"The Earliest Christologies" by James L. Papandrea. A Review.

The Earliest Christologies: Five Images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age
James L. Papandrea
IVP Academic (InterVarsity Press)
PO Box 1400
Downers Grove, IL 60515
ISBN: 978-0-8308-5127-0; $18.00; May 2016
Reviewed by Rev. Dr. Michael Philliber for Deus Misereatur

Happily in the Middle; 5 Stars out of 5

If Richard Weaver was correct in positing that ideas have consequences, then in the same vein Christologies have corollaries and repercussions.  James L. Papandrea, author, speaker, musician and associate professor of church history at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary at Northwestern University, champions exactly this premise in his soon-to-be published 144 page paperback, “The Earliest Christologies: Five Images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age”. In this short, readable work Papandrea sets four aspiring Christologies, from the late first and second Centuries, beside the Christology of the mainstream or majority Church from the same period. Though at first glance this book may appear to be accessible only by professionals, the author has done an excellent job in carefully communicating his subject so that nontechnical readers will be able to easily comprehend the material.

“The Earliest Christologies” lays out two forms of Adoptionism, and two forms of Gnosticism that were raising their heads in the second Century. The author presupposes that the exponents of these Christologies “were probably sincere believers who thought souls would be at stake if their opponents won the day” and that each position grew rather organically “within the church in the subapostoloic age” (14). Further, Papandrea points out that from the very beginning of Christianity, Jesus was worshipped and “considered divine” (15). What separated the Christologies is that they began with “different assumptions about what divinity is” (16). Generally speaking, the two adoptionist positions came from a Jewish understanding of divinity, and the two gnostic programs came from a pagan understanding of divinity (109). The author, after looking at original source material, shows how each particular Christology worked out in lifestyle as well as becoming the primogenitors of later Christological and theological mutations.  

Throughout each section of “The Earliest Christologies,” and in the final chapter, Papandrea outlines what was the mainstream Christology; the understanding of who Christ was that was held by the majority of Bishops, priests and theologians (18). He also follows this prevailing position out to its lifestyle qualities, as well as to the further theological and Christological clarifications. Of the many important points that the author makes with regard to the mainstream Christology, two are worth mentioning. The first is that orthodox Christianity held neither to a high Christology (Gnosticism) or a low Christology (Adoptionism), but maintained a beautiful balance (101). Second, Jesus Christ was never separated into the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, something that both the Gnostics and Adoptionists did in their own, peculiar ways. This second theme is rightly and rhythmically drummed through every chapter.

Although never mentioned, it is clear that the author is countering recent writers who have pictured orthodox Christology as just one of many options, all on equal footing, with orthodoxy winning the day by an excessive use of power, exploitation and intimidation. Though I went in a different direction, I also addressed many of these critics a few years back in my own book, “Gnostic Trends in the Local Church” (see here). Papandrea’s calm and composed approach is masterfully done and will not leave the reader feeling as if they’ve been in a wrestling match, all tired and sweaty.

“The Earliest Christologies” is a simple, well-researched, easily readable resource that shows how earlier Christianity answered Jesus’ question, “But who do you say that I am” (Matthew 16.15)? This is a work that lands in the right places, and would be ideal for anyone looking to knowledgeably respond to Jesus’ query for themselves. It is just right for High School Christian education lessons, undergrad classes, and introductory theology courses in seminary. Bible teachers, pastors, Catechists, Professors, and disciples of Christ at most any age would benefit from the book.  I happily urge you to obtain a copy soon.

Thanks to IVP Academic for providing, upon my request, the free copy of “The Earliest Theologies” used for this review. The assessments are mine given without restrictions or requirements (as per Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255).


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