[Common Places]: Reading Notes: Christocentrism
A theology is christocentric when its method, structure, arguments, and goals are oriented around the theologian’s account of the person and work of Jesus Christ. A christocentric theologian does more than simply talk a lot about Jesus. Rather, he or she proceeds with the hope that every theological claim will live and move and have its being in relation to Christ and his saving work. Since accounts of the person and work of Christ vary across the centuries and traditions, no single type of christocentric theology exists. This brief bibliography points to a few helpful christocentric texts while also accounting for at least some of that diversity.
Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation – Arguably the most important christocentric text ever written, this short book has influenced Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant believers for centuries. It is not an isolated doctrinal treatise but a deeply pastoral work. Athanasius is trying to bolster the faith of his confused church by answering critics who question whether it is fitting for an infinite and eternal God to become incarnate in human life that ends with death on the cross. He responds by arguing that we recognize the heights of divinity only as we see it displayed in the lowliness of the Christ who comes “condescending toward us in his love” (§8). Students of Greek should consider purchasing the dual language version to practice their skills and experience the beauty of Athanasius’ original prose. The next step would be to read Athanasius’ Orations Against the Arians, portions of which can be found in this excellent introduction by Khaled Anatolios. There we see Athanasius fully develop the implications of his christocentrism as he argues that any concept of deity defined in distinction from Jesus Christ falls into abstraction.
John McGuckin, Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy – The best christocentric theologians take into account the historical development of the early church’s doctrine of Christ, and Saint Cyril of Alexandria stands at the center of this history. John McGuckin’s book serves an excellent introduction to his theology and its context. He provides an incisive analysis of Cyril’s Christology, his debates with Nestorius, the proceedings of the Council of Ephesus (431), and the reception of Cyril’s theology in the years leading to the Council of Chalcedon (451). McGuckin’s lucid historical and theological account is supplemented by a lengthy appendix featuring original translations of several key texts from Cyril and Nestorius, among others. Reading this book along with Cyril’s On the Unity of Christ, his two volume commentary on John, and Norman Russell’s excellent collection of his writings would set the stage for a lifetime of christocentric reflection rooted in the history of the church’s confessions.
Thomas Goodwin, The Heart of Christ – Although Goodwin could hold his own with the best technical theologians in history, he chose to deploy his skills towards uniquely pastoral purposes. His goal is to work out the implications of the church’s claims about Jesus Christ for our understanding of God’s character as God relates to us in the present. With this end in mind, Goodwin offers incisive reflections on the relationship between the Christ’s ongoing intercession before the Father for our understanding of God’s triune being and our life of faith. To read Goodwin is to encounter a dogmatic theologian who turns unabashedly toward spiritual concerns, and his work can serve as powerful medicine for a theologian lost in dry distinctions. It often turns into costly medicine however, since readers of his shorter works often end up purchasing The Works of Thomas Goodwin as a result. Fortunately, many of his works can be found for a lower cost on the Amazon Kindle.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1 – Few theologians have been more self-consciously christocentric than Karl Barth. His goal in the Church Dogmatics (CD) is to show the church what it looks like to ground all of its dogmatic claims upon the personal reality of the risen Jesus Christ. The highpoint of his argument is found in his Doctrine of Reconciliation, where he narrates Christ’s saving work through the lens of Christ’s threefold office of Priest (CD IV/1), King (CD IV/2), and Prophet (CD IV/3). Barth’s theological voice becomes most powerful in the opening sections of CD IV/1 (pp. 1-357), which includes his famous descriptions of “The Judge Judged in Our Place” and “The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country.” These pages serve as the best entry point for exploring his unique type of christocentric theology. A shorter and more accessible version of the same argument can be found in his lecture The Humanity of God. Students with an interest in Barth would do well to invest in an affordable edition of his Church Dogmatics, which would provide years of christocentric reading.
Michael Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross – Some of the most profound christocentric theology published today is coming from a wave of New Testament scholars who are offering fresh, theologically-informed readings of Scripture. Michael Gorman is among the christocentric of these scholars. His Cruciformity presents a profound yet practical reading of Paul’s doctrines of God, humanity, and the church in light of the crucified Christ. His later volumes—including Inhabiting the Cruciform God, The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant, and Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission – build upon his early ideas in substantive ways. When read in conversation with the work of scholars like Richard Hays, Bruce W. Longenecker, C. Kavin Rowe, and Douglas Campbell, these books suggest that systematics theologians have much work to do in order to flesh out what a christocentric theology rooted in Scripture looks like today.
Keith L. Johnson is Associate Professor of Theology at Wheaton College. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary and is the author most recently of Theology as Discipleship.
Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.
One feature that will appear regularly this year will be a monthly series entitled Reading Notes. In these posts, editors and contributors will lead readers to significant literature related thematically to our other ongoing series. This month Keith Johnson introduces classical and contemporary literature related to christocentrism as a fitting complement to our ongoing engagement of James K. A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project.
Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors