The Character Of Christ: Two Nineteenth-Century Critics Of Classical Christology -- By: Glenn T. Miller

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 05:2 (Spring 1988)
Article: The Character Of Christ: Two Nineteenth-Century Critics Of Classical Christology
Author: Glenn T. Miller


The Character Of Christ:
Two Nineteenth-Century Critics Of Classical Christology

Glenn T. Miller

Professor of Church History,
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

The nineteenth century was a period of Christian reexamination. Traditional habits of thought and life, especially those conflicting with newer democratic ideals, were scrutinized, often found inadequate, and new social and intellectual arrangements were proposed. In America, where a violent revolution marked the end of British rule and of the union of church and state, the critical spirit was particularly strong. Almost every reform—socialism, feminism, health diets, water cures, herb medicine, anti-slavery, revivalism, and education—had its advocates. In his “Man the Reformer” Emerson noted:

In the history of the world, the doctrine of Reform has never had such scope as it has at the present hour. Lutherans, Herrnbutters, Jesuits, Monks, Quakers, Knox, Wesley, Swedenborg, Bentham, in their accusations of society, all respected something—church or state, literature or history, domestic usages, the market town, the dinner table, coined money. But now all these and all things else hear the trumpet, and must rush to judgment—Christianity, the laws, commerce, schools, the farm, the laboratory; and not a kingdom, town, statue, rite, calling man or woman, but is threatened by the new spirit.1

Traditional Christian teaching on the Person and work of Christ was caught up in the passion for reform. Some American Christians wanted to reconstitute Christology so as to make Christ less distant and more our companion, brother, and friend. Two pastors, William Ellery Channing and Horace Bushnell—both actively involved with the other issues of their day—made significant contributions to this republican Christology. Despite deep philosophical, theological, and denominational differences, both saw the “character” of Christ as the cause and reason for trust in Him. For Channing, Christ was primarily an educator, teaching the truth in word and example, while for Bushnell, Christ was the mirror in which the nature of God was reflected.

Christ the Educator

William Ellery Channing (1770–1842) was typical of a generation of New England ministers.2 Raised in Newport, Rhode Island, he had the good fortune to sit under the ministries of the broad Calvinist, Ezra Stiles,

later president of Yale, and of the Edwardsean, Samuel Hopkins. Like other young New Englanders destined for the ministry, Channing attended Harvard College (class of 1798) where he studi...

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