Nestorianism and the Church Growth Movement, by Pr. Klemet Preus

(This is part five of a seven part series on Christollogy.)


Seminex may have gone the way of all flesh and the Charismatic movement may have pulled in its horns in the last decade but that does not mean that the latent Nestorianism which characterized these two movements has diminished with them. Most recently the Church Growth Movement has tended toward Nestorianism in a more traditional Zwinglian manner by limiting the attributes and capabilities of the human nature in Christ.


According to Kent Hunter (Confessions of a Church Growth Enthusiast, [Corunna Indiana] 1997) the cross of Christ has two sides, “the suffering side and the mission side of the cross.” (p. 69) How do these “two sides of the cross” explain the person of Christ?


Jesus, through His death on the cross, moves from the limitation (self-imposed) of being in human form. As God in man (the incarnation), Jesus was limited in His presence. He could only be in one place at one time and impact only those few around Him at that particular moment. However, through the cross event, God’s plan of salvation moves to the Spirit at Pentecost. (p. 75)


This rather convoluted doctrine of Christ seems to suggest that it was because of his humanity that Jesus was not able to be in more than one place at a time (Omnipresence). Such a view is repudiated by the Formula of Concord which says that all of the divine qualities are communicated to the human nature of Jesus. To Hunter, the crucified Jesus is far away from the ministry of the church except as the content of the message. Hunter’s Zwinglianism is quite apparent in this. In mission work Jesus is no longer speaking the message. It is not the incarnate God who still feeds us, washes us and speaks to us today. Rather his presence is attributed to the superabundant gift of the Spirit. “The Spirit is the bridge between the suffering side of the cross and the mission side of the Cross” (p. 76). The bonds between the church growth movement and the charismatic movement are obvious. Jesus is replaced by the Spirit when it comes to mission work.


Hunter’s spiritualizing Missiology continues. To him, the great commission informs us that “we are in partnership with God” (p. 70) because of “the multiplication that comes about through His death and resurrection. It moves the mission of God from the one (Jesus) to the many (His disciples).” (p. 76)


Jesus emptied Himself. He stripped away all of His heavenly culture in order to meet human beings where they are. He did away with all the things that were comfortable for Him, putting His target audience at such an important priority that He literally emptied Himself of those things that were comfortable for Him. Of course He didn’t empty Himself in the sense of denying His values or the essentials of the theological issues connected with the mission of God. But He emptied Himself of everything else because he had a purpose in mind.   (p. 169)  


When I first read this I thought it was just a really lame attempt to squeeze biblical Christology into the Church Growth Scheme of missions. The whole passage is so tortured I couldn’t, charitably, explain it in any other way. But either I have become less charitable or I have seen again the Nestorian tendencies as they flow and ebb within the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.   I tend to think it’s the latter.


Hunter’s book has the strong endorsement of 27 pastors and administrators within the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. They call it a “must read” (John Heins), “the answer” (Robert Scuderi),”a breakthrough and challenge to return to our Reformation roots” (Dale Olson), “a textbook to train pastors” (Dave Anderson), “the expression of my own feelings regarding Church Growth” (Bill Thompson), “solid theology” (Phil Bickel), “a fine job” (David Luecke),   “a marvelous service to the church” (Stephen Carter), “a high quality book” (Elmer Matthias), “a milestone in Lutheran evangelical writing” (Erwin Kolb), “worth its cost several times over just for the definition of Church Growth principles from a confessional viewpoint” (Norbert Oesch),   and “one of the most significant writings of these latter days of the twentieth century” (Gerald Kieschnick).


I have elsewhere attempted to explain the endorsement of these leaders charitably. Maybe they asked someone to read the book on their behalf. Maybe they skimmed it and just missed the Nestorian section. Or maybe they simply cannot spot Nestorianism when they see it. I can and I hope that by now you can as well.


So the Church growth movement has created a new Jesus who, not surprisingly, is a model of the church growth philosophy.  


There is one more manifestation of Nestorianism that is fairly common in our church. That is the story for next time.

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


Nestorianism and the Church Growth Movement, by Pr. Klemet Preus — 9 Comments

  1. This is an interesting and thought-provoking series. But to be honest, I am not certain what you mean when you write, “the divine qualities are communicated to the human nature of Jesus.” This is an ambiguous statement. Its meaning is not clear to me at all.

  2. “As God in man (the incarnation), Jesus was limited in His presence.” – Ken Hunter

    “One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God.” – Athanasian Creed

    By holding to that stated position Ken Hunter places himself outside of the true Church. Lutherans have no business reading it except to debunk it.

    “This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.” – Athanasian Creed

    Enough said.

  3. Adino,

    This is theological jargon and it is indeed some of the most difficult stuff we wade through as pastors. Pr. Preus is referring to what is called the “communication of attributes.” Jesus is one person. He is fully divine and fully human. His divine traits do not reside in a different holding area in his person or in another person within his person. Likewise with his human attributes. They both reside in the one person and because there is no separation of person, they are so to speak communicated to one another. When Jesus does something human, his divine traits are right there. When Jesus does something divine, his human traits are right there. They cannot be distinguished in reality because they are a “part” of the same reality – the one person, Jesus Christ.

    The intent of clarifying this is to preserve Jesus justifying work for us. If it was only the human “side” of Jesus that died for us then we are not truly saved beacuse it takes a “divine” sacrifice to pay for the sins of the world. If it is only the divine “part” that gave his life for our sin then once again this is insufficient because Jesus must be human to die.

    So, the divine and human attributes are co-mingled in one person for our salvation.

    Hope that helps. You other theologians out there can chime in to critique and clarify if I have gotten anything screwed up.

    Pastor Rossow

  4. Hullo,

    I’ve got a couple of questions that this series has raised in my mind, and I would be grateful if a thoughtful reader could provide an answer:

    When Jesus performed miracles in his state of humility, did he do so by his own divinity?

    In Acts 2:22, Peter says: “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.”

    Does Peter mean that God worked through Christ as he works through us, or is he referring to God himself actually working amongst us through the incarnation?

    Finally, is there a good analogy out there to describe the communication of attributes?

  5. Anonymous2,

    In the end I am not sure it matters in this case. Peter is assurring his hearers that Jesus of Nazareth came from God and so he speaks of the miracles being done by Jesus as being done by God.

    The reason I say it does not matter is because there is only one God. The Father is God, the Son is God, etc. So, works done of God are done by the Son of God. Because the attributes are communicated (i.e. you cannot seperate divine or human from the person of Jesus Christ, both traits are of the same person) we can say that the miracles of Jesus are done by his divinity, even though Peter emphasizes God in general here and not the Son specifically.

    I do not know of any good analogies. All analogies “limp” and an analogy of the communication of attributes would really limp since there is no other person like the Son of God where human and divine attributes are intimately communicated to another in one person.

    Pastor Rossow

  6. Having not read Hunter’s book I’m at a disadvantage here, but much of this seems more like Kenoticism than Nestorianism per se to me. Except for the part about God’s plan moving to the Spirit after Pentecost. That may imply a sort of post-ascension Nestorianism that denies the communication of divine attributes to the human nature (genus majestaticum). But then again, it may not. In any case, even if the idea of Jesus’ supposed limitations during His humiliation are the result of a Kenotic Christology, this still seems to be generally incompatible with confessional Lutheranism since it would imply the communication of attributes of the human nature to the divine nature or the opposite of the genus majestaticum. Although I’m most emphatically not a theologian, I think a good analogy for the genus majestaticum in particular (and anyone feel free to correct me if I understand this wrongly) is of fire and a piece of iron. The fire is the divine nature and the iron is the human nature. The fire communicates its heat to the iron so that both the fire and the iron share in the heat, but the iron does not communicate its chemical structure to the fire at the same time.

  7. Adino,

    Here is an analogy that was used with undergraduates at Concordia University, River Forest. The credit goes to Dr. Stephen Hein who is now a headmaster in Colorado. If you take Jello and whipped cream and mix them together, you will intermingle the two different substances. Neither one loses any of its properties, but neither can they be separated again. What results is something that is 100% Jello and 100% whipped cream. As with any analogy, there are shortfalls with this, but the concept is there. The Divine Nature and the Human Nature of Christ combine together to form a 200% being. The Divine Nature is 100% complete losing none of its attributes, and the Human Nature is 100% complete losing none of its attributes. The only thing missing is sin, and that’s a corruption of the Human Nature. It’s hard to wrap our minds around, but we are sinful humans trying to describe the divine.

  8. I understand that Christ is fully God and fully man, one person with two natures. What is unclear to me is what “communication” means in “communication of attributes”.


    Since Christ is God, he is omnipresent. This is communicated to His human nature. So does that mean that Christ’s body is present everywhere? Was it present everywhere when He was walking the earth?

    How do you explain Mark 13:32, “But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (NASB)?

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