The Person of Jesus Christ (Lecture 4 of 5) by John Macquarrie

“20th-Century Western Christology: Barth and Bultmann”
This lecture begins with a comparison of the christologies of Karl Barth and Rudolph Bultmann, and concludes with a riveting contemplation of the Mysteries of Christ’s Preexistence, Nativity, and Descent to the Underworld. Firstly to Karl Barth, who, reversing 19th century theology, began his christology in the Word of God, in Jesus Christ. Christ is the living Word, as well as the written Word and the proclaimed Word. The entire Bible points toward Jesus, and revelation alone discloses the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Barth thereby dismisses anabatic christology (“from below”). Yet Barth’s true contribution to christology is his theology of predestination: for Jesus is the “electing God and the elected man,” hence God has always had humanity in His nature, and all humans are in some sense and to varying degree elected by God and hence saved by Him. Macquarrie acknowledges this later movement in Barth’s theology sometimes overlooked in commentary on his theology. In the words of Barth, “For God, it is just as worthy to be lowly as to be high, to be near as it is to be far, to be little as it is to be great, to be abroad as it is to be home.” This is God being obedient to His own nature, having true integrity to His own self.

Moving to Bultmann, he asked the question, “Where in the New Testament is Jesus Christ explicitly called ‘God’?” Overall, Bultmann rejects metaphysical articulations of Christ’s nature. Only in the confession of the Apostle Thomas is an undisputed assertion so made. Bultmann stresses the event of God’s acting through Jesus’s words, preaching or teaching. Christ’s divinity is only to be confessed, rather than also worked out through systematic theology or philosophical theology. Jesus is the vehicle for the Word, for the kerygma or proclamation of salvation. Yet is Bultmann too dismissive of mystical and devotional aspects of Christian religion? Macquarrie suspects that is the case, as well as being too individualistic and episodic, at times. Yet despite critiquing Bultmann, Macquarrie affirms his insights into the importance of experience, decision, and personal commitment. Bultmann’s theology is a safeguard against any purely objective, impersonal conception of God. Christians are not merely to intellectually behold, but to cooperate, with God and His grace. Christ in His saving work opens a way for us, but inward transformation is required for salvation.

Macquarrie concludes this lecture with a meditation on the Mysteries of Christ. A significant aspect of Christianity is to bring out the tensions about Jesus Christ and to bring us to a new depth of recognition and life. Such depth begins with the astonishingly subtle writing of the four Evangelists. We are to be carried beyond mere literal interpretation into the deeper spiritual significance to which the facts of Scripture bear witness. “Poetry,” for Macquarrie, “is just as much a way to truth as scientific prose.” The Preexistence of Christ, for example, symbolically affirms that the personal life in the expression of the life of Jesus is the same life as that of God of all times and ages. Another is the Nativity of Jesus. This Mystery reveals the continuity and discontinuity of Christ; and in the Gospel of John, such a Mystery applies not merely to Jesus, but to the baptized People of God (Jn 1:13). And the Descent into the Underworld, a neglected Mystery, shows us that God’s saving work in Christ also reached back into the ages before the historical Jesus. The past, then, has not disappeared, but always remains near and present to God—that, following upon and fulfilling Einstein’s scientific insight, Time itself is a mystery.

keywords:  Chalcedonian Definition, anhypostatic, enhypostatic, Cyril of Alexandria, Karl Barth, Rudolph Bultmann, neo-orthodox, fundamentalism, doctrine of Holy Trinity, revelation, predestination, universalism, Christmas, Virgin Birth, Creation, Fall, Baptism, obedience and humility, kenosis, Søren Kierkegaard, conscience, The Christological Confession of the World Council of Churches, Arianism, Nicaea, kerygma, Karl Rahner, anonymous Christians, potency and potentiality, ontology, semi-Pelagianism, Augustine, vicariousness, cooperation with grace, “once for all,” salvation, John McLeod Campbell, sacramental principle, mysteries of Christ, poetry, Alfred North Whitehead, Preexistence of Christ, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albert Einstain, time, Ascension.

John Macquarrie
October 1984 to the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church
Table of Contents
Lecture 1.
Lecture 2.
Lecture 3.
Lecture 4.
Lecture 5.