In discussing apologetics and philosophy as an Evangelical Protestant it all boiled down to one question: “What do you believe about Jesus Christ?” All errors within Christianity related to errors in Christology – theology regarding the person, nature or work of Jesus Christ. What church someone attended or even what religion or philosophy they aligned themselves with were less fundamental, and were matters that a sound Christology would eventually align with the truth.
While this can be applied in a manner which is too simplistic, it is a good starting point for evangelistic conversations; what complicated speaking with those who aligned themselves with Latter Day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses or Seventh Day Adventists was that clear articulations of Christology don’t come from the Bible alone – remember, these groups come from Protestantism, identify themselves as Christian, recognize Jesus as their savior and the Bible as inspired and authoritative. Historic, orthodox Christology is based on the Bible, but many Christological truths we now view as basic fundamentals weren’t fully developed until centuries later. The first seven to eight hundred years of Christianity saw significant doctrinal development, especially in the first seven ecumenical councils. Some of the development arose as an orthodox response to heresies (like Arianism, Macedonianism, Nestorianism, Pelagianism and Monothelitism) regarding Christology, Pneumatology and/ or the Trinity, and other parts of doctrine that developed as an orthodox articulation of truths (like the consubstantiality – homoousion – of Christ, the eternal sonship of Christ, the human nature of Christ through the Theotokos, the hypostatic union of Christ and the theopaschite formula regarding Christ within the Trinity).
Examples of how personally interpreting the Bible (under the auspices of Sola Scriptura) can lead to Christological error come from within Evangelical/ Fundamental Protestantism. A prominent example in the U.S. would be Rev. Dr. John MacArthur, who used to teach incarnational Sonship – denying the eternal Sonship of Jesus Christ. He has since come to believe the historic, orthodox doctrine of the eternal Sonship of Christ, and in his retraction he wrote,
“In fact, many aspects of these truths may remain forever inscrutable, but this basic understanding of the eternal relationships within the Trinity nonetheless represents the best consensus of Christian understanding over many centuries of Church history. I therefore affirm the doctrine of Christ’s eternal sonship while acknowledging it as a mystery into which we should not expect to pry too deeply.” (emphasis added, MacArthur, Reexamining the Eternal Sonship of Christ).
As you read the entire article, you will notice how Sola Scriptura had led him into this error, and how a church father and consistent historic interpretation helped to lead him to Biblical orthodoxy. When one realizes the subtle error that Rev. Dr. MacArthur originally fell into, despite his years of Biblical study and theological education, it is not an occasion for triumphalism, but a sobering reminder that Christianity was meant to be personal within the real, historical continuity of the body (church), under the head (Christ) – not in an emergence of each person and their interpretation, alone. As it is written, “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (2 Peter 1:20, 21 – RSV)
Within the official documents of the Catholic Church, I found that the proclamations of faith and morals from the ecumenical councils were viewed as Spirit-led, infallible dogma. I also found these historical, Biblical, conciliar and decredal Christological truths consistently applied throughout the Catechism. For instance we read,
“We believe and confess that Jesus of Nazareth, born a Jew of a daughter of Israel at Bethlehem at the time of King Herod the Great and the emperor Caesar Augustus, a carpenter by trade, who died crucified in Jerusalem under the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of the emperor Tiberius, is the eternal Son of God made man. He ‘came from God’, ‘descended from heaven’, and ‘came in the flesh’. For ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. . . And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace.’ (CCC 423)
…and we read,
“To preach. . . the unsearchable riches of Christ”
The transmission of the Christian faith consists primarily in proclaiming Jesus Christ in order to lead others to faith in him. From the beginning, the first disciples burned with the desire to proclaim Christ: “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” And they invite people of every era to enter into the joy of their communion with Christ: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us- that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete.”
At the heart of catechesis: Christ
“At the heart of catechesis we find, in essence, a Person, the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, the only Son from the Father. . .who suffered and died for us and who now, after rising, is living with us forever.” To catechize is “to reveal in the Person of Christ the whole of God’s eternal design reaching fulfillment in that Person. It is to seek to understand the meaning of Christ’s actions and words and of the signs worked by him.”‘ Catechesis aims at putting “people . . . in communion . . . with Jesus Christ: only he can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity.” (CCC 425 – 426)
Sound Biblical, conciliar and decredal Christology is the cornerstone of authentic, official Catholic teaching. A detailed study, like my own, will show you that this is consistent and has always been the case with official Church teaching. As the Catechism says, “From this loving knowledge of Christ springs the desire to proclaim him, to “evangelize”, and to lead others to the “yes” of faith in Jesus Christ.” (CCC 429)
It is a dogmatic fact that,
Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation. “Since “without faith it is impossible to please [God]” and to attain to the fellowship of his sons, therefore without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will anyone obtain eternal life ‘But he who endures to the end.’” (CCC 161, cf. CCC 389, CCC 432)
This witness includes ongoing, current statements against Christological errors in statements like the following,
These methodological positions lead to a seriously reductive and misleading interpretation of the doctrines of the faith, resulting in erroneous propositions. In particular, the epistemological choice of the theory of symbol, as it is understood by the Author, undermines the basis of christological dogma, which from the New Testament onwards proclaims that Jesus of Nazareth is the Person of the divine Son/Word who became man. (Notification on the book “Jesus Symbol of God” by Father Roger Haight S.J. by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith)
Logically, I began to find the cross-referential testimony of Sola Verbum Dei (sacred Scripture, sacred Tradition and the Magisterium) less circular than the doctrine of the infallibility of sacred Scripture alone, and a better reason to believe. Particularly in light of the “alone” portion being a self-contradicting theological development, with no textual support and a basis in a dispute with a few dubious individuals over a millennium and a half after Christ. As the Doctor of the Church, St. Jerome, said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ” (Prologue of the Commentary on Isaiah, Nn. 1.2: CCL 73, 1-3). Reading the official Catechism of the Catholic Church – a book as full of scriptural citations as any work of systematic theology – demonstrated that the Catholic Church is not ignorant of Scripture or Christ.