“Who do people say that the Son of Man is” (Mat. 16:13)? This question remains as pertinent a one today as it was when Jesus asked it of the disciples. Historically the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformers didn’t disagree on the person of Christ. Reformation Christology followed the pattern set by the early Church Fathers. The point of contrast arose, however, over the sufficiency of Christ’s work. The Reformers’ recovery of the sufficiency of Christ’s work needs to be upheld by the church today.
The early church creeds had clarified in powerful terms the person of Christ. They had responded to the major Christological heresies of the centuries. Christ was the perfect and complete God-Man – without confusion of his two natures and without compromise of either. He is a part of the Triune Godhead – very God of God; but a distinct person from the Father and the Spirit within that Trinity. Various heresies had challenged these truths:
- Docetism had said that Christ only appeared to be man.
- Adoptionism had argued that Jesus was merely a man who was empowered by the “Logos”
- Modalism taught that the Son was just a different mode of the one God, not a distinct person
- Arianism insisted that Jesus was a created being
- Apollinarianism taught that the Son did not have a complete human nature
- Nestorianism said that in the incarnation Jesus was two persons – a human person and a divine person which existed alongside one another.
- Monophysitism confused the two natures of Christ and made Jesus a blend and mixture of divine and human essence. (see Stephen Wellum, Christ Alone, 252-253)
In response to such false teachings about the Christ, the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Creed formulated an orthodox framework for articulating the person of Jesus Christ. These were the accepted standards by the church (with some debate) for centuries and both the RCC and the Reformers agreed on this.
The point of departure between them arose over the issues of the sufficiency of Christ’s work. The RCC had developed its sacramental system which served as a means of justifying the sinner before God. The Reformers saw this system as a threat to the work of Christ, not a compliment to it. Dependence on relics, indulgences, the rosary, and the Mass were seen as man-made attempts to justify self apart from Christ.
It wasn’t that the church had argued for an insufficient atonement or a less than satisfactory work of Christ. As Medieval theologians saw it, there was a distance between Christ’s work and our appropriation of that work. Thomas Aquinas, for example, argued that the sacraments were necessary because it was through them that the work of Christ was applied to the believer. RCC theology saw the church as the God-appointed dispenser of salvation. The Reformers, in contrast, saw the work of Christ as completely sufficient apart from any added work, cooperation by man, or ecclesiastic aid. “Christ alone” was their cry.
The Reformers were bold in their rejection of the sacramental system. They were bold because they saw it robbed Christ of His glory, and the sinner of His security. They rejected, for example, the intercession of the saints. Zachariaus Ursinus wrote:
But Scripture teacheth not to invocate saints, or to ask help of saints, because it propoundeth unto us one Christ the Mediator, Propitatory, High-Priest, and Intercessor. This Christ is to be invocated, and he hath promised that he will hear our prayers, and liketh this worship especially, to wit, that he be invocated in all afflictions. “If any man sin, we have an advocate with God, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1) (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, 168.)
They rejected also the Mass. So, Calvin stated that the Mass “inflicts signal dishonor upon Christ, buries and oppresses his cross, consigns his death to oblivion [and] takes away the benefit which came to us from it” (quoted in Wellum, 270). Christ was all that was needed to make the believer right with God. Anything added to this undercut the very work of Christ which saves.
The exclusivity and sufficiency of Christ have remained a controversial issue among theologians and theologies today. In our postmodern climate no one can claim an exclusive means of salvation. There are “many roads to God,” and many theologies of salvation can coexist, we are told. Even among professing Christians, pluralism holds powerful sway. Furthermore, in our climate of personal independence, any salvation that rules out man’s self-betterment is dubbed harmful. We need a self-empowering savior. We are not likely to adopt the RCC sacramental system as our means of justification today, but we are not less likely to create our own system. So, salvation comes through self-actualization, sexual expression, and personal health. Our communities define our soteriology and justification for us today, even if that community is not the RCC.
In this climate we need to maintain the exclusivity and sufficiency of Christ alone. “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which they must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Jesus’ work is sufficient, He alone is our mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). He alone can save. Our climate is obviously different in many ways from that of the Reformers, and yet in many ways it is not so dissimilar. We, like them, must proclaim: Christ Alone.