Bruce Lindley McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son. Reformed Kenoticism and the Repair of Chalcedon, Current Issues in Theology, Cambridge University Press, 2021, xi + 316 pp., hardcover, £35.00/ $43.99
This book, which had been eagerly anticipated by many, is the first of a trilogy of volumes. In traditional categories, it deals with the topic of the ‘person of Jesus Christ’. But the proposal it offers is anything but a traditional one. As a result of a conversation with a range of predecessors and companions, exercised with a huge power of thought and with great courage, and moreover with an admirable concentration on the core question, further developing insights on sub-questions that were collected over decades of teaching, McCormack presents, elucidates, and defends his thesis on the ‘ontological receptivity of the Logos’.
Part I deals with the (im)possibilities in thinking a kenotic Christology in the history of doctrine. The definition of Chalcedon is not primarily to be conceived by way of its four adverbial negations (as happens predominantly in different currents of twentieth-century theology, p. 57), but as an affirmation of the main thesis of Cyril: there exists one single Christological hypostasis, to be identified with the pre-existent Word. By virtue of the incarnation, human experiences pertain to this Logos, but the human being Jesus does not exist as a subject. In this single person, divine nature is active, and human nature passive. In this way, divinity cannot experience passion, whereas humanity is instrumentalized and only receives space through a temporary suspension of its instrumentalization (p. 49). In post-Chalcedonian developments, this suspension becomes a more than secondary phenomenon. At the provisional end of these developments, John of Damascus speaks, besides the Logos, of the person of Christ as a ‘compound nature’, too (p. 58) – a figure reflected in the heritage of post-Chalcedonian Christology that can be found in John Calvin. (However, the assertion on p. 72 that Calvin lacked this is not fullycorrect: the expression persona composita actually has been used by him in the section of the Institutes [II.xiv.1] that is quoted here, viz. to indicate the conjunction of soul and body as the classical patristic analogy for Christology).
The second chapter deals with nineteenth-century kenoticism as the first attempt to think beyond Chalcedon, and it does so in an original way. It starts with the clever thoughts of David Friedrich Strauss (reading the older reformed Zürich theologian J.H. Heidegger as his main source) as an unavoidable challenge for theology, and it ends with two Scottish kenoticists (A. B. Bruce and H.R. Mackintosh) with their strongly ethically oriented, Reformed variants. An important indication of the conservative character of these allegedly revisionist thinkers is their doctrine of God. The thought of G. Thomasius, as an example, is still controlled by the concepts of divine simplicity and impassibility (p. 18); in this way, the ‘depotentiation’ of the eternal Logos and his giving up his eternal self-consciousness when appearing in human shape only prolongs and extends the temporary suspension of the Cyrillian hypostasis, and therewith provokes new problems, undermining the unity of the Cyrillian one and single person. In the end, McCormack evaluates nineteenth-century Christological kenoticism as a failure.
Much more promising, in McCormack’s view, are the three thinkers discussed in the third chapter: Karl Barth, Sergei Bulgakov, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Karl Barth initially only repeated Reformed Christology, albeit with ‘a dash of Kant and Kierkegaard’ (p. 107). However, Church Dogmatics IV/1 brings something new (which presupposes the discovery of a need to correct Reformed Christology, a discovery that McCormack does not explore here). This new element is the idea of the humility and the obedience of the eternal Son. But, because Barth affirms the model of one divine subject, such talk can only be conceived metaphorically (p. 115), and Barth did not dare (yet) to accept, in the ‘mutual participation’ of God and human being in the history of Jesus Christ, an influence of the human on the Cyrillian ‘acting subject’ (p. 119). Sergei Bulgakov saw that ‘the Logos is the eternal Man, the human Proto-Image before the creation of the World’, ‘the Lamb sacrificed before the creation’, ‘predestined to also become an earthly Man’. He also posits that ‘The Logos, the second hypostasis, is the proper hypostasis of the Divine-Humanity in God’ (The Lamb of God, quoted on pp. 129–130 and 278). For McCormack’s own proposal, these sentences offer indispensable ingredients. Hans Urs von Balthasar, finally, affirms the importance of the Holy Spirit’s ministry to Jesus (that was neglected in the line from Cyril to Barth), and because of that, he was able to propose the idea of an ‘active receptivity’ – far from instrumentalising his humanity and far from suspending elements of his divinity – on the part of the Logos in relation to his human ‘nature’ (pp. 147–148). But unfortunately, an explicit subsequent proposal from Balthasar is lacking, and McCormack feels obliged to take a further step. Chapter four discusses the innovations of Eberhard Jüngel, Robert Jenson and Piet Schoonenberg, each of which also inspired McCormack in his own theological work. All three engaged most of the problems that McCormack has raised thus far, and their solutions are carefully pondered here. Nevertheless, their full (and direct) identification of Jesus with the second person of the Trinity, or, rather, the ‘collapse of the eternal Son into Jesus’ in their thoughts, which lead to the absorption of death at the cross in the internal ‘history of God’, the abandoning of divine immutability, and the end of any protological understanding of the Logos – all these elements, in the end, would be ecumenically disastrous (p. 195). This price is too high, and an alternative is necessary.
Any development of an alternative must begin with the relevant biblical material (p. 20). For kenoticism, it is obvious to start Part II in the fifth chapter with a (partial) explanation of the ‘Christ Hymn’ of Philippians 2:6-11. Calvin, following Erasmus, considers the Logos ensarkos as the subject of the self-emptying (p. 17). McCormack, in accordance with R. Bauckham, rightly remarks that the second part of the hymn must decide the question of this subject. The ‘name that is above every name’ of verse 9 is the revealed name, the name God gave to himself, that has been given to Jesus (p. 204–205). I agree that one must read this name backward in the ‘being in the form of God’ of verse 6a and that a real and personal pre-existence can be implied here (p. 206), although I would be curious to learn from McCormack whether he agrees with Calvin that we must read this verse as a direct proof of the truth of the Nicene dogma. Subsequently, the sixth chapter takes as its starting point the observation that Jesus in the Synoptic gospels is driven by the Spirit, in Luke even until his last breath. From there, the Gospel of John can also be read in the same direction, where the first verse, as Barth argued, can be read as speaking of the Logos as a timely ‘placeholder’ of Jesus Christ, whose identity is made clear in verse 15 (p. 242).
Against the background of these biblical findings, Part III presents the constructive alternative vision of this book: ‘Towards a Reformed Version of Kenotic Christology’. To repair Chalcedon, McCormack wants to maintain the post-Chalcedonian figure of a ‘composite hypostasis’ (p. 252). However, starting from a Spirit-driven Christology, he argues that one must reverse the Cyrillian tradition. The subject is not the eternal Logos, making the humanity of Jesus to be its instrument, but the human being Jesus, conceived by the Spirit, anointed by the Spirit at baptism and driven by the Spirit in his words and his acts. The Logos then, as an element of the persona composita, exists in the above mentioned ‘ontological receptivity’ – presumably the core category of the whole of this trilogy. It characterizes the humanity of God, and it opens divinity to undergo the experiences of human being, in the perspective of the overcoming of death in the being of God. Personally, I am convinced by the strength of this proposal. One question I have, however, relates to McCormack’s distancing of himself from ‘classically “liberal” Spirit-Christologies’ (p. 268), which assert that for the distinguishing of the uniqueness of Jesus, the whole figure of a pre-existent Logos is unnecessary. McCormack retains the need for such a Logos, but how is he able to found the unicity of Christ with a Spirit Christology as the starting point? For Barth, the ‘incommensurability’ of Jesus, the Royal Man (CD IV/2, §64.3) depends on the an- and enhypostatic character of the unio hypostatica (as defended in § 64.2), being ‘without precedence, parallel or repetition either in the divine sphere or (much less) in the human, natural and historical creaturely sphere’ (ET 59, with reference to the Leiden Synopsis). But McCormack rejects the Byzantine doctrine of anhypostasia. Consequently, the ‘conception by the Holy Spirit’, in accordance with the Creed, has to bear the burden of the asserted particularity of Jesus Christ. But is this article (in its legendary character more signum than res, more sign than the novum that is meant itself, again according to Barth, CD §15.3)fully suitable for such a founding? It would be good to hear more on this question.
The announced second volume of the trilogy will, presupposing the argument concerning the person of Christ in this first volume, be devoted to the ‘doctrine of the triune God of electing grace’, including attention to the so-called divine ‘attributes’ (p. 1), and the third to the ‘work’ of Christ, including engagement with the Reformed commitment to the ‘penal substitution’ theory of atonement (p. 269). Both are warmly anticipated.
Protestant Theological University, Amsterdam and Groningen, The Netherlands
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