At the beginning of Church Dogmatics The Doctrine of the Word of God, Volume 1, Part 2: The Revelation of God; Holy Scripture: The Proclamation of the Church , Barth insists that the actuality of Jesus is prior to the question of the possibility of incarnation. One cannot move from a general theology or anthropology to sketch the parameters of God’s possible entry into human flesh; that would put parameters around Jesus Himself. One must instead begin with Jesus, and reason backward to possibilities.

That seems quite plausible, but Barth then poses another point that, I think, exposes the problems with the first claim: “the question of fact must precede the question of interpretation of fact” (26). If this is a restatement of the first claim, as Barth seems to think, then we are on some questionable ground. To the apparently commonsensical notion that facts precede interpretations there are two objections:

Philosophically, it seems impossible to even state a fact without simultaneously offering an interpretation. More importantly, all of the terms in Barth’s statement of the “fact” of Jesus (“He is very God and very Man”) in fact come pre-loaded. Who is the “God” and who the “man” in this statement? To pose the question is to invoke an entire pre-history of Jesus.

How to resolve this? We surely want to say Jesus sets the parameters, and is bounded by nothing greater. Yet at the same time, the Scriptures and Israel’s history provide the categories within which Jesus is to be understood. The best resolution appears to be typological: The categories and parameters provided by Israel’s history and her Scriptures are not external to Jesus. They do not even precede Jesus; they are not merely clothes designed ahead of time for Jesus to fit into. Jesus Himself is the reality of Israel’s Scriptures, her institutions, her history - the res of Israel’s signa . And He is not only the coming One to whom Israel points, but the One already present to and in Israel. He is the Rock, the Angel of Yahweh, the glowing human form within the cloud of Yahweh’s glory, the Anointed One dimly shadowed in the sons of David.

Without typology, we seem to be left with an unhappy choice between the brute fact of Jesus (which is impossible) or a Jesus constrained by categories and patterns alien to Jesus Himself.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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