All Theology Is Christology (An Introduction)
Rather than recapitulating the biographic blurb you can find elsewhere on this site, it seems more fitting to introduce myself with a topic that stands at the heart of my view of the discipline of Christian dogmatic theology. Take this as something of a thought experiment, the thesis of which is up there in the post title: All theology is Christology.
What I mean by this is that dogmatic reflection on the traditional loci of systematic theology — sin, redemption, the church, even God — is properly christocentric in its origin and its orientation. There is no Christian doctrine that does not stand in the light of Jesus Christ’s person and work, which is not illumined by it and which does not in turn represent a further working-out of Christology in one direction or another — here toward ecclesiology and the human person, there toward the eternal being of the triune God. No doctrinal locus is free from Christology, and not merely as a sort of “dialogue partner” but as a vital control.
Karl Barth put it this way in 1938:
A church dogmatics must, of course, be christologically determined as a whole and in all its parts, as surely as the revealed Word of God, attested by Holy Scripture and proclaimed by the Church, is identical with Jesus Christ. If dogmatics cannot regard itself and cause itself to be regarded as fundamentally Christology, it has assuredly succumbed to some alien sway and is already on the verge of losing its character as church dogmatics. (Church Dogmatics I/2, 123)
Later writing in the context of divine freedom, of all things, he said:
There are strictly speaking no Christian themes independent of Christology, and the Church must insist on this in its message to the world. (Church Dogmatics II/1, 320)
I suggested above that theology is christocentric in two ways. First, theology takes the doctrine of Jesus Christ as its origin. We might establish the content of systematic theology from a number of starting points, as great thinkers throughout centuries past have done — from the doctrine of God, or from creation and God’s gracious providence, or from humankind and our need for salvation. Good theology can be (and has been) done from these various systematic starting places. But Christology, I argue, is superior to them all as a place to begin reflecting about any given doctrine.
Why? Most fundamentally, the Christian gospel is the message of Jesus Christ and what He has accomplished for us and in our stead. Christocentrism is therefore an intensely positive approach to theology: rather than starting with sin (hamartiology, or more broadly anthropology), or that which was lost (the doctrine of creation), or with the holiness and perfection of God that is infinitely Other than the creature and to which the creature can never measure up, christocentrism begins with the Christian faith’s most positive claim — that, though we were sinners who deserved condemnation, Christ died for us, the righteous for the unrighteous.
Second, theology takes the doctrine of Jesus Christ as its orientation. The first point instructs us to begin all doctrinal reflection from the Christ event; the second instructs us not to depart from that, but to orient the doctrine to Jesus Christ as a sort of theological “control.” Consider, for example, the doctrine of sin: the first word of christocentric theology (the origin) is that Christ has died for the ungodly. When the theologian proceeds to then describe the human’s corrupt state, where do we look? Can we compile a list of Do’s and Don’ts by which to measure the heart? No, such description is done in the light of Christ: He is the perfect and true human — we falsify our own nature. He lives a life of self-sacrifice and obedience to the Father — we are incurvatus in se. In short, our understanding of the nature of sin is revealed in the light of the sinless one, and not according to a list of rules and standards stripped from the histories, prophecies, and letters of the Old and New Testaments.
Is there any doctrine unconnected from the gospel? Is creation? Or total depravity? Or sanctification? If the cradle and the cross of Christ stand at the center of salvation history, if the “Christ event” is the fulcrum of all of God’s will and ways with creatures, then there is no Christian doctrine that does not point to Christ. He is the one to whom the Old Testament points forward in anticipation, and the one to whom the New Testament testifies in memory. Salvation history is oriented toward Christ; Scripture is oriented toward Christ; and so, too, is Christian systematic theology properly oriented to and from Jesus Christ.
Ultimately, however, it is not enough to insist that theology takes its starting point from Christology and remain oriented to it. My thesis is that all Christian theology is Christology. This means that theology does not exist without a christological element — or, where it does, it is not properly Christian. Any doctrine to which the person and the work of Christ is ultimately dispensable (certain hard-line readings of predestination by the naked decree of a sovereign God, for example) is not fit for discourse among those who claim to be servants of the Lord Jesus Christ and witnesses to God’s salvation.
Now, an observation is in order about what I’ve said. I’ve clearly drawn “Christology” quite broadly. As I use the term it comprehends what traditionally has been treated under the headings of incarnation, atonement, justification, Holy Saturday, the resurrection, the ascension and heavenly session of Christ, and even sanctification where that is taken as part of Christ’s redeeming work. And there are a host of ways of approaching Christology itself; the typical distinction is “from above” or “from below” (though I will suggest that Barth managed to synthesize these in a remarkable way). This does not mean that “Christology” is a broad brush that can cover any dogmatic locus, and so loses its particular meaning. Instead, the point of my broad construal is that the person of Christ is not separable from His work. This is a principle that is fundamental to Karl Barth and many like him, and there will be plenty of time to tease it out in more detail in the days to come.
If there is one thing I’d like you to know about me and my approach to theology as we head into this new blog, it is that I believe theology is about bearing witness to the person and the work of Jesus — that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. I won’t claim that this is the only way to think about dogmatic topics, nor will I deny that plenty of fine theology has been written over the centuries that start from another doctrinal locus. But such efforts will always be provisional in nature, incomplete until they turn and run to the cross.