Book Reviews

Karl Barth and the Incarnation

​Sumner, Darren O. Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (New York: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2014), 256 pp. $112.00 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Rafael Bello (September 09, 2016)

To ask “Who is Jesus Christ?” is probably one of the hardest and simplest questions that one could pose to the dogmatician of Basel. Darren Sumner’s adapted doctoral dissertation travels through the long difficult response. Sumner has a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen and is affiliate professor of theology at both Fuller Theological Seminary and The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. As it is seen throughout the work, Barth had a desire to honor the ecumenical tradition, but was also eager to make changes. Those changes, however, as Sumner argues do not place him outside the bounds of confessional Christianity.

The book is structured into five chapters. The first chapter deals with Sumner’s own uneasiness with some Christological formulations of the patristic and medieval tradition. In what Sumner calls “the identity problem,” he analyzes instrumentalism and the advances that were made on Chalcedonian Christology. For example, in dealing with impassibility, Sumner points out that many regard Cyril’s Christology as “the definitive word on the topic” (58). However, later clarifications such as dyothelitism and communication of operations refine Cyril’s Christology at this point. Another point of concern for Sumner is the strategy of reduplication under the rubric of divine impassibility. Although the Church always affirmed that “Jesus ever acts theandrically: his divine and human natures, including their respective wills . . . are involved in everything Jesus does,” the strategy of reduplication predicates things to Jesus qua God and others qua man (66). Although Sumner never fully discards this strategy, he states that it leaves hard work to be done after the traditional christological grammar is gone.

In chapter 2, “Barth’s Response to Logos Christology,” Sumner identifies Logos Christology with a threefold meaning: first, the orthodoxy from the early pre-Chalcedon period until III Constantinople; second, Christology from above; and third, a comprehension of the two major types of theologies of chapter one: instrumentalist and compositionalist (73). To understand Barth’s response to Logos Christology, Sumner argues for slight to moderate development in Barth’s thought. In his early years (1924-25) Barth still saw the forma servi as a mere “veil of His divine reality,” thus signaling his apparent acceptance of the extra-calvinisticum (76). However, Sumner argues that as early as CD I/2 Barth is not conceiving of the person of Christ as an “isolated theologoumenon” (85). Such a position places Sumner at odds with one of the sides in the debate of Barth’s Christology. Sumner is sensitive to the fact that even though there are plenty of examples of Barth’s commitment to classical Chalcedonian Christology, the Swiss theologian also desired to move beyond Chalcedon in his later volumes. This willingness to transcend Chalcedon, while at the same time remaining faithful to the council is clear in Sumner’s repeated treatment of the extra-calvinisticum throughout his monograph. Barth’s innovation of the status duplex (exaltation and humiliation) as simultaneously existing in the person of the Son gave him the necessary tool to reject not only the Lutheran kenotic model, but also the Reformed doctrine of the double Logos (asarkos and ensarkos).

The third chapter aims to clarify the dialectical relationship of the Son with incarnation in the theology of Barth. In order to elucidate this relationship, Sumner notes four themes that inform Barth’s later Christology: covenant and election; the incarnation in time and eternity; “two essence” Christology and the communication of natures; and the status duplex. While I cannot go into detail on each of these themes, at the heart of Barth’s project is that he was dissatisfied with a static framework in classical descriptions of natures and essences. With that in mind, Barth perceived a division of being and act in the tradition in order to protect the immanent life of God, which he deemed unbiblical. For this reason, he developed an actualistic ontology that was modern (152). If Barth’s actualism is modern Christology, can it be Chalcedonian? This is Sumner’s question in chapter four. Here, he shows that Barth: 1) reformulated “nature,” “substance,” and “person” (clearly Chalcedonian language); 2) described the person of Christ as history and event; 3) asserted that states of exaltation and humiliation are simultaneous; 4) affirmed that divine and human essences are mutually conditioning; 5) denied the classical doctrine of impassibility; 6) structured a christology dependent upon his actualistic methodology and ontology. However, the Swiss theologian was still inside the bounds of orthodoxy. Remaining in the tradition subsists in other six themes affirmed in Barth’s theology: 1) Jesus is fully God; 2) Jesus is fully man; 3) Jesus’ divine and human essences are perfectly united; 4) in Christ the divine and the human are not confused or changed; 5) in Christ the divine and human are not separated or divided; 6) there is a singularity of subject in Christ’s incarnation.

The last chapter is Sumner’s attempt to synthesize the great amount of information from the previous chapters. He proceeds with a discussion of the status duplex and its relationship to the extra-calvinisticum (which Barth does not completely reject). Next, Sumner continues with a discussion of eternity, divine impassibility, and immutability. Finally, he ends with Barth’s objections to kenotic Christology in light of the obedience and humility in the divine life.

Sumner’s shows patience and compassion in his reading of Barth. Those virtues are hoped from anyone who reads the great master from Basel. His command of the material is impressive. Further, his compassion and sharp analytical mind are present in his discussion of the interpretations regarding the continuity between Barth’s Christology in CD I/2 and IV/1 (86-9). Even though he sees some continuity between Barth’s earlier and later works, he does not quickly side with those who see a strong metaphysical theology running throughout Barth’s works. Intrinsic to Sumner’s project is to see a crescendo of actualism in Barth’s Dogmatics.

A small area of concern is when Sumner describes the Status Duplex, specifically related to the Status Exinanitionis. Even though it is understandable that Barth preferred to get rid of the Logos asarkos in order to actualize the two states in eternity and in time, it is debatable whether Sumner clears Barth altogether from the charge of gradation in the Godhead. Barth writes, “There is a below, a posterius, a subordination, that it belongs to the inner life of God” (CD IV/1, 200-1). Sumner aptly describes that assertion as not confined only to the economy. However, when trying to clear Barth from hierarchy in the trinity, Sumner simply repeats the actualistic refrain that Jesus is in eternity what he is in time. In my estimation this is a valid recourse, but not the only one. Is it possible that Barth is really contradicting himself here? In fact, only 20 pages earlier in CD IV/I, Barth confines subordination only to the ad extra (177). I think that admitting an inconsistency might be the way forward here.

Another comment can also be made regarding Sumner’s project itself. For Barth enthusiasts such as myself, this work may be trying to overachieve. The topic itself of Barth and the incarnation could fill entire libraries. And with this regard one can feel lost in the reading, even though Sumner demonstrates mastery of the sources. There is simply too much in this work. However, as said before, for lovers of Barth’s theology, this work promises and delivers in depth and analysis. For those who are interested in learning more about Barth’s actualism, this is a sane and evenhanded work. Much has been written and much is to be commended. However, Sumner shows that to be invested in s Barth’s Christology, one needs to hear Barth himself first.

Rafael Bello, Ph.D. Student, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.