Everybody Wants to be Christocentric, But What Does that Even Mean?

christ pantokrator“Our theology ought to be truly Christocentric.”

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard that phrase used, nodded along, and then had to stop and ask myself, “Okay, but what does that even mean?”

Apparently I’m not the only one.

In a short article entitled “A Note on ‘Christocentrism’ and the Imprudent Use of Such Terminology” [WTJ 68 (2006): 253-60], Richard A. Muller registers a number of prudent protests about the contemporary discussions about whether certain kinds of Reformed theology are “truly christocentric” enough. Mostly this has to do with in-house conversations that started in the 20th century about whether there was a major difference between Calvin’s “Christocentric” theology and that of later theologians like Beza and the Post-Reformation Orthodox who followed. Calvin was supposed to be a good, pre-Barthian Christocentric theologian, while the rest of the tradition unfortunately took a wrong turn and based all their theology around God’s predestinarian decree, making things lopsided and decidedly un-Christocentric.

Without getting into all the details of Muller’s article and the Reformational historiography (which has largely put the aforementioned myth to bed), one the main benefits of Muller’s discussion is calling attention to the rhetorical gamesmanship that gets played when people throw the term around as a trump card: “Well, I’m just being Christocentric in my theology.” As if anyone doesn’t want to be “Christocentric”? Indeed, if you cruised through history and asked any major theological figure, especially in the Reformed tradition, “Are you trying to be Christocentric or centered on something else?”, I’ll give you to ten to one that all of them will answer, “Of course, I’m Christocentric. Jesus is everything to me.”

What’s even more helpful, though, is the attention he calls to the equivocation and confusion around the term that muddles things. “Given that such diverse figures as Irenaeus, Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Jerome Zanchi, Jacob Arminius, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Ι. Α. Dorner, Gottfried Thomasius, E. V Gerhart, Henry B. Smith, William Adams Brown, and Karl Barth have been described as christocentric thinkers, some distinction is most surely necessary” (254).

And so, in order to clear the ground for a more helpful use of the term, Muller gives a taxonomy or typology of at least three kinds of christocentrism that scholars could be using to describe a theologian.

First, there’s what he calls “soteriological” christocentrism. Basically, on this view, a theologian or theology is Christocentric if it confesses that Jesus Christ is central to the process and work of salvation. At this point, unless you’re essentially a Pelagian, a radical liberal, or something on that order, most traditional, Christian theology qualifies as Christocentric at this foundational level.

Second, he says there is a kind of which places a “systematizing emphasis on the Adam-Christ typology and the priority of Christ over Adam.” He calls this “prototypical” christocentrism in that there is importance given beyond Christ as savior, to Christ as a logically and theologically prior to Adam in the plan of God for history. You can find this in the “incarnation-anyways” line of theology, or in the theology of Irenaeus or Scotus and Fransiscan order.

Third, he dubs “principial” christocentrism in that it makes Christ the “principle” of theology, building on the last two “still more speculatively, that the Christ-idea must be used as the interpretive key to understanding and elucidating all doctrinal topics.” Forms of this can be spotted in the liberal tradition from Schleiermacher onwards, which makes the Christ event a central, often corrective, interpretive grid over Scripture, and the rest of theology. In some cases, Christ is the only revelation. Barth, in a different way, is a chief representative of this type, though he has been (fairly or not) accused of more than christocentrism, but rather, christomonism (on which, I have little bit here).

Given these varieties of “christocentrisms”, it does seem wise to have some handy terms like this and be clear about what we mean when we use them. Especially since Muller notes that it is largely this last, historically-novel form that has been assumed in various discussions, and then used as the standard by which previous theologies have been judged, instead of taken on their own terms.

One more point that ought to be brought out is the way the issue of Scriptural interpretation plays a role in all of this. Muller brings out the various “christocentrisms” with respect to the structure of theological systems. And that’s good, but this also bleeds out into the issue of have a christocentric or “Christ-centered” hermeneutic. In other words, what do we mean when we say we read all of Scripture in light of Christ? How do these three types of christocentrism match up (if at all) with different approaches to typology and so forth? Can you only be christocentric in the first sense and still affirm a “Christ-centered” reading of Scripture, or do you have to buy into the second and third kinds as well?

Are we talking about seeing Christ as the fulfillment of all the prior history of revelation in a way that still acknowledges it as true revelation? Or about all prior revelation as somehow pointing to Christ and therefore legitimately read as testimony to Christ? Do we see all of Scripture pointing to Christ, then, because the eternal Son, through the Spirit, by the will of the Father is actually the active agent of revelation throughout all of redemptive history?

Or are we talking about Christ as a corrective revelation that sort of overlays prior revelation in a way that is disjunctive and discounts earlier portions as lesser, false, and in many ways misguided? Is the event of Christ, then, the only truly true revelation? In other words, we’re back the issue of the Jesus-Lens or the Jesus-Tea-Strainer and the theological presuppositions that go along with them.

Not that we’ve solved anything here, but I don’t think there’s enough clear thinking around this in popular writing on the issue.

Soli Deo Gloria

11 thoughts on “Everybody Wants to be Christocentric, But What Does that Even Mean?

  1. These are some helpful clarifications, Derek. (And I’m glad to know of Muller’s essay, as I’m working up a bit of research on this topic later this year!)

    It does seem to be the case that folks can use “Christocentric” in rather different ways. I see this most often when those of us who advocate for the third type — in a Barthian / Schleiermacherian vein — make the suggestion that this stands methodologically in contrast to certain other thinkers, or tendencies of certain eras (e.g. medieval or post-Reformation scholasticism). It must seem truly odd indeed for a theologian dedicated to the centrality of the atonement, the revelation of God in Christ, and justification by faith alone to hear that s/he is not sufficiently Christ-centered! I recommend against using the term as an epithet.

    If we can move beyond this sort of ego bruising and failures to engage in theological conversation in humble ways, though, I do think that the term and the concept indicated under the third type is very important. This is where I think the label of “Christocentrism” is actually useful in describing a theology — that is, with respect to its methodological choices and procedures. Here Jesus Christ is intended to be the ground and norm of all possibility for theological speech; therefore no doctrine may properly be elucidated without a starting from, proceeding through, and ending with Christ. (For a thinker such as Barth, this isn’t merely one choice among many when theologians are doing prolegomena and making methodological decisions; based on his understanding of revelation, it is necessary if our theological speech is going to remain faithful to its object.)

    I’m not sure how decisively ‘modern’ that sort of procedure is, but it is worth observing that it’s relatively rare. You’re right that in this sense (and this sense alone) a great host of theologians of various stripes and traditions would not qualify as “Christocentric.” But the term is useful for making distinctions. It does not mean that they “don’t put Jesus at the center” (in terms of intuition, piety, or aesthetic).

    Historians of doctrine can debate which charges, if any, actually stick to Calvin and the post-Reformation Calvinists. But in my view Barth’s revisions to the doctrine of election illustrate well both his own christocentrism and why he, at least, believed that the older Calvinist tradition came up short on this count when it came to election and its relationship to the rest of soteriology.

    • Darren, thanks for dropping in with these comments. And I agree that there probably is something useful in retaining a clear distinction for the sort of methodological christocentrism that Barth put on the map and is massively influential beyond him. It is something different and it’s always worth grappling with. Actually, Michael Allen touches on it in his treatment of the principia in his essay on the Knowledge of God in the new Christian Dogmatics he and Swain edited. He seems to thread a needle between the Post-Ref Orthdodox and a Barthian mode, but I’d be curious to see what a Barthian makes of it.

  2. I also think that these distinctions of ‘soteriological-extensive’ and ‘principial-intensive’ (as David Gibson categorizes them) while helpful can also be too hard and fast at the same time. Personally ever since I stumbled upon this in Gibson’s dissertation (which uses these distinctions to make his primary theses possible) it has really helped me; esp being a student of both Calvin and Barth/Torrance. But that said, as I just noted, I think it can also be pressed into too hard resulting in a cleavage between the tradition (that Calvin represents) and more radical modes (that Barth represents). I think it is possible to bring them closer together by understanding the actual aims of the two traditions, and the historical location. It isn’t that Barth isn’t concerned with soteriology, or that Calvin isn’t concerned with christology; but that their respective locations in the history of theological development and ideas help determine how their respective “christocentrisms” took shape hermeneutically. Obviously, Barth reformulated Calvin’s double predestination/election under the pressure of Barth’s commitment to his method of being christocentric, but again, not with the intention of being antagonistic towards Calvin, but simply attempting to move beyond Calvin in conversation with him under the new frames of reference provided for by thinkers within Barth’s own immediate space (I’m thinking of the moves made by Ritschl et al).

    I’m saying all of this in agreement with Darren Sumner’s good insights (which are usual from him); I think there is room for constructive engagement between these two poles or christocentrisms, between Calvin and Barth. We should move beyond as Darren noted, “this sort of ego bruising and failures to engage in theological conversation,” and recognize the material value present in both Calvin’s and Barth’s approaches. Even if we privilege one over the other, if our attitudes are humble (as Darren notes), we can be enriched by both; and the church and we ourselves will be the better for it.

    • Not to detract in any way from the way(s) in which Derek, per Muller, framed all of this above, I think that for Barth’s part in this there is something to be said for who he was responding to and who he was aiming his methodological criticisms at. It wasn’t Calvin and the Reformed. For Barth, Calvin is very nearly irrelevant to the discussion — insofar as Barth’s own Christocentrism was a response to (or rather a battle cry against!) modern liberalism.

      Calvin and the pre-modern tradition(s) wind up implicated, eventually, because Barth worries that they did not carry out their own task with sufficient attentiveness to Jesus Christ as the norm of theological speech. But the primary focus of Barth’s ire is natural theology, culture Protestantism, and everything that creeps and flies after them.

      • Darren,

        Not sure if you’re still here, but wouldn’t you say that Barth when reformulating a doctrine of election had Calvin and the Augustinian tradition as a whole in mind? David Gibson’s published dissertation Reading the Decree seems to illustrate this as a reality, and then Barth himself of course engages with Calvin’s doctrine of election by name in his CD. Are you saying that given Barth’s own formation, and his deployment of Jesus Christ as the norm of theological discourse, that the way he reformulated the traditional understanding of election (as typified by Calvin for Barth) came from the theological impulses (i.e. actualism, dialecticism, etc) of his own location (and even from broader motivations than just engaging with Calvin or the post reformed orthodox); to the point that Calvin&co. were only incidentally implicated?

        It had always seemed to me, that at least in re to election, Barth had Calvin’s doctrine in mind; and that when Barth recast it, even though he was guided by Jesus Christ as the norming norm principially, and even though that was primarily intended to undercut the natural theology and cultural Prot of his day in Germany, that as he applied that hermeneutic to Calvin’s election at that point there was a direct engagement with and correction of what Barth perceived to be unduly “Christocentric” in the tradition in general, and Calvin in particular?

      • Bobby: Yes, I think that’s all right. That’s more or less what I meant by Calvin and the Reformed tradition’s eventual “implication” in Barth’s critique. Christocentrism as a way of doing theology was not formulated against them. But once Barth’s criticism of liberal Protestantism was secured, it forced him to take issue with pre-modern traditions at a number of points. Election is a prime example of this, and Barth of course was clear that he knew he was diverging from Calvinism on this topic.

        In the same way the medievals wound up “implicated” in the critique, as they bore the brunt of Barth’s volleys against things like the analogy of being.

        (As an aside, I think this shows how important the question of Barth’s development really is. One cannot take Barth’s statements on this or that doctrine in the Gottingen Dogmatics — when he was reveling in classical Reformed theology like a kid in a candy store — as representative of his mature thought.)

  3. In addition, it’s worth pointing out claims to christocentrism outside of the Reformed (broadly defined) tradition:

    1) Ethical Christocentrism: The left-wing of the Reformation definitely stressed a conformity of life to Christ, that was demanded and forgotten by an emphasis on justification by faith. As Leonard Verduin, a Reformed historian of Anabaptists put it, they radical reformation salvation not only entailed justification, but purity. Thus, the Anabaptists in their lives and martyrdoms claimed to be Christ-centered in this way. I suppose some of this could spill into what would become the social-gospel. I suppose even Pelagius could be within this category (not as a polemic, just a fact).

    2) Liturgical and/or Missiological Christocentrism: If you look at the Moravians, especially the theology of Zinzendorf, they emphasized Christ in worship in such an intense and focused way. They believed that the Holy Spirit only proceeds to bring to CHrist and the Father is only seen in the proclamation of Christ. They emphasized worshiping Christ above all. Zizendorf even combined this into a missiology, saying that all peoples know there is a god, it’s worthless to talk about God in the abstract, but only to get people to trust Jesus Christ. This was to proceed any discussion of trinity or election, and certainly irrelevant to cultural conformity (contra. Puritan and Roman Catholic missions in the same era).

    I appreciate your slight frustration Derek. It’s a kind of an empty set concept, allowing a claim to legitimacy depending on how loudly you proclaim your Christocentrism. It borders on slogan and shibboleth.

  4. Darren,

    Thank you for your response! And amen! I wish Barth’s importance could be appreciated by more; his impact is massive, and he engages with the tradition in such unique and creative ways, it becomes a treat to read and learn from him.

    And thank you for your reminder on the place of his Gottingen Dogmatics. I love his GD, but I know you’re right to caution trying to derive too much of his theological offering from there. But at a material level there are some real gems there that I know in the main the body of Christ could benefit from.

  5. I am only one of those amateurs but i see the jesus lens in brad jerzek, brian zhand, and the book Razing Hell .
    We need to alert christian readers that this methodology puts the old testament at a second tier.

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