Bruce McCormack’s TFT Lectures (5): Evaluation

How to evaluate McCormack’s novel account of kenosis? I want to make two comments. The first is that I think it is at least potentially defensible when judged according to the canons of classical (Reformed) orthodoxy. I do not think there is any major doctrinal decision that it offends against, although on one point I was left with the feeling that more work was needed to establish the defence. The second comment is that I was not convinced by Bruce’s account of the pressure towards a revision of doctrine in this area. Very simply, I think his account of kenosis can be held, but it need not be: it remains open, in my view, to hold to the classical formulations of Christology without the need to revise them, and, personally, this would be my preferred position.

This all needs much elaboration. Let me first address my assertion of the orthodoxy of Bruce’s proposal. It seems to me that the most obvious criticisms, and certainly the ones Bruce indicated had been most prevalent, concern the doctrine of the Trinity. However, it seems to me that with a clear-headed grasp of the contours of Trinitarian dogma we can see how Bruce’s proposals are, not just orthodox within those contours, but significantly more so than many other recent accounts of Trinitarian doctrine.

The essential patristic claim about the Trinity is that all properties are held in common, save only the personal properties of begetting, being-begotten, and proceeding. If we read McCormack’s account of kenosis as an account of what it is to be begotten, i.e., as the personal property of the Son, then it meets this canon with ease. Dorner’s great criticism, which destroyed nineteenth-century kenoticism, insisted that either the Son gives up divine properties and so ceases to be divine, or we are forced to confess a kenotic Father alongside a kenotic Son, but if kenosis is a—the—personal property of the Son, then neither claim obtains. Self-emptying is the personal mode of the Son’s divine omnipotence, and so on. There are some details down the road that need dealing with, but it seems to me that the basic position is securely orthodox, certainly much more so than all of the recent theology that, misled by the word ‘Person’, insists on finding three instances of many or most divine properties (will; operation; knowledge; …) within the Godhead.

What about the criticism that McCormack makes trinity dependent on election, or somesuch phrase? I confess to finding it a difficult criticism to parse theologically. God’s act is unitary, and identical with His being; if what God is is trinity, and what God does is election, then it is necessary to assert a fairly strict identity between trinity and election. Bruce does this convincingly, as far as I can see. (Personally, I would want to work harder at the ‘what God does is election’ premise—I am more and more convinced that Barth is at least unhelpful on this point, although one of my doctoral students has just convinced me that probably he doesn’t fall into any of the traps he opens up himself.) Only if we assume that God’s act is somehow an accidental accretion to His being can any form of this criticism stand—but that would be to depart completely, albeit fashionably, from the traditional Christian doctrine of God.

If there is a criticism which is in danger of sticking, I think it is to do with creation. We often, and misleadingly, tell our undergraduates that the distinction between the begetting of the Son and creatio ex nihilo is that one is a necessary act and the other a free act. If that were at all an adequate account of the situation, then Bruce’s proposal would have serious problems. However, as I pointed out in the previous post, the affirmation that God’s being is His act is basic to all classical theology, and so such shorthand accounts are deeply misleading. Hence we find throughout the tradition attempts to specify in a more sophisticated way the underlying distinction.

The most popular form of such attempts in a Reformed tradition is to press at distinctions between different sorts of necessity, as Barth himself does. In conversation with Bruce, I became convinced that he could offer an adequate defence along these lines that was no more problematic than many others; I did not think that defence was yet in place in the lectures as delivered, though.

Thus I believe that McCormack’s account of kenosis is, or at least could easily be rendered, orthodox. Is it, however, compelling? Alongside the constructive work in these lectures was a line of critique of classical Christology which established the need for the fresh construction. Simply and bluntly, I found this critique unconvincing. It was, in essence, Herrmann’s critique of metaphysics: the problem with Christology prior to Schleiermacher was its investment in certain metaphysical commitments that were alien to the gospel. This led to irreconcilable tensions, in patristic Christology, which only Cyril’s (supposed) Origenism allowed him to escape, and throughout the tradition into the nineteenth century, with the incompatibility of the anhypostasia and dithelitism coming to the fore. It is these metaphysical commitments, giving rise to the tensions they do, that drive the need for a revisionist Christology.

I have indicated in the course of my comments that I found both the specific accounts of difficulties unconvincing, for different reasons. More basically, I find Herrmann’s overall assessment unconvincing. Bruce devoted a significant amount of time—ten minutes, perhaps—in his third lecture to arguing that Barth’s use of metaphysical or idealistic language was merely ad hoc and demonstrated no commitment to the underlying systems. I am prepared to be convinced of this, or at least of a slightly more nuanced account of the same point; but I am sure that the same could be equally well argued of the Cappadocians, Augustine, John Damascene, Anselm, St Thomas, the Palamite, Luther, Calvin, Quenstedt, Turretin, Suarez, and the rest. (On reflection, I’d give some ground on Nyssan, Anselm, Gregory Palamas, and Suarez if really forced!) I do not find irreconcilable tensions in classical Christology, nor to I find disastrous commitments to alien metaphysical schemes. I think that that debate was fought and won contra Eunomius in the fourth century, and I don’t see any evidence that the lesson was ever forgotten for long, or by the great figures in the tradition. So I don’t feel the pressure that is driving Bruce.

Let me end, though, where I began. Bruce’s Christological proposal is, in my estimation, more weighty and serious than almost anything else I have come across in recent English-language theology. In its striving for conceptual clarity and logical coherence, and its attention to the proper claims of the tradition, it demands and deserves—and repays—serious consideration. When I next teach on modern Christology, Jenson and McCormack will have a session to themselves, as representing magnificent reconceptualisations of either side of the Reformed-Lutheran divide. If I happen to agree with neither of them, that does not dent my enormous respect for both.


  1. Lucy
    Jan 7, 2008

    Thanks so much for doing this series. It was been very helpful. Here’s my concern:

    You claim that Bruce claims that kenosis is the personal property of the Son that he has as well as all the properties held in common by the Trinity. My question is how McCormack wants to relate kenosis to the common properties of the Trinity. Does not the language of kenosis mean that the Son gives up something? And does it not mean that he gives up (in some way, like non-use) the common properties of the Trinity?

    How can he say that 1) the Son possesses all the properties held in common AND 2) that the Son’s being simply is the act of kenosis? What is the Son emptying?

  2. Jon
    Jan 7, 2008

    How do you like Jungel’s critique of metaphysical theism?

    Thanks for this precis of the whole series – almost justifies me missing them all.

    Although, urban legend says that Prof McCormack was asking after me? Wonderful!

  3. Dan Treier
    Jan 7, 2008


    Just a quick word of thanks for typing out these summaries and thoughts. My mind is a jumble as to what to make of it all, but I surely appreciate the stimulating opportunity to work it through!

  4. Steve H
    Jan 8, 2008

    Hi again, Lucy,

    It’s a good question. Bruce went with something like the ‘willed non-use’ route, but I think he is doing something more interesting, and to my mind more defensible than that might suggest. ‘Willed non-use’ so crudely stated offends of course against the (fairly basic) classical claim that God is actus purissimus sine ulla potentia–‘non-use’ looking very like potentia in these terms.
    However, if we think of ‘chosen modes of use’ of the divine perfections, rather than ‘non-use’, we may get further. God does, after all, accomplish His purposes in the incarnation, and does so inevitably (election), which is most of what ‘omnipotence’ means, as far as I can see.
    This perhaps invites us to supplement the Cyrilline ‘apathos epathein’ (‘The impassible one suffers’) with language like ‘omnipotent weakness’. This is mine, not Bruce’s, but perhaps not an illegitimate development of his ideas.
    (This is the easy option, of course; ‘omniscient ignorance’ seems harder to make sense of, but there are other Christological resources for making sense of that.)

  5. Steve H
    Jan 8, 2008

    Hi Dan, welcome; hope all is well in Wheaton. I’m looking forward to reading your ‘Theological Interpretation’ book.

  6. George Hunsinger
    Jan 8, 2008

    For Barth the act in which the triune God has his being to all eternity is not only actus purus but also singularis.

    We cannot determine on a priori grounds what is or is not possible for God. See the magnificent statement in II/1, pp. 314-15 (and note the part about totus/totus).

    God is free to differentiate himself and determine himself in an inexhaustible variety of ways without ceasing to be who and what he is as God.

  7. Lucy
    Jan 8, 2008

    Yes, ‘chosen modes of use’ makes much more sense than ‘non-use,’ especially given Bruce’s actualism. Given that, I wonder if Bruce’s preference for the language of kenosis makes things more confusing than less.

    Invoking this language (and its traditions) seems inevitably to require adoption of the problems that made kenotic theology necessary in the first place, namely, how to reconcile God’s historical presence as a human being with the fact the that deity and humanity seem at odds with one another. Kenotic theology says that something on God’s side has to give in order for God to become incarnate.

    But Bruce wants to do away with the metaphysical presuppositions that would create this problem in the first place. If the Son simply is the One who will be/is incarnate then kenosis language just doesn’t work. The Son isn’t giving anything up in the incarnation, he is just being himself.

    If anything, given his election/Trinity proposal, I think McCormack wants something like a kenosis of the Father achieved in the Son. In eternity, the one Subject who God is (who McCormack has identified as the Father) elects himself for incarnation and pentecost. The Son and Spirit (and so the Father qua Father) are the ontological result of this election. The Son acheives the Father’s desired presence among his creatures. But given that election is constitutive of the being of God, for McCormack, the language of kenosis still doesn’t ‘work.’ There was nothing before election to empty.

    Kenosis language makes things more confusing.

  8. George Hunsinger
    Jan 10, 2008

    Kenotic theology says that something on God’s side has to give in order for God to become incarnate.

    There is more than one type of kenotic theology. One type holds that God needs to divest himself of some aspects of his deity in order to become incarnate. Another type denies that there is such divestment. It holds that God is free to become incarnate without ceasing in any sense to be God. Certain of God’s essential attributes are veiled in the process but not abandoned.

    For the second type, paradoxical language and dialectical modes of thought are indispensable in articulating this mystery. Although associated with Cyril of Alexandria, the language about God incarnate having “suffered impassibly,” for example, is found as early as Hyppolytus.

    God’s essential attributes are revealed in but not constituted by the Incarnation. Any attempt to define God’s essential attributes strictly on the basis of kenosis is doomed to a number of unacceptable outcomes, including subordinationism and the problems associated with Hegelianism.

  9. Lucy
    Jan 10, 2008


    Thanks for the clarification. What I hand in mind with ‘kenotic theology’ was specifically those of the Lutheran variety. The first type you mentioned, divestment of deity, the second-type I had in mind was that which affirms the non-use by the Logos of certain divine attributes according to his human nature. On this view, certain essential attributes are veiled by not being used, at least until the resurrection and exaltation. Bruce wants something like the second-type, with the qualification that the Son eternally, both in protology and eschatology, never uses his divine attributes according to his human nature.

    The problem this creates, for me, is how to know anything about these attributes if we don’t find them being used as the incarnate Christ. Kenotic christology, at least the varieties I am familiar with (I wouldn’t put Barth in this camp, for him kenosis was by addition–of a human nature–not subtraction (of divine attributes) seems burdened with the worry that God in his fullness is not capable of incarnation. The result, it seems to me, is that God’s fullness is not know.

  10. George Hunsinger
    Jan 10, 2008

    the non-use by the Logos of certain divine attributes according to his human nature

    I’m not entirely sure that this is a clear notion. The incarnate Logos would be using his divine attributes, but in ways that are surely beyond anything we can think or imagine. He would not be using them according to his human nature, by definition. His use of them would always be real though veiled to us. Even in relatively manifest displays of his divine power, he could not possibly be using his divine attributes according to his human nature.

    What worries me is the possibility of a position that, according to a dubious view of kenosis, would define the divine attributes of the Son on the basis of his kenosis. That would appear to be a third sort of view – one which tried to avoid the other two by defining Christ’s deity in terms of his humanity.

  11. George Hunsinger
    Jan 12, 2008

    I have done some further thinking about my last post. I can see that the phrase “according to his human nature” is more ambiguous than I first realized. It could mean “by virtue of his human nature” or else “in accord with his human nature.” I took it in the first sense, but it was probably meant in the second sense.

    I still don’t like the idea of the “non-use” of attributes. All we could know is that for the incarnate Logos, some of the divine attributes are not being used in a certain respect. Insofar as they are being used, they would necessarily be used by virtue of his divine nature, though always also in accord with his human nature. We can say that this must be the case, though I don’t think we can say how it is the case.

    Necessary phrases like he suffered impassibily stand like a flaming sword guarding a threshold that our minds cannot cross. All attempts to cross it lead to unacceptable outcomes.

    For example, Thomas V. Morris wrote a very good book years ago called The Logic of God Incarnate (1986). However, at one point he tried to explain how the divine mind was related to the human mind in the Incarnation. Many felt that his solution was unacceptably if unwittingly “Nestorian.”

    The moral of the story is to stick with description and avoid the impulse toward explanation.

    We need to comprehend the incomprehensibility of the Incarnation in its incomprehensibility, and that is challenge enough.

  12. Jon
    Jan 12, 2008

    Jungel *cough*

  13. Lucy
    Jan 14, 2008

    Nicely put, George.

  14. Luke T
    Jan 15, 2008

    Thanks for posting your ruminations on McCormack’s SJT lectures – I have thoroughly enjoyed them (not to mention the rest of your posts). I think, however, that your characterization of McCormack’s position as ‘something like “willed non-use”‘ is misleading. If I remember correctly, McCormack argued for an eternal/pure receptivity of the Son to what he receives from the human nature. Whereas most christologies have the Son’s divine nature exerting some force/influence on Jesus’ human nature (limited by some schema such as ‘willed non-use), McCormack only sees receptivity of the Son to what he receives from the human nature. Like it or lump it, this seems much different to me than ‘willed non-use’, indeed, different that traditional kenoticism, in that there is nothing there to use or empty – the decision for pure receptivity was willed before the foundation of the world.


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