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November Article of the Month
The Servant Lord: A Word of Caution Regarding the munus triplex in Karl Barth's Theology and the Church Today
Adam J. Johnson
Contemporary theology exhibits a lively interest in using the traditional doctrine of the munus triplex (the threefold mediatorial office of Christ as prophet, priest and king) to unify our understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ and ground it in the Old Testament witness. This article explores Karl Barth's contribution to this trend and draws from it a set of reflections for the church today. Scholarly consensus suggests that Barth offers an exceptionally robust development of the munus triplex in shaping the formal structure and material content of his doctrine of reconciliation. In this article I contend that his use of this concept is actually quite superficial in nature. As scholars are wont to point out, Barth incorporates the munus triplex into eye-catching summary statements throughout CD IV – but these statements are more ambiguous than they might at first seem. A closer examination of the details of his account of the work of Christ, and particularly his hamartiology, demonstrates that the munus triplex does not substantially inform his treatment of these subjects, and that his own unique christological concerns provide the determining influence. While Barth was eager to align his position with that of Reformed orthodoxy, focusing on the munus triplex ultimately distracts the reader from his primary concerns. Much the same is true for the church today – when used as a sufficient interpretative device for offering an account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, the munus triplex suffers the fate of many an artificial schema for biblical interpretation, distracting us from the breadth and depth of the biblical witness by offering an overly tidy, artificially organised account of the material. Nevertheless, when modestly employed, it remains a significant though limited conceptual device for understanding Christ's person and work, which the church should employ in several ways so as to integrate the Old and New Testaments in its proclamation of the Gospel.
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