Bruce McCormack’s TFT Lectures (4)

A note on the nature of these posts: I am not typing up notes of the lectures (I tend to take none, other than a few scribbled phrases intended to aid in the formulation of a question or comment at the end of the presentation). Instead, I am working from my memory of them, and my reflections following them. My intention has not been to give an exhaustive account of the arguments deployed, so much as to make clear what I took to be the main thread of argument running through the presentations, and my evaluation of it. In turning to Bruce’s final lecture, I am going to depart completely from the structure of the lecture as it was given, which was split into three (unequal) sections: reflections on the proper exegesis of Phil. 2:5-11; an outline of the constructive proposal towards which the lecture series had been building; and a series of responses to criticisms that had been made earlier.

On reflection, particularly following some helpful comments from George Hunsinger and Paul Molnar, I suspect that I erred in the previous post in moving too rapidly from lecture 3 to lecture 4; that is, in ascribing certain theses to McCormack’s interpretation of Barth rather than to the constructive material, intended as an advance on Barth. In particular, the notion that kenosis (as opposed to obedience, say) is simply what it is to be the second person of the Trinity, is something that I think is Bruce’s own, not something he found in Barth.
What, then, is Bruce’s proposal? Let me approach it like this: it is a standard thesis of classical theology that God’s being is His act; further, God’s act is single, and simple. This is, of course, already a problem, at least if one wants to continue to maintain that God’s existence is independent of the created order: St Thomas devotes considerable ingenuity to explaining how God’s act of creation can happen without any change in God (1a q.45 arts 2 &3). When Barth brings the doctrine of election into the doctrine of God (it is treated in the second part-volume of vol. II, not the first of vol. III), and links election closely to incarnation, the problem becomes acute. However, the gains of Barth’s novel doctrine of election are sufficiently obvious that almost every serious (Protestant) theological proposal of the second half of the twentieth century chose to face the problems, rather than lose the gains.

In general, and in one way or another, the problems were eliminated in the later twentieth century by the simple expedient of losing the axiom of impassibility, properly understood: if God’s life is allowed to be dependent on creation, there is no problem. The single greatest merit of Bruce’s proposal, it seems to me, is that he is not prepared to play this game. Instead, he develops a novel account of kenosis.

Barth learnt from Harrmann that generic metaphysical accounts of deity should not be accepted. This allowed him to conceive of an account of Trinity that reflected the gospel story: a prior and a posterior, a sender and a sent, a commanding and an obedience—and of course a unity of the Spirit holding the two ‘poles’ together. Bruce’s proposal is at heart as simple as a radicalisation of this one point: kenosis, self-surrender, is simply and precisely what it is to be the Son. ‘Kenosis’ here implies incarnation, so incarnation, or a directedness toward incarnation, is precisely what it is to be the Son. God’s life as Father, Son and Spirit is directed towards the gospel history. The Son gives up no part of His deity in obedience, incarnation, kenosis, death, because these things are simply what it is to be the second Person of the Trinity. Further, what it is to be the third Person of the Trinity is to eternally hold together the sending and commanding Father and the sent and obedient Son in the unity of the Godhead. In a paragraph, this is what I take Bruce to be arguing.


  1. scott prather
    Jan 7, 2008

    Dr. Holmes,

    My own reflection of the lecture leads me to agree with you that the notion that kenosis is what constitutes the being of the second person is Prof. McCormack’s own proposal, rather than Barth’s. Interestingly, I think, it does assimilate rather closely to Pannenberg’s own definition of the being of the (eternal and economic) Son, as he lays it out in vol. 2 of his Systematic Theology; though of course I have no knowledge of whether or not McCormack is consciously in his debt on that point.

    Scott Prather

  2. Steve H
    Jan 7, 2008

    Impressively quick comment, Scott, welcome!

    I’m no expert on Pannenberg, but I get the sense that he sees the Trinity almost becoming through history (I know this is a vast oversimplification, but…), which would be some distance from McCormack’s desire to maintain an account of God’s non-dependence on the world, I guess.

  3. Halden
    Jan 7, 2008

    I would surmise that McCormack’s move towards his reformed kenoticism draws as much from Balthasar as from Barth. Balthasar is the theologian of the immanent Trinity par excellence, and his whole projectt, in my view could be read as exploring the implications of the Cross for the eternal life of the Trinity, which for Balthasar always comes back to a primordial, eternal kenosis into which the passion and death of Christ is seamlessly enfolded.

  4. George Hunsinger
    Jan 7, 2008

    It is a standard thesis of classical theology that God’s being is His act; further, God’s act is single, and simple. This is, of course, already a problem, at least if one wants to continue to maintain that God’s existence is independent of the created order.

    Well, I think you’re going to need to explain this far from self-evident “of course.” Which means you would also need to explain what you think counts as a “problem.”

    For an important distinction between a “problem” and a “mystery,” see Michael B. Foster, Mystery and Philosophy (London, 1957).

    For Barth, what appear to be “contradictions” in theology are sometimes entailed in a series of necessary and unavoidable statements, as grounded in the interpretation of Scripture. “Their resolution will be statements concerning the free activity of God, and not therefore and not therefore statements which ‘dismiss contradictions from the world.'” (I/1, p. 9)

    Thanks for continuing this series.

  5. Steve H
    Jan 8, 2008

    Welcome, Halden, I’ve enjoyed your blog before now. Bruce constructed his proposal as a development of Barth, so I’ve presented it as such; but Balthasar and Barth were close enough that echoes might be flowing in various directions, and be worth exploring, I’m sure.

  6. Steve H
    Jan 8, 2008

    Thanks, George. By ‘problem’ I mean nothing more than ‘there is a prima facie suggestion that there might be a contradiction, or at least a tension, here, which therefore demands further work.’ That is, I was using the word in a colloquial sense, not the technical one you reference (which incidentally goes back before Foster, I think–didn’t Maritain develop it first in A Preface to Metaphysics in 1931?)
    Such a ‘problem’ might turn out to be a ‘mystery’ in that technical sense, or it might turn out to be something that is logically resolvable after further thought, or it might turn out to be a symptom of a flawed construction somewhere earlier; only further thought will determine which.
    My point was simply that claims that McCormack (or Barth!) have rather-too-closely entwined God’s life with the life of the world should not ignore the fact that this was always a difficult issue in developed Christian theology.

  7. George Hunsinger
    Jan 8, 2008

    Thanks, Steve. I’m afraid a lot actually hangs on what kind of issue we think we’re facing when we talk about how God is related to the world. It may be a “difficult issue,” but what issues in Christian theology aren’t?

    If it’s a “problem,” then it needs to be “solved,” as Foster nicely insists. If it’s a revealed mystery, on the other hand, then it is something to be honored, not resolved and removed.

    I can’t see that the case has been made that we’re facing a “problem” here.

    I would say (with Barth) that God’s life is absolutely intertwined with the life of the world (cf. II/1, pp. 315-21). Barth calls this “the triumph of God’s freedom in immanence” (p. 316). But it is a matter of sovereign divine freedom, and therefore something absolutely contingent.

    The being of the triune God is absolutely perfect and self-sufficient in and for itself to all eternity, with or without the world. I take this to be an axiom of Nicene Christianity that is essential to the Reformed tradition.

    Is it a “problem” or a mystery?

  8. Paul Molnar
    Jan 9, 2008

    If “kenosis, self-surrender, is simply and precisely what it is to be the Son” then the obvious question is: can the Son exist without the incarnation? And the answer within Bruce McCormack’s thought seems to be no, since he unequivocally reduces the logos asarkos to the logos incarnandus without remainder when he speaks of the “directedness toward incarnation” as part of what it means to be the Son. I don’t contest the directedness; I simply contest the idea that this directedness is “what it means to be Son”. These statements strike me as a total collapse of the immanent into the economic Trinity which is something Barth most definitely refused to do and for good reason. If what it means to be the Holy Spirit is simply to “hold together the sending and commanding Father and the sent and obedient Son” then it is more than clear that there is no Holy Spirit without the actions of God ad extra. Barth certainly would never espouse this. And I don’t see how anyone who wishes to maintain a genuine distinction in union between the triune God and creation via Christology could maintain this either. This is the triumph of Hegel.

    Regarding the notion of “problem” I agree with what George says. But it should be noted that Barth refers to the “problem” of Christology precisely in the sense that George uses the word mystery in CD I/2. Naturally I agree with everything George says about the Trinity and the disctinction between creator and creature.

    Happy New Year Steve.

  9. Halden
    Jan 9, 2008

    Dr. Molnar, while I see your point I wonder how your view would deal with the issue of act and being. On your view it seems that God’s act and his being cannot coincide, but must be radically distinguished. In my limited knowledge of Barth, it seems to me that the identity of God’s act with his being is a fundamental axiom.

    Also, I continue to wonder what we might learn if we admit Balthasar to this conversation. Balthasar certainly holds that “kenosis, self-surrender, is simply and precisely what it is to be the Son”. However, this does not make the incarnation “necessary” for God, rather this “primal kenosis” is the immanent ground of the economic between which there is no dissonance whatsoever.

  10. Paul Molnar
    Jan 9, 2008


    I fully accept Barth’s view that God’s being and act are one. I do not distinguish God’s being and act since God is who he is in his eternal act as Father, Son and Spirit in se and ad extra. What I distinguish is God’s being and act within the eternal Trinity and his free actions for us in the economy. God would still be who he is even if he never acted for us; nonetheless he did indeed act for us in his Word and Spirit. But Barth rightly insists that God’s actions ad extra cannot be reduced to his actions for us. I hope that makes sense. The decisive quote I have in mind is from II/1 260-1:

    “When we ask questions about God’s being, we cannot in fact leave the sphere of His action and working as it is revealed to us in His Word. God is who He is in His works. He is the same even in Himself, even before and after and over His works, and without them. They are bound to Him, but He is not bound to them. They are nothing without Him. But He is who He is without them. He is not therefore, who He is only in His works. Yet in Himself He is not another than He is in His works. In light of what He is in His works it is no longer an open question what He is in Himself . . . there is no possibility of reckoning with the being of any other God, or with any other being of God, than that of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as it is in God’s revelation and in eternity.”

    So, I fully agree that God’s act is his being. But one must distinguish between God’s eternal triune acts and God’s free actions ad extra.

    I am no expert in Balthasar’s theology. But I personally have a problem speaking of a “primal kenosis” as did Barth himself (See Barth’s statements about kenosis in CD II/1, 516 where he says the “self-emptying” does not refer to the Son’s divine being). Certainly the fact that God can and does condescend to us in the incarnation, suffering and death of Jesus has its primal basis within the immanent Trinity. But when one says that “kenosis, self-surrender, is simply what it is to be the Son” then one fails to distinguish the fact that the Son was indeed Son prior to the incarnation and could have remained who he was without condescending to become one of us out of self-surrendering love. One could say this of the incarante Son: “kenosis, self-surrender, is simply what it is to be the incarnate Son”. But that is a different statement. I hope that too makes sense.

    Best wishes.

  11. Halden
    Jan 9, 2008

    I guess the point that I see Balthasar making is that the primal kenosis and self-surrender within the immanent Trinity is precisely why the being of God is not ultimately bound by history. Self-surrender and kenosis are not simply what happens in the historical incarnation of Christ, but what has eternally been actualized in the immanent relations of the Son and the Father.

    I ultimately see no problem in saying that the Son was the Son prior to the incarnation and that kenosis and self-surrender eternal define the Son’s being. Otherwise I fear we willy-nilly end up saying that the Son’s eternal being as the Son is something other than his revealedness in kenotic humility. The only way that saying that “kenosis, self-surrender, is simply what it is to be the Son” would be problematic would be if kenosis and self-surrender only took place in the historical incarnation. However, if they are eternal realities that are manifested in the incarnation then I fail to see how this statement imperils the eternal Sonship of the Son.

  12. Paul Molnar
    Jan 9, 2008

    In the sense of Phil. 2, kenosis refers to the one who was in the form of God and did not grasp at that, but took the form of a slave becoming human as we are. There are two distinct forms of the Son’s existence referred to here. By eternalizing the incarnate form (kenosis) you blur the distinction between God in himself and God for us. What difference does that make? It clearly means that the Son’s form as God is reduced to his incarnate existence. Everything in the doctrine of God is really at stake here. There is no “primal kenosis within the immanent Trinity”. Rather, the Son did not grasp at his equality with God within the immanent Trinity and so did not remain only God on high but chose to and became one of us for our salvation. In fact, to say that “kenosis, self-surrender, is simply what it is to be the Son” just fails to note what kenosis actually means and falsely assumes that the Son is only and always incarnate! That is excatly the error of confusing the immanent and economic Trinity that Barth was trying to avoid (correctly in my view). Kenosis therefore is not an “eternal reality” that is “manifested in the incarnation”. The Son of God incarnate now lives eternally in his true humanity and true divinity and we participate in his eternal being by virtue of his gracious condescension. But that is a far cry from saying that kenosis is an eternal reality, because that statement implies that the Son was always incarnate. And that obviates the incarnation as a free new act of God for us. Any implication that God was always incarnate in my view is a retreat to a form of Arianism. So there is a huge problem in saying that the Son was the Son prior to the incarnation AND that kenosis and self-surrender eternally define the Son’s being because if that is true, then the Son who pre-exists the incarnation is no longer equal to God. Just as the Father is always Father and not always creator, so the Son is always Son but not always incarnate. These very basic issues were central to the Arian debates.

  13. Halden
    Jan 10, 2008

    If what you argue is true then it seems that the kenosis of the Son in the incarnation does not really reveal his being, but rather veils it. If the the Son’s kenotic humility in the incarnation is not simply the temporal manifestation of the eternal “humanity of God”, then I fear you have introduced a fundamental dissonance between God’s revelation in the economy and his immanent being. I’m just not comfortable with positing an abstract logos in the immanent being of God that is different than what we see in Jesus.

  14. Paul Molnar
    Jan 10, 2008

    You have missed the point. The logos we meet in Jesus is both veiled and unveiled (especially veiled on the cross and revealed in his resurrection). The fact that the incarnate logos reveals that God loves us means that God is certainly capable of the self-humiliation that took place on our behalf in Jesus. What God is in Jesus he is eternally in himself. But he is revealed as both impassible as God and passible as God incarnate, as T. F. Torrance rightly maintains following the early church fathers. There is no abstract logos in God’s immanent being who is “different than what we see in Jesus”; it is the same logos in a different form.

  15. Halden
    Jan 10, 2008

    “What God is in Jesus he is eternally in himself.”

    Ok, but “what God is in Jesus” involves kenosis and self-surrender. Therefore it seems like we have to say in some sense that kenosis and self-serrender are rooted in the life of the immanent Trinity. This does not require us to say that the form of kenosis in the incarnation is not distinct from the immanent eternal kenosis between the persons of the Trinity, only that there is no dissonance between them and that the later fits seamlessly into the former.

  16. Paul Molnar
    Jan 10, 2008

    I agree with most of your formulation. “In some sense . . . kenosis and self-surrender are rooted in the life of the immanent Trinity”. This is beyond dispute. But that to me does not mean there is “an immanent eternal kenosis between the persons of the Trinity” because by definition kenosis refers to the self-emptying (i.e. the fact that the Son did not grasp at divinity and became a slave) which the triune God freely undertakes on our behalf. T. F. Torrance puts it all very nicely when he says that the “atoning work of the incarnate Son falls within the inner life of the Holy Trinity” so that it took place within the historical life of Jesus “but it also took place in God . . . The cross is a window opened into the very heart of God. The fact that the Father did not spare his only Son but delivered him up for us all . . . tells us that in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross it was the Father as well as the Son who paid the cost of our salvation, so that through the blood of Christ the innermost natue of God the Father as holy love became revealed to us. However, we must also say that as the incarnate Son is of one and the same being as God the Father, so the atoning act perfected in the cross of Jesus Christ is grounded in the very being of the eternal God, that is, in the eternal being of the Holy Trinity”. Torrance goes on to say that it was not the Father who was crucified but the Son in distinction from the Father but that the Son’s suffering was not just human but divine and “in fact is to be regarded as the suffering of God himself” (The Mediation of Christ, 112-13). So atonement is rooted in the eternal Trinity. But to speak of an eternal kenosis of the three persons of the Trinity seems to me to blur the fact that kenosis is what God underwent for our sakes.

  17. WTM
    Jan 11, 2008

    Could we say that God’s activity ad extra and pro nobis is included within but not exhaustive of God’s living and active life ad intra and a se?

  18. Steve H
    Jan 11, 2008

    Sorry not to be around for a couple of days, folks…
    George, you are right, of course, to say that this decision (problem//mystery) needs to be made in developing a theology. My point was not to try to develop a theology, but to indicate that here ( the relationship between God’s being and His act of creation) we have something that is not straightforward, but is–either a problem or a mystery. St Thomas thinks it is a problem, and that he can solve it, I think; I take Barth to regard it as a mystery; as does Bruce, I think.
    My own view? Two years ago I would have said ‘problem’, confident that Edwards’ formulation of differing forms of necessity was an adequate answer. I am now less confident of that…

  19. Paul Molnar
    Jan 12, 2008


    It might be better to say that God’s activity ad extra and pro nobis is really God present and acting within history so that our history is really included within but does not exhaust God’s living and active life ad intra and a se. It is the life of God ad intra that encounters us in the economy but that life is not reduced to and does not become dependent upon the economy. Does that make sense?

  20. George Hunsinger
    Jan 12, 2008

    In discussing transubstantiation Thomas states that the conversio, that occurring in transubstantiation involves “far more difficulties than does creation” (ST 3a. 75, 8). For whereas creation involved “just the one difficulty that something comes from nothing” (ST 3a. 75, 8), transubstantiation involved at least two difficulties.

    I take this to mean that for Thomas these “difficulties” (difficilia) are to be retained, not resolved. If so, Thomas makes my point.

    I agree with Paul’s reply to WTM. But I think WTM’s formulation would be fine as it stands, as long as we remember that the “inclusion” occurs by grace alone.

  21. Andrew Moody
    Jan 16, 2008

    Dr Molnar,

    I think that one of the problems here is that we find it almost impossible to find corollaries of economic trinitarian patterns in the immanent trinity simply because we cannot conceive of “events” as such in eternity. Thus if we say that the kenosis of the incarnation is somehow relates to what goes on in eternity – what on earth could that mean?

    But can I suggest two tentative possibilities which would not necessitate the incarnation;

    1. Immanent Kenosis could mean that each Person directs/deflects the love of the other toward the third: as a good father wants his children – not simply to love him but to love their mother – so (eg.) the Father tells the Spirit to regard the Son, the Son tells the Spirit to regard the Father …and so around the circle. This picture fits with Richard of St Victor and has recently been developed by Rowan Williams’ writing on John of the Cross. I think it also fits well with the relations of mutual honouring seen in John’s gospel.

    2. Immanent Kenosis could mean that in the free acts of the Godhead, the Son chooses to do what the Father decides rather than any other action that would be presented to him by the divine nature/will.
    Maximus the Confessor says that will is natural but decisions of will can only occur at the level of hypostasis. Thus if God makes free choices from within the possibilities presented by his will (eg. to create or not), that choosing has to be made by the persons. Some kind of “social” interaction would thus seem to be necessary and kenosis-of-decision would appear to fit best with the pattern of Father-Son relations seen in the incarnation.

  22. Geordie Ziegler
    Mar 9, 2008

    Did this conversation continue somewhere, or on another blog? I was finding it very helpful….

  23. N Hitchcock
    Mar 20, 2008

    My sentiments too – this string is among the more illuminating in cyberspace. I’d also like to know if Bruce’s lectures will be available in the near future in electronic or print form. There are others tinkering (however cautiously) with Reformed conceptions of kenosis…


  1. Bruce McCormack’s TF Torrance Lectures - Lecture 4 « Per Crucem ad Lucem - [...] the full post here. I have linked to all of Steve’s notes here, and I hope to post my…

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