persons. Begottenness then would supply us with rich content that helps explain the personal distinctions inherent in the immanent Trinity.

(2) Macleod seems to think that the Patristic Fathers believed in an ontological subordination of the Son to the Father which tainted not only their writings but also their creeds. He says that “Christian orthodoxy has been only too willing to allow a subordinationist strain to remain in its own confession, just beside the insistence on Jesus’ deity” (76). He quotes Chrysostom as saying, “If anyone say that the Father is greater, inasmuch as he is the cause of the Son, we will not contradict this.” But Chrysostom was not saying this about the Son’s essence but His person! There is a whole world of difference between saying that the Father is greater than the Son according to His subsistence rather than according to His being!

(3) Though Macleod believes the Greek fathers were wrong to translate monogenes as “only-begotten,” he later criticizes the modern-day theologian Hugh Montefiore for not opting to translate apaugasma as “effulgence” like the Greek fathers did by stating, “The Greek fathers (who, after all, spoke the language) were surely in a better position to evaluate such grammatical niceties” (79). But didn’t virtually all the Greek fathers translate monogenes as only-begotten? If so, Macleod may benefit from a taste of his own medicine!

(4) At times Macleod seems to oppose the very thesis he sets out to defend. His stance is this: “If the Son and the Spirit are God then they are unoriginate (agenetos), that neither generation nor procession can mean origination and hence that all talk of derivation and causation are inappropriate (145).” But he admits that the general position of Patristic theology (and by implication the express teaching of the ancient creeds of Nicaea and Chalcedon) was that the eternal generation of the Son implied derivation, and therefore some sort of subordination (76). Isn’t Macleod contradicting and even arguing against his own claim that these documents “faithfully encapsulate [the gospels’] central concern to portray Jesus as the incarnate Son of God” (15) when he unwittingly charges them with incorrect views on the Son’s generation? The fact is, talk of derivation and causation are in these creeds, and if Macleod is consistent, he would have to call them (or at least parts of them) “inappropriate” instead of “faithful” to the teaching of the New Testament, thereby undermining his entire thesis and siding with the Enlightenment instead of the early church.

(5) It seems to me that Macleod functions as if the categories of subordination are only economical and ontological. It appears that he entirely bypasses the category of subordination of hypostases/modes of subsistences. This is seen when he fails to distinguish between the persons of the Trinity and the being of the Trinity as he denies generation and subordinationism. He claims that since Christ is the eternal Son He has no origin. That of course is true concerning the Son of God’s essence. He is homousias with the Father and autotheos. But what about the Son’s hypostasis? Is his personal subsistence without origin as well? Macleod says nothing. He has no issue with affirming an economical subordination of the Son to the Father brought about in the pactum salutis but goes no further than that. He explicitly states this when he says, “New Testament subordinationism is federal, not ontological” (78). But what about hypostatical? Again, this category seems to be missing from Macleod’s understanding.

(6) Macleod believes the language of derivation and origination “is fatal to the co-equal deity of the Son” (144). He thinks it creates “a totally asymmetrical Trinity in which the Father held the essence underived, while the Son and Spirit held it as derived from him” (144). He accuses John of Damascus and Augustine of enmeshing themselves “hopelessly in the language of causality” (144). For him, this language was influenced more by “Origen’s subordinationism” (145) than by biblical exegesis. Any hint of causality within the godhead reeks of “tritheism” (144). Since generation and procession have nothing to do with causality, Macleod believes “there is nothing inherently shocking about” speaking of the Son proceeding from the Father and Spirit (147). In fact, the Father Himself “owes it to the Son and Spirit that he is what he is (Father) as much as they owe to him and to each other that they are what they are (respectively Spirit and Son)” (149). Although Macleod attempts to avoid the pitfall of essential subordinationism, he falls into another by erasing any distinctions within the Godhead. If causality implies tritheism, Macleod’s view implies modalism!

Conclusion

            In conclusion, Macleod’s treatment of the person of Christ is generally balanced and in line with the creedal statements of Nicea and Chalcedon. Though I disagree with him on his view of the Son’s begottenness and believe he strays from the ancient creeds at this point, his overall defense of historic Christian beliefs against the theologians of the Enlightenment assists the modern-day church in its proclamation that God descended from heaven and assumed flesh “for us men and for our salvation” (250).

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