The Cry of Dereliction (McCormack Croall Lecture #5)

Perhaps wanting to circle the wagons after his unquestionably daring theological moves in the last lecture, McCormack began Lecture 5 by trying to emphasize the non-novelty of what he was doing.  There was a time 25 years ago, he said, when talk of the “suffering of God” and the “death of God” had achieved something of the status of a new orthodoxy in dogmatics.  Process theologians, open theists, Barthians, Moltmannians–they all had their different reasons for making these moves.  But the conclusions were similar: God suffers not as a mere matter of love and empathy, but as one who takes the suffering of world into his own being.  

Returning to some of the rhetoric of his first lecture, McCormack darkly intimated that the causes of the shift back to the doctrines of divine simplicity and divine impassibility had little to do with theology.  The churches of Protestantism are in decline, he lamented, and its theologians are no longer faithful to Protestant theological distinctives–most now seem intent on trying to synthesize Anabaptist ethical impulses, Reformed theology, and High Church liturgical impulses (which, to be frank, sounds like a jolly good idea to me).  Catholic theologians no longer need to take Protestants as seriously as they once did; the traditionalists are now back in the ascendancy in the Catholic Church, and are trying to roll back some of the gains of Second Vatican.  All this, he suggests, has led to a rejection of the more radical, to his mind more Protestant, accounts of the atonement, and a retrenchment within older metaphysical categories–a trajectory that has not left New Testament exegetes unaffected.

Now, just as a brief side-note, all this is a bit amusing for a sheltered evangelical like myself to hear.  Evangelicals tend to lag a few decades behind the rest of the theological world, and so it is that we are just now encountering these radical Barthian ideas, and just now coming to grips with the fact that the Second Vatican Council happened–for us, a brave new world is opening before us, while for McCormack, that world is slipping away and he is desperate to stop the door from shutting on it entirely.  

McCormack prefaced his exegetical lecture with some words about method.  A Protestant dogmatics must be rigorously grounded in Scripture.  And while, to be sure, a dogmatics must read broadly and synthetically across Scripture, instead of singling out a particular text, this should not be the starting point.  Dogmatics must give due attention to the historical and literary features of individual texts.  In this case, that means that dogmatics may use historical reasons for privileging the Marcan and Matthaean accounts, and must take these narratives with utmost seriousness on their own terms, before attempting to make sense of the other narratives.  The lecture was to be organized in four major sections–first, an initial look at the crucifixion narratives in Mark and Matthew; then, attention to the Gethsemane narratives (again, primarily in Mark and Matthew); then, the Gehenna texts of the New Testament; finally, a return to the crucifixion narratives for reconsideration in light of all this.


1. The death of Jesus in Mark and Matthew–a first look

Mark and Matthew each only have one spoken word from the cross, followed by an inarticulate sound as Christ expires.  The one word is the cry of dereliction–there is nothing present to qualify this darkness, to add a tone of victory.  From the beginning, McCormack said, Christians have been concerned about the apologetic difficulties of this cry–how could a victorious God-man expire this way?  If it is the case, as McCormack thinks, that Luke deliberated substituted “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” then it seems that the apologetic modification began quite early.  Throughout church history, theologians were to continue to express discomfort with the cry of dereliction for various reasons.  

The cry has thus come to be considered something of a scandal, to be minimized rather than maximized.  McCormack wants to completely reverse that trajectory.  Two key questions have been raised about the cry: 1) did Jesus really feel himself to be abandoned?  2) was this feeling well-grounded?  Consensus of theological opinion has generally solidified around a “Yes” to the first question, and McCormack wants to take us further, to a “Yes” to the second question.  

The texts before us are Mark 15:33-34 and Matthew 27:45-46.  

The darkness that comes over the whole land is often recognized as an allusion to Amos 8:9, where this is described as an effect of the eschatological judgment of God.  The other obvious allusion is of course to Psalm 22, from which the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me are taken.”  McCormack criticized the tendency of many exegetes to bring some light into the darkness of this scene by drawing attention to the entirety of Psalm 22, which ends in praise amid the congregation at God’s deliverance.  But this misses the point of our narratives here–God does not intervene, Jesus does not live to praise God amid the congregation, the latter part of Psalm 22 is omitted for a reason.  But, like Psalm 22, this is a prayer, but a prayer that is no longer from a standpoint of intimacy with the Father, as the earlier prayers in Gethsemane were–God is distant.  This is not a prayer for deliverance; that prayer had already been made and refused in the garden; this is an expression of despair at the absence of God.  

McCormack also notes that some exegetes have connected the “loud cry” that Jesus utters at his expiration with the cries of the demon-possessed throughout these Gospels, the only other places this phrase is used. Could this make the cry of dereliction the equivalent of the demons’ “What have we to do with you?”  Not quite, says McCormack, nonetheless, the demonic idea points in the right direction–to the objective, not merely subjective, experience of God-abandonment.

The point of the exegesis McCormack wants to offer is this–in the Matthaean and Marcan accounts, Christ does not die in victorious union with his Father, but under the Father’s eschatological wrath.  These overtones are reinforced by the apocalyptic imagery that follows Christ’s death–the rending of the temple veil, the earthquake, etc.  Jesus thus dies forsaken by God and he remains so until his resurrection.


2. The Prayer of Jesus and Arrest at Gethsemane

The presence of apocalyptic imagery requires that attention be given to the background of Jewish apocalyptic eschatology in the Second Temple period, the study of which has become something of a growth industry.  There are two main patterns of such apocalyptic: cosmic and judicial.  In both, there are two ages of the world, and the move into the new age of glory is inaugurated by the “day of the Lord,” the day of divine judgment.  The first pattern understands the world to have fallen under the dominion of evil powers, and holds that God will invade the world and defeat these powers in a cosmic war.  In the second pattern, the demonic element is marginalized or absent; God’s judgment rests on the evil that human beings do.  God’s remedy in this understanding, the day of the Lord, is a courtroom in which all humanity appears before the judge, and God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.  

Both patterns are taken up in the New Testament and reinterpreted in light of the Christ-event.  So which one is dominant in these Passion narratives?  McCormack will argue that it is the latter–the judicial notion is most prominent.  He unpacks this by attention to the Gethsemane narrative, which comprehends two main events–the prayer of Jesus and his arrest.  The impassioned prayer of Jesus for deliverance was, like the cry of dereliction, an embarrassment to the early Church.  How could Christ have such terror at the prospect of suffering and death when many martyrs faced such torments more bravely?  Hence, we find a softening in the Lucan account and even more in the Johannine.  Modern interpreters, however, have liked to emphasize the humanness expressed in this fear in the face of death.  But both is mistaken.

What Jesus fears is not death as such, but the eschatological tribulation that will accompany it.  The cup is a common Biblical image of the eschatological wrath of God that will be poured out.  The cup that Jesus drinks is the eschatological wrath of God to be poured out on the nations at the end of history.   Joel Marcus tries to read the cosmic dimension into this account by calling attention to Jesus’s warning to the disciples not to fall into “temptation” or “testing”–a word that alludes back to the Lord’s Prayer and has demonic overtones.  But this demonic threat is to the disciples, not to Jesus.  When Jesus is handed over to the authorities in his arrest, the following narrative makes many allusions to Isaiah 53, which employs judicial, not cosmic categories.  Jesus is handed over to bear the eschatological wrath of God against sinful mankind; he is not handed over to demonic powers that they might be destroyed in their attempt to destroy him.


3. Gehenna texts

At this point, you like me, may be wondering just where McCormack is going with all of this.  And why does he bring in the notion of gehenna (“hell”) here?  Well, part of what McCormack seems to be up to is, following from the hints laid down by Barth and von Balthasar in the previous lecture (that the doctrine of hell was a result of the atonement), to subordinate the doctrine of hell to a judicial understanding of the atonement, and liberate it from dependence on a realistic account of the cosmic demonic powers.  One can see how such moves would be very desirable for a theologian speaking to the modern world, for whom both hell and demons have quite lost their appeal.  (Not that McCormack was denying altogether that there was a cosmic, demonic dimension to the world; he may want to deny that, but if so, he certainly didn’t go explicitly in that direction in these lectures.) 

McCormack thus spent a bit of time surveying the various passages in the New Testament that speak of gehenna or of a similar fiery judgment.  He took particular note, as Protestants generally do not, of hints that all who die, believer and unbeliever, will pass through some kind of fire–Jesus’s saying that “all shall be salted with fire” and Paul’s remarks in 1 Corinthians 3.

The various descriptions of hell, he concluded, cannot be readily reconciled into one realistic picture; what does emerge clearly from them is the description of a condition of separation from God and from the righteous, a judicial picture of sentencing to experience the eternal wrath of God.  So it is that we can find a point of connection with the cry of dereliction.


4. The Death of Jesus in Mark and Matthew–a second look

The death of Jesus, we have seen, is the event in which the eschatological wrath of God against sinners is poured out.  Can we say any more than this?  Yes.

If the mission of Jesus was inaugurated by the Spirit being poured out on him, and the Father is mediated to him by the Spirit, then it makes sense to say that it is the withdrawal of the Spirit from Jesus in his passion that causes him to feel abandonment by his Father.  In the moment of death, the Spirit is withdrawn altogether.  Jesus is still the son of the Father, but the abandoned son of the Father.  It is thus in death that Jesus drinks to the dregs the experience of God-abandonment that is the sentence against the sinner.  Jesus experiences hell in our place on the cross.  



In concluding, McCormack turned to give brief attention to the Lucan and Johannine accounts: In Luke, we have “into thy hands I commit my spirit” and “Father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” and “Today you will be with me in Paradise”; in John, we have “Woman here is your Son”, “I am thirsty,” “It is finished.”  From John it’s clear how we can come to Tertullian’s conclusion that Jesus remains in complete control of his death.  

While the emotions which give rise to these disparate sayings may be compatible, McCormack considered it quite improbable that Jesus could have actually said all these things.  He thus wants to suggest that Mark and Matthew ought to enjoy a certain priority, on the basis of the sound principle that passages that cause serious difficulties for Christians are unlikely to have been interpolated later.  The words of Luke and John must of course be taken into account in a constructive dogmatic proposal, but cannot be taken with the same seriousness as the Marcan and Matthaean. 



In the Q&A, unsurprisingly, most questioners zeroed in on what McCormack had said about Hell.  The upshot of his answers was to say that he believed that Jesus had experienced hell on the cross in our place–he went to hell so that no one else has to.  Like Barth himself, he gestured toward, but did not commit himself to, a doctrine of universal salvation, leaving open the door to annihilationist accounts, for instance.  And he made clear that salvation must always be accompanied by faith, but he did not necessarily confine the exercise of such faith to this life.  He did go so far as to say, in response to a question about the proper pastoral response to a dying person who asks what God has in store for them, that we can confidently assure them that God has already declared his mercy to them in Christ, and they have nothing to fear.  The mere fact that this dying person would ask such a question, he said, is a manifestation of some kind of struggling faith, and we can be confident that God will acknowledge that faith.  


Some remarks

If you’re like me, you’re probably reaching the end of this saying, “Huh, that’s it?  All that wild stuff in Lecture 4 and all that promise of a new reconstructed account of penal substitution, and the only really new thing we get (hardly new by modern standards) is a sweeping of the doctrine of Hell under the rug?”  I must say that little in the exegesis offered seemed strikingly original.  The emphasis on Jesus’s experience of God-abandonment, his consciousness of the divine wrath, as the heart of his sufferings, rather than mere physical torment and death, was certainly valuable, but in my experience, this has been well-emphasized by the best traditional interpreters.  The notion of the gradual withdrawal of the Spirit was new to me, though I doubt absolutely new, and I tend to think this is a very fruitful way of describing it.  I tend to think McCormack is right to foreground the “judicial” rather than the “cosmic” element, but I’m not yet sure why they must be played off against one another–the NT witness suggests that both are present.  Like Larry Hurtado in the previous lecture, I’m uncomfortable with the extent to which McCormack wants to privilege Matthew and Mark, treating Luke and John as revisionists; he repeatedly affirms that their accounts must of course be taken on board as well, but seems awfully hesitant to actually do so.  The emphasis on Jesus experiencing Hell in our place seems like it may be quite a helpful emphasis, and though I want to be more cautious than McCormack in drawing the conclusions he wants to from that, I don’t want to dismiss them out of hand either.  I will return to reflect more on this last issue in my evaluative post(s) at the end of the lecture series.

The last lecture is today, and I should be able to put up a summary of that this weekend, followed by some reflections in response at the beginning of next week.  

The Eternal Humiliation of the Son (McCormack Croall Lecture #4)

Lecture #4 constituted a major turning-point in this series; in it, McCormack shifted out of a primarily critical gear and into a primarily constructive gear.  And with this turn, as the direction of his own proposal began to come into sharper focus, and the theology stepped further and further out onto the cliff-edge (or over the brink, as some might deem), tensions and misgivings mounted.  However, since I want to do full justice to the argument McCormack was trying to spell out, for his sake and for the sake of those who would have loved to hear these lectures themselves, I shall try to rigorously confine myself to recounting here, and reserve any discussion of my own reactions and questions until the series is complete.

Unsurprisingly, the more constructive turn in the series coincides with the treatment of Karl Barth and the eminent Barthian, Hans Urs von Balthasar.  For McCormack himself admitted at the outset of the lecture that it is difficult to tell in his work where Barth ends and he begins; he tends to regard his own constructive work as nothing more than correcting Karl Barth by Karl Barth.  Many Barth scholars would of course fiercely object–the interpretation of Barth is a notoriously contentious matter–and would consider McCormack’s project a perversion of Barth.  McCormack is thus in the somewhat awkward position of trying to put forward a genuinely new dogmatic proposal, whose significance depends on its newness, while trying all the while to disclaim originality.  

Be all that as it may, the key starting points are clearly Barthian–the “actualistic” ontology (to be is to act), the consequent focus on the dynamic history of Christ, and the emphasis on God’s freedom-for-us, his freedom to become humble.  So how does McCormack develop these themes?  Unfortunately, time did not allow him to present all the material he had prepared, so what follows is perhaps not as fully coherent as he might have liked; the basic contour, however, should be fairly readily discernible



He began by remarking that Karl Barth’s theology of the cross could not be more out of step with Christian theologians today, even those who use his name.  For many today, Jesus Christ stands preeminently as the victim of an unjust political order; they certainly do not think that his death was willed by his heavenly Father.  Focus thus shifts from the saving significance of his death to the saving significance of his life.  But nothing could be more emphatically asserted by Karl Barth than the saving significance of the death of Christ.

Barth is insistent that Christ remains always sovereign even in his passion; he remains the Lord, he remains in control, he remains free.  For Barth, the cohesiveness of the Gospel narratives is destroyed if we read, as so many moderns, his predictions of his passion as later interpolations.  Christ’s death must not be allowed ot be considered in any way an unexpected defeat, but a sovereign victory. The point is not to lessen the darkness surrounding the death of Jesus; no one has made more than Barth of the cry of dereliction.  But we must allow the light of Easter to penetrate the event of the cross, lest we make Christ into no more than a tragic hero.

McCormack finds Barth so congenial for this project (ostensibly reworking penal substitution) because Barth took up the judicial frame of reference inherited from the Reformers and made it foundational to a teleologically-ordered divine ontology.  Barth’s synthesis is able to give due weight to the insights of ontological and moral influence theories as well.  Barth achieves all this in a way that intends to be post-metaphysical, that seeks to build every doctrine on the lived narrative of Jesus of Nazareth; however, McCormack noted that Barth failed in the end to purge metaphysics from his account entirely–that task, it seems, has fallen to McCormack himself to complete.

In CD IV.1, “The Judge Judged in Our Place,” Barth engages with the theme of penal substitution directly.  He clearly thinks it is appropriate to think of the atonement in terms of penal substitution.  But just as clearly, he does not think it should be made central to a well-ordered understanding of the atonement.  The root problem for Barth is that the atonement is seen to address only the problem of guilt in this model; it is not seen to entail that which he considers fundamental–the destruction of the sinner in the death of Jesus Christ.  Guilt still plays an important role in Barth’s theory, but there is also the problem of corruption.  Christ drinks the bitter cup of sin to its dregs, and in this accomplishes the end of the sinner, not merely the end of the sin that hangs over the sinner’s head.  For Barth, indeed, the penalty for sin is not something extrinsic and additional to sin itself; the wrath that awaits the unrepentant is no more or less than the final condition into which their sin irresistibly leads them, to a place of utter separation from God.  

The Reformers, thought Barth, erred in tending to treat the atonement as a purely external transaction between God and the human Jesus, not a transaction in God himself.  In place of this, Barth provides the possibility for a true integration of person and work of Christ, but in such a way that the person is defined by the work to be performed.


What Takes Place in the Passion and Death of Christ?

Barth’s summary statement sounds fairly traditional: Jesus subjects himself to divine wrath and judgment in our place.  But when we unpack Barth’s doctrine more clearly, we will find that it is anything but traditional; this emerges particularly in his treatment of the cry of dereliction.

Barth identified the experience which gave rise to the cry of dereliction with the experience of hell.  We see this particularly in CD III.2, where he suggests that it was in fact the being of Jesus in death that led the NT writers to reflect on the suffering of hell–the Sheol described in the OT does not come close to the intensity of anguish described in the NT.   Christ died not as the righteous victim, but precisely as the sinner, and thus,  in death, Jesus has God “against him”; for Christ, then, the realm of the dead becomes Hell–being in death becomes punishment, torment, outer darkness.  Because of the sufferings of Christ, the realm of the dead can now be understood not merely naturally, as in the Old Testament, but judicially.

The subject of the cry is variously described by Barth.  He can refer to him as simply “God.”  The meaning of the Incarnation, says Barth, is revealed in the cry of dereliction: The Incarnation means not merely God’s becoming a man, but God’s handing himself over to the contradiction of man against him, man’s being-against-God that, carried out to its extremity, results in the Hell of God-abandonment, of God’s being-against-man.  The experience that gives rise to cry is for Barth a human experience; but this human cry points beyond itself to a more profound truth–the subject of the cry is God.  There must be no reservation in God’s solidarity with us in Christ.  It is God who cries out; he cries with man, as one who has made himself one with man.  Indeed, the true deity of this divine subject is disclosed more clearly here than anywhere else, in his being-with-us and being-for-us.  

Having pushed this point, however, Barth draws back and emphasizes the humanness of the suffering and death, out of worry that in emphasizing the prior point, we might seem to say that God ceases to be God.  We must not let supreme praise of God become supreme blasphemy: “God gives himself, but he does not give himself away.”  Barth does not want the divine immutability to be undermined.  He thus unexpectedly says, “His God had not really forsaken him.”  It would then seem that Barth makes the God-abandonment real only for the human Jesus.  McCormack is dissatisfied with this reticence.  However, the crucial point remains–in CD IV.1, Barth has argued that the passion and death of Christ are human experiences that take place in God without detriment to God’s being as God. 


What Does this imply for the Being of the Mediator?

Before entering upon the most perilous and daring ground yet, McCormack paused to recite the judgment of Eberhard Jungel that in Church Dogmatics IV we have not merely the recapitulation of the first three sections (as is generally recognized) but in fact the revision, or even retraction, of them.  Whereas in I.1 the emphasis is on the Godness of God, the emphasis is now in IV.1 on the humanity of God.  The anti-metaphysical strain inherent in Barth’s thought from the beginning has now taken hold of the theology as a whole.  There is no separate section in CD IV on the Person of Christ–Christ simply is what he does.  McCormack sees this trajectory as legitimating his own project of attempting to carry forward the actualization of Christology and divine ontology that Barth had begun but never completed.  So what does Barth’s Christological ontology in CD IV.1 look like?  

There are two key features: First, Barth substitutes a hypostatic uniting that takes place throughout the life of Jesus Christ for a hypostatic union conceived as a completed fact: “The subject Jesus Christ simply is this history.”  Second, he bids a firm farewell to the abstract metaphysical subject–hypostasis–of Chalcedon.  In place of it he puts a living divine subject who realizes his eternal being in and through human humility and obedience in time.  

This latter point takes us back from the mere history of the man Jesus on earth into the ontology of the pre-existent word, the eternal background of divine self-realization.  Barth argues in IV.1 that Christ reveals that humility and obedience are not alien to the innermost being of God, but are in fact most proper to him.  Although Christ’s humiliation is a novum mysterium for us when it encounters us in history, it is nothing new for him, but what he has always been for the beginning, for God is eternal and changeless.  The self-emptying of Phil. 2:7-8 finds its ground in an eternal self-humiliation.  How can this be?  Barth answers this question in terms of an inter-Trinitarian relation which finds its ground in the eternal act of election: “a divine decision whose content is made essential to God in the eternal act of deciding.”  It is not merely a decision to do something, but an eternal act of self-constitution.  Indeed, it is this act that distinguishes the three persons of God from one another, who otherwise would remain merely empty abstractions.  There is nothing prior to and above this self-differentiation; God never was anything else.  Barth could hold both divine immutability and divine passibility, because passibility was part of the eternal being of God as a property belonging to the person of the Word.  Barth can also say that it is only the pride of man making a God in its own image that refuses to hear of this self-humiliating God.  Barth says that in the older Greek metaphysical doctrine of God, God was too exalted to be affected in any way by the incarnation–he was a prisoner of his own Godhead.  

Whew!  You might want to take a deep breath after that shot of cask-strength theology, cuz it gets even wilder (though if you read the post “God Died For Us…Really?” you’ve already gotten a foretaste of it.


McCormack now asks, but aren’t the humility and obedience of the Word in eternity and the humility and obedience of the man Jesus in time two different things?  How can Barth bring these two activities together so as to be the activity of a single unified subject?  If we can’t answer this question, the whole enterprise is rendered untenable: can the actualization of divine and human in a single shared history be rendered coherent?  Barth posits a “becoming-identical” of the humility of the eternal Son with that of the man Jesus, but although this points in a helpful direction, it remains rather patchy.  So now McCormack lays all his cards on the table: the problem is that to get death and God-abandonment as a human experience into the divine life would require something more than the mere act of identifying with Jesus on the part of the Son of God; it would require an ontological receptivity on the part of the Son toward all that comes to it from the humanity of Jesus.  Now, “receptivity” is not the same as “passivity” or “inactivity”–it is a sovereignly-willed activity which expresses itself in powerlessness.  This constitutes a dramatic reversal to the tendency of historical Christology.  It also enables us to emphatically unite the divine and human into one subject, because there is no such thing as a mere logos as such–there is only a Logos that acts humanly.  If receptivity is ontologically constitutive, then there is only the history of the man Jesus.  The history of the divine Son simply is his reception of the history of the man Jesus.  

Although Barth makes some initial moves that open the way for this, he does not follow through on them.  What McCormack thus proposes to offer is a Barthian supplement to Barth.  What is it then that Barth himself achieved?  An actualization of the doctrine of the person of Christ; a translation of the phenomenology into the sphere of a history.  


Hans Urs von Balthasar

Don’t worry, you’re not halfway through, but near the end.  McCormack only had a few things to say about von Balthasar, treating his account of Christ’s bearing of divine wrath and descent into hell as a necessary preliminary to part of the picture McCormack was going to sketch in lectures five and six.  My summary remarks here shall be proportionally even briefer than McCormack’s, since as with the preceding lectures, my mental capacities started to break down after about an hour of furious note-taking.  

Three main points then.  First, von Balthasar gives particular attention to the final testing in Gethsemane, where Jesus pleads with his Father for the cup to be withdrawn from him.  For von Balthasar, this wrath is the eschatological wrath of God that is described in the OT.  In Gethsemane, we have an eschatological testing which precedes the eschatological judgment of the cross.  At this point, Christ assumes universal guilt and thus becomes the object of the Father’s eschatological wrath, delivered up by the Father to the authorities even as he delivers himself up.

Second, regarding the cry of dereliction.  Von Balthasar too wants to make this moment in the Passion narratives central.  The cry of dereliction is the expression of a real abandonment of the Son by the Father in consequence of the burden of sinners that he bears; the death that Christ then dies is the “second death” of Rev. 2:11.  The torment of Christ on the cross is the death in the absence of God; it is the experience of hell. 

Third, von Balthasar is most (in)famous for his creative re-interpretation of the “descent into hell.”  He critiques the verb “descent,” since it implies an activity of which the dead are incapable.  Von Balthasar instead wants to understand this as a state of perfect passivity, incapacity; the realm of the dead is not fundamentally a place, but a condition.  It is this state of passivity which Jesus shares with all of the dead.  But Jesus suffered much more than this; the passivity for him is the mere precondition of the poena damni–the expeience of the wrath of God against sin.  What Christ suffers is the “vision of death” in its fullness.  Christ’s experience in death is the experience of Hell.  Like Barth, von Balthasar will argue that “Hell, in the New Testament sense, is a function of the Christ-event.”



In a brief peroration, McCormack summed up the contribution of these two as follows: Both of these theologians are determined to base everything on the witness of the lived history of Christ; both are to this extent post-metaphysical.  They are also both determined to offer a revised form of a penal substitution theory, since they do not like the way the penal substitution doctrine would seem to make the atonement  to effect a change in the attitude of God.  Instead, both insist that God’s wrath is the outworking of his holy love and thus both are able to integrate the person of Christ into his work. 



In the Q&A, Larry Hurtado challenged McCormack on whether or not he (and Barth and von B) was giving disproportionate emphasis on the Marcan Passion narrative, and even there, putting a particular spin on the cry of dereliction that isn’t justified exegetically.  Indeed, he asked whether there was really NT exegetical justification for language like God-abandonment.  Finally, he wondered whether all this was really post-metaphysical, and wasn’t rather just replacing one metaphysically-driven Christology with a different kind of metaphysically-driven Christology.  At this last remark, McCormack bristled, as he had when O’Donovan asked something similar, and insisted categorically that what he was doing was not metaphysical based on the definition he had offered at the outset.  To the former questions, he responded that he hoped to spell out his exegetical justification further in the fifth lecture, and that in any case, he thought it was appropriate to put emphasis on the Marcan account given his conviction that it was the first account written.


I then asked a question about how the idea that “the history of the divine Son simply is his reception of the history of the man Jesus” squared with the creative work of the Word in the beginning (John 1:2), traditionally a matter of great theological importance.  Unfortunately, McCormack only agreed to answer on condition that I not blog the answer here–to hear the full and proper answer, we’ll have to wait till a series of lectures he gives later this year at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. 😉

God Died for Us…Really? (McCormack Croall adjunct seminar)

What is the root problem that McCormack is trying to get at in his lectures?  What is the bee in his bonnet?  After all, the Church (with a couple small Oriental exceptions) has been happily funcitoning with the Definition of Chalcedon for nearly sixteen centuries, which has held firm and uncontested throughout all manner of doctrinal controversies and schisms, and never been seriously questioned until the last two centuries.  Even these questions, we are likely to say, are the result more of unbelief in general than of any problem internal to the doctrine as such.  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”–right?

Well the problem is this: Christians have always wanted to say, and routinely do say in sermons and hymns, that “God himself came and died for us; God himself came and died for us; God himself took the burden of evil upon himself and saved us because we could not save ourselves.”  I heard a great sermon yesterday on the problem of evil that focused on just this point–God has taken the problem of evil on himself and borne its suffering.  But the question is, can we really say that?  Does our theology really allow us to assert, with a straight face, without any asterisks or fine print, that very God suffered and died on our behalf?  McCormack thinks the answer is “No”–orthodox theology, as we have received it, must always add a bunch of fine print at the bottom, so that God may remain properly God.  “Thanks God, for dying for us,” we say, “but just between the two of us, we know you can’t really, cuz you’re God,” we add with a wink. 

The tensions, suggested McCormack in his open discussion seminar on Friday, go all the way back to the Chalcedonian definition.  We should not, says McCormack, treat Chalcedon as irreformable, because to do so would be to elevate the philosophical categories available to the fifth-century bishops to the level of the canon.  We must honor the doctrinal goals they were seeking to accomplish, while acknowledging that ultimately they had to articulate these doctrines within the philosophical resources available to them, which are not sacrosanct.  If we can improve upon the account by bringing new philosophical resources to bear, while continuing to do justice to the core theological values, then we may be able to construct a more coherent, more Biblical account of Christology.  

In principle, this sounds like a fine endeavour, and when you hear what McCormack is up to, it’s hard not to be sympathetic to his project–I do have at least three key misgivings, but I’m going to continue to hold off on them until McCormack is done his lecture series. For now, his analysis of Chalcedon:  

In the Chalcedonian Definition, we have two natures and one person.  Everyone knows that much.  Moreover, what not everyone knows (because only in the last couple decades has scholarship come back around to this conclusion–one recognized all along by the East)–the relationship between the two is conceived in basically Alexandrian terms: the one person of the hypostatic union is identical with the eternal person of the Logos, the second person of the Trinity.  There is no new composite person, rather, there is the person of the Logos who assumes to himself a human nature, adding it to the divine nature he already possesses (but, as we all know, without confusion, without separation, without change, etc.).  So far, so good.

But what, pray tell, is a person?  And what, pray tell, is a nature?  Well for us, certainly, a person certainly means a self-conscious subject, an agent that wills, acts, and takes responsibility for his or her actions.  And a nature, it would seem, is a set of essential properties that define a certain being.  Now, where do things like will and consciousness reside?  Are they part of our human nature?  It would certainly seem so.  Will and consciousness are properties pertaining to the human.  Will and consciousness, then, belong to a nature, but are expressed through a person; in the case of Jesus Christ, these human properties receive their expression through the divine person.  But wait a second, how does this person relate to its divine nature?  The will and consciousness of the Logos are those of its divine nature.  The Logos is simply a divine nature in conscious action, right?  To speak of the person without his divine nature is to speak of a mere abstraction, like the mathematical placeholder 0.  On this way of looking at it, the divine nature and the one person must be held together in the tightest unity–so how do they relate to the third element of the equation–the human nature?

According to the basic theosis soteriology prevalent in the early Church, the divine nature and the divine person were not treated in abstraction, but as a single subject acting through and upon the human nature.  However, as soon as the Fathers came to treat of the communication of attributes–which they had to do in order to predicate genuine humanity of Christ–they had to hold the nature and person apart in abstraction.  The properties of human nature were ascribed to the person of the union, but they were not ascribed to the divine nature as such.  How could they be?  The divine nature could not be composite, finite, passible, etc., and still remain divine.  Divinity acted through and upon the humanity, but the humanity did not act through and upon the divinity.  The relation is necessarily asymmetrical. 

Now, either way we have a problem.  When the divine nature and divine person are held closely together, then the human nature is instrumentalized; it is as it were a passive object used by the divine Word, but in itself capable of contributing nothing.  Indeed, if an infinite power is always operating in and through it, it is hard to see how Christ can act as a genuine human at all–how can he know as a finite being, act as a finite being, suffer as a finite being?  The slide toward Apollinarianism becomes all but irresistible.  On the other hand, when we try to emphasize the genuine humanity of Christ’s person, we do so only by putting a chasm between the person and the divine nature, and thus reduce the person to a metaphysical abstraction, with the two natures in the end functioning separately along parallel tracks.  The slide toward Nestorianism becomes all but irresistible.


The only way of resolving this, McCormack thinks, lies in ditching the metaphysical scruples that, in his mind, are a wrench in the gears of the whole thing–divine simplicity and divine impassibility.  On the grounds of a Greek metaphysical understanding of what is proper to the divine nature, a wall of separation has been erected, so that human attributes can never touch the divine nature–this is either done via the Nestorian wall of abstraction, or via the Alexandrian route–making the divine nature so completely active with respect to the human nature that there is no way for the human nature to act reflexively back on the divine.  

The Nestorian approach, for McCormack, is a non-starter (it is, after all, heretical).  We have to use the Alexandrian starting-point, but–here’s the punch line–in reverse.  What if, instead of the divine nature/person being completely active with respect to the human nature, the divine nature/person is completely passive with respect to the human nature; or rather, since God is always the sovereign agent in any relation and is thus never passive in the full sense of the world, we could say “receptive.”  Thus, what McCormack wants to say is this: in the Incarnation, the divine Word freely wills to exist in perfect receptivity to the human–to human thoughts, feelings, finitude, suffering.  Is this really so radical after all?  After all, this is the sort of thing we say in prayers and sermons and hymns all the time, particularly around Christmas.  From a dogmatic standpoint, though, this really may be radical.  It’s also useful from a Biblical standpoint–for if the agency at work in Christ is divine and all-powerful, what need does Jesus have of the Spirit?  And yet he calls upon the Spirit, and is indwelt by the Spirit.  This seems redundant.  But on McCormack’s account, the all-powerful agency of the Word is not active in the man Jesus–else it would overwhelm his humanity; Jesus thus acts by the aid of the Spirit, as his apostles did.  

And there’s more.

Remember how the Chalcedonian definition does not merely use the word “person,” but also that opaque Greek word hypostasis?  The literal Latin equivalent of hypostasis is substantia–substance–but that’s misleading.  The best definition, McCormack suggested, was “the thatness of a thing,” in contradistinction, indeed, from the “whatness,” which is substance.  The word enters Christology from Trinitarian theology.  In the Trinitarian credal formulas, one God exists in three hypostases.  These are not at all fully independent persons as we would normally understand the term; modern social trinitarianism has gone on to predicate much more difference and personality within the Trinity than the classical doctrine would permit.  Classical dogmatics, indeed, in treating of the ontological differences among the members of the Trinity, would say no more that they differed in their modes of origination–the three hypostases were defined by being autotheos in the case of the Father, begotten in the case of the Son, and spirated in the case of the Spirit.  But to state things this way is to say next to nothing, to posit no more than abstract logical relations without any clear substantial content.  To complain then that the “one person and hypostasis” of the incarnate Word becomes no more than an empty abstraction, a metaphysical placeholder, in our doctrine of Christ, is to point to a problem already bequeathed to the Council of Chalcedon by the previous century’s Trinitarian disputes.  And this is where McCormack’s proposal gets pretty darn cool.  

Yes, he says, it is true that on its own, the second hypostasis of the Trinity has no differentiating personal properties.  That is why he became man.  The Word took to himself a human nature so that humanity might become proper to Him, might become a personal property of the second person of the Trinity.  What else would have been merely divine nature shared in common with Father and Spirit is now divine-and-human nature.  The Son is the Son because he is the one who became Son, who was born amidst God’s human children and became one of them.  The Son is the one who made humility, suffering, sacrifice, part of what it meant to be God.

Now, lest we fall headlong into some terrifying pit of process theology, McCormack is quick to say: this does not mean that God ontologically changes.  Divine impassibility may be unbiblical, but he does not think immutability is.  All this is not a violation of divine immutability because this man-becomingness is part of the eternal election of God.  The Son has always already been constituted as the one who freely willed to become man.  The logos asarkos is never not already the logos incarnandus–or, in English: the Word-outside-the-flesh is never not already the Word-to-be-enfleshed.

Again, to say all this (at least all but the last bit) is in many ways to say things that Christians have instinctively felt the need to say: yes, what makes the Son different from the Father is that he has taken to himself human nature and made it part of himself.  But dogmatically speaking, this is certainly a departure–preeminently a departure from the doctrine of divine simplicity, which McCormack considers another holdover from Platonism.  Divine simplicity states that God’s being has no composite parts; it consists only of itself in perfect unity.  But how can this be if the fully divine Son has taken to himself another nature as ontologically proper to himself, and thus become a composite being, a being of two natures?  


So God becomes incarnate in Christ to exhibit himself as God-for-us, as the God who has eternally willed to exist for and in communion with his creatures, as the God to whom finitude, humanity, humility, is not alien, but indeed part of who He is.  This is where McCormack is coming from, and this is what he’s going to unpack with relation to the doctrine of the atonement in the coming days.  A beautiful solution, though most will admit a dangerous one, and one that many will not be willing to accept.  But, as Jeremy Begbie once said, “All good theology is done on the cliff-edge—one step too far and you tumble into idolatry, one step back and the view is never so good. The reader [of this book] will have to judge whether we have occasionally stumbled over the precipice, and when we have not, whether the view has justified the risk.”


(If you’re wondering, by the way, what happened to the bit about T.F. Torrance that I said McCormack presented on Friday; well, I decided to leave it out, considering this discussion to be long enough and interesting enough on its own.  If anyone’s desperate for a synopsis of the Torrance material, let me know and I can try to provide it.)

The Divided Christ (McCormack Croall Lecture #3)

In his third lecture, on Thursday, McCormack turned to views of the atonement with which we are probably more familiar–those of Anselm, Aquinas, and Calvin, for example.  These were all classed under the heading, “Theories which fail adequately to integrate the person and work of Christ”–a criticism which McCormack would apply to the whole tradition of judicial theories.  More intriguingly, though, McCormack classed moral theories of the atonement under the same heading.  Whatever their protestations to the contrary, he said, moral views are not the antithesis of judicial views, but parasitic upon them.  Both sets of views, he said, emerged around the same time–the judicial theory with Anselm around 1100 and the moral theory with Abelard a couple decades later.  And while judicial theories are preoccupied with seeking to explain Christ’s work in such a way that the demands of God’s justice are upheld, this concern is also central to many moral theories, such as those of the liberation theologians.  Likewise, while judicial theories seek to give particular weight to the objective accomplishment of the atonement and moral theories to its subjective appropriation, both have to give an account of both sides.

Calvin served as his key case study for a judicial view, while as an example of a moral theory of the atonement, he considered D.M. Baillie, and he also gave particular attention to a fascinating hybrid view–that of nineteenth-century Scotsman, John McLeod Campbell.  

Now what, from his standpoint, is the crucial problem with both these traditions?  How do they fail to integrate the person and work of Christ?  Judicial theories take for granted Chalcedonian Christologies, merely repeating the formula as a rote school exercise, without any attention to the complexities that led to it and that it seeks to express.  Most judicial theorists do not realize that it was originally created to undergird a theosis theory, a radically different soteriology than that which judicial theorists thus erect on this foundation.  Indeed, on this model, the hypostatic union plays little role beyond that of giving infinite significance to what is otherwise necessarily a human act.  (This non-integration, I should add, was a point on which Nevin mercilessly hammered the Reformed Christologies of his day; of course, McCormack would equally dismiss Nevin’s Christology as another failed example of the first variety–the metaphysical sort.)

Moral theorists, he said, were right to protest against the unreality of legal solutions erected on this basis.  However, in place of a robust Chalcedonian theory, they present merely “the man Christ Jesus”–to whose actions the divinity of Christ contributes little or nothing.  They achieve much greater internal coherence than judicial theories, but at the cost of a low Christology which does not do justice to the full Biblical witness. Many twentieth-century moral views therefore switched horses in midstream to a Hegelian or Schleiermacherian view to get God back into the picture.

Time did not permit a detailed examination of Anselm and Aquinas, so he offered only some brief remarks.  Regarding Anselm, he pointed out that contrary to what many textbooks might imply, Anselm was not the founder of the penal substitution view; on the contrary, Anselm considered “punishment” and “satisfaction” to be two opposing concepts, and he opted for a “satisfaction” view in conscious opposition to a penal option.  Regarding Thomas, who did hold to a penal view, McCormack thought it worth pausing briefly to consider how he answered one of the common objections to penal substitution–has not God done something blameworthy in delivering an innocent man over to suffering and death?  No, said, Thomas, as long as the innocent man voluntarily concurs in the judgment, which he did in this case.  As man, Jesus freely offered himself in response to the divine will, as God, “Christ delivered himself up unto death by the same will and act as that by which God delivered him over to death”–God is thus not performing an act on a being over against himself; indeed, this objection is only possible, McCormack said, if you are a social trinitarian.  (This is particularly worth mentioning as there has been some discussion on this point in the comments to my post on McCormack’s first lecture.)

John Calvin served as the major representative of a judicial view that McCormack sought to analyze.  For Calvin, the key issue is the guilt of sin, not the corruption of sin (as in more metaphysical accounts).  It is guilt that makes the category of punishment necessary.  The form of death therefore had to mirror the nature of the divine judgment against sin–God had to choose for Christ a judicial form of death, a death as a falsely-accused criminal.  God chose this to teach us that the penalty that belonged to us was thus transferred to Christ–by means of legal imputation.  This is clearly an improvement over Athanasius, for example, for whom the particular form of Christ’s death was in the end quite unimportant.  

At this point, McCormack offered an aside on the relationship of Christ’s death and resurrection, in response to O’Donovan’s question from the first lecture.  The marginalization of the resurrection, he said, was intentional, and in fidelity to the Reformed tradition, in which it is not the resurrection, but the cross that is the solution to the problem of death.  The death of death occurs in the death of Christ, in the fact that the power of death is exhausted when it is poured out on Christ.  The resurrection therefore is not strictly necessary, but adds something additional and significant, the promise of eternal life.  When we treat the resurrection as the main thing, we slide into thinking of death as the main problem; but in the Reformed tradition, death itself isn’t the problem, it’s death in the absence of God, and the reconciliation with God is accomplished on the cross.   (As these posts will all be long enough as mere summaries, I am mostly refraining for now from offering my own thoughts.  Suffice to say now that I do not see how an account such as this does justice to statements such as 1 Corinthians 15:14, 17: “And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty….And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!”)

The most interesting bit of Calvin’s account, said McCormack, was the treatment of the article of the creed he descended into hell.  Calvin sought to redeem this from what he saw as medieval superstition by reading it as an expansion of the previous clauses.  By this article, said Calvin, we are taught that Christ bore the full consequences of sin–bodily as well as physical suffering.  Christ had to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance in order to appease God’s wrath.  Therefore it was necessary that he grapple with the dread of everlasting punishment.  Unlike Athanasius, Calvin does not deny that Christ suffered a real anguish of soul in the face of death, and he took the cry of dereliction with great seriousness.  

However, Calvin did stop short of saying that the cry corresponded to an objective withdrawal of God’s love from Christ.  Indeed, Calvin explicitly denies this, since the divine Son must always remain in communion with his Father.  Has Calvin then taken his own insights with sufficient seriousness?  Has Christ really born the full consequences of sin?  For Calvin, ultimately these sufferings must be confined to the human nture, and thus cannot really touch the person of the Logos.  In his treatment of the communicatio idiomatum, Calvin stubbornly refused to grant any genuine communion between the two natures; the communication of attributes was merely verbal, because Calvin treats the one “person” as a mere metaphysical abstraction.  No integration of person and work is possible in such a model.  To the extent that the saving work is human, it remains alien to the life of God.

McCormack next turned to consider the nineteenth-century Scottish theologian John McLeod Campbell, who, after his rejection of limited atonement (for which he was defrocked in 1831), turned his sights on the doctrine of penal substitution, which he thought was responsible for helping engender the hateful doctrine of limited atonement.  Campbell leveled three main charges at the doctrine:
1) the legal thinking found in the doctrine of penal substitution has abstracted divine justice from divine love, so that the two are played off against each other.  The older theories seemed to imply that forgiveness was the effect of the death of the Christ; God was moved to love and mercy by Christ’s death, instead of acting out of it from the beginning.  Campbell insisted that forgiveness must precede Christ’s death.
2) penal substitution gives the believer a mere legal confidence before God, which falls short of the filial confidence that characterizes the sons and daughters of God.
3) Christ’s life of obedience is understood by defenders of penal substitution as a fulfillment of the law, rather than the joyful response of a Son to His Father’s love.

None of these three objections, McCormack said, is in the final analysis insuperable, though to answer them would require some improvements to the basic penal substitution model.   

Campbell’s alternative, though, is to construct a highly original doctrine of “vicarious repentance”–Christ by his life and death offers a perfect repentance on behalf of humanity; his atonement consists in his aversion of the outpouring of God’s wrath through his perfect agreement with God’s condemnation of sin.  Christ uttered a perfect “amen” in humanity to God’s judgment against the wickedness of sin.  The outpouring of divine wrath is not conceived as a penalty against sin which Christ paid, but as a testimony of God’s hatred of sin in which Christ concurs.  Intriguingly, Campbell here is following a path suggested by Jonathan Edwards, who had conceded that hypothetically humanity’s perfect repentance would have been a legitimate alternative to punishment; whereas Edward, however, dismissed this as impossible, Campbell suggested that this was precisely what Christ had done.  

Campbell’s theory, for which McCormack had great sympathy (though not agreement), had as an additional advantage its ability to convincingly integrate the life of Christ with his death–Christ’s life of faithful obedience as a righteous human is part of the act of repentantce he offers on behalf of humanity, culminating on the Cross.  However, again McCormack’s complaint was that the Chalcedonian doctrine of the God-man remained peripheral: the saving work of Christ is localized in the humanity.  The divine nature is simply brought in to give greater weight to the deeds done in the humanity; it plays no crucial role in the narrative.  Campbell’s view does not really require that Christ be a God-human; he could simply be a man gifted with the Spirit.

The same, ultimately, must be said of the eminent 20th-century proponent of a moral theory of the atonement, D.M. Baillie (formerly of New College).  Baillie sought to reconcile older orthodoxy with the new historical Jesus criticism, which he fully endorsed.  In so doing, he takes an anthropocentric starting point in his treatment of the atonement, using the Christian’s experience of grace as an analogy to understand Christ’s work.  We experience God, said Baillie, as a prevenient God, a God who takes the initiative, who inspires us to every good work, who loves us before we love Him.  It is this truth to which the Christian doctrine of Christ witnesses–in Christ we have the demonstration that God takes the initiative in showing his love for us, in acting through Christ so that we might respond in faith.

The problem, of course, is that insofar as the logic of grace we experience by the indwelling Spirit is used as an analogue for the logic of Christology, there is no need for an incarnate God-man, only a Spirit-led Jesus.  But a human Jesus in whom God acts through the Spirit is neither the Christ of the creeds nor of the New Testament Scriptures.  Our experience of God’s indwelling by the Spirit is qualitatively different from the Incarnation.  Moral exemplarist theories of the atonement, however, are bound to focus attention on the human subject to the point where there remains no convincing reason why the agent of Christ’s work of redemption has to be God himself.  

In conclusion, McCormack reiterates that neither traditional moral or judicial theories have been able to provide a clear integration of Christ’s person with his work.  A Chalcedonian Christology is either presupposed, without any necessary logical connection to the doctrine of redemption that is being advanced, or coherence is reestablished by jettisoning an orthodox Christology altogether.

So, is there a way of holding the person and work of Christ fully together, without having to describe Christ’s work in the metaphysical terms so compromised by Greek philosophy (on McCormack’s view, at any rate)?  Why, yes there is, now that you mention it–Karl Barth, of course, who will be the main feature of the fourth lecture.  Barth’s actualist ontology, on which McCormack lays so much weight, enables one to describe the person of Christ in terms of his work–he is precisely what he does–essence equals existence.  

Before moving on to that, though, I will try to find time to blog about the immensely fascinating, meaty, and controversial seminar/Q&A session McCormack gave on Friday, where he engaged the problems of Chalcedonian Christology head-on, and also delivered a fascinating treatment of the Christology of T.F. Torrance.  There, more than anywhere thus far, the real distinctiveness (even revolutionariness, if that’s a word) of his project came into clear view.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Three concerns arise with regard to this account: 

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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