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.
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