Bruce McCormack’s TFT lectures (3)

The third lecture, ‘Immutable in Passibility: The Contribution of Karl Barth,’ traced the origins of Barth’s Christology in Dorner and Herrmann. Jason has suggested in a comment on the second of this series that this was the best of the lectures; I would not disagree. It happens it was also the one I chaired.

There is a danger with any great theologian that s/he becomes detached from historical context. St Thomas is studied as if Peter Lombard had never written, and Albert the Great had never responded; works on Calvin represent him as springing from nowhere, ignoring half a generation of Reformation debate that is crucial to understanding what he was about; all of us who teach, I fear, have painted the caricature of Barth that has him repudiating all he learnt in the German schools when he came to write on Romans. Bruce, by contrast, took us from the speculative idealism of Dorner to Church Dogmatics IV, via Herrmann’s critique of metaphysics, showing the connections along the way. The result was an impressively fresh vision of what Barth was about.

Wilhelm Herrmann was the key here, at least to the thread I am trying to develop in these comments (there were other narratives going on in the lecture series; I judged this to be the main and controlling one, but I am open to correction on that). Herrmann’s rejection of metaphysics remains in Barth as a rejection of abstraction. The truth is not found in such conceptions as ‘humanity’ and ‘deity’, which are then applied to particular things; rather it is found in concrete actual events. We should not first consider what it is to be divine and then think about incarnation; we should consider the particular history of Jesus Christ, and discover any ideas about ‘divinity’ we may want to hold from there.

This is some distance from Herrmann’s own, almost existential, take on the nature of Christianity, of course. Dorner’s influence is what is important in explaining the shift. Despite his heavy commitment to idealism, Dorner succeeds, at least in part, is shifting from substance to actuality in his consideration of Christology. That is, he narrates the incarnation on the basis of the particular event that happened, not abstracted accounts of what must have happened given the necessary properties of ‘divine nature’ and ‘human nature’. Barth completed what Dorner set out to do. His Christology makes use of classical metaphysical terms at times, and idealistic language at other times, but this is all merely a borrowing of language when it happens to become useful; these technical vocabularies do not indicate, still less demonstrate, a commitment to the underlying intellectual systems. (Bruce argued this point at some length, and completely convincingly to my mind. In fact, my major, perhaps only serious, criticism of the entire lecture series was that he argued this point too convincingly for one of his subsidiary theses to stand. More on than later, though.)

So, for Barth we can only understand what deity means by listening closely to the gospel history. This means that (picking up the language of CD IV) humility, obedience, and the like are intrinsic to what it is to be God—specifically, to what it is to be God the Son. Dorner’s devastating critique of the nineteenth-century Lutheran kenoticists can be avoided by extending his own insights concerning incarnation: in the act of kenosis God the Son does not surrender what it is to be God; rather the act of kenosis is precisely what it is to be God the Son.

However, this victory cannot be too easily won. (One of the—many—impressive features of these lectures was the repeated refusal to claim victories too early; problems were faced up to and addressed with seriousness at every turn.) If kenosis is what it is to be God the Son, then from all eternity this must always be true. Barth’s response to this is his doctrine of election: the gospel story mirrors the triune shape of God’s life; in the act of election the Son is determined for reprobation; suffering; rejection; self-abnegation; death. The Son empties himself—that, simply, is what it is to be the second mode of being of the divine life.


  1. Lucy
    Dec 23, 2007

    “The Son empties himself—that, simply, is what it is to be the second mode of being of the divine life.”

    The language of kenosis implies some sort of movement, from fullness to emptying, from posession to surrender. McCormack wants to speak of an eternal kenosis of the Son. The Son, from eternity, is humble, obedient, the crucified. But to employ the language of kenosis in any meaningful way, it seems that we need to include language about movement. To say that the Son emptied himself, we need to say that he had something to empty.

    What is this something, if the Son is emptied from eternity? In his IJST article on this topic, McCormack spoke of the Son’s willed non-use of divine attributes vis a vis his human nature, that is the Son’s kenosis. But the notion of a willed non-use implies that there are divine attributes back behind the Son’s economy.

    McCormack wants to define the being of the Son totally in terms of kenosis, but for kenosis language to work you need some being that is emptied. McCormack provides this. The Son is a being outfitted with divine attributes which he does not use in the incarnation (according to his human nature) But at this point he has not really offered a positive descriptiion of being of the Son, he has described an action in which the Son does not make full use of his being. This seems odd given McCormack’s actualism. To define the Son’s being in terms of non-use of divine attributes (kenonsis) is to have a non-actualistic account of the attributes and therefore of the Son’s being.

    Perhaps I need to wait for the summary of the fourth lecture to raise these concerns…

  2. Paul Molnar
    Dec 23, 2007

    Perhaps it might be worthwhile to note that Barth wrote: “The self-emptying does not refer to His divine being. It refers in a negative sense to the fact that he did not consider or treat His equality with God as His one exclusive possibility. He did not treat it as a robber does his booty. It was not an inalienable necessity for Him to be only like God and only disctinct from creation. Positively His self-emptying refers to the fact that, without detracting from His being in the form of God, He was able and willing to assume the form of a servant and go about in the likeness of man . . . He was ready to accept a position in which He could not be known in the world as God, but His divine glory was concealed from the world. This was His self-emptying. His humbling of Himself–the meaning and goal of His self-emptying–consisted in the fact that (in the form of a servant which He had assumed and in the likeness of man) He did what man does not do because he is a sinner in revolt against the destiny imposed on him by his nature . . . he is obedient unto death . . . This self-emptying and self-humbling has nothing to do with a surrender or loss of deity” (II/1, 516). Interestingly, Barth goes on to say that what distinguishes the Son from us disappears from the sight of all of us except him since “No one here knows the Son but the Father”. So quite obviously Barth believes there is an antecedent being of Jesus as the eternal Son of the Father such that he simply cannot be reduced to his kenotic activity for us! That is why Barth distinguished, without separating, the immanent and economic Trinity. And that is why he insisted that the logos asarkos was necessary in a strict doctrine of the Trinity and in Christology. Without it God himself either is reduced to what he does for us or becomes indeterminate and for Barth there is nothing higher or better than that God is the eternal Father, Son and Spirit.

    Furthermore, it should be noted that in IV/2, 357 Barth says there is an element of truth in Patripassianism and that is that the Father suffers in the alien suffering of the creature which he takes to himself in his Son. What sense would this make of there is an eternal kenosis?

    And if election is logically reversed with the doctrine of the Trinity as McCormack espouses, then how would one avoid reducing Jesus’ eternal Sonship to his suffering and death for us?

    I hope some of these thoughts might be helpful.

  3. Paul Molnar
    Dec 23, 2007

    Please note that in the second paragraph it should read: “What sense would this make if there is an eternal kenosis?”

    Sorry about this!

  4. Steve H
    Dec 23, 2007

    In a line, I understand Bruce to be claiming that the eternal act of being filiated is itself the act of kenosis. but, yes, the fourth of this series may prove more helpful.

  5. Steve H
    Dec 23, 2007

    Many thanks for stopping by; I’m honoured you found these notes worthy of reading and comment. I think you raise two questions that need to be distinguished: the adequacy of McCormack’s interpretation of Barth; and the adequacy of McCormack’s constructive proposal.
    On the first, I am of course aware of your criticisms, and of some at least of Bruce’s lines of response and your counters; I won’t pretend to be in a position to judge the issue. I would note, however, that I understand Bruce to be suggesting that Barth had left tensions in his account of these matters, which Bruce’s own constructions were essentially resolving in one direction. This may or may not be right, but if it is then highlighting quotations asserting one pole of the tension, the one Bruce rejects, is not enough to disprove his interpretation–but you know all this, and have addressed the issue far more thoroughly elsewhere, of course.
    On the second, my judgement, as will become clear, is that Bruce does a noticeably better job than almost all other modern proposals in avoiding ‘reducing Jesus’ eternal Sonship to his suffering and death for us’ in the sense of making God’s life dependent on the being of creation. I want to say a lot more about this in the next entry, so I won’t here.

  6. Paul Molnar
    Dec 23, 2007


    Thanks for your comments. Your are right, of course, about distinguishing the two questions. And certainly your are right to say that simply asserting one pole of the tension is not enough to disprove Bruce’s interpretation. But, to reject the one pole, when perhaps the tension is actually part of the mystery Barth was depicting (a mystery that cannot be resolved in one direction or another) is where the real issue may lie.

    I will look forward to what you have to say about how Bruce actually does avoid reducing Jesus’ eternal Sonship to his suffering and death for us. But there is that other problem as well: making suffering and death part of God’s eternal nature!

    All the best for a very Merry Christmas!

  7. George Hunsinger
    Dec 23, 2007

    “His Christology makes use of classical metaphysical terms at times, and idealistic language at other times, but this is all merely a borrowing of language when it happens to become useful; these technical vocabularies do not indicate, still less demonstrate, a commitment to the underlying intellectual systems.”

    “The Son empties himself—that, simply, is what it is to be the second mode of being of the divine life.”

    On the first quote. Note the rather drastic narrowing of the options here. Either a merely useful borrowing of metaphysical language or else a full-fledged commitment to an underlying system. Hmmm.

    On the second quote. Kenosis may “simply” be what it means to be the second person of the Holy Trinity. But this curious notion has nothing to do with Barth (the mature Barth, from 1932 onwards).

    Balthasar did seem to adopt such an idea, though even some of his friendliest interpreters have registered their doubts about its viability. Can we really have an eternally kenotic Son without an equally kenotic Father? And would such a position be properly thought of as “post-metaphysical”?!

  8. Paul Molnar
    Dec 23, 2007

    Thanks, George. I very much agree with what you say. In Steve’s summary, where it is said that “in the act of kenosis God the Son does not surrender what it is to be God,” I agree with that. But when the quote continues and says: “rather the act of kenosis is precisely what it is to be God the Son,” that certainly appears to me to collapse the immanent into the economic Trinity. I think you’re right that Barth never espoused such a view.

  9. Weekend Fisher
    Dec 24, 2007

    I think to read St. Paul on kenosis through the lens of later Trinitarian theology is to risk missing the use to which Paul put the term. Paul’s focus was largely on exaltation v. humility: when Paul discussed the move from “nature of God” to “nature of a servant”, his focus was not on divine attributes but on status.

    Which fits well with Paul’s context of our having the mind of Christ: rejecting status and claiming not exaltation but humility.

    Take care & God bless
    Anne / WF


  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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