Below is an excerpt from Chapter 28 of The Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology , by Ivor Davidson. Dr. Davidson is Honorary Research Professor in Divinity at King’s College, University of Aberdeen. He previously held chairs in Systematic and Historical Theology at the University of Otago and the University of St Andrews.
The munus triplex
It was entirely consistent with Reformed assumptions to emphasize that the whole of Christ’s fleshly path was mediatorial; his death, resurrection, and ascension completed his saving work, but atoning action certainly did not occur only at the finale of his earthly life. In Calvin’s words: ‘from the time when he took the form of a servant, he began to pay the price of liberation in order to redeem us’ (Inst. II.26.5). The anointed servant of God in our midst, Christ’s life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and heavenly session at God’s right hand involved the full reality of his humanity at every stage.
Calvin’s mature account of the mediator’s execution of his role presents Christ’s work under the rubric of the threefold office (munus triplex): the incarnate mediator acts as prophet, priest and king (Inst. II.15). The exposition looks back to Israel’s history, and to the office of God’s ‘anointed’ in one or more of these capacities in the Old Testament scriptures. The immediate context in Calvin is his concern to present his account of the mediator as fulfilment of covenant history (Edmondson 2004). Contrary to the views of an itinerant Italian theologian, Francesco Stancaro, whose ideas had gained controversial influence in Poland in the late 1550s, Calvin argues that Christ did not mediate between humanity and God only in respect of his human nature but in his whole divine–human person (Tylenda 1973a; 1973b). Stancaro’s concern was primarily to safeguard the unity and coequality of the Son with the Father and the Spirit in his divinity, and so to propose that mediation between God and humanity took place at the level of the incarnate Son’s human, not his divine, nature. For Calvin, as for other Reformed thinkers, it was by contrast essential to say that mediation occurred according to both natures; the execution of his office was the outworking of that by one divine–human subject, prophet, priest, and king in the totality of his person.
Calvin did not invent the rubric of the munus triplex. Besides its exegetical warrants, it had some patristic roots and a definite presence in medieval theology; Calvin’s understanding of it may have been developed under Bucer’s influence in particular. It would be deployed by Lutheran theologians also, though until the mid-seventeenth century the kingly and priestly offices were there the dominant foci. Calvin himself in fact originally adopted a twofold (priest, king) rather than threefold rubric, in his 1536 Institutes and in his Catechism of 1537/8, and that pattern persisted substantially in his biblical commentaries and preaching. Even in the threefold form, Calvin did not make nearly as much of the device as later Reformed theology would; it is notable that having invoked it in his 1559 Institutes he quickly returns to his earlier preference for a credal pattern as a way of arranging his themes. Late on in Calvin’s literary career, the munus triplex was evidently not sufficient in itself to integrate all of the aspects of the mediator’s action; it was only one part of such an account, and its capacities as an organizing device for an overall theology of atonement were not to be overstated.
Nevertheless, the threefold office had valuable heuristic force. The mediatorial work of the prophet was to be seen especially in the history of Christ’s work of revelation, the priestly office in his sacrificial life and death, the kingly office in his enactment of the final reign of God. In practice, the priestly function would tend to assume centrality: it was of decisive significance that the Son was the perfect oblation for sins, his blood shed once and for all to make atonement and bring sinners near to God. The whole life of the Saviour was indeed atoning; special importance attached to his death, the climax of his active and passive obedience. The Cross was, unavoidably, a judicial business, but it did not condition God into being gracious towards sinners, or turn an only wrathful or vengeful deity into a loving one. In as much as it was the enactment of a commission, behind the cross already lay God’s love; it was the holiness of that love which grounded the justice of the judgement that was executed in the condemnation of Christ as our substitute.
From the later sixteenth century, it became standard for the Reformed to integrate the munus triplex with the two states of humiliation and exaltation: all three offices were said to be exercised by the mediator in each state. In some Reformed accounts, the threefold office was effectively subordinated to the two states (Wollebius is one example), but in general the office would emerge as dominant. The incarnate one was not prophet and priest prior to the resurrection, king thereafter: his earthly work involved royal arrival from its inception; his prophetic instruction of his disciples assumed an advanced stage between his resurrection and ascension, and continued in his heavenly authority over his church; his priestly representation of his people before occurred not only at the Cross but also in heaven, in his ongoing intercession for us, bearer of our humanity in the presence of his Father. The offices overlapped in both states, and assumed different forms in each case: prophetic, priestly, and kingly ministry takes one shape on earth, another in heaven. There was no merely sequential way of reading the threefold office.
At the same time, Reformed theologians faced the obvious reality of a scriptural narrative which spoke of earthly humility followed by heavenly glory, and they continued to engage Lutheran arguments on the transference of properties between natures, according to which exaltation of the Saviour’s humanity was only the revelation of its already-possessed divine glory. Historical sequence of some kind seemed unavoidable: exaltation involved a movement from divine splendour veiled to divine splendour confirmed, but glorification was also a vindication and a reward for work actually accomplished in a state of lowliness. Yet insofar as the person of the mediator was central, the one whose divinity was not compromised in the voluntary assumption of servant form but enacted precisely in this chosen mode of being, it was crucial, as Calvin himself had recognized, to avoid ‘compartmentalizing’ of the two states, or a strictly linear pattern. In the mediator’s personal history, humiliation and exaltation overlapped all along the line; the servant was also king upon the Cross (for a modern attempt to set out a version of such soterio-logic, see Treat 2014).
As major trajectories within sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed theology expanded their formal concern with the divine covenant as unifying category in soteriology, they would make much more of the threefold office as the elect mediator’s fulfilment of the purposes of God in his successive dealings with Adam, the patriarchs, and Israel. The threefold office was eternal, and revealed in the mediatorial work of the Word throughout history. The prophetic office was linked especially to the history of revelation, the priestly to the sacrificial life and death of Christ, the kingly to the final reign of God. In covenantal reflection, the content attributed to each of the three offices tended to be affected by categories of conditionality. If there was a covenant of grace, there was also originally a covenant of works with Adam, and the mediator’s threefold office also involved his execution of a federal role in which his satisfaction of divine conditions was core to his righteousness. Once again, person and work were closely integrated.
Modern charges that such accounts disastrously overlaid biblical concepts of covenant with contractual or forensic logic, or that they posited a fundamental relationship of God and creatures in which grace came second to nature and its obligations, have been severely overstated. The allegations are generally motivated by other theological agendas, and scarcely reflect attentive engagement with the sources. The Reformed concern for the relationship of Christology to soteriology undoubtedly found particular kinds of expression in covenantal traditions and their legacies (meaning, for speakers of English, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) above all, or perhaps its modified form for Congregationalists, the Savoy Declaration (1658)), but the results were by no means only baleful or legalistic, nor were they necessarily at odds with earlier Reformed impulses. It is entirely feasible to track a good deal of the reasoning back into the applications of covenant in Calvin and Bullinger. Orthodox thinkers adopted different positions on the role of Christ in election—on his significance as an active subject of the divine decree, and on the relationship of his mediatorial work to his identity as prototype of all the elect, not simply executor of a transcendent divine will that mediation involve the accomplishment of conditions. Yet for all the variety Reformed teaching about Christ and the decree had changed a good deal less in the early seventeenth century than has often been supposed, and it is certainly not feasible to characterize the theologies of federal orthodoxy as contorted attempts to qualify a one-sided predestinarianism in quest for a much-needed account of creaturely agency (see Muller 2008). Whatever new intellectual and moral emphases federalism brought, and whatever distinctions are to be drawn within covenantal theologies, a fundamental impulse had not disappeared: consideration of the person of Christ as mediator belonged within an overarching narrative of the eternal appointment of estranged creatures to blessing—the wondrous story of their temporal reconciliation and redemption for a filial relationship with God, purposed for them in mercy before the foundation of the world.
The threefold office continues to inform contemporary expositions of a Reformed covenantal Christology (e.g. Horton 2005). However strong its heritage, it may be inadequate in itself to serve as a summary concept in soteriology, and attempts to deploy it in such fashion have their challenges (Sherman 2004; cf. Johnson 2012). Its applications may also be problematic: some ways of attempting to map the theme onto ecclesial and ministerial forms of mediation, for example, or of using it to underwrite political authority, have justly incurred questions.
Nevertheless, the munus triplex has remained a significant Reformed theme in modernity; it is worth glancing at two quite different examples. In Friedrich
Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre (2nd edn 1830/31), the supreme expression of a modern liberal version of a Reformed theology, there is sharp criticism of Chalcedonian Christology as incoherent and fundamentally detached from the Christian community’s experience of God (Mariña 2005). In extrapolation from that experience, Jesus Christ is not to be confessed as one person in two natures, but as the human being in whom there is a perfect potency of God-consciousness. The ‘unclouded’ blessedness of his human consciousness of God draws believers into fellowship with him in his perfect receptivity: that is his redemptive work, on the basis of which they may properly speak of ‘the veritable existence of God in him’. To experience the transformative significance of Jesus’ unique human ideality is to confess that he is the perfect reiteration in human form of the pure activity of love that God is (Hector 2006). As part of Schleiermacher’s presentation of what a Christology thus constructed out of redemptive experience might entail, he makes use of a revised form of the threefold office. The prophetic is Christ’s self-proclamation; the priestly involves his obedience and intercession, but that is at its core the outworking of his perfect expression of the being of God within him, the effects of which are determinative only as they are evocative; the kingly resides in his pervasive capacity to be as sufficient as the church finds him to be in his influence upon it (The Christian Faith §§102–5). In all this, substantial shifts are made to classical
assumptions, and the formula of the two states is set aside entirely. Yet it is clear that Schleiermacher considers his approach remains within a Reformed matrix. In the continuing sense of need to engage the categories, to adapt them according to a very different kind of procedural logic, there remains a strong investment in the primacy of divine grace, and on the irreplaceable significance of the humanity of Christ in salvation.
A quite distinct approach is found in Karl Barth, who makes extensive use of both the threefold office and the two states as organizing principles in Church Dogmatics IV/1–3. Though Barth for his part could be distinctly critical of post-Reformation dogmatics, not least its accounts of Christ and election, his exposition of Christology received early stimulus from his engagements with Reformed orthodoxy (both in Heinrich Heppe’s classic textbook, Reformed Dogmatics, and more widely: cf. Heppe 1950, especially chs 17–19), and he went on conversing extensively with the legacy of traditional Reformed confession throughout the development of his Church Dogmatics. The centrally determinative place of Jesus Christ as the one Word of God is evident from the start, governing Barth’s treatment of revelation, and taking particular shape in his revision of a Reformed theology of election, according to which God and humanity must both be thought of as they are found to be in Jesus Christ. Election is God’s self-election and his election of humanity all at once, made actual in Jesus Christ, who is both the electing God and the elect human being. In Christ, God determines himself to be gracious; in him, humanity as such is elect to know the blessing of fellowship with God. The logic is basic to Barth’s exposition of creation and covenant, and to his theological anthropology. When he turns to the doctrine of reconciliation in Church Dogmatics IV, Barth’s emphasis on the concreteness of the person of Christ as ‘God with us’ attains its profoundest intensity and range.
If Schleiermacher’s Christology essentially treats Christ’s work as his person, Barth labours to consider the person of Christ in light of his work, and to do so in highly creative fashion in terms of the mediator’s fleshly particularity. Barth’s ‘actualism’ and its implications are read in diverse ways by his interpreters, and it may well be that the case for the later Barth as ingenious signpost to a post-metaphysical Christology has been overblown. It is far from clear that Barth’s mature account of the incarnation ever lets go of the fundamental claim that the divine Son is eternally complete in his being irrespective of any movement in creaturely history, but it is certainly the case that for Barth the person of Christ can in the end receive no substantive treatment in abstraction—only as the reality of the God who takes flesh. The Christology is massively ‘high’, but also places immense emphasis on the humanity that is freely assumed and enacted (Jones 2008). Chalcedon’s two natures are a history, the great act of God’s self-identification as the one who determines to be God with and for us.
Barth’s exposition looks back to classical questions as to what this means (Sumner 2014), and does so with interests that continue to be governed in no small measure by Reformed sensibilities, but the tradition is assessed in distinctive form. In the mediator’s history, there is divine humiliation and human exaltation all at once. For Barth, there is a strong simultaneity about the two states: the Son enacts at once the high humility of God, and the exalted significance of humanity for God. The divine descent, the way of the Son of God into the far country of the fallen creature’s alienation from God, is also the ascent of the human to its intended dignity: the homecoming of the Son of Man. The Lord is Servant; the Servant is Lord. Reconciliation is accomplished in the personal history of the mediator. We cannot set the divine nature, the state of exaltation and the kingly office on one side; the human nature, the state of humiliation and the priestly office on the other. The prophetic office is for Barth to be thought of as the mediator’s work of making himself known as the one he is: his declaration, now in risen, ascended power, that he is victor, the light of life in whom the world’s darkness has been banished.
Whether Barth’s treatment of Christ as prophet leaves sufficient role for the Holy Spirit, and whether it diminishes the being and ministry of the church itself as communicator of the Gospel to the world, have remained lively questions, too large to consider here. Whether Barth is also successful in reconfiguring the status duplex in nonsequential terms, or whether the quest to do so by the route he adopts is well-aimed, is also open to discussion. What is undeniable is that Reformed instincts remain powerful at point after point. For Barth, as for the tradition, whatever the Spirit’s role is, the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ specifically, not some amorphous or immanent power; whatever the church’s role is in attesting, it is as human that the church carries it out—enabled by grace to be itself in so doing, and charged with serious responsibilities in that regard, but not burdened with the task of mediating the divine, or of making reconciliation effective by what it does; that work is God’s.
From The Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology edited by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain. Copyright © 2020 by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.