“In Four Words” (Hooker’s Christology Intermezzo)

I will, as promised, be getting to the latter installments of the discussion of Hooker’s Christology very shortly; in the meantime, however, I thought I would put up this little gem, which didn’t seem to fit within the compass of any of the planned posts, but which it would’ve been a terrible shame to omit.  At the end of V.54, in one of his most famous little passages, Hooker encapsulates in a delightfully tidy little nutshell the entire structure of orthodox Christology, and the various heresies that have challenged it (I have modernized the spelling and punctuation this time, mindful that not everyone gets as much of a kick out of “four” being spelled “fower” as I do):

“To gather therefore into one sum all that hitherto hath been spoken touching this point, there are but four things which concur to make complete the whole state of our Lord Jesus Christ: his deity, his manhood, the conjunction of both, and the distinction of the one from the other being joined in one.  Four principal heresies there are which have in those things withstood the truth: Arians by bending themselves against the deity of Christ; Apollinarians by maiming and misinterpreting that which belongeth to his human nature; Nestorians by rending Christ asunder and dividing him into two persons; the followers of Eutyches by confounding in his person those natures which they should distinguish.  Against these there have been four most famous ancient general Councils: the Council of Nicaea to define against Arians; against Apollinarians the Council of Constantinople; the Council of Ephesus against Nestorians; against Eutychians the Chalcedon Council.

In four words alethos, teleos, adiairetos, asynchytos–truly, perfectly, indivisibly, distinctly; the first applied to his being God, and the second to his being man, the third to his being of both one, and fourth to his still continuing in that one both, we may fully by way of abridgement comprise whatsoever antiquity hath at large handled either in declaration of Christian belief or in refutation of the foresaid heresies.  Within the compass of which four heads, I may truly affirm that all heresies which touch but the person of Jesus Christ, whether they have risen in these later days, or in any age heretofore, may be with great facility brought to confine themselves.  We conclude therefore that to save the world it was of necessity the Son of God should be thus incarnate, and that God should so be in Christ as hath been declared.”

The Parable of the Minas

Jesus’ parables get a pretty wretched treatment.  So easy to rip out of context, trivilialize, turn into a banal illustration of some timeless spiritual truth.  Sometimes we even read the absolute opposite meaning out of a parable to that which Jesus intended.  One of the saddest examples of this is the Parable of the Minas in Luke 19:11-27.  In general, we mentally elide this parable with the Matthaean version, with which we are more familiar, the Parable of the Talents.  Even here, mind you, our readings tend to be rather shallow, but I’ll be leaving the Matthaean parable to the side for now, and focusing on the Lucan.  Too often we are prone to despise God’s gift to us of four gospels, and we hasten to amalgamate them into one, instead of attending carefully to the different accounts they give us and different lessons they teach us, often using the same basic story in very different contexts for different reasons.  The Parable of the Minas simply isn’t doing the same thing as the Parable of the Talents. 

What do we usually think of when we think of these parables?  Two messages are common.  The most bastardized reading of all treats this as a lesson in economics.  “See, Jesus teaches us the importance of good stewardship, and the importance of a capitalist economy.  You can’t just let your money sit around doing nothing–if you’re going to be a faithful steward, you need to go out there and put your money to use.  Go invest, make a profit–that’s what God wants of you.”  Thankfully, most interpreters are sensible enough to realize this is not what Jesus is trying to say, but their reading is scarcely better.  They “spiritualize” the parable, as we generally like to do with parables, and turn it into a story of the Christian life, the Second Coming, and the Last Judgment…seems like we turn a lot of parables into a variation of this.  Jesus is the nobleman going away into a far country, and when he returns to receive his kingdom, he wants to see if we, his people, have been using his spiritual gifts well in his absence–if not, we are punished.  And those who refuse to accept his kingdom are punished even worse.  So, we’d better get busy using our gifts, because Jesus is going to be pretty demanding when he comes back.


The problem is that both of these readings unequivocally identify Jesus with the protagonist of the story, something that is seriously problematic from both a textual and a historical (not to mention theological) standpoint.  When we stop and read the story carefully, we should be aware of several jarring moments in the narrative that clash with the Jesus-as-protagonist reading.  “A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom.”  Is Jesus a “nobleman”?  Does he usually portray himself that way?  Is he one of the powerful, out seeking even more power?  That’s not how he’s generally appeared thus far in the gospel.  The nobleman sets his servants to work to make money by trading–though Jesus has set himself squarely in opposition to Mammon thus far in Luke.  The servants who increase his wealth and worldly power are rewarded with worldly power of their own–”authority over cities”–whereas Jesus has emphasized that his followers serve in lowliness and humility, away from the centers of worldly power.  The last servant tells the master, and the master does not dispute him, that “you are a severe man.  You collect what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.”  This doesn’t sound like a very nice description, and certainly not like Jesus.  This master is someone who expects money that he hasn’t earned, who doesn’t do the work himself, but expects his servants to do it for him, who demands the maximum yield from them on pain of severe punishment.  All of this sounds rather like the opposite of Jesus.  Then the nobleman tells the last servant, “Why then did you not put my money in the bank, that at my coming I might have collected it with interest?”  In other words, the nobleman is demanding of the servant–“Why did you not use my money for usurious lending, such as is forbidden in the Torah, so that you might profit from the misfortunes of others?”  We’ve become so comfortable with usury that we might completely miss this dimension, but why would Jesus ever cast himself in the role of someone encouraging this serious violation of the Law?  Then the nobleman, stripping the mina from the unprofitable servant, says, “For I say to you, that to everyone who has will be given: and from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.”  But again, this doesn’t sound like Jesus at all.  Giving the rich even more, and stripping the last penny away from the poor?  The one of whom it was said at his birth, “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty”?  The one who has just finished humbling a Zacchaeus, a mighty one (someone who made their money oppressively, like one of these servants perhaps), sending a rich man away empty?  No, this doesn’t seem to fit at all.  And then, in the last verse, “But bring those enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, and slay them before me.”  Ouch!  No, that doesn’t sound like Jesus at all, the Jesus who just finished telling us, “for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost,” (Lk. 19:10), the Jesus who is just about to weep and lament over the downfall of his enemies who do not want him to reign over them (Lk. 19:41-42).  

Once we get through asking these questions, we’re left to wonder how we could ever have read this straightforwardly as a parable of the way Jesus treats his servants.  And in fact, there is every reason, historically, not to read it this way.  

For, unlike most of Christ’s parables, we have here very good reason to perceive factual events behind this fictionalized narrative.  In the immediately preceding generation, a Jewish nobleman (Archelaus son of Herod) had gone into a far country (Rome) to receive a kingdom (Judea).  He had been hated by his subjects (for his abominable cruelty, massacring thousands) and they did send a delegation after him, saying “We will not have this man to reign over us.”  He was, however, given lordship over Judea, and returned to reward his cronies who had enriched themselves and him at the expense of the people, and to punish cruelly all who opposed him.  Here was a man who fits perfectly the greedy, bloodthirsty picture of the nobleman in the narrative.  No need to look further, right? 


Well, clearly there must be more to it than that, or else why would Jesus bother telling the story?  This story does tell us something about Jesus’s kingdom, but the point is that it is not the first layer of meaning.  Jesus’s kingship enters the story at a secondary level, subversive of the first level of meaning, and when we read it this way, it makes quite a lot of difference.  Rather than trying to make Jesus fit into the value-systems of the world–Jesus must want us to go out and make money; Jesus must be a hard and scary taskmaster; Jesus is going to kill everyone who stands in his way–and try to bend his Gospel to make these alien elements fit within it, we should see the point–that Jesus is subverting the value-systems of the world.  

The introduction of the story gives us a good hint: “Now as they heard these things, He spoke another parable, because He was near Jerusalem and because they thought the kingdom of God would appear immediately.”  They are expecting an imminent, dramatic manifestation of the Messianic kingdom.  Jesus is going to Jerusalem, and he’s going to kick the Romans’ butts, punish all his enemies, and reign over Israel.  Right?  Well, not quite.  Jesus knows that they are imagining his kingdom according to worldly values–as the most powerful among the powers, the most victorious in battle–and he wants to show them how misguided this is.  So what does he do?  He tells a story of an actual King of the Jews, one in their recent experience, one who ruled according to the values of the world, who rewarded those who helped him to power by giving them power of their own, and made sure everyone who stood in his way got what was coming to them.  It’s as if Jesus is saying, “You want a king?  You want someone else to take power over you?  Really?  Don’t you remember what all your other kings have been like?”  Jesus, as the immediately preceding and following narratives show, is not like this king at all.  He befriends the hated tax collector, rather than slaying him, like a Zealot Messiah might have.  He has come to “seek and to save that which was lost.”  He is about to enter Jerusalem as the Messiah, but not like a conqueror on a war-horse, but a simple carpenter on a donkey.  And when he gets into Jerusalem, he goes not to Antonia Fortress to kick Roman butt, but to the Temple to kick Jewish butt.  

Jesus is a king, he is going to go into a far country (death itself) to receive his kingdom, and he will be challenged by his people, who will not want him to reign over them, and these will in the end suffer judgment.  But his kingdom is not like the nobleman’s–it is not one in which you have to work hard and trample over everyone else in order to earn his favor, but in which grace is extended freely; it is not one characterized by usury and pursuit of profit, but by equity and charity; it is not one in which the gifted receive more gifts, and the less capable are despised altogether, but in which the last shall be first and the first last; it is not one in which enemies are treated mercilessly, but with mercy, lamenting the judgment that they bring upon themselves.  


In short, the “spiritualized” reading of the parable is not entirely off-track, but, if it mistakes this parable as a portrait of the Kingdom, rather than a portrait of the world that is being subverted, it will distort the nature of Christ’s kingdom.


(Note: Doug Jones’s commentary Making Trinity Here provided much of the inspiration for this)

“Eat and Live”–A Tribute to Richard Hooker

Just yesterday I finally concluded a glorious two-month journey through the 1400 pages of Richard Hooker’s incomparable Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie, as much a life-changing experience as any [human] book can provide.  Although I have been scattering testimonies to Hooker’s brilliance through this blog all along the way, thought it appropriate to mark the occasion by posting a beautiful testimony to Hooker’s eloquence and irenicism, an excerpt from his stunning section on the Eucharist, where he pleads for us to glory in the mystery of the Real Presence, rather than disputing endlessly of its mechanism:

“Hee which hath said of the one sacrament Wash and be cleane, hath said concerninge the other likewise Eat and live.  If therefore without any such particular and solemne warrant as this is, that poor distressed woman comminge unto Christ for health could so constantlie resolve hir selfe, May I but touch the skirt of his garment I shalbe whole, what moveth us to argue of the maner how life should come by bread, our dutie being here but to take what is offered, and most assuredly to rest perswaded of this, that can wee but eate wee are safe?  When I behold with mine eyes some smale and scarce discerneable graine or seed whereof nature maketh promise that a tree shall come; and when afterwards of that tree any skillfull artificer undertaketh to frame some exquisite and curious worke, I looke for the event, I move no question about performance either of the one or of the other.  Shall I simplie credit nature in thinges naturall, shall I in thinges artificiall relie my selfe on art, never offeringe to make doubt, and in that which is above both arte and nature refuse to believe the author of both, except he acquaint me with his waies, and lay the secret of his skill before me?

….Let it therefore be sufficient for me presentinge my selfe at the Lordes table to knowe what there I receive from him, without searchinge or inquiring of the maner how Christ performeth his promise; let disputes and questions, enimies to pietie, abatementes of true devotion and hitherto in this cause but over patientlie heard, let them take their rest; let curious and sharp witted men beat theire heades about what questions them selves will, the verie letter of the worde of Christ giveth plaine securitie that these mysteries doe as nailes fasten us to his verie crosse, that by them wee draw out, as touchinge efficacie force and vertue, even the blood of his goared side, in the woundes of our redeemer wee there dip our tongues, wee are died redd both within and without, our hunger is satisfied and our thirst for ever quenched…this bread hath in it more then the substance of our eyes behold, this cup hallowed with sollemne benediction availeth to the endles life and wellfare both of soule and bodie…what these elementes are in them selves it skilleth [matters] not, it is enough to me which take them they are the bodie and blood of Christ, his promise in witnes hereof sufficeth, his word he knoweth which way to accomplish, why should any cogitation possesse the mind of a faithfull communicant but this, O my God thou art true, O my soule thou art happie?”

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.