Metaphysical Misgivings (Reflections on McCormack’s Croall Lectures)

So, over the past two weeks you’ve read more than 15,000 words here about Bruce McCormack’s remarkable Croall Lectures on the person and work of Christ.  But you’ve read only a few hundred words of my opinion about it all; and if you know me, or know this blog, that is quite a remarkable thing.  Many of you may not give a darn about my opinion, given that I’m not only a mere student, but not even a systematic theology student–not nowadays, at any rate.  Heck, I don’t really give a darn about my opinion.  However, it really doesn’t feel complete without some evaluative remarks, does it?  At any rate, I will try to offer a few here, and I’ll try to keep it as brief as possible (ha ha–I’m afraid it turned out to be no such thing); I welcome a free-for-all discussion in the comments section, for those of you who have more to offer than I do.

And once I’ve got that out of my system, I can get this blog back to its usual business of interrogating the theory of private property, of expounding in tome-like posts the wisdom of Richard Hooker, and of occasional intemperate invectives against the American Right.  

 

First, then, let’s lay out some of the positives.  On the whole, I think McCormack is definitely onto something.  I for one have always been rather uncomfortable with traditional ways of combining divine and human agency in Christ.  McCormack’s concern about infinite divine power “overwhelming” finite human power seems like a fair point to raise.  For me, omniscience illustrates the problem better than anything else, though it isn’t confined to omniscience: how can one person know all things perfectly and infinitely, and simultaneously know as a human knows–finitely, fallibly?  Did Jesus know he was God?  Well, as God he must’ve known, right?  But as man, he didn’t know, strictly speaking, did he?  He had a strong faith in his unique vocation, but as a man, could he have more than that?  Or, more mundanely, Jesus tells us that all the hairs on our head are numbered…well, did Jesus himself know the number?  As God, sure, but as man, no.  How can these things simultaneously exist in one person?  If we solve the problem by a strict bifurcation between two separate intellects and centers of consciousness, the notion of personal unity seems to be in great danger, as it has been in the Reformed tradition.  However, if we solve the problem by emphasizing the one divine person, the infinite divine qualities can as it were crowd out the human, leaving us wondering whether Jesus really was meaningfully one of us.  On the question of omnscience, much of the tradition tended toward such an eclipse of the humanity in favor of an omniscient Jesus. 

McCormack is right also to put all this against a backdrop of soteriology.  The prevalence of more ontological soteriologies in the past has meant a tendency for theology to want to emphasize the influence of the divine nature in glorifying and interpenetrating the human nature (as is made explicit, for instance, in Lutheran theology).  It has been hard, perhaps impossible, for the tradition not to do this at the expense of the full and genuine humanity of Jesus; and if he is not fully and genuinely human, how does he really stand in our place, how is he the last Adam?  The Reformed tradition, in counteracting this and emphasizing Jesus’s full humanity as our substitute in the work of redemption, has often left the divinity dangling there, very valuable for rhetorical effect, but never clearly integral to the redemption of which it is supposed to be a prerequisite.  

Moreover, there is nothing in itself wrong with the fact that McCormack’s revision is driven in large part by particularly modern objections to traditional doctrines.  Although one might dismiss as “liberalism” a desire to emphasize the full humanity of Jesus, his limited knowledge and developing sense of vocation, this concern is authorized by the tradition, inasmuch as that tradition has been unequivocal in claiming to affirm the complete and unabridged humanity of Jesus Christ.  Christian theology is always developing and growing as the Church grows into full maturity, and although there are of course nearly as many steps backward as there are forward, it may well be that it has fallen to the modern period to at last do full justice to a doctrine that remained ever ambiguous and undeveloped in the tradition.  The same could be said of the objections to penal substitution.  Concern about a violent God could be dismissed (and is dismissed by some sectors of American Christianity I know) as just a result of us turning into a bunch of softies with no stomach for divine judgment; however, I’m inclined to think that here again modern scruples represent, not an unalloyed good to be sure, but in many ways a richer grasp of deep Christian truths heretofore marginalized.  If Jesus is the revelation of a God of love, a God determined to have mercy on his creatures, then it seems discordant for this revelation to consist preeminently in an exhibition of God’s wrath poured out on creatures, or worse, poured out on one innocent creature in place of the others.  To seek to provide a new account of Christ’s person and work, that meets both of these concerns without sacrificing orthodoxy, is a worthy goal, and one that I think McCormack has gone a long way to achieving.

Finally, there’s more than a little Barthianism deep in my theological bloodstream, and so some of the key Barthian themes resonate deeply with me: God is so great that he is capable of becoming lowly; God does not become humble himself in spite of the fact that he is God, but because he is God; the revelation of God in Christ is in the fullest sense God’s self-revelation of who and what he’s always been from eternity–He is not merely playing cosmic dress-up.  All these seem like tremendously rich insights that remain faithful to the core of the Christian confession while developing it and stretching it in creative but necessary new ways.  So when McCormack applies these ideas uncompromisingly to our understanding of Christ, when he says (as he did not say in this lecture, but has before) that at its heart, Philippians 2:11 means not “and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” but “and every tongue confess that the LORD is Jesus Christ,” I can’t help but cheer along.

 

No doubt there’s more I could say by way of endorsement, but it’s time to get to the “But…”  So here goes:

But…there are a number of nagging questions that rear their ugly heads, questions like, is he really reading the Church Fathers correctly, or is he attacking a straw man?  Isn’t this kind of tracing a Christological idea out to its logical conclusion the way all the heresies worked?  Is this really “post-metaphysical” or just another kind of metaphysics?  If it is post-metaphysical, is it wise or safe to so thoroughly abandon the historical form of Christian doctrine?  Is the exegesis sound?  Isn’t this all just regurgitated modernism, trying to domesticate God by bringing him down to our level?  

Yowch.  Those are some harsh questions, but I’m going to try to press each of them below, gently but insistently (though not in exactly the above order).  Please don’t forget, though, that I have high respect for both McCormack himself and his work–these are really more questions than they are criticisms.

 

So first of all, the question of historical accuracy.  A large impetus for McCormack’s project, or at the very least a chief justification for it, is the perceived weakness in Chalcedonian teaching, a weakness that must be remedied, a problem that must be solved, a gap that must be filled.  But what if this is an imagined problem?  A number of people both at the lectures, in the comments on this blog, and privately to me have argued that McCormack seems to be attacking a straw man Athanasius and a straw man Cyril–a straw man orthodox tradition, for that matter.  These people, who know way more about Patristic theology than I do, have insisted that in fact Cyril, Athanasius, and all the rest are quite clear about the suffering and death in God.  The divine Word suffered in and through his human nature; his divine nature itself wasn’t the object of suffering, sure, but he, the person certainly was, through his humanity; he experienced suffering just as truly as we experience sufferng.  Once this is said, what additional gain is there in attributing suffering to the divine nature in abstracto?  Is divine impassibility, simplicity, and all that really the wrench in the gears of Patristic Christology that McCormack has made it out to be?  A number of people have argued, “No.”  Now, McCormack says that his constructive project is unaffected if it turns out that he’s wrong about these guys; heck, he’d be glad to hear they were in fact on his side.  And in one sense, that’s true.  It’s true in the sense that, if I were to imagine that my house’s foundations were collapsing (perhaps because I was drunk and was completely unstable on my feet?  I don’t know, just play along with the analogy), and thus go out and start constructing a new house on firmer ground, the new house could still be a perfectly good house  even if it turned out that the old house was perfectly fine after all.  It might be a perfectly good constructive project in itself, but what’s the point?  What if it turned out that it wasn’t needed in the first place, that the problem it was built to address didn’t exist?  Again, it might turn out that in the end we would say, “Well, even though Chalcedon was a good model, McCormack’s model is even better, so let’s embrace it”–but it’ll take an awful lot to persuade us it’s worth ditching the old model.  Again, I’m no Patristic scholar, so I just can’t say.  As I said above, I do think McCormack’s right when he points out certain tensions and problems that have dogged traditional Christology; it just may be, as some have told me, that the orthodox tradition, if only we listened to it properly, has all the resources necessary to solve these problems.

This leads to a second question–if the critique of the Fathers is possibly overblown, could it be that there are other motivations for what McCormack is doing–distinctively modern motivations?  We’ve heard all this before, after all, haven’t we?  The crucified God, God suffering along with creation, a self-emptying, humanized God?  Indeed, McCormack himself said that this was virtually the theological norm 25 years ago, and he’s simply trying to revive it, after a traditionalist backlash.  Why are we so eager to bring God down to our level?  To claim that he doesn’t really have all these fancy philosophical attributes that make him so different from us?  To insist that he must have suffered just like we suffer–indeed, to insist that he suffered hell so we don’t have to?  Awfully convenient and comforting for us humans, isn’t it?  I speak of course crudely.  I know it isn’t quite like that.  Indeed, as I said above, I think there’s a lot to that Barthian idea that we in fact do God greater dishonor when we make him in the image of our own pride and make him incapable of condescension.  Obviously God did become man, so there’s nothing “liberal” or “modern” about wanting to emphasize this.  But as McCormack himself noted, there is another side to Barth, an earlier Barth that sought to emphasize the Godness of God over against all creatures, unlike the later Barth who emphasized the humanity of God.  I’m a little more comfortable keeping at least one foot in the earlier Barth’s camp, however fashionable the later might be.  Of course, McCormack tries to deflect the “fashionable” criticism by saying that in fact what he’s doing is quite unfashionable–he’s courageously swimming against the tide.  Hmm…I’m just not quite convinced.

 

So again, why the need for this project?  Let’s turn now to the reasons McCormack himself gave as his chief motivations.  One that cropped up repeatedly was the need to be faithfully and truly Protestant, in an age when genuine Protestant theology seems to be fast disappearing.  Throughout the lectures, we heard an ongoing polemic against the substance-metaphysics of Orthodox and Catholic theology, and an even sharper polemic against the Catholic wannabes populating Protestant theology, who keep trying to meet these older traditions halfway instead of confidently advancing a self-consciously Protestant theology.  Now, in conversations with him, he explained his attitude toward ecumenical theology, toward Catholics, etc., and I was much reassured, and I think there’s a lot of merit in the model he presented.  We must, he says, mine the riches of our own traditions, reconstructing them from within, always faithful to the “core theological values” even if this occasionally means reworking or discarding the historical form the doctrine took (particularly the philosophical categories in which it was expressed).  And this is of course precisely what he was doing with regard to both the doctrine of penal substitution (vis-a-vis the Protestant tradition) and with regard to Chalcedonian Christology (vis-a-vis the whole Christian tradition).  

But is this a coherent stance to take?  First of all, is there not a certain hypocrisy in polemicizing against theologians who spend their time “creating theologies which are embraced by no existing church body,” when to an outsider, that would appear to be precisely what he is doing?  He would say, of course, that the crucial difference is that while they are working in a sort of hybridized no-man’s-land between theological traditions, with no particularly allegiance to any, he is working constructively on the basis of an existing tradition, furthering its agenda.  But who gets to adjudicate what constitutes a legitimate construction within a tradition, involving the abandonment of “historical forms” but not “core values,” and what constitutes an abandonment of the tradition as a whole, “core values” and all?  The problem of determining “core values” looms much larger when we look at the relation of his project to historical Christology.  Christology, he wants to argue, has been the slave of “metaphysics” for nearly two millenia, with “metaphysics” meaning something like Heidegger’s “ontotheology”–the subordination of discourse about God to pre-existing philosophical categories of being in general, or pre-conceptions of what God must be like–rather than confining ourselves to describing God simply precisely as he reveals himself.  Now, when put this way, anti-metaphysics sounds like a good stance to take.  

But it’s not quite that simple.  For McCormack is taking aim at theological categories–attributes of God’s being–that have ramifications throughout the entire edifice of theology, that go way way back, that are shared by Protestants, Catholic, and Orthodox alike.  Perhaps it is true that they were merely taken over from Greek Platonism–I suspect this is an overly simplistic narrative, but there’s probably much truth in the accusation.  That, however, doesn’t make them false, and it certainly doesn’t mean one can cavalierly waltz in and remove them.  The kind of ontologies against which McCormack takes aim have been at the heart of Christian theology for a long time, and it is here that the rhetoric of “replacing dispensable and flawed historical forms” while “continuing to maintain the core values” rings most hollow.  I suspect Cyril of Alexandria considered most of these matters to be core theological values.  Who are we to tell him that they are not in fact?  What determines the criteria of this theological lobotomy that is being performed on the tradition?  I pressed this question privately to McCormack, raising the issue of social trinitarianism (which is to say, most modern doctrines of the Trinity), toward which he is thoroughly hostile.  Why?  Because it describes the divine unity in different terms (“perfect harmony of wills”) than the early Church did (“perfect unity of will”) and thus would be, in patristic terms, tritheism.  Couldn’t we make this argument in reply, though: the Greek Fathers were inheriting a Platonic account of divine ontology–of God as perfect oneness, a monad; they made the necessary adjustments to this doctrine to try to square it with the revelation of Christ, but the basic concept of divine unity remained as an alien philosophical element within their theology, and we must now purge it out in rigorous fidelity to the biblical witness of the three independent centers of activity of Father, Son, and Spirit.  This, McCormack would argue, would be a disastrous move; but to purge out impassibility is for him a necessary move.  How do we decide?

No doubt the answer will be “Scripture,” and here is the rigorous Protestantism of McCormack’s project.  For although Protestantism may have inherited the old metaphysics, it has always stood on the doctrine of sola Scriptura, which seems to have a lot in common with McCormack’s notion of doing theology on the basis of the narrated history of his self-revelation in Christ, instead of on the basis of philosophical preconceptions.   But here the Hooker in me gets suspicious…after all, most everyone wants to claim that they’re basing their theology on the narrated history of God’s self-revelation in Christ, most everyone wants to say that they’re letting the Bible, rather than Plato, dictate their theology.  But the fact is that no one looks at the Bible without all kinds of cultural and philosophical spectacles–the Fathers did, and so do we.  Perhaps our spectacles are better, but that will require argumentation–philosophical argumentation.  In any case, we can’t imagine we don’t have spectacles.  I’ve already suggested one set of spectacles McCormack is wearing–a distinctively modern desire to humanize God, to make him as immanent as possible, not transcendent.  Another set is of course historical criticism, which cannot be taken as simply self-authenticating and self-authorizing.  To commit to a certain historical-critical method of reading the Bible is not simply to take the narrated history of Christ in its pure form, but to subject it to a kind of analysis and rearrangement–this is not illegitimate, but it must be faced up to openly.  The result of this for McCormack is a very explicit favoring of the Matthaean and especially Marcan witness above Luke and John, who are taken to offer compromised and watered-down accounts.  In fact, a very very narrow strand of exegesis, focusing particularly on the cry of dereliction as found in two verses of the Bible, and nowhere else elaborated, is made to be the linchpin of the whole edifice.  Someone else might, fervently affirming their sole attention to the “narrated history of Christ,” decide to take the Gospel of John as their starting point, and I guarantee you they would end up in a very different place–indeed, somewhere rather like where the Fathers ended up.  And of course, a final set of spectacles is the actualistic metaphysic itself–that which authorizes the focus on the narrated history, rather than any pre-existing Being, because God’s being simply is nothing other than his action.  But is God’s being simply nothing other than his action?  How would we answer the question?  Most appeals to Scripture as witness would have a certain circularity to them, and to properly make sense of this claim, we would need some kind of philosophical elucidation, a task that would involve us, it would seem, in the forbidden fruit of “metaphysics.”  McCormack was very prickly about suggestions that he was just engaging in another kind of metaphysics, and to an extent, I thought his protests had a legitimate point.  Nonetheless, it seems hard to get around the fact that “actualism” is not a self-authenticating notion; it’s a philosophical concept that requires some justification beyond itself, that requires some metaphysical reflection.  Thus, to call us to embrace an actualistic ontology of Christ is not ultimately to purge Christology of philosophy or metaphysics, but to replace an old metaphysics with a new metaphysics.  It may be better, it may be more Biblical, it may be more dogmatically successful, but it is not unphilosophical, it is not the pure product of unalloyed revelation.  Hooker would tell us, and I’m inclined to believe him, that there is no such thing in theology.

 

26 thoughts on “Metaphysical Misgivings (Reflections on McCormack’s Croall Lectures)

  1. Brad,I think you raise some good points here. The big about social trinitarianism (which I am myself opposed to as a good student of McCormack and Barth) is a good example. There are, of course, ways of addressing it, but I hadn't thought of that line of critique before. Also good is much of your discussion of the relation between contemporary constructive theology and the historical tradition. In particular, I think you have good reason to question McCormack's concern about "creating theologies which are embraced by no existing church body." On these and other points, my response is probably the opposite of yours: instead of backpedaling and trying to demonstrate our fidelity to some historical tradition, we should own up to the fact that we are departing entirely from the framework of the ancient church and allow theology to forget new ground. I see no reason to shy away from this fact; the church should embrace it. I have a whole theological argument for why that's the case, but I won't elaborate on it here. To give you a hint, it has to do with mission (or missional theology) and the relation between the gospel and culture. Put simply, you're absolutely right that everyone has "spectacles" on when they read scripture and interpret the tradition. But instead of seeing this as a reason to be skeptical of modern theology, I see it as a blessing that should be embraced. The church needs to be free to wear an infinite variety of spectacles.But I want to address a couple of places where I think your criticisms are off-target. First, the patristic question. I won't claim to be a patristics expert, but I've done extensive research and reading in the Greek fathers, especially Cyril, Maximus, John Damascene, and others. While Maximus might be the lone exception (Robert Jenson thinks so, but I have some serious doubts), the entirety of the ancient church could not accept a passible God. The closest any of them come to the modern position is when they use paradoxical statements like "the impassible one suffered." Put more technically, their understanding of the communication of attributes remains on the level of alleosis, i.e., figurative language. To use scholastic terms, they can accept a genus idiomaticum, but never a genus tapeinoticon, which is what McCormack is arguing for on the basis of Barth.(Cyril thus states: “[Christ] suffers in his own flesh, and not in the nature of the Godhead. . . . [W]e do not deny that he can be said to suffer . . . but this does not mean that we say that the things pertaining to the flesh transpired in his divine and transcendent nature.” John Damascene systematizes this viewpoint: Although we say that the natures of our Lord indwell one another, we know that the indwelling comes from the divine nature. For indeed this [nature] penetrates and indwells all things, as it wills, while nothing penetrates it. It gives the flesh a share in its own glories, while remaining itself impassible, and having no share in the sufferings of the flesh." For Cyril, see Hans von Loon's definitive new work on his christology.)Finally, the critique at the end of the metaphysical nature of McCormack's theology seems to have entirely missed the point about what he means by "metaphysics." McCormack nowhere claims — and would never claim — that theology is ever pure and free from all philosophical concepts. In fact, such a notion is frankly impossible. The point is not whether philosophical conceptualities are being employed but whether the conceptualities are *controlling* theology's reflection on its subject-matter. Is revelation controlling the use of philosophy, or is philosophy dictating, however implicitly, how theology develops its understanding of revelation? McCormack's claim, and I agree with him entirely on this, is that the ancient church allowed philosophy to control the subject-matter. Of course, it's always worth examining whether we are actually any more successful than the ancients. But the point is that, if we are indeed successful, then it's not "metaphysics" as McCormack has defined it, regardless of how many philosophical concepts are being employed.

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  2. David,If we would also look to Christological, and especially Marian hymns, we would find a great deal that supports the view that it is indeed God who was born of Mary, and thus who suffered on the Cross. Indeed, Mariology does not make sense if we assume that her Son is only metynomically God.Regarding the Cyril quote, all the difference turns on who the assumed antecedent of "he" is. You have glossed it "Christ", but in the context of the Nestorian Controversy, and particularly in the immediate textual context, it makes most sense to say the antecedent is "God the Word".If we look earlier, we shall find the antecedent to "he" in the following passage:"B. We would argue that one inflicts a terrible dishonor on the Word of God if one says that he suffered, and that this brings our noble mystery into disrepute.A. Well, "despising the shame" he chose to "suffer in the flesh' for our sake, according to the scripture, and in my opinion he must evidently have the problem of a Jewish mentality or the culpable stupidity of the Greeks is he thinks that the suffering on the cross was anything to be ashamed of…."See also the earlier passage where he says (You can skip down to where I've bolded a word–the earlier is just for context):"A. Somewhere Christ said to his holy apostles: "Go forth and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." We are baptized, therefore, into the holy and consubstantial Trinity; I mean into the Father and teh Son and the Holy Spirit. Or is what I have said not correct?B. How could it be otherwise?A. Do we not consider as Father, the one who was begotten, and on the other hand consider as Son the Only Begotten Word of God who is born from him by nature?B. Indeed so.A. Then how are we baptized into his dead, according to the saying of the blessed Paul who tells us: "For those of us who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death". And yet "There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism", and he certainly would not say that we were baptized into someone who was a distinctly different son of the line of David. Since he is God by nature, he is conceived of as beyond suffering, and then he chose to suffer so that he might save those under corruption, and so became like those on earth in all respects, and underwent birth from a woman according to the flesh. As I have said, he made his very own a body capable of tasting death and capable of coming back to life again, so that he himself might remain impassible….We must not say, then, that the flesh and blood was that of another son apart from him, understood as separate and honored by a mere conjunction, having an alien gloory, someone who did not have pre-eminence substantially but only as if the name of sonship and that of Godhead which is above every name were thrown over him like a mask or a cloak. If he were like this, and had such a nature as our opponents have imagined him to have, then it would be entirely unfitting for him to say: "I am the truth". How can that be true which is not what it is said to be, but is really something falsely named and basterdized? But Christ is truth, and, as God, is over all. The Word remained what he was even when he became flesh, so that he who is over all, and yet came among all through his humanity, should keep in himself his transcendence of all and remain above all the limitations of the creation."

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  3. Jeremy

    The crucified God, God suffering along with creation, a self-emptying, humanized God? Indeed, McCormack himself said that this was virtually the theological norm 25 years ago, and he’s simply trying to revive it, after a traditionalist backlash. Why are we so eager to bring God down to our level? To claim that he doesn’t really have all these fancy philosophical attributes that make him so different from us? To insist that he must have suffered just like we suffer–indeed, to insist that he suffered hell so we don’t have to? Awfully convenient and comforting for us humans, isn’t it? This is an interesting comment. Although I don't think critiquing a view as a convenient really holds much water. For instance, can you think of a single person who affirms double predestination while not also considering himself part of the elect? I could write off Calvinism as some incredibly convenient, self-serving theological system, but that seems a bit unfair. Although I appreciate the patristic doctrines of christology, I can't help but thinking so much of the theorizing is to remove the offense of the incarnation. I know you said you realize God became man so we certainly have grounds to humanize God, but I wonder if your hesitation that we're humanizing God does not stem from a tacit subordinationist view. At the end of the day, the Father really is more Godlike than the Son. I suspect you would reject that view, but I always worry that people end up putting the incarnation to the side and continue to talk about eternal, omnipotent God who has no relation to Jesus Christ. As Torrance would say, there is no hidden God behind the back of Jesus Christ.Your concern about the privileging of Mark and Matthew confuses me. Do you reject McCormack's conclusion and reasoning for privileging the Markan account, or simply his method (i.e. historical criticism)? I've always had the same thought that, at the heart of the gospel, there is a traumatic offense, which is avoided in the Gospel of Luke and John. I appreciated his honesty with handling this difficult verse.

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  4. Hi Brad, just discovered your web in searching out material on the McCormack lectures. What a mammoth effort to keep us posted. Thanks so much. I think your questions are very good and I'm grateful for the chance to get a glimpse of where McCormack is going with this.

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  5. (First, sorry for the errors in the first comment. Especially "forge new ground.")Matthew, I'm confused by your comment. If you are trying to show that Cyril grammatically speaks of God as the one who is born and suffers and dies, then of course I agree with you. But are you suggesting that Cyril believes that God experiences suffering and death in God's own nature? Because that's the point that I'm trying to raise. I don't know of a single Cyril scholar that would affirm that latter step, because Cyril explicitly rejects it. The sentence following the one in bold makes that very plain: " As I have said, he made his very own a body capable of tasting death and capable of coming back to life again, so that he himself might remain impassible." God takes on a human body, so that the body may experience all these passions while the deity remains untouched and unaffected. Or take the very end of "On the Unity of Christ": "As the Word he is born divinely before all ages and times, but in these last times of this age the same one was born of a woman **according to the flesh.** To the same one we attribute both the divine and human characteristics, and we also say that to the same one belongs the birth and the suffering on the cross since he appropriated everything that belonged to his own flesh, while ever remaining impassible in the nature of the Godhead." It's the qualification "according to the flesh" that is absolutely crucial here. The suffering itself is something that occurs in the flesh, and it is attributed linguistically to the whole person by virtue of the assumption of flesh in the incarnation. But — and this is key — there is no participation by the divinity in the human sufferings of Jesus. There is no communication of these human experiences to the divinity, what the scholastics call the genus tapeinoticon. That simply is not possible for Cyril.

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  6. To clarify, for Cyril and the whole Alexandrian tradition, the concept of the single hypostasis or person functions as an ontologically-empty but linguistically-replete tertium quid that grammatically receives the attributes of both natures, divine and human, and so acts as a buffer to ensure that there is no communication between the natures.

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  7. David,You make Cyril a Nestorian, and do so by seeking to enforce a dilemma between Eutychianism and Nestorianism. But Cyril was neither a Nestorian heretic, nor a Eutychian heretic. The one Divine Person, God the Word, suffered. The word "suffered" literally is applied to God the Word. A Divine Person suffered and died on the Cross. Did he despise the shame? By no means. God the Word suffered.That is different from asking whether outside time he suffered inside time (a simple contradiction) or whether immortality and glory suffered. The answer to that question is by no means. But it is an entirely different question. My God suffered. The Divinity suffered(1).If you want say that 'person" is not only an unexplained concept, but is in fact nonsense, your analysis is simply refusing to interact with Cyril. On the other hand, if you want to say "person" is an incoherent concept, sure, but then you will be attacking all orthodox theology, both Triadology, and Christology.And moreover, you will be making an entirely different point than you are now.So if you want to press the point, sure, I'll grant that there is no communication between the natures. But that is entirely a different question from whether a Divine Person suffered, from whether our king and our God suffered, etc. And the Divine Persons are not less than the Divine Substance–that is simply subordinationism. A Divine Person suffered. "He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross. He who is King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns. He who wraps the heaven in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery." These statements are not mere metaphor, but are literally true._____(1) Given OED definition 1, or 3, this is false. But given definition 2(a), it is true. The character of being divine did not suffer, and the divine power and virtue did not suffer. These were ineffably joined to to human nature. But the Supreme Being, that is, God, died.

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  8. No, Matthew, I'm not making Cyril a Nestorian, but I am saying that Cyril shares with Nestorius the same aversion to letting the divine nature experience the sufferings of the flesh. For both, there is no ontological participation of the divinity in the creaturely passions of the flesh. The difference between them is that Cyril has a single agency (a single subject) located in the Logos, who assumes the flesh, whereas Nestorius divides the agency between a human person and the Logos. What divides them is where we place the agential power behind the christological narrative, not whether or not the divine nature suffered. Neither could affirm the latter, but Cyril was able to state it using paradoxical language ("the immortal one died"). For Cyril, unlike Nestorius, there is at least a linguistic-grammatical communication of attributes to the one person.My problem with the ancient tradition — and here I'm taking a page directly out of McCormack's work — is that the one person is spoken of as a "third thing" apart from the two natures. So there's a communication of attributes from each nature to the one person. The problem is: what exactly is this "person"? It can't be anything other than the divine nature, viz. the Logos. So the church fathers were caught in a conundrum. On the one hand, distinguishing between the person and the divine nature allowed them to preserve divine impassibility by communicating the properties to this "third thing." But this is an incoherent position when systematically examined. Moreover, as the Council of Chalcedon readily demonstrates, there was another impulse driving their christology, viz. deification. But the soteriology of deification requires some way to communicate properties of the divine nature to the human nature. This means that there cannot simply be a communication of attributes to the one person (as a single grammatical subject). So the fathers were caught between a rock and a hard place, between impassibility and deification, between a strong distinction between the natures through an emphasis on the person and a strong unity of the natures for the sake of soteriology. This is not a problem that any of the church doctors solve, as far as I can tell. McCormack provides an answer to this dilemma, though it requires breaking with the tradition.I'm not clear what your position is. Are you saying that Cyril actually thinks the divine nature experienced suffering and death? Or are you saying that Cyril speaks of the incarnate person experiencing suffering and death? The two are not coterminous. I'll accept the latter, but that does not change his position on divine impassibility. As long as there is no communication of the human properties and experiences TO the divine nature itself, then the issue McCormack is addressing still remains.

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  9. David,I am not saying either of those. I am saying Cyril, and the whole Church, say the Divine Person suffered and died, but that immortality and glory did not suffer and die. The Person is the Logos, and the Logos suffered. But the Logos is not the Divine Nature, but is a Divine Person. The Divine Nature is either 1) the character of being divine, or 2) Divine qualities. But if the character of being divine suffered, God as He is is different than as He was prior to creation, and thus He has changed (process theology) and was not sufficient before. And it isn't even grammatically coherent to say the Divine qualities suffered, anymore than it would be to say whiteness was torn, because I tore a paper in half. But a Divine Person, the Divinity, in OED 2a, "the Deity, the Supreme Being, God." suffered and died. This is the whole point of Cyrillianism.By insisting that any real union must be external to the One Divine Person, you insist that any union must not be hypostatic, but prosopic. But Theodore and Nestorius' position was that there was a prosopic union, but not a hypostatic union. The name of Godhead was not thrown over him as by a mask–that is it was not prosopic, but hypostatic. As Cyril says If the union is merely prosopic, and any union merely nominal, Christ was lying when he said "I am the way and the truth and the life", for indeed the one there is not God, but merely his humanity.Because the Divine Person has taken a human nature, immortality and glory and the like are joined to, but remain distinct from, the human nature. This distinction is necessary for deification. But it is different from the question of whether the Divinity suffered.If you want to say the concept of "person" needs fleshed out, fine. But the sole subject is not the mediator, but the Logos. The Logos participates in the suffering, and the Logos is our Divinity. Again, "Divinity" need not mean

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  10. Darren

    Brad: Thanks for your engagement with Professor McCormack's lectures, and my apologies for this probably-too-long comment. I've numbered my thoughts below in the order in which you raise your objections:1) Historical accuracy. McCormack's critical readings of Athanasius and Cyril are accurate, in my estimation. It's not the most "traditional" (read: reverential) reading of two heroes of christological orthodoxy. But the interpretation of Athanasius, for example, as having an instrumentalist account of the relationship between the Logos and his assumed humanity is now fairly commonplace among scholars of the fourth century. Frances Young is one who is of this persuasion; the scholar with whom McCormack worked the most in that lecture, Khaled Anatolios, is actually among the more critical of the instrumentalist reading. On Athanasius' account the <I>person</I> (who is the divine Word) did not suffer, properly speaking, but rather ascribed the suffering of his human body to himself. It is important not to miss this agential disconnect (which David is pressing in his comments on Cyril, above, though Cyril's attempt at a solution has some important differences), even if we are sympathetic to the hero of Nicene orthodoxy.What McCormack is doing that I think is so helpful is asking a christological question that the tradition has, by and large, heretofore not asked in quite this way: What is the relationship between the eternal Logos and his humanity? Or who is the performative agent in the life of Christ? If it is the divine Word, how are his human experiences truly <I>his</I>? Volumes have been written about two-natures Christology without thinking to frame the question in this way. And so the critique may strike us as false in that it challenges material that is rather familiar. But when we do bring to bear such questions, and look at the texts (as McCormack did with Athanasius in Lecture 2), it demonstrates how various thinkers over the history of the church have approached the question of the subject of the incarnation quite differently.2) 'Fashionability.' McCormack's motivations may be perfectly modern, but I think it shortchanges the project to suggest that he is trying to be fashionable or repristinate the Christology of 25 years ago. That simply isn't the case. He's surely no apologist for Moltmann, who was at the forefront of the passibility debate a quarter-century ago. And it isn't germane to the content of what he has to say in response to the tradition.3) 'Hybridized' theology. This is the important point, I think. McCormack is arguing on the one hand that Protestants need to be distinctly Protestant in drawing upon the sources of our theology, and not create a hybrid thing which no living church actually believes and teaches. On the other hand, he seems to be suggesting a <I>novum</I> — at least in his theological ontology and the application of it. How are these aims commensurate? As you rightly recall, McCormack's agenda is see if we can say the same things that the tradition (e.g. Chalcedon, or the Reformed confessions) has said, but say it in another way. The metaphysics by which the church has made theological affirmations, in other words, are formally distinct from the material content of what it wanted to say. If we truly do not share their metaphysical presuppositions, then we can — we must — say the same thing in another way. If we give up doing so (as McCormack said a couple of times during the series), we've effectively canonized the metaphysics along with the doctrines. (The trick, it may well be argued, is to parse out which bits are material and which are merely formal.)But restating these doctrinal values is not our goal simply because substance metaphysics is "out of fashion" in a post-Kantian, post-Heideggerian world (although that is also the case, and I think this at least has the potential to affect the church's witness). This is McCormack's goal because he thinks Barth got his doctrine of revelation right. Inasmuch as it's right to critique the metaphysics of the ancient church, they also faltered when they believed they could come to know things about God apart from God's revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ. This, I think, is where your mileage may vary. If one doesn't buy the Barthian critique of natural theology then she doesn't need to delimit revelation to Jesus Christ, and so all sorts of "metaphysical" (as McCormack defines it) notions of the ancient and medieval church can get off the ground.4) Exegesis. Your final point about pretty much everyone seeking to base their theology on Scripture (to which they bring their own metaphysical presuppositions) is well taken, and this is why I think a project like McCormack's needs some seriously strong exegesis to back it up. Scripture is, after all, the primary way in which we have access to the revelation of God in Christ. I'm glad that he effectively devoted one of the six lectures to exegesis, though it was confined to one particular question (the implications of the cry of dereliction). The Croall series was not, after all, an apology for actualism.5) 'Metaphysics.' Last but not least, throughout the lectures (and, to some extent, in your post above) there continued to be a confusion of how this term was being employed. I suspect this is because some who raised it hadn't attended earlier lectures where McCormack had self-consciously defined the very particular way in which he is using it. But he did define it and describe how he is using it more than once, so I think we have to be careful in blurring his use of "metaphysics" with the more common. In the sense of the latter it's perfectly true to say that he is seeking to replace one metaphysic (ancient "substance" metaphysics, or "essentialism") with another (actualism). This is true insofar as we would define "metaphysics" as a way of thinking about the nature and relation of things (e.g. ontology).But it's not true that McCormack is substituting another metaphysic under his peculiar definition of the term — as any attempt to think our way to God apart from Jesus Christ. In this sense actualism inquires after the God who actually is, who is given to us, and seeks to know the eternal and the immanent being of God from the starting point of the God we see incarnated for our redemption. In this sense actualism is not one option among a range of metaphysics, but is truly "post-metaphysical."Thanks again for your engagement.

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  11. Matthew,I'm assuming your comment got cut-off or something went wrong. I'll try to respond by making things as clear as possible.1. You write: "I am saying Cyril, and the whole Church, say the Divine Person suffered and died, but that immortality and glory did not suffer and die." This sentence does not make sense to me. God's essence and existence are identical. God does not have attributes; God simply is God's attributes. Your distinction between the attributes of the divinity and the second person of the Trinity is a false distinction. If the second person of the Trinity suffered as divine, then the essence or nature of God experiences suffering and death. But that is a position that Cyril rejects, and no Cyril scholar has ever attributed such a position to him. It is inconceivable to the ancient church. So if by "divine person" you are speaking of the eternal Logos in-itself, then you are saying something that Cyril does not and cannot say. When Cyril says that God the Word has died, he is referring not to the divine Logos in-itself but rather the divine Logos according to the assumed flesh. Your position seems to be based on a specious separation between the triune persons and the divine attributes.Another comment on this statement of yours. It seems that perhaps you haven't grasped the full significance of what Barth/McCormack are doing with christology. The point is that divinity is not immortal, not impassible. This is because there is no definition of divinity, no concept of God, apart from what is revealed historically in the person of Christ. What Christ is and does in the flesh, God is and does. The essence of God is constituted, actualized, by Christ's lived history. That's the import of this position.2. "But if the character of being divine suffered, God as He is is different than as He was prior to creation, and thus He has changed (process theology) and was not sufficient before." This statement confirms that you haven't understood Barth's position. What Barth claims is that God from all eternity is what God does in history as Jesus. The doctrine of election is what makes this statement possible. God has elected from all eternity to be in God's own eternal self what God will do and has done as Jesus Christ. And thus God from all eternity is passible and mortal, if only by way of anticipation, because God is eternally this man, Jesus. That is the radical claim that Barth makes in his later christology.3. "Because the Divine Person has taken a human nature, immortality and glory and the like are joined to, but remain distinct from, the human nature. This distinction is necessary for deification. But it is different from the question of whether the Divinity suffered." It's not a different question, because both are christology. Deification "works" through a communication of properties from the divine nature to the human nature; impassibility "works" through a non-communication of properties from the human nature to the divine nature. The problem for the ancients is how to hold both together at the same time. Hence the positing of the hypostasis as a way of bringing the natures together without involving the divinity in the actual experience of human suffering. Barth's position (and my own) is to firmly reject both deification and impassibility.4. "But the sole subject is not the mediator, but the Logos. The Logos participates in the suffering, and the Logos is our Divinity." At this point, your comment became incoherent. The subject is the Logos but not the mediator? The Logos is our divinity?? These statements are incomprehensible to me. Perhaps you can disambiguate them for me.

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  12. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey gents,Thanks for the interaction, David, Jeremy, and Darren. And I'm hoping the back-and-forth between Matthew and David about Cyril will prove illuminating–as it is, I have already learned a new word from it, "agential"! I've been sidelined with a nasty cold all day, and can't reply to all the points that have been raised, but I did want to address briefly the rebuttal both David and Darren made to my critiques of McCormack's critique of "metaphysics." I don't think I am as confused about it as you think I am; perhaps I am, but I think I must have just not expressed myself clearly enough in the post–my head was quite stuffed up with the cold by that point. I am, I think, trying to hold him to his own definition of "metaphysics," not some other definition. Here's how David put it:"McCormack nowhere claims — and would never claim — that theology is ever pure and free from all philosophical concepts. In fact, such a notion is frankly impossible. The point is not whether philosophical conceptualities are being employed but whether the conceptualities are *controlling* theology's reflection on its subject-matter. Is revelation controlling the use of philosophy, or is philosophy dictating, however implicitly, how theology develops its understanding of revelation?"Precisely so. By all means we may elucidate revelation using philosophical notions, but we cannot *subordinate* revelation to those notions. We cannot start from philosophy and only then see what the Bible tells us. Very well. But few of the theologians in question would have seen themselves as doing anything of the sort. They would have seen themselves as using philosophy to elucidate revelation, but always letting revelation have pride of place, always letting it retain the initiative. Now, again, perhaps they were mistaken–indeed, they may well have been. In every age, theology has been more directed by the zeitgeist than it has wanted to think. But in this case, the question is not whether they explicitly privileged philosophy over God, but whether, despite their intentions, philosophy took on too prominent of a role, preconditioned their theology too much, so that they unwittingly ended up distorting revelation to fit their philosophy. And if this is the question, it is a question that can be raised with equal force of us today, and of McCormack himself.Again, David said this: Of course, it's always worth examining whether we are actually any more successful than the ancients. So I am simply saying that I think McCormack needs to examine much more closely whether he is more successful, and this means asking a) is "actualism" a metaphysic? and b) if it is, how much is his loyalty to this metaphysic controlling his dogmatics? And of course, I'm not asking for purism–if the answer is that the philosophy is playing a significant role in directing the course of the dogmatics, then very well–I do not on that basis discard the dogmatics. For this is inevitable. Certain philosophical preconceptions will always exercise some kind of control, and so I am merely asking for honesty–we must honestly admit these preconceptions, bring them into the light, and see which ones survive careful philosophical and theological scrutiny.Hopefully I've been a bit clearer this time around, and if not, I throw all the blame on the cold. 🙂

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  13. Darren

    If I can jump in on the Cyril discussion and hopefully make things a little more concrete with a citation or two:Matthew, you wrote: "I am saying Cyril, and the whole Church, say the Divine Person suffered and died, but that immortality and glory did not suffer and die. The Person is the Logos, and the Logos suffered. But the Logos is not the Divine Nature, but is a Divine Person."I think that your analysis of Cyril here is flawed. The Alexandrian Fathers were seeking to find a way to affirm both that the Person (the Logos incarnate) truly suffered the experiences of Jesus but also that He did not do so viz. His divinity. Athanasius' solution was to posit an instrumental relationship between the Logos and his suffering flesh; Cyril's was to affirm that suffering is strictly economic for the Logos, and to use paradoxical statements by which he believed he was capturing the mystery of the incarnation: "He suffered impassibly."When this challenge was brought to McCormack in the Q&A portion of Lecture 2, he cited one bit from Athanasius' Contra Arianos (III.54-55, apologies for the translation) which I think I've managed to locate:

    "Therefore, as when the flesh advanced He is said to have advanced because the body was His own, so also what is said at the season of His death — that He was troubled, that He wept — must be taken in the same sense. … These affections were not proper to the nature of the Word, as far as He was Word. But the Word was in the flesh which was thus affected."

    McCormack frames the question this way: Is the Logos an affective subject for Athanasius? Or is affectation rather predicated (improperly) of him? Clearly the latter is the case, and similar sorts of qualifications about the suffering of the Logos could be marshaled from Cyril:

    "It is because the suffering belongs to the economy, with God the Word reckoning those things that pertain to the flesh as his very own because of the ineffable union, and yet remaining outside suffering in so far as pertains to his own nature, since God is impassible." (Scholia on the Incarnation §33)

    No one in the ancient period was suggesting that the locus of suffering was divine attributes, qualities, or nature. As you say, this is grammatical nonsense, since attributes themselves are not properly subjects of attribution. At issue for Cyril and the ancient tradition was that the suffering Person was both divine and human, yet — because of their commitment to divine impassibility — suffering can only be true of the Person with respect to one of His natures. And so the suffering of the Logos is always and only 'in a sense.' It takes place outside His immanent, divine life and is ascribed to His Person only insofar as He is human (that is, for Cyril, economically).Cyril, then, came to suggest not simply that the divine Logos suffered (as you suggest) but that He suffered in the economy of His fleshly life. God the Word reckoned what was true of the flesh to be true of His person — a sort of forensic declaration required by the fact that (for Cyril) humanity is necessarily ad extra and not a part of the divine life. So you're a little closer to Cyril when you say that "the Logos participates in the suffering." But this is categorically different than saying, without qualification, that a divine Person suffered and died.

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  14. David,On the last point, I should have said the subject is the Logos, and not merely the mediator. Regarding my usage of "Divinity", I am using it in OED 2a, "The Deity, the Supreme Being, God". Another way of phrasing it would be "The Logos is our God." I do not mean the Logos is our divine nature (OED 1).Regarding your earlier points:1) You say "Your position seems to be based on a specious separation between the triune persons and the divine attributes." Might I reply; "No, rather, between the Triune Persons, and the Divine Energies."?But I do not know Palamas, and I don't want to be accused of being guilty of reading him back into Cyril. So:1) As I understand simplicity, God is not his attributes, for God does not have attributes. But that is not to say that God is one indivisible thing (though he is indeed not divisible), rather, what God is is so fundamentally beyond even is that he cannot rightly be said to be, or even to be beyond being. We would be wrong to suppose He is less than existing, or that He is nonexistent (at least as the atheist means that), and so it is often necessary to bring some cataphatic language into apophatic language, and say He is beyond existence. That He is hyperousia, and hypersubstantial. Particularly, God does not have attributes, because the attribute of having attributes is itself something created. Rather, when we speak of God's attributes, we may 1) speak of different ways of speaking of God, all of which are significantly different; or 2) speak of his attributes in creation, things like love or justice or wrath. But these things are not Him, though they are the Divine Nature in creation.So when we speak of the Incarnation, we must say that the One who is Incarnate, the One who did not despise the Cross, is the Logos, namely God Himself. And it is possible for Him to be Incarnate because He is beyond all creatures, including being beyond, and is indeed completely unbounded, so completely unbounded, that He is not bounded by unboundedness, for unboundedness is itself created. But His flesh is life giving because the divine nature is joined with the flesh.2) I am not making a difference between what God is in Himself, and is contingently, but between the Divine Nature, and the Divine Persons. Like I said in a previous post, it seems to me the position you sketch turns on a knowledge of God as He is in His eternity, a knowledge which is forbidden by the principal itself. That is to say, I do not object to saying that God is mortal from all eternity from a consideration that mortality is unfitting for the passable God Him, but because mortality is created, and thus does not exist from all eternity, and so it is nonsense to say that God is mortal from all eternity, unless we may claim that creation exists from all eternity. Jenson is willing to go a little further, but adds the all important caveat that we cannot know what God would have been like had he not created, and we cannot even know whether God knows what He would have been like. I believe I am comfortable with Jenson's position, but only because of that qualification. But Jenson seeks to place his position within the Patristic tradition, and not in opposition to it. That said, I am not familiar with Barth, and am not trying to criticize his position, so much as to defend the Patristic one.3) You said "Hence the positing of the hypostasis as a way of bringing the natures together without involving the divinity in the actual experience of human suffering." Like I said before, I believe this statement depends on the ambiguity in the word "divinity." I still have seen no reason why I ought to think the ousia has suffered. Indeed, "the ousia suffered" seems to me to be syntactically valid, but conceptually nonsense–akin to the "statement" "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." What the Christian tradition proclaims is that the Divine Person, the eternal hypostasis, suffered and died–for indeed, suffering is not the opposite of impassibility.

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  15. Darren,When I say that a Divine Person suffered, I am not claiming that the Divine Person suffered as He is outside time. Again, that does not seem to make sense. Rather, the Divine Person, because He is infinite, that is not bounded, is therefore not infinite, that is, not bounded by boundness, for boundedness is itself created, and so being unbounded, freely bound Himself, and thus experienced suffering. But that suffering cannot refer to the Logos as He is outside time, for it is the Logos who has, by virtue of being unbounded, has become bounded who has suffered. Perhaps Cyril stops here, but I believe Maximos, at least, goes farther, in saying that the divine life here is the divine life outside here, for the logos of all things are the One Logos.My criticism of McCormack, if I understand him correctly, is that he attempts to understand God outside of time too much, importing created categories into an understanding of God as He is in Himself. But I am not familiar with him, and I may be misunderstanding him. That is to say, it is a relatively minor criticism–aside from the question of whether he is leaving the Patristic position.

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  16. Brad Littlejohn

    Now, to reply to everything except the Great Cyril Debate,David“On these and other points, my response is probably the opposite of yours: instead of backpedaling and trying to demonstrate our fidelity to some historical tradition, we should own up to the fact that we are departing entirely from the framework of the ancient church and allow theology to forge new ground….Put simply, you're absolutely right that everyone has "spectacles" on when they read scripture and interpret the tradition. But instead of seeing this as a reason to be skeptical of modern theology, I see it as a blessing that should be embraced. The church needs to be free to wear an infinite variety of spectacles.”How very po-mo of you…ironic, because McCormack’s project seems to me to be in many ways deeply modern and anti-postmodern. Of course, I agree with you to a point–I’m not at all in favor of the kinds of confessionalism that idolize their confessions, making particular historical formulations into timeless declarations from on high. By all means let’s improvise and forge new ground. But I’ve got enough Calvin in me to have a healthy appreciation for human depravity–by all means let’s come up with new ideas, but let’s be mindful of the fact that 9 out of 10 of our new ideas will probably be bad ones. That’s why I want us to hold ourselves on a fairly firm leash to historical traditions–not to prevent evolution altogether, but to slow it down. Now you hear the Hooker in me speaking.Jeremy“This is an interesting comment. Although I don't think critiquing a view as a convenient really holds much water. For instance, can you think of a single person who affirms double predestination while not also considering himself part of the elect? I could write off Calvinism as some incredibly convenient, self-serving theological system, but that seems a bit unfair.”Hm…I think you’re wrong about double predestination…it is actually as much a discomforting doctrine as a comforting one, and many many Calvinists who have held stoically to the doctrine have done so while in constant fear and doubt whether they were in fact one of the elect. If it were the case that predestination seemed to be an overly comforting and convenient doctrine, then I think it would be quite fair to raise questions about it. Human beings are factories of idols, as Calvin said–we like to make gods in our own image. So whenever we spot a doctrine of God that looks too much like what we might want our God to look like, we are justified in asking whether it’s theology or idolatry. However, in this case, you will notice that immediately after raising these questions, I dismiss them myself as oversimplistic. I don’t think that in this particular case, this line of critique holds that much water. However, I don’t think it’s an utterly frivolous criticism–I think these are questions that at least need to be asked, and carefully faced up to.“Your concern about the privileging of Mark and Matthew confuses me. Do you reject McCormack's conclusion and reasoning for privileging the Markan account, or simply his method (i.e. historical criticism)? I've always had the same thought that, at the heart of the gospel, there is a traumatic offense, which is avoided in the Gospel of Luke and John. I appreciated his honesty with handling this difficult verse.”I reject neither. Some of the responses to my “criticisms” here seem to have failed to attend carefully to this qualifier I made: “Please don’t forget, though, that I have high respect for both McCormack himself and his work–these are really more questions than they are criticisms.” I wanted to test out the potential weak points, without denying that there might be perfectly good responses to several or all of these objections. There are two points I was making: first, I am uncomfortable with privileging one or two Biblical texts so highly above others, even if there seem to be good historical reasons for doing so. McCormack acknowledged that dogmatics has to take all the texts on board and give them proper weight, but this sounded like mere lipservice given his reticence to draw anything from Luke or John. Second, while historical criticism may be quite a legitimate tool, it seems to me that it is open to the similar objections to those McCormack raises against “metaphysics”–it can become a way of subordinating the revelatory narrative to methodological or philosophical precommitments established on non-theological grounds.DarrenSince Darren stated his replies in such an organized fashion, I should briefly note my response to each of the five, even if my main answers have already be given, or will be given, elsewhere.Historical accuracyI'll try to touch on this further in an additional comment, but suffice to say a couple things here. First, I certainly don’t think McCormack is being irresponsible with the history, as you are right to point out that he has much of the specialist literature on his side. I’m merely saying that, as it seems to me that the case is not closed on several of these questions (as Sara Parvis was particularly keen to emphasize), it may turn out that McCormack has adopted a one-sided interpretation of these figures, and if that turns out to be the case, I think it affects the credibility of his project more than he claims it does.FashionabilityNo, he’s not trying to be fashionable, of course. He clearly sees himself as going against current trends. Indeed, hardly any theologian thinks of themself as trying to be fashionable. But the zeitgeist is a subtle temptress, and I’m merely remarking that I’d like to give proposals a few decades to be seasoned by the winds of time, so to speak, to make sure they aren’t merely products of a particular cultural milieu, before committing wholeheartedly to them.Hybridized theologyYou said it all in this sentence: “The trick, it may well be argued, is to parse out which bits are material and which are merely formal.” I happen to be of the postmodern persuasion that distinguishing the formal and the material is in fact a very difficult thing to do in many cases, and in some cases, downright impossible. I would suggest that things we thing are merely “formal” in Cyril’s thought, he would stubbornly insist are deeply material.ExegesisFair enough. McCormack did do more exegesis than a lot of systematic theologians would do, and that is to be greatly appreciated. The forthcoming book will have much more exegesis. My point here is simply that, as it currently stands, the exegesis is too narrow a base for the edifice that has been erected upon it–that may be quite remediable; it may have already been remedied in material that didn’t make it into the lectures.MetaphysicsI addressed this in my comment last night, hopefully with sufficient clarity.

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  17. I was thinking about this a little more last night, and realized the following relevant points:First, my distinction between the Divine Operations (which is to say the Divine Nature) and the Divine Persons, who are not identical with the Nature goes back at least as far as St. Gregory the Theologian, and his letter to Ablabius "On Not Three Gods". (Though he uses different words.)Second, the comment about infinity meaning beyond every bound, and thus not infinite (for infinite is a name) is likewise from "On Not Three Gods."Likewise, Gregory does not say that God is his attributes, but that his attributes name our method of understanding him, but not him, and that they name his operations.Third, though the west has believed in simplicity as you described it, the East has not–but rather has opted for something more like what I sketched from St. Gregory–and since we are discussing Cyril, we should not presuppose the later Western understanding of simplicity–that would be anacronistic. Indeed, if either position is more likely, it is that Cyril holds to something like St. Gregory's doctrine, since he often cites Gregory, but I have not found a citation of St. Augustine (who, writing in Latin, was probably not well known to him).Fourth, we are given two options, believe Cyril is flatly contradicting himself in the course of a couple of sentences, by saying the Word suffered, and then immediately thereafter saying he did not; and on the other hand, believing that Cyril has something of the same sort of distinction St. Gregory makes in mind.Finally, the difference between Cyril and Nestorius was not "that Cyril has a single agency…located in the Logos, who assumes the flesh, whereas Nestorius divides the agency between a human person and the Logos." at least if you mean by agency energy, for Nestorius seems to have been a monoenergist–as Cyril Hovorun briefly states in his book Will, Action and Freedom: Christological Controversies in the 7th Century.

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  18. Brad, the notion that we all wear "spectacles" is not a postmodern notion; it is a staple of the entire hermeneutical conversation, and goes back at least as far as Schleiermacher.Matthew, I won't bother responding to everything you've said. I do think you're guilty of imposing a lot of later Greek categories and distinctions into Cyril that simply do not belong and are nowhere found in his writings. You have created a Cyril that is not substantiated in any of the literature on him, so far as I can tell. If you want to claim that all the major scholars are simply wrong, that's fine, just so long as you know what you're doing.I think we can make this conversation very simple. Cyril absolutely does say that the Word of God suffered — BUT he suffered "according to the flesh." This qualification is what McCormack contests, and it's what I contest. It is a qualification that the ancient tradition makes because of certain ontological presuppositions — presuppositions which you apparently hold as well. For what it's worth, Barth isn't the first to contest this qualification. Luther does so himself in his 1540 disputation on the divinity and humanity of Christ.

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  19. Wait a minute…I press what Cyril actually says, you say he's contradicting himself–or rather say "the Word suffered in the flesh" means "the Word did not actually suffer"–I make a distinction, based on Cyril, you appeal to Augustine and Aquinas and Calvin to prove the distinction is incoherent, I appeal to St. Gregory Nazanzius to defend the distinction, and I'm the one reading later distinctions into him???

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  20. I haven't appealed to anyone else other than Cyril. You might be confusing me with someone else.Answer me this: Does Cyril think that the Son of God according to his divinity suffered? If you say yes, then I can show you a hundred references where he says precisely the opposite, and every Cyril scholar would agree with me. If you say no, then my criticism stands, taking as I do Barth's position on divine passibility.

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  21. And why is it relevant that Luther tried to remove the qualification "in the flesh". I said I am sympathetic to Jenson, and as far as I can tell, McCormack is doing something like what Jenson does, but taking it further. It's that bit further than Jenson that I'm uncomfortable with. I haven't said it yet, but I'm even sympathetic to the Miaphysites. I liked St. Severus of Antioch. But what really bothers me is the attacking the fathers, and the Creeds.

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  22. No, you misunderstand me. I'm not attacking the fathers. I just don't think we should overlook their deficiencies or attribute statements to them that they don't or can't make. We should acknowledge their historical and conceptual limitations, just as we must seek to acknowledge our own. The problem of appropriate speech about God is never-ending. Theology, whether creedal in nature or the work of individual theologians, is never infallible; we never attain perfect or direct knowledge of God.I only mentioned Luther to note that what Barth and McCormack are doing is not something purely modern in nature, per Brad's criticism. Sorry, that wasn't very clear. In other words, this is an attempt to be more faithful in articulating the truth of the gospel. It isn't simply born out of modern presuppositions or apologetic concerns.As for whether it's the right position to hold, that's a different topic, and one that probably can't be adjudicated in a blog conversation. My point is that we have to at least be able to recognize the problem to which Barth and other modern theologians are responding. Even if we disagree as to whether the ancient position is in fact problematic, I think we should be able to agree that there is something to which they are responding. There are indeed certain presuppositions regarding what it means for God to be divine that Cyril and others hold, and that these condition the way he speaks about Christ and the suffering he experienced. I take these to be fairly uncontroversial.

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  23. Ah. Thanks, that makes sense. Like I said, I'm sympathetic to Jenson. And I would agree with you that if the ancient position is what you take it to be it would be problematic. I just don't think that's the ancient position. It does seem, however, to be endemic today, and must be fought. But I think the case against it would be stronger if we didn't have to try and overturn Chalcedon and Cyril, but rather could appeal to them.

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  24. Brad Littlejohn

    David,I was teasing about the postmodernism–of course the notion of hermeneutical spectacles isn't narrowly postmodern, and of course it's a very important one. With regard to the ongoing fruitless Cyril debate, I have just a couple quick thoughts that might help bridge things a bit (though probably not).I agree with David, McCormack, etc., that Cyril denies that the Son suffers "according to his divinity," however, I'm somewhat with Matt to the extent of asking why that's so utterly crucial. Now, that's not to say that I don't see that McCormack may be right to argue that trying to put a sharp distinction between person and nature at this point may lead into some difficulties that are hard to parse out logically further down the road. But, as I said in my most recent post, I don't think that some remaining logical difficulties is *necessarily* a fatal objection to a Christological theory. In any case, I think McCormack might be right that we need some revision here, but I'm with Matt to the extent of saying that it's unfair to say of Cyril, "Well, he didn't believe the Son *really* suffered–just suffered in his humanity." From Cyril (and the orthodox tradition)'s perspective, the Word took on flesh precisely so that he could suffer. He could not suffer as God, but he elected to suffer on behalf of man, and so he came to suffer and die, which meant he had to become man, man who was capable of suffering and dying. The humanity is not a spacesuit-buffer to keep suffering away from the Word–quite the opposite, it is there precisely in able to enable the Word to make suffering his own. This does not occur in his divine nature, no, but it happens to him as a person, by virtue of his human nature. We complain that the communication of attributes to the person is "merely" linguistic, as if language serves as a distraction from or mask of what is real. That's a modern way to think, but I don't know if that's how the Fathers would have thought of it–I think they would have seen language as a vehicle for reality. If the Son can be said to have suffered, then he did suffer. Anyway, there's two cents from a complete amateur in all this stuff–you can take it, leave it, or dissect it.

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  25. Albert

    Interesting discussion. I think some comments reflect a misunderstanding of culture and knowledge, perhaps due to a understandable but doomed desire to get free from historical and cultural embodiment. The Word became flesh at a particular point in time and history, with a particular Jewish tradition with particular metaphysical categories and ideas and practices expressed in particular languages including one which Jesus spoke. From what I can tell, the early Church understood this better than we think they did, and perhaps even better than we understand in so far as we view breaking from traditions of knowledge and meaning in a positive light. Postmodernism is in important ways an extension, rather than an abrogation, of modernism. If moderns wanted to be rid of the superstitious and irrational cultural particularities grounded in religion (which they believed obscured the vision of premoderns) in order to achieve an objective, pure knowledge grounded in rationality and empiricism; postmoderns would get rid of "grounds" altogether, desiring a freedom from such "violent" constraints in order to pursue ends (including Christian ones like "mission") with as much power as possible detached from and unlimited by the constraining past. So we get theories divorcing form and material (form and content), "truth" from language, etc. guided primarily by a desire to be "effective" in the short-term and especially in our own lifetime.So when I see statements like:

    we should own up to the fact that we are departing entirely from the framework of the ancient church and allow theology to forget new ground. I see no reason to shy away from this fact; the church should embrace it. I have a whole theological argument for why that's the case, but I won't elaborate on it here. To give you a hint, it has to do with mission (or missional theology) and the relation between the gospel and culture. Put simply, you're absolutely right that everyone has "spectacles" on when they read scripture and interpret the tradition. But instead of seeing this as a reason to be skeptical of modern theology, I see it as a blessing that should be embraced. The church needs to be free to wear an infinite variety of spectacles.

    … I suggest that the writer understands little of how cultures function because what those statements describe is a perspective that will not of build or bless culture, but of a program of anti-culture or the destruction of culture which is necessarily anti-human, even if the writer does not actually intend this. This is precisely what we get with postmodernism: at the point where humans are freed from constraint, limits, tradition, and the past in order to achieve noble ends of human flourishing with the help of technological power, we actually destroy the human. At the point where we desire humanity to be exalted above constraining perspectives, we abolish it. This matters if Christians are still human.To the degree that theologians are captive to these cultural tendencies, then I suspect that they still don't quite appreciate how much theology lags and baptizes the anti-human elements of the wider technological culture. Systematic theologians are unfortunately most vulnerable to this because of the nature of their discipline. How many systematic theologians have books about the nature of technological culture and how it impacts the pursuit of knowledge on their bookshelves? Does that matter if we're really serious about examining our own spectacles?As another example, I'm surprised that no one has written about the metaphysical categories of Judaism at the time of Jesus. Did Jews think of what humans and God are in terms of their actions? Does that matter?I am a bit disturbed not by the desire to forge new theological ground, but of the ways such "forging" (revealing choice of metaphor, since "ground" is usually cultivated or broken, but not forged) seems nicely if unintentionally in sync with hypermodern anti-human technological culture.

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