The Eternal Humiliation of the Son (McCormack Croall Lecture #4)

Lecture #4 constituted a major turning-point in this series; in it, McCormack shifted out of a primarily critical gear and into a primarily constructive gear.  And with this turn, as the direction of his own proposal began to come into sharper focus, and the theology stepped further and further out onto the cliff-edge (or over the brink, as some might deem), tensions and misgivings mounted.  However, since I want to do full justice to the argument McCormack was trying to spell out, for his sake and for the sake of those who would have loved to hear these lectures themselves, I shall try to rigorously confine myself to recounting here, and reserve any discussion of my own reactions and questions until the series is complete.

Unsurprisingly, the more constructive turn in the series coincides with the treatment of Karl Barth and the eminent Barthian, Hans Urs von Balthasar.  For McCormack himself admitted at the outset of the lecture that it is difficult to tell in his work where Barth ends and he begins; he tends to regard his own constructive work as nothing more than correcting Karl Barth by Karl Barth.  Many Barth scholars would of course fiercely object–the interpretation of Barth is a notoriously contentious matter–and would consider McCormack’s project a perversion of Barth.  McCormack is thus in the somewhat awkward position of trying to put forward a genuinely new dogmatic proposal, whose significance depends on its newness, while trying all the while to disclaim originality.  

Be all that as it may, the key starting points are clearly Barthian–the “actualistic” ontology (to be is to act), the consequent focus on the dynamic history of Christ, and the emphasis on God’s freedom-for-us, his freedom to become humble.  So how does McCormack develop these themes?  Unfortunately, time did not allow him to present all the material he had prepared, so what follows is perhaps not as fully coherent as he might have liked; the basic contour, however, should be fairly readily discernible



He began by remarking that Karl Barth’s theology of the cross could not be more out of step with Christian theologians today, even those who use his name.  For many today, Jesus Christ stands preeminently as the victim of an unjust political order; they certainly do not think that his death was willed by his heavenly Father.  Focus thus shifts from the saving significance of his death to the saving significance of his life.  But nothing could be more emphatically asserted by Karl Barth than the saving significance of the death of Christ.

Barth is insistent that Christ remains always sovereign even in his passion; he remains the Lord, he remains in control, he remains free.  For Barth, the cohesiveness of the Gospel narratives is destroyed if we read, as so many moderns, his predictions of his passion as later interpolations.  Christ’s death must not be allowed ot be considered in any way an unexpected defeat, but a sovereign victory. The point is not to lessen the darkness surrounding the death of Jesus; no one has made more than Barth of the cry of dereliction.  But we must allow the light of Easter to penetrate the event of the cross, lest we make Christ into no more than a tragic hero.

McCormack finds Barth so congenial for this project (ostensibly reworking penal substitution) because Barth took up the judicial frame of reference inherited from the Reformers and made it foundational to a teleologically-ordered divine ontology.  Barth’s synthesis is able to give due weight to the insights of ontological and moral influence theories as well.  Barth achieves all this in a way that intends to be post-metaphysical, that seeks to build every doctrine on the lived narrative of Jesus of Nazareth; however, McCormack noted that Barth failed in the end to purge metaphysics from his account entirely–that task, it seems, has fallen to McCormack himself to complete.

In CD IV.1, “The Judge Judged in Our Place,” Barth engages with the theme of penal substitution directly.  He clearly thinks it is appropriate to think of the atonement in terms of penal substitution.  But just as clearly, he does not think it should be made central to a well-ordered understanding of the atonement.  The root problem for Barth is that the atonement is seen to address only the problem of guilt in this model; it is not seen to entail that which he considers fundamental–the destruction of the sinner in the death of Jesus Christ.  Guilt still plays an important role in Barth’s theory, but there is also the problem of corruption.  Christ drinks the bitter cup of sin to its dregs, and in this accomplishes the end of the sinner, not merely the end of the sin that hangs over the sinner’s head.  For Barth, indeed, the penalty for sin is not something extrinsic and additional to sin itself; the wrath that awaits the unrepentant is no more or less than the final condition into which their sin irresistibly leads them, to a place of utter separation from God.  

The Reformers, thought Barth, erred in tending to treat the atonement as a purely external transaction between God and the human Jesus, not a transaction in God himself.  In place of this, Barth provides the possibility for a true integration of person and work of Christ, but in such a way that the person is defined by the work to be performed.


What Takes Place in the Passion and Death of Christ?

Barth’s summary statement sounds fairly traditional: Jesus subjects himself to divine wrath and judgment in our place.  But when we unpack Barth’s doctrine more clearly, we will find that it is anything but traditional; this emerges particularly in his treatment of the cry of dereliction.

Barth identified the experience which gave rise to the cry of dereliction with the experience of hell.  We see this particularly in CD III.2, where he suggests that it was in fact the being of Jesus in death that led the NT writers to reflect on the suffering of hell–the Sheol described in the OT does not come close to the intensity of anguish described in the NT.   Christ died not as the righteous victim, but precisely as the sinner, and thus,  in death, Jesus has God “against him”; for Christ, then, the realm of the dead becomes Hell–being in death becomes punishment, torment, outer darkness.  Because of the sufferings of Christ, the realm of the dead can now be understood not merely naturally, as in the Old Testament, but judicially.

The subject of the cry is variously described by Barth.  He can refer to him as simply “God.”  The meaning of the Incarnation, says Barth, is revealed in the cry of dereliction: The Incarnation means not merely God’s becoming a man, but God’s handing himself over to the contradiction of man against him, man’s being-against-God that, carried out to its extremity, results in the Hell of God-abandonment, of God’s being-against-man.  The experience that gives rise to cry is for Barth a human experience; but this human cry points beyond itself to a more profound truth–the subject of the cry is God.  There must be no reservation in God’s solidarity with us in Christ.  It is God who cries out; he cries with man, as one who has made himself one with man.  Indeed, the true deity of this divine subject is disclosed more clearly here than anywhere else, in his being-with-us and being-for-us.  

Having pushed this point, however, Barth draws back and emphasizes the humanness of the suffering and death, out of worry that in emphasizing the prior point, we might seem to say that God ceases to be God.  We must not let supreme praise of God become supreme blasphemy: “God gives himself, but he does not give himself away.”  Barth does not want the divine immutability to be undermined.  He thus unexpectedly says, “His God had not really forsaken him.”  It would then seem that Barth makes the God-abandonment real only for the human Jesus.  McCormack is dissatisfied with this reticence.  However, the crucial point remains–in CD IV.1, Barth has argued that the passion and death of Christ are human experiences that take place in God without detriment to God’s being as God. 


What Does this imply for the Being of the Mediator?

Before entering upon the most perilous and daring ground yet, McCormack paused to recite the judgment of Eberhard Jungel that in Church Dogmatics IV we have not merely the recapitulation of the first three sections (as is generally recognized) but in fact the revision, or even retraction, of them.  Whereas in I.1 the emphasis is on the Godness of God, the emphasis is now in IV.1 on the humanity of God.  The anti-metaphysical strain inherent in Barth’s thought from the beginning has now taken hold of the theology as a whole.  There is no separate section in CD IV on the Person of Christ–Christ simply is what he does.  McCormack sees this trajectory as legitimating his own project of attempting to carry forward the actualization of Christology and divine ontology that Barth had begun but never completed.  So what does Barth’s Christological ontology in CD IV.1 look like?  

There are two key features: First, Barth substitutes a hypostatic uniting that takes place throughout the life of Jesus Christ for a hypostatic union conceived as a completed fact: “The subject Jesus Christ simply is this history.”  Second, he bids a firm farewell to the abstract metaphysical subject–hypostasis–of Chalcedon.  In place of it he puts a living divine subject who realizes his eternal being in and through human humility and obedience in time.  

This latter point takes us back from the mere history of the man Jesus on earth into the ontology of the pre-existent word, the eternal background of divine self-realization.  Barth argues in IV.1 that Christ reveals that humility and obedience are not alien to the innermost being of God, but are in fact most proper to him.  Although Christ’s humiliation is a novum mysterium for us when it encounters us in history, it is nothing new for him, but what he has always been for the beginning, for God is eternal and changeless.  The self-emptying of Phil. 2:7-8 finds its ground in an eternal self-humiliation.  How can this be?  Barth answers this question in terms of an inter-Trinitarian relation which finds its ground in the eternal act of election: “a divine decision whose content is made essential to God in the eternal act of deciding.”  It is not merely a decision to do something, but an eternal act of self-constitution.  Indeed, it is this act that distinguishes the three persons of God from one another, who otherwise would remain merely empty abstractions.  There is nothing prior to and above this self-differentiation; God never was anything else.  Barth could hold both divine immutability and divine passibility, because passibility was part of the eternal being of God as a property belonging to the person of the Word.  Barth can also say that it is only the pride of man making a God in its own image that refuses to hear of this self-humiliating God.  Barth says that in the older Greek metaphysical doctrine of God, God was too exalted to be affected in any way by the incarnation–he was a prisoner of his own Godhead.  

Whew!  You might want to take a deep breath after that shot of cask-strength theology, cuz it gets even wilder (though if you read the post “God Died For Us…Really?” you’ve already gotten a foretaste of it.


McCormack now asks, but aren’t the humility and obedience of the Word in eternity and the humility and obedience of the man Jesus in time two different things?  How can Barth bring these two activities together so as to be the activity of a single unified subject?  If we can’t answer this question, the whole enterprise is rendered untenable: can the actualization of divine and human in a single shared history be rendered coherent?  Barth posits a “becoming-identical” of the humility of the eternal Son with that of the man Jesus, but although this points in a helpful direction, it remains rather patchy.  So now McCormack lays all his cards on the table: the problem is that to get death and God-abandonment as a human experience into the divine life would require something more than the mere act of identifying with Jesus on the part of the Son of God; it would require an ontological receptivity on the part of the Son toward all that comes to it from the humanity of Jesus.  Now, “receptivity” is not the same as “passivity” or “inactivity”–it is a sovereignly-willed activity which expresses itself in powerlessness.  This constitutes a dramatic reversal to the tendency of historical Christology.  It also enables us to emphatically unite the divine and human into one subject, because there is no such thing as a mere logos as such–there is only a Logos that acts humanly.  If receptivity is ontologically constitutive, then there is only the history of the man Jesus.  The history of the divine Son simply is his reception of the history of the man Jesus.  

Although Barth makes some initial moves that open the way for this, he does not follow through on them.  What McCormack thus proposes to offer is a Barthian supplement to Barth.  What is it then that Barth himself achieved?  An actualization of the doctrine of the person of Christ; a translation of the phenomenology into the sphere of a history.  


Hans Urs von Balthasar

Don’t worry, you’re not halfway through, but near the end.  McCormack only had a few things to say about von Balthasar, treating his account of Christ’s bearing of divine wrath and descent into hell as a necessary preliminary to part of the picture McCormack was going to sketch in lectures five and six.  My summary remarks here shall be proportionally even briefer than McCormack’s, since as with the preceding lectures, my mental capacities started to break down after about an hour of furious note-taking.  

Three main points then.  First, von Balthasar gives particular attention to the final testing in Gethsemane, where Jesus pleads with his Father for the cup to be withdrawn from him.  For von Balthasar, this wrath is the eschatological wrath of God that is described in the OT.  In Gethsemane, we have an eschatological testing which precedes the eschatological judgment of the cross.  At this point, Christ assumes universal guilt and thus becomes the object of the Father’s eschatological wrath, delivered up by the Father to the authorities even as he delivers himself up.

Second, regarding the cry of dereliction.  Von Balthasar too wants to make this moment in the Passion narratives central.  The cry of dereliction is the expression of a real abandonment of the Son by the Father in consequence of the burden of sinners that he bears; the death that Christ then dies is the “second death” of Rev. 2:11.  The torment of Christ on the cross is the death in the absence of God; it is the experience of hell. 

Third, von Balthasar is most (in)famous for his creative re-interpretation of the “descent into hell.”  He critiques the verb “descent,” since it implies an activity of which the dead are incapable.  Von Balthasar instead wants to understand this as a state of perfect passivity, incapacity; the realm of the dead is not fundamentally a place, but a condition.  It is this state of passivity which Jesus shares with all of the dead.  But Jesus suffered much more than this; the passivity for him is the mere precondition of the poena damni–the expeience of the wrath of God against sin.  What Christ suffers is the “vision of death” in its fullness.  Christ’s experience in death is the experience of Hell.  Like Barth, von Balthasar will argue that “Hell, in the New Testament sense, is a function of the Christ-event.”



In a brief peroration, McCormack summed up the contribution of these two as follows: Both of these theologians are determined to base everything on the witness of the lived history of Christ; both are to this extent post-metaphysical.  They are also both determined to offer a revised form of a penal substitution theory, since they do not like the way the penal substitution doctrine would seem to make the atonement  to effect a change in the attitude of God.  Instead, both insist that God’s wrath is the outworking of his holy love and thus both are able to integrate the person of Christ into his work. 



In the Q&A, Larry Hurtado challenged McCormack on whether or not he (and Barth and von B) was giving disproportionate emphasis on the Marcan Passion narrative, and even there, putting a particular spin on the cry of dereliction that isn’t justified exegetically.  Indeed, he asked whether there was really NT exegetical justification for language like God-abandonment.  Finally, he wondered whether all this was really post-metaphysical, and wasn’t rather just replacing one metaphysically-driven Christology with a different kind of metaphysically-driven Christology.  At this last remark, McCormack bristled, as he had when O’Donovan asked something similar, and insisted categorically that what he was doing was not metaphysical based on the definition he had offered at the outset.  To the former questions, he responded that he hoped to spell out his exegetical justification further in the fifth lecture, and that in any case, he thought it was appropriate to put emphasis on the Marcan account given his conviction that it was the first account written.


I then asked a question about how the idea that “the history of the divine Son simply is his reception of the history of the man Jesus” squared with the creative work of the Word in the beginning (John 1:2), traditionally a matter of great theological importance.  Unfortunately, McCormack only agreed to answer on condition that I not blog the answer here–to hear the full and proper answer, we’ll have to wait till a series of lectures he gives later this year at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. 😉

God Died for Us…Really? (McCormack Croall adjunct seminar)

What is the root problem that McCormack is trying to get at in his lectures?  What is the bee in his bonnet?  After all, the Church (with a couple small Oriental exceptions) has been happily funcitoning with the Definition of Chalcedon for nearly sixteen centuries, which has held firm and uncontested throughout all manner of doctrinal controversies and schisms, and never been seriously questioned until the last two centuries.  Even these questions, we are likely to say, are the result more of unbelief in general than of any problem internal to the doctrine as such.  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”–right?

Well the problem is this: Christians have always wanted to say, and routinely do say in sermons and hymns, that “God himself came and died for us; God himself came and died for us; God himself took the burden of evil upon himself and saved us because we could not save ourselves.”  I heard a great sermon yesterday on the problem of evil that focused on just this point–God has taken the problem of evil on himself and borne its suffering.  But the question is, can we really say that?  Does our theology really allow us to assert, with a straight face, without any asterisks or fine print, that very God suffered and died on our behalf?  McCormack thinks the answer is “No”–orthodox theology, as we have received it, must always add a bunch of fine print at the bottom, so that God may remain properly God.  “Thanks God, for dying for us,” we say, “but just between the two of us, we know you can’t really, cuz you’re God,” we add with a wink. 

The tensions, suggested McCormack in his open discussion seminar on Friday, go all the way back to the Chalcedonian definition.  We should not, says McCormack, treat Chalcedon as irreformable, because to do so would be to elevate the philosophical categories available to the fifth-century bishops to the level of the canon.  We must honor the doctrinal goals they were seeking to accomplish, while acknowledging that ultimately they had to articulate these doctrines within the philosophical resources available to them, which are not sacrosanct.  If we can improve upon the account by bringing new philosophical resources to bear, while continuing to do justice to the core theological values, then we may be able to construct a more coherent, more Biblical account of Christology.  

In principle, this sounds like a fine endeavour, and when you hear what McCormack is up to, it’s hard not to be sympathetic to his project–I do have at least three key misgivings, but I’m going to continue to hold off on them until McCormack is done his lecture series. For now, his analysis of Chalcedon:  

In the Chalcedonian Definition, we have two natures and one person.  Everyone knows that much.  Moreover, what not everyone knows (because only in the last couple decades has scholarship come back around to this conclusion–one recognized all along by the East)–the relationship between the two is conceived in basically Alexandrian terms: the one person of the hypostatic union is identical with the eternal person of the Logos, the second person of the Trinity.  There is no new composite person, rather, there is the person of the Logos who assumes to himself a human nature, adding it to the divine nature he already possesses (but, as we all know, without confusion, without separation, without change, etc.).  So far, so good.

But what, pray tell, is a person?  And what, pray tell, is a nature?  Well for us, certainly, a person certainly means a self-conscious subject, an agent that wills, acts, and takes responsibility for his or her actions.  And a nature, it would seem, is a set of essential properties that define a certain being.  Now, where do things like will and consciousness reside?  Are they part of our human nature?  It would certainly seem so.  Will and consciousness are properties pertaining to the human.  Will and consciousness, then, belong to a nature, but are expressed through a person; in the case of Jesus Christ, these human properties receive their expression through the divine person.  But wait a second, how does this person relate to its divine nature?  The will and consciousness of the Logos are those of its divine nature.  The Logos is simply a divine nature in conscious action, right?  To speak of the person without his divine nature is to speak of a mere abstraction, like the mathematical placeholder 0.  On this way of looking at it, the divine nature and the one person must be held together in the tightest unity–so how do they relate to the third element of the equation–the human nature?

According to the basic theosis soteriology prevalent in the early Church, the divine nature and the divine person were not treated in abstraction, but as a single subject acting through and upon the human nature.  However, as soon as the Fathers came to treat of the communication of attributes–which they had to do in order to predicate genuine humanity of Christ–they had to hold the nature and person apart in abstraction.  The properties of human nature were ascribed to the person of the union, but they were not ascribed to the divine nature as such.  How could they be?  The divine nature could not be composite, finite, passible, etc., and still remain divine.  Divinity acted through and upon the humanity, but the humanity did not act through and upon the divinity.  The relation is necessarily asymmetrical. 

Now, either way we have a problem.  When the divine nature and divine person are held closely together, then the human nature is instrumentalized; it is as it were a passive object used by the divine Word, but in itself capable of contributing nothing.  Indeed, if an infinite power is always operating in and through it, it is hard to see how Christ can act as a genuine human at all–how can he know as a finite being, act as a finite being, suffer as a finite being?  The slide toward Apollinarianism becomes all but irresistible.  On the other hand, when we try to emphasize the genuine humanity of Christ’s person, we do so only by putting a chasm between the person and the divine nature, and thus reduce the person to a metaphysical abstraction, with the two natures in the end functioning separately along parallel tracks.  The slide toward Nestorianism becomes all but irresistible.


The only way of resolving this, McCormack thinks, lies in ditching the metaphysical scruples that, in his mind, are a wrench in the gears of the whole thing–divine simplicity and divine impassibility.  On the grounds of a Greek metaphysical understanding of what is proper to the divine nature, a wall of separation has been erected, so that human attributes can never touch the divine nature–this is either done via the Nestorian wall of abstraction, or via the Alexandrian route–making the divine nature so completely active with respect to the human nature that there is no way for the human nature to act reflexively back on the divine.  

The Nestorian approach, for McCormack, is a non-starter (it is, after all, heretical).  We have to use the Alexandrian starting-point, but–here’s the punch line–in reverse.  What if, instead of the divine nature/person being completely active with respect to the human nature, the divine nature/person is completely passive with respect to the human nature; or rather, since God is always the sovereign agent in any relation and is thus never passive in the full sense of the world, we could say “receptive.”  Thus, what McCormack wants to say is this: in the Incarnation, the divine Word freely wills to exist in perfect receptivity to the human–to human thoughts, feelings, finitude, suffering.  Is this really so radical after all?  After all, this is the sort of thing we say in prayers and sermons and hymns all the time, particularly around Christmas.  From a dogmatic standpoint, though, this really may be radical.  It’s also useful from a Biblical standpoint–for if the agency at work in Christ is divine and all-powerful, what need does Jesus have of the Spirit?  And yet he calls upon the Spirit, and is indwelt by the Spirit.  This seems redundant.  But on McCormack’s account, the all-powerful agency of the Word is not active in the man Jesus–else it would overwhelm his humanity; Jesus thus acts by the aid of the Spirit, as his apostles did.  

And there’s more.

Remember how the Chalcedonian definition does not merely use the word “person,” but also that opaque Greek word hypostasis?  The literal Latin equivalent of hypostasis is substantia–substance–but that’s misleading.  The best definition, McCormack suggested, was “the thatness of a thing,” in contradistinction, indeed, from the “whatness,” which is substance.  The word enters Christology from Trinitarian theology.  In the Trinitarian credal formulas, one God exists in three hypostases.  These are not at all fully independent persons as we would normally understand the term; modern social trinitarianism has gone on to predicate much more difference and personality within the Trinity than the classical doctrine would permit.  Classical dogmatics, indeed, in treating of the ontological differences among the members of the Trinity, would say no more that they differed in their modes of origination–the three hypostases were defined by being autotheos in the case of the Father, begotten in the case of the Son, and spirated in the case of the Spirit.  But to state things this way is to say next to nothing, to posit no more than abstract logical relations without any clear substantial content.  To complain then that the “one person and hypostasis” of the incarnate Word becomes no more than an empty abstraction, a metaphysical placeholder, in our doctrine of Christ, is to point to a problem already bequeathed to the Council of Chalcedon by the previous century’s Trinitarian disputes.  And this is where McCormack’s proposal gets pretty darn cool.  

Yes, he says, it is true that on its own, the second hypostasis of the Trinity has no differentiating personal properties.  That is why he became man.  The Word took to himself a human nature so that humanity might become proper to Him, might become a personal property of the second person of the Trinity.  What else would have been merely divine nature shared in common with Father and Spirit is now divine-and-human nature.  The Son is the Son because he is the one who became Son, who was born amidst God’s human children and became one of them.  The Son is the one who made humility, suffering, sacrifice, part of what it meant to be God.

Now, lest we fall headlong into some terrifying pit of process theology, McCormack is quick to say: this does not mean that God ontologically changes.  Divine impassibility may be unbiblical, but he does not think immutability is.  All this is not a violation of divine immutability because this man-becomingness is part of the eternal election of God.  The Son has always already been constituted as the one who freely willed to become man.  The logos asarkos is never not already the logos incarnandus–or, in English: the Word-outside-the-flesh is never not already the Word-to-be-enfleshed.

Again, to say all this (at least all but the last bit) is in many ways to say things that Christians have instinctively felt the need to say: yes, what makes the Son different from the Father is that he has taken to himself human nature and made it part of himself.  But dogmatically speaking, this is certainly a departure–preeminently a departure from the doctrine of divine simplicity, which McCormack considers another holdover from Platonism.  Divine simplicity states that God’s being has no composite parts; it consists only of itself in perfect unity.  But how can this be if the fully divine Son has taken to himself another nature as ontologically proper to himself, and thus become a composite being, a being of two natures?  


So God becomes incarnate in Christ to exhibit himself as God-for-us, as the God who has eternally willed to exist for and in communion with his creatures, as the God to whom finitude, humanity, humility, is not alien, but indeed part of who He is.  This is where McCormack is coming from, and this is what he’s going to unpack with relation to the doctrine of the atonement in the coming days.  A beautiful solution, though most will admit a dangerous one, and one that many will not be willing to accept.  But, as Jeremy Begbie once said, “All good theology is done on the cliff-edge—one step too far and you tumble into idolatry, one step back and the view is never so good. The reader [of this book] will have to judge whether we have occasionally stumbled over the precipice, and when we have not, whether the view has justified the risk.”


(If you’re wondering, by the way, what happened to the bit about T.F. Torrance that I said McCormack presented on Friday; well, I decided to leave it out, considering this discussion to be long enough and interesting enough on its own.  If anyone’s desperate for a synopsis of the Torrance material, let me know and I can try to provide it.)


A fantastic little passage from Book I of Hooker’s Laws, which could apply as much to the Limbaughs and Glenn Becks of today as it did to the Presbyterian demagogues of his own day.

“He that goeth about to perswade a multitude, that they are not so well governed as they ought to be, shall never want attentive and favourable hearers; because they know the manifold defects whereunto every kind of regiment is subject, but the secret lets and difficulties, which in publike proceedings are innumerable and inevitable, they have not ordinarily the judgement to consider.  And because such as openly reprove supposed disorders of state are taken for principall friends to the common benefite of all, and for men that carry singular freedome of mind; under this faire and plausible coulour whatsoever they utter passeth for good and currant.  That which wanteth in the waight of their speech, is supplyed by the aptnes of men’s minds to accept and believe it.  Whereas on the other side, if we maintaine thinges that are established, we have not onely to strive with a number of heavie prejudices deepely rooted in the hearts of men, who thinke that herein we serve the time, and speake in favour of the present state, because therby we eyther holde or seeke preferment; but also to beare such exceptions as minds so averted before hand usually take against that which they are loath should be powred into them.”

The Divided Christ (McCormack Croall Lecture #3)

In his third lecture, on Thursday, McCormack turned to views of the atonement with which we are probably more familiar–those of Anselm, Aquinas, and Calvin, for example.  These were all classed under the heading, “Theories which fail adequately to integrate the person and work of Christ”–a criticism which McCormack would apply to the whole tradition of judicial theories.  More intriguingly, though, McCormack classed moral theories of the atonement under the same heading.  Whatever their protestations to the contrary, he said, moral views are not the antithesis of judicial views, but parasitic upon them.  Both sets of views, he said, emerged around the same time–the judicial theory with Anselm around 1100 and the moral theory with Abelard a couple decades later.  And while judicial theories are preoccupied with seeking to explain Christ’s work in such a way that the demands of God’s justice are upheld, this concern is also central to many moral theories, such as those of the liberation theologians.  Likewise, while judicial theories seek to give particular weight to the objective accomplishment of the atonement and moral theories to its subjective appropriation, both have to give an account of both sides.

Calvin served as his key case study for a judicial view, while as an example of a moral theory of the atonement, he considered D.M. Baillie, and he also gave particular attention to a fascinating hybrid view–that of nineteenth-century Scotsman, John McLeod Campbell.  

Now what, from his standpoint, is the crucial problem with both these traditions?  How do they fail to integrate the person and work of Christ?  Judicial theories take for granted Chalcedonian Christologies, merely repeating the formula as a rote school exercise, without any attention to the complexities that led to it and that it seeks to express.  Most judicial theorists do not realize that it was originally created to undergird a theosis theory, a radically different soteriology than that which judicial theorists thus erect on this foundation.  Indeed, on this model, the hypostatic union plays little role beyond that of giving infinite significance to what is otherwise necessarily a human act.  (This non-integration, I should add, was a point on which Nevin mercilessly hammered the Reformed Christologies of his day; of course, McCormack would equally dismiss Nevin’s Christology as another failed example of the first variety–the metaphysical sort.)

Moral theorists, he said, were right to protest against the unreality of legal solutions erected on this basis.  However, in place of a robust Chalcedonian theory, they present merely “the man Christ Jesus”–to whose actions the divinity of Christ contributes little or nothing.  They achieve much greater internal coherence than judicial theories, but at the cost of a low Christology which does not do justice to the full Biblical witness. Many twentieth-century moral views therefore switched horses in midstream to a Hegelian or Schleiermacherian view to get God back into the picture.

Time did not permit a detailed examination of Anselm and Aquinas, so he offered only some brief remarks.  Regarding Anselm, he pointed out that contrary to what many textbooks might imply, Anselm was not the founder of the penal substitution view; on the contrary, Anselm considered “punishment” and “satisfaction” to be two opposing concepts, and he opted for a “satisfaction” view in conscious opposition to a penal option.  Regarding Thomas, who did hold to a penal view, McCormack thought it worth pausing briefly to consider how he answered one of the common objections to penal substitution–has not God done something blameworthy in delivering an innocent man over to suffering and death?  No, said, Thomas, as long as the innocent man voluntarily concurs in the judgment, which he did in this case.  As man, Jesus freely offered himself in response to the divine will, as God, “Christ delivered himself up unto death by the same will and act as that by which God delivered him over to death”–God is thus not performing an act on a being over against himself; indeed, this objection is only possible, McCormack said, if you are a social trinitarian.  (This is particularly worth mentioning as there has been some discussion on this point in the comments to my post on McCormack’s first lecture.)

John Calvin served as the major representative of a judicial view that McCormack sought to analyze.  For Calvin, the key issue is the guilt of sin, not the corruption of sin (as in more metaphysical accounts).  It is guilt that makes the category of punishment necessary.  The form of death therefore had to mirror the nature of the divine judgment against sin–God had to choose for Christ a judicial form of death, a death as a falsely-accused criminal.  God chose this to teach us that the penalty that belonged to us was thus transferred to Christ–by means of legal imputation.  This is clearly an improvement over Athanasius, for example, for whom the particular form of Christ’s death was in the end quite unimportant.  

At this point, McCormack offered an aside on the relationship of Christ’s death and resurrection, in response to O’Donovan’s question from the first lecture.  The marginalization of the resurrection, he said, was intentional, and in fidelity to the Reformed tradition, in which it is not the resurrection, but the cross that is the solution to the problem of death.  The death of death occurs in the death of Christ, in the fact that the power of death is exhausted when it is poured out on Christ.  The resurrection therefore is not strictly necessary, but adds something additional and significant, the promise of eternal life.  When we treat the resurrection as the main thing, we slide into thinking of death as the main problem; but in the Reformed tradition, death itself isn’t the problem, it’s death in the absence of God, and the reconciliation with God is accomplished on the cross.   (As these posts will all be long enough as mere summaries, I am mostly refraining for now from offering my own thoughts.  Suffice to say now that I do not see how an account such as this does justice to statements such as 1 Corinthians 15:14, 17: “And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty….And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!”)

The most interesting bit of Calvin’s account, said McCormack, was the treatment of the article of the creed he descended into hell.  Calvin sought to redeem this from what he saw as medieval superstition by reading it as an expansion of the previous clauses.  By this article, said Calvin, we are taught that Christ bore the full consequences of sin–bodily as well as physical suffering.  Christ had to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance in order to appease God’s wrath.  Therefore it was necessary that he grapple with the dread of everlasting punishment.  Unlike Athanasius, Calvin does not deny that Christ suffered a real anguish of soul in the face of death, and he took the cry of dereliction with great seriousness.  

However, Calvin did stop short of saying that the cry corresponded to an objective withdrawal of God’s love from Christ.  Indeed, Calvin explicitly denies this, since the divine Son must always remain in communion with his Father.  Has Calvin then taken his own insights with sufficient seriousness?  Has Christ really born the full consequences of sin?  For Calvin, ultimately these sufferings must be confined to the human nture, and thus cannot really touch the person of the Logos.  In his treatment of the communicatio idiomatum, Calvin stubbornly refused to grant any genuine communion between the two natures; the communication of attributes was merely verbal, because Calvin treats the one “person” as a mere metaphysical abstraction.  No integration of person and work is possible in such a model.  To the extent that the saving work is human, it remains alien to the life of God.

McCormack next turned to consider the nineteenth-century Scottish theologian John McLeod Campbell, who, after his rejection of limited atonement (for which he was defrocked in 1831), turned his sights on the doctrine of penal substitution, which he thought was responsible for helping engender the hateful doctrine of limited atonement.  Campbell leveled three main charges at the doctrine:
1) the legal thinking found in the doctrine of penal substitution has abstracted divine justice from divine love, so that the two are played off against each other.  The older theories seemed to imply that forgiveness was the effect of the death of the Christ; God was moved to love and mercy by Christ’s death, instead of acting out of it from the beginning.  Campbell insisted that forgiveness must precede Christ’s death.
2) penal substitution gives the believer a mere legal confidence before God, which falls short of the filial confidence that characterizes the sons and daughters of God.
3) Christ’s life of obedience is understood by defenders of penal substitution as a fulfillment of the law, rather than the joyful response of a Son to His Father’s love.

None of these three objections, McCormack said, is in the final analysis insuperable, though to answer them would require some improvements to the basic penal substitution model.   

Campbell’s alternative, though, is to construct a highly original doctrine of “vicarious repentance”–Christ by his life and death offers a perfect repentance on behalf of humanity; his atonement consists in his aversion of the outpouring of God’s wrath through his perfect agreement with God’s condemnation of sin.  Christ uttered a perfect “amen” in humanity to God’s judgment against the wickedness of sin.  The outpouring of divine wrath is not conceived as a penalty against sin which Christ paid, but as a testimony of God’s hatred of sin in which Christ concurs.  Intriguingly, Campbell here is following a path suggested by Jonathan Edwards, who had conceded that hypothetically humanity’s perfect repentance would have been a legitimate alternative to punishment; whereas Edward, however, dismissed this as impossible, Campbell suggested that this was precisely what Christ had done.  

Campbell’s theory, for which McCormack had great sympathy (though not agreement), had as an additional advantage its ability to convincingly integrate the life of Christ with his death–Christ’s life of faithful obedience as a righteous human is part of the act of repentantce he offers on behalf of humanity, culminating on the Cross.  However, again McCormack’s complaint was that the Chalcedonian doctrine of the God-man remained peripheral: the saving work of Christ is localized in the humanity.  The divine nature is simply brought in to give greater weight to the deeds done in the humanity; it plays no crucial role in the narrative.  Campbell’s view does not really require that Christ be a God-human; he could simply be a man gifted with the Spirit.

The same, ultimately, must be said of the eminent 20th-century proponent of a moral theory of the atonement, D.M. Baillie (formerly of New College).  Baillie sought to reconcile older orthodoxy with the new historical Jesus criticism, which he fully endorsed.  In so doing, he takes an anthropocentric starting point in his treatment of the atonement, using the Christian’s experience of grace as an analogy to understand Christ’s work.  We experience God, said Baillie, as a prevenient God, a God who takes the initiative, who inspires us to every good work, who loves us before we love Him.  It is this truth to which the Christian doctrine of Christ witnesses–in Christ we have the demonstration that God takes the initiative in showing his love for us, in acting through Christ so that we might respond in faith.

The problem, of course, is that insofar as the logic of grace we experience by the indwelling Spirit is used as an analogue for the logic of Christology, there is no need for an incarnate God-man, only a Spirit-led Jesus.  But a human Jesus in whom God acts through the Spirit is neither the Christ of the creeds nor of the New Testament Scriptures.  Our experience of God’s indwelling by the Spirit is qualitatively different from the Incarnation.  Moral exemplarist theories of the atonement, however, are bound to focus attention on the human subject to the point where there remains no convincing reason why the agent of Christ’s work of redemption has to be God himself.  

In conclusion, McCormack reiterates that neither traditional moral or judicial theories have been able to provide a clear integration of Christ’s person with his work.  A Chalcedonian Christology is either presupposed, without any necessary logical connection to the doctrine of redemption that is being advanced, or coherence is reestablished by jettisoning an orthodox Christology altogether.

So, is there a way of holding the person and work of Christ fully together, without having to describe Christ’s work in the metaphysical terms so compromised by Greek philosophy (on McCormack’s view, at any rate)?  Why, yes there is, now that you mention it–Karl Barth, of course, who will be the main feature of the fourth lecture.  Barth’s actualist ontology, on which McCormack lays so much weight, enables one to describe the person of Christ in terms of his work–he is precisely what he does–essence equals existence.  

Before moving on to that, though, I will try to find time to blog about the immensely fascinating, meaty, and controversial seminar/Q&A session McCormack gave on Friday, where he engaged the problems of Chalcedonian Christology head-on, and also delivered a fascinating treatment of the Christology of T.F. Torrance.  There, more than anywhere thus far, the real distinctiveness (even revolutionariness, if that’s a word) of his project came into clear view.

Lo and Behold–a Dissertation!

For weeks and months, I had been bumbling along, sure that I wanted to do a dissertation on the use of Scripture in Reformation political thought, but unable, it seemed, to find a topic that was even compelling to me, much less the rest of the world.  I picked up Vermigli, listened to him patiently, but found myself yawning at his arid polemics.  Bullinger proved a blustery windbag, and besides, he spoke German, and I didn’t.  What about Cartwright and Whitgift?  Too petty and contentious.  The Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos intrigued me, but I didn’t want to spend the next three years with Frenchmen and their strange tongue.  At last I lighted upon Hooker with the joy of a desert wanderer who, exhausted of chasing mirages and near death’s door, stumbles at last upon a true oasis.  But this was a name, not a thesis.  Why should anyone care about Hooker?  Thus far the only convincing connection between Reformation and modern political theology that I felt inclined and competent to address was VanDrunen and all his dangerous doctrines.  But I couldn’t very well write a dissertation dedicated simply to refuting VanDrunen.  

Then, last Wednesday, I had an epiphany.  The catalyst: the sight of Stephen Grabill’s Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics on my shelf, put there by my friend and desk-mate Jeremy Kidwell, who thought I might find it useful.  I hadn’t so much as opened the book yet, but the sight of it was enough.  I knew what I had to do: I had to read and take voluminous notes on this book, on Joan O’Donovan’s Theology of Law and Authority in the Reformation, and on John Witte, Jr.’s The Reformation of Rights.  I had to glance back at the passages in VanDrunen on Christian liberty.  And I had to read over again a short but pregnant passage in Melanchthon’s Epitome Moralis Philosophiae that I had come across more than a year ago and mentally bookmarked for future reference.  I resisted the temptation to stop and conceptualize or outline.  The time for that would come–for now, I must simply stuff my brain.  The gamble paid off–one week after the initial epiphany, Wednesday around one PM, as I looked through the VanDrunen and the Melanchthon passages, the mental sirens started going off.  I opened up a blank word document to start outlining some key ideas.  But instead of an outline, an essay starting pouring out, and faster than I could write, the various ideas that had been banging around in my head for months starting snapping together, like magnets brought into proximity.  I wrote as if taking dictation, pausing only for various changes of location and necessary social obligations, and by midnight it was complete.  Yesterday O’Donovan approved it, and I am now leaving port and setting sail on the epic voyage.  Here, for those of you with the time and inclination to read it, is the proposal-essay:

Although it may not seem at first fertile ground in which to find the seeds of modern liberal democracy, early Calvinism has in recent years received pride of place among historians and ethicists seeking to reconstruct the sources of modern secular politcs.  Several modern theological ethicists who are eager to affirm the sanctity of the secular, and preserve it inviolate from the incursions of militant American evangelicals, have appealed to the early Reformed traditions as witnesses for a theological justification of strict church/state separation.  Involved in this dispute, of course, are questions about the proper role of Scripture in the political sphere: whereas many Christians feel fervently the need for Scripture to speak to every area of life, to extend as far as Christ’s lordship does, others have argued strenuously that if Christians are to engage with politics in a pluralistic society, they must be able to speak in secularized language, to advocate for a moral political order in terms that are universally acceptable–in other words, they must use natural law.  Some may argue this merely as a rhetorical strategy–we must speak a non-theological language, in order to accomplish particular theological ends in the civil realm.  Others, however, have been prepared to argue as a matter of principle for the irrelevance of particular theological convictions for the political sphere.  

One such ethicist is David VanDrunen, who believes that the early Reformed doctrines of natural law and the two kingdoms provide the theological tools for such an agenda.  The basic thrust of his contention is that the Reformed learned how to distinguish sharply between the civil kingdom (the state and civil society) and the spiritual kingdom (the visible church), and learned to apply quite different laws to the regulation of these spheres–the civil kingdom was regulated by the natural law that was shared by all men, while the spiritual kingdom was regulated by Scripture alone.  VanDrunen presents this paradigm as an outworking of the doctrine of Christian liberty: Christian liberty applies in the spiritual kingdom, where we are free from every authority but Scripture, while it does not apply in the civil kingdom, where we are bound by authorities ruled by prudential considerations of natural law.  Now, given that the original purpose of Calvin’s distinction regarding Christian liberty, explained below, was to reinforce political conservatism–we remain bound to obey the civil magistrate usque ad aras–it seems odd at first that VanDrunen would find in this the germ for a liberated modern politics.  However, when we reflect more carefully on Calvin’s statement of Christian liberty, we note an inversion: the lack of liberty for the individual in the civil kingdom corresponds to a greater liberty for the ruler, while the greater liberty for the individual in the spiritual kingdom corresponds to a constraint upon ecclesiastical leaders, bound as they are not to legislate beyond Scripture.  The rulers of the civil sphere have the freedom to apply natural law and devise any laws not directly contrary to Scripture; if we once introduce the constitutional radicalism that citizens are to some extent their own rulers, then the constraint on liberty in the civil kingdom actually becomes a liberation: Christian citizens are free to engage in politics on the broad playing field of natural law, without having to conform their policies directly to Scripture.  Unsurprisingly then, VanDrunen simultaneously embraces a correlative concept of the spiritual kingdom, in which the ostensible “Christian liberty” actually becomes a tight chain binding the Church, to restrict itself to narrowly ecclesial, rather than civil concerns, since only the former are taken to be authoritatively laid out in Scripture.  

VanDrunen’s account of the Reformed doctrines of natural law and the two kingdoms is highly tendentious, and fails to offer a fully authentic historical account of key early figures like Calvin.  However, I will seek to argue that, although VanDrunen himself passes over the Elizabethan Puritans with little comment, it was they who came closer than any other Reformed group to espousing the kind of natural law/two kingdoms dialectic that VanDrunen and others wish to appropriate.  For it is they who most explicitly make the visible church out to be a separate juridical polity alongside the civil kingdom, governed in detail by its own standard of law–the Scripture.  I shall then appropriate Richard Hooker’s devastating criticism of the foundational assumptions of Puritanism to show the impossibility of such a neat compartmentalization of natural and divine law.  VanDrunen is right, however, to see the doctrine of Christian liberty as foundational, so I will focus throughout on the Protestant attempt to find a satisfactory synthesis of law and liberty.


The Reformation was predicated on a doctrine of Christian liberty, on the freedom of God’s grace, and the freedom of the Christian who is caught up in it; this freedom was originally seen as a protest against institutional contraints that would confine the gospel and the Christian, it was seen as a protest against the law that would seek to bind the believer in fear before God and man, instead liberating him to stand in confidence before both.  But the doctrine, like any assertion of liberty, soon proved rather too volatile to be left unqualified.  Institutional structures must remain, which meant that for Luther, the liberty of the believer was soon sequestered in the internal forum of the conscience, which can never be bound or bullied when it comes to the gospel.  In the external sphere, though, rules still must apply, and people must follow them, if there is going to be any order in either church or state.  This was not, as the cynic might have it, merely because of of the need to placate the powers that be.  Rather, it was in part necessary for the protection of liberty itself.  Every unqualified assertion of liberty destroys liberty, because the liberty of one to do as they desire is an imposition on what those around them desire.  So it is in the Church.  For one person to be free to practise the faith as they desire means they are sure to offend their brother, while for that brother to be free from offense may require that the first person be offended by not being permitted to act in a certain way.  If the Church as a corporate body is to have freedom to pursue its common good, the freedom of its individual members must be curtailed to some extent.  

Carefully sensitive to the dilemma thus raised, Philipp Melanchthon in his Epitome Moralis Philosophiae sought to define quite carefully the relationship of law and liberty.  First he argues for a fundamental distinction between the binding force of civil laws and ecclesiastical laws.  In the former, he says, we are bound not merely by fear of coercion, but by conscience as well (which nearly, but not quite, reduced to fear of divine coercion).  In the latter, however, we are merely bound by the law of charity–that is, we must obey them insofar as failure to do so will cause our brother to stumble.  They are conditionally binding, not unconditionally so.  Although the details of his argument manifest significant unresolved tensions, the overall conclusion yielded serves his purpose–we must not let ourselves be bound by a slavery of fear when it comes to obeying ecclesiastical ceremonies and customs, but, as they are needful for discipline and order’s sake, we must not lightly cast them aside either, as this would be to sin against our brothers and sisters.  Melanchthon’s answer was to prove very influential in the Anglican context, being reprinted in a prominant pamphlet during the Vestiarian controversy under the title “Whether it be a mortall sin to transgress civil laws.”  For the Puritans in this controversy, however, Calvin was easily the most influential figure, though their doctrine of Christian liberty proved quite unfaithful to him.

Calvin’s own teaching on the subject is far from clear.  John Witte, Jr. suggests that two phases may be discerned: an earlier one in which Calvin is closer to the original Lutheran impulse to give liberty to the individual believer, and a later, institutionalizing phase in which Calvin feels the need to curtail the individual believer’s liberty in favor of the liberty of the Church as a whole, which means its governing structures.  This shift, Witte believes, can be related to a shift in Calvin’s understanding of the two kingdoms.  For Calvin, like Melanchthon, conditions the doctrine of Christian liberty with a two kingdoms doctrine: in the spiritual kingdom, the believer cannot be bound to anything not commanded in Scripture, while in the civil kingdom, the believer can be bound by things not commanded in Scripture, only not by things forbidden in Scripture.  The laws of civil authorities, so long as they do not command against God, are fully binding.  

The question arises, however, how we are to define these two kingdoms.  For the early Calvin, like the late Luther, these kingdoms can be seen largely in internal/external terms: the spiritual kingdom, since it is inherently spiritual and internal, lacks an external institutional form and so cannot, of course, promulgate binding laws; its only laws are the spiritually binding laws of Scripture.  However, for the later Calvin, the Church has come to be seen as external institution in its own right, a visible polity alongside and closely conjoined with the civil polity.  With this move, it would seem, the binding, lawlike character of the civil kingdom insinuates itself into the spiritual kingdom as well.  The earlier paradigm, allowing complete liberty to believers within the Church, left the Church no power to regulate itself beyond the mere preaching of the word.  Now, if the Church was to regulate itself, it would need to be able to make rules which would need to be on some level binding on its members; but according to the doctrine of Christian liberty, these laws could not be strictly binding on believers, going as they did beyond Scripture.  The Melanchthonian solution was possible, according to which the laws were not binding according to strict law, but according to the law of charity.  But the more the Church was construed as a visible juridical polity, the more difficult it became to maintain such a distinction.  If the Church required rules of good order, and if such rules had to be imposed and guarded by the public authorities of the Church, and if some kind of coercive sanctions were necessary to do this (as they were increasingly seen to be) then for all practical purposes, believers’ liberty was extinguished.  

It was possible to still continue along this track and still rescue the letter (though not the spirit) of the doctrine of Christian liberty by a crucial transposition–what if all laws of good order were Biblically binding?  What if they were not, in fact, adiaphora?  If this were so, then in making such rules, the Church would be requiring of believers nothing beyond what Scripture itself required, and of course, if the Church were to make any other rules (e.g., episcopacy rather than the divinely-mandated Presbyterianism) then it would be violating Christian liberty.  It is readily apparent that in making this move, Christian liberty is, for practical purposes, extinguished and converted into legalism.  Calvin himself therefore, while sliding toward legalism in his later life, never explicitly made this move, which would in any case have required a fairly dramatic flattening of the relationship between divine and human law, something Calvin knew better than.  

Under the influence of John Knox and his biblical absolutism, however, the English Puritans were able to make this move.  Indeed, this may have been prompted by another antinomy in the Melancthonian formulation, a paradox that the Anglican divines themselves wrestled with in the Vestiarian controversy.  The problem was this: if a particular ceremony (e.g., vestments) is neither forbidden nor commanded by Scripture, then it may be authorized, but not required, by the Church.  For the Church to strictly require it would be to violate Christian liberty, and therefore believers would have the right to disobey it—not because to obey it would be in itself a violation of divine law, but because to obey it would be to grant the validity of such a requirement, a requirement that, by violating Christian liberty, constituted a violation of divine law.  What if, however, the civil authority opted to require this ceremony?  After all, given the close coordination of civil and ecclesiastical affairs, it was difficult to say with certainty that this was outside the magistrate’s jurisdiction.  Inasmuch as the magistrate was requiring that which ought by all rights to be adiaphora, this was clearly wrong, and it would seem could be lawfully disobeyed.  However, inasmuch as this ceremony was not in itself forbidden by God, was not the Christian required to obey the magistrate in this case?  After all, the standard teaching had been that the doctrine of Christian liberty did not apply in the case of civil laws; here, the law must be obeyed so long as obedience was not directly contrary to God.    The dilemma proved quite difficult to resolve, and it is thus unsurprising that the Puritans, seeking a more clear-cut paradigm with which to adjudicate the lawfulness of church ceremonies, decided to do away with the category of adiaphora within the church entirely: all policies of the Church must be either commanded or forbidden by divine law, that is, Scripture.

Now that Scripture had taken on the role of a divine legal constitution for an alternative polity standing alongside the civil kingdom, instead of a comprehensive guide for life in the Christian society, its function for the civil kingdom would seem to have been dramatically attenuated.  Now that adiaphora were essentially expunged from the visible Church, civil affairs themselves became the adiaphora–those matters on which the Church had no authority to adjudicate, and which it therefore left for the rulers to act as reason and the general guidelines of Scripture dictated.  On the other hand, however, the clear superiority of the divine law in Scripture over the merely human civil law tended to suggest that the civil realm too should be ordered to that law in a theocratic arrangement.  As it turned out, Puritanism found itself for several generations in an unstable oscillation between these two poles, half-inclined to leave civil affairs entirely in their own sphere, half-inclined to bring them into the orbit of the spiritual kingdom, dictated to by the Word through the ministers. 

Richard Hooker eschewed both these tendencies, and saw more deeply and clearly than any of his contemporaries that the Puritan development constituted a retreat into Catholic legalism; that, in the struggle to maintain the liberty of the individual believer and the liberty of the institutional church, both had been abolished.  Hooker’s response consisted of at least three key moves, the first  of which took him back to the earlier Reformers and the second and third of which took him back beyond them in order to point a more coherent way forward.  

His first move was to return to the earlier Reformers and to reassert the unity of the corpus Christianorum–of a distinction between the two kingdoms that put the externals of both church and state in “the civil kingdom.”  While he was certainly Erastian, Hooker was far from seeking to dissolve any distinction between the civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions–indeed, the very title of his magnum opus displays the importance for him of a distinctive “ecclesiastical polity.”  However, both jurisdictions were crucially to be understood as belonging to the same external and social sphere, and thus as both being administered by human law.  For Hooker, the crucial division in law was not between the natural law and the divine law, but between these two on the one hand, fixed and immutable, and human law on the other, necessarily mutable.  For human law was simply the application of either the laws of reason or of Scripture to particular times, places, and circumstances, which necessarily admit of variable applications, whether in purely civil or ecclesiastical affairs.  

This understanding enabled a second move–to revisit the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura and clarify the ambiguities it created.   Instead of allowing one sphere to be governed by the rule “nothing contrary to Scripture” and another by the rule “nothing except directly according to Scripture,” Hooker saw the need for one rule to apply to all external human affairs: “all things according to the general guidance of Scripture and nothing contrary to its explicit teaching.”  Hooker understood that to be brought to bear on an infinite variety of changing particular circumstances, Scripture was necessarily mediated through reason and tradition.  Civil affairs then were governed by the law of reason, but always as illuminated and interpreted by Scripture, while ecclesiastical affairs were governed by the divine law of Scripture, but always as illuminated and interpreted by the law of reason. 

Where does all this leave the doctrine of Christian liberty?  For Hooker, this law can only apply in the immediate realm of faith, the true spiritual kingdom in which the believer is bound directly to Christ, where no human law can rightly interfere.  However, in the mediated realm of human society, whether this be civil or ecclesiastical, we are bound by laws.  Given the choice stated above between a liberty of the individual believer over against the Church, and a liberty of the Church over against the individual believer, Hooker then opts for the latter in order to safeguard the common good of the spiritual society–just as civil laws curtail the liberty of subjects to safeguard its common good.  Hooker’s ecclesiastical polity has the power to issue binding legislation on adiaphora.  But notice that this is in fact precisely in order to resist legalism, and retain a sphere of rational freedom for the visible Church.  


In fact, I would suggest that Hooker’s conception of law does in fact, even while extending the range of law, make it less “legalistic.”  Let us recall Melanchthon’s distinction between the ways in which civil and ecclesiastical laws bind.  For Melanchthon, the former are binding both by their coercive force, and by force of conscience, understood primarily as a fear of divine coercion.  The latter are binding only insofar as the rule of charitable concern for the common good requires.  I would argue that in Hooker’s conception, Melanchthon’s “ecclesiastical” laws are folded into the “civil,” but in such a way that the freedom of the latter pervades the whole.  For Hooker, law is fundamentally a directive, rather than a coercive rule; for humans, law is the function of the will’s free embrace of the goodness proper to its nature–as F.J. Shirley puts it, “Man is of creatures alone able to choose whether he will take his due place in creation, and the essentially voluntary nature of his actions demands that the law which governs him shall be primarily directive and persuasive, not arbitrary and coercive.  He may obey and disobey; ‘he doth not otherwise than voluntarily the one or the other’, and these laws are incumbent upon him to keep simply as a man, whether or not he be a member of a commonwealth.”  The binding force of conscience consists not in fear of divine coercion, but in love of divine goodness.  Likewise, the coercive human element of law is not rightly seen as a foreign imposition, but given Hooker’s insistence on the necessity of consent for civil authority, and the unity of the political body, the law is to be understood as that by which each subject freely binds himself.  In all law, therefore, we are given to understand by Hooker, we are bound inasmuch as reason, formed by charity, directs us to seek that which the common good of our nature and society require.  Even when we deem the law to be unjust, we are bound to defer in our judgment to that of the whole, insofar as concern for the common good teaches us to recognize that disobedience would for the time being do more harm than good to the community.   

As a constructive development of Hooker’s conception of law, then, I will suggest that, although he himself does not make this explicit move, we could consider all laws to be binding only insofar as they are specifications of the law of love.  Such a move is suggested by Hooker’s Augustinian concept of the reason’s embrace of the good as an inclination of love, and by his understanding of the love of God and love of neighbor as comprising the fundamental content of the law of reason.  Such an understanding of law-observance as the voluntary subordination of love–simultaneously completely free and a slave of all–can serve as a means of recovering the full riches of the original Lutheran conception of Christian liberty.

As a more direct constructive application of Hooker’s thought, I will argue that his understanding of the always-cooperative role of Scripture and reason in both ecclesial and civil affairs offers a much more helpful paradigm for Christian civil engagement than that which seeks to confine each authority within its own designated sphere.  Christians may step into the political arena with confidence that God’s laws have much to teach it, but with a healthy humility that recognizes that a diversity of circumstances prevents any hasty one-size-fits-all theological solution; they may thus make use of the insights of unregenerate reason in patiently devising policies conducive to the common good, and ordered to the eschatological good that perfects, rather than abolishes, nature.