Natural Law Today

The following was a lovely little intro to the fall and rise of natural law thinking in Reformed ethics that I had penned for the paper I’ll be giving at the AAR this month, “Natural Law and Which Two Kingdoms?”  Unfortunately, as with most lovely little intros, it had to receive the axe, but here on the blog it may live out a long and happy retirement:

 Until quite recently, the concept of natural law was anathema in many Reformed contexts, and even today, it continues to face an uphill battle in many arenas.  In his seminal work, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics, Stephen Grabill suggests three key reasons why natural law spent much of the twentieth century in exile from an otherwise vibrant tradition of Reformed theology and ethical reflection.  First, the towering figure of Barth, and his resounding 1934 “No” to natural theology (and to Emil Brunner) could not help but cast a long shadow over his successors, convincing many that the concept of natural law was insufficiently Christological and at root humanistic.  Second, even in those sectors of the Reformed faith where the name of Barth was not always hallowed, another consideration prevailed–anti-Catholicism.  Natural law, we all knew, was the product of medieval scholasticism, and hence must be jettisoned if we were to be truly Protestant.  Third, in more liberal circles, the anti-metaphysical turn of late 19th-century German liberalism looked suspiciously on anything so medieval as natural law theory.  Other reasons might be added–much of American Protestantism has been captured by a wholesale biblicism, a conviction that the more one can attribute to Scripture, and the less to any other authority, the better.  Natural law, on this conception, was seen to be in inherent rivalry with the authority of Scripture, and must be jettisoned.  Nor was this suspicion without foundation.  Beginning certainly in the 17th-century and well underway by the 18th-century came a turn in natural law thinking that detached natural law from special revelation and made it the province of autonomous reason.

But just when it might have seemed that all these reasons had conspired to purge natural law from the earth, it has begun a dramatic comeback in the past couple decades.  Again, some good reasons are not hard to spot.  The legacy of Barth has at last begun to wane, or at any rate, to be evaluated more dialogically than reverentially; centuries of Protestant-Catholic hostility have begun to thaw, and partnerships between Reformed and Catholic theological scholarship have emerged to an extent that John Knox is surely rolling in his grave.  Perhaps even more decisively, within an American context dominated by aggressive evangelical politics and shallow evangelical biblicism, it has become increasingly clear to thoughtful public theologians and political theologians that we need a broader foundation for Christian engagement with a secular public square.  For this task, natural law seems to offer great promise.

But with promise, of course, comes potential pitfalls.  With the rapid revival of natural law thinking, and its enthusiastic application to political theology by a rising generation of young theologians like myself, we must not casually brush aside the suspicions of an older generation, and must ask ourselves some hard questions.  First, what about Barth’s concern?  Is natural law un-Christological?  Will a politics of natural law necessarily detach us from a politics of Jesus?  Certainly folks like Stanley Hauerwas are inclined to worry on this score, and justly so.  As disciples of Christ, we must be suspicious of enshrining any standard for just political life that ignores the witness of Jesus, and his challenge to principalities and powers, that fastidiously sweeps the Sermon on the Mount off into the closet of spiritual life, leaving us free to live by another standard in public.  Second, what about the biblicist concern?  Does natural law give us a way to float free from Scripture, following a detached set of ethical principles discerned by reason, not revelation?  Must not the Bible, while not the exclusive basis for all our actions, remain at least the touchstone by which they must all be in some sense tested?  Third, to put a sharper point perhaps on the previous two concerns, what about the Fall?  The Enlightenment gave a bad name to natural law by imagining our reasons to be uncorrupted and capable of perfect access to and application of the natural law.  If we are to be Reformed, if we are to be in any sense the heirs of gloomy old John Calvin, then surely we must insist that natural law, like anything else, needs to be redeemed.  A simple creation/redemption schema, in which natural law governs the realm of creation, and Scripture that of redemption, will not do, because all things are made new in Christ, which includes political life and the standards that govern it.

Metaphysical Misgivings (Reflections on McCormack’s Croall Lectures)

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Defects of the Older Kenoticism

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Exegetical Observations on Phil. 2:6-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Atonement and Violence

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

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

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

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

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


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

So where do we get the ethics in all this? 

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Recovering Our Protestant Heritage

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


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

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. 😉

The Suffering God? (McCormack Croall Lecture 1)

At the first of his long-awaited Croall Lectures on the work of Christ yesterday, Bruce McCormack was in top-form–cranky, dogmatic, and brilliant as ever.  Best to begin with the “brilliant” part and return at the end to highlight McCormack’s cantankerous idiosyncrasies, as they appeared particularly in the Q&A session.  

McCormack is one of the few theologians today undertaking serious constructive dogmatic work in the area of Christology, which as I’m sure you can imagine, is a daring and dangerous enterprise.  No other area of Christian theology is hedged in with so many or so ancient credal constraints, making it difficult to find room to maneuver, much less innovate.  McCormack’s overall project could be characterized as attempting to rescue orthodox Christology from the implausibility into which modern theological sensibilities have cast it, and from the underlying tensions that modern attacks have revealed to have been there all along, by bringing the theological resources of Barthianism to bear and remaining faithful to the core confession and trajectory of earlier Christian theology (McCormack is no liberal–that much is for sure).  A tall order, and a noble project.  Even if you ultimately disagree with McCormack’s methods and conclusions, you can’t help but admire the focus and creativity he gives to his task, and be seduced by the just-plain-cool-ness of some of his proposals.  

So, what’s he up to in this series of lectures?  He gave us a general idea of where he was going in the first one, without showing so many of his cards as to remove all elements of mystery and excitement.  The gist is this: the theory of penal substitution has fallen almost completely into disrepute in modern theology, and the objections that have been raised have revealed a never-resolved tension in the original Protestant theology between the doctrine of Christ and the doctrine of God.  Whereas the doctrine of the penal substitution had to appeal to the infinite value of the suffering and death of God, in order to explain how Christ’s death could take the place of the eternal sufferings of countelss millions, the Reformed were not ultimately willing to say that God suffered and died on the cross–their rigid separation between the two natures of Christ, and their conviction of divine impassibility, carried over uncritically from the Patristic period, forebade it.  Or to put it even more sharply: you can’t make sense of penal substitution theory unless you’re willing to say that God suffered and died for us, and you can’t say that on the classical doctrine of divine impassibility.  You can’t salvage a core Protestant doctrine without relinquishing a core Patristic doctrine, which the Protestants uncritically adapted.  Unsurprisingly (if you know McCormack at all), he prefers to sacrifice the patristic and Catholic doctrine in order to save the Protestant doctrine–even if it’s much older and more foundational to Christian theology, it is, he thinks, merely accidental to Protestant theology, and dispensable without forsaking Protestantism’s core confession.  So, McCormack is going to deploy Barthian resources to argue that it is God himself who elects to suffer in our place (which is, after all, how we often casually describe the Atonement), rather than God electing to punish the man Jesus in our place (which is what previous dogmatics have felt the need to assert).  This requires a kind of kenotic theology–obviously a risky proposition, but McCormack believes his version of “Reformed kenoticism” avoids the charges of heresy leveled at past kenosis theories.

For various reasons, I find the general proposal quite attractive (indeed, a lecture a few years ago that McCormack gave as a prototype for this series so enchanted me that I haven’t been able to think of Christology in any other paradigm than McCormack’s since).  Nonetheless, it is certainly worth remarking on McCormack’s fervent dedication to maintaining Protestantism as Protestantism, even if that means to hell with Orthodox, Catholics, and classical Christian theology.  

So what are the problems with penal substitution theory?  We in conservative evangelicalism may not be aware that there is much of a problem.  We carry on cheerfully reciting the relevant catechisms or confessions, confident in this pillar of Protestant theology (unaware, in fact, that it is more or less a Protestant distinctive, and not a basic cornerstone of “mere Christianity”), and chuckling at the feeble protests of “liberals.”  But, as McCormack made clear, these are not merely “liberal” objections, but problems present from the beginning of the doctrine.  There are four main objections, he suggests:

1) The impression is given that the Father is moved from wrath to mercy by the actions of the Son; but if God the Father were not already inclined to be merciful, he would not have sent his Son into the world to begin with.  If God already felt mercy toward his creatures, why was the atonement necessary, and if he didn’t, then why would it change his mind?

Some of the Reformers, says McCormack, were aware of this difficulty, but did not resolve it satisfactorily–Calvin attempted to do so by appealing to Augustine’s argument that God was disposed to be merciful toward creatures inasmuch as they were his good creation, but disposed to be wrathful toward them inasmuch as they had turned away to the privation of self-love and thus non-being.  McCormack said that this was to make God’s merciful will contingent on something outside Godself, which cannot be legitimate.  I suggested in the Q&A that this objection did not apply given Augustine’s metaphysics, in which all that is good in creaturely being is so by participation in the goodness of divine being; but in any case, McCormack wouldn’t accept such a neo-Platonic metaphysic, so for him the objection would remain.  


2) Equivalence: for penal substitution to be complete, there must be an equivalence of the penalty owed and the penalty paid.

The equivalence objection was the one most explicitly addressed by the Reformers (though it was not one that troubled Calvin himself at all).  The solution, as mentioned above, was to lay stress on the infinite value of divine suffering, but as pointed out above, this simply doesn’t work unless one is willing to follow through and actually admit the reality of divine suffering, and to make the communication of attributes more than merely semantic (as it was for the Reformed, over against the Lutheran).

3) How can it possibly be just to condemn and punish an innocent man in the place of evildoers?  A human judge could never do this.  

McCormack argued that this was actually the least cogent of the four objections, because it rests on a piece of natural theology.  Divine justice is laid on a foundation of human justice, which doesn’t work, because whereas in human justice, the judge has to conform to a legislator, in divine justice, the judge is himself the legislator, and his law is rooted in a covenant of grace.  It belongs to God alone to decide when and under what conditions the law must be fulfilled–divine justice must be allowed to function on its own terms.  It is telling, I think, that McCormack regarded this as the least cogent objection; such a dismissal is only possible if one has first rejected natural law and the analogia entis wholesale, as McCormack, being a good Barthian, has of course done.  Within a historical framework of natural law theory, this objection, while not insuperable, would be quite troubling and compelling.  


4. Violence is embedded in this theory at its very heart.  This is a violent, retributive, bloodthirsty God.  A God whose innermost being is consistent with the act of violence must needs legitimate violence in our own world.  

This, said McCormack, is almost certainly the most difficult of the objections, and indeed, its emotive force is often all but irresistible in our society.  McCormack suggested that evangelicals have been able to avoid taking this objection seriously, because the proposed nonviolent alternative reconstructions of the New Testament witness thus far have been so implausible.  But this cockiness, argued McCormack, is quite dangerous, as this objection strikes at the heart of the Christian witness concerning the nature of God.  In the Q&A, David Reimer not unreasonably asked why objection 4 was materially different from objection 3, and why we might not respond to it in a similar fashion by appealing to a Creator-creature distinction (indeed, I once upon a time made just this sort of argument against the “God of peace” forms of pacifism, though I am now rather unsure about it in light of my new interest in natural law theory, among other things–more on this in a later post).  McCormack’s response was somewhat unclear to me, but seemed to say that objection 4 was more significant than objection 3 because it concerned not merely the morality of God but his being–are violent relations intrinsic to the divine nature?  

McCormack concluded this survey by saying that so compelling was objection 4 that he too would have to capitulate to its force and renounce penal substitution unless it could be shown that it was not the man Jesus but God himself who suffered in our place.  And that, of course, was precisely what he would undertake to show in the lecture series.


McCormack spent the last bit of his lecture attempting to offer a classification of various theories of the atonement that surpassed other classification systems by successfully integrating pre-modern and modern theories.  Three main approaches were possible, he argued: 

1) to integrate the work of Christ into a metaphysically-derived doctrine of his person (the approach of Athanasius, Hegel, and T.F. Torrance among others)

2) to bracket off his person in order to focus on his work (the dominant Western approach of Anselm, the Reformers, and their descendants)

 3) to undertake a post-metaphysical strategy for integrating the person of Christ into his work (the approach of Barth and his followers, and the one that McCormack himself was going to adopt in some form).


In the Q&A that followed, two particularly sharp questions cast light on the troubling features of McCormack’s distinctive theological method, a method that remarkably recapitulates the tendencies of Old Princeton and Charles Hodge (whose chair McCormack holds).  Oliver O’Donovan asked, with his typical scalpel-wielding politeness, “Forgive me if I missed it, but I don’t recall hearing the word ‘resurrection’ mentioned in your entire presentation.  Was that an intentional omission on your part?”  “Yes,” replied McCormack, “I wanted to bracket off other aspects of Christ’s work in order to focus specifically on the the meaning of the event of the cross.”  “And you have no discomfort,” prodded O’Donovan, “in thus isolating out one part of Christ’s work from the rest?”  “No, none, at least for teaching purposes, so long as we recognize that a fuller account of Christ’s work would require a discussion of the significance of the resurrection.”  At least you can never accuse McCormack of beating around the bush.  McCormack’s theological method follows the Old Princeton tradition of rigorously distinguishing doctrinal loci and accounting for them in logical isolation from one another before seeking to reintegrate them into a whole (if the reintegration ever happens).  This is perhaps a surprising approach for a Barthian to follow, given Barth’s maddening tendency to talk about every doctrinal locus at once, and is sure to make most of us postmoderns quite uncomfortable.  While I am happy to grant that one may legitimately bracket off a particular aspect of Christ’s work for special consideration “for teaching purposes,” it would seem that this must always come after, not before, we have given a holistic account of the meaning of Christ’s work.  Only when we know what redemption as a whole consisted of can we turn to parse out what each part of the redemptive process means on its own; to try to first treat the parts without reference to the whole is sure to prove a dangerous undertaking, at best.

In a final question, Theodora asked McCormack if his insistence on the importance of Protestants remaining faithful to their tradition (something he had harped on repeatedly in the introduction, dismissing almost all contemporary Protestant theology as either an incoherent liberal hodge-podge or “Catholicism lite”) was due to a conviction that it’s important to be faithful to your tradition, whatever that tradition is, or simply because Protestantism was right and everyone else was wrong.  Again, McCormack didn’t beat around the bush, affirming that it was simply because Protestantism was right, and he took the opportunity to deplore at some length the Catholicizing impulses that had seduced modern Protestant theologians, claiming that he felt like he was the only genuine Protestant left among the leading ranks of American theologians.  Again, like Old Princeton, McCormack has no hesitation in wearing his staunch opposition to Catholicizing impulses on his sleeve; the only difference is that in Hodge’s day, that was a fairly common stance to take, whereas McCormack is now quite rare among high-profile theologians in considering cantankerous fidelity to Protestantism a virtue rather than a vice.  Perhaps all of us have just been seduced by post-modern woolly-headedness that likes to blur traditions and doctrines, but I for one cannot see why it should be a vice to admit that perhaps Protestantism does not have a monopoly on Christian truth; that perhaps our dogmatic system is fallible like any other, and that much is to be learned theologically as well as gained practically by undertaking ecumenical dialogue and attempting to appropriate the riches of other traditions.  


But, be all that as it may, McCormack undoubtedly has a tremendous amount to contribute to Protestant dogmatics, particularly in the area of Christology, and I can’t wait to hear the five remaining lectures in the series.