What Does it Mean to be Human? Leithart on the Nature of Natures (Delivered from the Elements Review, Pt. IV)

(See previous installments of this review here, here, and here).

In this installment, we turn to what is perhaps the most puzzling, but also perhaps one of the most consequential, features of Leithart’s book: his treatments of the notion of “nature.” It is, I must confess, far from clear just how much Leithart is trying to do with his reconceptualization of this basic metaphysical and theological category. On the one hand, we might be dealing with little more than rhetorical flourishes or shifts of emphasis away from a category that Leithart thinks has too often preoccupied the attention of Christian theologians. On the other hand, we might be dealing with a fundamental reconception of the status of the human person and its relations to God and to other persons along radically voluntarist lines, a reconception that cannot help but have far-reaching consequences for much of Christian theology and ethics, consequences which could not but be largely harmful in my view. I wish to tread carefully, for fear of either being an alarmist on the one hand or a naively charitable reader on the other.

Similarly to my approach in the previous post, I will first state in a nutshell what I take to be the salient features of Leithart’s exposition on this point, and then list my main points of concern/critique. I will then expound these points at considerably greater length (though thankfully shorter than my last post), with accompanying quotations from the text, before concluding by suggesting a better way forward. Read More

Delivered from the Elements of the World: A Review (Pt. I: Summary)

Delivered from the Elements of the World is vintage Leithart: extraordinary in scope, dense, multilayered, intertextual biblical exegesis, and literary flair. Leithart’s aim with this book is about as bold as a work of theology can get: to answer afresh the basic question of the Christian faith, which St. Anselm framed as Cur Deus Homo?—Why the God-man? Or, as Leithart incisively frames it, “How can the death and resurrection of a Jewish rabbi of the first century, an event in the putative backwaters of the Roman Empire, be the decisive event in the history of humanity, the hinge and crux and crossroads for everything?” (13) Framed this way, Leithart’s question, and his answer, are a rebuke in two directions: to the feeble, alialistic, soul-snatching picture of the gospel, in which the effect of Christ’s death can be readily explained as a spiritual transaction detached from history, and to the liberal humanistic gospel, in which Christ’s death and resurrection cannot be seen as essential and efficacious, since he comes merely as a teacher leading us to “establish institutions that promote peace and justice.” (13) Indeed, Leithart’s book is a broadside against the dichotomies that underwrite both these reductionisms, insisting that the spiritual is the sociological and vice versa, that the reframing of human history and renewing of human nature is part and parcel of the redemption purchased by Christ.

Unfortunately, this book is also vintage Leithart in somewhat less flattering senses: uneven historical-theological asides that sometimes seem more assertion than argument, elusive systematic-theological formulations that claim to be both novel and orthodox and yet which are often imprecise enough to make it unclear whether they are either, and eccentric and underdeveloped aspirations at sweeping philosophical revisionism. It is an unfortunate necessity of a book review that far more of my time will be spent on the latter, less flattering elements than on the former, more flattering ones—after all, when it comes to the book’s singular virtues, readers would do far better to partake of them straight from the source than via my secondhand renditions. And indeed I should state clearly up front that whatever criticisms might follow, this is very much a “Read this book” review. There have been plenty of books that I have reviewed so critically that my verdict was “Don’t waste your time,” but I have difficulty imagining the Leithart book on which I would ever reach that verdict. Read with a wary eye, to be sure, but as I think the summary that follows will show, this is a book fresh and bold enough that it deserves to be grappled with firsthand. Read More

Leithart, Bavinck, and the Nature of Natures

A few weeks ago, Doug Wilson and Peter Leithart engaged in a debate of sorts on their blogs on the subject of regeneration, which morphed somehow into a debate on natures and substances.  Without trying to delve into all the (often elusive) details of what they were up to, Leithart was particularly concerned with maintaining a strong emphasis on the mediation of God’s actions through creation, which meant, for him at least, that we needed to be wary of doctrines of “natures” and “substances” which reify creatures over against God.  Instead, as he argued in “Do Things Have Natures?“, we need to insist that God is always dynamically at work in and through his creatures, which means that if God is a historical God, one who unfolds his will in a drama of creation, fall, and new creation, then “natures” are not fixed quantities, but potentially take on new properties as God uses and transforms them in this drama.  One way of looking at this issue is to ask, “What are miracles?” For if God is always dynamically at work in his creation, and doing new things in it, then the miraculous is only relative.

Once put this way, the question seems to largely turn on the doctrine of providence, particularly the sub-headings usually called “preservation” and “concurrence.”  Preservation, essentially, insists that the Christian God is not a deist God; his creation is always dependent upon his sustaining power, which preserves it in being.  Concurrence insists that the Christian God is not a pantheist God; he is always and everywhere at work in his creatures, and yet they have a created integrity of their own which allows them to have a certain fixed identity in vis-a-vis God.  In his Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck offers a wonderfully lucid and balanced treatment of these issues, and a little walk through his text may prove instructive for resolving these thorny issues. 


Bavinck first affirms that we must not blur together creation and providence (which is precisely what is at stake, it seems, in asking whether God changes the natures he has created), but at the same time must hold them together very carefully, never attributing “independence” to the created order (which was Leithart’s overarching concern):

“The two are so fundamentally distinct that they can be contrasted as labor and rest.  At the same time they are so intimately related and bound up with each other that preservation itself can be called ‘creating’ (Ps. 104:30; 148:5; Isa. 45:7; Amos 4:13).  Preservation itself, after all, is also a divine work, , no less great and glorious than creation. . . . Although distinct from his being, it has no independent existence; independence is tantamount to nonexistence.  The whole world with everything that is and occurs in it is subject to divine government. . . . Scripture knows no independent creatures; this would be an oxymoron” (RD II:592)

The two dangers, here, he says, are deism and pantheism, as just mentioned.  Leithart is certainly leaning heavily against the former danger, and one consequence of this is to tend to blur the distinction between miracle and God’s “ordinary” action in creation.  Bavinck says that in pantheism, means that “there is no room for miracle, the self-activity of secondary causes, personality, freedom . . .” and over against it, “it was the task of Christian theology to maintain the distinction between creation and preservation, the self-activity of secondary causes, the freedom of personality . . .” (599) If we emphasize so much the immanence of God in creation, if we make everything a “miracle” because it is the direct work of God, then we also thereby make nothing a miracle, because the natural order has no self-activity.

Bavinck defines the relationship of preservation and concurrence: “Preservation tells us that nothing exists, not only no substance, but also no power, no activity, no idea, unless it exists totally from, through, and to God.  Concurrence makes known to us the same preservation as an activity such that, far from suspending the existence of creatures, it affirms and maintains it” (605).  Both emphases must be maintained.  On the one hand,

“God is never idle.  He never stands by passively looking on.  With divine potency he is always active in both nature and grace.  Providence, therefore, is a positive act, not a giving permission to exist but a causing to exist and working from moment to moment.  If it consisted merely in a posture of non destruction, it would not be God who upheld things, but things would exist in and by themselves, using power granted at the creation.  And this is an absurd notion.  A creature is, by definition, of itself a completely dependent being: that which does not exist of itself cannot for a moment exist by itself either.” (605)  

This side of the question is heavily emphasized in Leithart’s post.

On the other hand, 

“Creation and providence are not identical.  If providence meant a creating anew every moment, creatures would also have to be produced out of nothing every moment.  In that case, the continuity, connectedness, and ‘order of causes’ would be totally lost, and there would be no development or history.  All created beings would then exist in appearance only and be devoid of all independence, freedom, and responsibility.” (607)


Now, his discussion of concurrence is where things get very interesting.  Bavinck argues that we cannot  attempt to speak of development within natures, unless we can talk about existent natures in the first place.  A determinate creation must precede providence.  Otherwise all is mere flux:

“Now providence serves to take the world from its beginning and to lead it to its final goal; it goes into effect immediately after the creation and brings to development all that was given in that creation.  Creation, conversely, was aimed at providence; creation conferred on creatures the kind of existence that can be brought to development in and by providence.  For the world was not created in a state of pure potency, as chaos or as a nebulous cloud, but as an ordered cosmos, and human beings were placed in it not as helpless toddlers but as an adult man and an adult woman.  Development could only proceed from such a ready-made world, and that is how creation presented it to providence. . . . Every creature received a nature of its own, and with that nature san existence, a life, and a law of its own.  Just as the moral law was increated in the heart of Adam as the rule for his life, so all creatures carried in their own nature the principles and laws for their own development.” (609)

It is at this point he brings up miracles, and although making the point that we should not think of miracles as divine interventions in creation, since God is never not working in creation, wants to avoid pushing this line of argument too far:

“For that reason a miracle is not a violation of natural law nor an intervention in the natural order.  From God’s side it is an act that does not more immediately and directly have God as its cause than any ordinary event, and in the counsel of God and the plan of the world it occupies as much an equally well-ordered and harmonious place as any natural phenomenon.  In miracles God only puts into effect a special force that, like any other force, operates in accordance with its own nature and therefore also has an outcome of its own.

But at the creation God built his laws into things, fashioning an order by which the things themselves are interconnected.  God is not dependent on causes, but things do depend on one another.  That interconnectedness is of many kinds.  Although in general it can be called ‘causal,’ the word ‘causal’ in this sense must by no means be equated with ‘mechanical,’ as materialism would have us do.  A mechanical connection is only one mode in which a number of things in the world relate to each other.  Just as creatures received a nature of their own in the creation and differ among themselves, so there is also difference in the laws in conformity with which they function and in the relation in which they stand to each other.  

“These laws and relations differ in every sphere. . . . It is the providence of God that, interlocking with creation, maintains and brings to full development all these distinct natures, forces, and ordinances.  In providence God respects and develops—and does not nullify the things he called into being in creation. It does not pertain to divine providence to corrupt the nature of things but to preserve [that nature]. . . . Thus, therefore, God preserves and governs all creatures according to their nature, the angels in one way, humans in another, and the latter again in a away that differs from animals and plants.  But insofar as God in his providence maintains things in their mutual relatedness and makes creatures subserve each other’s existence and life, that providence can be called mediate.” (610-11)


So yes, things do have natures, determinate ordered causal relations which God has appointed at creation and continues to uphold at every moment.  These natures may unfold in time as seeds do into trees, as God brings them to full development, but in this process, he does not have to remake what he has once made; his providence does not become a form of continuous creation.

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.


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….