Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Paul D. Jones, “The Humanity of Christ” – Barth & Chalcedon

If there remains anyone out there in the theo-blogosphere who has not yet figured out that the theology section over at T&T Clark is filled with wonderful people, take my word for it – they are. Exhibit A: they sent me a copy of Paul Jones’ $130 (USD, list price) book, The Humanity of Christ: Christology in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. While I’m tempted to write a full-fledged review of this volume, I’m not going to because one is currently underway, by a much more qualified author, for the Center for Barth Studies review section. I will, of course, be posting a notice here when that review goes live.

So, I decided that the best way to show my gratitude to T&T Clark would be to do not one large review post, but a number of posts, highlighting what I think are important tidbits of this work, and whetting your appetites for more so that you will, hopefully, go buy the book. Or at least check it out of your friendly, neighborhood theological library.

Here is the first installment:
Paul Dafydd Jones, The Humanity of Christ: Christology in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (London: T&T Clark, 2008): 31-3. The following is my description as well as quotes from Jones, so that you get the idea of what he’s saying, and the best tidbits, without me reproducing a number of pages exactly.

Barth found an affirmation of Chalcedon useful, and it furnished him with the basic grammar of his Christology. But, he also held Chalcedon at a bit of a distance. “Barth’s concern [was] to reorient a theological environment thrown off course by protestant liberalism, not to make the conceptual apparatus of the Definition normative for christological reflection.” This distinction between the Definition itself or, if I may, the truth that it tries to convey, and the “conceptual apparatus” involved is, I think, very helpful. Apparently, Barth thought so too. The particular bit of this apparatus that Barth didn’t like is the notion of “nature” (physis). “Barth’s reticence with respect to this term and its cognates reflects, in part, a context-bound suspicion of physis. But more basic to his marginalization of substantivist terminology is a circumspect attitude towards conceptual abstraction, itself a consequence of a stalwart commitment to the principle of sola scriptura.” This principle means that extra-biblical concepts brought in to do theological work have to be carefully chosen, and “Barth treats all candidate concepts with a selectivity that recalls Calvin’s Institutes.”

Here is the basic conviction with which Barth worked: “The criterion of selection is that concepts must arise, in some way, from scripture…and be conducive to an interpretation of scripture.”

The problem with “nature” (physis) is that “it chafes against [Barth’s] preference for language that conveys the concreteness, actualism and sheer eventfulness of biblical descriptions of Christ; it struggles, more particularly, to depict the integration of Christology and soteriology basic to the New Testament.” It is not that Barth thinks the term necessarily harmful, nor is it that Barth is interested in rejecting classical terminology entirely. “But given a concern to maintain a vital relationship between the dynamic saving reality of Christ’s person, the details of scripture and christological inquiry, Natur and Wesen take up no meaningful role in Barth’s Christology in Church Dogmatics I/2 and thereafter. They go the same way as ‘person’ in intra-Trinitarian discussion, albeit with much less fanfare.”

Given all this, we might well ask Jones for a summary of Barth’s position vis-à-vis Chalcedon, and Jones does not disappoint: “Barth upholds the gist of Chalcedon when forwarding christological claims; [but] he has little interest in retaining each and every component of its conceptual apparatus.”
Whew! That was still a bit lengthy. In conclusion, I want to say two things: (1) I have little independent knowledge of the material in CD 1.2 that Jones is working with; (2) his interpretation sounds about right to me. In fact, he hits well in this section on the deep motivation for Barth’s anti-metaphysical program – Barth wanted to develop theological concepts out of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ by way of the authoritative witness to that revelation given in Scripture, and not on the basis of any general and/or independent conception of humanity and the world, or even on the basis of some common-sense way of parsing reality analytically. So, when it comes to Chalcedon, Jones points out, Barth quietly shunts a term he thinks has become problematic (or, perhaps Barth thinks it always was problematic) to the side in favor of a more biblical picture of God not as the subject of a catalog of properties, but as the living God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

P.S. Here are pictures of both Jones and Barth. Eerie similarities in posture and expression? You be the judge.

4 comments:

Paul Dafydd Jones said...

Handsome chap on the right. But I'm not sure about the one on the left. In fact, his wife finds this photograph a source of seemingly endless amusement, and starts to giggle whenever she sees it.

Thanks for the kind words about the book, Travis! Hope you're enjoying the snow.

Darren said...

Thanks for this, Travis! I am also reading Professor Jones' book at present (hmm), and enjoying it immensely.

This statement threw me for a loop (probably because I am reading IV/2 at present). Maybe you or, if he's reading, Professor Jones might throw some light on it:

"Natur and Wesen take up no meaningful role in Barth's Christology in Church Dogmatics I/2 and thereafter."

Certainly Barth's (chief?) goal is to speak of the incarnation in concrete, particular ways, and not give more credence to concepts such as 'nature' and 'essence' than is warranted by Scripture. Yet he spends a great deal of time working through these exact concepts in IV/2, and clearly thinks they are important for Christology -- in a way that is recast vis-a-vis the particularity of Christ. The editors make special note of Barth's preference for Wesen over Natur (p. 44, fn. 1).

So, it is really the case that nature -- or, as Barth prefers, essence -- has no meaningful role in Barth's Christology?

Paul Dafydd Jones said...

Hi Darren,

I don't have a copy of my book with me right now, so I can't recall the precise context of the statement, but the point here is -- as you say -- to emphasize that Barth wants always to rivet attention on the actual person of Christ, and that words such as these tend to get in the way. As such, Barth prefers either a really minimal formulation (vere deus vere homo) or a more expansive, categorically rich, description of the *activities* associable with Christ's person.

With that said, the sentence *is* a bit problematic. Certainly it runs the risk of overstatement. Which is bad. You're right: Barth does indeed spend lots of time on *Natur* and, more pointedly, *Wesen* in IV/2. Nevertheless, even there Barth is more interested in unpacking the activity of Christ qua mediator. For this reason (I get to this in chapter 3), he does some really interesting stuff with the communicatio gratiarum and the communicatio operationum...

Good to hear from you --

Best,


Paul

Darren said...

Thanks, Paul -- I'll go hunt for Travis's quotation and see if the broader context offers help.

If I can plug my own blog, here's a good example of the particularism we're talking about. Barth isn't disinterested in 'essence' as a concept for Christology, nor is he making efforts to set aside Chalcedonian concepts (though he clearly does redefine them, e.g. Wesen over Natur). What he does in this particular passage is to (as you say) rivet the concept to the person of Jesus Christ -- which means a great deal of talk about what 'essence,' in and of itself, is not.

I actually just finished Chapter 3 of your book, and the communicatio operationum bit was helpful to me in figuring out how the Lutheran commnicatio (with which I'm more familiar) lines up with the Reformed approach to that cluster of concepts. I'm not Lutheran myself, but you score big points in my book by citing and working directly with Martin Chemnitz. Virtually every engagement with the communicatio I have seen ignores him, and invariably gets the details wrong for it.

Thanks again, Paul! I'm doing a dissertation on Christology and Barth, so it's fun to have the chance to interact with you as I'm reading your book. All the best.