The Ghost of Charles Hodge (Final thought on McCormack lectures)

One more point occurred to me, that I had meant to mention in my reflections on the Croall lectures, and I thought it was worth posting as a brief afterthought–this is much more impressionistic, so take it with a grain of salt.  

Perhaps my greatest misgiving about McCormack’s project is ultimately that it’s too logical.  Allow me to explain.  When McCormack says something like, “The Word is eternally predisposed to become man, and thus humility and finitude is proper, not alien, to him; the logos is always the logos incarnandus,” I’m like “Right on!  Preach it brother!”  But when he goes a step further, and says, “And therefore, the Word does not empty himself in time, but emptied himself in eternity; he has always been self-confined by these human limitations, acting not by the power native to him, but the power of the Spirit,” I’m like “Whoa, hold on there!”  Now, one might say that the second statement really isn’t a separate step, but simply a logical result of the first statement, combined with the principle of divine immutability, and the principle that God is pure actuality, with no potentiality.  These principles would seem to lead us inexorably to the conclusion that if the Son always was going to be self-emptyingly finite, he must always have been self-emptyingly finite, otherwise he is realizing an unrealized potentiality in time and undergoing change.  Perhaps there is no way around this–logic is a cruel taskmaster, and not to be trifled with.

But I’m wary, because it has been said (don’t ask me to say precisely where and by whom) that all the great ancient heresies, perhaps especially in Christology, erred by trying to follow out a certain logical principle to its conclusion; existing doctrines seemed to them too shrouded in mystery and incoherence, and so they tried to find a neat logical solution.  Hence Nestorianism.  In response to Nestorius, Cyril and the Alexandrians said all kinds of delightfully paradoxical things, such as “the immortal one died,” “the impassible one suffered.”  The Chalcedonian creed itself is a devilish bundle of paradoxes.  Now, my suspicions are aroused when such paradoxical formulations are pounced upon by McCormack as signs of inconsistency, incoherence, of a logical knot that needs to be unraveled, rather than as a mystery to be gloried in, as the Alexandrians apparently considered them.  I think Cyril knew full well that his formulations did not fit into a neat logical package, but I think he thought that was precisely the point–the Incarnation is all about God not fitting himself into a neat logical package, but doing things we never could have imagined.  

McCormack spoke repeatedly of the need for a “well-ordered” doctrine of Christ, by which he meant one that ties up the logical loose ends; he admitted that of course there must always be a place for mystery, but was suspicious that most invocations of mystery are simply cop-outs, and excuses for protecting our biases.  I would suggest that a similar concern for consistency and order partially underlies McCormack’s antipathy to what he sees as muddled, hybridizing forms of ecumenical theology.  It certainly partially underlay his antipathy to ontological soteriologies, which he tended to consider hopelessly vague and mysterious. 

There seems to be something perversely modernist in all this, in the single-minded pursuit of strict logical consistency in such questions, and I think heresy is never far off when you try to renounce paradox and make it all make good plain sense.  Call me po-mo, call me Kierkegaardian, call me Catholic if you like.  But I have to at least wonder whether McCormack, occupying the Charles Hodge Chair of Systematic Theology, hasn’t inherited something of Old Princeton’s analytical scholasticism, with its desiccating effect on theology, anti-sacramental trajectory, and so forth. But there, I’m on the threshold of rambling and blathering, or perhaps already crossed it, so I will leave it at that.  

Again, this is not so much an outright criticism (though it may have sounded like one) as it is a vague discomfort, which I have hopefully succeeded here in making somewhat less vague.

5 thoughts on “The Ghost of Charles Hodge (Final thought on McCormack lectures)

  1. Anon

    Interesting thoughts, especially considering that McCormack has barely been in Hodge's chair for a year, if that. There must be something retroactive about it all, like in Pannenberg's christology…

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  2. Brad Littlejohn

    As always, Donny, both-and. You're such a politician. But no, I agree. That's why I say this is more an expression of discomfort than a criticism. I agree that we will always need theologicians, but they will always make me somewhat uncomfortable, and I certainly don't want all theologians to become theologicians, as the latter sometimes seem to think is necessary.And Anon, of course I'm not suggesting any direct influence from Hodge; Hodge is merely a symbol of everything in Reformed theology that rubs me kinda the wrong way. Unfair to him perhaps, but he was unfair to Nevin. :-p

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  3. "Now, one might say that the second statement really isn't a separate step, but simply a logical result of the first statement, combined with the principle of divine immutability, and the principle that God is pure actuality, with no potentiality. These principles would seem to lead us inexorably to the conclusion that if the Son always was going to be self-emptyingly finite, he must always have been self-emptyingly finite, otherwise he is realizing an unrealized potentiality in time and undergoing change." Because pure actuality wouldn't be like Hellenism or anything would it? 🙂

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