Bruce McCormack’s TFT Lectures (4)

Posted on January 7, 2008


A note on the nature of these posts: I am not typing up notes of the lectures (I tend to take none, other than a few scribbled phrases intended to aid in the formulation of a question or comment at the end of the presentation). Instead, I am working from my memory of them, and my reflections following them. My intention has not been to give an exhaustive account of the arguments deployed, so much as to make clear what I took to be the main thread of argument running through the presentations, and my evaluation of it. In turning to Bruce’s final lecture, I am going to depart completely from the structure of the lecture as it was given, which was split into three (unequal) sections: reflections on the proper exegesis of Phil. 2:5-11; an outline of the constructive proposal towards which the lecture series had been building; and a series of responses to criticisms that had been made earlier.

On reflection, particularly following some helpful comments from George Hunsinger and Paul Molnar, I suspect that I erred in the previous post in moving too rapidly from lecture 3 to lecture 4; that is, in ascribing certain theses to McCormack’s interpretation of Barth rather than to the constructive material, intended as an advance on Barth. In particular, the notion that kenosis (as opposed to obedience, say) is simply what it is to be the second person of the Trinity, is something that I think is Bruce’s own, not something he found in Barth.
What, then, is Bruce’s proposal? Let me approach it like this: it is a standard thesis of classical theology that God’s being is His act; further, God’s act is single, and simple. This is, of course, already a problem, at least if one wants to continue to maintain that God’s existence is independent of the created order: St Thomas devotes considerable ingenuity to explaining how God’s act of creation can happen without any change in God (1a q.45 arts 2 &3). When Barth brings the doctrine of election into the doctrine of God (it is treated in the second part-volume of vol. II, not the first of vol. III), and links election closely to incarnation, the problem becomes acute. However, the gains of Barth’s novel doctrine of election are sufficiently obvious that almost every serious (Protestant) theological proposal of the second half of the twentieth century chose to face the problems, rather than lose the gains.

In general, and in one way or another, the problems were eliminated in the later twentieth century by the simple expedient of losing the axiom of impassibility, properly understood: if God’s life is allowed to be dependent on creation, there is no problem. The single greatest merit of Bruce’s proposal, it seems to me, is that he is not prepared to play this game. Instead, he develops a novel account of kenosis.

Barth learnt from Harrmann that generic metaphysical accounts of deity should not be accepted. This allowed him to conceive of an account of Trinity that reflected the gospel story: a prior and a posterior, a sender and a sent, a commanding and an obedience—and of course a unity of the Spirit holding the two ‘poles’ together. Bruce’s proposal is at heart as simple as a radicalisation of this one point: kenosis, self-surrender, is simply and precisely what it is to be the Son. ‘Kenosis’ here implies incarnation, so incarnation, or a directedness toward incarnation, is precisely what it is to be the Son. God’s life as Father, Son and Spirit is directed towards the gospel history. The Son gives up no part of His deity in obedience, incarnation, kenosis, death, because these things are simply what it is to be the second Person of the Trinity. Further, what it is to be the third Person of the Trinity is to eternally hold together the sending and commanding Father and the sent and obedient Son in the unity of the Godhead. In a paragraph, this is what I take Bruce to be arguing.

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