Review: The Earliest Christologies, by James Papandrea

James L. Papandrea, The Earliest Christologies: Five Images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016. 144 pp. $18.00 (paperback)

Kevin W. Wong, Wheaton College


            A student attending seminary or Bible college, with their incredibly condensed historical theology courses, might get the impression that Christology did not see much development until after Arianism: Forced to respond to this heresy, the Church had to then refine and test their theological definitions. However, in his book The Earliest Christologies: Five Images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age, James Papandrea challenges that impression by giving a survey of five different views of Christology in the postapostolic age. And while the reader is justifiably suspicious of an easy rubric with categories exhibiting firm, clearly discernable borders, Papandrea insists that these five views are rather points on a spectrum as emphases that grant us an interpretive matrix to judge family resemblances.


            Neither the book as a whole or its chapters are long, making this a convenient read. The introductory chapter outlines the need for this book: Most other studies focus upon the speculative cosmologies of the postapostolic age to the neglect of explicit treatment of Christology. Papandrea argues that an investigation focusing on Christology not only elucidates the rise of later heresies, such as Arianism, but it also clarifies our understanding of Gnosticism. For example, responding to Michael Williams and Karen King’s contention that scholars ought to rid of the term ‘Gnosticism’ since there was not a unified intellectual movement, Papandrea argues that shared Christological views unify this wide array of disparate beliefs into two major camps (20). Papandrea then offers several insightful principles by which the reader can better understand the five views he will describe. First, each view struggles with the dilemma between Christ’s apparent humanity and apparent divinity: To emphasize one nature is to challenge the other. All five views agree that we, humanity, needs a mediator for reconciliation, but disagree on what is meant exactly that Christ is the mediator and how he would obtain reconciliation. And finally, the five views are generated by different metaphysical assumptions about divinity: Must divinity be uncreated? Is divinity a categorical or degreed phenomenon? Does divinity entail immutability and impassibility?

The body of the book is dedicated to the five different views laid out in a spectrum: First, the two forms of Adoptionism on one extreme, then the two forms of Gnosticism on the other extreme, and finally the orthodox view in the middle of the spectrum. Each of these explanatory chapters share the same format of an introduction, a description of the view, a section on their major historical proponents and documents, then concluding with a summary and implications.

To preserve the immutability and impassibility of divinity, the two forms of Adoptionism maintain Jesus’ humanity and deny his divinity. The first view is what Papandrea calls Angel Adoptionism, the view that the human Jesus is adopted to be a son of God by being indwelt by the spiritual Christ, a created spiritual being—either an angel or something like it. The second view, Spirit Adoptionism, is similar except that the human Jesus is anointed by the Christ who is identical with the Holy Spirit. In this respect, the human Jesus is not unique at all among the OT prophets who were likewise empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Conversely, the two forms of Gnosticism preserve the immutability and impassibility of divinity by denying Jesus’ humanity. The first view under this school of thought is Docetism and Docetic Gnosticism. This group is unified by one of two beliefs: It is possible that Jesus had a body but that he was not really human or both Jesus’ humanity and corporeality were illusory. Docetism proper preceded Docetic Gnosticism and continued in its pure form after the emergence of the latter. Docetic Gnosticism is a syncretism that incorporated the Gnostic emphasis on secret knowledge and elaborate cosmologies with their complicated pantheon of deities. These two are put together in this chapter because of their shared Christology. The second view is Hybrid Gnosticism. This is also more of a collection of beliefs than a singular school of thought. Here, many doubted that Christ could suffer and die, but if he could it is only because he “puts on” or “bears” Jesus as a temporary garment shielding him, the cosmic mind, from the passion. Both versions of Gnosticism viewed the human body as something to be discarded rather than valuable. That then has implications upon ethics, leading to asceticism and neglect for the poor or outright hedonism.

The above four views are similar to one another in that they all distinguish between Jesus and the Christ in some way. Even the Docetism and Docetic Gnosticism view, for the reality is the Christ and the human Jesus is illusory. Salvation and resurrection are also skewed along with this dichotomy. For example, Papandrea argues that the salvation of humans is impossible on the Docetic views since it was not a human enacting atonement. Or for the adoptionist views, if one human being could by sheer effort gain favor with God, then so can all others, leading to a form of legalism. Further, an actual bodily resurrection may make no sense to these schools of thought

Thus the orthodox view, the Logos Christology, is unique in that it not only preserves the immutability and impassibility of divinity while insisting upon the authentic humanity of Jesus, but it also identifies Jesus and the Christ as one and the same person. This view is unique among all others for its acceptance of all Scripture and asking how it is all true rather than which ones are true. Historically a common objection from the orthodox to these other views is that the latter distorts Scripture by picking and choosing select texts. Additionally, this is the only view that has a true Incarnation since the union between the divine and human natures are permanent: The resurrection means Jesus comes back to life in a physical, human body. All other views are mere indwellings or inhabitations, and temporary ones at that. Further, salvation is secured for humans since it does not promote Jesus as a merely moral or spiritual exemplar nor is humanity something to be discarded by enlightenment.

Papandrea’s concluding chapter draws out several implications. First, why did the orthodox Christology win? The answer: Apostolic succession. One could easily discern which is the more faithful teaching by seeing whom the apostles favored as being faithful. Logos Christology also won out for being the middle way, of being capable of preserving both the divinity and humanity of Christ. It accepted all Scripture and asked how they can be true rather than which passages are true, embracing mystery in that regard. Further, he ties Christology with anthropology together: How one views Christ will ultimately affect how one views humanity. And finally, he traces the legacy of these views, showing them to be the precursors for later heresies, including those unwittingly accepted by the contemporary Church.


            As I am not a historian, I am not qualified to judge whether Papandrea’s research is accurate or not. I leave that for specialists. However, I do think I am qualified to comment on the conceptualization and communication.

First, Papandrea is fairly clear and thorough in his descriptions of the five views. The rubric that presents the features that distinguish one view from another along a spectrum is understandable and informative. He avoids using more traditional terms, such as ‘Ebionite’ or ‘Marcionite’ since these labels on their own are not informative of the exact nature of the problem and are often used as a catchall that blurs the distinctions between the groups (23), and instead uses his own, far more descriptive labels.

Further, the book is resoundingly thought-provoking, for the depictions of these various views confront the contemporary Christian and her various misconceptions, and even inadequacies. For example, depending on how it is parsed out, a Spirit Christology of the sort that we find in New Testament studies is a helpful corrective to the systematic theological tendency to abstract Jesus from both his humanity and Jewishness. He was a human empowered by the Spirit to do mighty works to fulfill the office of prophet. Yet, the views surveyed in this book is a warning against too much of an emphasis on such a view lest we deplete the divinity of Jesus.

Additionally, Papandrea’s analysis that the underlying Christological commitments informed the theological anthropology of the various proponents is to be praised. Too often theological anthropology is conducted without Christological consideration, as though Christ was not an important source of information for this doctrine. So Papandrea’s analysis that all five views bearing anthropological implications was insightful, if not also terribly uncomfortable. For example, if it is the case that Christ was not truly human and discarded the physical shell that was Jesus, then what is the chief end of humans like you and I? If it is merely to shed the mortal coil, what motivation do we have for supplying for poor, hungry bodies? Suddenly, certain contemporary eschatological views are not so attractive any more.

However, I have potentially two complaints concerning the rhetoric of Papandrea’s book, both relatively minor. The first complaint that might emerge among readers is the repetition of this book. It can be tedious to read and then re-read the descriptions of the views. Yet, as Papandrea is comparing views against one another to clarify and analyze, this may be unavoidable, especially for when the views are so similar as to be distinct only by a hair (compare the Gnostic versions portrayed above and you will find their conceptual distinctions to be only slightly different, even if their ethics were widely divergent).

The more substantial of my minor complaints is Papandrea’s occasion ambiguity of language. No author is perfect, least of all myself. But several examples come to mind where Papandrea could have been clearer for the sake of theological implications.

The first example is a conflation between indwelling and possession in the second chapter. In describing Angel Adoptionism, the view that the Christ is a spiritual being that comes upon the human Jesus of Nazareth, Papandrea rightly describes that “This is not an incarnation,” but curiously qualifies with the following: “but rather a possession—different from demon possession only because of the benevolence of the indwelling spiritual presence” (31). This seems confused, for possession seems to take a very specific connotation wholly unlike indwelling. The former has this sense that the possessor overrides the causal relations of the owner of a body. So if Legion were to possess poor Bob, Legion raises Bob’s arms in superhuman strength to overcome restraints—both human hands and chains. Legion may also thrust Bob’s body, against Bob’s will, into fire and water. Contrast that with our concept of indwelling. This seems to be empowerment, the shaping of character and the actualization of dormant or damaged capacities. It is the alignment of the human will with the divine will, a willing submission. Maybe such fine conceptual distinctions can be borne by Papandrea’s rubric of the one being malicious and the other being benevolent (a benevolent relationship would not override another’s causal relationships with her body, right?), but it would have been more conceptually satisfactory to not put these two in the same category and made distinct only by their underlying moral properties.

The second example is that Papandrea describes the Spirit Adoptionism—the view that Jesus is adopted as a son of God by being anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism only to have the Spirit depart at his crucifixion—as being neither an indwelling or incarnation, but rather only merely an inspiration or empowerment (35–36). Fair enough. But later, he describes a variation of this view by one Beryllus of Bostra who taught that it was the Father who indwelt Jesus. How much modification is there with Beryllus’ view? Is it merely that he swapped out the person of the Holy Spirit and inserted the Father instead? Or is it both that he swapped out the person of the Holy Spirit and inserted the Father instead and the relationship the Father has with Jesus is one of indwelling rather than inspiration/empowerment? No further description is given to clarify. Later on he returns to the language of anointing, inspiration, and empowerment (41) and concludes the chapter by highlighting that the Angel Adoptionism emphasized indwelling whereas Spirit Adoptionism emphasized anointing (42). This raises questions of whether someone’s (Papandrea’s or an editor’s) pen slipped in describing Beryllus’s view or if Beryllus made significant modifications.

The third example is where Papandrea contrasts the Logos Christology against the other four views concerning the unity of the person of Christ. Papandrea describes Logos Christology as “maintaining that the human nature of Jesus Christ suffered while the divine nature did not” (90). Such a minimalist description, however, invites questions: if the human nature suffers, does the person possessing the human nature suffer as well? Later, Papandrea explicitly states: “However, his divine nature participated in the incarnation to such an extent that it is legitimate to say that the whole person of Jesus Christ, divine and human, was born into the world through the womb of Mary and was made visible and tangible through his human body” (103), but it would have been useful if he likewise explicitly stated that the entire person is specifically involved in the passion as well. As it is for the virgin, so too is it for the cross.

The fourth example of ambiguity is when Papandrea traces the line from Gnosticism to modalism, he claims, “However, the modalist understanding of the Trinity claimed that the Father and the Son were one and the same, which effectively left no room for any real humanity in the Son” (121–22, and something similar on 123). I confess, I’m not entirely clear on this. How exactly is it the case that if the Father and the Son lack all distinctions and are completely numerically identical does that jeopardize the human nature that God assumes? I even returned to chapter four to see if he had made the conceptual maneuvers clearer there, but I did not see anything there.

Still, these examples are not fatal to Papandrea’s overall project. Still, I found reading this book to be quite enjoyable, surprising, thought-provoking, and educational. I recommend this book for any Christology course, as an assigned text for undergraduates or required background reading for graduates. I would even recommend it for adult Sunday School since many Evangelical churches I have participating in are good with presenting and exegeting individual biblical passages, but are not as adept at overall theological reasoning. Papandrea has done both the academy and the Church a service with this conveniently sized book.

My thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy.


About Kevin W. Wong

Ph.D. student in systematic theology at Wheaton College, studying with Marc Cortez.
This entry was posted in Book reviews, Historical Theology, Systematic Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

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