Karl Barth and the Incarnation

Christology and the Humility of God

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Darren O. Sumner
T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury T&T Clark
    , November
     2014.
     256 pages.
     $112..
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780567655288.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Karl Barth and the Incarnation seeks to offer a greater understanding of Barth's contribution to the history of the classical doctrine of the incarnation, particularly as concerns the relationship of the logos to the assumed human nature of Christ. Darren O. Sumner's work is well researched and his insights are presented in a convincing fashion, particularly since tackling specific aspects of Barth's christology can be a daunting task.

Sumner maintains that Barth's work makes critical appropriation of Chalcedonian "logos" christology since the doctrinal formulations of the early church councils left some unresolved tensions in the traditional approach to describing the incarnation (3). The author highlights that patristic era tension in four issues he outlines in the book's first chapter: the incarnation's identity problem, immutability, kenosis, and impassibility. Insights from Barth's christology, Sumner maintains, offer some resolution to these tensions.

It is important to note that Barth's christology cannot be divorced from the actualist nature of his ontology. Actualism maintains that the being of God is known to us in his acts toward us, and not in human philosophical speculation or presuppositions (as in natural theology). This actualism is rooted in God's objective revelation to us which remains primary to God (God as known to himself) and secondary or mediated to us. This (mediated) revelation is God's self-disclosure of his own divine life in the person of Jesus Christ (13-14). Yet, this revelation remains an event which is mediated to us again and again.

After providing a brief historical summary of the early church's efforts to address the Logos identity problem as it pertains to Chalcedonian orthodoxy, chapter 2 describes Barth's response to logos christology. After Barth's break with theological liberalism, he found himself adopting a patristic-Reformed christology, one to which he is committed but with a desire to critique and tweak. His exegesis of scripture during this period, particularly his lectures on John 1, would temper his approach to the historic doctrine. The aforementioned chapter and chapter 3 highlight Barth's working out of the conception of the incarnation in his thought, particularly as it comes to full maturity in his Church Dogmatics. Barth's christology is certainly "from above," which describes God's movement in his second mode of being (Christ) toward creaturely existence.

God's freedom, for Barth, necessitates that that word became flesh because such becoming is grounded in the divine covenant and election of humanity. God did not have to will to become human, but did indeed will "to be God for us and not God without us." Barth reverses the priority of the Chalcedonian formula regarding the word-Christ relationship by making the latter the basic subject of christology (110). His mature christology is supported by an extensive grappling with four themes: covenant and election, time and eternity, the communication of Christ's two natures, and Christ's humiliation and exaltation (status duplex). In addressing each of these pairs of themes, Barth's dialectical method is evident through a simultaneous movement between each event, particularly as it relates to the status duplex. Here we find Barth's unfolding narrative of the humiliation of the Son of God and the exaltation of the Son of Man. Barth is convinced this provides, contra traditional logos christology, a positive presentation of the person of Christ and the humility of God (153).

The final two chapters present the author's evaluation of Barth's insights on the incarnation, particularly within the rubric of Chalcedonian doctrine. For Barth, Chalcedonian christology is given new form in that the person of Christ is not "the static product of a metaphysical formula" but is himself a dynamic event (158). Sumner suggests that Barth is innovative in six ways as it relates to christology: (1) he changes the trinitarian language from "person" to "nature"; (2) Christ's person is history and event; (3) Jesus's states of humiliation and exaltation are simultaneous; (4) the divine and human essences are mutually conditioning; (5) Barth denies the classical doctrine of divine impassibility; (6) Barth's christology depends upon his actualist method and ontology (185-90).

The author believes that Barth's christological approach, as it relates to the doctrine of the incarnation in particular, is a "fruitful" way forward in Christian reflection upon the person and work of Jesus. Two areas of this approach are worth noting. Concerning the kenotic humility and obedience, Christ's "emptying" of certain divine attributes and the assumption of human weakness does not diminish his divine essence. For Barth, rather, it is made possible by the Son's eternal humility and obedience to the Father. This subordination of the Son to the Father is located within the Trinity itself (217). This also has direct implications for the classical doctrine of divine immutability. Finally, impassibility does not require mere ad extra suffering by the Son in which the divine remains unaffected. In God's freedom and in the election of grace, God wills to suffer and die for the redemption of creatures. Barth agrees with defenders of classical impassibility that God does not suffer in his divine nature (222). But it does mean that God, in his second way of being, is capable of a true and personal experience of suffering.

If Sumner's contribution suffers any weakness, it would be that he doesn't do a critical enough appraisal of Barth's actualist ontology. Such an ontology, while useful for comprehending Barth's christological approach, poses issues concerning Barth's assertions about genuine divine revelation and even the concept of redemption, particularly as it relates to the biblical witness. Also, Barth's revision of impassibility was later co-opted by some Post-Barthian thinkers to conclude that God can only be known genuinely in his suffering, a conclusion that is also quite suspect given the testimony of scripture. Sumner's book, however, is a genuine contribution to contemporary Barth scholarship. It is a book suited for advanced students of Barth's christology who may see an ongoing value to the theologian's work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

William T. Chandler is Pastor and Adjunct Professor of Theology at Liberty University Online.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Darren O. Sumner is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Seminary Northwest, USA.

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