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.

One thought on “The Logos As A ‘Placeholder’

  1. What theologian isn’t on a budget these days?!?! 😉

    Thanks for the peek! I’m eagerly awaiting the paperback.

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