Bruce McCormack’s TFT Lectures (5): Evaluation

Posted on January 7, 2008

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How to evaluate McCormack’s novel account of kenosis? I want to make two comments. The first is that I think it is at least potentially defensible when judged according to the canons of classical (Reformed) orthodoxy. I do not think there is any major doctrinal decision that it offends against, although on one point I was left with the feeling that more work was needed to establish the defence. The second comment is that I was not convinced by Bruce’s account of the pressure towards a revision of doctrine in this area. Very simply, I think his account of kenosis can be held, but it need not be: it remains open, in my view, to hold to the classical formulations of Christology without the need to revise them, and, personally, this would be my preferred position.

This all needs much elaboration. Let me first address my assertion of the orthodoxy of Bruce’s proposal. It seems to me that the most obvious criticisms, and certainly the ones Bruce indicated had been most prevalent, concern the doctrine of the Trinity. However, it seems to me that with a clear-headed grasp of the contours of Trinitarian dogma we can see how Bruce’s proposals are, not just orthodox within those contours, but significantly more so than many other recent accounts of Trinitarian doctrine.

The essential patristic claim about the Trinity is that all properties are held in common, save only the personal properties of begetting, being-begotten, and proceeding. If we read McCormack’s account of kenosis as an account of what it is to be begotten, i.e., as the personal property of the Son, then it meets this canon with ease. Dorner’s great criticism, which destroyed nineteenth-century kenoticism, insisted that either the Son gives up divine properties and so ceases to be divine, or we are forced to confess a kenotic Father alongside a kenotic Son, but if kenosis is a—the—personal property of the Son, then neither claim obtains. Self-emptying is the personal mode of the Son’s divine omnipotence, and so on. There are some details down the road that need dealing with, but it seems to me that the basic position is securely orthodox, certainly much more so than all of the recent theology that, misled by the word ‘Person’, insists on finding three instances of many or most divine properties (will; operation; knowledge; …) within the Godhead.

What about the criticism that McCormack makes trinity dependent on election, or somesuch phrase? I confess to finding it a difficult criticism to parse theologically. God’s act is unitary, and identical with His being; if what God is is trinity, and what God does is election, then it is necessary to assert a fairly strict identity between trinity and election. Bruce does this convincingly, as far as I can see. (Personally, I would want to work harder at the ‘what God does is election’ premise—I am more and more convinced that Barth is at least unhelpful on this point, although one of my doctoral students has just convinced me that probably he doesn’t fall into any of the traps he opens up himself.) Only if we assume that God’s act is somehow an accidental accretion to His being can any form of this criticism stand—but that would be to depart completely, albeit fashionably, from the traditional Christian doctrine of God.

If there is a criticism which is in danger of sticking, I think it is to do with creation. We often, and misleadingly, tell our undergraduates that the distinction between the begetting of the Son and creatio ex nihilo is that one is a necessary act and the other a free act. If that were at all an adequate account of the situation, then Bruce’s proposal would have serious problems. However, as I pointed out in the previous post, the affirmation that God’s being is His act is basic to all classical theology, and so such shorthand accounts are deeply misleading. Hence we find throughout the tradition attempts to specify in a more sophisticated way the underlying distinction.

The most popular form of such attempts in a Reformed tradition is to press at distinctions between different sorts of necessity, as Barth himself does. In conversation with Bruce, I became convinced that he could offer an adequate defence along these lines that was no more problematic than many others; I did not think that defence was yet in place in the lectures as delivered, though.

Thus I believe that McCormack’s account of kenosis is, or at least could easily be rendered, orthodox. Is it, however, compelling? Alongside the constructive work in these lectures was a line of critique of classical Christology which established the need for the fresh construction. Simply and bluntly, I found this critique unconvincing. It was, in essence, Herrmann’s critique of metaphysics: the problem with Christology prior to Schleiermacher was its investment in certain metaphysical commitments that were alien to the gospel. This led to irreconcilable tensions, in patristic Christology, which only Cyril’s (supposed) Origenism allowed him to escape, and throughout the tradition into the nineteenth century, with the incompatibility of the anhypostasia and dithelitism coming to the fore. It is these metaphysical commitments, giving rise to the tensions they do, that drive the need for a revisionist Christology.

I have indicated in the course of my comments that I found both the specific accounts of difficulties unconvincing, for different reasons. More basically, I find Herrmann’s overall assessment unconvincing. Bruce devoted a significant amount of time—ten minutes, perhaps—in his third lecture to arguing that Barth’s use of metaphysical or idealistic language was merely ad hoc and demonstrated no commitment to the underlying systems. I am prepared to be convinced of this, or at least of a slightly more nuanced account of the same point; but I am sure that the same could be equally well argued of the Cappadocians, Augustine, John Damascene, Anselm, St Thomas, the Palamite, Luther, Calvin, Quenstedt, Turretin, Suarez, and the rest. (On reflection, I’d give some ground on Nyssan, Anselm, Gregory Palamas, and Suarez if really forced!) I do not find irreconcilable tensions in classical Christology, nor to I find disastrous commitments to alien metaphysical schemes. I think that that debate was fought and won contra Eunomius in the fourth century, and I don’t see any evidence that the lesson was ever forgotten for long, or by the great figures in the tradition. So I don’t feel the pressure that is driving Bruce.

Let me end, though, where I began. Bruce’s Christological proposal is, in my estimation, more weighty and serious than almost anything else I have come across in recent English-language theology. In its striving for conceptual clarity and logical coherence, and its attention to the proper claims of the tradition, it demands and deserves—and repays—serious consideration. When I next teach on modern Christology, Jenson and McCormack will have a session to themselves, as representing magnificent reconceptualisations of either side of the Reformed-Lutheran divide. If I happen to agree with neither of them, that does not dent my enormous respect for both.

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