“No person but the Sonne of God” (Richard Hooker’s Christology, Pt. 1)

As something of a transition (albeit a bit belated) between filling much of my blogspace with reflections on McCormack’s Christology and filling much of it with reflections on Richard Hooker (as I shall be wont to do for the next couple years, most likely), I thought it might be good to write up a few posts on Richard Hooker’s Christology, which although quite rich and thoughtfully developed, is rarely if ever mentioned in surveys of Protestant Christology (at least, I have never heard it mentioned).  This is a sad oversight, for though certainly not startlingly original, Hooker articulates a Reformed Christology that is deeply rooted in, and consciously harmonized with, Patristic orthodoxy, and that goes a fair way toward bridging the deep rift that had opened up between Reformed and Lutheran Christologies by the end of the sixteenth-century.  At any rate, that is how I read it, though I invite those more expert in Christology and historical theology to correct or nuance this judgment.

Hooker’s Christology is also well-worth attending to for my own purposes, since Torrance Kirby argues in his recent monograph Richard Hooker’s Doctrine of the Royal Supremacy that it is integral to his political theology, in particular his account of the relationship of the two kingdoms, and of Church and State.  Indeed, Kirby claims that Hooker constructed his doctrine this way in direct response to Cartwright’s appeal to Christology to undergird the Puritan political ecclesiology, arguing that Cartwright’s Christ was heterodox.  If so, this is very intriguing indeed, since none other than our old friend VanDrunen has summoned forth Christology as an integral foundation for his version of the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine, and to my mind has fallen into heterodoxy in the process.  My hunch is that Cartwright’s correlation of Christology and political theology will have the same structure as VanDrunen’s, and Hooker’s response will be equally telling against both, thus providing another means of tying in Hooker’s political thought with modern debates.  

 

Hooker’s Christology proper spans twenty-five densely-packed pages in the middle of Book V of the Lawes, comprising chapters 51-55.  Although the immediate question before Hooker at this point in Book V is the efficacy of the sacraments, he opts, as usual, to build this more particular discussion on as general and systematic a foundation as possible, and that means explaining who Christ is and how we can have communion with him in his divine and human natures.  And if Kirby is correct, Hooker penned this discussion also with an eye toward his account of church and state and the royal supremacy in Book VIII, which would draw on the Chalcedonian language of two natures in personal union.  Although spanning five chapters, Hooker’s discussion can be divided into three movements: first, a thoroughly orthodox and Alexandrian statement of the received Chalcedonian doctrine, emphasizing the personal identity of Christ with the eternal Logos; second, a typically Reformed statement of the communicatio idiomatum, emphasizing the separation between the two natures; third, a series of qualifications to the doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum, constituting as it were concessions to the Lutheran understanding of the divinization of the human nature and its resultant ubiquity, yet without abandoning firm Reformed ground.  I shall allot one post to each of these movements.

 

First, then, Hooker undertakes to establish in ch. 51 “That God is in Christ by the personall incaranation of the Sonne who is verie God.”  He begins by making a traditional Trinitarian distinction of the three persons and the one nature, and uses this distinction to show that the second person, the Word, becomes incarnate, but the other two persons do not.  However, while being careful to deny the incarnation of the other two persons, we must not deny the incarnation of the divine nature: “Notwithstandinge for as much as the worde and deitie are one subject, wee must beware wee exclude not the nature of God from incarnation and so make the Sonne of God incarnate not to be verie God.  For undoubtedly even the nature of God it selfe in the only person of the Sonne is incarnate and hath taken to itself flesh.”  We must not imagine any kind of gap between the person of the Word and his nature.  “Wherefore incarnation may neither be graunted to any person but only one, nor yeat denied to that nature which is common unto all three”–so the orthodox doctrine requires, but Hooker confesses this “an incomprehensible mysterie” (51.2)  

Why should this incarnation happen?  Because “it seemeth a thinge unconsonant that the world should honor any other as the Savior but him whome it honoreth as the creator of the world, and in the wisdom of God it hath not bene thought convenient to admitt anie way of savinge man but by man him selfe.”  Using language reminiscent of Athanasius, then, Hooker says “It became therefore him by whome all thinges are, to be the waie of salvation to all, that the institution and restitution of the world might be both wrought by one hand.”  Moreover, inasmuch as God willed that the world could only be saved by the death of his Son, “Christ tooke manhood that by it he might be capable of death whereunto hee humbled him selfe” (51.3)

He moves on then in ch. 52 to define the hypostatic union.  He begins with due humility, warning that “It is not in mans habilitie either to expresse perfectlie or conceyve the maner how this was brought to passe….Howbeit because this divine mysterie is more true than plaine, divers havinge framed the same to theire owne conceiptes and phancies are found in theire expositions thereof more plain than true” (52.1).  In other words, orthodoxy and logical clarity are likely to be inversely proportional in this matter; heresies have erred more often than not by trying to make the matter perfectly clear, thus undermining the delicately-balanced tension of the orthodox paradox.

He then runs through a quick and dizzying catalogue of the heresies that arose on this point between Nicaea and Chalcedon, culminating with Nestorius, in response to most of the rest of this chapter is arranged.  By Nestorius’s time all had come to agreement that Christ was both truly God and truly man, “But that the selfe same person which verelie is man should properlie be God also, and that, by reason not of two persons linked in amitie but of two natures humaine and divine conjoyned in one and the same person, the God of glorie may be said as well to have suffered death, as to have raised the the dead from theire graves, the Sonne of man as well to have made as to have redeemed the world, Nestorius in no case would admitt” (52.2).

His error here, says Hooker, steemed from inattention to John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and dwelt in us”; the plural number signifies that Christ became incarnate in the manhood common to us all, not in one particular man.  This distinction is absolutely essential, as Hooker expounds so well that it is worth quoting him at length:

“If the Sonne of God had taken to him selfe a man now made and already perfected, it would of necessitie follow that there are in Christ two persons, the one assuminge and the other assumed, whereas the Sonne of God did not assume a mans person unto his own, but a mans nature to his owne person, and therefore tooke semen the seed of Abraham, the verie first originall element of our nature before it was come to have anie personall humaine subsistence.”  

This means that there was never anything human preexisting the union of the Word with the human: “The flesh and the conjunction of the flesh with God began both at one instant, his makinge and takinge to him selfe our flesh was but one act.  So that in Christ there is no personall subsistence but one, and that from everlastinge.”

The person of Christ is completely identical with the eternal person of the Godhead: “By taking only the nature of man he still continueth one person, and changeth but the maner of his subsisting, which was before in the meere glorie of the Sonne of God, and is now in the habit also of our flesh.”  This personal unity must be so unqualified that we can speak comfortably of the human history of Christ as God’s history; indeed, we must do so, because it is the history of a person, not of a nature: “For as much therefore as Christ hath no personal subsistence but one whereby wee acknowledge him to have bene eternallie the Sonne of God, wee must of necessitie applie to the person of the Sonne of God even that which is spoken of Christ accordinge to his humane nature.  For example, accordinge to the flesh he was borne of the Virgin Marie, baptised of John in the river Jordan, by Pilate adjudged to die and executed by the Jewes.  Wee cannot saie properlie that the Virgin bore, or John did baptise, or Pilate condemn or the Jewes crucifie the nature of man, because these are all personall attributes, his person is the subject which receaveth them, his nature that which maketh his person capable or apt to receive.”

To say otherwise (e.g., to deny “Theotokos”) is simply Nestorianism: “If wee should saie that the person of a man in our savior Christ was the subject of these thinges, this were plainelie to intrap our selves in the verie snare of the Nestorians heresie between whome and the Church of God there was no difference savinge onlie that Nestorius imagined in Christ as well a personall humane subsistence as a divine, the Church acknowleging a substance both divine and human but no other personall subsistence then divine, because the Sonne of God tooke not to him sele a mans person but only the nature of a man.”  

In sum, then, we must affirm that “Christ is a person both divine and humaine, howbeit not therefore two persons in one, neither both these in one sense, but a person divine because he is personallie the Sonne of God, humane because he hath reallie the nature of the children of men.”

“Whereupon it followeth against Nestorius,” Hooker emphatically and unapologetically asserts, “that no person was born of the virgin but the Sonne of God, no person but the Sonne of God baptised, the sonne of God condemned, the sonne of God and no other person crucified, which one onlie point of Christian beliefe–the infinite worth of the Sonne of God–is the verie ground of all thinges beleived concerninge life and salvation by that which Christ either did or suffered as man in our behalfe” (52.3)

Here we can see, as starkly and clearly as possible, how forcefully the orthodox tradition asserted that God really did suffer and die; I am still not convinced by McCormack’s arguments that this confession was weak, half-hearted, and hedged in with qualifications that deprived it of real force–merely a linguistic and not a real confession.  No, it is emphatic and uncompromising. 

 

Hooker concludes this chapter by finishing the story up through Chalcedon–Cyril’s forceful confession against Nestorius is misinterpreted by some (due to some imprecise language on Cyril’s part) as a confession of only one mixed nature in Christ (Eutychianism) which Chalcedon undertook to deny.  “For as Nestorius teaching righlie that God and man are distinct natures did thereupon misinferre that in Christ those natures can by no conjunction make one person; so Eutyches of sound beliefe as touching theire true personall copulation became unsound by denyinge the difference which still continueth between the one and the other nature.  Wee must therefore keepe warilie a middle corse shunninge both that distraction of persons wherein Nestorius went awrie, and also this later confusion of natures which deceived Eutyches” (52.4).

Finally, we must confess this union to be perpetual, so that it applied even when Christ was dead in the grave.  Even at this point, the person of the Son remained inseparably joined to his human body and soul, existing with them in a state of death.

 

Up to this point, we have a doctrine that is robustly Alexandrian, willing to affirm much more than most modern Reformed are regarding the fullness of the union.  In fact, we may wonder whether Hooker is going to be Reformed at all with this kind of emphasis.  In the following chapter, which I will explore next week, he undertakes to balance out this discussion with an explanation of the complete distinction of the two natures.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

Barth

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.”

 

Conclusion

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. 

 

Q&A:

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. 😉