Bruce McCormack’s TFT lectures (2)

Bruce McCormack’s second lecture, ‘Passibility in Mutability: The Failure of the Older Kenoticism,’ focused on the nineteenth-century kenotic Christologies of Thomasius and Gess, and on Dorner’s critique. The British kenoticists (Forsyth and Mackintosh), and Baillie’s objections, were there, but the treatment was slightly more cursory, I think because Bruce thinks that Herrmann’s critique of metaphysics should have been found decisive, and so no-one should have developed a kenotic Christology after it.

‘Kenotic Christology,’ for those who don’t know, takes its cue from the Christ-hymn in Philippians 2, which affirms that Christ ’emptied himself’ (heauton ekenosen, hence ‘kenosis’ and ‘kenotic’). A kenotic Christology understands what happened at the incarnation in terms of this self-emptying: God became human by giving something up or laying something down. As Bruce showed, the idea is very consistent with certain traditional themes of Lutheran Christology, and was developed at some length by a school of nineteenth-century German Lutherans, headed by the great Thomasius. (It later made its way into Britain, being embraced by, amongst others, P.T. Forsyth and H.R. Mackintosh,until D.M. Baillie’s God was in Christ put an end to it.

The thesis of this lecture was, essentially, that the positions of Thomasius, Forsyth, and indeed any other kenoticism in the nineteenth-century pattern, will inevitably collapse into the radical kenoticism of Gess.

Very crudely, Gess suggested that in the incarnation the divine Son simply chooses to stop being divine. This is obviously unacceptable, but the question is how you have any kenotic Christology which does not eventually affirm the same thing. If the divine Son voluntarily chooses to give up being omniscient, say, then either omniscience is not an essential property of divinity, in which case God is not omniscient at all (because there are no accidental properties in God; all that He is, He must be), or it is, and so the Son becomes something less than God in the act of self-emptying. Any account of kenotic Christology falls to such logic.

First comment on this lecture: the historical narrative was simply stunning. It’s not really my period, but I have taught modern Christology at postgrad level, supervised on Forsyth, & recently examined a doctoral thesis on Dorner, and I do think I know my way around this stuff. Bruce’s knowledge of the detail of the texts, and insight into the grand sweep of the arguments, was nothing less than inspiring.

Second comment: as Bruce indicated, the problem repeatedly in the nineteenth century was the assumption that the patristic hypostasis and prosopon could be translated into the English ‘person’ (or German ‘Person’), with all the connotations of those words in a post-Romantic age. Strauss, for instance (a quotation Bruce used): ‘to speak of two natures in one person is to speak of a single self-consciousness, for what else could a single person mean?’ However, it is clear that in the patristic construction of Trinity and Christology such ‘personal’ characteristics as ‘self-consciousness’, if considered at all, were attached to natures not persons—this was, for instance, the whole point of the orthodox solutions to the monoenergist and monothelite controversies. (This is why Barth preferred ‘mode of being’ to ‘person’ for the three hypostases of the Trinity; in post-Romantic terms, all that is ‘personal’ in God is one.) Bruce’s whole lecture was constructed on the suggestion that nineteenth-century German Christology, at least, was endlessly struggling with how to hold together the confession that the human nature is anhypostatic (it does not exist apart from in union with the divine Son) and that there is a genuinely human will alongside the divine will in the incarnate One (‘dithelitism’). I think this is an extraordinarily perceptive reading of the history, but I also think that, with a clearer understanding that the word ‘hypostasis’ does not mean ‘person’ in a Romantic sense, we can cut through the problem very easily.

Footnote: anyone know how to enter Greek on a wordpress blog?


  1. Sean
    Dec 19, 2007

    Hi Steve and welcome!!!

    The best way is to use Unicode. Are you using a Mac or a PC? Information can be found easily at

  2. Steve H
    Dec 19, 2007

    Thanks for both welcome and advice, Sean–I thought I was using Unicode, but I forgot which fonts were which–SPIonic isn’t, is it?

    (Markus Bockmuehl gave me a tutorial last year which taught me more about unicode that I will ever need to know. I’ve got Cardo on here somewhere; I’ll try that.)

  3. Sean
    Dec 19, 2007

    Hi Steve

    SPIonic is an old ASCII font, so that wont work. Cardo is what you need, but also Arial Unicode goes quite nicely in Greek e.g. ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν

  4. Jason Goroncy
    Dec 19, 2007

    Steve. Thanks for your thoughts on Bruce’s second lecture. I agree that he covered an enourmous amount of material with great clarity and focus. It really was amazing.

    To follow up on one of your responses, I remain unconvinced (no surprises here) that all kenotic christologies necessarily lead to Gess’ end, though the warning his thesis betrays remains important. Dorner’s proposal, for example, remains attractive to me (if not without some hesitation); that there was a gradual development of the two natures in the one hypostasis, the union of which took place in the realm of the will. Christian theology needs to make some account of what it means that ‘Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and people’ (Lk 2:52), and I think that Dorner (and Forsyth) helps us here.

    On Greek, the easiest way is to simply cut and paste from a Word doc. WordPress makes this easy, as in this post:

  5. Steve H
    Dec 19, 2007

    Hi Jason,

    Dorner, of course, developed his proposal as a sharp rejection of kenoticism, which he thought (surely rightly) was excluded by the Formula of Concord.
    You’re right to draw attention to Lk 2:52, but there are other ways of taking the text seriously than kenoticism (Owen’s, for instance).


  6. Jason Goroncy
    Dec 19, 2007


    I was not trying to suggest that there are no other ways of taking Luke 2:52 seriously than that which kenoticism provides, only that kenoticism has a way of taking these texts at more face value that many christologies do (not necessarily a good thing in itself, eg. Arius) and, to my mind, offers the most convincing reading.

    Of course Dorner was no friend of kenoticism. I mention him for 2 reasons: 1. Because he was discussed in Bruce’s second lecture, introduced as kenoticism’s ‘foremost critic’; and 2. Because as one in general sympathy with kenotic christologies, what I find most valuable about Dorner (and it’s certainly not everything!), is not simply that he offers us such a sturdy alternative to Ritschl (and Hegel … and kenoticism, for that matter), but that his highly developed sense of the moral nature and growth of Christ’s person – and the growth in awareness of such – compliments what the best kenoticists want to affirm about value of the Incarnate’s life. Dorner’s christology provides the ethical and universal-representative weight that kenoticists require if we are to be able to speak properly about the representative nature of Christ’s ministry for us, as the one Person in whom humanity satisfies the universal law of God, and who does so precisely by not considering equality with God something to be exploited. Of course, there are other ways to do this too …

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Dorner, whose rejection of divine passibility received not a little attention in Bruce’s third (and I think the best) lecture.

    Until then …


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

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