Paul Dafydd Jones, The Humanity of Christ: Christology in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (London: T&T Clark, 2008), xiii + 290. $130.00 / £65.00

Reviewed by Darren O. Sumner (April 20, 2010)

The Humanity of Christ supplies the field of contemporary Barth scholarship with one of its most significant works of the twenty-first century so far through a thorough examination of a major locus in Barth’s theology. Originating as a doctoral dissertation at Harvard University and recently honored with the Templeton Award, Paul Dafydd Jones’ book examines Christology diachronically through the Church Dogmatics. As the title suggests, at issue for Jones – associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Department of Religious Studies – is Barth’s robust account of the humanity of Jesus Christ, in opposition to the common charge “that Barth’s strong affirmation of Christ’s divinity makes for an enfeebled account of Christ’s humanity” (3). Meticulously researched and organized, the work synthesizes much of theDogmatics, offering summaries and insightful analysis of Barth’s theology.According to Jones, Barth strikes a vital balance between affirming Jesus Christ’s ontological complexity and personal simplicity in an ordering of divine-human relations that identifies Christ’s human work as that of “‘correspondence’ to God’s prevenient direction” (5). Apart from a summary introduction and a conclusion that briefly inquires into the application of Barth’s Christology for ethics and political theology, the book consists of four large chapters. In the first, Jones lays out key christological concepts through studying four topics: 1) the anhypostasia/enhypostasia distinction, which Barth favored; 2) the standing Barth grants the Chalcedonian Definition; 3) prolegomenal moves in CD I/2, including a) Barth’s commitment to a Reformed emphasis on the differentiation of Christ’s natures (over against a Lutheran emphasis on their perichoretic relationship); b) an interest in dyothelitism; and c) Christ’s assumption of sinful ‘flesh’; and 4) the relationship between historical-critical questions and Barth’s dogmatic portrayal of Jesus Christ. Jones identifies the points at which Barth appropriated the tradition and where he reconfigured it for his own actualistic purposes, such as Barth’s preference of ‘essence’ (Wesen) over the Chalcedonian ‘nature’ (Natur) and his use of the minimalist formula, vere Deus vere homo (7). Due to his “circumspect attitude towards conceptual abstraction” (31) and desire to draw christological conclusions from the witness of Scripture, Barth attempted to integrate the concerns of both the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools in a way faithful to Chalcedon’s efforts, yet dispensing with the council’s conceptual apparatus.

Jones’ work is predominantly descriptive here in the first chapter. Concepts such as the logos asarkos, sinful flesh, and the extra Calvinisticum are raised. Jones rightly presses that, for Barth, Christ’s humanity is more than simply a medium in and through which God instrumentally reveals himself. Barth followed the Sixth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople III) in affirming both two wills and two operations, or agencies, in Christ. By ‘will’ Barth does not mean a ‘faculty,’ Jones suggests, but “a more radical affirmation of ‘the unity of act and being’ that characterizes Christ’s divine-human person,” agency “understood expansively to encompass cognitive and affective processes, decisions, and the realization of intention” (41-2). To avoid the charge of Nestorianism, of ‘agency’ read so strongly that a duality of Christ’s person emerges, Barth affirmed that Christ’s humanity apart from the incarnation was anhypostatic, lacking subsistence and reality in itself (23), and only enhypostatic in its unio personalis with the Son of God. Thus, while Christ possesses a discrete center of willing and acting according to his humanity, that human agency is not a ‘person’ in its own right and apart from its union with God qua Son. This qualification is profoundly important for Barth’s Christology and soteriology and, as we shall see, stirs up difficult interpretive waters.

In Chapter 2, Jones turns to volume II of the Dogmatics, moving beyond Barth’s preliminary (and rather traditional) Christology in I/2 to the complex relationship between the doctrines of Christ, the Trinity, and election. This is seen in God’s capacity for self-determination, the love of God as integral to God’s being, Jesus’ role qua human in covenantal history, and Barth’s stunning identification of Jesus Christ as both ‘electing God’ and ‘elected human.’ Indeed, says Jones, God’s election of Jesus Christ – God’s self-determination to implicate the human history and reconciling work of Jesus in God’s own eternal being – signals God’s affirmation of humanity itself. The doctrine of election, then, is the soil in which Barth’s mature Christology is cultivated.

Jones engages vital (and controversial) issues here, not the least of which is the distinction between God’s immanent life and economic activity (65). Barth “closes the ‘ontological gap’” between the eternal Son and the incarnate Son. His concern “is to describe Jesus Christ as an event and person constitutive of God in God’s second way of being” (66). There is in Barth a direct (if carefully delineated) identification of the man Jesus Christ with the eternal Son, so that one cannot dispense with his human essence when talk turns to God’s immanent life qua Son. “God makes humanity part of God’s being. Divine identity is not unyieldingly ‘inviolate’ (i.e., ontologically uncomplicated, constituted only by ‘pure, unadulterated divinity’), because God freely incorporates ontological difference into the divine life” (78). This is a radical and far too unappreciated move in Barth, but one that Jones sees as decisive. What do theologians do with this? Rather than signaling for a retreat (either from Barth, or from an actualist reading of his divine ontology), Jones’ conclusion is exactly right: with Barth “a strict partition of God’s immanent being as Son and God’s economic work as Son is no longer dogmatically viable” (67).

Jesus as the ‘electing God’ and ‘elected human’ stands as the centerpiece of Chapter 2, and rightly so. Jones looks at the first predicate from four angles: 1) as “a statement about God’s loving intention, appropriable especially to the divine Son;” 2) as “an affirmation that God as Son presents Godself and acts in human history;” 3) as “a claim about the divine subject who grounds and directs the life of Jesus Christ;” and 4) as “the contention that God himself, as Son, bears the rejection owed to sinful humankind” (80). This multiform description of what Barth has in mind by such a deceptively simple and innocuous phrase as “electing God” is instructive, demonstrating Jones’s ability to identify the core convictions that motivated the author. The second predicate, that Jesus is also ‘elected human,’ signals that God protects and preserves the integrity of Jesus’ human nature, taking it into God’s own life and so constituting his being qua Son. Here Jones considers the function of the logos asarkos (91-96), as well as Barth’s view of eternity (99-102).

After a brief look at Barth’s “christologically normed theological anthropology” (117) in CD III/2, Jones turns to volume IV/2 in Chapter 3. He criticizes Barth’s patriarchal views on gender and the impact of such “social-scientific and cultural discourses” on his christological concentration (118). Following this, he provides what is perhaps the most extensive treatment of Barth’s use of the communicatio naturarum and idiomatum in print today. One need not read far in the Dogmatics to discover Barth’s concern with the Lutheran genus maiestaticum and the impact of the sixteenth century eucharistic debates on Christology. It may be surprising to see Barth linger here at the communicatio, a point where his penchant for conceptual recasting (in dynamic terms of event, rather than static terms of nature) might lead him to downplay or reject the traditional approach to Christ’s person. Instead, this engagement “enables him to clarify his understanding of Christ’s humanity, thereby lending greater precision to and augmenting significantly the claims of II/2” (121). Barth’s treatment is significant not because he replaces “nature” (Natur) with “essence” (Wesen) – though he does do this – but because he situates the discussion soteriologically, in correspondence with Christ’s divine humiliation and human exanination (cf. 122). This is quite different from the tradition’s tendency to see humiliation and exaltation as temporal descriptions of the Son’s incarnation and, later, glorification. In Barth’s hands, however, “humiliation and exaltation no longer relate to the course of Christ’s life; they now anchor dogmatic descriptions of the modes of existence that respectively characterize the divine and human essences” (125).

Also earning significant treatment in Chapter 3 is Barth’s concern with the singularity of subject in the incarnation – what Jones calls Jesus’ “personal simplicity.” Here Barth sounds “a Cyrillian note” (129), pressing the selfsame identity of the eternal Son and Jesus Christ so that the former cannot be considered in absence of the latter – in absence, that is, of his history. Jones points to Barth’s use of ‘participation’ as a way to illustrate the mutual correspondence and coherence of the divine Son and the man Jesus; the term “allows Barth to suggest that the union of humanity and divinity in Christ’s person is an event mutually confected and, in some respect, mutually forged, given the concurrent activity of Christ’s humanity and Christ’s divinity” (133). Therefore, while the divine Son and the man Jesus are by no means two subjects, they each possess an agential power by which they each take part “in the task of upholding the numerical simplicity of Christ’s person” (133). The divine agency gives and the human agency receives, so that salvation is actively effected by … two coordinate but asymmetrically related agential realities” (144).

Jones’ emphasis on human agency achieves its zenith in his reading of Barth on the communication of graces (138-41). The dialectic of grace and gratitude reflects the proper place of the human essence in theunio hypostatica and hedges off any implication that the divine Son makes merely instrumental use of the human essence. Because God’s ‘summons’ to humankind is answered by the Son qua human, “Christ’s human essence does not exist as a lifeless, insensible vehicle of the Son’s economic working” (139). Thus, Christ as a human person is not merely acted upon, but “is also spurred to act humanly.” This is his gratuitous response to God from our side, on our behalf, which is Christ’s exaltation of humanity – “the birth of human agency in Christ’s act of gratitude” (140-41). Divine and human activities concur and correspond in this man (153; cf. 151).

From volume IV/2, Jones turns back to IV/1 in his fourth chapter, with a look at Barth’s concepts of history (Geschichte) and obedience (Gehorsam). The former is, of course, indispensable for the actualist approach that Barth takes to dogmatics. History is significant because it is here that the divine intention is realized, so that “the life of Jesus Christ constitutes the identity of Jesus Christ” which, in turn, “God makes constitutive of the identity of God qua Son” (191). This is a fine sum of Barth’s actualistic Christology: a dynamic construal of history, and not the static realm of ‘nature’ or ‘essence,’ is where the life of Jesus is the life of the eternal Son of God. Obedience, in turn, is a controlling category for Barth’s Christology – from the relation of the Son to the Father, to Gethsemane, to the cross as revealing Christ’s participation in atonement by means of his own willing sacrifice. Vital to his account of Christ’s obedience, Jones notes, is that Barth understands this orientation as occurring within the life of God: the obedience of Jesus Christ to his Father is not just a human event, but the way of the Son’s eternal being with and toward the Father.

Jones divides the topic of obedience into Christ’s “divine obedience” and “human obedience,” pressing dual agency as the hermeneutical key to Barth’s Christology. Divine obedience “supports Barth’s conviction that it is truly the divine Son who indwells Jesus Christ” (205), stressing that the eternal Son is not different from the Son revealed in Jesus. Perhaps more profoundly, Jones suggests, Barth refines his doctrine of God in §59 in such a way that “his radically actualized ontology overcomes the unnecessary idea that either an affirmation of God’s personal unity or God’s tri-personality must have logical priority” (211; cf. footnote 57). Neither of the classic loci in the doctrine of God, de Deo uno or de Deo trino, are granted priority over the other.

With Jesus’ human obedience Jones returns to the communicatio operationum, which suggests to him that both human agency and divine agency cooperate to effect the one goal of reconciliation (216; cf. 223-25, 249-50). Jones identifies the ‘human action’ and ‘divine action’ in Jesus as distinct but corresponding – one divine initiation, the other human reception. In Gethsemane the human Jesus is realizing, acknowledging, and conforming himself to the divine will (231-42). How closely this apprehends Barth’s view is debatable. For Barth, the “common actualization” of divine and human essences appears not to be two actions seen in correspondence but a single action considered at once from two vantage points. Jesus does not act divinely and, in coordination, humanly; rather his actions simultaneously have divine and human significance. This is how Barth maintains the dyothelitism of Constantinople III, and can speak of a plurality of agencies in the Mediator while yet subjecting these principles to the singularity and simplicity of his person.

If there is any point of caution in this tremendous work, then, it is that Jones’ emphasis on human agency at times unbalances Barth’s insistence upon the singularity of the acting Subject who is the incarnate Son. Jones has a tendency, particularly in the latter half of the book, to speak of Christ’s double agency in such a way as to leave one wondering whether he is, in fact, still describing a singular Subject. For example: The man Jesus’ “human constancy (an unflagging self-determination to be the Son)” is paralleled with God’s constancy (the self-determination of the Son to be Jesus), which “together compromise Christ’s identity” (112). Jones further remarks that God unites “this human,” rather than humanity (an anhypostaticnature), with God qua Son (115). And on Jones’ reading, the divine and human essences together “enact and realize Christ’s personally simple identity,” because “the man Jesus … does not lack agential power (an essential property of human being), and he exerts this power in a way that contributes to, and in fact assists in the establishment and preservation of, the personal simplicity definitive of his divine-human person” (133). That this is fully Chalcedonian explanation of Constantinople III’s “two wills and two operations” is uncertain.

For Jones, the dogmatic emphasis upon human agency seems to function as a bulwark against an instrumentalist view of Jesus’ humanity – thus his desire to maintain Jesus of Nazareth as an “agential power” alongside God the Son. When he is on guard against the tendency toward a dual-subject Christology, Jones is unimpeachable. When that warning falls aside (signaled, for example, by his suggestion that Barth ultimately assigns anhypostasia and enhypostasia a limited role, 25-26), Jones allows himself to speak of ‘the human Jesus’ when what he seems to mean is ‘Jesus’ human agency.’ Perhaps this is mere semantics. What is lacking, however, is a description of what ‘agency’ means to Barth (and to Jones), how this is related to Barth’s dyothelitism and the Sixth Ecumenical Council’s two ‘operations,’ and how a duality of agencies (“two agential powers,” 202) in Jesus does not result in a duality of agents.

Anyone familiar with the organization and scope of the Church Dogmatics will immediately appreciate that an attempt to provide an account of Karl Barth’s Christology is an immense undertaking. The doctrine of Christ touches every area of the Dogmatics, and functions as a conceptual control to most, and so few have attempted anything like this project. Jones rightly acknowledges that his own account of this central locus in Barth’s theology is in no way exhaustive; “with Barth, there is always more that can be said” (242). The author’s analysis is careful and penetrating, with a measured dose of his own constructive syntheses. Jones is upfront about his own influences and sympathies, including commitments to feminist concerns, “postmetaphysics,” and an interest in narrative theology shaped by the school of Hans Frei (cf. 12-13). The Humanity of Christ offers an invigorating reading of a significant element in Barth’s thought, and thus it is highly recommended for serious students of Barth.

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.