The Divided Christ (McCormack Croall Lecture #3)

In his third lecture, on Thursday, McCormack turned to views of the atonement with which we are probably more familiar–those of Anselm, Aquinas, and Calvin, for example.  These were all classed under the heading, “Theories which fail adequately to integrate the person and work of Christ”–a criticism which McCormack would apply to the whole tradition of judicial theories.  More intriguingly, though, McCormack classed moral theories of the atonement under the same heading.  Whatever their protestations to the contrary, he said, moral views are not the antithesis of judicial views, but parasitic upon them.  Both sets of views, he said, emerged around the same time–the judicial theory with Anselm around 1100 and the moral theory with Abelard a couple decades later.  And while judicial theories are preoccupied with seeking to explain Christ’s work in such a way that the demands of God’s justice are upheld, this concern is also central to many moral theories, such as those of the liberation theologians.  Likewise, while judicial theories seek to give particular weight to the objective accomplishment of the atonement and moral theories to its subjective appropriation, both have to give an account of both sides.

Calvin served as his key case study for a judicial view, while as an example of a moral theory of the atonement, he considered D.M. Baillie, and he also gave particular attention to a fascinating hybrid view–that of nineteenth-century Scotsman, John McLeod Campbell.  

Now what, from his standpoint, is the crucial problem with both these traditions?  How do they fail to integrate the person and work of Christ?  Judicial theories take for granted Chalcedonian Christologies, merely repeating the formula as a rote school exercise, without any attention to the complexities that led to it and that it seeks to express.  Most judicial theorists do not realize that it was originally created to undergird a theosis theory, a radically different soteriology than that which judicial theorists thus erect on this foundation.  Indeed, on this model, the hypostatic union plays little role beyond that of giving infinite significance to what is otherwise necessarily a human act.  (This non-integration, I should add, was a point on which Nevin mercilessly hammered the Reformed Christologies of his day; of course, McCormack would equally dismiss Nevin’s Christology as another failed example of the first variety–the metaphysical sort.)

Moral theorists, he said, were right to protest against the unreality of legal solutions erected on this basis.  However, in place of a robust Chalcedonian theory, they present merely “the man Christ Jesus”–to whose actions the divinity of Christ contributes little or nothing.  They achieve much greater internal coherence than judicial theories, but at the cost of a low Christology which does not do justice to the full Biblical witness. Many twentieth-century moral views therefore switched horses in midstream to a Hegelian or Schleiermacherian view to get God back into the picture.

Time did not permit a detailed examination of Anselm and Aquinas, so he offered only some brief remarks.  Regarding Anselm, he pointed out that contrary to what many textbooks might imply, Anselm was not the founder of the penal substitution view; on the contrary, Anselm considered “punishment” and “satisfaction” to be two opposing concepts, and he opted for a “satisfaction” view in conscious opposition to a penal option.  Regarding Thomas, who did hold to a penal view, McCormack thought it worth pausing briefly to consider how he answered one of the common objections to penal substitution–has not God done something blameworthy in delivering an innocent man over to suffering and death?  No, said, Thomas, as long as the innocent man voluntarily concurs in the judgment, which he did in this case.  As man, Jesus freely offered himself in response to the divine will, as God, “Christ delivered himself up unto death by the same will and act as that by which God delivered him over to death”–God is thus not performing an act on a being over against himself; indeed, this objection is only possible, McCormack said, if you are a social trinitarian.  (This is particularly worth mentioning as there has been some discussion on this point in the comments to my post on McCormack’s first lecture.)

John Calvin served as the major representative of a judicial view that McCormack sought to analyze.  For Calvin, the key issue is the guilt of sin, not the corruption of sin (as in more metaphysical accounts).  It is guilt that makes the category of punishment necessary.  The form of death therefore had to mirror the nature of the divine judgment against sin–God had to choose for Christ a judicial form of death, a death as a falsely-accused criminal.  God chose this to teach us that the penalty that belonged to us was thus transferred to Christ–by means of legal imputation.  This is clearly an improvement over Athanasius, for example, for whom the particular form of Christ’s death was in the end quite unimportant.  

At this point, McCormack offered an aside on the relationship of Christ’s death and resurrection, in response to O’Donovan’s question from the first lecture.  The marginalization of the resurrection, he said, was intentional, and in fidelity to the Reformed tradition, in which it is not the resurrection, but the cross that is the solution to the problem of death.  The death of death occurs in the death of Christ, in the fact that the power of death is exhausted when it is poured out on Christ.  The resurrection therefore is not strictly necessary, but adds something additional and significant, the promise of eternal life.  When we treat the resurrection as the main thing, we slide into thinking of death as the main problem; but in the Reformed tradition, death itself isn’t the problem, it’s death in the absence of God, and the reconciliation with God is accomplished on the cross.   (As these posts will all be long enough as mere summaries, I am mostly refraining for now from offering my own thoughts.  Suffice to say now that I do not see how an account such as this does justice to statements such as 1 Corinthians 15:14, 17: “And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty….And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!”)

The most interesting bit of Calvin’s account, said McCormack, was the treatment of the article of the creed he descended into hell.  Calvin sought to redeem this from what he saw as medieval superstition by reading it as an expansion of the previous clauses.  By this article, said Calvin, we are taught that Christ bore the full consequences of sin–bodily as well as physical suffering.  Christ had to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance in order to appease God’s wrath.  Therefore it was necessary that he grapple with the dread of everlasting punishment.  Unlike Athanasius, Calvin does not deny that Christ suffered a real anguish of soul in the face of death, and he took the cry of dereliction with great seriousness.  

However, Calvin did stop short of saying that the cry corresponded to an objective withdrawal of God’s love from Christ.  Indeed, Calvin explicitly denies this, since the divine Son must always remain in communion with his Father.  Has Calvin then taken his own insights with sufficient seriousness?  Has Christ really born the full consequences of sin?  For Calvin, ultimately these sufferings must be confined to the human nture, and thus cannot really touch the person of the Logos.  In his treatment of the communicatio idiomatum, Calvin stubbornly refused to grant any genuine communion between the two natures; the communication of attributes was merely verbal, because Calvin treats the one “person” as a mere metaphysical abstraction.  No integration of person and work is possible in such a model.  To the extent that the saving work is human, it remains alien to the life of God.

McCormack next turned to consider the nineteenth-century Scottish theologian John McLeod Campbell, who, after his rejection of limited atonement (for which he was defrocked in 1831), turned his sights on the doctrine of penal substitution, which he thought was responsible for helping engender the hateful doctrine of limited atonement.  Campbell leveled three main charges at the doctrine:
1) the legal thinking found in the doctrine of penal substitution has abstracted divine justice from divine love, so that the two are played off against each other.  The older theories seemed to imply that forgiveness was the effect of the death of the Christ; God was moved to love and mercy by Christ’s death, instead of acting out of it from the beginning.  Campbell insisted that forgiveness must precede Christ’s death.
2) penal substitution gives the believer a mere legal confidence before God, which falls short of the filial confidence that characterizes the sons and daughters of God.
3) Christ’s life of obedience is understood by defenders of penal substitution as a fulfillment of the law, rather than the joyful response of a Son to His Father’s love.

None of these three objections, McCormack said, is in the final analysis insuperable, though to answer them would require some improvements to the basic penal substitution model.   

Campbell’s alternative, though, is to construct a highly original doctrine of “vicarious repentance”–Christ by his life and death offers a perfect repentance on behalf of humanity; his atonement consists in his aversion of the outpouring of God’s wrath through his perfect agreement with God’s condemnation of sin.  Christ uttered a perfect “amen” in humanity to God’s judgment against the wickedness of sin.  The outpouring of divine wrath is not conceived as a penalty against sin which Christ paid, but as a testimony of God’s hatred of sin in which Christ concurs.  Intriguingly, Campbell here is following a path suggested by Jonathan Edwards, who had conceded that hypothetically humanity’s perfect repentance would have been a legitimate alternative to punishment; whereas Edward, however, dismissed this as impossible, Campbell suggested that this was precisely what Christ had done.  

Campbell’s theory, for which McCormack had great sympathy (though not agreement), had as an additional advantage its ability to convincingly integrate the life of Christ with his death–Christ’s life of faithful obedience as a righteous human is part of the act of repentantce he offers on behalf of humanity, culminating on the Cross.  However, again McCormack’s complaint was that the Chalcedonian doctrine of the God-man remained peripheral: the saving work of Christ is localized in the humanity.  The divine nature is simply brought in to give greater weight to the deeds done in the humanity; it plays no crucial role in the narrative.  Campbell’s view does not really require that Christ be a God-human; he could simply be a man gifted with the Spirit.

The same, ultimately, must be said of the eminent 20th-century proponent of a moral theory of the atonement, D.M. Baillie (formerly of New College).  Baillie sought to reconcile older orthodoxy with the new historical Jesus criticism, which he fully endorsed.  In so doing, he takes an anthropocentric starting point in his treatment of the atonement, using the Christian’s experience of grace as an analogy to understand Christ’s work.  We experience God, said Baillie, as a prevenient God, a God who takes the initiative, who inspires us to every good work, who loves us before we love Him.  It is this truth to which the Christian doctrine of Christ witnesses–in Christ we have the demonstration that God takes the initiative in showing his love for us, in acting through Christ so that we might respond in faith.

The problem, of course, is that insofar as the logic of grace we experience by the indwelling Spirit is used as an analogue for the logic of Christology, there is no need for an incarnate God-man, only a Spirit-led Jesus.  But a human Jesus in whom God acts through the Spirit is neither the Christ of the creeds nor of the New Testament Scriptures.  Our experience of God’s indwelling by the Spirit is qualitatively different from the Incarnation.  Moral exemplarist theories of the atonement, however, are bound to focus attention on the human subject to the point where there remains no convincing reason why the agent of Christ’s work of redemption has to be God himself.  

In conclusion, McCormack reiterates that neither traditional moral or judicial theories have been able to provide a clear integration of Christ’s person with his work.  A Chalcedonian Christology is either presupposed, without any necessary logical connection to the doctrine of redemption that is being advanced, or coherence is reestablished by jettisoning an orthodox Christology altogether.

So, is there a way of holding the person and work of Christ fully together, without having to describe Christ’s work in the metaphysical terms so compromised by Greek philosophy (on McCormack’s view, at any rate)?  Why, yes there is, now that you mention it–Karl Barth, of course, who will be the main feature of the fourth lecture.  Barth’s actualist ontology, on which McCormack lays so much weight, enables one to describe the person of Christ in terms of his work–he is precisely what he does–essence equals existence.  

Before moving on to that, though, I will try to find time to blog about the immensely fascinating, meaty, and controversial seminar/Q&A session McCormack gave on Friday, where he engaged the problems of Chalcedonian Christology head-on, and also delivered a fascinating treatment of the Christology of T.F. Torrance.  There, more than anywhere thus far, the real distinctiveness (even revolutionariness, if that’s a word) of his project came into clear view.

8 thoughts on “The Divided Christ (McCormack Croall Lecture #3)

  1. "For Calvin, ultimately these sufferings must be confined to the human nature, and thus cannot really touch the person of the Logos." Do you believe this is an accurate summary of Calvin? I'm not a Calvin scholar, and so cannot speak to it; but it is Nestorian. "One and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word", as Chalcedon says.

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  2. Brad Littlejohn

    The criticism of Calvin and his followers as Nestorian is one that goes back to the time of the Reformation itself. I think McCormack himself (and many modern historians of dogmatics) would attest that there is unfortunately a fair bit of truth in the accusation. Of course, it wouldn't be fair to say that he simply is Nestorian, pure and simple, but Reformed dogmatics has tended to lean in that direction, due to its purely semantic account of the communication of attributes.Now, McCormack's charge, however, is that not merely the Nestorians and the Nestorianizers have isolated the suffering in the human nature, but even the Alexandrians, because they made the divinity only ever active vis-a-vis the human nature, never passive. More on this in a forthcoming post.

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  3. Brad,Yes, and that's encouraging. However, at least initially I cannot see how it can be so, surely the Word willed to be Incarnate and to experience everything He experienced while Incarnate. It isn't like anything caught Him by surprise, or was forced upon Him.Anyway, I don't have time for the most recent post now, but I'll get to it later.

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  4. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey, I think the most recent posts, and the forthcoming ones, will clarify things a lot for you, as far as the crucial moves McCormack is making and why he's making them. I don't think they'll make you more comfortable necessarily; in fact, I dare say they'll have the opposite effect. But at least your discomfort will be sharp and clear, rather than fuzzy and vague.

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  5. Matthew,Even though the Alexandrians make the Logos the acting agent, the patristic axiom of divine impassibility means that no one in the ancient church, including even Cyril, allowed the divine nature to receive or experience what happened in the flesh. The furthest any of them go is to use paradoxical statements like "impassible suffering" or "the immortal died on the cross." But they are always careful to qualify such statements lest there be any confusion. So while the Alexandrians are right to stress a single christological subject, they still retain the metaphysical bifurcation between the natures that prevents the divinity from actually participating in the acts of the humanity. Therein lies the problem that McCormack seeks to address.

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  6. Brad Littlejohn

    Well said, David. Or at least well said as a way of saying what McCormack would say. I don't know the Greek Fathers well enough myself (even though I have deeply enjoyed studying them in the past) to pronounce confidently on the matter.

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  7. Myk Habets

    I'd love to hear your summary and response to his semianr on Torrance! As a Torrance scholar myself, and friend of Bruce, this would be fascinating

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  8. I'm speaking of the divinity of Christ, so it's not divinity in the abstract but divinity incarnate in the concrete person of Jesus. But this divinity is indeed homoousias with the Father, so what happens to it happens to the divine nature. The church fathers were of one mind in rejecting the notion that the divinity of Christ could be passible, could passively receive and experience the sufferings of the flesh. But this is because of a prior metaphysical commitment to impassibility. What Barth — radicalizing Luther — rightly claims is that we have to reverse the order of knowing. We only know what "deity" is in the concrete self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. There is no definition of divinity in the abstract; there is *only* the concrete, historically-determined divinity of Christ, which defines for us what can be said of the triune God. In short, what Barth is really doing is to reject any abstract concept of divinity; theology presupposes no definition of what it means to be God. It begins and ends with God's concrete life history in Christ.

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