Tag Archives: Chalcedon

George Hunsinger on Karl Barth’s Chalcedonian Christology

hunsinger, george (200x220)Hunsinger published his excellent article in 1999 with an aim to correct other Barth interpreters who suggest variously, that Barth’s Christology is one-sided, falling into either an Antiochene or Alexandrian mode of expression. Chalcedon, of course, navigated and distinguished the primary concerns of these two ancient christological models. The bishops affirmed the particular truth brought by each model while also steering clear of the problematic aspects of each proposal, Nestorianism in the case of Antioch, and Apollinarianism/Eutychianism in the case of Alexandria. Nevertheless, the council gave greater affirmation to Alexandria, affirming two of its priorities (the divine nature in the single person of Jesus Christ), while affirming only one of Antioch’s priorities (the true human nature of Jesus).

Hunsinger begins by outlining the general features of a Chalcedonian Christology as a “type,” since in his view,

Chalcedonian Christology does not isolate a point on a line that one either occupies or not. It demarcates a region in which there is more than one place to take up residence. The region is defined by certain distinct boundaries. Jesus Christ is understood as “one person in two natures.” The two natures—his deity and his humanity—are seen as internal to his person.[1]

He argues that Barth developed his Christology in Chalcedonian terms, rather than along the lines of simply an Alexandrian or Antiochene model, as has been suggested. He shows that Barth took a dialectical approach to the person of Christ, using now an Alexandrian idiom and now an Antiochene idiom, and insisting that both voices must be heard. Hunsinger defends Barth’s approach by calling upon his readers to attend to Barth’s distinctive method.

Barth is probably the first theologian in the history of Christian doctrine who alternates back and forth, deliberately, between an “Alexandrian” and an “Antiochian” idiom. The proper way to be Chalcedonian in Christology, Barth believed, was to follow the lead of the New Testament itself by employing a definite diversity of idioms. Any other strategy for articulating the Chalcedonian mystery would inevitably have unbalanced or one-sided results.[2]

Barth’s distinctive contribution is to view the work of Christ as at one and the same time both divine and human. In so doing, he managed to be “resoundingly traditional and brilliantly innovative” at the same time.[3] Hunsinger demonstrates Barth’s creative adaption of Chalcedon in three case studies: “First, he actualized the traditional conception of the incarnation. Second, he personalized the saving significance of Christ’s death. Finally, he contemporized the consequences of Christ’s resurrection.”[4]

With respect to the incarnation, for example, Barth views it as a history rather than a state. Jesus Christ acts and does so as a divine and a human act, fully and completely both simultaneously. As such, there is no dividing the activity of Jesus amongst the two natures. In Barth’s hands then, doctrines like the humiliation and the exaltation of Jesus are not read as successive, but as the one act in two aspects:

As he died the death of the sinner, the Son of God entered the nadir of his humiliation for our sakes, even as his exaltation as the Son of man attained its zenith in that sinless obedience which, having freely embraced the cross, would be crowned by eternal life. His humiliation was always the basis of his exaltation, even as his exaltation was always the goal of humiliation, and both were supremely on in his death on our behalf. “It was in this way that the reconciliation of the world with God was accomplished in the unity of his being” (IV/1, 253).[5]

Thus, the inherent dialectic of Christ’s person is at work in the single event of his death: active obedience and exaltation as the Son of man and passive obedience and humiliation as the Son of God, all simultaneously, the work of the one person in the one event. Yet an additional feature of Barth’s dialectic must also be reckoned with:

No symmetry between the two natures that met in Christ was possible. Christ’s deity after all was deity, whereas his humanity was merely humanity. The precedence, initiative, and impartation were always necessarily with his deity even as the subsequence, absolute dependence, and pure if active reception were always necessarily with his humanity (IV/2, 116).[6]

In this way, both the divine will and the human will of Jesus are retained and active, but in a definite and irreversible order. Nevertheless, this “double agency” in the person of Christ is

…not only one of “coordination in difference” (IV/2, 116), but also of one of “mutual participation” for the sake of a common and single work (communicato operationum) (IV/2, 117). When in Christ’s one divine person two natures, and thus also two wills or operations, met, they did so not merely analogically or externally, but in a relation of mutual participation, indwelling or koinonia, and thus in a Chalcedonian unity0in-distinction and distinction-in-unity (IV/1, 126).[7]


[1] Hunsinger, George, “Karl Barth’s Christology: Its Basic Chalcedonian Character,” in Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 132.

[2] Hunsinger, “Karl Barth’s Christology,” 135.

[3] Hunsinger, “Karl Barth’s Christology,” 141.

[4] Hunsinger, “Karl Barth’s Christology,” 140.

[5] Hunsinger, “Karl Barth’s Christology,” 142.

[6] Hunsinger, “Karl Barth’s Christology,” 146.

[7] Hunsinger, “Karl Barth’s Christology,” 140.

Bruce McCormack on Chalcedonian Christology

council-of-chalcedonThe Council of Chalcedon in 451 is one of the milestones of Christian theology where the church sought to understand the relation between the deity and the humanity of Jesus Christ. In its famous Definition, the Council affirmed its faith as follows:

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence , not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God , the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

Bruce McCormack unpacks the achievement and significance of the christology of Chalcedon as “two natures in one person,” with the person being identified as God. He depicts the form as Chalcedonian christology as follows:

The diagram shows that the two        McCormack - Chalcedon Christology 1
natures coming together to form the
one person, but that person is  identified with the person of the Logos. As such, the Logos is the acting subject of the union and the human nature of Jesus, although real, plays no active role in the work of Christ.[1]

The main problem, for McCormack, is that Chalcedon remains ambiguous, open to both Apollinarian and Nestorian distortions. One the one hand, the Alexandrian christology which won the day at Chalcedon, while rejecting Apollinarianism, still proposed a way of understanding the person of Christ in which the Logos was the acting subject, and the humanity of Jesus a passive instrument in his hands.

The heart of [Apollinarian Christology] lay rather in…the drive to understand the Logos as the ruling principle of Christ’s human nature. Apollinarius’s own way of achieving that end—through the notion that the Logos simply takes the place of the human mind (nous)—was rather crude. A more sophisticated way of achieving the same goal would be through the affirmation of a “communication” between the divine nature and the human nature such that it becomes reasonable to think of the Logos as acting upon his human nature. In both cases, the human nature is reduced to the status of a passive instrument in the hands of the Logos; it is the object upon which the Logos acts. Against this tendency it has to be said that if the mind and will that are proper to Christ’s human nature do not cooperate fully and freely in every work of the God-human, then Christ’s humanity was not full and complete after all.[2]

On the other side, theologians for centuries have divided between the natures—in opposition to Chalcedon—parcelling out the work of Christ in such a way that some work is attributed to the divine nature and some to the human nature. This means for McCormack that “the ‘natures’ were made ‘subjects’ in their own right. The singularity of the subject of these natures was lost to view—and with that, the unity of the work.”[3] The reason for this widespread tendency is the hold that the concept of divine immutability has had on theology since ancient times. “It was unthinkable for the ancients that God could suffer and die. Only a human was believed able to do that. Confronted by theopaschitism, even the most Cyriline theologian often turns into a Nestorian.”[4]

However contrary they are with respect to their results, both of the tendencies we have examined—the tendency toward Apollinarianism resident in the thought that the Logos is the operative agent who achieves redemption in and through his human nature, as well as the tendency toward Nestorianism generated by the flight from a mutable God—have the same source. Their source is a process of thought that abstracts the Logos from his human nature in order, by turns, now to make of the human nature something to be acted upon by the Logos and now to make of that nature a subject in its own right in order to seal the Logos off hermetically from all that befalls that human nature from without. In both cases, the Logos is abstracted from the human nature he assumed…[5]

That is, the subject of the person of Jesus is understood as the Logos, rather than the God-human in his divine-human unity. Thus McCormack proposes a different way to understand the person of Jesus Christ:

In this portrayal, the person stands outside   McCormack - Chalcedon Christology 2
and above the two natures as it were,
so the person is not aligned with the Logos,
but with the man Jesus Christ in his
divine-human unity. The arrow indicates
that there is a communication to the divine nature of that which belongs to the human nature. That is, the acts and experiences of the human nature are also experienced by the Logos in his union with the human nature, so that as Jesus suffers and dies, he does not do simply simply in his human nature, as such. Jesus Christ in his divine-human unity suffers and dies, and the Logos experiences this suffering and death instead of being sheltered from it. In this way suffering and death are taken up into the very life of God so that God takes upon himself in the person of the Incarnate, the suffering and death that properly belongs to humanity.


[1] McCormack, Bruce L., “The Ontological Presuppositions of Barth’s Doctrine of Atonement,” in The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological & Practical Perspectives, ed. Hill, Charles E. & Frank A. James, (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), 350.

[2] McCormack, “Ontological Presuppositions,” 352-353.

[3] McCormack, “Ontological Presuppositions,” 354.

[4] McCormack, “Ontological Presuppositions,” 355.

[5] McCormack, “Ontological Presuppositions,” 355.