Reformed Kenoticism and Death in God (McCormack Croall Lecture #6)

In his sixth and final lecture, McCormack’s goal was of course to tie together all the ground he had covered in the previous lectures.  The fifth lecture, he suggested, had adequately shown that the basic paradigm of the Marcan and Matthaean Passion accounts in particular was penal substitution, but not in any of its traditional forms.  He summarized that what he sought to offer was an “ethically-oriented, post-metaphysical theological ontology,” which enabled him to stick within the paradigm of penal substitution while doing justice to the theological values found in moral exemplarist and theosis theories. 

While he did not, perhaps, succeed in tying up all the loose ends in this lecture, he did manage to cover a lot of important ground.  First, he expanded on the actualistic Christological ontology of lecture four via an exegesis of Phil. 2:6-11, against the backdrop of older forms of kenotic theology, seeking to demonstrate how his “Reformed kenoticism” accomplished the goals of older kenotic theology while avoiding its pitfalls.  Armed with this fully-integrated conception of the person and work of Christ, he returned to the atonement specifically to show how his concept of “death in God” successfully avoided what he had in the first lecture flagged as the chief objection to penal substitution–it made God a violent God.  Finally, he sketched some of the implications of this model for ethics, in the process hinting at some ways he thought his conception could incorporate the theological values of ontological and moral theories.

 

Defects of the Older Kenoticism

The first thing he had to do, though, was to sketch a picture of historical kenotic theology, to show his departures from it.

In its origins, kenotic theology was the creation of conservative Lutherans in the mid-19th century.  They wanted to find a way to be loyal to their confessions while taking into account the attacks on the notion of a divinized Christ in the rising historical criticism.  If Jesus’s self-understanding evolved in time, if his personality developed, as historical criticism was convinced, how could this square with the traditional orthodox doctrine?  This was a particular difficulty for Lutheranism, which posited a perichoresis between the two natures as a result of the hypostatic union.  This peculiarity of Lutheranism emerged as a product of their Eucharistic doctrine of ubiquity: how could Christ’s body be physically present in every Eucharist at the same time?  To answer this question, Lutherans posited a new sub-class of the communication of attributes–a genus maiestaticum which involved communication of the qualities of divinity to the humanity. But shouldn’t the communication go both ways?  The corresponding category was the genus tapeinoticum–the genus of humility–noted as a logical possibility, but dismissed as theologically impossible, since the Logos is simple and impassible.  

By the mid-19th century, the genus maiestaticum was becoming unbearable to maintain for German theologians.  Two solutions were proposed.  

The first was the kenoticism of Gottfried Thomasius.  The word kenosis, of course, comes from Phil. 2:7–the “emptying” of Christ.  Thomasius posited that as a prerequisite to the act of incarnation, the Logos empties himself of his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.  The Logos could do this, he said, because these are not essential attributes of God, but only attributes relative over against the world; they did not define God in his eternal being, but only in his relation to creation.  They could thus be set aside without detriment to what God is essentially.  At Christ’s exaltation–his resurrection, Thomasius argued, Christ reassumed these attributes..  

But examined more closely, Thomasius’s distinction between essential and relative attributes could not be sustained, and was not even by Thomasius himself.  For Thomasius posited a divestment of the divine self-consciousness on the part of the Logos, which would necessarily involve a forfeiture of divine love, an essential attribute by his own classification.  German theologian Isaak Dorner was quick to jump on this line of criticism.  Moreover, he argued, if the kenosis was a prerequisite for incarnation, then what we have is merely the hypostatic union of two human natures.  Finally, and worst, we have in the incarnate Christ nothing but a theophany–God does not reveal himself as he truly is in Christ, something explicitly affirmed in the Gospel of John and regarded as theologically essential by the tradition.

Dorner posited a different solution–a progressive hypostatic uniting, in which it was not until the resurrection when the human nature came to full possession of the divine attributes, including the genus maiestaticum.  (Interestingly, I once tentatively argued something like this in a paper I wrote on the Johannine concept of “life”; at the time, I had no idea whether I was treading on heretical ground or not.  It’s a bit reassuring to have Dorner for precedent).  To this, though, McCormack objected that this makes the resurrected Christ super-human; however, he recognizes that this was not a problem with Dorner’s theory as such, but the genus maiestaticum in the first place.

  

Now, since kenoticism was developed to respond to a distinctively Lutheran problem, one would think that the Reformed could have safely remained on the sidelines.  The fact that they did not, said McCormack, suggests that they had a rather shaky grasp on their own Christological tradition.  After all, the Reformed had always rejected the interpenetration of attributes, and had in fact argued that Christ’s “super-human” powers were not the operation of the Word, but the created graces of the Spirit.  Nonetheless, many Reformed jumped on the kenotic bandwagon, and indeed Lutheran-style kenoticism was in the ascendancy in Scotland until 1948, when D.M. Baillie revived Dorner’s theophany criticism.  Indeed, the doctrine has died hard, seeing a recent resurgence among American evangelicals, who seem heedless of the devastating critiques mounted by Dorner and Baillie.  

But does this mean that there is no legitimate form of kenoticism?  Might there be a distinctively Reformed kenoticism?  Well, that’s precisely what McCormack intends to offer (note: much of the following material–and much more–can be found in a phenomenal lecture McCormack gave a couple years’ back at an ETS conference, downloadable for only $2 here). 

 

Exegetical Observations on Phil. 2:6-11

The first question that confronts us in Phil. 2:6-11 is: who is the subject of this self-emptying?  Is it the logos asarkos?  Is kenosis thus a precondition of incarnation?  Or is it the logos ensarkos–the kenosis then being an act of the two natures together?  Or is it Jesus the man, full stop?

While the ancients generally gave the first answer, and moderns the last answer, McCormack suggested that none of these alternatives is correct as it stands, and there is a grain of truth in each.  The ancients, he said, erred by understanding the logos asarkos too abstractly.  The logos is always pre-programmed, so to speak, for incarnation.  He is the logos incarnandus, as McCormack argued in the fourth lecture.  The self-emptying depends on the logos’s receptivity to the man Jesus throughout his life, and is thus a self-emptying that takes place throughout the life of Jesus.  But it also takes place in eternity.  We can understand the human activities of self-emptying and humbling as events in God’s own life, which God makes essential to himself by his determination to receive them in his own being.  God makes this determination with regard to his mode of being as Son in protology, but it is only fully realized in the history of the man Jesus; so the kenosis is begun already in eternity, and consummated in time.  

The key verses in the Christ-hymn are verses 9-11, which Richard Bauckham has persuasively argued have the effect of including the man Jesus in what it means to be God.  Bauckham makes three points: 1) Exaltation refers to an act of enthronement–Jesus is put above all things and given a share in the rule over them.  2) The name which is above all names can only be Yahweh.  It cannot merely be kurios, which is not itself the name which is above all names, but the substitute for it, so the use of kurios in v. 11 is in fact confirmation that the name in v. 9 is Yahweh.  3) The phrase “at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” is an allusion to Isaiah 45:23, where all of this is said of Yahweh himself.  To say all this of Jesus, which should be said of Yahweh, would not be “to the glory of God the Father” unless Jesus were included in the identity of Yahweh.  

If Jesus is God, then, the because-therefore structure of the passage should not deceive us into thinking that an alteration in Christ is being describes,  If Christ is God, since God cannot himself undergo alteration.  What can undergo alteration is our understanding of the divine nature.  Through the life and death of Christ, men and women come to know that self-emptying is proper to God.  The bestowing of the name that is above every name is a universal and public declaration of how things have been all along.  God eternally determines himself for self-emptying–not a protological act of self-divestment, but an act of self-constitution.  

If this is right, we are not forced to choose between a logos asarkos and a logos ensarkos–the subject is Christ Jesus both in eternity and in time, the self-emptying is eternal, as the determination of what he will do, the constitution of himself for that purpose, and the enaction of that in time.  So what does this self-emptying consist in?

The passage tells us: “he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.”  This is best explained as a willed non-use of the powers proper to Christ Jesus as God.  He does not divest himself of these powers, but he does not exploit them, he does not make use of them.  If what the Son is eternally looks forward to what he does in time, if the obedience in time is proper to him as God, then his refusal to make use of these powers is eternal and not merely temporal.  The Son simply is his self-emptying and obedience, it is basic to his eternal self-constitution.  In other words, he has always had freely willed to have these human limitations.

This bridges a divide between Chalcedonian orthodoxy and the Spirit-Christologies of modern liberalism.  Jesus acts through the power of the Spirit.  The Logos is ontologically-receptive, not omnipotently active.  We thus have a pneumatologically-driven two-natures Christology.  This also bridges the divide between the high Christology of John and the “low Christology” of the Gospels.  The human Christology is high Christology.  And what makes this Reformed is the notion of ontological receptivity, which makes room for the Spirit’s ministry in the life of Jesus.  This is nothing new to McCormack, he stressed: Jonathan Edwards himself said that the only act that the Word performs in his divinity is the assumption of the human nature; beyond that point, Christ’s acts are performed in the Holy Spirit.

 

The Atonement and Violence

So what does all this mean for our understanding of the atonement.  In lecture 5, McCormack sought to establish that Christ’s death must be understood as a death-in-God-abandonment, something the orthodox tradition has always shied away from.  While Hegel sought to give this notion its full weight, he could do so only at the cost of positing a rift within the being of God, thus becoming the father of social trinitarians and destroying divine immutability.  

Can we deny impassibility and maintain immutability?  Yes, if the death-in-God-abandonment becomes an event in God, not between God and God, as in social trinitarianism.  Indeed, while the social trinitarians get around the notion of Christ‘s death as God’s act of violence over against humanity, the “cosmic child abuse” charge still sticks–God is still violent, he’s just violent to another divine person. 

The solution, McCormack said, lies in making the judicial element basic to a post-metaphysical ontology that embraces the ethical.  In the traditional Protestant doctrine, the atonement is the result of a divine verdict, but one that leaves God himself unaffected.  But what if the divine verdict against sin is one that God eternally wills to take upon himself?  God eternally wills to become a human God.  God experiences death-in-God-abandonment as a human experience, but it takes place within his being, his mode of being of God as Son.  God is not thus acting upon another person, a distinct divine or human individual.  God is not, in fact, acting at all, strictly speaking; his power is expressed in sovereignly-willed powerlessness, in a willingness to receive whatever comes to him and happens to him.  However, this does not amount to divine suicide: God gives himself, but he does not give himself away, for he remains himself in his other two modes of being.  The raising of Jesus is an expression of the fact that God remains, unweakened, undefeated.

This experience is judicial, in line with classical Protestantism, because it is willed by God as an imposed penalty, the appropriate response of a loving God to that which he can only oppose and destroy.

But this leaves us with another question.  Isn’t God still violent, if he wills the violence that humans do to Jesus?  He wills this only indirectly, argued McCormack.  For it is not the violence as such that has saving value–that is the God-abandonment and descent into hell.  The mode of death functions only didactically, as a symbol that this is a judicial act, as a way of pointing beyond itself to the reality of spiritual death.  The act of penal substitution itself, then, does not involve the violence, the violence has no saving value.  What has saving value is that Christ gives himself up to it.  Violence is a human affair, the consequence of sinfulness.  It is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.  God gives himself over to the consequences of sin, including violence, in order to overcome sin itself.

 

Being in Correspondence: Ethical Activity as the Realization of True Humanity

So where do we get the ethics in all this? 

Well, the same way Barth got it, of course.  One of Barth’s greatest contributions to Christian theology, said McCormack, was his Christologically-based anthropology.  True humanity is realized in the obedience of Jesus Christ.  The exaltation of the human to true humanity takes place in the self-same obedience.  What about the rest of us?

We are not what God intended us to be, but insofar as we live in conformity, in correspondence, to Jesus, we become what we truly are in Him.  We become what we already are in Christ and what we will be when we see him as he is.  

At this point, McCormack returned to that tantalizing remark he had made at the end of the second lecture–that one reason for the popularity for various kinds of evangelical catholicism nowadays, for a return to a metaphysical soteriology, is the longing for transformation on the deepest level of human existence.  This longing must not go unanswered.  But can there be an answer on an actualistic ontology?  McCormack suggested there could be, only it could not occur through what he called “some kind of divine surgery.” Bidding farewell to metaphysics means giving up the old Catholic idea of infused grace, and any idea of “ontological healing” of a substantial nature.  What is required is not a substantial change, but a fundamental reorientation of life in response to divine illumination.  But won’t people just object, he said, that this is just a change in behaviour.  His response, of course, is that it is a change in behaviour, but that means it is an ontological change as well, since human beings simply are what they do.  An alteration in lived behaviour is an alteration of being, he insisted.   

Although we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, perfection is never a fixed state of affairs, it is never a predicate of the human in this world.  Rather, it is, he said, a predicate of the divine relation to the human in each moment.  Perfection is possible as a moment in a history of other such moments, an irruption of the future into the present.  How is the actualization of such perfection perceived on our side?  Surrender–unreserved self-giving in response to the self-giving of God in Christ, which Barth makes to be the ground of all ethical activity.  Since the goodness of what we do as Christians never lies in the goodness of our acts in themselves, but in God’s acceptance of them in the moment, we cannot ever absolutize our own constructions of ethical norms.  We may establish general rules, but not absolutes.  For instance, even though the humility of Jesus found expression in nonviolence, and it is highly likely that nonviolent resistance is right in the vast majority of situations, we cannot absolutize nonviolence in a way that levels all other considerations, we cannot insist that it will always be right.


Conclusion: Recovering Our Protestant Heritage

McCormack concluded by returning to where he began–the crisis facing Protestantism.  This crisis, he said, is not merely dwindling membership. This is merely a symptom of a deeper-lying cause–the loss of a shared faith to which the people of God are committed.  We must, he said, reappropriate the riches of our own theological traditions, we must learn our theological ABCs over again, engaging our own heritage with generosity and a willingness to learn, rather than a haste to discard.  We must, he insisted, surrender the anti-modernism that wants to pretend the Reformation never happened.  Finally, above all, we must cease and desist from creating theologies which are embraced by no existing church body, theologies of an idealized Church, a platonic form which exists only within the person devising it.  Instead, we must seek to continue to advance along the trajectories of our own theological tradition, enriching it and reconstructing it from within.  

 

For those of you who have followed all of these posts, thank you very much.  It’s been encouraging to see the interest, and helpful in forcing me to stick with it–thus enabling me to get much more out of the lectures than I otherwise would have.  Having tried to refrain from adding my own two cents since at least the first lecture, I’ll finally try early next week to offer a few reflections on where I think the promise and the pitfalls of McCormack’s proposal lie.  Thanks for all of you who have commented and carried the discussion forward, though sorry I haven’t had time to engage a lot of these comments.  


4 thoughts on “Reformed Kenoticism and Death in God (McCormack Croall Lecture #6)

  1. St. Cyril presses Phil. 2 over against Nestorius to prove that the Logos is the subject, and not the assumed man. See for instance his Tomes against Nestorious, I don't have the book now (I had to Inter-library loan it) but here's a couple of relevant quotations I typed up and put on facebook:"For we say that the Son being by Nature God, i.e., the Word out of God the Father, descended unto voluntary emptying, ascended again with the flesh also unto the God-befitting Dignity of His inherent Excellence: for His is worshiped with flesh too, as being an object of worship even before it, for He was yet by Nature God, both before the emptying and when He, made like us, is said to endure the emptiness….Knowest thou not that in Jerusalem He healed the min blind from his birth, and afterward when he found him in the temple, He engrafted into him a firm and stablished faith in Himself? for He came to him and asked, Does thou believe on the son of God? and when he cried out to this, Who is He, Lord, that I might believe on Him? He again said, Thou hast both seen Him and it is He that talketh with thee. And verily the wise John says, That Which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we viewed and our hands handled, of the Word of Life. Albeit the Godhead is impalpable, yet the Word has been made palpable through His own flesh; invisible by Nature, He was yet manifest through the body."It was the Logos Himself who came to us, and emptied himself by taking on flesh.

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  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey Matt, I'm warning you… I may have to start moderating comments if you keep commenting six times a day so no one even has time to read all the comments, much less reply. 😉

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  3. Jordan

    Greetings, I have not been commenting but wanted to express my thanks for keeping up with this and posting summaries. I have been emailing links to other friends and they have been excited as well. Thanks again

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  4. Brad Littlejohn

    You're very welcome, Jordan. Thanks for the encouraging remarks–I'm glad this has proven to be such a blessing for so many people.

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