Word of the Week Wednesday: Heilsgeschichte

by Max Andrews

The Word of the Week is: Heilsgeschichte (hiyels-ge-sheek-te)

Definition: When translated from German it literally means “salvation history.”

More about the term: Heilsgeschichte is an organizing principle developed by Oscar Cullman for the various New Testament titles for Jesus. Cullman’s Christology is centered on what Jesus has done in history.

It is a characteristic of New Testament Christology that Christ is connected with the total history of revelation and salvation, beginning with creation. There can be no Heilsgeschichte without Christology; no Christology without a Heilsgeschichte which unfolds in time. Christology is the doctrine of an event, not the doctrine of natures. (Oscar Cullman, The Christology of the New Testament, rev. ed. [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963], 9).

Two ways can be used to interpret this functional Christology:

    1. A functional Christology of the New Testament, as opposed to an ontological Christology , is the truly biblical view, but it can be used to construct a more ontological Christology, since ontological concepts are implicit within the functional.
    2. It is neither necessary nor desirable to go beyond the functional approach taken by the New Testament. The New Testament Christology is normative for our Christology.
It is typically agreed that Cullman adopts the second approach. Christology is primarily a historical understanding rather than a metaphysical concern. Consider Jn. 4.2-3 when it discusses the actions of spirits coming from God and its connection with Jesus Christ (as in the work and history of). Also, Cullman highlights John’s prologue: “The Word was with God, and the Word was God” is connected with “Through him all things were made” (Cullman, 3). So, when we ask, “Who is Christ?” the New Testament never means, “What is his nature?” Cullman does his best to commit to the New Testament’s witness of Christology but making it a historical and activity issue rather than formulating a metaphysical model of the personhood and natures of Christ. (For more see Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology 2 ed., 715-720).

Example of use: When shifting the emphasis against certain heretical views of Christology, the discussion of natures is ultimately a Greek philosophical concern and not a Jewish or biblical concern–the biblical concern is Heilsgeschichte and not metaphysics.


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