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Prophet, Priest, and King

21 March 2014

John Arnold considers high Christology by a German theologian

God the Revealed: Christology
Michael Welker
Eerdmans £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT477 )

ONE of the reasons why our withers remained relatively unwrung by the assaults of the New Atheists is that the Christian tradition had long been subjected to rigorous self-criticism by its own theologians, not least in Germany. Michael Welker from Heidelberg now gives us his mature reflections on Christology in an expanded version of his 2004 Gunning Lectures at New College, Edinburgh.

It is well translated, though the underlying Germanic sentence-construction sometimes makes for hard going. Still, it is worth persisting; for this is a masterly summary of international and ecumenical work from Schweitzer until now, and "This present Christology seeks an alternative to the open or concealed dissolution of Christian faith that comes about in subjectivist faith and theistic metaphysics."

He starts with Bonhoeffer's question, "Who is Jesus Christ for us today?", takes us through the first quest for the historical Jesus, gives short shrift to the excessive scepticism of the second, and builds upon the third as a basis for greater optimism about what is actually known. Still, "queries concerning the historical Jesus cannot alone yield Christology." He pleads for multiple approaches, and bases his own conclusions on exhaustive study of the resurrection and the Cross, while saying little about the nativity.

In order to establish a "high Christology", he makes extensive use of Calvin's doctrine of the threefold office of Christ (royal, priestly, and prophetic). The claim that the resurrected Christ pours out his Spirit upon his followers leads both to a high pneumatology and also to the doctrine of the Trinity. He makes a fascinating transition to the implications for our own discipleship, deriving our obligation to lead diaconal lives from our sharing in the royal office of Christ. He emphasises the doctrinal significance both of early worshipof Jesus as Lord and of the representation of Christ in the sacraments of baptism and eucharist today, drawing heavily and rightly upon the treasury of recent ecumenical convergence documents.

I would have liked a little more on the "value and limits" of the Chalcedonian two-natures doctrine, where he writes appreciatively of the work of Sarah Coakley, and on the Parousia, where he has clearly benefited from his long co-operation with John Polkinghorne. But here already are riches indeed; and the occasional modulation into homiletic mode witnesses to a keen and principled engagement not only with the olive grove of Academe, but also with the Church and the world.

The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.

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