Skip to content

All Theology Is Christology (An Introduction)

June 29, 2011

Deesis Mosaic of Christ, 13th Century

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.

From Christ the King Chapel, Belleville, Illinois

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.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. June 29, 2011 2:53 pm

    Thanks for this Darren, I certainly resonate and find myself inspired by this portrayal. I’ll have to think on it some more and see if I have some critical pushback for you. But the first thought that comes to mind is what some wise dude said to me the other day (okay it was you), which was that there might be a worthwhile distinction to be made between being Christological and being Christocentric. I think the gist of it was that the former admits to the broadness of Christology’s reach (e.g., it implies that you have to talk about the Father and the Spirit) and the latter perhaps narrows in too much. I noticed you used both terms, and while it didn’t seem to me to create problems I wonder if you could clarify whether you think the distinction matters in this case?

    I definitely think we throw around theological or ecclesiological criteria like ‘cruciformity’ in a confining way, and while I think we have to be able to make something like ‘cruciformity’ central in an important way, your emphasis on Christology as a broad and many-splendoured term is really helpful.

  2. June 29, 2011 5:45 pm

    Thanks, Jon. The distinction between ‘christological’ and ‘christocentric’ (at least in my mind) comes in how Christians read and make use of the Old Testament. The point is that we should read those texts christologically — i.e. as pointing ahead to what is fulfilled in Jesus Christ — but not christocentrically, i.e. having no other meaning to be interpretted according to their own relative contexts. Christocentric readings of the OT tend to be exclusionary, flattening the text and context into a single, Jesus-y reading and taking little interest in questions like authorial intent, rabbinic interpretation, etc.

    For example: A ‘christocentric’ reading of Jacob’s encounter with a man at the river Jabbok (Gen. 32:22:32) might suggest that this man is none other than Jesus, the Son of God. Both Jacob (v. 30) and the man (v. 28) say that Jacob has “wrestled with God,” but the text is ambiguous about the man’s identity. Is he an angel, representing God and bearing divine strength? Is he God the Father, taking a form on earth as He had (some think) taken in the Garden? Is he the Son after a quickie pseudo-incarnation sans virgin mother? Or was Jacob dreaming? Christocentric readings of the OT tend to impose Jesus all over the place where the text, taken on its own terms, does not warrant such readings. (Paul may actually be guilty of this sort of handling of the OT. Many look to 1 Cor. 10:4 as justification for their isegesis. But that’s another topic …)

    I don’t make the same distinction when it comes to the discipline of systematic theology, since (for reasons stated in the post) I think christocentrism is fitting to Christian dogmatics. I wonder if anyone reading might want to make a case for a doctrine that, like the Jabbok story, is trampled by reading Christ into it in a definitive way.

  3. June 29, 2011 8:26 pm

    Great post, Darren.

    And in lieu of the comment by Jon C., I also think that the distinction that Gibson uses (from Muller) on a reading between Calvin and Barth is instructive as well. Viz. The distinction of being soteriological-extensive (so Calvin) and principial-intensive (so Barth).

    But then in lieu of your (Darren) response to Jon; Muller’s/Gibson’s distinction might be sloppy in the sense that it fails to recognize that we have two different methodological approaches (i.e. biblical vis-a-vis systematic theology) informing either Calvin’s and/or Barth’s method (and the differences would be related at some level between the pre-critical and critical milieus said theologian inhabited); and thus it seems we have two different loci at work i.e. christocentric vs. christologic.

  4. June 29, 2011 8:35 pm

    Hey Darren,

    I appreciated your post and find myself in large (though not full) agreement with what you are doing and saying. As we’ve discussed before in relation to the extra Calvinisticum, I’m not convinced that a ‘Christological’ theological methodology can account for everything that we need to say in dogmatics.

    Put differently, Classic Reformed theology suggests that the Triune God is the originating and ontological principle of theology (and Scripture the cognitive principle). I have nothing at stake in rejecting classic Reformed theology; rather, my question is what your (and Barth’s) justification is for dispensing of and replacing this principle? Perhaps you may not need any sort of justification, but I’m just curious to hear your thoughts.

    As a side note which matters little for the purposes of the discussion, doesn’t Webster fear the overly Christological methodology of which you speak? I mention that not to cite him as an authority but to ascertain whether there is a purposeful departure there or whether you see yourself as compatible with the methodology which he elucidates.



  5. June 29, 2011 11:27 pm

    Bobby: I suspect you’re right that one could position this entire discussion within more than one overarching theological methodology, though I haven’t studied that subject enough to know what those would be and how it might affect the commendability of christocentrism. It’s an intriguing question, and I do plan to look at Gibson’s book at some point.

    James: Very glad to have someone with a different point of view and a different set of priorities on the thread — thanks for your comment. The best I can do to answer your question is to simply repeat Barth’s epistemological critique of what he called the “older dogmatics.” In short: Because Jesus is the locus of divine revelation, and because that revelation is disclosure of God’s Self, to begin the theological task elsewhere is to erect one’s own theological edifice upon a foundation not given. This can suss out in a number of different ways. Barth’s criticisms of Protestant liberalism, natural theology, the analogia entis, and Evangelical fundamentalism seem to me to all have this epistemology in common.

    As you say, in the Protestant scholastics Scripture retains that epistemological pride of place in the doctrine of revelation, and I think this allows one to justify the erection of those edifices as likewise beginning from the point of divine disclosure. The Bible tells us this and that about God, for example, so we are justified in elucidating a conforming doctrine of God. At its root, then, my argument for the superiority of christocentrism may rely, at least partly, on a particular doctrine of revelation.

    As for Webster, he does have concerns about putting too much dogmatic weight upon the second article of the Creed. (He says as much in his brief forward to the new collection of essays titled Trinitarian Theology After Barth [Pickwick: 2011].) He and I have not yet come to terms, nor to blows, on that. 😉

  6. June 30, 2011 1:03 am


    And let me retract what I said with the language of “sloppy,” in regards to Muller’s (Gibson’s appropriation) distinction; that is overstated. Ever since I read Gibson’s book (diss) though, I’ve been thinking about that distinction; and wondering about its credibility (i.e. if it after all is a helpful one). I’m still thinking about it 😉 .

    In re. to your response to James; as I recall, from Webster’s Holy Scripture, it seems to me that he forges a constructive way to follow Barth’s general theory of revelation, and at the same time fit the ontology of scripture into that schema of revelation — so that the Reformed principle, sola scriptura still has a formal place (but within a more Barthian analogia fidei). Wouldn’t you say that that’s what Webster’s sketch on Scripture attempted to do, Darren?

  7. June 30, 2011 1:39 am

    Bobby, I have to admit that it’s been a lot of years since I read Webster’s Holy Scripture. I’ll give it another look and get back to you. There are bloggers in our midst more qualified to talk about the ontology of Scripture viz. revelation and Christology.

    One more qualification to my post that you guys have made me consider: There is a difference between taking one doctrinal locus (such as Christology) as one’s dogmatic center point and as one’s dogmatic starting point. My comments on “origin” notwithstanding, a “starting point” simply gets us into talking theologically. For Protestant dogmatics, generally speaking, that jumping off point is Scripture. This does not mean, however, that the theology which results is not christocentric. This is because Scripture’s own pride of place is to testify to the Christ event — to give us access to say true things about Jesus, and therefore true things about God and salvation history.

    The mistake of the Protestant scholastics, by my reckoning, was to mistake the forest for the trees and misjudge Scripture’s revelatory character. And so we have inherited a tradition of building doctrines from the mediate text, rather than from the revelation which took place in Christ.

  8. June 30, 2011 2:09 am

    Through a series of inter-web connections I found your site. Looks like fun.

    Being somewhat of a novice to systematic theology, I am wondering how the Spirit would fit into this? On the one hand I don’t think we would recognize the person of the H.S. if the church had not come to worship Christ first. But who is Christ without the Spirit, the Father?

  9. June 30, 2011 2:19 am


    Yes, it was our brother, Adam Nigh who alerted me to Webster’s “Holy Scripture” in the first place 😉 .

    I agree with you about the “mistake” of the Protestant scholastics (of course I do ;-); I think the error is one of “order” as well. I see the scholastics placing epistemology prior to ontology, and Barth & co (like TFT) with the proper orientation of ontology preceding epistemology (or revelation as reconciliation). I think the mistake of the scholastics is that they place the ontology of scripture outside of soteriology (and/or christology), and instead, they ground it within and from an intellectualist anthropology; and the Scriptures become the base of their gnosis about God and themselves. This probably gets us further up into issues of election etc. than you wanted to go with this opening post, Darren. But thank you for this provocative piece.

    So in other words, in a very general way, it seems the scholastics have a bottom up approach; while the “Barthians” have a more top-down (I suppose this is the difference between Augustine and Athanasius, in emphasis).

  10. joshdmalone permalink
    June 30, 2011 7:58 am

    Darren, nice post. I think you’ve articulated your point clearly and shown the many strengths of this approach. Certainly there is a weaker epistemic point to be made, but I’d venture to say the stronger ontic point rests on another set of commitments (dare I say: metaphysical ones). Channeling my inner-Webster… It would seem that questions about the constitutive significance of temporality for the being of God must be answered in the affirmative *if* one is to make the statement this strongly – i.e. – you have to begin by saying a strongly historicized Chistology is just right. For me, a deeper question lingers regarding whether ‘Christology’ is materially constitutive for, oh I don’t know, something like the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son (just to pick a doctrine at random). Further, one might wonder (particularly those from the East) how Christology is decisive in the way you’ve outlined for materially explicating the relationship between Father and Spirit. These would just seem to be some of the most immediate areas of question. Perhaps I’ve read the claim too strongly, but I think you’ve meant to provoke such questions.

  11. June 30, 2011 8:40 am

    Darren, in regard to Paul’s christocentric reading of the OT I was pretty persuaded by Richard Hays treatment of this,(in Echoes of Scripture). I’d be willing to suggest that rather than Paul being ‘guilty’ of reading too much in I’d say he was able to makes some startling assertions about Christ off the page of OT texts not as crass eisegesis (wherein the original was abused) but in filling out ramifications of the fuller revelation of God that had by now come in Christ. Because Paul was so rooted in the Hebrew world he could pull this off, and since we’re not we have corrections to make if we just try to copy him. So the warning against exclusively christocentric readings of the OT is a good one, but the Christology you are talking about is supported, I should think, by Paul’s ‘excitability’ in that regard. A problem today happens when the Jewishness of the Messiah is forgotten and as part of this the actual content of what God did back there and then is lost to our immediate and sloppy moralizations or broad spiritualizations of OT texts. Another problem comes when we start ‘finding Jesus everywhere’ (i.e. equating him with anything that resembles him), rather than let Jesus light up everything.

    I’m curious about some of the questions that have arisen from others, particularly as it regards doctrines of the Trinitarian persons. I’m curious whether you think a Pneumatology that is so Christological as to invite the charge of a “pneumatological deficit” is in fact the right kind of pneumatology, and it is the people who are looking for something else that are wrong.

  12. Justin permalink
    June 30, 2011 11:44 am

    Darren, I want to know precisely what you think theology is. I take the term quite literally: theology means talking about God. So, when I hear you say that theology IS christology, it seems as if you’re saying that all talk about God has to be in some way talk about Christ. Your origin/orientation distinction is helpful here. As you explain, the first point obliges us to “begin all doctrinal reflection” on christological grounds. That strikes me as the designation of a particular epistemic foundation: that which warrants all God-talk is Christ. The second point, pertaining to orientation, offers a rule: Christ not only founds all doctrinal speech, but “controls” it; whatever you say about God, it must be immediately accountable to christology, defined in the broad sense you’ve indicated.

    So, to be honest, methodologically speaking, this all strikes me as pretty benign (in the sense that I can’t really think of any theologians who would genuinely disagree with it). Even those who “begin” with Scripture – e.g., the Protestant scholastics, as you allege – would still grant, I suspect, that reconciliation in Christ is the interpretive key to the Bible, and hence the ultimate rule and warrant for all theology (i.e., talking about God). Whether or not theologians conduct themselves in a sufficiently Christian manner, is, of course, debatable. But that’s why theology carries on – we hold each other accountable, and we continue to converse, precisely because we recognize our propensity to deviate off course (and here, I’ll certainly agree that it’s good to reiterate our norms and foundations from time to time).

    Where things might get more radical, I think, is if you ramp up the meaning and significance of theology – for instance, if you were to regard theology itself as a mode of divine revelation, another form of the “Word of God.” If theology is more than simply people talking about God, that is, if it actually is one of the ways that God touches down, then to say that all theology IS christology has more far reaching consequences (as I think Jon alluded to above).

    So how far down the rabbit hole are you willing to take this?

  13. June 30, 2011 2:29 pm

    Thanks, everyone, for all the comments and push-back. Apologies that this comment is probably longer than the original post …

    Justin: I agree that theology is talking about God (and, by extension, the things of God — e.g. His Self-giving in redemption). It is a second-order discourse and not itself the “Word.” It is therefore limited by human fallibility, yet sanctified by the Holy Spirit in all those cool, Websterian ways.

    As I finally wrote all this out in the post I did think that it seemed fairly benign. What Christian theologian would suggest that their doctrine of choice is not grounded in the revealing and reconciling work of Christ? Even in my example — more hard-line versions of predestination that pin salvation on a naked decree — those men and women would probably desire to reflect on that theological judgment in a christological way (though I think they would be wrong). Perhaps to figure out just how provocative this proposal is, we need someone (like a Webster) to forcefully make an opposing case, and see what sort of comparable doctrine of revelation emerges.

    Jon: I want to give Paul, as an inspired author of Holy Scripture, all the benefit of the doubt in the way he handles the OT, of course. That question itself is a rather large field of study, so I probably should have just kept my mouth shut. 😉 I’ll certainly be sympathetic to readings that look at the NT as a “filling out” or making “more complete” what is comprehended in Israel’s Scriptures. Maybe that’s all that Paul is doing. But a big-picture perspective on the history of Israel doesn’t excuse sloppy or exclusivist readings by Christians today. Maybe the serpent in the Garden is Satan, whose head was to be crushed by the Second Adam. But let’s also acknowledge that the author of Genesis might have had no such meaning in mind.

    I guess the short of it is that I don’t take reading Scripture canonically as a license to trample individual authorial intent.

    Isaac: You’ve put your finger on one of my areas of interest that I haven’t gotten to yet — Pneumatology and so-called “Spirit Christology” — so I can only speak tentatively. Three points come to mind. First, we should attend to the fact that the NT talks about Jesus doing what he does “in the Spirit.” Clearly there is something going on with respect to the role of the Spirit in the economy of salvation, and He is not dispensable. He is given a particular role, as Comforter and the One who leads believers into all truth, but His work and the work of the Son shouldn’t be taken as entirely separated, as if one actor leaves the stage and the other arrives to do his scene.

    Second, the NT speaks of the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of Christ.” This should further clue us in to the fact that He is not a discrete entity who works apart from Jesus — i.e. Jesus departs and sends the Spirit, and Jesus is now gone because this other guy, who has an analogous but different relationship to the Father, is here. The Spirit is not Christ’s “brother” or helper. (Calling the Son and the Spirit the right and left hands of God the Father is, I think, misleading insofar as it implies two agents and/or agencies.)

    Third, then, we ought to remember that there is one God. Social trinitarianism is an utter falsehood. This was one of Barth’s reasons for dropping “person” language with respect to the Trinity and using “mode of being” instead. The Son and the Spirit are the same God. The external works of the Trinity are indivisible not because the “three chaps” (as a former Aberdeen professor puts it) decide to work together in harmony, but because there is one God who exists in three ways.

    This doesn’t really answer your question, but at least it tells you how I would start to talk about the relation of the Spirit to Christology.

    Josh: Trinitarian relations is such a significant and fascinating topic that it probably deserves its own post as a follow-up to this one. I’d have to think a bit on how to approach that set of doctrines (such as eternal generation and procession) from the christocentric starting point I’ve articulated. (As a side note, I’m not sure what a non-“historicized” Christology would look like, or what sort of counter-doctrine of revelation would fund it.) It is especially challenging because the way in which these doctrines are stated in the tradition (I’m thinking Thomas and the medieval scholastics, mainly) is highly abstract, in comparison with the NT narratives. I think it can be done, but it’s harder to get there (than to, say, a doctrine of atonement) from here because it is not something that Scripture explicitly says a lot about. My desire would thus be to proceed slowly and carefully so as to try and avoid (as much as it is possible) injecting my own categories and thought-forms — which, you will know, is what I think happened in the tradition.

    At least to begin: Barth is right to suggest that trinitarian relations ought to be conceived of in terms of “Father” and “Son” and “Word,” since these are the terms given to us. But it is that relationship which defines fatherhood and sonship for us, not we who impose our understandings on the Trinity. I know you’ve done some work on that point, and there’s a moderately helpful new essay by Kevin Giles in July’s SJT (“Barth and Subordinationism”) on it. I’ll think about the question some more.

  14. June 30, 2011 3:35 pm


    Thanks for the response. I guess I would want to question the methodological warrant of Barth’s epistemological critique. I know I’m in the minority here on this issue (especially in this circle) and that it leads into a complex argument laden with lots of assumptions, so it’s probably best to leave it for another day. It is helpful for me to know that the reason you opt for this approach. So thanks.

    Justin and you see your main point as ‘benign.’ I guess there is a way to read you in which this might be the case. Even as one who is far less opposed to (and indeed in favor of) ‘speculative,’ ‘natural,’ and ‘analytic’ theology than I would expect most people on this site to be, I can agree with a weak version of your thesis which suggests that Christ’s economic work shapes and informs the way I talk about God. I wouldn’t want to buy in to the stronger reading, however, which says that Christ defines, originates, and/or otherwise qualifies all that one must say about God. Perhaps the quicker way to get at the distinction is to take note of which reading of Rahner’s Rule one accepts. I’m assuming that you want to read the Rule in a strong way such that there is nothing true about the immanent Trinity that is not revealed in Christ. I’d be happier with a weaker reading in which the immanent Trinity is ground for and correspondent to the economic Trinity without saying invoking an identity claim.

    My question for you would be this: is there any element of Christology which a doctrine of the Trinity (or perhaps any other doctrine x) must shape? Take impassibility, for example. Perfect being theology starts with a concept of God and says that all that we say about Christ must conform to this concept. God is impassible; therefore, Christ is impassible. The opposite approach (which I understand you to be taking) says that one’s doctrine of God must be solely derived from Christ. We see Christ as one who suffers; therefore, God is passible. Is that a fair reading?

    One other small point re: your response to Isaac: In regards to social Trinitarianism, I think your dismissal is a bit too quick. First, there are (at least) several varieties of social Trinitarianism, some of which are much more sophisticated than others (e.g., Cornelius Plantinga’s is much less developed than something like Keith Yandell’s). I am certainly not one to say that Barth was a modalist because of his use of the concept ‘mode of being.’ Yet, I am sympathetic to a more advanced critique of his Trinitarian theology which sees Brian Leftow’s ‘Latin’ Trinitarianism as a restatement of what we find in Barth. Didn’t Barth to suggest (at points) that the Trinity considered as a whole is a person? As I understand the tradition of Trinitarian thought, this is a major departure, which leads to the undesirable consequence of having a quaternity of persons.

    I appreciate this discussion. This site, even in its infancy, has already been more instructive and helpful than a place for evangelical hispterdom like The Gospel Coalition. So cheers to that.

  15. June 30, 2011 5:26 pm

    Thanks for that, James. 😉

    My judgment on social trinitarianism may be too quick, since I don’t know a lot about the subtle varieties that are out there. I suspect that the qualifier “social” necessarily means that de Deo trino is, in each case, being favored over de Deo uno in some sort of definitive way. Thus my blanket condemnation. Barth’s concern with “three persons” language is that, since modernism has introduced a psychological aspect to personhood that wasn’t there before, it leads theology precisely this way.

    You’re right that something like perfect being theology runs things precisely the opposite direction that I want to do. I wouldn’t say that a doctrine of the Trinity must shape elements of Christology, but I would be happy to say that, in systematic theology, doctrinal loci have a quality of being mutually informing. If we are led to say certain things about the triune being of God from what is revealed in the Christ event (i.e., he is the Son of God, he is co-eternal with God, he works by the power of the Holy Spirit), then we are likewise led to continue to work out our Christology proper within that framework. The revelation of God that takes place in Christ, however, is the fount of this ‘dialectical’ reflection — whereas in perfect being theology or classical theism, as I understand it, there are other epistemological factors in play.

    The impassibility question is a tricky one, because we want to say both that God is acting on the cross (in His undivided and indivisible triunity) AND that God has a human nature only in His second way of being. The Father and the Spirit are not incarnate. Are we right to limit the experience of suffering, then, to the human nature? Whatever judgments we make about the passiblity or the impassibility of God — even if we restrict those to God the Son under the conditions of the incarnation — require careful nuancing. So rather than “Christ suffers, therefore God is passible,” the better way to put is that “Christ suffers, therefore God truly experiences suffering in His second way of being.” The tradition, of course, has no problem saying this much while still holding to the doctrine of impassibility, because it locates the experience of suffering in the assumed humanity and not in being or personhood.

    You might be able to predict where I will take the question from there. Good topic for a future blog post. 😉

  16. June 30, 2011 10:15 pm


    I’m happy to leave it at that–at least for now. After all, you did qualify this as an introductory post.

  17. joshdmalone permalink
    July 1, 2011 8:46 am

    Hey Darren, thanks for the response. I figure that kind of a discussion gets at the real nub of the issue in my view. I should clarify what I meant by ‘strongly historicized Christology’ – I didn’t mean to set that against a sort of ‘non-historicized Christology’ (like you, I’d wonder what that could possibly mean), rather I had, as a concern, more something like what Pannenberg does: The second person’s sonship is simply his self-differentiation from the Father in the saving economy; or what some unnamed theologians appear to be saying: The second person’s sonship is simply a function of, more broadly, what happens in the saving economy (or more narrowly the atonement; whether that ‘function’ is being linked to that which is willed or actual). So my qualifier, ‘strongly’, was meant to mark out when Christology is being done, for the most part, without clear reference to that which has been confessed in the tradition as non-economic – or better, the divine economy – God’s perfect life. For, we must ask, what ‘historical Jesus’ is there apart from the one who’s being is in union with the eternally begotten Son of God (as some other theologian I know said that I think)?

    If I could register a minor quibble too… While I would want to agree that reading Aquinas (or other scholastic treatments) can feel ‘highly abstract’ (so I share your worries to an extent), what is being done by medievals is quite closely connected to what was done by pre/post-Nicene patristics – their work often takes the form of commentary on patristic material. Further, patristic discussion (particularly those around Nicaea) are rooted in their explicit commentary on key-clusters of Scriptural texts (they recognize the driving questions are matters of theological interpretation of Scripture). Thus, confessing eternal relations within the Trinity is both a matter of the whole theological tradition (not some scholastic ghetto) and it is rooted in exegetical discussion (thus thoroughly Scriptural); it’s simply the heart of what ‘the-ology’ is about (as Justin points out). I can’t help but wonder if by ‘NT narratives’ you mean ‘synoptic gospels’ – in which case I would simply request the inclusion of John ‘the eagle’ (as Augustine called him) to fill out the canonical picture of what we mean when we say ‘gospel’ – allowing greater understanding of the two-fold movement both forward into the saving economy, AND backward in the eternally perfect life of God.

    For my part, I’m happy enough to let you develop your thoughts here more in further posts and look forward to the continued conversation.

  18. July 1, 2011 2:10 pm

    Thanks, Josh — good thoughts there. I certainly wouldn’t exclude John from “NT narratives” or “the gospels.” And of course you are right that patristic and scholastic theological reflection is done with clear ties to Scripture. What I mean by calling them more abstracted, in comparison to the narratives of Scripture, is that while they are connected the scholastics are further removed a number of iterations from that world. As you say, they did much of their work in dialogue with the Fathers and with the early medieval period. That’s not a bad thing, of course, but it leaves them at a greater distance from Scripture when they start to reflect on a topic like, say, “person” and “subsistence.” This and a host of other conceptual matters, valuable as they may be for theological reflection, would be utterly foreign to the text of Scripture. After all, ad fontes and sola Scriptura a few centuries later were, after all, significant developments in the history of theological epistemology.

    On Pannenberg: That one begins dogmatics from Christology is not a sure-fire way to keep one’s theology on the rails. I have a great deal of respect for Pannenberg’s thought, but I’m happy to say that some who take christocentrism as the guide to their theology don’t always end up with very good theology (or even very good Christology) at points, if that’s what you mean.

    Whether such efforts could be legitimately corrected by attending to “God’s perfect life” is a separate matter. One would first have to justify that methodology on (as I am suggesting) christological grounds. How does the revelation of God in Christ lead us to that doctrine of God, without the interjection of our own notions of, for exmaple, perfect being theology or a via eminentiae? (I’m not saying it doesn’t lead us there; the Fathers and the scholastics were not just making stuff up.)

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Shored Fragments

Theology in the Far Country

Resident Theology

Theology in the Far Country

Storied Theology

Telling the story of the story-bound God


Theology in the Far Country

The Fire and the Rose

Theology in the Far Country

Inhabitatio Dei

Jealous is the night when the Morning comes

Faith and Theology

Theology in the Far Country


Theology in the Far Country

%d bloggers like this: