James L. Papandrea. The Earliest Christologies: Five Images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. See here to purchase the book.
James L. Papandrea teaches church history at Garrett-Evangelical
Theological Seminary, which is at Northwestern University. Papandrea
has a Ph.D. from Northwestern University.
The Earliest Christologies is about the different beliefs
about Jesus and Christ after the time of the apostles. The book focuses
on the second century C.E., but it also refers to issues and
personalities from the third-fourth centuries C.E., and occasionally to
the New Testament.
Papandrea discusses five Christologies. First, there was Angel
Adoptionism. Angel Adoptionism maintained that an angel inhabited and
empowered the man Jesus at Jesus’ conception. This form of Adoptionism
tended to accept the virgin birth of Jesus.
Second, there was Spirit Adoptionism. Spirit Adoptionism held that
the Holy Spirit anointed Jesus at Jesus’ baptism. This form of
Adoptionism tended to reject the virgin birth.
Both forms of Adoptionism differentiated between the man Jesus and
the spiritual “Christ” who empowered him, meaning that they did not
regard Jesus as divine. They thought that the supernatural empowered
Jesus as a reward for Jesus’ piety and obedience to God’s law: Angel
Adoptionism believed that God foresaw Jesus’ obedience and rewarded him
at conception, whereas Spirit Adoptionism held that God rewarded Jesus
later in Jesus’ life, at his baptism. According to Papandrea,
Adoptionism was primarily accepted by Jewish Christians, who were
monotheistic and upheld obedience towards the Torah.
Whereas the Adoptionisms treated Jesus as a mere man who was
empowered by the divine, the third and the fourth Christologies that
Papandrea discusses went to the other extreme: they maintained that
Jesus was fully divine, not human. Docetic Gnosticism held that Jesus
was a phantom, one who only appeared human but actually was not. Hybrid
Gnosticism, however, thought that Jesus had a body, albeit an ethereal
one rather than a human one. Both of these Christologies believed that
Jesus pre-existed his coming to earth and was a deity who had an origin
from other deities. Whereas Adoptionism believed in one God and
recoiled from any idea that a god could be created, which were possible
reasons that it was embraced by Jewish Christians, the Gnosticisms
thought that gods could be created; thus, the Gnosticisms were more
consistent with paganism. Papandrea also discusses the ethical
implications of the Gnosticisms, as some Gnostics took their contempt
for the flesh in a hedonistic direction (have fun, for the flesh does
not matter, anyway!), and other Gnostics suppressed the flesh through
According to Papandrea, these four Christologies largely rejected the
idea the Christ suffered. Both Adoptionisms maintained that the
spiritual “Christ” left the man Jesus before Jesus died. Although there
were some Hybrid Gnosticisms that accepted that Christ suffered, many
thought that Christ shed his body and escaped suffering. Papandrea also
states that these four Christologies largely rejected the bodily
resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The fifth Christology that Papandrea discusses is the one that most
Christians today embrace: Logos Christology. According to this view,
Jesus pre-existed his coming to earth and was the divine Logos, the son
of God the Father. God the Logos became incarnate in Jesus, who was
fully human and fully divine during his lifetime, and who remained so
even after his resurrection. For Papandrea, this position was the
position of the apostles, and it was the majority, mainstream position
in second century Christianity. At the same time, Papandrea
acknowledges that it became refined and crystallized through its
encounter with alternative positions. Papandrea argues that Logos
Christology is a balanced position, and he implies that it lacks the
deficiencies of the other four Christologies.
Here are some thoughts about this book:
A. While Papandrea embraces Logos Christology, he empathetically and
clearly explains what was at stake for the adherents of the five
positions. He could be repetitive, but some readers can use repetition,
or at least reminders. The book is lucid. It may be appropriate for
undergraduates, albeit undergraduates who have learned basics about the
New Testament and early Christianity.
B. Papandrea distinguishes between paganism and Judaism,
particularly on issues pertaining to monotheism and divinity. While
that distinction may have some validity, there may have been cases in
which paganism and Judaism overlapped, even on these issues. Papandrea
demonstrates awareness of this possibility, for he does mention Jewish
ideas about the logos and wisdom. The reason that this issue is
significant is that some scholars have argued that Gnosticism may have
been a Jewish phenomenon, or may have existed within Judaism, whereas
Papandrea appears to treat it as largely Gentile, without really
engaging contrary scholarly perspectives.
C. Is Papandrea correct that Logos Christology is the position of
the New Testament? On the one hand, Papandrea asserts this, without
really demonstrating it. Granted, something like Logos Christology
exists in the Gospel of John and in Paul’s writings, but what about the
New Testament writings that do not explicitly depict Jesus as
pre-existing, or the passages that may imply that Jesus became the Son
of God at his resurrection? Papandrea in one place disputes that the
Gospel of Mark has Adoptionism, but he does not really offer support for
his position. On the other hand, Papandrea does well to argue, or to
refer to the possibility, that some of the New Testament writings (i.e.,
I John, Hebrews) actually argue against non-Logos Christologies.
While there may be some forms of Adoptionism in New Testament
writings, the New Testament appears to differ, overall, from the second
century positions of Angel Adoptionism and Spirit Adoptionism, for the
New Testament presents Jesus Christ as suffering and rising again. That
may add support to Papandrea’s view that Angel Adoptionism and Spirit
Adoptionism were stray positions, untrue to the mainstream. (Robert M.
Price has a different view, however, contending that there are traces of
docetism in the New Testament, and even traces of the view that Jesus
did not even die.)
D. Papandrea argues that the second century church fathers regarded
Jesus as God, and as eternally existing. Bart Ehrman seems to present a
different picture in How Jesus Became God, but, even in
Papandrea’s book, there are some indications that things may be more
complex than Papandrea’s narrative would imply. On page 100, Papandrea
states that “all of the apologists and theologians before Novatian had
assumed that the ‘begetting’ (or generation) of the Son from the Father
was an event that took place at some point in eternity
before creation.” Specifically, the view was that the Son existed as a
thought in the mind of the Father, until the Father spoke the Son as a
word, thereby begetting the Son. Papandrea still believes that these
theologians and apologists regarded the Son as eternal, for he says that
they believed that the Son had eternally existed prior to his being
begotten, but he existed in the Father’s mind. On page 120, however,
Papandrea says that Theophilus of Antioch (second century) believed that
the Son was a thought in the Father’s mind until he was begotten, and
that his successors concluded from this that the Son did not actually
exist prior to the time that he was begotten: that the Son had not
always existed, but rather came into existence at a certain point.
Should not this cast at least some question on the notion that the
apologists and theologians before Novatian necessarily assumed that the
Son had eternally existed, prior to his being begotten?
E. One may think that I am saying that Papandrea retrojects Nicene
Christology onto the New Testament and second century C.E.
Christianity. That would not be entirely accurate, though. Papandrea
acknowledges some messiness: he notes that there were second century
Christians who tended to conflate Christ with the Holy Spirit, for
example. Papandrea also discusses the Christology of the Shepherd of
Hermas, in his chapter on Angel Adoptionism. The Shepherd of Hermas did
enjoy some popularity within early Christianity (though it also had it
critics), and one may inquire if that casts some question on, or at
least should qualify, Papandrea’s overall picture: of the apostles
holding and passing down some “orthodox” position (however rudimentary),
which became mainstream, and some teachers strayed from that.
F. Was Logos Christology the mainstream, majority position in the
second century C.E., or at least the position held by most bishops and
theologians, as Papandrea states on page 85, referring to Tertullian’s
Prescription Against Heretics 1? There may be something to Papandrea’s
narrative, even though (as I said above) there may be factors that
should qualify it. Perhaps there was a majority Christian teaching, and
some within the church held that they could uncover esoteric secrets
underneath that teaching, secrets that would be accessible to the few.
The esotericism of Gnosticism may go against it being the majority
position. Still, did that majority position advocate a particular
G. A question that I had in reading this book: if Logos Christology
was so perfect and covered all of the bases, addressing the inadequacies
of the other positions, and Logos Christology came first, then how did
those other Christologies even arise? Were they raising concerns that
had already been successfully answered? Papandrea may say that Logos
Christology existed prior to the other positions, but in a rudimentary
form, and it was primarily in contrast with the other positions that its
implications became clearer. Or perhaps one could say that Logos
Christology existed first, but people still found it to be
unsatisfactory: some still had a problem with God becoming flesh, or
with a man being divine, so they developed alternative Christologies.
H. An interesting feature of Papandrea’s book is that it discussed
how some of the non-Logos Christologies changed in response to
developments. When John 1 became more accepted, for example, people who
denied Jesus’ pre-existence had to deal with that, since John 1
presents Jesus as pre-existent. Some of them went the route of saying
that Christ in John 1 pre-existed in the Father’s mind as a plan, but
not as an actual person.
I. I have read books that cover the Arian controversy, but, from
this book, I learned that there may have been Adoptionist aspects to
J. Although, in this review, I have criticized Papandrea for not
always supporting his points, there were many instances in which he
did. For instance, against scholars who question whether Gnosticism had
both ascetic and hedonistic tendencies, Papandrea offered a compelling
defense that it did. Papandrea also discussed the significance of that
within the historical and cultural context.
This book is slender, but it has a lot of information.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.