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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Three concerns arise with regard to this account: 

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

The Suffering God? (McCormack Croall Lecture 1)

At the first of his long-awaited Croall Lectures on the work of Christ yesterday, Bruce McCormack was in top-form–cranky, dogmatic, and brilliant as ever.  Best to begin with the “brilliant” part and return at the end to highlight McCormack’s cantankerous idiosyncrasies, as they appeared particularly in the Q&A session.  

McCormack is one of the few theologians today undertaking serious constructive dogmatic work in the area of Christology, which as I’m sure you can imagine, is a daring and dangerous enterprise.  No other area of Christian theology is hedged in with so many or so ancient credal constraints, making it difficult to find room to maneuver, much less innovate.  McCormack’s overall project could be characterized as attempting to rescue orthodox Christology from the implausibility into which modern theological sensibilities have cast it, and from the underlying tensions that modern attacks have revealed to have been there all along, by bringing the theological resources of Barthianism to bear and remaining faithful to the core confession and trajectory of earlier Christian theology (McCormack is no liberal–that much is for sure).  A tall order, and a noble project.  Even if you ultimately disagree with McCormack’s methods and conclusions, you can’t help but admire the focus and creativity he gives to his task, and be seduced by the just-plain-cool-ness of some of his proposals.  

So, what’s he up to in this series of lectures?  He gave us a general idea of where he was going in the first one, without showing so many of his cards as to remove all elements of mystery and excitement.  The gist is this: the theory of penal substitution has fallen almost completely into disrepute in modern theology, and the objections that have been raised have revealed a never-resolved tension in the original Protestant theology between the doctrine of Christ and the doctrine of God.  Whereas the doctrine of the penal substitution had to appeal to the infinite value of the suffering and death of God, in order to explain how Christ’s death could take the place of the eternal sufferings of countelss millions, the Reformed were not ultimately willing to say that God suffered and died on the cross–their rigid separation between the two natures of Christ, and their conviction of divine impassibility, carried over uncritically from the Patristic period, forebade it.  Or to put it even more sharply: you can’t make sense of penal substitution theory unless you’re willing to say that God suffered and died for us, and you can’t say that on the classical doctrine of divine impassibility.  You can’t salvage a core Protestant doctrine without relinquishing a core Patristic doctrine, which the Protestants uncritically adapted.  Unsurprisingly (if you know McCormack at all), he prefers to sacrifice the patristic and Catholic doctrine in order to save the Protestant doctrine–even if it’s much older and more foundational to Christian theology, it is, he thinks, merely accidental to Protestant theology, and dispensable without forsaking Protestantism’s core confession.  So, McCormack is going to deploy Barthian resources to argue that it is God himself who elects to suffer in our place (which is, after all, how we often casually describe the Atonement), rather than God electing to punish the man Jesus in our place (which is what previous dogmatics have felt the need to assert).  This requires a kind of kenotic theology–obviously a risky proposition, but McCormack believes his version of “Reformed kenoticism” avoids the charges of heresy leveled at past kenosis theories.

For various reasons, I find the general proposal quite attractive (indeed, a lecture a few years ago that McCormack gave as a prototype for this series so enchanted me that I haven’t been able to think of Christology in any other paradigm than McCormack’s since).  Nonetheless, it is certainly worth remarking on McCormack’s fervent dedication to maintaining Protestantism as Protestantism, even if that means to hell with Orthodox, Catholics, and classical Christian theology.  

So what are the problems with penal substitution theory?  We in conservative evangelicalism may not be aware that there is much of a problem.  We carry on cheerfully reciting the relevant catechisms or confessions, confident in this pillar of Protestant theology (unaware, in fact, that it is more or less a Protestant distinctive, and not a basic cornerstone of “mere Christianity”), and chuckling at the feeble protests of “liberals.”  But, as McCormack made clear, these are not merely “liberal” objections, but problems present from the beginning of the doctrine.  There are four main objections, he suggests:

1) The impression is given that the Father is moved from wrath to mercy by the actions of the Son; but if God the Father were not already inclined to be merciful, he would not have sent his Son into the world to begin with.  If God already felt mercy toward his creatures, why was the atonement necessary, and if he didn’t, then why would it change his mind?

Some of the Reformers, says McCormack, were aware of this difficulty, but did not resolve it satisfactorily–Calvin attempted to do so by appealing to Augustine’s argument that God was disposed to be merciful toward creatures inasmuch as they were his good creation, but disposed to be wrathful toward them inasmuch as they had turned away to the privation of self-love and thus non-being.  McCormack said that this was to make God’s merciful will contingent on something outside Godself, which cannot be legitimate.  I suggested in the Q&A that this objection did not apply given Augustine’s metaphysics, in which all that is good in creaturely being is so by participation in the goodness of divine being; but in any case, McCormack wouldn’t accept such a neo-Platonic metaphysic, so for him the objection would remain.  


2) Equivalence: for penal substitution to be complete, there must be an equivalence of the penalty owed and the penalty paid.

The equivalence objection was the one most explicitly addressed by the Reformers (though it was not one that troubled Calvin himself at all).  The solution, as mentioned above, was to lay stress on the infinite value of divine suffering, but as pointed out above, this simply doesn’t work unless one is willing to follow through and actually admit the reality of divine suffering, and to make the communication of attributes more than merely semantic (as it was for the Reformed, over against the Lutheran).

3) How can it possibly be just to condemn and punish an innocent man in the place of evildoers?  A human judge could never do this.  

McCormack argued that this was actually the least cogent of the four objections, because it rests on a piece of natural theology.  Divine justice is laid on a foundation of human justice, which doesn’t work, because whereas in human justice, the judge has to conform to a legislator, in divine justice, the judge is himself the legislator, and his law is rooted in a covenant of grace.  It belongs to God alone to decide when and under what conditions the law must be fulfilled–divine justice must be allowed to function on its own terms.  It is telling, I think, that McCormack regarded this as the least cogent objection; such a dismissal is only possible if one has first rejected natural law and the analogia entis wholesale, as McCormack, being a good Barthian, has of course done.  Within a historical framework of natural law theory, this objection, while not insuperable, would be quite troubling and compelling.  


4. Violence is embedded in this theory at its very heart.  This is a violent, retributive, bloodthirsty God.  A God whose innermost being is consistent with the act of violence must needs legitimate violence in our own world.  

This, said McCormack, is almost certainly the most difficult of the objections, and indeed, its emotive force is often all but irresistible in our society.  McCormack suggested that evangelicals have been able to avoid taking this objection seriously, because the proposed nonviolent alternative reconstructions of the New Testament witness thus far have been so implausible.  But this cockiness, argued McCormack, is quite dangerous, as this objection strikes at the heart of the Christian witness concerning the nature of God.  In the Q&A, David Reimer not unreasonably asked why objection 4 was materially different from objection 3, and why we might not respond to it in a similar fashion by appealing to a Creator-creature distinction (indeed, I once upon a time made just this sort of argument against the “God of peace” forms of pacifism, though I am now rather unsure about it in light of my new interest in natural law theory, among other things–more on this in a later post).  McCormack’s response was somewhat unclear to me, but seemed to say that objection 4 was more significant than objection 3 because it concerned not merely the morality of God but his being–are violent relations intrinsic to the divine nature?  

McCormack concluded this survey by saying that so compelling was objection 4 that he too would have to capitulate to its force and renounce penal substitution unless it could be shown that it was not the man Jesus but God himself who suffered in our place.  And that, of course, was precisely what he would undertake to show in the lecture series.


McCormack spent the last bit of his lecture attempting to offer a classification of various theories of the atonement that surpassed other classification systems by successfully integrating pre-modern and modern theories.  Three main approaches were possible, he argued: 

1) to integrate the work of Christ into a metaphysically-derived doctrine of his person (the approach of Athanasius, Hegel, and T.F. Torrance among others)

2) to bracket off his person in order to focus on his work (the dominant Western approach of Anselm, the Reformers, and their descendants)

 3) to undertake a post-metaphysical strategy for integrating the person of Christ into his work (the approach of Barth and his followers, and the one that McCormack himself was going to adopt in some form).


In the Q&A that followed, two particularly sharp questions cast light on the troubling features of McCormack’s distinctive theological method, a method that remarkably recapitulates the tendencies of Old Princeton and Charles Hodge (whose chair McCormack holds).  Oliver O’Donovan asked, with his typical scalpel-wielding politeness, “Forgive me if I missed it, but I don’t recall hearing the word ‘resurrection’ mentioned in your entire presentation.  Was that an intentional omission on your part?”  “Yes,” replied McCormack, “I wanted to bracket off other aspects of Christ’s work in order to focus specifically on the the meaning of the event of the cross.”  “And you have no discomfort,” prodded O’Donovan, “in thus isolating out one part of Christ’s work from the rest?”  “No, none, at least for teaching purposes, so long as we recognize that a fuller account of Christ’s work would require a discussion of the significance of the resurrection.”  At least you can never accuse McCormack of beating around the bush.  McCormack’s theological method follows the Old Princeton tradition of rigorously distinguishing doctrinal loci and accounting for them in logical isolation from one another before seeking to reintegrate them into a whole (if the reintegration ever happens).  This is perhaps a surprising approach for a Barthian to follow, given Barth’s maddening tendency to talk about every doctrinal locus at once, and is sure to make most of us postmoderns quite uncomfortable.  While I am happy to grant that one may legitimately bracket off a particular aspect of Christ’s work for special consideration “for teaching purposes,” it would seem that this must always come after, not before, we have given a holistic account of the meaning of Christ’s work.  Only when we know what redemption as a whole consisted of can we turn to parse out what each part of the redemptive process means on its own; to try to first treat the parts without reference to the whole is sure to prove a dangerous undertaking, at best.

In a final question, Theodora asked McCormack if his insistence on the importance of Protestants remaining faithful to their tradition (something he had harped on repeatedly in the introduction, dismissing almost all contemporary Protestant theology as either an incoherent liberal hodge-podge or “Catholicism lite”) was due to a conviction that it’s important to be faithful to your tradition, whatever that tradition is, or simply because Protestantism was right and everyone else was wrong.  Again, McCormack didn’t beat around the bush, affirming that it was simply because Protestantism was right, and he took the opportunity to deplore at some length the Catholicizing impulses that had seduced modern Protestant theologians, claiming that he felt like he was the only genuine Protestant left among the leading ranks of American theologians.  Again, like Old Princeton, McCormack has no hesitation in wearing his staunch opposition to Catholicizing impulses on his sleeve; the only difference is that in Hodge’s day, that was a fairly common stance to take, whereas McCormack is now quite rare among high-profile theologians in considering cantankerous fidelity to Protestantism a virtue rather than a vice.  Perhaps all of us have just been seduced by post-modern woolly-headedness that likes to blur traditions and doctrines, but I for one cannot see why it should be a vice to admit that perhaps Protestantism does not have a monopoly on Christian truth; that perhaps our dogmatic system is fallible like any other, and that much is to be learned theologically as well as gained practically by undertaking ecumenical dialogue and attempting to appropriate the riches of other traditions.  


But, be all that as it may, McCormack undoubtedly has a tremendous amount to contribute to Protestant dogmatics, particularly in the area of Christology, and I can’t wait to hear the five remaining lectures in the series.