A Critical Review of “Christology: A Global Introduction” by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen


A Critical Review of “Christology: A Global Introduction” by Veli-Matti KärkkäinenThis book seeks to introduce Christology as it has been viewed over the past two thousand years throughout the globe. The first section of the book explores the Biblical perspective, the second section looks at the early church through the mid-twentieth century. The second half of the book begins with the third section which covers twentieth-century Christologies; this really seems to begin the major focus of the book as Kärkkäinen moves from the well-known Western theologians to the fourth part of the book that covers contextual Christologies such as Process, Feminist, and Third World views from Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Kärkkäinen’s Christology presents an interesting perspective. The point of the book is to introduce the reader to the world of Christology as presented Biblically, historically and globally. But even though Kärkkäinen sets out to present the views of others, his view comes out pretty clearly as he discusses the various views. His Christology treasures a plethora of views, where almost nothing is viewed as contradictory, but as an addition to the progression of who Christ is. Obviously this writer has issues with such a view, but they will be discussed through the flow of this paper

As an introduction to Christology Kärkkäinen’s book is excellent because of its breadth of material. Because the work is only an introduction and is quite brief, one cannot fault Kärkkäinen for leaving out some historically significant theologians. But overall, he makes good choices in the Christologies he chooses to focus on. His ability to succinctly state the beliefs of others is superb, and done in such a way that not many pages are wasted, as in many books, but each word has been used to its fullest potential. One of the best examples of his summarizing power occurs in his summery of Paul’s Christology, “An examination of the major letters of Paul with regard to his understanding of Christology reveals that in his pastoral responses to existing church and mission needs, he argues from a Christological foundation” (p. 58). But there seems to be a great hole in the summery of Biblical Christology because Kärkkäinen does not even mention the many Christological pearls of Hebrews, the Pastorals, or the Apocalypse. After reading this introduction, the reader will have a pretty good understanding of what the “Christian” world believes about Christ and will be aided in understanding the reasons for why some have chosen to stray away from the Word of God as their rule and look to human sources for insight.

But as one begins to critically interact with the work, there are some weaknesses that come to the surface quite quickly. The first weakness stems from his lack of any substantial commentary on the views he presents. There really is no critical interaction with any of the views presented. Sure, he occasionally pipes up and sheepishly states that a view has some difficulties, but he never comes out and plainly states he has an issue with any of the views. This really is unfortunate, because it teaches others just to blindly accept what others say without interacting on a deeper level with the material. But this writer believes there is a reason Kärkkäinen is silent, and it stems from his post-modern thought. Kärkkäinen doesn’t believe in coming down dogmatically on any point of Christology, but seems to believe that if one puts all the different views on Christ and assembles them together, a beautiful picture emerges. But this is far from the truth as revealed in Scripture. Revealing his low view of God’s Word, Kärkkäinen states, “Even though it is the task of Christian theology, especially systematic theology, to go beyond the Bible when inquiring into the meaning and significance of Jesus Christ for people living in various contexts in the third millennium – asking many questions that Bible did not ask – the foundational material for all Christian theology is the Bible” (p. 17). But there is a significant problem to what Kärkkäinen writes, for if we are to go outside the Bible to enhance our understanding of Christ, how is one to know from which source that information should be derived? Should one get it from a Buddhist? A Muslim? Or maybe a Hindu? While Kärkkäinen is right to state that the foundation of all Christian theology is the Bible, his idea that correct theology can be derived by going “beyond the Bible” betrays his own belief – that all Christologies are equally relevant, regardless of their source of authority. What is his proof? Well, he believes that the Bible presents this as the norm, for, “The Church and Christian theology, however, decided in favor of plurality of testimonies at the expense of harmony in every detail” (p. 20). There are four gospels, and so Kärkkäinen reasons that the more theologies we have the better. When the feminists say Jesus is a woman, he says, “Christian theology believes that none of the divine Persons has a gender, but in their actions in humanity and the world, each Person is manifested under names borrowed from the genders” (p. 197). And when someone wants to say the Jesus is black, Kärkkäinen says, “There is no presuppositionless exegesis; therefore, reading the Bible from a distinctly black perspective is just as justified as reading it from any other perspective” (p. 209). But Jesus can’t be a man, a woman, black, white, and brown all at the same time. There is only one Jesus, and that is the Jesus that has been revealed in Scripture.

What really is revealed through this introduction to Christology is that men have a felt need, hear of Jesus, and then they take the Name and create the god of their choosing. But that Kärkkäinen does not see this is what is most disturbing about his book. I believe he fails to see these false Christs because he has bought into the postmodern world-view. Those who are of the post-modern culture are, “…encouraged to pick and choose from a cast inventory of religious symbols and doctrines, to select those beliefs that best express his or her private sentiments” (Harvey, Another City, 129). Although Kärkkäinen explicitly states that, “…an initial postmodern treatment of Christology (let alone alternatives for comparison) does not yet exist” (p. 214), I think he just wrote it. For what he has basically done is taken all the views of Christ and tried to mush them all into one, not judging or criticizing any one view, but enjoying the bliss of nothingness. But if the question of who Jesus is has any significance, the post-modern view fails because it never answers the question. To them, Jesus is no one, for he is whoever you want him to be. When Kärkkäinen lets Naomi Goldenberg say, “…feminists have to leave Christ and the Bible behind” (p. 198) without so much as a comment, he betrays the trust of his readers. How can there be a Christology without Christ? A multiplicities of Christs or a lack of Christ will not do. It was for this very reason that Paul sarcastically condemns the church at Corinth: “For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully” (2 Cor. 11:4). And if that is not clear enough, Paul tells the Galatians, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” (Gal. 1:8). The gospel is clear – there is one Christ, and he has been revealed. There is nothing new to learn of him, in this life, which has not already been revealed. Kärkkäinen shoots himself in the foot here, for in one breath he says, “At no time was one picture of Jesus dominant” (p. 10), but then goes on to give the dominant picture, that Jesus has been the, “One who is confessed as the Lord and Savior by all Christians” (p. 10). One cannot sit by and think that there are many Jesus’s, for the Gospel of Jesus explicitly says there are not. Either one serves the Lord or he does not; sitting back, enjoying the view will never do. The Person of Christ, of our Christology demands a verdict. Yes, Christ did ask, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matt. 16:13). But in the same breath he asked, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). If one studies Christology, or writes a book about Christology and fails to consider personally who Christ is, their Christology is worthless – and unless the answer is revealed from God the Father in heaven to them, men will always come up with the wrong answer.

Kärkkäinen’s work is missing the foundation of Christology – God’s Word. The fundamental issue is that Kärkkäinen has a high view of man, and believes that men say who Jesus is and therefore Jesus is that which they say. But Christ did not ask the question of his disciples in order to gain their opinion – Christ knew who he was, and the Father revealed who Christ was to his disciples. I believe it is this error that makes Kärkkäinen’s work flawed. As a history book, it does well. But because of his faulty view of Christ, I would never reccomend his book as a textbook for a class on Christology – especially if that class was with new believers, for it would confuse and possibly distort their view of Christ. But I do believe there is value in Kärkkäinen’s summery of what the world thinks of Christ, for information on what other cultures believe is hard to come by, and can aid the Christian in his proclamation of the gospel. If Paul had never heard of the “Unknown god” his opportunity to speak to those on Mars Hill and engage their ears would have proved much more difficult. But because he had taken the time to observe, he was then able to be effective in correcting their false beliefs – showing them the true God, the one and only Jesus Christ. I believe for the most part Kärkkäinen does a good job introducing the word’s Christology – and he did in fact set out to do just that. But he lacks that which is most essential: Biblical integrity.

4 Responses to A Critical Review of “Christology: A Global Introduction” by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen

  1. bretmavrich says:

    Thanks for this: it’s helpful. I’ve been wanting a better read on this text since I first found it on Amazon. Something Tim Keller said (the very orthadox Tim Keller, i should add) got me interested in Global Theology: Theology is often the function of the questions we ask. I buy into that.

    But I also buy into the fact that Jesus was a real man (yea, still is) and that asking questions should not impose on him a new identity; it is learning his true identity through our inescapable feelers of culture and history. His truth addresses us where we are, not the other way around.

  2. James says:

    You do not understand Karkkainen’s view. When Karkkainen says “go beyond the Bible” he is not discounting the Bible’s influence. He is talking about the simple fact that the Bible does not list out an ordered philosophical system for understanding the nature of Christ’s deity, and not on many subjects it is not explicit. All systematic theology is a construction and application of the letters of the New Testament, and thus in many places systematic theology goes “beyond” the Bible in that it gives specific terms to implicit ideas in the Bible. The Trinity is the best example. “Trinity” is not in the Bible, but it is constructed by theologians as the best construct for what the Bible speaks of.

    • James says:

      In case you dispute my interpretation, I am currently in my second Karkkainen systematics theology course at Fuller Theological Seminary

    • nathanwells says:

      Hi James,
      Thanks for reading – I wrote this a long time ago, so the book isn’t as fresh on my mind as it was when I wrote this article.

      I will concede that Dr. Karkkainen could mean what you say – but I still think the impression he gives in his book goes way farther than just using the word Trinity. I don’t know Dr. Karkkainen so my impression is just that – an impression.

      The concept of Trinity is drawn out from Scripture (meaning people prove there is a Trinity from Scripture). To me that is different than saying Jesus was a woman (which no one tries to prove from Scripture, they just say and believe it).

      He states: “There is no presuppositionless exegesis; therefore, reading the Bible from a distinctly black perspective [meaning they believe Jesus is black] is just as justified as reading it from any other perspective” (p. 209).

      And like I argued in my article – not all perspectives are equal. The value or “justification” for a perspective directly correlates to its aligning with the truth of God’s Word.

      I really did appreciate the history in the book – but I still don’t agree with the perspective it contains.

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