AAR Proposal: The Sinlessness of Jesus? Karl Barth and Oliver Crisp

My proposal for the AAR Annual Meeting in San Diego was rejected as I expected. I offer it here for people to peruse. If anyone has any constructive feedback for me, I would gladly take it.

Proposed Title: The Sinlessness of Jesus? An Examination of Chalcedonian Christology in Light of Karl Barth and Oliver Crisp


Modern Christian theology has made the novel assertion that the assumptio carnis in the incarnation of Jesus Christ is an assumption of our fallen human flesh. Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance are only two of the prominent representatives of this movement. The argument by Barth and those who follow him is to adopt the patristic formula “only that which is assumed is redeemed” in relation to the “sin nature” of humans. According to Barth, “We stand before God characterised by the Fall” (CD I/2, 153). Barth makes it clear that our humanity post-Fall is marked by the Fall in some important sense, and thus any assumptio carnis that bypasses our fallenness is one that bypasses our humanity which is in need of redemption. Apart from assuming our fallen humanity, the atoning work of the cross lacks efficacy. Thus, the incarnation is central to the atonement.

More recently, however, Oliver Crisp has registered his dissent from the Barthian line of reasoning. In a 2004 article and in his forthcoming new book on the two natures of Christ, Crisp lays out his argument against the fallenness of Jesus Christ’s human nature on the grounds that it is an incoherent position to hold. Crisp lays out the logic that he sees at work in the theology of those who fall in Barth’s camp, and he concludes that these theologians end up positing a Jesus who is actually sinful. Hence, Crisp believes that he must side against the assumption of fallen humanity in order to maintain an orthodox Christology.

This paper seeks to evaluate the current debate over the sinlessness of Jesus in an attempt to clear up misunderstandings as well as to offer some constructive comments on a two-natures Christology and theological anthropology. My thesis is that the sinlessness of Jesus is not a static category of essence but a moment-by-moment actualization of Jesus Christ’s correspondence to God in his historical existence within the fallenness of fellow humanity. The paper will thus proceed through four parts. First, I will engage with Crisp’s arguments by examining his logic and the presuppositions he makes regarding a substantial-essentialist view of Christ’s natures and of original sin. I will argue that Crisp employs a traditional metaphysic in evaluating modern theologians, one that attempts to adhere rather rigidly to the philosophical categories of Chalcedon. This prevents him from adequately engaging the creative reworking of Chalcedon in the theology of Karl Barth. Moreover, he assumes that the logic required to affirm the assumption of fallen humanity is basically the same among the various proponents of such a view. He thus paints with an overly broad brush that inhibits him from recognizing the theological details that distinguish, for example, Barth from Torrance.

Second, I argue that Barth answers Crisp’s concerns regarding a sinful Jesus through his relational-actualistic ontology. Only by taking account of Barth’s historicizing of Jesus Christ’s natures and his actualizing of ontology can one then make sense of Barth’s theology of the incarnation. Here I follow some of the arguments put forward by Bruce McCormack regarding the post-metaphysical theology of Barth and what McCormack calls the “actualistic understanding of the history of God in His mode of existence as Son.” Thus, in this section, I will attempt to take seriously Barth’s insistence that “we have ‘actualised’ the doctrine of the incarnation” (CD IV/2, 105). Barth’s claim has ramifications both for a two-natures Christology as well as for the doctrine of original sin. Regarding the latter, I will examine how Barth’s theology might shed light on the relation between original sin and the classical notions of inherited corruption and inherited guilt. In explicating the relation between Barth’s ontology and human sinfulness, I will examine Rom. 5:12 in relation to a historicized notion of sin and an actualistic ontology of the human person.

Third, I will construct an alternative logic that takes into account Barth’s radical theological ontology and a post-metaphysical conception of original and actual sin. This alternative logic will attempt to answer Crisp’s objection that any proponent of Christ’s sinfulness inevitably posits the sinfulness of Jesus. In particular, I will address the notion of original corruption and the claim by Crisp that, on what he calls the “fallenness” account, Jesus would have to sin on at least one occasion.

Fourth, and finally, in this paper I will offer some constructive remarks on how we might appropriate a Chalcedonian Christology today. While Crisp presupposes a substantial-essentialist metaphysic as the standard for what is traditionally orthodox, Barth and his followers, including Eberhard J√ľngel especially, offer fruitful ways of reconceiving a two-natures Christology that upholds the basic demands of Chalcedon within an ontological framework that replaces essence with historical actualization. I will conclude by reflecting on what we gain by affirming both a post-metaphysical ontology and the full assumption of fallen humanity in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.


This paper seeks to evaluate the current debate over the sinlessness of Jesus and the classical tradition of Chalcedonian Christology. Modern theologians like Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance tend to speak of the assumptio carnis in the incarnation of Jesus Christ as an assumption of our fallen human flesh. More recently, however, Oliver Crisp has registered his dissent from the Barthian line of reasoning. This paper argues against Crisp on grounds that he evaluates the modern position without taking into account Barth’s theological ontology in which Barth actualizes and historicizes the doctrines of Christ’s two-natures and human sin. This paper has four parts: (1) an examination of Crisp’s logical argument, (2) an exposition of Barth’s relational-actualistic ontology, (3) an alternative logic more in line with Barth’s theology, and (4) finally a few remarks on appropriating Chalcedonian Christology today.


Shane said…
This is a very ambitious proposal. It would have made an interesting read. Write it up anyway this summer and submit it somewhere. Or just see if you can do a review/essay on crisp somewhere that let's you get to make your barthian critique.

I really want to read this book by crisp now actually.

Halden said…
Yeah, it is ambitious indeed. Whatever happened to that Christological aesthetics paper you were going to do?
D.W. Congdon said…
Oh, I did it, and it's being published by the Princeton Theological Review that I work on here at PTS. It'll come out online as well. If you want, I can always send you a copy.
Sorry dude. They'll be sorry once you release it as a book. ;-)
Brandon Jones said…
Hello D. W.,

This was ambitious, and I'm not sure if the chair gave you reasons for rejecting it, but it seems way too long to me. The regional AAR meeting that took place last week had guidelines of 10 pages, which means you can have about 2 main sections of your paper.

However, it's an interesting argument and Shane's advice is spot on.
D.W. Congdon said…

You're quite right about it being too long, but with almost every AAR paper I've heard, the speaker tells the audience that he or she is skipping portions of the paper in order to keep within the time constraints. And I would imagine that the AAR people realize this is a common practice. It seems self-evident to me that if your argument had to fit within the time parameters, very few papers would be worth hearing/reading -- or at least very few would be substantial enough to contribute something to the field.
Halden said…
Yeah, sure send me a copy. I'd like to see what came of that.
::aaron g:: said…
Thanks for sharing the experience of a rejected proposal. My proposal to AAR was also rejected which was disappointing even though not a major surprise.