The Starting Point of Dogmatic Christology: Ingolf Dalferth’s “Crucified and Resurrected”

crucified and resurrectedIngolf Dalferth’s Crucified and Resurrected strikes me as, at heart, a densely-argued exploration of how to properly orient dogmatic Christology. Originally published as Der auferweckte Gekreuzigte in the early 1990’s, Baker Academic has now opened up Dalferth’s work to the English-speaking world through the careful translating efforts of Jo Bennett.

Dalferth tells readers that “dogmatics describes the inner rationality of the Christian way of life” (p.xxi). Thus, one possible way to consider Crucified and Resurrected is as an examination of the inner rationality of how Christians think through God’s saving activity in Jesus Christ. In regards to this subject, though, where should one start?

This brings us to Dalferth’s central argument. He claims that:

The Christian faith confesses the resurrection of Jesus Christ as an eschatological saving event, simply because it proves that not even death prevents God from maintaining living fellowship with those with whom he wants to be together: it demonstrates unequivocally and irrevocably the life-giving power of God’s desire for fellowship and his love for his creation. (p.28)

The more controversial part of his thesis lies in his insistence that it is the confession of Jesus as crucified and resurrected—and not the incarnation—that must form the primary starting point of Christology. This assertion takes place in the context of a dialogue he engages in with progressive scholars on the one hand, and more conservative scholarship on the other. Some more progressive scholars see the doctrine of the incarnation as a later, superfluous addition to Christianity while most more conservative scholars insist on the primacy of incarnational thinking as the christological starting point. Dalferth explains his perspective:

[W]hereas statements concerning the raising of Jesus by God belong to the primary historical and epistemological definition of the topic of Christological confessions, to state that God has taken human form is a continuation of this primary definition. Incarnational Christology—and this confirms its early Christian origins—is a secondary interpretament of the resurrection confession, which seeks to explore the implications of specific interpretations of the resurrection of Jesus’s life story, and to explain how it is integrated into fellowship with God’s community of life. (pp.29-30)

This helps readers better understand Dalferth’s claim that, “Christian faith stands or falls with the confession that Jesus has been raised by God,” and that the task of theology consists in the thoughtful exploration of the implications of this confession (p.31).

He sketches out a vision of what this kind of theology might look like, noting that it would include “interpreting the resurrection with the cross in mind, the cross with God in mind, God with the message of Jesus in mind, and God’s actions on the cross and in the resurrection of Jesus with us and our world in mind,” resulting in a solid inner rationality for the structure of the three major fields of Christology, the doctrine of God, and pneumatology (pp. 31-32).

For Dalferth, this theological process involves three fundamental steps. First, it means asking, “What does it mean for Jesus, and therefore for a correct understanding of Jesus, that God raised him from the dead?” (p.32). Post-Easter inquiry into the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection leads to the traditional doctrine of the incarnation, which Dalferth does affirm. The classical Christian doctrines of Jesus as vere homo and vere deus (true man and true God), of creation and sin, and of God as creator, justifier, and bringer of salvation each unpack the whole of the basic Christian resurrection confession from different vantage points.

Secondly, one must explore how the cross and resurrection of Christ sheds light on and God’s nature and identity. For Dalferth, God’s activity on the cross and resurrection are best understood as creative divine action, the basis of which must be described as love. The God who acts in this way can only be properly understood as trinitarian. Dalferth puts it like this, “Christians cannot state who is meant by ‘God’ without identifying him as the one whom Jesus called his father and our father” (p.33). Furthermore, the Holy Spirit is integral since nobody can say with certainty that it was right for Jesus to speak of God in this manner “unless he or she has been assured of this by the Spirit of God” (p.33).

His conception of a theology that takes its explanatory task seriously also includes asking, “What does God’s activity in the cross and resurrection of Jesus mean for us and our world, and therefore for our correct understanding of ourselves and our world?” (p.35). He sums up the end results of this process when he writes:

This argumentational progression from Christology by way of the doctrine of the Trinity to pneumatology, and from there back to Christology and the doctrine of the Trinity, allows theology to summarize, at a doctrinal level, the self-understanding that Christians articulate when they confess their faith, namely, that they ascribe the foundation, content, and realization of their faith to God alone. By confessing their faith in God’s saving presence in terms of faith in Jesus Christ, they are emphasizing that they are able to make this confession not by their “own reason or strength” but solely through the Holy Spirit. (p.37)

Dalferth pivots in the last chapter of the book to consider “the salvific significance of the death of Jesus,” noting that in both the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, it is asserted matter-of-factly that “Jesus Christ died for us that we might live” (pp.235-238). The rest of Christian history testifies to the fact that theologians frequently have found it necessary pursue further inquiry into the meaning(s) of this statement, leading to the development of a number of complementary (and sometimes not-so-complementary) soteriological doctrines. For example, he cites the Reformation-era Augsburg confession, which is much more explicit about interpreting Jesus’s death as a sacrifice that accomplished the appeasement of God’s wrath over sin. Or as Dalferth puts it:

The dogmatic problem is not to be found in the question of whether Jesus’s death on the cross is a saving death; theological thinking starts from this assumption. Instead, the question is whether this saving death can, must, or should be understood as a sacrificial death. Is it possible to understand the death of Jesus as a sacrificial death? (p.291)

It can be unambiguously affirmed that Jesus’ saving death can be understood using the theological category of atoning sacrifice. “There is no question but that it is possible to understand Jesus’s saving death as a sacrificial death. After all, we have seen that the whole of the New Testament is steeped in the imaginative world of sacrifice” (p.292).

Dalferth seems to inhabit a middle ground between the ways of thinking exemplified by scholars like Rudolf Bultmann who have dismissed the category of atoning sacrifice as being untenable in this day and age as well as thinkers on the other side of the debate, like Tübingen scholar Hartmut Gese, who insists that the saving significance of Christ’s death can only properly be understood as an atoning sacrifice. Dalferth argues, “No interpretation of Jesus’s death can claim to be the sole authentic expression of salvation, not even one based on the theology of sacrifice” (p.292). Other interpretations of the atonement, such as the Christus victor model, must also be given their due place.

However, the important claim made by Dalferth in the last chapter of Crucified and Resurrected seems to be that the concept of sacrifice itself was christologically revised in the world of the New Testament. Dalferth tells readers, “Although the cult initially had served to interpret the story of Jesus Christ, now the story was interpreting the cult” (p.252). When he examines how the New Testament writers use the language and imagery of sacrifice, Dalferth finds that the phrase “work of Christ” to be inadequate for fully capturing what God accomplished in Christ on the cross and in the resurrection:

Jesus is not the producer of a work of salvation; he is the mediator who, in his own person, brings us before God and God before us, he is thus the locus at one and the same time of God’s presence with us and our presence with God… In him we are—indeed, each one of us is—in the presence of God: if in faith, then for our salvation, and if in unbelief, then for our judgment. (pp.304-305)

Thought-provoking, if potentially contentious, words indeed.

I found Dalferth’s treatment of the relationship between the confession of Christ as resurrected and incarnational Christology to be both the most interesting and challenging part of Crucified and Resurrected. Dalferth’s explanation of incarnational thinking as a way of interpreting the primary confession of Jesus Christ as resurrected gives readers a coherent way for understanding the place of this important tenant of orthodoxy within the structure of Christology itself. However, while I can understand his perspective on the logical priority of the resurrection confession, it seems to me that this line of reasoning may miss the mark if and when it goes on to also claim that therefore the resurrection and not the incarnation is the most important heart of the Christian faith.

Within Christian theology, when and how can one really speak of the incarnation without also speaking of the resurrection, and vice versa? They seem to be (in this humble readers eyes) twin theological pillars that must both be held as immensely important, without one being necessarily judged as less central than the other. This should still be the case even when the confession of the resurrected Christ is treated as the logical starting point of dogmatic Christology.

Crucified and Resurrected is a lovely, meticulously-argued, challenging work that resists simplistic pronouncements. One can only slowly work through it and leave notes in the margins. Readers will be fully rewarded for their efforts.

*Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic Publishing for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. 

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One thought on “The Starting Point of Dogmatic Christology: Ingolf Dalferth’s “Crucified and Resurrected”

  1. Pingback: BA Books & Authors on the Web – January 8, 2016

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