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.)

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.

Christ as the Puppet of Metaphysics (McCormack Croall Lecture #2)

One of the downsides to whipping out a 2,300-word summary of a lecture within hours after the lecture is that one has to be rather breezy about it.  And that means that one is prone to say things (and think things) rather carelessly.  Unfortunately, I was sorely guilty of this in my summary of McCormack’s first lecture, thrice referring to him as “anti-Catholic.”  I used this term somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it is hardly a term to be used carelessly, and in any case, it would have been much more apt to say, “anti-Catholicizing.”  For McCormack’s beef is not with Catholics per se (for whom he has in fact many times expressed deep respect and appreciation), but with Protestants who carelessly dilute their Protestant heritage with sprinklings of Catholic theology–Protestants who want to have their cake and eat it too, by feasting on the stolen goodies of Catholicism without being willing to actually sign on the dotted line, so to speak, and come under the Magisterium–in other words, one might say, with people like me. 🙂  Obviously I think that McCormack’s judgment here is somewhat unfair, and that there are in fact quite good historical and theological reasons for Protestants to seek to find ways to close the theological gap between themselves and Catholics and Orthodox.  However, I think McCormack has a valid point: ecumenical dialogue is only effective when engaged in the way the Catholics engage in it–by mining the resources of their own tradition and using these as a touchstone instead of prematurely jettisoning it for a noncommittal hybrid.  It is this hybridizing woolly-headedness, much more than Catholicism per se, that is McCormack’s main target.  Having realized how misleading my post was in this regard, I’ve removed a few of the most ill-conceived phrases, and would urge you to read the rest with a grain of salt–with this clarification in mind, since the “anti-Catholic” mischaracterization appears at several points.  And I heartily apologize for any confusion or offence caused by this mischaracterization.

Having hopefully set the record straight on that score, I will now move on to attempt to summarize McCormack’s incredibly dense, but lucid as always, second lecture (though I’m afraid I wasn’t able to grasp it fully enough to re-present it as clearly here as I ought to):


The burden of the second lecture was to display how metaphysically-driven doctrines of Christ’s work risked distorting the Christian story and subjecting Christology to preexisting philosophical commitments.  His case studies were Athanasius and G.W.F. Hegel–a third case study on T.F. Torrance was omitted for the sake of time. 

Metaphysics, he began, has had a long and distinguished career in Christian theology.  Patristic theology was driven by a metaphysical doctrine of God inherited largely from Greek philosophy, and already elaborated by syncretistic thinkers like Philo.  The danger of a metaphysical theology, said McCormack, is that it seeks to begin, not with God’s self-revelation in Scripture, but with a more general category of being, of which God is taken to be the highest form.  But if in order to speak of God in his otherness, we must first speak of something else that is not God, we cannot be sure that when we do turn to talk about God, we’re actually talking about God, and not about the something else we started with.  We must start with God to end with him.

This basic line of critique will be familiar to anyone who has spent any time with Barth, and I must say I’m deeply sympathetic to it.  (You may well ask how I can reconcile such sympathy with a love for Aquinas and Hooker–I hope to have a good answer for you in about ten years. ;-))

Nowhere, suggests McCormack, is this danger greater than in Christology, where we risk subjecting God’s most concrete personal self-revelation to abstract categories prior to it.  So first, Athanasius:

Athanasius inherits an understanding of divine transcendence and creaturely dependence that is derived from Greek philosophy, and merely adjusted in light of a particularly Christian conception of the personal Logos.  Since creation arises out of nothing, creatures have an inherent proclivity to return to nothingness.  The tendency to dissolution is natural, is part of our creaturehood as such.  It is creation’s participation, by grace, in the being of the Word through which it was created, that sustains it in existence.  It is both opposed to God and related to him.  All things participate in God by virtue of their createdness.  No additional act of God is necessary to make this the case.  The original home of the doctrine of participation, then, is to be found in the doctrine of creation, not the doctrine of redemption.

The same is true of humans, except they are creatures are free will, and are to be united to God knowingly; their existence is to be characterized by an active receptivity.  The special grace of human beings was that of being made “rational,” reflecting the image of the Word.  Humans are thus prone to freely turn away from God by a failure of their rational volution, and the death and corruption that came through the Fall was a natural consequence of this turning away–the natural collapse toward non-being that occurred as a result of the dissociation from the Word.  Death is thus not a judicial penalty for the Fall, but its natural result. 

Thus the human mind turned away from contemplation of higher being to contemplation of the things of sense and of humanity.  The Fall was a turn from good being to evil non-being.  In Athanasius’s account, the resulting reign of corruption was a history, as mankind slid further and further into nothingness until the Incarnation of the Word.

Why would repentance not be sufficient to restore the relationship?  Athanasius has two answers: 1) Repentance would only stop further acts of sin, it could not undo the corruption that was already underway; 2) if this were true, it would make God a liar, since he declared “In the day you shall eat thereof, you shall surely die.”

The Word took to himself a body.  But what does that mean?  A body sharing in our corruption?  For Athanasius, the corruption of fallen man is not a moral category in the Augustinian sense, as in something prone to judicial punishment.  The body that the Word assumed was not incorruptible, but it was uncorrupted.  His death was not the result of a corruption shared with others, but an act of voluntary oblation.  The Word offered up his body on behalf of all, and infused new life into it by means of the resurrection, which opens the way for our deification, understood as a renewal of communion with God, of our wholly conscious active receptivity to the divine Word.  


Three concerns arise with regard to this account: 

1) Does Athanasius not stand awfully close to Apollinarius, by speaking of the Word’s assumption of a human body?  Khaled Anatolios defends Athanasius on this score, arguing that a discussion of the human soul of Christ lay outside Athanasius’s particular agenda in De Incarnatione, but not outside his theology.  But this, suggests McCormack, misses the key problem: that the Word is the only agent.  The problem is not the truncation of the human itself, but the purpose of the truncation.  Athanasius and Apollinarius both believe that the Word is the single subject of redemption.  The Word relates to his human nature in the mode of pure activity.  The problem with this from a biblical point of view is this: when the human Jesus is thus instrumentalized, there is no further need for the work of the Spirit in the life of Jesus.  The Spirit’s ministry is rendered superfluous.  This problem, McCormack argues, stems from the active-passive paradigm that Athanasius made basic to the God-world relationship as a whole.  An abstract doctrine of creation is controlling Athanasius’s Christology and his convictions about divine being.  

2) When Athanasius ascribes suffering to the Word, he means merely that since the body he has assumed belongs to Him, it is in this sense the Word’s suffering–it is a mere genitive of possession.  To the extent that Athanasius appears to want to say more than that, he draws back and assures his reader that these experiences of suffering do not really reach the Word as such, because the Word remains always active rather than passive.  

3) For Athanasius, the fact that Christ died as the result of a judicial proceeding has nothing to teach us; the cry of dereliction is left out.  Athanasius himself raises the question of why Christ couldn’t have simply died an old man in his bed, and he does not have a terribly good answer–it is merely a matter of fittingness and apologetic value.  There is nothing in the law of sin and death as such that requires he should die in this particular way.  No saving significance attaches to the death on the cross; Christ could have chosen to deal with the law of sin and death in a completely different way.  The particular narrative features of the Christ-event then are dismissed as incidental to the overriding metaphysical process being accomplished.


McCormack turned next to deal with Hegel, and here we enter very murky waters indeed.  I have long known that I need to get a grip on Hegel, but I have always been too scared to venture in far enough to try.  So I resolved to pay the utmost attention at this point in the lecture, and see what I could glean.  McCormack was lucid enough that I finally got a decent idea of what Hegel was all about, but it was still quite fuzzy for me.  So I’ll just sketch the little I can here, for those few of you who may also want to try to get a grip on Hegel–for the rest of you, just scroll down to the last couple paragraphs.


In the wake of Kant’s attack on classical metaphysics, Hegel’s goal was not to return naively to this metaphysics, but to reconstruct a new critical metaphysics.  Hegel begins this endeavor by returning to Spinoza’s concept of the one infinite substance, which he personalizes and identifies as the single infinite subject.  Hegel identifies Spinoza’s single infinite substance with a single infinite subject.  The substance becomes subject–or “Absolute Spirit”–through a process of self-differentiation through history.  For Hegel, the human subject and its objects are both appearances of the one infinite subject. 

Hegel did not understand the Infinite Substance to transcend the world in the way God does in classical theism, but to exist in and through the world.  But Hegel resisted the label of pantheism, because of his identification of the substance as a subject, and the fact that he takes difference more seriously–the finite has reality on account of the self-differentiation of Absolute Spirit.  In this account, God is logically prior to the world, but it is not clear that he is necessarily ontologically prior to the world.  

The development of the Absolute Spirit has three moments which correspond to the three members of the Trinity.  Intriguingly, Hegel saw himself as putting the doctrine of the Trinity back on the agenda after its long neglect.  1) God finds himself in an originating unity which is purely abstract, and if God is to come to full self-consciousness, he must 2) posit himself over against himself, and then must 3) know himself in and through this other.  Hegel seems the same pattern operating in human knowing–Hegel calls his theology is “speculative” after the word speculum–mirror.  

So, God posits an other within himself.  The Son remains one with the Father, even in his differentiation, but he must be truly over against the Father, which means he must take finite form.  The act of self-positing is the act of creating, positing the existence of a world outside God.  The other that is released by God’s act of self-differention is the world itself.  The world is thus the Son–the finite form assumed by God in his self-differentiation.  But the world is not sufficiently concrete to be that which is over against God, and is not self-conscious to know God, through which he knows himself.  So humanity must the other, indeed, ultimately it is necessary that God become a finite other in a single human being.  God thus reconciles the other to himself by taking death into his own life, and overcomes it.  It is thus not the resurrection that overcomes death, but the death of Christ, the event in God’s life that itself overcomes death.  That death is overcome by death is the turning point in the history of self-consciousness.  The statement that “God himself has died” is a demonstration that the human is itself is a moment, a manifestation, of God.  

The third moment is inaugurated by the resurrection.  Human beings are awakened to a spiritual understanding of Christ’s death.  The descent of God thus gives rise to an ascent of human beings to him.  


Having completely this dizzying sketch, McCormack defended Hegel against three misunderstandings

First, in response to non-metaphysical readings of Hegel, which try to make him relevant by proposing that Hegel didn’t really believe all this–he just thought it was a useful logical construct–McCormack affirmed that Hegel really did believe all this.  In fact, Hegel found it much easier to believe in God than he found it to believe in the world.  Hegel is closer to acosmism than atheism. 

Second, he addressed the charge that there is no place for divine freedom in Hegel’s theology, since Hegel makes creation necessary to God.  But this does not require elimination of the concept of freedom, but merely its redefinition.  Hegel borrows from Spinoza the definition that freedom means independence of all external conditions, freedom from all but internal necessity.  This may not be an adequate account of divine freedom, but it is an account.

Finally, McCormack denied that for Hegel, the divine becoming involves a change of God’s being.  On the contrary, the divine becoming is not a change of God’s essence but is inscribed in his very essence, as part of it.  The self-determination that gives rise to this becoming is itself essential to God.  Essence on this account is not static, but plastic.

Now, by this point, if you’re still reading, you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with McCormack’s treatment of the atonement.  Unfortunately, at this point in the lecture, my brain gave out entirely, and so I’ll have to leave you hanging.  The gist, as you can imagine, was this–Hegel has made the subject-matter of philosophy and theology the same, and so thinks he can inscribe the theological narrative of Christ’s death into a larger philosophical framework that serves as its proper explanation.  This is a much more extreme form of what Athanasius was doing.  Clearly this is problematic for anyone who thinks that we need to take the concrete narrative of Christ seriously, and use it to reveal for us God’s relationship to the world, instead of approaching things the other way around.


In conclusion, McCormack suggested that metaphysics has proven so irresistibly attractive to Christians ancient and modern because of the promise it holds out of a change in the being of a believer.  Most Christians want the Christian life to be more than the constant struggle with sin that we know, they want to imagine that they can truly transcend themselves and become something different, and so we look to deification theories.  While resisting this longing, McCormack did not wish to poo-poo it.  This longing cannot merely be ignored–it must be redirected; after all, we are to be a “new creation.”  That’s why, he said, he hoped to develop in the final lectures a “post-metaphysical soteriology” not an “anti-metaphysical” one.


Again, a fascinating Q&A session ensued, in which Patristic scholar Sara Parvis argued that McCormack was being unfair to Athanasius and others of his trajectory (preeminently Cyril of Alexandria) by claiming that they would not allow that God the Word really suffered on the cross.  The Patristic witness, on her reading, is quite insistent on the reality of the Word’s suffering.  But McCormack replied that the key point was that, whatever the Word’s body might suffer, the Word cannot take this suffering as an affective suffering into his divine life.  The Word merely instrumentalizes the body.  After considerable further back-and-forth, the ultimate verdict was that this was in fact an intramural dispute among Patristic specialists, who are divided in their interpretation of Athanasius and Cyril on precisely this question.  And from what we know of specialists, that probably means they’ll be debating the issue to kingdom come, and we’ll just have to give up hope on ever getting a clear answer.

Now, for lecture three, which McCormack promised would be much less arduous….

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.