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David B Hunsicker Jr

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Colin Gunton on Christology
In Christology, Colin Gunton, Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, Wolfhart Pannenberg on December 12, 2009 at 8:41 am

I’ve been rereading Colin Gunton these days. I looked at Yesterday and Today again this month
and was struck by the significance of his critiques of “Christology from below,” especially
Pannenberg.

Gunton’s care to distinguish between the “content” of the Christian faith and particular historical
“forms” is helpful. Whenever we attempt to introduce a modern theological formulation, we
must always judge whether or not the form actually changes the content. If it does, the we should
be critical, lest we reintroduce old problems in new clothing.

When Gunton comes at the Christology of Pannenberg, he finds reason to be concerned that
Pannenberg is unable to recapitulate the content of classical Christology and instead creates a
sort of degree Christology that repeats problems of historical forms of docetism.

Gunton invests time in explaining the difference between “Christology from above” and
“Christology from below.” Below is a brief explanation of his study of the two different methods
and his preference for a Christology that begins confessionally from above yet holds some sense
of double movement. Enjoy:

Yesterday and Today: A Study of Continuities in Christology (London: SPCK, 1997)

The dichotomy of Christology from below/from above is something that Gunton gets from
Pannenberg (51). Pannenberg intends to characterize ancient Christological formulations as
“from above,” meaning that they are an a priori philosophical presupposition imposed upon the
content of the biblical witness to Jesus Christ. Classical theology worked from the transcendent
to the historical. The traditional Christological formulations failed to take seriously the humanity
of Christ as the starting point for knowing his divinity. The modern world no longer uses the
same philosophical language. Immanence replaces transcendence as worldview. Therefore, a
new method for Christology is necessary – one which recovers the historical record of Jesus’s
life and uses modern language to reformulate Christology in an a posteriori fashion.

Gunton looks at Christology from below in two contemporary manifestations: the works of Karl
Rahner and Wolfhart Pannenberg. Rahner’s Christology from below is intended to be a change
in method alone. His goal is to deploy contemporary language and a modern anthropological
approach in order to arrive at the same content that traditional Christology intended to espouse.
This is important for Gunton because it is an attempt to make a methodological shift that does
not require a change in the content of the faith. Ultimately, Gunton does not think that Rahner’s
movement from below succeeds on its own in arriving at Christ’s divinity. Rahner comes to a
point in his anthropology where he must account for Christ’s divinity without resorting to
docetism or adoptionism. At this crucial point in his work, he reintroduces the traditional concept
of the hypostatic union “from above.” This amounts to a double movement, both from below and
from above. Thus, in order for Rahner to come to the same content of traditional Christological
formulations, he must appeal to some of the same language and concepts as ancient Christology.
Rahner’s Christology from below, while an adequate orthodox formulation of Christology, is not
truly “from below” as per Pannenberg’s classification (11-18).

Pannenberg represents an example of a contemporary theologian who is not concerned with


demonstrating continuity in the content of the Christian faith. For him, Christology cannot begin
with confession (as in Barth). Instead, theology must use the same method as other academic
disciplines, starting with the historical accounts of the life of Jesus and drawing conclusions from
the evidence available. In this way, one may properly construct a series of statements (called
“Christology”) about Jesus’ divinity in light of the single historical event in which the
transcendent and the immanent are collocated: the resurrection. Pannenberg does not resort to the
sort of double movement that we see in Rahner. He demonstrates little concern for the content of
traditional Christology by rejecting Chalcedon. While truly “from below,” Gunton does not see
Pannenberg’s Christology from below as a successful project. In essence, Pannenberg’s
theological move attempts to correct theological mistakes from the past by adopting a more
modern method; however, as Gunton notes, the problems of the past do not simply disappear.
Instead, Pannenberg is susceptible to make the same mistakes in a different way. For example,
Gunton demonstrates that you can begin with the human Jesus and construct a degree
Christology of sorts that still isolates Christ’s humanity from the rest of humanity in a way that
essentially creates the same problems of docetism. It appears that even with a move from the
immanent to the transcendent, one can repeat the mistakes of those who move from the
transcendent to the immanent (19-29).

For Pannenberg, Christology from below is the counter-thesis to more traditional Christology
from above. Gunton makes a distinction between different types of christologies from above.
Origen and Hegel typify what Gunton calls Type A; Karl Barth represents Type B. The modern
critique of Christology from above is that it allows a priori philosophical commitments to
dominate theological method. Gunton uses Origen to demonstrate how this is a somewhat
accurate critique of some classical formulations of Christology. In Origen, he sees an extreme
example that over-emphasizes the eternal Logos yet somehow does not historically end up on the
side of heresy, as did Arius and the Gnostics. Perhaps this is because there is a sense in which
Origen’s Christology is both from above and below. Even though the transcendental eternal
Logos dominates his discussion of Christ’s divinity, Origen maintains that the believer must
begin epistemologically with the humanity of Christ and ascend towards a greater understanding
of Christ as Logos. Thus, we have another example of a Christological “double movement” (35-
38).

Hegel represents a modern example of Type A Christology from above. Gunton’s choice to use
Hegel must be explained. Although Hegel’s philosophy is a philosophy of immanence, Gunton
clearly demonstrates that Hegel’s method is “from above.” For Hegel, there is something about
Christianity as revealed religion that allows one to trace the immanence of the Spirit. It is only
with that movement from above in the incarnation that bread and wine become the mystery that
is flesh and blood. Nevertheless, like Origen before him, the way one comes to receive revelation
is immanent, within the mental development of the individual human. Again, there is a double
movement that confuses the categorization of “from above” or “from below” (39-43).

Karl Barth’s Christology is what Gunton calls Type B Christology from above. It is different
from Type A in the sense that it does not begin with a philosophical presupposition per se, but
begins with belief. There is in Barth, yet again, a double movement. His Christological
formulations are rooted in the revelation of faith from above yet the revelation occurs in this
world and we come to understand it in history. Barth’s Christology is superior to Type A because
it is not an instance of an a priori philosophical commitment imposing “from above” formulaic
constraints on the “from below” content. Instead, it is the case that we receive the contents of the
faith in scripture as from below due to the fact that the writers of the text first believed that
Christ was God. It is their confession that constrains the contents of the text from above. This is
dogmatics as Barth defines it.

The attempt to distinguish Christology from above and Christology from below in the way that
Pannenberg suggests seems to be unhelpful thus far. Rahner’s approach from below as well as
Origen and Hegel’s approaches from above rely on aspects of both. Even Barth, who remains
Pannenberg’s most significant theological opponent in this regard, appears to hold to some sense
of double movement. Only Pannenberg comes consistently from below and in so far as he does
so, Gunton is not convinced that he ever really gets around to demonstrating how he moves
beyond Christ’s humanity to his divinity. For Gunton, Pannenberg’s Christological dichotomy
does not accurately describe the way Christology was done or should be done.

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