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Barth On Christology’s ‘Identity Problem’

June 25, 2015

The published revision of my dissertation is out now from Bloomsbury / T&T Clark, and I mean to remedy my lack of shameless online promotion between now and the spring 2016 release of the paperback edition.  Karl Barth and the Incarnation puts Barth’s Christology in conversation with that of the classical, Chalcedonian tradition.

This begins with a diagnosis of what I call the identity problem, a basic difficulty that is implicit within the tradition at a number of points.  In short: under the conditions of classical Christology it is difficult (and, I argue, finally impossible) to affirm that Jesus Christ, the divine-human one, is identical with the eternal, divine Son of God — that these grammatical subjects are, in the words of the Definition of Chalcedon, “one and the same.”  The identity of Jesus and the Logos requires such extensive qualification that theologians ancient and modern who adhere to the metaphysics of the classical tradition must finally affirm that Jesus Christ is not technically who the Son is, but what the Son does ad extra within the economy of salvation.

Barth did not describe this problem in the way that I have, but it is a central focus in his Christology.  The identity problem is intricately tied to the content of God’s eternal act of electing, to the doctrine of the Logos asarkos, and to the church’s very confession that “Jesus is Lord.”

Below is a bit from the early pages of the introduction, where I outline in broad strokes the work to be done.  (You can read the entire intro on Google Books.)

~ ~

By examining Barth’s doctrine of the person of Christ in its relation to the history of Christology, this work seeks to identify not only the content of Barth’s Christology but its enduring significance for Christian theology. Our study will move along two lines of inquiry. One is a thematic description of Barth’s mature Christology (the Christology of the Church Dogmatics, with an emphasis on Volume IV) and an analysis of its implications. More broadly, the second line considers the relation that this Christology has to that of the classical tradition – by which I mean the Christology of the ecumenical councils and the continental Reformation. I will argue that Barth selectively appropriated the classical doctrine of the incarnation, making use of its concepts and terminology where he felt they suited his convictions about the identity of Jesus Christ as narrated in Holy Scripture. But, insofar as Barth makes use of these ideas, he does so critically – holding them to the fire of the Word’s continuing testimony to the humanity of God.

Further, it will become clear that Barth has explicit, theological reasons for this method of critically receptive inquiry. The result is a Christology that is both constructively modern and classically orthodox in character.

At the center of both lines of inquiry is the question: How are the eternal Word of God and the divine-human Jesus Christ related? What does it mean for His person that one of the Trinity assumed a human nature and lived a human life? This has presented theologians in the church’s history with numerous, sometimes seemingly insurmountable conceptual difficulties – particularly where they have sought to maintain the identity of Jesus Christ with and as the divine Son of God, and have read the Synoptic gospels through a Johannine-Pauline lens. My suggestion is that Barth’s Christology enables theologians to engage such issues in a deeply satisfying way, reconciling the manifold witnesses of Scripture precisely at points where the answers of the tradition are lacking.

The topic at hand – the history and dogmatic implications of the doctrine of the incarnation – is far-reaching and could lead us in any number of directions, and engage the thought of any number of important figures. It is therefore prudent to establish our own boundaries for exposition and reflection. Our study unfolds in three basic stages. These concern:

(1) unresolved issues that persist in traditional attempts to describe the incarnation (Chapter 1);

(2) Barth’s own approach and its critical engagement with traditional ‘Logos Christology’ (Chapters 2 and 3); and

(3) the way in which Barth’s proposal might finally be judged as consonant with Christian orthodoxy, while also moving beyond its impasses (Chapters 4 and 5).

First, I will offer my own critical account of the history of the doctrine of the incarnation in the patristic and early medieval period, in an attempt to demonstrate that the answers provided by the orthodox tradition to a number of basic christological questions are not without problems. Chalcedon simply has not settled the doctrine of Christ’s person for all time.1 The most fundamental question here pertains to the relationship between God the Son and the God-human, Jesus Christ, or between the Logos and the human nature that He assumed in and for His redemptive mission. Can Christ and the Word be identified as a single subject (one and the same ‘person’) if their respective ontological constitutions are different – i.e. one eternal, divine in essence, and simple, and the other temporal, both divine and human, and therefore complex?

This issue I call the ‘identity problem.’ I then extend and further illustrate this problem through an historical and conceptual examination of three related facets of Christology: the doctrines of divine immutability, kenosis, and impassibility. The history of these questions, and the variety of attempts to give satisfying answers, shows the need for christological reflection that remains active and imaginative.

Read the full introduction …


1. Contra F. W. A. Korff, who argued that the Council of 451 says all that should be said about the mystery of Christ’s person. See G. C. Berkouwer, The Person of Christ, pp. 85-97.

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