What is the root problem that McCormack is trying to get at in his lectures? What is the bee in his bonnet? After all, the Church (with a couple small Oriental exceptions) has been happily funcitoning with the Definition of Chalcedon for nearly sixteen centuries, which has held firm and uncontested throughout all manner of doctrinal controversies and schisms, and never been seriously questioned until the last two centuries. Even these questions, we are likely to say, are the result more of unbelief in general than of any problem internal to the doctrine as such. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”–right?
Well the problem is this: Christians have always wanted to say, and routinely do say in sermons and hymns, that “God himself came and died for us; God himself came and died for us; God himself took the burden of evil upon himself and saved us because we could not save ourselves.” I heard a great sermon yesterday on the problem of evil that focused on just this point–God has taken the problem of evil on himself and borne its suffering. But the question is, can we really say that? Does our theology really allow us to assert, with a straight face, without any asterisks or fine print, that very God suffered and died on our behalf? McCormack thinks the answer is “No”–orthodox theology, as we have received it, must always add a bunch of fine print at the bottom, so that God may remain properly God. “Thanks God, for dying for us,” we say, “but just between the two of us, we know you can’t really, cuz you’re God,” we add with a wink.
The tensions, suggested McCormack in his open discussion seminar on Friday, go all the way back to the Chalcedonian definition. We should not, says McCormack, treat Chalcedon as irreformable, because to do so would be to elevate the philosophical categories available to the fifth-century bishops to the level of the canon. We must honor the doctrinal goals they were seeking to accomplish, while acknowledging that ultimately they had to articulate these doctrines within the philosophical resources available to them, which are not sacrosanct. If we can improve upon the account by bringing new philosophical resources to bear, while continuing to do justice to the core theological values, then we may be able to construct a more coherent, more Biblical account of Christology.
In principle, this sounds like a fine endeavour, and when you hear what McCormack is up to, it’s hard not to be sympathetic to his project–I do have at least three key misgivings, but I’m going to continue to hold off on them until McCormack is done his lecture series. For now, his analysis of Chalcedon:
In the Chalcedonian Definition, we have two natures and one person. Everyone knows that much. Moreover, what not everyone knows (because only in the last couple decades has scholarship come back around to this conclusion–one recognized all along by the East)–the relationship between the two is conceived in basically Alexandrian terms: the one person of the hypostatic union is identical with the eternal person of the Logos, the second person of the Trinity. There is no new composite person, rather, there is the person of the Logos who assumes to himself a human nature, adding it to the divine nature he already possesses (but, as we all know, without confusion, without separation, without change, etc.). So far, so good.
But what, pray tell, is a person? And what, pray tell, is a nature? Well for us, certainly, a person certainly means a self-conscious subject, an agent that wills, acts, and takes responsibility for his or her actions. And a nature, it would seem, is a set of essential properties that define a certain being. Now, where do things like will and consciousness reside? Are they part of our human nature? It would certainly seem so. Will and consciousness are properties pertaining to the human. Will and consciousness, then, belong to a nature, but are expressed through a person; in the case of Jesus Christ, these human properties receive their expression through the divine person. But wait a second, how does this person relate to its divine nature? The will and consciousness of the Logos are those of its divine nature. The Logos is simply a divine nature in conscious action, right? To speak of the person without his divine nature is to speak of a mere abstraction, like the mathematical placeholder 0. On this way of looking at it, the divine nature and the one person must be held together in the tightest unity–so how do they relate to the third element of the equation–the human nature?
According to the basic theosis soteriology prevalent in the early Church, the divine nature and the divine person were not treated in abstraction, but as a single subject acting through and upon the human nature. However, as soon as the Fathers came to treat of the communication of attributes–which they had to do in order to predicate genuine humanity of Christ–they had to hold the nature and person apart in abstraction. The properties of human nature were ascribed to the person of the union, but they were not ascribed to the divine nature as such. How could they be? The divine nature could not be composite, finite, passible, etc., and still remain divine. Divinity acted through and upon the humanity, but the humanity did not act through and upon the divinity. The relation is necessarily asymmetrical.
Now, either way we have a problem. When the divine nature and divine person are held closely together, then the human nature is instrumentalized; it is as it were a passive object used by the divine Word, but in itself capable of contributing nothing. Indeed, if an infinite power is always operating in and through it, it is hard to see how Christ can act as a genuine human at all–how can he know as a finite being, act as a finite being, suffer as a finite being? The slide toward Apollinarianism becomes all but irresistible. On the other hand, when we try to emphasize the genuine humanity of Christ’s person, we do so only by putting a chasm between the person and the divine nature, and thus reduce the person to a metaphysical abstraction, with the two natures in the end functioning separately along parallel tracks. The slide toward Nestorianism becomes all but irresistible.
The only way of resolving this, McCormack thinks, lies in ditching the metaphysical scruples that, in his mind, are a wrench in the gears of the whole thing–divine simplicity and divine impassibility. On the grounds of a Greek metaphysical understanding of what is proper to the divine nature, a wall of separation has been erected, so that human attributes can never touch the divine nature–this is either done via the Nestorian wall of abstraction, or via the Alexandrian route–making the divine nature so completely active with respect to the human nature that there is no way for the human nature to act reflexively back on the divine.
The Nestorian approach, for McCormack, is a non-starter (it is, after all, heretical). We have to use the Alexandrian starting-point, but–here’s the punch line–in reverse. What if, instead of the divine nature/person being completely active with respect to the human nature, the divine nature/person is completely passive with respect to the human nature; or rather, since God is always the sovereign agent in any relation and is thus never passive in the full sense of the world, we could say “receptive.” Thus, what McCormack wants to say is this: in the Incarnation, the divine Word freely wills to exist in perfect receptivity to the human–to human thoughts, feelings, finitude, suffering. Is this really so radical after all? After all, this is the sort of thing we say in prayers and sermons and hymns all the time, particularly around Christmas. From a dogmatic standpoint, though, this really may be radical. It’s also useful from a Biblical standpoint–for if the agency at work in Christ is divine and all-powerful, what need does Jesus have of the Spirit? And yet he calls upon the Spirit, and is indwelt by the Spirit. This seems redundant. But on McCormack’s account, the all-powerful agency of the Word is not active in the man Jesus–else it would overwhelm his humanity; Jesus thus acts by the aid of the Spirit, as his apostles did.
And there’s more.
Remember how the Chalcedonian definition does not merely use the word “person,” but also that opaque Greek word hypostasis? The literal Latin equivalent of hypostasis is substantia–substance–but that’s misleading. The best definition, McCormack suggested, was “the thatness of a thing,” in contradistinction, indeed, from the “whatness,” which is substance. The word enters Christology from Trinitarian theology. In the Trinitarian credal formulas, one God exists in three hypostases. These are not at all fully independent persons as we would normally understand the term; modern social trinitarianism has gone on to predicate much more difference and personality within the Trinity than the classical doctrine would permit. Classical dogmatics, indeed, in treating of the ontological differences among the members of the Trinity, would say no more that they differed in their modes of origination–the three hypostases were defined by being autotheos in the case of the Father, begotten in the case of the Son, and spirated in the case of the Spirit. But to state things this way is to say next to nothing, to posit no more than abstract logical relations without any clear substantial content. To complain then that the “one person and hypostasis” of the incarnate Word becomes no more than an empty abstraction, a metaphysical placeholder, in our doctrine of Christ, is to point to a problem already bequeathed to the Council of Chalcedon by the previous century’s Trinitarian disputes. And this is where McCormack’s proposal gets pretty darn cool.
Yes, he says, it is true that on its own, the second hypostasis of the Trinity has no differentiating personal properties. That is why he became man. The Word took to himself a human nature so that humanity might become proper to Him, might become a personal property of the second person of the Trinity. What else would have been merely divine nature shared in common with Father and Spirit is now divine-and-human nature. The Son is the Son because he is the one who became Son, who was born amidst God’s human children and became one of them. The Son is the one who made humility, suffering, sacrifice, part of what it meant to be God.
Now, lest we fall headlong into some terrifying pit of process theology, McCormack is quick to say: this does not mean that God ontologically changes. Divine impassibility may be unbiblical, but he does not think immutability is. All this is not a violation of divine immutability because this man-becomingness is part of the eternal election of God. The Son has always already been constituted as the one who freely willed to become man. The logos asarkos is never not already the logos incarnandus–or, in English: the Word-outside-the-flesh is never not already the Word-to-be-enfleshed.
Again, to say all this (at least all but the last bit) is in many ways to say things that Christians have instinctively felt the need to say: yes, what makes the Son different from the Father is that he has taken to himself human nature and made it part of himself. But dogmatically speaking, this is certainly a departure–preeminently a departure from the doctrine of divine simplicity, which McCormack considers another holdover from Platonism. Divine simplicity states that God’s being has no composite parts; it consists only of itself in perfect unity. But how can this be if the fully divine Son has taken to himself another nature as ontologically proper to himself, and thus become a composite being, a being of two natures?
So God becomes incarnate in Christ to exhibit himself as God-for-us, as the God who has eternally willed to exist for and in communion with his creatures, as the God to whom finitude, humanity, humility, is not alien, but indeed part of who He is. This is where McCormack is coming from, and this is what he’s going to unpack with relation to the doctrine of the atonement in the coming days. A beautiful solution, though most will admit a dangerous one, and one that many will not be willing to accept. But, as Jeremy Begbie once said, “All good theology is done on the cliff-edge—one step too far and you tumble into idolatry, one step back and the view is never so good. The reader [of this book] will have to judge whether we have occasionally stumbled over the precipice, and when we have not, whether the view has justified the risk.”
(If you’re wondering, by the way, what happened to the bit about T.F. Torrance that I said McCormack presented on Friday; well, I decided to leave it out, considering this discussion to be long enough and interesting enough on its own. If anyone’s desperate for a synopsis of the Torrance material, let me know and I can try to provide it.)