Lecture #4 constituted a major turning-point in this series; in it, McCormack shifted out of a primarily critical gear and into a primarily constructive gear. And with this turn, as the direction of his own proposal began to come into sharper focus, and the theology stepped further and further out onto the cliff-edge (or over the brink, as some might deem), tensions and misgivings mounted. However, since I want to do full justice to the argument McCormack was trying to spell out, for his sake and for the sake of those who would have loved to hear these lectures themselves, I shall try to rigorously confine myself to recounting here, and reserve any discussion of my own reactions and questions until the series is complete.
Unsurprisingly, the more constructive turn in the series coincides with the treatment of Karl Barth and the eminent Barthian, Hans Urs von Balthasar. For McCormack himself admitted at the outset of the lecture that it is difficult to tell in his work where Barth ends and he begins; he tends to regard his own constructive work as nothing more than correcting Karl Barth by Karl Barth. Many Barth scholars would of course fiercely object–the interpretation of Barth is a notoriously contentious matter–and would consider McCormack’s project a perversion of Barth. McCormack is thus in the somewhat awkward position of trying to put forward a genuinely new dogmatic proposal, whose significance depends on its newness, while trying all the while to disclaim originality.
Be all that as it may, the key starting points are clearly Barthian–the “actualistic” ontology (to be is to act), the consequent focus on the dynamic history of Christ, and the emphasis on God’s freedom-for-us, his freedom to become humble. So how does McCormack develop these themes? Unfortunately, time did not allow him to present all the material he had prepared, so what follows is perhaps not as fully coherent as he might have liked; the basic contour, however, should be fairly readily discernible
He began by remarking that Karl Barth’s theology of the cross could not be more out of step with Christian theologians today, even those who use his name. For many today, Jesus Christ stands preeminently as the victim of an unjust political order; they certainly do not think that his death was willed by his heavenly Father. Focus thus shifts from the saving significance of his death to the saving significance of his life. But nothing could be more emphatically asserted by Karl Barth than the saving significance of the death of Christ.
Barth is insistent that Christ remains always sovereign even in his passion; he remains the Lord, he remains in control, he remains free. For Barth, the cohesiveness of the Gospel narratives is destroyed if we read, as so many moderns, his predictions of his passion as later interpolations. Christ’s death must not be allowed ot be considered in any way an unexpected defeat, but a sovereign victory. The point is not to lessen the darkness surrounding the death of Jesus; no one has made more than Barth of the cry of dereliction. But we must allow the light of Easter to penetrate the event of the cross, lest we make Christ into no more than a tragic hero.
McCormack finds Barth so congenial for this project (ostensibly reworking penal substitution) because Barth took up the judicial frame of reference inherited from the Reformers and made it foundational to a teleologically-ordered divine ontology. Barth’s synthesis is able to give due weight to the insights of ontological and moral influence theories as well. Barth achieves all this in a way that intends to be post-metaphysical, that seeks to build every doctrine on the lived narrative of Jesus of Nazareth; however, McCormack noted that Barth failed in the end to purge metaphysics from his account entirely–that task, it seems, has fallen to McCormack himself to complete.
In CD IV.1, “The Judge Judged in Our Place,” Barth engages with the theme of penal substitution directly. He clearly thinks it is appropriate to think of the atonement in terms of penal substitution. But just as clearly, he does not think it should be made central to a well-ordered understanding of the atonement. The root problem for Barth is that the atonement is seen to address only the problem of guilt in this model; it is not seen to entail that which he considers fundamental–the destruction of the sinner in the death of Jesus Christ. Guilt still plays an important role in Barth’s theory, but there is also the problem of corruption. Christ drinks the bitter cup of sin to its dregs, and in this accomplishes the end of the sinner, not merely the end of the sin that hangs over the sinner’s head. For Barth, indeed, the penalty for sin is not something extrinsic and additional to sin itself; the wrath that awaits the unrepentant is no more or less than the final condition into which their sin irresistibly leads them, to a place of utter separation from God.
The Reformers, thought Barth, erred in tending to treat the atonement as a purely external transaction between God and the human Jesus, not a transaction in God himself. In place of this, Barth provides the possibility for a true integration of person and work of Christ, but in such a way that the person is defined by the work to be performed.
What Takes Place in the Passion and Death of Christ?
Barth’s summary statement sounds fairly traditional: Jesus subjects himself to divine wrath and judgment in our place. But when we unpack Barth’s doctrine more clearly, we will find that it is anything but traditional; this emerges particularly in his treatment of the cry of dereliction.
Barth identified the experience which gave rise to the cry of dereliction with the experience of hell. We see this particularly in CD III.2, where he suggests that it was in fact the being of Jesus in death that led the NT writers to reflect on the suffering of hell–the Sheol described in the OT does not come close to the intensity of anguish described in the NT. Christ died not as the righteous victim, but precisely as the sinner, and thus, in death, Jesus has God “against him”; for Christ, then, the realm of the dead becomes Hell–being in death becomes punishment, torment, outer darkness. Because of the sufferings of Christ, the realm of the dead can now be understood not merely naturally, as in the Old Testament, but judicially.
The subject of the cry is variously described by Barth. He can refer to him as simply “God.” The meaning of the Incarnation, says Barth, is revealed in the cry of dereliction: The Incarnation means not merely God’s becoming a man, but God’s handing himself over to the contradiction of man against him, man’s being-against-God that, carried out to its extremity, results in the Hell of God-abandonment, of God’s being-against-man. The experience that gives rise to cry is for Barth a human experience; but this human cry points beyond itself to a more profound truth–the subject of the cry is God. There must be no reservation in God’s solidarity with us in Christ. It is God who cries out; he cries with man, as one who has made himself one with man. Indeed, the true deity of this divine subject is disclosed more clearly here than anywhere else, in his being-with-us and being-for-us.
Having pushed this point, however, Barth draws back and emphasizes the humanness of the suffering and death, out of worry that in emphasizing the prior point, we might seem to say that God ceases to be God. We must not let supreme praise of God become supreme blasphemy: “God gives himself, but he does not give himself away.” Barth does not want the divine immutability to be undermined. He thus unexpectedly says, “His God had not really forsaken him.” It would then seem that Barth makes the God-abandonment real only for the human Jesus. McCormack is dissatisfied with this reticence. However, the crucial point remains–in CD IV.1, Barth has argued that the passion and death of Christ are human experiences that take place in God without detriment to God’s being as God.
What Does this imply for the Being of the Mediator?
Before entering upon the most perilous and daring ground yet, McCormack paused to recite the judgment of Eberhard Jungel that in Church Dogmatics IV we have not merely the recapitulation of the first three sections (as is generally recognized) but in fact the revision, or even retraction, of them. Whereas in I.1 the emphasis is on the Godness of God, the emphasis is now in IV.1 on the humanity of God. The anti-metaphysical strain inherent in Barth’s thought from the beginning has now taken hold of the theology as a whole. There is no separate section in CD IV on the Person of Christ–Christ simply is what he does. McCormack sees this trajectory as legitimating his own project of attempting to carry forward the actualization of Christology and divine ontology that Barth had begun but never completed. So what does Barth’s Christological ontology in CD IV.1 look like?
There are two key features: First, Barth substitutes a hypostatic uniting that takes place throughout the life of Jesus Christ for a hypostatic union conceived as a completed fact: “The subject Jesus Christ simply is this history.” Second, he bids a firm farewell to the abstract metaphysical subject–hypostasis–of Chalcedon. In place of it he puts a living divine subject who realizes his eternal being in and through human humility and obedience in time.
This latter point takes us back from the mere history of the man Jesus on earth into the ontology of the pre-existent word, the eternal background of divine self-realization. Barth argues in IV.1 that Christ reveals that humility and obedience are not alien to the innermost being of God, but are in fact most proper to him. Although Christ’s humiliation is a novum mysterium for us when it encounters us in history, it is nothing new for him, but what he has always been for the beginning, for God is eternal and changeless. The self-emptying of Phil. 2:7-8 finds its ground in an eternal self-humiliation. How can this be? Barth answers this question in terms of an inter-Trinitarian relation which finds its ground in the eternal act of election: “a divine decision whose content is made essential to God in the eternal act of deciding.” It is not merely a decision to do something, but an eternal act of self-constitution. Indeed, it is this act that distinguishes the three persons of God from one another, who otherwise would remain merely empty abstractions. There is nothing prior to and above this self-differentiation; God never was anything else. Barth could hold both divine immutability and divine passibility, because passibility was part of the eternal being of God as a property belonging to the person of the Word. Barth can also say that it is only the pride of man making a God in its own image that refuses to hear of this self-humiliating God. Barth says that in the older Greek metaphysical doctrine of God, God was too exalted to be affected in any way by the incarnation–he was a prisoner of his own Godhead.
Whew! You might want to take a deep breath after that shot of cask-strength theology, cuz it gets even wilder (though if you read the post “God Died For Us…Really?” you’ve already gotten a foretaste of it.
McCormack now asks, but aren’t the humility and obedience of the Word in eternity and the humility and obedience of the man Jesus in time two different things? How can Barth bring these two activities together so as to be the activity of a single unified subject? If we can’t answer this question, the whole enterprise is rendered untenable: can the actualization of divine and human in a single shared history be rendered coherent? Barth posits a “becoming-identical” of the humility of the eternal Son with that of the man Jesus, but although this points in a helpful direction, it remains rather patchy. So now McCormack lays all his cards on the table: the problem is that to get death and God-abandonment as a human experience into the divine life would require something more than the mere act of identifying with Jesus on the part of the Son of God; it would require an ontological receptivity on the part of the Son toward all that comes to it from the humanity of Jesus. Now, “receptivity” is not the same as “passivity” or “inactivity”–it is a sovereignly-willed activity which expresses itself in powerlessness. This constitutes a dramatic reversal to the tendency of historical Christology. It also enables us to emphatically unite the divine and human into one subject, because there is no such thing as a mere logos as such–there is only a Logos that acts humanly. If receptivity is ontologically constitutive, then there is only the history of the man Jesus. The history of the divine Son simply is his reception of the history of the man Jesus.
Although Barth makes some initial moves that open the way for this, he does not follow through on them. What McCormack thus proposes to offer is a Barthian supplement to Barth. What is it then that Barth himself achieved? An actualization of the doctrine of the person of Christ; a translation of the phenomenology into the sphere of a history.
Hans Urs von Balthasar
Don’t worry, you’re not halfway through, but near the end. McCormack only had a few things to say about von Balthasar, treating his account of Christ’s bearing of divine wrath and descent into hell as a necessary preliminary to part of the picture McCormack was going to sketch in lectures five and six. My summary remarks here shall be proportionally even briefer than McCormack’s, since as with the preceding lectures, my mental capacities started to break down after about an hour of furious note-taking.
Three main points then. First, von Balthasar gives particular attention to the final testing in Gethsemane, where Jesus pleads with his Father for the cup to be withdrawn from him. For von Balthasar, this wrath is the eschatological wrath of God that is described in the OT. In Gethsemane, we have an eschatological testing which precedes the eschatological judgment of the cross. At this point, Christ assumes universal guilt and thus becomes the object of the Father’s eschatological wrath, delivered up by the Father to the authorities even as he delivers himself up.
Second, regarding the cry of dereliction. Von Balthasar too wants to make this moment in the Passion narratives central. The cry of dereliction is the expression of a real abandonment of the Son by the Father in consequence of the burden of sinners that he bears; the death that Christ then dies is the “second death” of Rev. 2:11. The torment of Christ on the cross is the death in the absence of God; it is the experience of hell.
Third, von Balthasar is most (in)famous for his creative re-interpretation of the “descent into hell.” He critiques the verb “descent,” since it implies an activity of which the dead are incapable. Von Balthasar instead wants to understand this as a state of perfect passivity, incapacity; the realm of the dead is not fundamentally a place, but a condition. It is this state of passivity which Jesus shares with all of the dead. But Jesus suffered much more than this; the passivity for him is the mere precondition of the poena damni–the expeience of the wrath of God against sin. What Christ suffers is the “vision of death” in its fullness. Christ’s experience in death is the experience of Hell. Like Barth, von Balthasar will argue that “Hell, in the New Testament sense, is a function of the Christ-event.”
In a brief peroration, McCormack summed up the contribution of these two as follows: Both of these theologians are determined to base everything on the witness of the lived history of Christ; both are to this extent post-metaphysical. They are also both determined to offer a revised form of a penal substitution theory, since they do not like the way the penal substitution doctrine would seem to make the atonement to effect a change in the attitude of God. Instead, both insist that God’s wrath is the outworking of his holy love and thus both are able to integrate the person of Christ into his work.
In the Q&A, Larry Hurtado challenged McCormack on whether or not he (and Barth and von B) was giving disproportionate emphasis on the Marcan Passion narrative, and even there, putting a particular spin on the cry of dereliction that isn’t justified exegetically. Indeed, he asked whether there was really NT exegetical justification for language like God-abandonment. Finally, he wondered whether all this was really post-metaphysical, and wasn’t rather just replacing one metaphysically-driven Christology with a different kind of metaphysically-driven Christology. At this last remark, McCormack bristled, as he had when O’Donovan asked something similar, and insisted categorically that what he was doing was not metaphysical based on the definition he had offered at the outset. To the former questions, he responded that he hoped to spell out his exegetical justification further in the fifth lecture, and that in any case, he thought it was appropriate to put emphasis on the Marcan account given his conviction that it was the first account written.
I then asked a question about how the idea that “the history of the divine Son simply is his reception of the history of the man Jesus” squared with the creative work of the Word in the beginning (John 1:2), traditionally a matter of great theological importance. Unfortunately, McCormack only agreed to answer on condition that I not blog the answer here–to hear the full and proper answer, we’ll have to wait till a series of lectures he gives later this year at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. 😉