Bruce McCormack’s TFT lectures (1)

Posted on December 18, 2007

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Bruce McCormack’s TF Torrance lectures went under the title ‘The Humility of the Eternal Son: A Reformed Version of Kenotic Christology’. They represent the maturity of a project Bruce announced in an IJST article (‘Karl Barth’s Christology as a Resource for a Reformed Version of Kenoticism’ IJST 8 (2006), pp. 243-51), and has developed in my hearing in papers given in a conference on Hebrews in St Andrews (to be published next year in McDonald, Driver, Bauckham, & Hart (eds), The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Eerdmans)), and at the 2007 Rutherford House Dogmatics Conference. No doubt the theme has also been worked on in public elsewhere.

I published the IJST article, and questioned Bruce after the two earlier presentations. It was clear from the start that he was doing something interesting, but there were serious questions raised. Let me say at the start that in his TFT lectures Bruce has developed his proposal into something weighty and serious—more so than any similar reconstruction that I am aware of in recent English-language theology.

The first lecture, ‘Immutable in Impassibility: The Role Played by Classical Theism in Creating the Unresolved Problems in Chalcedonian Orthodoxy,’ covered the development of Christology in the patristic period down to the Lutheran-Reformed controversies of the sixteenth century, with a particular focus on Cyril of Alexandria, the Chalcedonian settlement, and John of Damascus. Bruce argued, essentially, that all Christology in the patristic and Reformation periods was hamstrung by the fact that it was constructed on the assumption of a substance metaphysics. ‘God’ and ‘humanity’ were different sorts of things, that could not be mixed. Something was either one or the other. All patristic Christology was a series of increasingly sophisticated attempts to escape this basic logic, which however proved inescapable. Cyril’s attempt was the most interesting, but relied on an unacceptable Origenist subordinationism (this interpretation of Cyril comes from McGuckin’s St Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy).

If I say that this was the weakest of the four lectures, understand that this is rather like talking about the weakest member of Arsenal’s midfield—in four performances, each stunningly good, one is inevitably going to be slightly less good than the others. Bruce was trying to deal with an immense amount of material (the whole development of patristic Christology, and the Reformed-Lutheran debates as well), and he would admit himself that patristics in particular is not his period. It seems to me that Bruce was using this background to demonstrate the necessity of his constructive proposal. That is, as far as I could work out listening to the four lectures, Bruce’s own account of Christology does not depend on anything in his account of this history for its validity; however, the pressure he feels for developing a new account of Christology does.

One theme of these lectures is the problem of substance metaphysics. On McCormack’s account, all Christology prior to Hegel has been infected by this: the theologians assumed such metaphysics, and it prevented them from saying the things they wanted/needed to say, or at least from saying them consistently. As a result, classical Christology needs to be re-written for a post-metaphysical age.

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