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How Barth “Actualized Chalcedon”

In studying Barth, I have often heard it said that Barth “actualized Chalcedon.” However, I have not really understood what this mean. During a recent class on Barth, my teacher explained this concept to me, and I would like to share it with you all.

I. Of being and actingTraditionally, we have been accustomed to thinking of the essence of personhood as “being.” That is, you are a human because you are a human “being.” A thing that is. You have certain human characteristics, a human “essence.” To look really closely at this idea, we would see that it originates with the Greek thinkers around the time of Christ: and it is not really compatible with modern scientific discoveries. We now know, for example, that as far as our “being” or “essence” is concerned, there is only a very minute (almost non-existent) difference between human “being” and animal “being.” We are both made out of the same living tissue, molecules, similar DNA, etc. What really differentiates human and non-human (animal) is not so much being but action. Thus, humans are humans in that they act humanly.
.Thus, it is more common today (in academic, philosophical circles) to speak of “actions” of “actors” in approximately the same way that we may be used to thinking of “beings.” Thus, a human “being” would be referred to as a “human actor.” Or, more correctly, we would not speak of the human “being” at all, but only the “action.” In acting humanly (for example, in crying or loving, or doing a distinctly human action) this one is, or becomes human. One cannot neatly devide between being and action: it is in acting humanly that the essence of “human” is attained.

This is known as “actualism.”

II. Chalcedon

The essence of Chalcedon is that Jesus was “fully God, fully man – without division or confusion.” Traditionally, this has been understood through Greek “being metaphysics.” Or, to put it in plain English, people have thought of Jesus’ divine “nature” as being united with His human “nature” in the incarnate Jesus.

Barth, however, takes the new philosophical “advances” (whether there is actually anything new, or better, in actualism is not the point of this article, nor am I really able to comment on that question) and applies them to Chalcedon. So Jesus “acted” humanly, and also “acted” divinely, and so was both God and man.

“But,” you ask, “how could Jesus have acted as a human without sin? Isn’t the essence of humanity sinful?”

III. Christ as the New Adam

To understand Barth’s Anthropology, we must understand his Christology. You see, although Jesus was born in the middle of human history, Christ was still the quintessential, or archetypal human. In a sense, Barth’s Christ fills a role which is traditionally reserved for the “first Adam.” Humanity is patterned after Christ, not Adam: thus, “Adam” becomes rather insignificant, as only “the first human, who happened to sin,” rather than the father and federal head of us all.

How then were we patterned after Christ? What is the essence of humanity, the image of God (imago Dei) which is the basic essence of humanity? Here, Barth “actualizes” humanity by saying that to be human is basically to “act” in a right relationship with God. It is, in short, to “worship” God. A human which responds to God in worship and gratitude is a true human: a human which responds in idolatry and ingratitude/anger is not a true human. Thus, the only “true human” is Jesus Christ – this is the God-man who incarnated in the midst of time, to perfectly exemplify the quintessential humanity.

Christ is fully human in that He worships God. He is fully God in that in the very act of worshipping God, He also redeems and saves humanity. Thus, actions which only God does and only humanity do come together in this God-man, Jesus Christ.


Thus, when it is said that Barth “actualizes Chalcedon,” what is meant is that he replaces “being metaphysics” for “action metaphysics.” Rather than seeing essential nature as “being,” he sees it as “action.” Jesus is fully God and fully man in His actions, not in His essential nature, or “being.”

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