The Suffering God? (McCormack Croall Lecture 1)

At the first of his long-awaited Croall Lectures on the work of Christ yesterday, Bruce McCormack was in top-form–cranky, dogmatic, and brilliant as ever.  Best to begin with the “brilliant” part and return at the end to highlight McCormack’s cantankerous idiosyncrasies, as they appeared particularly in the Q&A session.  

McCormack is one of the few theologians today undertaking serious constructive dogmatic work in the area of Christology, which as I’m sure you can imagine, is a daring and dangerous enterprise.  No other area of Christian theology is hedged in with so many or so ancient credal constraints, making it difficult to find room to maneuver, much less innovate.  McCormack’s overall project could be characterized as attempting to rescue orthodox Christology from the implausibility into which modern theological sensibilities have cast it, and from the underlying tensions that modern attacks have revealed to have been there all along, by bringing the theological resources of Barthianism to bear and remaining faithful to the core confession and trajectory of earlier Christian theology (McCormack is no liberal–that much is for sure).  A tall order, and a noble project.  Even if you ultimately disagree with McCormack’s methods and conclusions, you can’t help but admire the focus and creativity he gives to his task, and be seduced by the just-plain-cool-ness of some of his proposals.  

So, what’s he up to in this series of lectures?  He gave us a general idea of where he was going in the first one, without showing so many of his cards as to remove all elements of mystery and excitement.  The gist is this: the theory of penal substitution has fallen almost completely into disrepute in modern theology, and the objections that have been raised have revealed a never-resolved tension in the original Protestant theology between the doctrine of Christ and the doctrine of God.  Whereas the doctrine of the penal substitution had to appeal to the infinite value of the suffering and death of God, in order to explain how Christ’s death could take the place of the eternal sufferings of countelss millions, the Reformed were not ultimately willing to say that God suffered and died on the cross–their rigid separation between the two natures of Christ, and their conviction of divine impassibility, carried over uncritically from the Patristic period, forebade it.  Or to put it even more sharply: you can’t make sense of penal substitution theory unless you’re willing to say that God suffered and died for us, and you can’t say that on the classical doctrine of divine impassibility.  You can’t salvage a core Protestant doctrine without relinquishing a core Patristic doctrine, which the Protestants uncritically adapted.  Unsurprisingly (if you know McCormack at all), he prefers to sacrifice the patristic and Catholic doctrine in order to save the Protestant doctrine–even if it’s much older and more foundational to Christian theology, it is, he thinks, merely accidental to Protestant theology, and dispensable without forsaking Protestantism’s core confession.  So, McCormack is going to deploy Barthian resources to argue that it is God himself who elects to suffer in our place (which is, after all, how we often casually describe the Atonement), rather than God electing to punish the man Jesus in our place (which is what previous dogmatics have felt the need to assert).  This requires a kind of kenotic theology–obviously a risky proposition, but McCormack believes his version of “Reformed kenoticism” avoids the charges of heresy leveled at past kenosis theories.

For various reasons, I find the general proposal quite attractive (indeed, a lecture a few years ago that McCormack gave as a prototype for this series so enchanted me that I haven’t been able to think of Christology in any other paradigm than McCormack’s since).  Nonetheless, it is certainly worth remarking on McCormack’s fervent dedication to maintaining Protestantism as Protestantism, even if that means to hell with Orthodox, Catholics, and classical Christian theology.  

So what are the problems with penal substitution theory?  We in conservative evangelicalism may not be aware that there is much of a problem.  We carry on cheerfully reciting the relevant catechisms or confessions, confident in this pillar of Protestant theology (unaware, in fact, that it is more or less a Protestant distinctive, and not a basic cornerstone of “mere Christianity”), and chuckling at the feeble protests of “liberals.”  But, as McCormack made clear, these are not merely “liberal” objections, but problems present from the beginning of the doctrine.  There are four main objections, he suggests:

1) The impression is given that the Father is moved from wrath to mercy by the actions of the Son; but if God the Father were not already inclined to be merciful, he would not have sent his Son into the world to begin with.  If God already felt mercy toward his creatures, why was the atonement necessary, and if he didn’t, then why would it change his mind?

Some of the Reformers, says McCormack, were aware of this difficulty, but did not resolve it satisfactorily–Calvin attempted to do so by appealing to Augustine’s argument that God was disposed to be merciful toward creatures inasmuch as they were his good creation, but disposed to be wrathful toward them inasmuch as they had turned away to the privation of self-love and thus non-being.  McCormack said that this was to make God’s merciful will contingent on something outside Godself, which cannot be legitimate.  I suggested in the Q&A that this objection did not apply given Augustine’s metaphysics, in which all that is good in creaturely being is so by participation in the goodness of divine being; but in any case, McCormack wouldn’t accept such a neo-Platonic metaphysic, so for him the objection would remain.  


2) Equivalence: for penal substitution to be complete, there must be an equivalence of the penalty owed and the penalty paid.

The equivalence objection was the one most explicitly addressed by the Reformers (though it was not one that troubled Calvin himself at all).  The solution, as mentioned above, was to lay stress on the infinite value of divine suffering, but as pointed out above, this simply doesn’t work unless one is willing to follow through and actually admit the reality of divine suffering, and to make the communication of attributes more than merely semantic (as it was for the Reformed, over against the Lutheran).

3) How can it possibly be just to condemn and punish an innocent man in the place of evildoers?  A human judge could never do this.  

McCormack argued that this was actually the least cogent of the four objections, because it rests on a piece of natural theology.  Divine justice is laid on a foundation of human justice, which doesn’t work, because whereas in human justice, the judge has to conform to a legislator, in divine justice, the judge is himself the legislator, and his law is rooted in a covenant of grace.  It belongs to God alone to decide when and under what conditions the law must be fulfilled–divine justice must be allowed to function on its own terms.  It is telling, I think, that McCormack regarded this as the least cogent objection; such a dismissal is only possible if one has first rejected natural law and the analogia entis wholesale, as McCormack, being a good Barthian, has of course done.  Within a historical framework of natural law theory, this objection, while not insuperable, would be quite troubling and compelling.  


4. Violence is embedded in this theory at its very heart.  This is a violent, retributive, bloodthirsty God.  A God whose innermost being is consistent with the act of violence must needs legitimate violence in our own world.  

This, said McCormack, is almost certainly the most difficult of the objections, and indeed, its emotive force is often all but irresistible in our society.  McCormack suggested that evangelicals have been able to avoid taking this objection seriously, because the proposed nonviolent alternative reconstructions of the New Testament witness thus far have been so implausible.  But this cockiness, argued McCormack, is quite dangerous, as this objection strikes at the heart of the Christian witness concerning the nature of God.  In the Q&A, David Reimer not unreasonably asked why objection 4 was materially different from objection 3, and why we might not respond to it in a similar fashion by appealing to a Creator-creature distinction (indeed, I once upon a time made just this sort of argument against the “God of peace” forms of pacifism, though I am now rather unsure about it in light of my new interest in natural law theory, among other things–more on this in a later post).  McCormack’s response was somewhat unclear to me, but seemed to say that objection 4 was more significant than objection 3 because it concerned not merely the morality of God but his being–are violent relations intrinsic to the divine nature?  

McCormack concluded this survey by saying that so compelling was objection 4 that he too would have to capitulate to its force and renounce penal substitution unless it could be shown that it was not the man Jesus but God himself who suffered in our place.  And that, of course, was precisely what he would undertake to show in the lecture series.


McCormack spent the last bit of his lecture attempting to offer a classification of various theories of the atonement that surpassed other classification systems by successfully integrating pre-modern and modern theories.  Three main approaches were possible, he argued: 

1) to integrate the work of Christ into a metaphysically-derived doctrine of his person (the approach of Athanasius, Hegel, and T.F. Torrance among others)

2) to bracket off his person in order to focus on his work (the dominant Western approach of Anselm, the Reformers, and their descendants)

 3) to undertake a post-metaphysical strategy for integrating the person of Christ into his work (the approach of Barth and his followers, and the one that McCormack himself was going to adopt in some form).


In the Q&A that followed, two particularly sharp questions cast light on the troubling features of McCormack’s distinctive theological method, a method that remarkably recapitulates the tendencies of Old Princeton and Charles Hodge (whose chair McCormack holds).  Oliver O’Donovan asked, with his typical scalpel-wielding politeness, “Forgive me if I missed it, but I don’t recall hearing the word ‘resurrection’ mentioned in your entire presentation.  Was that an intentional omission on your part?”  “Yes,” replied McCormack, “I wanted to bracket off other aspects of Christ’s work in order to focus specifically on the the meaning of the event of the cross.”  “And you have no discomfort,” prodded O’Donovan, “in thus isolating out one part of Christ’s work from the rest?”  “No, none, at least for teaching purposes, so long as we recognize that a fuller account of Christ’s work would require a discussion of the significance of the resurrection.”  At least you can never accuse McCormack of beating around the bush.  McCormack’s theological method follows the Old Princeton tradition of rigorously distinguishing doctrinal loci and accounting for them in logical isolation from one another before seeking to reintegrate them into a whole (if the reintegration ever happens).  This is perhaps a surprising approach for a Barthian to follow, given Barth’s maddening tendency to talk about every doctrinal locus at once, and is sure to make most of us postmoderns quite uncomfortable.  While I am happy to grant that one may legitimately bracket off a particular aspect of Christ’s work for special consideration “for teaching purposes,” it would seem that this must always come after, not before, we have given a holistic account of the meaning of Christ’s work.  Only when we know what redemption as a whole consisted of can we turn to parse out what each part of the redemptive process means on its own; to try to first treat the parts without reference to the whole is sure to prove a dangerous undertaking, at best.

In a final question, Theodora asked McCormack if his insistence on the importance of Protestants remaining faithful to their tradition (something he had harped on repeatedly in the introduction, dismissing almost all contemporary Protestant theology as either an incoherent liberal hodge-podge or “Catholicism lite”) was due to a conviction that it’s important to be faithful to your tradition, whatever that tradition is, or simply because Protestantism was right and everyone else was wrong.  Again, McCormack didn’t beat around the bush, affirming that it was simply because Protestantism was right, and he took the opportunity to deplore at some length the Catholicizing impulses that had seduced modern Protestant theologians, claiming that he felt like he was the only genuine Protestant left among the leading ranks of American theologians.  Again, like Old Princeton, McCormack has no hesitation in wearing his staunch opposition to Catholicizing impulses on his sleeve; the only difference is that in Hodge’s day, that was a fairly common stance to take, whereas McCormack is now quite rare among high-profile theologians in considering cantankerous fidelity to Protestantism a virtue rather than a vice.  Perhaps all of us have just been seduced by post-modern woolly-headedness that likes to blur traditions and doctrines, but I for one cannot see why it should be a vice to admit that perhaps Protestantism does not have a monopoly on Christian truth; that perhaps our dogmatic system is fallible like any other, and that much is to be learned theologically as well as gained practically by undertaking ecumenical dialogue and attempting to appropriate the riches of other traditions.  


But, be all that as it may, McCormack undoubtedly has a tremendous amount to contribute to Protestant dogmatics, particularly in the area of Christology, and I can’t wait to hear the five remaining lectures in the series.

21 thoughts on “The Suffering God? (McCormack Croall Lecture 1)

  1. There are perhaps several more arguments:1) The Son precisely is the manifestation of the Father. When we say that the Son bore the wrath of the Father, we introduce something more about the Father which is not revealed as the Son, but by the action of the Father on the Son. Thus Penal Substitution is implicitly Nestorian or Arian.2) Is the Person the object of the wrath, or the nature. If the nature, then since the nature is created, any creature would have done as well. But if the Person can bear the wrath, there is no need for the Person to become man to do so.3) There can be now new relations between divine Persons due to creation. God does not change just because He created. But wrath toward sin precisely is contingent on creation, and thus if the Father is wrathful toward the Son due to creation, there is a new relation between the Father and the Son based on creation.


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks Matt. Perhaps I just didn't state them clearly enough, but the third of your points is another way of stating what McCormack was getting at in the first line of objection, and your second point is one of the difficulties raised in the course of trying to answer the second line of objection that McCormack sketched.Your first point, though, is certainly intriguing. I'll have to think more about it to see if I can't think of a plausible rejoinder, and if not, I might see what McCormack thinks of it.


  3. Matthew N. Petersen

    Hunh. I thought the third one was closest to the fourth, but with a slightly different twist–not only is violence in God's being, but sin is. And yes, the second is very close to his second, with perhaps a nuance, but very close. But thanks for the response, and I'll look forward to seeing your thoughts.


  4. Excellent summary Brad. That was an accurate representation of my memory of and notes from the lecture, and I had a number of the same reactions as you did.(NB Theo prefers not to be called "Theodora" unless she is in trouble (or unless you wish to get into it).


  5. Albert

    Very interesting, but I have some comments, speaking from I guess what is a perspective that would keep both divine impassibility and penal atonement. Not sure whether that is possible, but here are some observations nonetheless.

    4. Violence is embedded in this theory at its very heart. This is a violent, retributive, bloodthirsty God. A God whose innermost being is consistent with the act of violence must needs legitimate violence in our own world.

    If penal substitution means that violence is embedded in the heart of this theory and so in the being of God, I do not see how a "suffering God" theory is much better, since suffering is also a function of violence either from within or without. Violence is as central in the being of God if God suffers as it is if God inflicts suffering. At least with penal substitution, the violence is tied to the humanity of Christ and contingent on Creation, rather than fundamentally within God himself as a God who suffers must be.

    3) How can it possibly be just to condemn and punish an innocent man in the place of evildoers? A human judge could never do this.

    My initial response is: "Why couldn't a human judge do this?" The Old Testament and New Testaments both testify to the legitimacy of this, provided the punishment of the innocent is gladly chosen by the innocent one for the sake of the beloved. This is because punishment, I think, is ultimately about the vindication of God's glory and honor because punishment shows that what is evil is truly evil and therefore deserving of punishment. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ in our place testifies to the evil of sin and the need for God demonstrate his righteousness by vindicating his holiness as something that ought not be trampled by sin, and yet also testifies to the mercy of God in that he spared us the punishment, giving us life instead. This seems to be the logic of Romans 3: 25-26.To further illustrate, I believe (for now) that it might be legitimate for a man to voluntarily offer up his life to pay the jail time of a beloved, convicted criminal. This is not always required, nor is it always wise, but to do so could be a demonstration of the mercy of God, while upholding the righteousness and holiness of God.

    2) Equivalence: for penal substitution to be complete, there must be an equivalence of the penalty owed and the penalty paid.

    This is a hard one for my view. But first, I want to suggest that appealing to the infinity of divine suffering to equal out the balance is not, in my view, safe either. This is because there is no reason why a modicum of divine suffering should not outweigh all the creaturely suffering of eternity. How can divine suffering be equal to creaturely suffering, even an eternity of suffering? Just because we call both "infinite"? What does that mean? Surely the suffering of God must be qualitatively different than creaturely suffering. So it might merely switch the imbalance from the weight of creaturely suffering toward the weight of God's suffering. At the very least, I think it necessarily brings up difficulties of trying to imagine what it would be like for God to suffer, and how that is different from creatures suffering–unless we want to eliminate the distinction between God and creature altogether.That said, I think the question of balance might be helped along to an answer by perhaps suggesting that the divine nature's union to the human nature endowed it with the capacity and strength to receive and feel more suffering than is ordinary. It did not mute the suffering, but enabled its enlargement. As an analogy, I would point to how God enabled the enlargement of Samson's human strength to accomplish his purposes; Jesus is the new Samson, empowered for a titanic mission.

    If God already felt mercy toward his creatures, why was the atonement necessary…

    As I indicated before, this would be resolved by appealing to the need to vindicate the righteousness and holiness of God. God was merciful in sending his Son, and the atonement accomplished both mercy and justice, so that God could be both just and the justifier of the ungodly.I'm sure there will be disagreement, but these thoughts might be helpful nonetheless. I started thinking them when becoming aware of the disagreement between penal substitution folks and Christus Victor folks; as it might be apparent, I see no need to throw either of them out, and believe it is both possible to keep them and more helpful to the cause of Church unity to refuse to let this continue to be a division. Your blog is excellent by the way; I'm glad others are thinking about these issues.


  6. Albert:Regarding your first post, and adopting Maximus' terminology (though I don't believe what I have to say can only be understood from his perspective): I don't think that it is problematic if there is a logos of violence or of suffering. In most contexts violence is bad, but violence is not bad simply. For instance, as it exists in American Football, it is a good thing. And likewise small violence is good in a variety of relationships–this is a difficult to say, I don't mean very violent things infrequently, but infinitesimaly violent things, frequently–as for instance is common in flirtation, and masculine competitiveness. Similarly suffering could have a logos, for suffering is often good, and indeed desirable, see for instance, C. S. Lewis' essay on Transposition, where he shows that the same physical suffering which is a stomach ache is at times being in love, and thus pleasant.The real problem is if we say sin has a logos, which Penal Substitution seems to imply.


  7. Albert

    Hi Matthew,Thanks for responding to my first point about McCormack's argument. You could be right that violence/suffering may be an intrinsic part of God because violence/suffering has a logos. I confess that I don't know what you and Maximus mean by "logos." Could you explain a bit? From the context, it looks like it means "legitimate reason for existence." But I'm not sure and wanted to clarify before assuming this.Regardless, I'm not sure whether McCormack agrees with you that some sort of violence/suffering as a part of God's nature is good if there is a logos. He may. I have no idea. But if he believes some violence is legitimate if it has a logos, then to satisfy his fourth objection would be a matter of showing that the violence of penal substitution has a logos. If it does, then his concern should be addressed. For myself, I am not convinced that the violence of penal substitution entails violence intrinsically within the being of God; it seems that it is contingent on Creation, Fall, and sin and so not intrinsic to God even on a penal substitution model. The violence of wrath will pass away with this age. But it would be good to see where McCormack's thoughts lead and why he thinks the violence of penal substitution is devastating to an understanding of God. So before we venture on, I would need to understand what "logos" means specifically and whether McCormack holds that understanding of violence and logos. It should be noted, however, that this particular point does not need to be decided for the impasse over divine impassibility and penal substitution to be navigated, as my other comments suggest.


  8. In using logos (and thus the various logoi of created things) Maximos is attempting to find a way to say that:1) God is transcendent.2) Created things are actually images of God.3) The revelation of God in created things is a shadow of the image of God as Christ.For Maximos the various logoi of created things are in the One Logos, and are, I believe, pre-creational. But their sum is not the Logos, and thus the Incarnation of the Logos establishes the logoi of created things, and at the same time transcends them. The One Logos is many logoi, and the many logoi are one Logos. The One is many because He created them, and I believe, they are images of Him, the many are One because they are images of Him, and flow from Him. See this passage here Or the Ambiguum itself is here. (If google will let you read the whole thing.)But I'm not attempting to use it in a way that is distinctively Maximian. In believe, this particular statement of mine, could, mutatis mutandis, be translated into any theological system, but it is most concise in the form I used (I believe). (Though of course by this I do not mean to imply that Maximos is similar to Aquinas or any such. Merely that my point is not contingent on Maximos.)In Aquinas system I would say that I do not have a problem saying that there is a analogy of being between violence and pain and God, or that violence and pain actually participate in God's esse. The problem is if we claim that there is an analogy of being between sin and God, or that sin participates in God's esse.But on my understanding SA comes very close to asserting that there is, because it makes wrath over sin an interPersonal reality, and thus makes wrath over Sin part of the being of God, which in turn makes Sin itself part of the being of God. Which is nonsense.


  9. Mike Gantt

    I am amazed and aghast at how the truth and love of Christ has been transformed into an exercise in academic gymnastics.. This intellectualism doesn't reveal Christ – it obscures Him. Where is the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ?


  10. Brad Littlejohn

    Albert and Matt: Thanks for your interaction. First, to briefly respond to Albert’s initial four points4) The reason a “suffering God” theory eliminates divine violence is that, in such a conception, violence is inflicted only by creatures against God, as opposed to penal substitution in which God himself inflicts violence upon creatures. Of course, when stated this way it becomes clear that penal substitution is not the only thing that creates trouble in this direction–is the narrative of God in Scripture full of acts of divine violence against creatures and divine licence for creaturely violence against other creatures? (For some intriguing discussion on related matters in past posts and comments on this blog, see here and here.) However, the problem moves much larger when we come to the atonement, since the Christ-event is God’s paradigmatic self-revelation, that by which we measure and interpret all others. If, at this crucial point, God reveals himself to be the violent torturer of an innocent creature, then we have something of a problem.3) I confess that I’m sorta with you on this point…it’s always seemed to me that Christian ethics should legitimate such voluntary penal substitution–indeed, we’re all instinctively attracted to the idea in literary and film depictions of such forms of self-sacrifice. However, I think the difficulty here is that, on the contruals of penal substitution that McC is critiquing, we cannot depict this as a purely voluntary self-substitution. It is not that God the Son voluntarily chooses to bear the suffering and death that should belong to creatures, but that God from all eternity elects to inflict on a fully human Jesus the suffering and death that should belong to all other humans. As long as the suffering is human rather than divine, the theory runs up agianst this objection.Hm, perhaps. :-)1) yes, but McC argues that to do this is to “play off the attributes of God against each other” rather than to integrate them into an internally coherent account that preserves the divine freedom. To Matt’s comment, I would say that I think there is certainly something to this…something to the idea that “violence” as such (or perhaps to be more neutral we could say, “tension” “competition” “friction”) is not in itself evil or contrary to God, but in some way a legitimate reflection of his nature. As I recall, Doug Jones once upon a time did some rather creative thinking in this direction…I’d be curious to see if and how he might integrate this with his later convictions against violence (the little I know is that even then, he confided to me that he had no problem allowing for a righteous violence in God, but did not see that being delegated to creatures). Nonetheless, the bearing of God’s infinite wrath against sin in the torture and dereliction of the cross isn’t exactly a friendly game of football….To Albert’s response, I thought this sentence needed to be remarked upon: “For myself, I am not convinced that the violence of penal substitution entails violence intrinsically within the being of God; it seems that it is contingent on Creation, Fall, and sin and so not intrinsic to God even on a penal substitution model.” But for McC, it would seem that such contingency upon creatures–to say that God is not violent in himself, but becomes so in response to human acts–is an unsatisfactory account of divine freedom and self-consistency. For myself, I find problems in every approach to this problem (see for instance the second of the links I gave above).


  11. I think more reflection needs to be put into the area of Jesus living with us… as one of us. And in this regard I believe that the emphasis is not that Christ died for us… rather he "died with us"… and in return we are raised with him…


  12. Brad Littlejohn

    Mike,Exactly where do you see this betrayal of the "truth and love of Christ"? If you spent any time looking around this blog, I think you would see that my real passion lies not in the area of hair-splitting dogmatics, but practical Christian ethics (though I am prevented from focusing on that as much as I'd like by my historical studies). I want more than anything to live out, and help others live out, the purity of devotion to Christ; but this is hardly a "simple" matter, at least in the sense you seem to use the term. Paul and the author of the Hebrews, at the very least, didn't seem to think so, and engaged in very difficult theological reflection on what Christ mean and how we should respond. And we must do the same. And while I have always been more inclined myself to simply bow before the impenetrable mystery and irresolvable paradox of the Incarnation, that doesn't men that the Church isn't called to reflect carefully on it. There is no more central claim to the Christian faith than the confession "Jesus Christ died for our salvation." And if we're going to stake our lives on that claim, we need to have some idea of what it means; we need to know that this is actually a coherent statement and that we're not just preaching nonsense to the world. Each individual Christian doesn't need to grasp the meaning in all its complexity, of course, but we need to be able to know that a coherent answer is in principle possible; and that's why some people are called like McCormack to wrestle with these problems. Hopefully the fruit of their wrestlings will be not merely some academically satisfying formula, but a new insight into the character of God in Christ that leaves us in greater awe of His love and power. For me, that was certainly the result of the first lecture on Christology that I heard by McCormack a couple years ago; it gave me a much richer understanding of who God is and what Christ did for me. That, not "academic gymnastics" is the goal of theology.Craig: I'm sympathetic to you there. There would be a number of ways of parsing out this emphasis…one would be a more metaphysical, participationist approach, to which McCormack is somewhat hostile. Another might be that of John McLeod Campbell, who McCormack covered in Lecture 3 (summary to be posted this weekend); his view has many attractive elements, but is ultimately unsatisfactory. I think though that McCormack will try to capture this emphasis in some respect in his final attempted solution to the problem…. All that to say, let's stay tuned for the rest of the lecture series, and see how much this concern gets addressed.


  13. Albert

    Matthew, thanks for the clarification. I'd ask for one more, if you're willing: in your understanding, does PSA make wrath over sin an interPersonal reality because of Calvin's notion of divine suffering, since the Father pours wrath on the Son in his divinity? Or does it do so for another reason?Brad, that understanding of the "suffering God" theory makes sense of how it can avoid divine violence, but, as you point out, seems to conflict with the biblical picture of God as one who not only has mercy, but violently inflicts wrath. Not only that, but it seems implausible with respect to the crucifixion, since it posits that the violence and suffering of the cross was only inflicted by creatures. If we take away God's wrath and violence there, we are left only with the punishment inflicted by Roman soldiers (as well as some taunting by some Jews), which does not seem weighty enough (at least to me) to balance out the sin of the entire world. It seems to me that the weight of God's wrath is necessary.With respect to the unsettling characterization of the kind of God revealed in the Christ-event as a "violent torturer of an innocent creature," I think that can be addressed by appealing to a more comprehensive sense of the Christ-event. But I do admit that characterization is unsettling and am open to seeing other possible resolutions.I myself don't see a tension between the eternal election of Christ in his humanity (prophesied as well: "But he was wounded for our transgressions;he was crushed for our iniquities;upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.") to bear the wrath of God, and his freely chosen obedience to that vocation because in my view the real free will of a creature is a limited one that is not eliminated by eternal election or even temporal prophecy. But that's a difficult issue as well, and I agree that if divine election annihilates voluntary choice from humanity, then the obedience of Christ would not be voluntary. Yes, I can feel the force McC's argument about not playing divine attributes off each other and being consistent (or perhaps, straightforward) in his actions; I look forward to further elaborations of how that engages divine omniscience and complex plans.

    But for McC, it would seem that such contingency upon creatures–to say that God is not violent in himself, but becomes so in response to human acts–is an unsatisfactory account of divine freedom and self-consistency.

    Hmm. Well. Maybe. 🙂 I'd like to read more of what he's thinking about. I enjoyed reading your post on Webster's talk, by the way. Would have loved to have been there. Thanks for describing it for us.


  14. Albert,I'm not sure exactly what Calvin says, but there seem to be two options:First, the Father pours out wrath on the Son for sin. The Father does this toward the Son in His humanity, but the object is not the humanity, but the One Divine Person, Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word. If this is so, wrath over sin is an interTrinitarian relation, and thus sin is elevated to the intraTrinitarian, and thus is created.Second, the Father pours out wrath on the humanity of the Son, but not on the Word Himself. But in this case, we have made the humanity of the Son hypostatic, which is Nestorian.


  15. Albert

    Thanks for the clarification, Matthew. I agree your second option is Nestorian and should be rejected. Given that this is getting into the intricacies of the Second Council of Nicea-territory and my thoughts are fall from settled here, but my hesitation with your first option would center on the language:

    The Father does this toward the Son in His humanity, but the object is not the humanity, but the One Divine Person

    To say that "the object is not the humanity but the One Divine Person" seems to be Nestorian or perhaps Monophysite in itself. The One Person has one hypostasis which is both Divine and Human in nature. In my view, this one hypostasis is the object of God's wrath, but receives that wrath in accordance with its humanity, as the capacity to receive wrath and suffering is proper to human nature rather than the divine nature. As an analogy, the Second Council of Nicea vindicated iconography because the one hypostasis has a human nature as well as a divine nature due to the Incarnation. Since the human nature has the capacity of being represented by images, Jesus Christ may also be represented by images, since Jesus is fully human. Accordingly, the Council condemned as Nestorian or Monophysite the idea that to depict Jesus in an icon was a denial of his divine nature. See here and here.To paraphrase and restate my view (for now), just as the Church judged that the One Person with the one hypostasis (both Divine and Human) could be the object of icon painting due to the Incarnation, the Church should likewise judge that the One Person with the one hypostasis could be and was the object of God's wrath due to the Incarnation. If so, then thanks to the Triumph of Orthodoxy, the concern over inter-Trinitarian wrath may be mitigated, if not assuaged. Of course, if one rejects the Christology of the Second Council of Nicea, the analogy won't help much.


  16. Albert,The reason an Icon may be used as a tool to worship is that though the icon depicts created facial features, it does not depict a created person, but an Uncreated, Divine, Person, the Logos, who was with God in the Beginning. Similarly when Jesus Christ acted on earth, though hands are created, the one who took bread in His Hands and broke it was a Divine Person. Even when Jesus prayed, it was not a human person praying, but a Divine Person–though prayer is created. How it is possible for there to be a new relation between the Divine Persons–prayer–is a Christological problem in itself. But, as far as I can understand, the answer has been something along the lines of saying that prayer, like all things, exists, and its existence is God (Aquinas) or that prayer, like all created things, has a particular logos which only exists in the Logos and which is one with that Logos (Maximus the Confessor). But whatever way this is understood, it is understood that prayer is not something new to the Logos, though it is created. (Again, there are complicated metaphysical explanations for this which avoid the objections of pantheism etc.)This works so long as the Word only does and experiences things which exist. But sin does not exist–it is a perversion of the good, and a turning away from the good, but it does not participate in the Divine esse (Aquinas) or have its own logos (Maximus). And so sin cannot enter into the relation between the Persons in any way, because if it did so, it would 1) be truly new and 2) it would prove to be good, for God is good, simply, and in Him is no darkness. Thus if sin is in God, it is not darkness, but God.Which is obviously heretical.


  17. Brad Littlejohn

    Matt,You say that to make wrath over sin an intra-Trinitarian relation is to make sin itself intra-Trinitarian. Not sure I follow that line of argument.


  18. Albert

    The reason an Icon may be used as a tool to worship is that though the icon depicts created facial features, it does not depict a created person, but an Uncreated, Divine, Person, the Logos, who was with God in the Beginning.

    Matthew, I think I disagree with the first part of that statement or at least with how you're using the terms. Depicting "created facial features" is precisely not what is going on in iconography or at least is not the way the early Fathers described and defended it. They (and I) would say the icon depicts not "created facial features" but the whole Christ, the one whole hypostasis uniting without mixing both human and divine natures in the hypostatic union. The object of iconography is necessarily the hypostasis (the person, in your terms, I think) not the human nature/humanity (nature is an abstract set of qualities which cannot be the object of love, wrath, painting, etc.; only a hypostasis [an instantiation/expression of ousia/essence with a certain nature, e.g. divine] can be an object) of Christ. It is not merely the "created" which is depicted, but the whole hypostasis, the whole person, the whole Christ, who has both divine and human natures. The iconodules argued (accurately, I think) during the times of the Second Council of Nicea that to say the "humanity" or "human nature" of Christ is being depicted (as their opponents did) necessarily presupposes that there is a second (human) hypostasis that is the object of the depiction, which is to instantiate the two natures into two hypostases, which is the Nestorian error. Contrarily, the Person (the one hypostasis whose nature was only divine pre-Incarnation, but is now divine and human) truly became human while remaining divine. After the Incarnation, it is technically heterodox to use the language of "the divine Person" (the divine hypostasis) instead of "the divine and human Person" (since the hypostasis is now both human and divine).Part of the issue is the imprecision inherent in the term "person." Due to the interaction and engagement with Nestorianism, Chalcedonian terminology (hypostasis/ousia) had to develop, and I originally used the post-Nestorian technical language where prosopon = person, whereas for Chalcedon hypostasis = person (three hypostases, one ousia/essence). Seeing as you were using (I think) person = hypostasis, I adapted accordingly. But it's nonetheless confusing to see you write:

    it does not depict a created person, but an Uncreated, Divine, Person, the Logos, who was with God in the Beginning.

    What does "person" mean here? If "person" means "hypostasis," then to speak of an "Uncreated, Divine, [hypostasis]" being depicted seems to ignore the fact that the Incarnation has happened and that the formerly only Divine hypostasis is now the Divine and Human hypostasis, and it is precisely the human nature of the hypostasis that allows the (one, whole) hypostasis (since the natures cannot be separated into two hypostases) to be depicted in iconography. As St. John of Damascus notes, before the Incarnation (when the Divine Person was not Human as well, i.e. when the hypostasis had only a Divine nature and not also a Human nature), one may certainly be iconoclastic. Not after. Could you explain what you meant by "it does not depict a created person, but an Uncreated, Divine, Person, the Logos, who was with God in the Beginning"?


  19. Albert,Two points: First, I believe the heterodox position is to refer to the divine and human person. The One Divine Person has a human nature. But as person, He is not a human person, but a Divine Person. As Person, He is Divine, as Person with a nature, He is human and divine. But His Personhood precedes the Incarnation, and did not come to be at the time of the Incarnation. As Person, He is Divine.On the other points I think we agree. I was trying to get at the fact that were someone without any knowledge of icons to come across an icon, there would be nothing there to identify the One Pictured as God. (Well, except the text on the icon that says he is…but I mean with respect to the one pictured.) The individual things which are perceived are the various marks of a human prosopon. But in this case the features which are natural to man do not belong to a human person, but to a Divine Person. It is for this reason that we are able to worship Him.


  20. Albert

    Matthew, I think we substantively agree that in the Incarnation a new Person (Hypostasis) did not come into being, but rather the pre-existing divine Person (Hypostasis) gained a second nature. But we may have to disagree for now on the language used to describe it. To me, there always was and continues to be one Hypostasis/Person, but after the Incarnation the Hypostasis has two natures united in Him, so it is right to call that Person human and divine (though He was formerly only divine). I think it would clarify things if you used the technical language, and it would help avoid confusing statements like

    As Person, He is Divine, as Person with a nature, He is human and divine.

    But you're right that we're on the same page with respect to the point you're pressing, namely the pre-existence of the Person/Hypostasis and His continuity through the Incarnation where the human substance/nature was added to the pre-existing Hypostasis.


  21. Albert,As far as I know, I am using the technical language. The One Divine Person has a human nature, but is not a human person."rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together in one Person and subsistence (hypostasis), not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ."


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