Tag Archives: Christology

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 Karl Barth’s Historicised Christology

NativityBruce McCormack is not content simply to refer to Barth’s Christology as Chalcedonian, contra George Hunsinger. McCormack acknowledges that Barth has retained the “values” of Chalcedon (i.e. “two natures in one person”), but argues that Barth has fundamentally reworked what this means by developing his Christology on entirely different grounds to that of Chalcedon. He argues that Barth’s Christology developed over the course of his career, even within the period of the Church Dogmatics. In volume I/2 his Christology is largely Chalcedonian, but by volume IV/1-3, Barth had reworked his ontology in light of his doctrine of election, with the result that there are now fundamental differences between his Christology and that of Chalcedon, and yet without compromising the fundamental achievement of Chalcedon. McCormack develops his thesis as follows.

Barth rejected the underlying substantialist ontology of Chalcedon in order to preserve the immutability of God in the human life of Jesus. That is, the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus do not constitute “change” in the divine being, for God can become human and as human even die without ceasing to be God, because God has eternally self-determined to be God only in this way. Jesus Christ, in his divine-human unity has taken death into the divine life, but has not been conquered by it.[1] This “death in God” does not change God because Barth does not conceive of God’s being in terms of substance but in terms of act. McCormack defines his terms as follows:

The language of “essence” is certainly innocent enough. It refers merely to the thought of a self-identical element that perdures through all the changes that take place in a person/thing through time. It is that which makes a person/thing to be what it is, all other qualities being understood as nonessential. The Greek category of “substance” (in all of its various forms) makes the self-identical element in “persons” (which is our interest here) to be complete in itself apart from, and prior to the decisions, acts and relations by means of which the life of the person in question is constituted. “Substance,” then, is a timeless idea; a concept whose content is complete in abstraction from an individual’s lived history.[2]

For McCormack, if God is conceived in terms of an eternal and underlying substance, the incarnation must mean a change in what God is. Further,

If the definition of “immutability” is controlled by a notion of “substance” in the way described, then it becomes impossible to understand the human nature of Jesus Christ as the human nature of the eternal Logos. Any attribution of human qualities or activities of experiences to the Logos would set aside the “immutability” of the Logos. … The unity of the Logos and his human nature can only be achieved through the abandonment of substantialist thinking and the “abstract” theological epistemology that makes it possible.[3]

For McCormack—following Barth—not only is God known through what he does, God is what he does. We learn what God is and does not through philosophical speculation, but by attentively “following after” God’s movement into history in all its concreteness.[4] That is, Barth asks concerning the constitution of God in eternity given what God has done in time. This divine doing has its ground in the first divine act of election in which God determined to be God in this way and not otherwise. That is, God determined to be God-for-us in the covenant of grace, in uniting humanity into his own being in the person of the Logos.

To God’s being-in-act in eternity there corresponds a being-in-act in time; the two are identical in content (or, as we might also say, the “immanent Trinity” and the “economic Trinity” are identical in content). Clearly, immutability has been preserved here. But it has been newly defined.[5]

[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), 361.

[2] McCormack, “Ontological Presuppositions,” 357, original emphasis.

[3] McCormack, “Ontological Presuppositions,” 357.

[4] McCormack, “Ontological Presuppositions,” 358.

[5] McCormack, “Ontological Presuppositions,” 359.


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.

Bruce McCormack on Modern Christology

“Colorful Jesus Painting”

“The Person of Christ” in Kapic & McCormack (eds), Mapping Modern Theology, 149-173.

McCormack introduces his essay on the Person of Christ by noting that the doctrine of the person of Christ has to do with the ontological constitution of the mediator as divine and human. This duality of Jesus’ being has its roots in Scripture, and led to ancient debates culminating in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon. Here the essential parameters of the doctrine were set: the union of two natures—divine and human—in the one person, Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Chalcedon did not fully settle the christological questions. The relation of the two natures to one another, and the identification of the Subject of the person’s activity continued to arise in the history of the church as matters of controversy. For example, in the seventh-century, the church debated whether, in fact, Jesus had two wills. The Sixth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople III, 681) concluded that he did, the human will functioning as any other human will, though always in agreement with the will of the Logos. The sacramental dispute between Lutheran and Reformed theologians in the Reformation period revolved around whether the attributes of the one nature may be applied to the other nature, or whether the attributes of each nature should more properly be attributed to the person of Christ. For example, may we say that Jesus’ humanity is omnipresent or that God can die? Or would we better apply these various attributes to the person of Jesus in his unique divine-human unity?

In the modern period, a growing awareness of human self-consciousness and development posed sharp questions to Chalcedon. Cyril of Alexandria had portrayed Jesus’ humanity as static, almost an inert instrument of the Logos who was the acting Subject of the man Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Constantinople III affirmed that each nature possessed its own mind and will. In 1848, then, David Friedrich Strauss argued that this must mean that Jesus was possessed of two personalities, one infinite and one finite. If this was so, it must inevitably mean that Jesus’ divine nature overwhelms his human nature with the result that his humanity differs from ours. Is Jesus fully and genuinely human? This modern concern is one that McCormack shares.

McCormack identifies the Friedrich Schleiermacher and Georg Hegel as the two men who set the agenda for modern christology. Schleiermacher conceived of God in classic terms of an absolute and omnipotent God standing outside the created order. Nevertheless God’s activity is directed toward the world as a continual causative power, guiding and sustaining the ‘system of nature’ as a whole. God’s whole creational and providential purpose finds its climax and goal in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is perfectly open to God and so possesses a perfect God-consciousness. So powerful is this God-consciousness that he is able to live a sinless life and so become the Redeemer who communicates the power of his own God-consciousness to others. But Schleiermacher is concerned about human development and so in his view, the divine essence unites itself to human nature in the person of Jesus only gradually. This allows room for personality development in the human Jesus, as McCormack notes:

It was only as Jesus’s “higher powers” (reason and will) developed that the uniting activity could produce that redemptive power that would emanate from him to those who came after. To be sure, the uniting activity was present in such a way that it kept him preserved from sin at every point—but always in a manner congruent with his stage of human development.[1]

Because Jesus has a perfect passivity with respect to God’s uniting activity,

he is the replication in human form of the pure activity which God is—an incarnation of God by any other name. And he alone can be this. It is in him alone that the creation of human nature is made complete (in his pure receptivity to God). This is something that can only happen once. Therefore, Christ is utterly unique, and what takes place in him is final (in the sense of being unrepeatable) and universal in its significance.[2]

Hegel, more a philosopher than a theologian, approaches the question very differently. Whereas Schleiermacher clings to classical theism, Hegel’s God is a being-in-becoming, a God who is realising his divine being in and through the processes of world history. God is not a being complete and external to the world. Rather, God is on a journey to become who he is; God requires another to become self-conscious. Thus, God posits another alongside himself, a finite creature, the world, and in the world, a particular finite and personal creature, who is yet identified with God himself: Jesus Christ. Now, God has another over against himself in whom he also recognises himself. This other—Jesus—is separate from God, the opposite of God, and indeed in his suffering and death experiences the very antithesis of all that God is. In Jesus Christ, then, God has created and embraced and experienced the extremity of human alienation, finitude and death, and has taken it into the very life of God, triumphing over it.

The God who identifies himself with the crucified Jesus by raising him from the dead is the God who is made known as Self-sacrificial love, a love that goes to any extreme to be reconciled with the object of his love. And in that all of this is revealed to those who follow Jesus, their knowledge of God is made to be the vehicle of God’s own Self-knowledge. God knows himself in and through their knowledge of him.[3]

Albrecht Ritschl
Albrecht Ritschl

McCormack then goes onto discuss other forms modern christology has taken, including the kenotic christology of Gottfried Thomasius, the moral-historical christology “from below” of Albrecht Ritschl, and the “classical” yet post-metaphysical christology of Karl Barth. McCormack refers to all these christological models as the “basic paradigms” which shape the contours of almost all other modern christologies, including those of Moltmann and Pannenberg, the liberationists and feminists, Walter Kasper and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

McCormack’s essay is typically thorough, learned and well worth reading. Yet a significant question can be raised about his treatment of modern christology. McCormack argues that,

Modern Christology was born in a reaction not so much against the theological values that sought expression in and through those categories [of the Chalcedonian formula] as against the categories themselves. We make a huge mistake at the outset if we understand modern Christology as simply a repudiation of the dogma of the church. Initially, at least, it was anything but that. … The modern period saw a transformation in the categories employed to explain the basic values that came to expression in the formula, but no abandonment of those values.[4]

McCormack identifies these values very simply in terms of the Chalcedonian formula: Jesus is both divine and human in one person. By limiting the theological values of Chalcedon and the broader ancient tradition in this fashion he can suggest that Schleiermacher, Hegel and Ritschl are, to some extent at least, “orthodox” in a Chalcedonian sense. He is, of course, certainly aware that this is a problematic suggestion and acknowledges with respect to Schleiermacher and Hegel,

For both, the triunity of God is the consequence of the divine act of relating to the world in Christ and through the church. The Trinity is an eschatological rather than a protological reality. And that means, as Schleiermacher put it, God is not differentiated in himself in independence of his union with Christ and with the church.[5]

Surely this is a fatal departure from ancient theological values in which God is eternally the triune God, and Christ and the Spirit are eternal God. Why, then, has McCormack argued thus?

[1] McCormack, “The Person of Christ,” 159.

[2] McCormack, “The Person of Christ,” 160, original emphasis.

[3] McCormack, “The Person of Christ,” 162.

[4] McCormack, “The Person of Christ,” 150-151, 157.

[5] McCormack, “The Person of Christ,” 163.

On Scripture, and Understanding Jesus

BuschThe German Christians made the decision in November 1933 that they wanted to purify the gospel “from all Oriental distortion.” With that they accomplished the very opposite – they distorted the message. There have been for a long time and there are also today tendencies to subject the figure of Jesus Christ attested to us in Scripture to the favorite ideas of a particular point in time – until we discover one day that we can satisfy our ideals really much better without this figure! It will constantly be a Reformational act when one moves away from such fantasies to the hearing of Holy Scripture.

From: Eberhard Busch, The Barmen Theses Then and Now, 24-25.