Bruce McCormack’s TFT lectures (2)

Posted on December 19, 2007


Bruce McCormack’s second lecture, ‘Passibility in Mutability: The Failure of the Older Kenoticism,’ focused on the nineteenth-century kenotic Christologies of Thomasius and Gess, and on Dorner’s critique. The British kenoticists (Forsyth and Mackintosh), and Baillie’s objections, were there, but the treatment was slightly more cursory, I think because Bruce thinks that Herrmann’s critique of metaphysics should have been found decisive, and so no-one should have developed a kenotic Christology after it.

‘Kenotic Christology,’ for those who don’t know, takes its cue from the Christ-hymn in Philippians 2, which affirms that Christ ’emptied himself’ (heauton ekenosen, hence ‘kenosis’ and ‘kenotic’). A kenotic Christology understands what happened at the incarnation in terms of this self-emptying: God became human by giving something up or laying something down. As Bruce showed, the idea is very consistent with certain traditional themes of Lutheran Christology, and was developed at some length by a school of nineteenth-century German Lutherans, headed by the great Thomasius. (It later made its way into Britain, being embraced by, amongst others, P.T. Forsyth and H.R. Mackintosh,until D.M. Baillie’s God was in Christ put an end to it.

The thesis of this lecture was, essentially, that the positions of Thomasius, Forsyth, and indeed any other kenoticism in the nineteenth-century pattern, will inevitably collapse into the radical kenoticism of Gess.

Very crudely, Gess suggested that in the incarnation the divine Son simply chooses to stop being divine. This is obviously unacceptable, but the question is how you have any kenotic Christology which does not eventually affirm the same thing. If the divine Son voluntarily chooses to give up being omniscient, say, then either omniscience is not an essential property of divinity, in which case God is not omniscient at all (because there are no accidental properties in God; all that He is, He must be), or it is, and so the Son becomes something less than God in the act of self-emptying. Any account of kenotic Christology falls to such logic.

First comment on this lecture: the historical narrative was simply stunning. It’s not really my period, but I have taught modern Christology at postgrad level, supervised on Forsyth, & recently examined a doctoral thesis on Dorner, and I do think I know my way around this stuff. Bruce’s knowledge of the detail of the texts, and insight into the grand sweep of the arguments, was nothing less than inspiring.

Second comment: as Bruce indicated, the problem repeatedly in the nineteenth century was the assumption that the patristic hypostasis and prosopon could be translated into the English ‘person’ (or German ‘Person’), with all the connotations of those words in a post-Romantic age. Strauss, for instance (a quotation Bruce used): ‘to speak of two natures in one person is to speak of a single self-consciousness, for what else could a single person mean?’ However, it is clear that in the patristic construction of Trinity and Christology such ‘personal’ characteristics as ‘self-consciousness’, if considered at all, were attached to natures not persons—this was, for instance, the whole point of the orthodox solutions to the monoenergist and monothelite controversies. (This is why Barth preferred ‘mode of being’ to ‘person’ for the three hypostases of the Trinity; in post-Romantic terms, all that is ‘personal’ in God is one.) Bruce’s whole lecture was constructed on the suggestion that nineteenth-century German Christology, at least, was endlessly struggling with how to hold together the confession that the human nature is anhypostatic (it does not exist apart from in union with the divine Son) and that there is a genuinely human will alongside the divine will in the incarnate One (‘dithelitism’). I think this is an extraordinarily perceptive reading of the history, but I also think that, with a clearer understanding that the word ‘hypostasis’ does not mean ‘person’ in a Romantic sense, we can cut through the problem very easily.

Footnote: anyone know how to enter Greek on a wordpress blog?

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