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.