Given the prominence of temple Christology in the New Testament, we’d expect to find it developed among the church fathers and medieval theologians. Athanasius develops Christology from this angle (Letter 60). The Arians, he says, “approve the former people [the Jews] for the honor paid by them to the Temple, but they will not worship the Lord who is in the flesh as a God indwelling a temple . . . And [the Jews] did not, when they saw the Temple of stones, suppose that the Lord who spoke in the Temple was a creature; nor did they set the Temple at nought and retire far off to worship. But they came to it according to the Law, and worshipped the God who uttered his oracles from the Temple. Since this was so, how can it be other than right to worship the body of the Lord, all-holy and all-reverend as it is, announced by the Holy Spirit and made the vestment of the Word . . . . Therefore, he that dishonors the Temple dishonors the Lord in the Temple; and he that separates the Word from the body sets at nought the grace given to us in him.” As Gary Anderson, who quotes this passage in a 2008 article in Letter & Spirit , observes, Athanasius sees a very close analogy between the God-in-temple and God-in-flesh.

Anderson notes, however, that Christology soon fell out of favor. In the hands of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius, the temple analogy becomes a model for a Christology that posits an “extrinsic” relationship between the Son and His humanity.

In a footnote, Anderson quotes a section of Theodore’s commentary on the Nicene Creed: “It is not divine nature that received death, but it is clear that it was that man who was assumed as a temple to God the Word which was dissolved and then raised by the one who had assumed it. And after the crucifixion it was not divine nature that was raised but the temple which was assumed, which rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, and sat at the right hand of God; nor is it to divine nature—the cause of everything—that it was given that every one should worship it and every knee should bow, but worship was granted to the form of a servant which did not in its nature possess (the right to be worshipped). While all these things are clearly and obviously said of human nature, he referred them successively to divine nature so that his sentence might be strengthened and be acceptable to hearers. Indeed, since it is above human nature that it should be worshipped by all, it is with justice that all this has been said as of one, so that the belief in a close union between the natures might be strengthened, because he clearly showed that the one who was assumed did not receive all this great honor except from the divine nature which assumed him and dwelt in him.”

He argues that Leo the Great reacts by raising questions about the temple model itself: “For Leo it is crucial that there be no division between God and man in the person of Jesus Christ. As a result, the Temple-metaphor as deployed by the Antiochene school is allowed no place at the table. In Leo’s mind, Nestorius had effectively divided the in-dweller (God the Son) from the dwelling (Jesus as man) and hence ruled out any direct comparison of Jesus to the Temple.”

Instead of Christ, Mary becomes the temple: “with Mary, the extrinsic element of the Temple metaphor is altogether apt and fit. She does not become God but she does ‘house’ God in the most intimate way imaginable. Here, the extrinsic manner of relating God to Temple is put to good use. In late Byzantine hymns to Mary the Tabernacle/Temple imagery reaches new heights. The cult of Mary in the medieval period is greatly indebted to this development of the Temple figure

Temple models of Christology don’t fall out of favor altogether. Bede finds Christology everywhere in his discussion of the tabernacle. But it appears that the temple Christology no longer plays a role in dogmatic discussions of Christology, and is reserved for allegorists and mystics.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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