The Christological Fallacy
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, November 11, 2009 at 2:27pm
QUESTION: What is the “Christological fallacy”?
REPLY: One of the most serious threats to sound doctrine is something I call “the Christological fallacy.” It is a fallacy because it places Jesus in a role he was never intended to fill. How does it do this? It makes Jesus the SOURCE and/or NORM for all doctrine. Why is this a serious threat to sound doctrine? Because trying to look at everything through Christological lenses distorts our understanding of some if not all of the most crucial truths that we must live by.
This is a very difficult subject to talk about, because to some people it surely must seem like some kind of attack upon Jesus. It sounds almost unchristian to say something like “Jesus is NOT the source and/or norm for all doctrine.” But I assure you that this is not unchristian or impious in any way. We do not dishonor Jesus when we let him be and do those things for which the Eternal Logos, God the Son, became Jesus of Nazareth. Rather, we dishonor him when we try to make him into something he was never intended to be.
Exactly what IS the Christological Fallacy? It is the attempt to make Jesus into an epistemological principle, or to interpret his life and work primarily in terms of the KNOWLEDGE they convey to us, or to make him THE basic norm for truth.
Another way to say this is that the Christological fallacy seeks to interpret Christ’s purpose in terms of REVELATION. Revelation is an epistemological concept. It is a source of knowledge or truth. The Christological fallacy thus asserts that the main purpose of the incarnation was to reveal something to us. Christ came to show us something, or tell us something. EXAMPLE: Some years ago a church in Custer, WA, wrote to Standard Publishing to explain why they were no longer going to use Standard’s Sunday School curriculum for children: “As a church we have opted to try another curriculum that perhaps will be more in line with the doctrine of our church. We believe that Jesus came to be an example for us to follow and did not operate as the Son of God, but rather as he called himself, the son of man. Man had fallen so far from his original position that Jesus’ life was a real contrast and example of what God wanted man to be like. Yes, Jesus is special—He died and rose from the dead for us. He went to heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to live in us so that we might BE like Him.”
This fallacy identifies the revelation that comes through Christ (rather than the Bible as a whole) as the PRIMARY and NORMATIVE source of our knowledge of God and his will. Some who hold to this fallacy accept other forms of revelation, but they say Jesus is the normative revelation, the basic norm for truth by which all other alleged truth must be judged. This is the concept of “the canon within the canon”: even the rest of the Bible must be judged by the life and teachings of Jesus. Some go further and say that Jesus is the ONLY revelation (e.g., Karl Barth).
This is a distorted view of Christ and his purpose. It presents a portrait of Christ that is out of focus. The proper portrait is very different. Revelation was indeed ONE of the purposes for which Christ came. (See John 1:9, 17; 14:9; 18:37; Heb. 1:2.) It is indeed proper to say that the incarnate Christ, during the time of his earthly ministry, was the highest FORM of revelation this world has ever known. Thus we properly speak of Jesus as PROPHET, indeed, one greater than Moses himself (Deut. 18:18; Heb. 3:3).
But revelation was not Christ’s primary work, much less his only work. REDEMPTION was. See Matt. 20:28; Rom. 3:24-25; 1 Cor. 15:1-4; Phil. 2:5-8; 1 Tim. 1:15. Christ came as a remedy for SIN, not for ignorance as such. In medical terms, what he provided for us was medicine or even surgery, and not just eye-glasses.
God’s primary means of revelation for us today is the BIBLE. The Bible is revealed knowledge from God and about God–but not just God in his role as Redeemer, i.e., as the incarnate Christ. The Bible is God’s word to us–the word of the Creator to us as creatures, as well as the word of the Redeemer to us as sinners. Whatever revelation has come to us from Jesus of Nazareth falls within the broader scope of the total revelation of the Bible. As Redeemer, Christ is unique; as Revealer, he is not. His revelation, as grand as it is, is just part of a larger package (the Bible) that has just as much authority and is just as much a source and norm for sound doctrine as anything that comes from Jesus specifically.
From the above discussion it should be clear that the Christological fallacy leads to a false view of the Bible as such; it distorts many doctrines, especially the doctrine the atonement; and it distorts ethics in many ways, e.g., by providing a false basis for pacifism.