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A critical assessment of Bruce L. McCormack's christological proposal

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 December 2023

Alex Irving*
Affiliation:
St Mellitus College, London, UK

Abstract

Bruce L. McCormack's recent christological proposal intends to move beyond the apparent impasse in theological discourse between God's aseity and God's world relation. In describing the second mode of divine being as personally constituted by receptivity to the human Jesus of Nazareth without losing the logos asarkos, McCormack's proposed christological innovation offers a way to consider relation to the world as proper to God through the Son, without absolute pronobeity coming to dominate in the doctrine of God. This being said, his christological proposal, as it stands, implies both that election is antecedent to triunity and that the person of Jesus of Nazareth is antecedent to the act of the incarnation. With the former comes the problem of sequence in the priority of divine act over divine being. With the latter comes the problem of offering a unified account of two agencies. As such, while ontological receptivity continues to hold significant possibilities for the doctrine of God, it requires more careful coordination to the relation of passive generation as such.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press

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References

1 Webster, John, ‘Translator's Introduction’, in Jüngel, Eberhard (ed.), God's Being is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth: A Paraphrase (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), p. xiiiGoogle Scholar.

2 McCormack, Bruce L., The Humility of the Eternal Son: Reformed Kenoticism and the Repair of Chalcedon (Cambridge: CUP, 2021)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son, p. 8.

4 In this, McCormack has sought to modify his position relative to earlier accounts of the Trinity as a function of election. McCormack, Bruce L., Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909–1936 (Oxford: OUP, 1995), pp. 458–68Google Scholar; idem, ‘Grace and Being: The Role of God's Gracious Election in Karl Barth's Theological Ontology’, in John Webster (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (Cambridge: CUP, 2000), pp. 92–110.

5 For examples of responses to ‘Grace and Being’, see e.g. Hector, Kevin, ‘God's Triunity and Self-Determination: A Conversation with Karl Barth, Bruce McCormack and Paul Molnar’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 7/3 (2005), pp. 246–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Molnar, Paul D., ‘The Trinity, Election and God's Ontological Freedom: A Response to Kevin W. Hector’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 8/3 (2006), pp. 294306CrossRefGoogle Scholar; idem, ‘Can the Electing God be God Without Us? Some Implications of Bruce McCormack's Understanding of Barth's Doctrine of Election for the Doctrine of the Trinity’, Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionphilosophie 49/2 (2007), pp. 199–222; idem, Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity (London: T&T Clark, 2017); van Driel, Edwin Chr., ‘Karl Barth on the Eternal Existence of Jesus Christ’, Scottish Journal of Theology 60/1 (2007), pp. 4561CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hunsinger, George, ‘Election and the Trinity: Twenty-Five Theses on the Theology of Karl Barth’, Modern Theology 24/2 (2008), pp. 179–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Smith, Aaron T., ‘God's Self-Specification: His Being is his Electing’, Scottish Journal of Theology 62/1 (2009), pp. 125CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son, pp. 6, 286–88. See also McCormack, Bruce L., ‘Election and the Trinity: Theses in Response to George Hunsinger’, Scottish Journal of Theology 63/2 (2010), pp. 203–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son, p. 31.

8 Ibid., p. 64.

9 McCormack, Bruce L., Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 205Google Scholar. Darren Sumner offers a similar perspective, describing this as the ‘identity problem’ inherent in the Chalcedonian formula. Darren Sumner, O., Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God (London: T&T Clark, 2014), pp. 3–4, 1769Google Scholar, especially pp. 31–32, 38–39.

10 McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son, p. 257; Sumner, Karl Barth and the Incarnation, p. 68.

11 McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son, p. 64; cf. idem, Orthodox and Modern, pp. 205–6. This is a tendency that McCormack observes in classical Reformed Christology; see Bruce L. McCormack, ‘“With Loud Cries and Tears”: The Humanity of the Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews’, in Richard Bauckham et al. (eds), The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), pp. 44–5.

12 McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son, p. 64.

13 Ibid., p. 99.

14 So far as McCormack sees it, the consistency between this and the notion of divestment is of a piece with his broader reversal of Logos Christology as such. That is to say, the Logos does not act through and/or upon the human Jesus, but the Logos takes to himself the acts of the human Jesus. For McCormack, it is this act of receptivity that is the self-emptying of the Logos. Ostensibly, this is held in the context of the self-determination of the eternal God to be a subject in time. See Bruce McCormack, ‘Kenoticism in Modern Theology’, in Francesca Murphy (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Christology (Oxford: OUP, 2015), pp. 444–58. McCormack styles this as a Reformed version of kenosis, inasmuch as he judges Reformed Christology to deny the communication of attributes across natures, through which he attempts to assert both that no surrender of divine properties is necessary and that the integrity of the human act of being of Jesus is maintained (rather than ascribing the agency of the christological subject to the kenotic Logos). See McCormack, ‘“With Loud Cries and Tears”’, pp. 39, 50–51. In this sense, the Christology is kenotic in that the Son wills to not exert his own act of being, but rather to receive the act of being of the human Jesus. McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son, pp. 263–64.

15 McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son, p. 19.

16 Ibid., p. 249.

17 Ibid., p. 99.

18 Ibid., p. 12.

19 Ibid., pp. 252–3.

20 Ibid., pp. 254–5.

21 Ibid., pp. 250–51.

22 McCormack, ‘Grace and Being’, p. 98.

23 McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son, pp. 286–8; idem, Orthodox and Modern, p. 266; idem, ‘The Actuality of God: Karl Barth in Conversation with Open Theism’, in Bruce L. McCormack (ed.), Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 210.

24 McCormack, Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology, pp. 459–61; idem, ‘“With Loud Cries and Tears”’, pp. 47–8.

25 McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son, p. 257, cf. pp. 211, 253, 258, 286.

26 Ibid., p. 253.

27 Ibid., pp. 11–12.

28 Ibid., pp. 282–3.

29 Ibid., p. 258.

30 McCormack, ‘Grace and Being’, p. 104; idem, The Humility of the Eternal Son, pp. 253–4.

31 McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son, pp. 282–3.

32 Ibid., pp. 214, 253.

33 Ibid., p. 253.

34 Ibid., p. 252.

35 Ibid., p. 10.

36 Ibid., p. 252.

37 Ibid., pp. 118–9.

38 Ibid., p. 118. McCormack cites Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 13 vols., ed. T. F. Torrance and G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956–1974), IV/2, pp. 49, 70.

39 McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son, pp. 14–5, 177, 186.

40 Robert W. Jenson, The Triune God, vol. 1 of Systematic Theology (Oxford: OUP, 2001), pp. 140–41.

41 McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son, pp. 14–5.

42 Paul D. Molnar, Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity: In Dialogue with Karl Barth and Contemporary Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2005), pp. 97–8.

43 Molnar, Divine Freedom and the Doctrine, p. 99; idem, ‘Can the Electing God be God Without Us?’, pp. 74–75; idem, ‘The Trinity, Election and God's Ontological Freedom’, pp. 294–306.

44 Molnar, ‘The Trinity, Election and God's Ontological Freedom’, p. 300–02.

45 Molnar, Divine Freedom and the Doctrine, p. 99; idem, ‘The Trinity, Election and God's Ontological Freedom’, pp. 295–6.

46 McCormack, Orthodox and Modern, p. 272; idem, ‘The Actuality of God’, p. 213; idem, ‘Let's Speak Plainly: A Response to Paul Molnar’, Theology Today 67/1 (2010), p. 60.

47 McCormack, ‘The Actuality of God’, p. 215; idem, ‘Missions and Processions’, in Bruce L. McCormack and Thomas J. White, O.P. (eds), Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: An Unofficial Catholic–Protestant Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2013), p. 124.

48 McCormack, Orthodox and Modern, pp. 272–3; See also, Hector, ‘God's Triunity and Self-Determination’.

49 McCormack, Orthodox and Modern, p. 271.

50 A point McCormack makes in response to Hunsinger's proposition that the triune being precedes God's work ad extra. McCormack, ‘Election and the Trinity’, pp. 117, 134–5.

51 McCormack, Orthodox and Modern, p. 266; idem, ‘Grace and Being’, pp. 98–9.

52 McCormack, ‘Grace and Being’, pp. 101–4; idem, Orthodox and Modern, p. 217; idem, The Humility of the Eternal Son, p. 257. The proposition that Barth's theological ontology considers divine intentionality to be antecedent to divine triunity has been expressed in Collins, Paul M., Trinitarian Theology West and East: Karl Barth, The Cappadocian Fathers and John Zizioulas (Oxford: OUP, 2001), pp. 84–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

53 As is the criticism offered by Williams, Rowan, Christ the Heart of Creation (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), pp. 175–81Google Scholar.

54 Hector, ‘God's Triunity and Self-Determination’.

55 See also Hector, ‘God's Triunity and Self-Determination’; Jones, Paul Dafydd, The Humanity of Christ: Christology in Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics (London: T&T Clark, 2008), p. 81Google Scholar; Chalamet, Christophe, ‘No Timelessness in God: On Differing Interpretations of Karl Barth's Theology of Eternity, Time and Election’, Zeitschrift für dialektische Theologie, Supplement Series 4 (2010), pp. 2137Google Scholar.

56 McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son, pp. 284–5; idem, Orthodox and Modern, p. 265; idem, ‘The Actuality of God’, p. 210.

57 McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son, p. 284.

58 Ibid.

59 Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1, p. 193.

60 McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son, p. 10.

61 Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1, pp. 192–3.

62 McCormack, ‘Missions and Processions’, pp. 115–6.

63 Ibid., p. 123.

64 Ibid., p. 122.

65 McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son, pp. 10–11.

66 Ibid., pp. 254–5.

67 Ibid., p. 255.

68 Ibid., p. 257.

69 Ibid., p. 11.

70 Ibid., p. 6; see also note 36.