Barth and Chalcedon

I’m giving a lecture on Karl Barth’s Christology today in class. So, I’m posting a section on Barth and Chalcedon that I’ll be talking about today.


In 451, the Council of Chalcedon was called to re-examine the decisions of the Second Council of Ephesus in 449, which Pope Leo had called the “Robber’s Synod.” At issue was the question: how is Jesus both human and divine? From Alexandria came the Docetists, who emphasized the deity of Christ over his humanity. There were of course mild and extreme versions of this teaching, from the deity being more important than the humanity, to the extreme that Christ’s humanity was merely an illusion. From Antioch came the Nestorians, who emphasized the humanity of Christ over the deity of Christ. In this understanding, the divine nature of Christ came not from his person but from his relationship to God the Father. In other words, Christ’s divinity was external to his nature.

As the council met, they reaffirmed Tertullian’s teaching that there are two natures in the one person of Christ, and instead of formulating a new creed, which they were reluctant to do , they chose to issue a ‘definition.’ This definition affirmed that Jesus was ‘truly God’ and ‘truly man,’ and that these two natures were to be seen “inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons…”

The Chalcedonian Definition is characterized by two terms, ‘deity’ and ‘humanity,’ and one relationship, ‘unity-in-distinction.’ It is a statement that is intentionally minimalist in nature, allowing for flexibility and diversity of understanding as the Chalcedonian Definition does not actually define the terms or the relationship. As George Hunsinger notes, this suggests that “the Chalcedonian Definition is not determined exclusively by soteriological interests. It is also largely a hermeneutical construct.” In other words, the definition “merely reiterated that Jesus was both God and man, but made no attempt to interpret the formula.” It functions more as a paradigm rather than a rule of faith, as it is unconcerned with the ‘how,’ but instead emphasizes what ‘is.’ This allows, then, for mild forms of Alexandrian and Antiochian theology to both be considered within the boundaries of orthodoxy.

Ultimately the key to Chalcedon is to affirm that the “whole work of Christ is to be attributed to his person and not to the one or the other nature exclusively.” The work of Christ cannot be attributed solely to his deity or his humanity. In his earthly ministry, both the divine and the human were present; it was not merely his human flesh that suffered and died, nor at his resurrection was it just his divine nature that appeared. As Barth says of Christ’s ascension, when “…the New Testament witnesses look to him as the One who sits at the right hand of God and will come again from the heaven to which he has ascended, this does not mean that they have ceased to think of the real man Jesus.” This, of course, raises the question: is one position more correct than the other in this paradigm? Hunsinger suggests that, overall, the Alexandrian tendency is more correct in upholding Chalcedon than the Antiochian tendency. This is because, while the Antiochian position only affirms one term, ‘humanity,’ the Alexandrian position affirms one term, ‘deity,’ and the relationship, ‘unity-in-distinction.’

That Barth affirms Chalcedon is quite evident throughout the Dogmatics. The question becomes, then, whether Barth affirms the Definition of Chalcedon using the language and philosophical and theological definitions used by the council in 451.

Bruce McCormack suggests that Barth’s overall Christology underwent a profound shift after II/2. While Barth may, in CD I, affirm and use the ontological definitions of person and nature as understood in the original formula of Chalcedon, by CD IV, he only continues to uphold Chalcedon by redefining the terms, moving away from the terms person and nature, and instead focusing on the language of ‘history.’ As McCormack summarizes, “The result is that Jesus Christ is still seen as truly God, truly human, and is both in a single Subject. But he is seen to be all of this under quite different ontological conditions.” McCormack’s thesis, then, is that the statement that Barth is Chalcedonian “has far more validity for the Christological material found in CD I/2 than it does for the material found in the later doctrine of reconciliation.” McCormack argues that many Barth scholars made the mistake of reading and understanding Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation (CD IV) through the “lens provided by the Christology of CD I/2.”

On the other hand, George Hunsinger sees Barth affirming Chalcedon fairly uniformly throughout the Dogmatics. One of the ways Barth does this is by referring to ‘nature’ or ‘physis’ through the use of the German word, ‘Wesen’ rather than ‘Natur.’ Paul Dafydd Jones argues that, even as early as I/2, Barth hesitates to blindly accept the Greek metaphysical meaning behind ‘nature.’ “Indeed, the concept of ‘physis’ plays no significant role in the preliminary Christology of §15 which surrounds the excursion question, or, in fact, in any paragraph of the Dogmatics.” In §44, Jesus Man for God, for example, Barth does not shy away, nor does he fully rest on the language of ‘nature.’ But, in answering the question of whether Jesus was truly human, Barth uses ‘Wesen’ repeatedly to talk about the human nature of Christ. When discussing Christ’s being and oneness of being with God the Father, Barth uses the word ‘Sein.’

The question, then, is whether or not Barth shifts in his understanding of Chalcedon. While it is true that the Dogmatics were written over several decades, and there may indeed be a maturing or even a changing of Barth’s theology over the years, there seems to be, even in the early stages of his writings, an understanding of the fluidity of the Chalcedon formula. Patrick Patterson argues that, even as early as 1928, in corresponding with Rudolf Bultmann, Barth demonstrates “conceptual eclecticism,” that is, while appropriating language and creeds and philosophical constructs, Barth was not bound to them. For example, while Barth did indeed use the language and terms of Plato and Aristotle, “his own use of their terminology [does not] imply his having buckled on the armour of a particular philosophy.”

Indeed, Barth’s interaction with and use of Chalcedon, for all its inherent minimalism, is complex. Jones identifies two components to Barth’s use of Chalcedon. First, Barth sets out to use Chalcedon as a way to respond and react to 19th-century Liberal Protestantism. In responding to the likes of Schleirmacher, Harnack and Ritschl, Barth “argues that ‘nature’ has been improperly misunderstood. Early Christian writers used this term to describe the multi-dimensional totality of an entity…encompass[ing] the ‘physical’ and ‘ethical’ dimensions of the human being.”

Second, Barth’s use of Chalcedon is a vehicle to point to the simplicity and complexity of Scripture. Barth’s Christology is based first and foremost on the New Testament, rather than on a later philosophical or theological construction. Thus, Barth adopts Chalcedon as a “hermeneutical construct.” Following the pattern of the New Testament, Barth holds in tension the teaching that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God, and that the Son of God is Jesus of Nazareth. As Jones notes, “the unique name of Jesus Christ functions as something akin to a dogmatic synthetic a priori.” For Barth, the Chalcedonian Definition can be summarized by the simple statement: Jesus is “the Word made flesh” (John 1:14).

Coakley’s analysis of the usefulness of the Chalcedonian Definition and the fundamental difference between how the West and East understood the purpose of the formula may be useful here. While she does not directly reference Barth, it appears that in her description of the use of Chalcedon, Barth would embrace a more ‘Eastern’ understanding of the definition. That is, where the West understood the definition primarily as a rule, the East saw “beyond the limit” and turned the definition into something flexible enough to even be used in liturgical prayer. Barth takes an “Eastern” perspective on Chalcedon, exploring its flexibility and using it to go beyond the basic Christological question.

This can be seen in two ways. First, Barth alternates between an Antiochian and Alexandrian voice in his doctrine of Christology. This of course causes problems for scholars who, without reading all the way through Barth’s extended argument, charge Barth with either being Nestorian or Docetic. Because the definition is a paradigm with flexibility and with ambiguity as to the definition of the terms and the relationship between the two natures, Barth explores the boundaries of the paradigm, and indeed seems to be following the biblical pattern of “employing a diversity of idioms.”

Second, by exploring the flexibility of the definition, and by not being tied down to specific ontological terms, Barth is able to reapply the Chalcedonian Definition to construct his doctrine of vocation in IV.3.2. Here, Barth looks as the relationship between God (divine) and the Christian (human) in the calling to be witnesses. Thus, Barth reformulates the Chalcedonian Definition from being strictly Christological to being a vehicle in which to explore the overall relationship between the Divine and the human. Thus the two terms and relationship (divine, human and unity-in-distinction) can be redefined as ‘asymmetry,’ ‘intimacy,’ and ‘integrity.’

So the question then becomes: is the charge against Barth that he is Antiochian in his portrayal of the humanity of Christ accurate? That Barth is charged with Nestorianism (Antiochian tendency) is often the result of the critic’s “failure to appreciate Barth’s dialectical strategy of juxtaposition.” Of course this is easy to do, given that Barth often takes hundreds of pages to get to the other side of his dialectic. At its core, an Antiochian Christology understands Christ’s divinity coming not from his inherent nature, but from his relationship to God. In this position, Jesus’ relationship with God “is fundamentally extrinsic to the constitution of his person.”

Charles Waldrop argues that, while Barth does appear to take an Antiochian voice at various points in his Christology, the Antiochian elements that he embraces ultimately fit into an overall theological framework that is Alexandrian. Waldrop grounds this in Barth’s theology of revelation:

Just as the human words of Scripture and preaching remain creaturely realities although they become the Word of God when God speaks through them, so also the human nature of Jesus Christ becomes the Word of God in the event of revelation…This Antiochian conceptualization, however, is based upon the Alexandrian claim that Jesus is fully and absolutely identical with the Word of God who speaks through the human nature, Scripture, and preaching.


Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Eds. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010.

Blocher, Henri. “Karl Barth’s Christocentric Method,” in Engaging with Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques, eds. David Gibson and Daniel Strange, 21-54. New York: T &T Clark, 2008.

Coakley, Sarah. “What Does Chalcedon Solve and What Does it Not? Some Reflections on the Status and Meaning of the Chalcedonian ‘Definition’”, in The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God, eds. Daniel Kendall, Stephen Davis and Gerald O’Collins, 143-163. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1984.

Hunsinger, George. How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

________. “Karl Barth’s Christology: Its Basic Chalcedonian Character,” in Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, 131-147. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000.

Jaspert, Bernd, ed. Karl Barth – Rudolph Bultmann: Letters, 1922-1966, trans. and ed. by Geoffrey Bromiley. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1981.

Jones, Paul Dafydd. The Humanity of Christ: Christology in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. London: T&T Clark, 2008.

McCormack, Bruce. “Karl Barth’s Historicized Christology,” in Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, 201-231. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

Patterson, Patrick. “Chalcedon’s Apprentice: Karl Barth and the Twentieth-Century Critique of Classical Christology.” Toronto Journal of Theology 16 (2000): 193-216.

Schaff, Philip. The Creeds of Christendom, vol. 1. New York: Harper Brothers, 1878.

Thompson, John. Christ in Perspective: Christological Perspectives in the Theology of Karl Barth. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1978.

Van Til, Cornelius. “Karl Barth on Chalcedon.” Westminster Theological Journal 22 (1960): 147-166.

Waldrop, Charles. “Karl Barth’s Concept of the Divinity of Jesus Christ.” Harvard Theological Review 74 (1981): 241-263.

  • Susan B.

    Barth has a way of leaving definitions and practises with open boundaries but without being so ambiguous as to lose all practicality. I like that. Really enjoyed your post.

  • athanasius96

    This is a great overview, Amanda. I think the fact that Barth outright states that human definitions fail to circumscribe who God is establishes this methodology pretty solidly. He is always going to use a term only so far as it remains useful. And there is no doubt that Barth consistently starts his dialectic from the divine perspective, but always moves back and forth. That’s just the nature of perichoresis.

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