Bruce McCormack’s TFT lectures (1)

Bruce McCormack’s TF Torrance lectures went under the title ‘The Humility of the Eternal Son: A Reformed Version of Kenotic Christology’. They represent the maturity of a project Bruce announced in an IJST article (‘Karl Barth’s Christology as a Resource for a Reformed Version of Kenoticism’ IJST 8 (2006), pp. 243-51), and has developed in my hearing in papers given in a conference on Hebrews in St Andrews (to be published next year in McDonald, Driver, Bauckham, & Hart (eds), The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Eerdmans)), and at the 2007 Rutherford House Dogmatics Conference. No doubt the theme has also been worked on in public elsewhere.

I published the IJST article, and questioned Bruce after the two earlier presentations. It was clear from the start that he was doing something interesting, but there were serious questions raised. Let me say at the start that in his TFT lectures Bruce has developed his proposal into something weighty and serious—more so than any similar reconstruction that I am aware of in recent English-language theology.

The first lecture, ‘Immutable in Impassibility: The Role Played by Classical Theism in Creating the Unresolved Problems in Chalcedonian Orthodoxy,’ covered the development of Christology in the patristic period down to the Lutheran-Reformed controversies of the sixteenth century, with a particular focus on Cyril of Alexandria, the Chalcedonian settlement, and John of Damascus. Bruce argued, essentially, that all Christology in the patristic and Reformation periods was hamstrung by the fact that it was constructed on the assumption of a substance metaphysics. ‘God’ and ‘humanity’ were different sorts of things, that could not be mixed. Something was either one or the other. All patristic Christology was a series of increasingly sophisticated attempts to escape this basic logic, which however proved inescapable. Cyril’s attempt was the most interesting, but relied on an unacceptable Origenist subordinationism (this interpretation of Cyril comes from McGuckin’s St Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy).

If I say that this was the weakest of the four lectures, understand that this is rather like talking about the weakest member of Arsenal’s midfield—in four performances, each stunningly good, one is inevitably going to be slightly less good than the others. Bruce was trying to deal with an immense amount of material (the whole development of patristic Christology, and the Reformed-Lutheran debates as well), and he would admit himself that patristics in particular is not his period. It seems to me that Bruce was using this background to demonstrate the necessity of his constructive proposal. That is, as far as I could work out listening to the four lectures, Bruce’s own account of Christology does not depend on anything in his account of this history for its validity; however, the pressure he feels for developing a new account of Christology does.

One theme of these lectures is the problem of substance metaphysics. On McCormack’s account, all Christology prior to Hegel has been infected by this: the theologians assumed such metaphysics, and it prevented them from saying the things they wanted/needed to say, or at least from saying them consistently. As a result, classical Christology needs to be re-written for a post-metaphysical age.


  1. Patrick McManus
    Dec 19, 2007

    Thanks for your summaries of McCormack’s lectures. Being half-way around the world, and not being able to attend, this is the next best thing!

    Welcome to the theoblogosphere!

  2. Lucy
    Dec 19, 2007

    2 Things:

    1) “Bruce’s own account of Christology does not depend on anything in his account of this history for its validity.” I’m not sure he would agree. After all, he is trying to write a 2-natures/single Subject christology, and he is very much indebted to the tradition for this. Bruce’s positive account is more rooted in the tradition than many contemporary revisionist christologies (ex., Jenson)

    2) What do you understand Bruce’s definition of ‘substance metaphysics’ to be?

  3. Steve H
    Dec 20, 2007

    Patrick, thanks for your welcome.

    Lucy, thanks for commenting. On the first, you’re quite right–I phrased that badly. One of the many things that impresses me about Bruce’s proposal is his insistence that it remains firmly anchored in the tradition, and so that first lecture began with a reflection on ‘What do Reformed theologians do with Chalcedon?’ What I was trying to indicate was that the reading of the tradition offered here seemed to me, and to several others who questioned him on it, to be open to question. (I will have more to say about this in the fourth or fifth post of this series). If he is wrong about Cyril and John Damascene and the rest, I don’t think it damages his constructive theology at all, but I think it does remove some of the need he obviously feels for a new construction of Christology. Again, I’ll have more to say about this later.
    ‘Substance metaphysics’–roughly, ‘everything Herrmann objected to’! Deeply unhelpful, I know–more in the next post, on Herrmann and Barth, hopefully written tomorrow (I have to listen to and grade 30+ student presentations today…)


  4. George Hunsinger
    Dec 21, 2007

    “this interpretation of Cyril comes from McGuckin’s St Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy).”

    The above statement would be very interesting, if true. However, I can’t find a single reference in McGuckin that attributes anything like an “unacceptable Origenist subordinationism” to Cyril.

    If this (highly implausible) claim about Cyril is going to be advanced, it would seem that it will need to be done without McGuckin’s authority.

  5. Steve H
    Dec 21, 2007

    George, you honour me by your presence. I understand I might have the further honour of meeting you when we gather to discuss another great interpreter of the incarnation, John Owen, in Cambridge next summer.
    Bruce certainly attributed his interpretation of Cyril to McGuckin, and it was certainly the one point in the lecture series where several voices were raised in protest at the historical interpretation. The phrase ‘unacceptable Origenist subordinationism’ is mine, and may be a misrepresentation of what Bruce was trying to say, or (more precisely) a conflation of my value-judgement with his claim of influence. I understood Bruce to be claiming that Cyril’s christology only worked on a metaphysical level by assuming the rightness of certain Origenist positions.
    However, let me say again that even if his patristic exegesis is at fault on this point, I am confident that Bruce’s constructive proposal can stand without it.

  6. George Hunsinger
    Dec 21, 2007

    I have checked van Loon’s massive dissertation (588pp. single-spaced), recently completed at Kampen on “The Christology of Cyril of Alexandria.” On the basis of this study it can be said with full assurance that no Origenist elements are to be found in Cyril’s understanding of the Trinity.

    For Cyril, the Son was not only co-eternal but also co-equal with the Father. Homoousion, for Cyril, according to Loon, meant “identity of substance.” In other words, full co-equality. For Origen, as we know, the Son was co-eternal but not co-equal with the Father.

    Van Loon’s examination of the relevant terminology is meticulous and comprehensive.

    Also relevant is the work by Paul L. Gavrilyuk, “The Suffering go the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought” (Oxford, 2004). Gavrilyuk argues quite vigorously: “Contrary to a widespread misconception, there was nothing in the Hellenistic world amounting to a universally endorsed ‘axiom of divine impassibility.'” (p. 175)

    He also argues, convincingly I think, that “the ontological distinction between the creator and the creature” (which included divine impassibility) was inspired not by Hellenistic philosophy but by Holy Scripture. (cf. p. 159)

    It will be good to meet you in Cambridge. –GH

  7. Steve H
    Dec 21, 2007

    Many thanks. Having attempted a couple of defences of divine impassibility in print here and there, I’m personally grateful for the reference to Gavrilyuk, a book that I had missed somehow. The points seem to me convincing, but (like every systematician), to find a true patristics scholar arguing them is something I find both comforting and helpful.
    I struggle, however, to believe that ‘no Origenist elements are to be found in Cyril’s understanding of the Trinity’. I am convinced that Cyril did not embrace Origen’s particular understanding of subordination, and was one of three or four who queried whether this was Bruce’s claim in the lecture, but I do think we need to acknowledge, honestly and simply, that the fourth- and fifth-century debates were between people who were all Origenists of one stripe or another (at least amongst the Greek-speaking theologians), just as the (interesting) nineteenth-century debates in Germany at least were between Hegelians, just sometimes of different stripes.

  8. George Hunsinger
    Dec 23, 2007

    “that the fourth- and fifth-century debates were between people who were all Origenists of one stripe or another (at least amongst the Greek-speaking theologians)”

    Well, this is quite a claim. Would you also apply it to the Nicene Creed? Is being an “Origenist” the same as being a “subordinationist”? What exactly are the different “stripes” of Origenism?

    Of course there would be more to Origenism than subordinationism, but the question at stake is about subordinationism in Cyril’s doctrine of the Trinity. Did Cyril adopt some version of subordinationism, even if different than Origen’s, do you think?

    I can’t find any support for this claim in the patristic scholars mentioned.

    The larger point: If someone claims to be resolving a problem in Cyril, it would seem to matter whether the “problem” is really there.

  9. George Hunsinger
    Dec 23, 2007

    By the way, as to the 19th c. debates in Germany, many of the disputes involved Ritschlians, who would have been surprised to learn that they were all Hegelians under the skin!

  10. Steve H
    Dec 23, 2007

    George, sorry, I should have been clearer.
    I am presently visiting various family members for the Christmas season, so I will make reference to the one book I have with me! Lewis Ayres, in Nicea and its Legacy is concerned on some ways to oppose accounts of the history that stress ‘Origen as a point of departure’, but acknowledges that, whilst ‘no theologian adopted Origen’s system wholesale,’ he still gave the fourth century writers ‘terminological choices’ and ‘his work as an exegete helped shape the character of theology … in the fourth century’ (both p.21). This is roughly what I meant, although more cautiously stated than I might have. The language, exegetical assumptions, and theological choices of the fourth century Greek theologians were in large measure determined by Origen, even as pretty much every theologian repudiated one aspect or another of his theology.
    (Equally, would anybody have entertained a Ritschlian account of the history of Christian thought without an underlying assumption of something like Hegel’s assumption of the dialectical processes of history?)

  11. George Hunsinger
    Dec 23, 2007

    Ayres is helpful in sorting out Origin from “subordinationism.”

    Although he thinks the term is “problematic” (p. 23), he also makes it clear that for Origen the Son is not co-equal with the Father, insofar as the Son does not share the Father’s ousia, including his divine simplicity (pp. 26-27).

    Nyssa, on the other hand, avoids “ontological subordinationism” (p. 363), while retaining some elements of “hierarchy.”

    Perhaps particularly relevant is Ayres’s conclusion about certain common features of pro-Nicene Trinitarianism: among others, “that God was one power, nature and activity; that there could be no degrees in divinity; that the three persons were irreducible although all sharers in the divine being without any ontological hierarchy,” etc. (p. 434)

    Like Gavrilyuk, Ayres thinks these Nicene commitments have far more to do with Scripture than with metaphysics. Note that Cyril of Alexandria is included in Ayres’s list of representative Nicene theologians. (Ibid.)

    Again, it would seem that Cyril leaves us with no “metaphysical” problem to be resolved, and that like Ayres’s other major pro-Nicene theologians, he differs from Origen substantively at the decisive point by avoiding “ontological subordinationism.”

    It is not clear, however, how such ontological subordinationism could be avoided by a proposal that would see the Son as intrinsically “kenotic.”

  12. George Hunsinger
    Dec 23, 2007

    On the Ritschlians, I’m not aware of any great commitment on their part to an idea of “dialectical” development, as opposed to just “development.”

    Neither Ritschl, nor Kaftan, nor Harnack, nor Seeberg, etc. were as imbued with Hegelianism, as far as I can see, as was someone like F.C. Baur, against whom Ritschl reacted.


  1. Around the Horn* « Sub Specie Aeterni - [...] ‘The Humility of the Eternal Son: A Reformed Version of Kenotic Christology’. Check them out (1, 2, 3, 4,…

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