Commencement

20170603_185043Adjunct life is not easy.

We’re known to be “freeway flyers,” creatures who move quickly from campus to campus, city to city, to keep all of the plates spinning at the many (and various) institutions where we serve. (I myself am currently teaching at three schools along the I-5 corridor, about 60 miles apart.)

There are no offices. When we land it’s just long enough to teach the day’s class, perhaps take a meeting with a student or sympathetic faculty member, and then it’s off again — to another school, or child care, or a church meeting, or another part-time job.

I’m not complaining. I have been doing this long enough, and am sufficiently realistic about the present state of the academic job market, that I am only grateful for what work I have. I get to teach what I love to some wonderful men and women.

At this time of the year I am especially grateful for Commencement. It’s an opportunity to be included in the greater life of an institution, and at perhaps its most existentially significant moment: commissioning and sending students — now colleagues and friends, really — out into the world.

The robes may be rented, and not officially for the university I come from. Many of the students crossing the stage may not even know who I am. But for those with whom I’ve spent hours in the classroom puzzling over difficult theological texts, in hallway discussions, in the mundane moments of grading their papers, and in those glorious chances to glimpse their vision for their future ministries — it’s all worth it.

Adjunct life isn’t what I thought I was signing up for. It’s not easy. But I started this journey because I was once that young person, and my teachers inspired me to take hold of my own future and step into who God was calling me to be. I “commenced”; I went out to the next thing, and then the next, and then the next.

And I didn’t care if they were freeway flyers. Only that they had given me a glimpse of the future.

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Karl Barth and the Incarnation In Paperback This Month

Karl Barth and the Incarnation (Book)My book on Karl Barth’s Christology has been in print for a little over a year now, though the price tag has put it out of reach for the ordinary theologian on a budget.  But, thanks to the wonders of the paperback, that’s all about to change.

The paperback edition of Karl Barth and the Incarnation will arrive at the end of this month! So if you have interests in Christology, the history of doctrine, or Barth’s theology, I hope you will give the book a look.

Amazon currently has the book listed at a pre-order price of $29.95.  Preview the book there.

Here, again, is the overview of what’s going on in these pages:

This work demonstrates the significance of Karl Barth’s Christology by examining it in the context of his orientation toward the classical tradition – an orientation that was both critical and sympathetic. To compare this Christology with the doctrine’s history, Sumner suggests first that the Chalcedonian portrait of the incarnation is conceptually vulnerable at a number of points. By recasting the doctrine in actualist terms – the history of Jesus’ lived existence as God’s fulfillment of His covenant with creatures, rather than a metaphysical uniting of natures – Barth is able to move beyond problems inherent in the tradition.

Despite a number of formal and material differences, however, Barth’s position coheres with the intent of the ancient councils and ought to be judged as orthodox. Barth’s great contribution to Christology is in the unapologetic affirmation of ‘the humanity of God’.

The Logos As A ‘Placeholder’

Jesus - Stained GlassMy book Karl Barth and the Incarnation has been out for six months now, and with a very busy academic year finally starting to wind down I am able to make good on my intentions to post a bit of what’s in between these (rather expensive) covers.  (For the theologian on a budget, the paperback is expected in spring 2016.)

This selection turns up late in Chapter 2, which traces Barth’s engagement with so-called “Logos Christology.”  In his lectures on John’s gospel (published as Witness to the Word, and repurposed in a key section of CD II/2) Barth famously identified the concept of the Logos as a “placeholder” (locum tenens) — not a person in its own right but John the Evangelist’s way of clearing space for none other than Jesus himself.

That the Logos concept is but a placeholder that is filled in and given meaning by the history of Jesus Christ is the single greatest insight from Barth’s 1925 lectures on the Johannine prologue, and he maintains this view throughout his life. This began as a simple exegetical decision: John wishes his readers to see Jesus as the true identity of the one who was with God in the beginning, and who was (and is) vere Deus. He does not mean for readers to conclude that the prior and therefore more authentic identity of this person, whose life he is narrating, is actually the Logos of God – as if Jesus Christ was a mere alter-ego assumed for the economy of salvation. Jesus is basic; ‘Logos’ is a cipher.

What emerged from the young Barth’s exegesis would, by 1940, become a full-fledged principle of his dogmatic theology. “Jesus Christ is the content and form of the first and eternal Word of God.” It is Jesus Christ – “not an empty Logos, but Jesus Christ the incarnate Word, the baby born in Bethlehem, the man put to death at Golgotha and raised again in the garden of Joseph of Arimathea, the man whose history this is” (CD IV/1, p. 53) – who is the unity of Gospel and Law, the gracious address of God and the gracious claim of God. He is both of these at one and the same time, and by virtue of this unity it is Jesus in all his history who is “the pre-existent Deus pro nobis” (ibid).

If the Logos is a placeholder concept, the corollary to this is that Jesus Christ is not so. He is not a mere principle or economic phenomenon, but the one for whom the concept clears space. He may not be defined strictly as the predicate of another, more basic subject – i.e., as the role played by the Word on the stage of history, or the identity given to Him only after He has been born of the Virgin Mary. “Jesus Christ is attested to us by the Old and New Testaments in such a way that we are in fact deprived of the possibility of speaking of a further postulate instead of Him,” Barth says. “Jesus Christ is attested to us in such a way that we can say of Him either nothing at all, or, wholly unequivocally, that He is the Lord” (CD II/1, p. 150). It is necessary to speak of Jesus as the most basic identity of God the Son – and therefore as the subject of eternal election – because of the gospel witness. “He, Jesus Christ, is the free grace of God as not content simply to remain identical with the inward and eternal being of God, but operating ad extra in the ways and works of God.” For this reason, Barth concludes, “before Him and above Him and beside Him and apart from Him there is no election, no beginning, no decree, no Word of God” (CD II/2, p. 95).

For Barth, this provocative statement requires no further qualification. Jesus is not the name given to the Son qua human but is himself the second person of the Trinity. As a further development upon Barth’s Münster Christology, the name ‘Son’ speaks to the relation; ‘Word’ to the notional concept; and ‘Jesus’ to the living person who is described by both of these. And so Jesus Christ is both the Logos asarkos and ensarkos, the free grace of God in movement toward creatures. But because he has eternally assumed a human existence, theology can no longer speak of a Logos asarkos as a concrete possibility – and certainly not as an independent being. In effect the extra Calvinisticum has been reversed (as least on a logical register), so that the Logos is a concept that has meaning only within the larger reality of Jesus Christ.

Karl Barth and the Incarnation is now available from T&T Clark.

Endorsements For Karl Barth and the Incarnation

Karl Barth and the Incarnation (Book)

The revised version of my dissertation will be available in November (look for it at the T&T Clark booth at the AAR/SBL meeting in San Diego), though the publisher is now taking orders for the digital edition. They have also slashed the price in anticipation of the release — now on sale for a mere $78 for the hardback edition.

I am very grateful to have received endorsements for the book from three scholars who are at the top of the field in Barth studies. From the back jacket:

In this first-rate study of Barth’s Christology, Darren Sumner argues convincingly that Barth stands in continuity with the intent and direction of the orthodox Christological tradition, but at the same time transposes it from a static to a dynamic form more faithful to the scriptural witness to the living God who freely determines to be God with and for us in Jesus Christ. The material focus of the volume is on what Sumner calls the ‘scarlet thread’ that runs through the Church Dogmatics: that from all eternity God has chosen to include the humanity assumed by his Word as integral to his divine identity and that misuse of the doctrine of logos asarkos subverts this truth. Sumner’s bold defence of this claim and his analysis of the disputed issues related to it, such as divine immutability and impassibility, make this volume a solid contribution to Barth studies.

Daniel L. Migliore, Princeton Theological Seminary, USA

In this carefully argued book, Darren Sumner advances our understanding of Barth’s Christology. He discusses Barth’s later work in Church Dogmatics only in the light of his earlier writings. He delves into important topics like Logos Christology, kenosis, the extra calvinisticum, and divine impassibility. This is definitely a book to be reckoned with, not only by those who will agree with it, but also by those who may see things somewhat differently. The argument is fair-minded throughout.

George Hunsinger, Princeton Theological Seminary, USA

Historically informed, interpretatively judicious, and systematically discriminating, Karl Barth and the Incarnation is a terrific contribution to Barth studies. Those seeking to understand Barth’s complex relationship to his forebears and those looking to appreciate the innovative christological perspective of the Dogmatics will profit greatly from Sumner’s elegant and suggestive work.

Paul Dafydd Jones, University of Virginia, USA

Coming This Fall: Advancing Trinitarian Theology

Advancing Trinitarian Theology (Book)Several of the papers from January’s second annual Los Angeles Theology Conference are headed to print, with Zondervan prepping the volume Advancing Trinitarian Theology: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics. As with last year’s conference volume, Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders serve as editors.

Nine essays on the doctrine of the Trinity are included, among them those of conference headliners Lewis Ayers, Karen Kilby, Stephen R. Holmes, Thomas H. McCall, and Sanders.

I contributed the essay titled “Obedience and Subordination in Karl Barth’s Trinitarian Theology,” an exploration of Barth’s controverted discussion of the Son’s eternal subordination to God the Father in Church Dogmatics IV/1 (roughly the final third of §59.1). Here is an extended snippet from the introduction:

… What is therefore remarkable and “offensive” about Barth’s words is that he does not restrict this relation to the economy, but suggests that the superiority and subordination (Vor- und Nachordnung) “belongs to the inner life of God.” Furthermore, Barth has made this claim in the context of an explicit disavowal of the ancient heresy of Subordinationism (Subordinationismus), which taught that the Son is ontologically inferior to the Father. This view was offered by pro-Arian theologians because it allowed them more easily to resolve a certain set of difficulties – namely the strict singularity and immutability of God in light of the human life and death of one who is confessed to be God’s Son. It was rightly rejected by the church. The language of subordination, then, bears a great deal of unfortunate baggage in Christian theology. Can theologians have it both ways – some sort of subordination in the Trinity without heretical Subordinationism?

This passage continues to vex Barth’s interpreters. G. C. Berkouwer suggests that Barth’s is “an unacceptable conclusion,” and “can only be characterized as speculation.”5 Rowan Williams calls the passage “a very long and tortuous treatment. … What, if anything, this can possibly mean, neither Barth nor his interpreters have succeeded in telling us.”6 Kevin Giles can only conclude that Barth’s rhetoric here finally reaches a “breaking point” and collapses into “convoluted, poetic language.”7 And Paul Molnar believes that Barth is guilty of illegitimately reading elements of the economy back into the immanent Trinity. Barth has made “a subtle mistake which places his thinking in conflict with itself.”8 Among other problems, Molnar concludes, this inadvertently introduces hierarchy into the immanent Trinity, blurs the distinction between processions and missions, and “could open the door both to subordinationism and to modalism in some form or another; it might even open the door to monism, dualism or tritheism.”9

The question of whether Christian theology rightly may speak of a strictly functional subordination in the Trinity certainly extends beyond Barth studies. This qualifier has recently generated a great deal of controversy in evangelical quarters. That debate concerns whether “eternal, functional subordination” in the Trinity ought to inform our understanding of human gender relations, and is only tangentially related to my task here. What I wish to do is to identify the place that Barth’s account of divine obedience has in his trinitarian theology, and whether it is fitting to describe it using the language of “functional” and “ontological” subordination – terms that belong to the contemporary conversation, and which to my knowledge were never employed by Barth. To do this I will subject Barth’s position to three lines of criticism: (1) Can Barth affirm that this subordination is eternal, yet still restrict it to function and so avoid the trap of heretical Subordinationism? (2) If Barth’s theological ontology bears an actualist character, can he affirm that the subordination of the Son to the Father is strictly functional and not also ontological – since God’s being and God’s activity are always mutually implicated? (3) Does Barth’s location of obedience within the inner life of God not imply two divine wills, and therefore necessarily a social model of the Trinity?

Pre-order the book now at Amazon for only $17, or get the Kindle version for $12. The third L.A. Theology Conference will take place at Biola University January 15-16, 2015, on the topic “Locating Atonement.” Read more at the conference website.

(And when you’re done, take a gander at the shiny new Publications page.)


[5] G. C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (London: Paternoster, 1956), p. 304
[6] Rowan Williams, “Barth on the triune God,” in Mike Higton (ed.), Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), p. 129.
[7] Kevin Giles, “Barth and Subordinationism,” Scottish Journal of Theology 64 no. 3 (2011), p. 346.
[8] Paul D. Molnar, “The Obedience of the Son in the Theology of Karl Barth and of Thomas F. Torrance,” Scottish Journal of Theology 67 no. 1 (2014), pp. 50-69 (quotation on p. 59).
[9] Molnar, “The Obedience of the Son,” pp. 65-6; cf. pp. 63-4

Book Review: Edward Oakes’ Infinity Dwindled To Infancy

Infinity Dwindled to Infancy (Edward Oakes)My review of Edward T. Oakes’ new introduction to ChristologyInfinity Dwindled to Infancy — has just been published in the new issue of the International Journal of Systematic Theology (vol. 16 no. 2).  This is a very strong survey with few if any oversights, and I definitely commend it for those who are new to this area of Christian theology.  It’s also very well-suited for classroom use, particularly at Catholic and ecumenically-minded institutions.

Father Oakes was professor of dogmatic theology at Mundelein Seminary and University of St. Mary of the Lake.  He was a member of the Society of Jesus and perhaps best-known as a leading scholar of the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, and just passed away this last December.  (Read the memorial at First Things.)

From the review:

Throughout Oakes quotes copiously from secondary sources, particularly those he favors (including Hans Urs von Balthasar). This is usually welcome in the main body, or relegated to extended footnotes, but adds to the sense that the book seeks to be a classroom text – more a compendium of historical and contemporary scholarship – and not at all original. The overall accessibility and thoroughness of the book commend it well for classroom use. A pair of appendices offer short summaries of the ecumenical councils and a glossary of terms. More complex material is included in the volume, but wisely shunted into excurses (the extra Calvinisticum, for example, as well as the distinction of will and intellect in Maximus’ dyothelitism). Both undergraduate and graduate-level students will thus benefit from Oakes’ treatment. Particularly in the earlier chapters it seems as though no stone has been left unturned, no detail left out for the sake of brevity.

Look for the full piece in the April issue of IJST.

Coming From T&T Clark: ‘Karl Barth and the Incarnation’

Karl Barth and the IncarnationT&T Clark has added to their website the official listing for my forthcoming book Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God.  I stumbled across the listing last week while looking up another book in the Studies in Systematic Theology series, and was surprised to see that the book has made it up and already has a shiny purple cover.  Only the eBook formats are listed so far, but rest assured … there will be a hardback, too.

I was surprised only because the manuscript isn’t actually in yet.  It’s due to T&T at the end of this week, and I’ve been burning the midnight oil to complete the final revisions.  It will be on time (knock on wood) and hopefully arrive on or around the publisher’s anticipated September release date. So please, if this is a topic that interests you, be a mensch and look for it at AAR or ask your library to acquire it.

This is a revised version of my PhD dissertation at the University of Aberdeen (2012). It’s been a little strange to revisit this work after a full year away from it.  It was pretty much my life for 36 intense months. Of course books are “never completed, only abandoned,” but I am very grateful to have the opportunity to revisit the project and (I hope) make some improvements.

I’ll have some things to say and some previews to offer in the months ahead, but for now let me reproduce the table of contents (which is on T&T’s site, along with a description) with a wee bit of commentary:

Introduction

1. The Identity Problem: Tensions in the Christological Tradition
The basic case of the book is that the merits of Karl Barth’s Christology may be seen in sharpest relief when contrasted with certain conceptual limitations in the Christology (or Christologies) of the classical tradition. Chapter 1 lays the groundwork by narrating that history and identifying four problematic areas for the church’s doctrine of the person of Jesus Christ: his identity with the pre-existent Word, divine immutability, kenosis, and divine impassibility.

2. Barth’s Response to Logos Christology
In the second chapter I examine Barth’s regard for the Christology of the ancient church and the Reformation, tracing its development from Barth’s lectures in Gottingen to CD IV.

3. Barth’s Positive Doctrine of Christ
If the first chapter provides context and the second chapter does the ground-clearing, Chapter 3 lays out Barth’s positive presentation of the doctrine of Christ.  The focus is on CD II/1-2 and CD IV/1-2, taking up four pairs of themes that best display what Barth is up to in his actualist Christology: election and covenant, time and eternity, the communication of natures, and the status duplex.

4. Barth and the Question of ‘Chalcedonianism’
With the positive presentation on the table I turn to some critical analysis, examining the relationship that Barth’s mature Christology has to that of the received tradition and engaging a somewhat controverted question of whether it ought to be regarded as “Chalcedonian.”

5. Barth’s Christology and the Challenge of Incarnation
The final chapter contains the real pay-off, as I line up the four critical issues outlined in Chapter 1 and discuss how Barth’s Christology offers resources for thinking through and beyond them — while yet remaining faithful to the orthodox tradition.

Bibliography

Index