How we understand the name(s) Jesus Christ

When I think of the second person of the Trinity, I’ve always had a tendency to think of Jesus as his human name and Christ as his divine name: two names for his two natures. In theology school, I encountered the terms “the historical Jesus” and “the Christ of faith”, which seemed more or less the same thing, although with a different nuance. Even though I knew that Christ was Greek for Anointed (although I never saw the etymological relationship to chrism till just now, look at that), so that one might also reasonably say Jesus the Christ, I still had this human/divine thing going on with the two names.

Last time my class met, we discussed the pneumatology of Clark Pinnock, which really crystallized something that’s been slowly dawning on me all semester. Jesus as the Anointed One has to have been anointed with something — and that something was the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the Anointing of Jesus.

Pinnock points to the baptism of the Lord as the point at which he became the Christ: but he very clearly emphasizes that he is not talking about the hypostatic union here. He is not an adoptionist, believing that Jesus of Nazareth was no more than human until he was baptized and the Spirit of the LORD came upon him and rested on him; he holds to the orthodox faith articulated in the Nicene Creed that Jesus was the incarnate Son of God from the moment of his birth/conception.

No, what Pinnock is pointing at here is that the work of salvation was accomplished by means of a partnership between the Son and the Spirit. This makes sense to me, and I think it not only respects, but highlights, the distinctive roles that the Son and the Spirit play in the economy (that is, ad extra, God’s interactions with creation). The Spirit is “the Lord, the giver of life, who has spoken through the prophets”: the economical work of the Spirit is to bring the divine into the life of creatures. The Son became human in the incarnation, and thus assumed our human nature: the economical work of the Son is to bring the finite, creaturely, and human into the life of the divine. But the specific work of salvation, of atonement (whatever your theory of atonement), required the explicit collaboration of Son and Spirit, and was carried out by neither alone.

Of course, I’m being sloppy with language here: traditional teaching has it that the nature of our Triune God is such that none of the Persons ever does anything “alone”, and all three Persons are subjects who undertake each action of the Godhead. But at the same time it is common and reasonable to speak of certain roles or actions as distinctive to one Person or another, while remembering the perichoresis that is always going on in the background.

Perhaps a better way to make the point I’m trying to make is to say that the work of atonement (construed broadly, including justification, sanctification, deification/theosis) was/is wrought through an explicit coming-together of the distinctive works of the Son and of the Spirit.

So the name Jesus Christ really isn’t first human name, last divine name. The name reflects this explicit coming-together of the distinctive works of the Second and Third Persons of the Trinity by which our salvation is/was accomplished.

Jesus Christ, Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Anointed One, (Jesus, the God-Human) Anointed with (the Spirit, the Life-Giver) is Risen Today — Alleluia!

Updated to add: Raymund Schwager, in Must There Be Scapegoats?, makes a statement that is consistent with the “collaboration” point that I was trying to make, although he comes at it from a different angle:

Both [the Son and the Spirit] are sent by the Father and condition each other in their workings on earth.

(221, emphasis mine).

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7 Responses to How we understand the name(s) Jesus Christ

  1. Theophrastus says:

    So, one interpretation of moshiach (annointed/messiah) here would just be king or priest, as per Exodus 30:25-30.

    I guess my question is: are the other messiahs in the Bible also annointed by the Holy Spirit? For example, King David (2 Samuel 5:3), or the Persian King Cyrus (Isaiah 47:1)? (Note that the latter is explicitly described as being annointed by God.)

    • Andrew says:

      “So the name Jesus Christ really isn’t first human name, last divine name. The name reflects this explicit coming-together of the distinctive works of the Second and Third Persons of the Trinity by which our salvation is/was accomplished.”

      I like this reasoning. Thank you (and alleluia!)

    • Hi Theophrastus,

      One of the things I learned over the last year, in my Trinity class I think, is the idea that the understanding of Jesus as Christ that emerged fairly early in Christianity was really a combination of three separate potent symbols in the Tanakh as interpreted by the Judaisms of the time: messiah, son of man (apocalyptic figure), and son of God. So I would be a little hesitant to directly equate Christ here with moshiach.

      However, that caveat aside, I’d say two things about the anointing of kings like David and Cyrus. First, I believe that kings were generally anointed physically as part of the rite of kingmaking, and that this anointing had something like a sacramental significance — the anointing being symbolic of the king being chosen or approved by God.

      In terms of whether these kings were anointed by the Spirit: one of the things that’s come out of my studies this semester is that, in the Tanakh, it’s often said that the Spirit of the LORD “came upon” someone, who is thereby temporarily empowered to perform particular actions (eg, the Judges) or to speak on behalf of the LORD (eg, the prophets). What is distinctive about the baptism of Jesus is that the Spirit descended upon him and abided with him, rested on him, tabernacled with him. He was filled with the Holy Spirit and that presence stayed with him until he “gave up his spirit” in death on the cross.

      Without doublechecking the scriptural references, my sense is that David and Cyrus were anointed by God in the sense of having been chosen by God; and that the Spirit of the LORD came upon David (I’m not sure about Cyrus) on certain occasions in his life; but that they were not anointed with the Spirit in the same way that Jesus was.

      The favor of the LORD rested on David, though, in an abiding sense as formally described in the Davidic covenant, of which Jesus is considered to be heir.

      • Theophrastus says:

        I gave the wrong scriptural reference — I meant to write Isaiah 45:1:

        In the NABRE:

        Thus says the LORD to his anointed,* Cyrus,
        whose right hand I grasp,
        Subduing nations before him,
        stripping kings of their strength,
        Opening doors before him,
        leaving the gates unbarred:

        with the footnote saying:

        Anointed: in Hebrew, mashiah, from which the word “Messiah” is derived; from its Greek translation, Christos, we have the title “Christ.” Applied to kings, “anointed” originally referred only to those of Israel, but it is here given to Cyrus because he is the agent of the Lord.

        So this is the source of my confusion. I can understand your point of view with reference to the Fourth Gospel and the Epistles: Christ is divine.

        But I’m less convinced about the Synoptic Gospels and Acts. Here, it seems to me that that the term is being used to describe a king-messiah.

  2. Well, following Pinnock here, I am *not* equating the anointing of Jesus with the Holy Spirit at his baptism (which is in the synoptics and I’m particularly being influenced by Mark 1, because that’s the gospel in the lectionary for this year) with Jesus’ divine nature, either due to the hypostatic union from the time of his conception (Matthew and Luke), or to the pre-existence of the Son since the Beginning (John).

    I think Pinnock might describe this as a missional anointing, more similar to the Spirit of the LORD coming upon one of the Judges than like the anointing of a king.

    And I didn’t go here in the original post because it was outside the scope I was aiming for, but I certainly don’t identify the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit within Jesus as something that makes him distinctively divine, because my tradition also teaches that all (confirmed/chrismated) Christians are also indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The chrism with which we are physically anointed is a sacrament (efficacious sign) of the anointing of the Spirit. So I see this as distinctively Christian (ie, since Pentecost and the original outpouring of the Spirit onto the infant church), rather than distinctively divine.

    I don’t know if that helps clear things up; there’s also more I’m thinking about this in connection with the paper I’m working on, so that may be contributing to the confusion!

  3. J. K. Gayle says:

    Pinnock’s such a refreshing, free thinker! He was someone who found himself early in the tradition I grew up in (Southern Baptist) but who went much, much further to the point of receiving heaps and heaps of criticism. So when you talk of Pinnock, of his theological and hermenuetical
    constructs, you’re talking about a learner-teacher who’s somewhat of a moving target.

    In Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit, a later work and his “magnum opus” according to some, Pinnock opens the chapter on “Spirit & Christology” by making several points:

    Anointing by the Spirit is central for understanding the person and work of Jesus–more central than theology has normally made it. Christology must no lack for penumatology. The Gospel narratives portray the Spirit as working actively in every phase of Jesus’ life and mission. The title “Christ” itself signifies anointing — in this case by the Spirit. Jeesus is the Christ, the Anointed One, and therefore he said when inaugurating his mission in Nazareth, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Lk 4:18). Jesus was a man of the Spirit. Peter sums it up: God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit…. (Acts 10:38).

    Here Pinnock does not bring up the Greek explicitly, as you do (i.e., to make the connections with “chrism”). But he is quoting Luke, who is having Jesus read aloud from the scroll of Isaiah, but it’s in Luke the Greek translation from the Septuagint. Likewise, the writer of Acts is having Peter speak Greek, probably a Greek resonating theologically from the LXX as well. So the connections you make to “chrism” and the references that Theophrastus has made to “moshiach (annointed/messiah)” seem very important to explore. Depending on the language (Hebrew or Greek) and on the contexts (Alexandria, Athens, Jerusalem, Rome), there can be radical shifts in meaning and interpretation. Pinnock’s points, at least in the little excerpt above, suggest a “new” and “New Testament” spin on the Greek LXX translation of parts of the Hebrew Bible. Tracking and tracing this history, in interfaith conversations, seems helpful to me.

    Thank you for your post, Victoria!

    • Thanks for your comment! I’ve got Flame of Love out from the library right now even though it was not quite to the point of my research paper, because it did look very good.

      The contextual shifts in the meanings of christos and moshiach that you mention make sense to me; but I think they would need to be explored not only in the Septuagint but also in the extracanonical, intertestamental literature that seems to have been influential in the Judaisms of the time. Although come to think of it, I don’t have any sense of how this literature was used. Was it read in synagogues? Was it included in codices(?) with the other Greek works that didn’t make it into the Jewish canon, but did in the Christian canon? Or was it just circulated more popularly, like, oh, Dickens serials or something? Do we have works that were written about these works?

      (The more we know, the more we realize we don’t know!)

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