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Karl Barth on Mind, Body, and a Christological Anthropology

Categories Theology

9780310516415What does it mean to be human?

Two theories have generally explained our ontological construction: one argues we are dually composed of separate “body” and “soul” pieces; the other says the person is strictly a material unity. Theologians of all stripes have offered similar theories, yet one stands above the fold given his decidedly christological orientation.

“Few thinkers in the history of the church have pursued a christological anthropology with greater rigor than displayed in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics,” Marc Cortez explains in his new book Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective. “Barth demonstrates how this christological orientation reshapes how we understand specific issues like relationality, ontology, and temporality.” (141)

In his approach to the body/mind relationship, Barth argued they “can only be rightly understood from a christological perspective…” (142) In a clear, logical, and convincing chapter on Barth’s view of our “embodied souls,” Cortez outlines the five criteria Barth maintains are fundamental to understanding human ontology, oriented around his understanding of Jesus’ humanity.

The Human Person’s Unity

First, Barth draws our attention to the unity of Jesus’ person. “We consistently see him as a single human person,” Cortez explains, “in whom there is no tension between [his physical being and ‘inner’ life].” (150) This was particularly true in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, where he was found to be the same body/soul being.

As Barth argued, “as the same whole man, soul and body, He rises as He dies, and sits at the right hand of God, and will come again.” (CD III/2, 328) Thus, “any form of dualism that simply divides the person of Jesus Christ into two discontinuous elements is inadequate to the christological data,” (150) as well as to our own human construction.

The Human Person’s Duality

And yet, “Barth contends that in Jesus the body and the soul are united but distinguishable, neither identical nor reducible to one another.” (150)

Here Cortez notes how Barth defines body and soul: the former being the objective aspect of human nature, “her material body which as such is ‘visible, outward, earthly’”; the latter is our subjective life, “where life refers to ‘capacity for action, self-movement, self-activity, self-determination.’” (150) Jesus, then, was comprised of both soul and body.

“As we have seen,” Cortez explains, “soul and body are interdependent and possibly even inseparable, but they remain distinct aspects of a human person.” (151)

An Ordered Ontology

So there is a unity and duality to Jesus, and thus to our own selves.  There’s also a third observation about the body/soul relationship: an “indestructible order.”

Barth argues that the gospel narrative consistently presents Jesus as one in whom we see the priority of the soul as that which guides and directs the life of the body. In Jesus we see someone who performed all of his deeds, particularly the atonement, knowingly, freely, and actively. (152)

That there is an order to the body/soul relationship doesn’t negate their interdependence, however. “We are still not dealing with any division or separation between the body and soul of Jesus, only a proper order in the interdependent relationship.” (152)

Robustly Pneumatological

Barth outlines at least three ways the Spirit is directly at work in the human person:

  1. Creation. “Life itself is a gift, the event in which the body becomes ensouled and alive. And for Barth, this event is an expressly pneumatological event,” (153) for both Jesus and humanity.
  2. Preservation. “In Jesus we see a human person who was continually dependent on the empowering work of the Spirit.” (154)
  3. Regeneration. For Barth, “Jesus took up [fallen and fleshly human nature] and through the enlivening work of the Spirit transformed it into something ‘quickening and living and meaningful.’ (CD III/2, 359)”

For Barth, “Jesus only becomes human, remains human, and transforms humanity through the enlivening and empowering work of the Spirit.” (154)

A Covenantal Ontology

Finally, Cortez contends that “Jesus is God’s faithful covenant copartner” is “the final piece that gives explanatory power” (154–155) to the other four criteria of Christ’s anthropology. This aspect is the why of human ontology; the other four offer the what.

In Jesus we must recognize the unified human person, in whom distinct aspects work together in their proper order through the enlivening work of the Holy Spirit, specifically because this is the kind of being that God has constituted and called as his covenant copartner. (155)

Furthermore, “The pneumatological event, by which humans become human, is also the event in which human capacity for covenantal relationship is grounded.” (155) Thus, Cortez describes Barth’s understanding of the body/soul relationship as a covenantal ontology.


“Christology does not answer all of our anthropological questions, but it does offer a way of thinking christologically about anthropology, one that even has implications for as complex an issue as the mind/body relationship.” (162)

Join Cortez, in dialogue with Barth and other historic thinkers, as he explores how Christology and anthropology should work together to inform our view of what it means to be human in Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective.

9780310516415Order your copy of Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective today at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or

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