Book Review: ‘Crucified and Resurrected’, by Ingolf U. Dalferth

Ingolf Dalferth ‘Crucified and Resurrected: Restructuring the Grammar of Christology

Baker Academic, 2015, 352 pp. $45.00

‘…it is not the tangible historical Jesus in isolation who is the point of reference, and thus the topic, of christological confessions, but Jesus Christ raised from the dead by God.’ (p. 25)

‘…Christology reflects on the significance of the raising of the crucified one for our understanding of the person of Jesus, and it explicates the basis on which the triune God can be known.’ (p. 36)

‘Trinitarian thinking is therefore essential to christological thinking: in order to perceive the divine basis of Jesus Christ’s being for us, God must be apprehended from a trinitarian perspective.’ (p. 155)

In ‘Crucified and Resurrected: Resurrecting the Grammar of Christology’, Ingolf Dalferth seeks to show that christology is, first and foremost, about God, and not, as has been traditionally assumed, the Incarnation. This is a densely argued volume that requires (but repays) close reading, and even after a fairly close reading I can’t claim to fully grasp every single point Dalferth makes.

The foreword of the book makes it clear that Dalferth sees Christian dogmatics not aiming at knowledge of God but rather as studying the divine action that orients and changes human life. This should be borne closely in mind as the book is read, because to confuse this volume as a work of speculative theology would be to misread it entirely. In a nutshell, this work is concerned with the practical, not the theoretical.

‘Crucified and Resurrected’ opens with a chapter on the Incarnation, specifically within the context of a volume edited by the late John Hick entitled ‘The Myth of God Incarnate’. Dalferth surveys by way of Hick various attempts to fix the referent of christological confession to the man Jesus of Nazareth, and concludes that any such attempt founders for the reason that a fixation on the historical element leads to a minimization of the importance of soteriology and eschatology. Here is where we see a hint of where Dalferth will be going later in the book:

‘The Christian salvation experience does not stem primarily from what the christological confessions declare concerning Jesus; it stems from the fact that they declare it concerning him. Christians confess Jesus as Son of God, Lord, Savior, Word of God, and so on, for this reason: they know him to be  the one who was crucified and whom God raised…this means that, in order to give logical structure to christological confession, their content must always be construed as a statement concerning the one who has been crucified and raised…faith in Jesus Christ focuses not on a figure from the past but on a present person: the Christus praesens [Christ present] of the Christian proclamation’ (pp. 23-24).

Dalferth draws the chapter to a close by noting three steps towards a structure for doctrine: (1) asking what it means for Jesus and our understanding of Jesus that God raised him from the dead (2) asking what the cross and resurrection mean for God and our understanding of the God that Jesus proclaimed and (3) asking what God’s activity in the cross and resurrection means for us and our world as well as our understanding of ourselves and our world (loose paraphrase of pp. 32-35).

The second chapter focuses on the cross and resurrection, and the basic theme here is twofold: (1) the cross is ‘soteriologically silent’ without resurrection (p. 45) and (2) the topic and reality of the resurrection confession is God’s divine action. Key to Dalferth’s second thesis here is that we can speak of God’s activity only via speech models or figuratively, because such divine activity simply doesn’t fit within any kind conceptual descriptions:

‘God’s activity, like God himself, evades all observational assessment and conceptual description. Thus we can speak of him only figuratively, with the aid of images and thought and speech models taken from our experience, in order to render God’s activity intelligible and to make it possible to communicate the experience of his actions verbally.’ (pp. 70-71)

‘In early Christian resurrection confession, God’s action at the cross of Jesus is described figuratively, using words from our experience-based, every day language to say that Jesus was awakened or stood upright. Such expressions suggested themselves because they provided a rudimentary explanation the incomprehensibility of what God had done for Jesus, using the image of waking a sleeper or lifting someone lying down to his or her feet…'(p. 76)

The third chapter focuses on Jesus Christ and what Dalferth takes to be three key issues surrounding the construction of any christology: who is Jesus? What is this Jesus for us? How can he be what he is for us? Dalferth cashes these questions out to mean, respectively, Jesus’ identity, Jesus’ salvific significance, and ‘the divine basis of the being of Jesus Christ for us’ (p. 84)

The first issue is explored by a detailed examination of a number of New Testament texts and biblical themes, the richest of which has to be Dalferth’s foray into Jesus’ identity as the Son of the Father, from pp. 104-120. Two things jump out at me: (1) it’s within this section that we see one of the, if not the most, significant explanation of Dalferth’s hermenutic and (2) we see a concrete payoff of his idea that christology is fundamentally about God. The first can be seen here:

‘It is not the semantic content of the individual appellations, titles and images as such that is decisive christologically; it is their Christian use for confessional purposes, packaging together (semantically explicable) references to Jesus, to God, and to the confession persons.’ (p. 105)

I’d call this a Wittgenstein-ian view of things: the meaning of the terms is their use in the community and not their referring to a given reality. The second can be seen here:

‘First, it must be stated systematically that to speak of the Son (of God) is to speak of God as Father: it is only our designation of God as Father that affords theological significance to our reference to the Son. But if the Son image depends for its substance on the Father image of God, then it is an implication of this particular God concept and, as such, tells us first and foremost something about God himself. The decisive theological factor is thus neither the image nor its application to Jesus in themselves but what is being said about God in applying it to Jesus.’ (p. 108)

The overall point of this chapter and perhaps this entire book is, in my opinion, given expression by the two quotes above.

The second issue, that of Jesus Christ’s significance for us, looks at what Dalferth calls ‘soteriological images’ – Lord, Christ, and Son of God – and concludes that:

‘Jesus’s salvific significance thus consists in the fact that God brings about our salvation through him and his Spirit. God defines himself in him and through him as the one who draws so near to us as love that we are able to live wholly out of his presence and to thank him as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (p. 131)

The third issue, the divine basis of what Jesus Christ is for us, explores the truth-conditions for christological statements – basically, rules for ensuring that we are talking about very God and very man in a way that preserves God’s free divine action. Dalferth names three: (1) ‘No statement about Jesus Christ is accurate unless it gives unqualified credence to the fact that this is the story of a real person in a specific and non-negotiable historical situation’, (2) ‘No statement concerning Jesus Christ is accurate unless it unreservedly affirms that the substance and character of God’s nearness, and thereby our salvation, have been uniquely and irreversibly revealed in this particular life story,’ (3) ‘The historical and eschatological-soteriological truth conditions for christological statements are not only paradoxically adjacent; they are interrelated according to a specific order of precedence.’ (pp. 133-134). Dalferth finishes this chapter up with a look at three patterns of christological thought – the temporal, the perspective, and the rhetorical – that he sees as attempting to link these truth conditions together.

The fourth chapter focuses on the Trinity, Christian confession and the idea of God. Here is where Dalferth makes some fairly controversial moves, in my opinion. He defines God’s essence as ‘totality of his potential relationships with the other’, (p. 169) and goes on to argue that we can know God only in an a posteriori manner, which he redefines as a retrospective kind of knowledge since we ‘only gaze after him when he has passed us by’, p. 183). He sees the term Trinity as not denoting ‘the subject matter dealt with by the doctrine of the Trinity; it summarizes the complex of rules that aid this doctrine in explicating the grammar of the Christian use of “God”‘, (p. 222). These are, to me, fairly interesting though as I said controversial theses. It’s never made quite clear, however, just what the content of the idea of God is supposed to be. Dalferth insists that God must give the conditions for his conceivability and knowability (p. 166) – and few would disagree with this – but as far as the actual content of the Christian idea of God, I’m left wondering what exactly it is.

The fifth and final chapter on the salvific significance of the death of Jesus examines the extent to which Jesus’ death can both be seen as a sacrifice as well as the extent to which thinking on the death of Christ is governed by the theme of sacrifice. Dalferth has his sights set those who are willing to only think of Christ’s death within the categories of sacrifice, citing Tübingen theologian Harmut Gese as a representative of this position, and by examining the New Testament texts concludes that no one single theme or category can do justice to Christ’s death, where he draws on Bultmann to make his case against Gese. This seems to be to be a solid conclusion if somewhat trivial. However, Dalferth here makes what I take to be the most controversial move in this book: the elimination of sacrifice as a soteriological category altogether, a category which he argues reduces the crucifixion to a ritual killing to appease God, which he sees being the position of (to cite one example) the Ausburg Confession. In a nutshell, Dalferth argues that the category of sacrifice undergoes a ‘christological revision’:

‘Christ represents the end of sacrifice and the sacrificial cult because he stands for the purification and reordering of the disrupted, damaged fellowship between God and humanity, which should have been restored, purified and reordered through sacrifice but has now been restored, purified and reordered once and for all in an entirely different way that will hold for all eternity: God’s eschatological self-mediation on the cross and in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.’ (p. 298)

This chapter, however, is in my estimation the weakest. Dalferth’s interaction with the New Testament is limited to a small handful of verses – what of Revelation, where Christ is explicitly presented as a sacrifice, for example? What of various texts which portray the Christian life as a life of sacrifice patterned after Christs sacrifice? It seems that Dalferth’s methodology forces him to ignore a substantial numbers of texts that would disagree with his thesis and perhaps even disconfirm his thesis.

This last point is something of a troubling trend in methodology in the book as a whole. For example, when discussing the image of ‘inheritance’ with respect to the relation between the Father and Son, Dalferth seems to be somewhat reductionist here: in his explication of the imagery of ‘inheritance’ Dalferth has effectively stopped talking about the actual idea of ‘inheritance’ and cashes it out in terms of how Jesus understood the eschatalogical nearness of God, which, while not wrong per se, does feel a bit thing. Is this perhaps a case the biblical material being forced to fit within Dalferth’s interpretive method? To boil all the biblical ideas of ‘inheritance’ down to the idea of God’s nearness seems to me to be doing violence to the actual text.

Another potential problem looms when one considers the ‘meaning is use’ approach to Christian language Dalferth takes. It’s never made entirely clear, for example why specific images over others are used or should be used – they just are used, and that’s that. And if the semantic content isn’t decisive but just the use of the images, then what does it really mean to say that God is near, or father, other than the terms being rules for how we talk about the nearness of God? It may be objected that Dalferth is sticking to biblical images, but given what I see as reductionist tendencies, couldn’t any term be used, if it can be fit into Dalferth’s method? It seems like a door is opened to a psychologizing of theology, and if not a psychologizing, then surely a functional-ization. Here and there Dalferth will invoke liturgical practice, but the closest I see him getting to a full explanation is on p. 123, where Dalferth states that christological titles such as ‘Lord’, ‘Christ’ and ‘Son of God’ are given precedence simply because they are more suitable as models for preaching and reflection. This seems to be somewhat arbitrary.

A third criticism I’ll offer deals with Dalferth’s concept of the knowledge of God, which, as stated above, is retrospective. If knowledge of God is only retrospective, then it seems that knowledge of God, despite Dalferth’s insistence on the practical implications of such knowledge, is a primarily cognitive activity. If we only know God retrospectively, then is all our knowledge simply self-reflection? Dalferth assures us that knowledge of God is grounded in God through the Spirit, but given the lack of explicit articulation as to how the Spirit enables this knowledge, I wonder how this knowledge of God isn’t reduced to self-reflection.

As a whole, this is, to restate, a very dense and very closely argued book. There is a great deal of solid and interesting material here, especially when Dalferth moves through the logic of the various titles of Christ, for example. There is much to think on – should either the incarnation or resurrection take precedence in theology, or are they two equal events? Just what should the idea of God look like within such a grammar? Is the concept of a God whose essence is a totality of relationships a coherent idea? And herein lies what I see as the great strength of the book: while the constructive proposals don’t seem as strong, the critiques of traditional doctrines and ways of thinking about these doctrines will force those who hold to them to reflect quite seriously on them. Dalferth has written a demanding and closely argued volume that should be read by anyone interested in the grammar of Christian dogma and the role that the Resurrection has and (according to Dalferth) should play within the context of the Christian life.

**NOTE** I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for a review which in no way guaranteed a positive review

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