Book: The Humility of the Eternal Son: Reformed Kenoticism and the Repair of Chalcedon by Bruce Lindley McCormack
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, 2021.
Overview: The first in a trilogy, Bruce Lindley McCormack’s new book is a brilliant effort to “repair” Chalcedonian and construct a Reformed kenoticism. The aim is ambitious: not only to solve the internal contradictions of the Chalcedonian Definition but to pick up where Barth left off and the post-Barthians stumbled: with a Reform kenotic Christology. The book will undoubtedly be epoch-making in the field of Christology.
This is an incredibly ambitious book, the first in a trilogy of equally ambitious works of constructive theology. In this first volume, McCormack aims to “repair” Chalcedon with an innovative Reformed kenotic Christology. The second volume will be on divine ontology and the doctrine of the Trinity. The third volume will be on the atonement. The overall goal for the series, as McCormack explains, is “to construct a personal ontology of the triune God that takes as its starting point the act of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ; a Christologically based ontology, then.” 1
Bruce McCormack has earned a reputation as a renowned scholar of Karl Barth, if not an uncontroversial one. But this new book is a tour de force of critical and historical scholarship, together with brilliant constructive originality. If McCormack is right in what he proposes, which I think he is, then it will be a game-changer for the future of Christology.
McCormack’s book establishes two basic claims, as he explains: “[F]irst, the eternal Son has an essential relation to the personal life of Jesus. Second, the nature of that relation is best understood in terms of ‘ontological receptivity.” 2
The Chalcedonian Definition of 451 established a “two-nature” Christology, wherein Christ is defined as truly God and truly man in a hypostatic union. This is a widely agreed-upon definition, but issues arise with how exactly such a reality is possible, and what it means for the doctrine of God. Those controversies do not need to be repeated here, as McCormack does an excellent job at presenting that history in the book. The second issue is kenotic Christology, which is based on the hymn from Philippians 2:7 where Christ is said to have “emptied himself” in the incarnation.
What I think is at the heart of both issues is the question: What is normative for the doctrine of God? Indeed, as McCormack notes, this volume is clearly pointing towards its completion in the doctrine of God.
And this question originates, as so many theological questions do, with Karl Barth. Central to Barth’s theology is the insight that who God is and what it is to be divine is something we must learn from where God has revealed Godself, in the event of revelation: Jesus Christ. But if that is the case, then this calls into question the metaphysical doctrine of God. Barth frequently critiqued this “abstract” God of human speculation. In the words of T. F. Torrance, for Barth, “There is no God ‘behind the back’ of Jesus Christ.” Yet such a God has been posited by theology in the traditional “attributes” of God which are metaphysically established rather than Christologically.
This is at the heart of the problem of Christology, too. Because either we define the Christ-event according to our presupposed definition of what God must be, via speculation or philosophical reasoning, or we follow Barth’s approach to define God exclusively in terms of Jesus Christ.
But then what exactly can be “translated” back up into God from the divine-human event of Jesus Christ? Was Jesus eternally flesh, or became flesh? And how could an eternal Logos become flesh without ceasing to be divine? And what about the suffering of Jesus? What should we make of the suffering of the man Jesus in relation to divine impassibility? And where does the kenosis, self-emptying, of Christ in Philippians 2 come into all this?
McCormack begins by noting Barth’s unfinished exploration of this very issue in Church Dogmatics IV, especially IV/1. McCormack writes about a particular passage in CD IV/1, “Rarely has there appeared in Christian theological history a passage more pregnant with momentous possibilities than this one.” 3 The section he is referring to reads:
If the humility of Christ is not simply an attitude of the man Jesus of Nazareth, if it is the attitude of the man because […] there is a humility grounded in the being of God, then something else is grounded in the being of God himself. […] If, then, God is in Christ, if what the man Jesus does is God’s own work, this aspect of the self-emptying and self-humbling of Jesus Christ as an act of obedience cannot be alien to God. But in this case we have to see here the other and inner side of the mystery of the divine nature of Christ and therefore of the nature of the one true God—that He Himself is also able and free to render obedience.” 4
As McCormack notes, Barth is indicating the mystery of Christ’s deity, not simply his humanity. Thus, there must be a divine humility that exists in God, and not simply in Jesus as a human in time. As Barth further writes, “for God it is just as natural to be lowly as to be high, to be near as to be far…” 5 This famous passage indicates a method of reading, according to McCormack, the “lived relation of the Son to the Father characteristic of the Son’s mission in time back into the eternal processions—given that humility and obedience are grounded in the being of God.” 6 Accordingly, Barth seems to indicate that in the being of God there is an eternal humility and obedience attributed to the Son that is then realized in time.
This insight opens the door to many possibilities. As McCormack rightly notes, it is a theologically “pregnant” passage. Barth’s dismissal of divine impassibility is one such avenue of development, which was picked up by post-Barthian theologians such as Jüngel and Moltmann. If God is defined only where God has revealed Godself, in and through the person of Jesus Christ, then the speculative metaphysical doctrine of God arrived at in isolation of Jesus must be called into question. This becomes a necessity because of Barth’s own theological project, especially according to his theological “rule” that “statements about the divine modes of being antecedently in themselves cannot be different in content from those that are to be made about their reality in revelation.” 7 In other words, there can be no metaphysical “gap” between the immanent and economic Trinity.
This point is vital. The metaphysical “gap” is retained in much of Chalcedonian theology. Yet that also led to many contradictory and problematic assertions about the doctrine of God. How can an impassible God suffer? St. Cyril’s an/en-hypostasis is a common solution to the question but one that McCormack (rightly) finds problematic because Christ’s humanity becomes instrumentalized in the process. But Barth’s theology opens up a new pathway for Christology and kenoticism, in which McCormack sees the promise of a repair to Chalcedon. Though it should be noted here that McCormack sees himself as going beyond Barth, even contradicting him, in his book.
With this task before him, McCormack turns to the historical development of Christology. He begins with the Chalcedonian Definition, paying close attention to its development in the work of Origen, Apollinaris of Laodicea, Gregory of Nazianus, and most of all, Cyril of Alexandria. Then McCormack discusses Kenotic theology in Isaak Dorner and others. This part establishes the historical background to the issue that Barth and the post-Barthian theologians were attempting to resolve, each with their own efforts to repair Chalcedon.
The most interesting chapters were the two that followed. First, on the attempts at “repair” by Karl Barth, Sergius Bulgakov, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. McCormack finds much from each theologian worthy of praise but notes their weaknesses as well. Then he turns to two “post-Barthian” theologians, Robert Jenson and Eberhard Jüngel. Both offer a fascinating attempt to take Barth’s Christology further, though McCormack is critical of the final result. As a side-note, McCormack demonstrates how Jüngel’s reading of Barth was the first to observe many of the same insights presented in his own reading, which has been greatly discussed and misunderstood via the so-called companion controversy.
After these theologians are discussed, McCormack turns to scripture. He offers a masterful examination of Paul and the kenotic hymn of Philippians 2, as well as studying the synoptic gospels and Johannine “Logos” Christology. Karl Barth’s lectures on John 1 were particularly interesting. McCormack notes how, in his interpretation, Barth:
closed the door firmly on any attempt to find in John 1:1 a wholly abstract conception of the Word […] For John, there is no Word as such, no eternal Word in himself that is not already defined by his relation to the Jesus who is still to come. And that means too that the only-begotten Son is already in himself, in pretemporal eternity, Jesus Christ by way of anticipation of the event of incarnation in time. 8
There is no God as such, no Son in the abstract, without the anticipation of becoming human in Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, the Christological “two-subject” division of the Logos and Jesus is rejected in favor of a one-subject Christology. 9 Thus, the man Jesus is not something “added” to the divine being but an act anticipated from before all time in the Son. Accordingly, the man Jesus of Nazareth is proper to the being of the second person of the Trinity, not alien to the Son’s divinity.
It is important to see this as the fruit of biblical exegesis, not empty speculation. The New Testament has no concept of a two-subject Christology and emphasized instead the unity of the God-human in Christ. In other words, Jesus of Nazareth must be proper to the eternal identity of the God of Israel. As McCormack notes, “Jesus is the Word both in eternity (by anticipation) and in time (in concrete realization).” 10
We can also see how this follows the logic of Barth’s theology, but what remains is a reconstruction of how this unity should be conceptualized. For this, McCormack establishes a pneumatological Christology centered around the Son’s “ontological receptivity.”
In the place of a two-subject Christology, McCormack posits “the existence of a single composite hypostasis, constituted in time by means of what I call ‘ontological receptivity’ of the eternal Son to the ‘act of being’ proper to the human Jesus as human.” 11 Thus, the Son’s ontological receptivity results in an “eternal act of ‘identification’ on the part of the Logos with the human Jesus to be constitutive of his identity as the second ‘person’ of the Trinity even before the actual uniting occurs.” 12 In other words, the Son is, from eternity, in possession of a “humanity” by anticipation. The unity becomes realized in time through the incarnation, but there was never a time when the Son was not with a determination for the incarnation. Thus, as McCormack writes, “He bears in himself a relation to the Jesus who will come. Thus, the second ‘person’ of the Trinity has and always has had a name. His name is Jesus Christ.” 13 The Logos asarkos is thus never an independent Logos. McCormack does affirm this doctrine, but with a correction: “the true Logos asarkos was never without the determination for incarnation.” 14 Thus, as eternally generated, the second person of the Trinity already has a relation to Jesus of Nazareth in anticipation of becoming incarnate in time. And thus, also a relation to the world of human beings.
The connection between this insight and McCormack’s reading of Barth should be clear for those who are familiar with it. This is not the place to rehash that argument here, but I tend to think McCormack is correct in his reading, though it is not only his, as we noted above on Jüngel’s anticipation of it.
Central to McCormack’s proposal is the “ontological receptivity” of the Son of God to Jesus of Nazareth. McCormack is quick to note that receptivity is not passivity. He compares this with Cyril’s approach, but the traffic flows in reverse. Now it is Jesus of Nazareth in the power of the Holy Spirit who acts, who is the “performative agent of all that is done by the God-human.” 15 The unity of the Christological subject is again reasserted with this. It is important to note the vital role of the Holy Spirit. What the man Jesus does is performed in the power of the Holy Spirit, rather than as an instrument of the divine Logos. The Logos is united to the man Jesus and is thus receptive to the human experience of Jesus. As McCormack explains: “the Logos never acted through or upon Jesus but was united to him solely for the purpose of taking all that Jesus did and experienced and therefore is ‘up’ into his own life.” 16
The Son of God can become human because there is an essential determination to be incarnate; because Jesus of Nazareth is proper to the being of God. Thus, God is true to Godself in becoming human and not untrue because this “receptivity” is “an essential determination of the Son.” 17 Accordingly, the “one history of the God-human begins as divine and ends as human.” 18 This is not God in the human being but God as human. Thus, what the Son is in himself (in anticipation), he experiences and realizes in time.
The ontological receptivity of the Son is McCormack’s interpretation of divine kenosis or “self-emptying.” He explains:
The divine kenosis born witness to in Phil. 2:6-8 simply is ontological receptivity. I call it ‘ontological’ because receptivity belongs to the lived existence of the Logos as the second person of the Trinity and does not begin at the point at which the Holy Spirit unites the Logos to human flesh in the womb of the Virgin. 19
Thus, Jesus of Nazareth belongs to the eternal identity of the God of Israel. The New Testament speaks of Jesus as a human who is worshiped as God, and thus as somehow belonging to God’s being from eternity.
If Jesus of Nazareth is proper to the identity of the God of Israel in his mode of being as Son, that is because a relation to him is proper to the Son as Son. The Son’s receptivity towards all that comes to him via the concrete, lived existence of Jesus in time is the consequence of the fact that the properties of the human Jesus belong to him ‘by nature.’ They are considered ‘personal’ properties of the Logos; they do not constitute an addition. And so the entire classical discussion was carried out on altogether the wrong basis—and with the wrong goal in view. The goal is not to get the divine immortality and impassibility into the human but to understand the humanity of the Logos. 20
Here we return to an observation we made earlier about divine impassibility. McCormack is right to stress that the goal must not be to impose a prior definition of God onto the person of Jesus Christ but to learn of God according to God’s self-revelation in the God-human. Naturally, this means that the presupposed metaphysics of God’s simplicity and impassibility cannot be sustained. That is a subject McCormack will return to in his next volume.
Of vital importance is McCormack’s rejection of God “as such,” which Barth also rejected. This is the God of ancient Christian metaphysics. Indeed, McCormack writes, “[T]he entire aim of my Christological reconstruction has been to show that this God does not exist and never did.” 21 The consequences of Barth’s rejection of a God “as such” is fully realized in McCormack’s Christological proposal.
The result is something quite beautiful: that there was never a time in which the Son did not determine to be incarnate in time; that the properties of the human Jesus belong to the second person of the Trinity by nature. This continues a profound insight in Barth’s theology, that God does not will be to God without us. The doctrine of election is thus a central undertone to all of this. The Christological consequences of Barth’s thought were not fully or consistently developed in CD IV, but with McCormack’s constructive work in this volume, we have a profound and innovative conclusion. Ontological receptivity stikes me as a useful and eloquent solution to the issues at hand, together with a re-emphasis on a pneumatological Christology (with the Spirit’s role being often neglected in Christological reflections). And thus, I think McCormack has succeeded in his goal of “repairing” Chalcedon while remaining faithful to the spirit of the definition. And ultimately, he has moved things back to a strong basis in Scripture, as demonstrated with his careful exegesis.
Accordingly I think this book will be epoch-making in the field of Christology. It is a masterful work of constructive theology. Personally, I suspect I will return to it again and again. I must also admit that I am still processing the insights gained from it and am not sure how faithfully I have represented McCormack’s arguments here. So take what I’ve written as someone who is still trying to wrap their head around all of this, and thus with a grain of salt.
I cannot recommend the book enough, however. I hope my attempt at explaining McCormack’s thesis is enough to pique your interest enough to read it for yourself. Overall, I felt honored to read such an exciting book, and the forthcoming volumes will undoubtedly be just as superb.
My thanks to Cambridge University Press for a copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections here.
- The Humility of the Eternal Son, 6. ↩
- Ibid., 7 ↩
- Ibid., 9. ↩
- CD IV/1, 193. McCormack quotes a fuller version of this passage that I have trimmed here. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- The Humility of the Eternal Son, 10. ↩
- CD I/1, 479. Barth himself calls this a rule, as McCormack notes; Ibid., 2. ↩
- The Humility of the Eternal Son, 243. ↩
- Here McCormack follows Schleiermacher in arguing that the “two nature” designation should be dropped from our vocabulary, since it is inappropriate to flatly apply a “nature” to both divinity and humanity as if they were on the same plane of being. ↩
- Ibid., 244. ↩
- Ibid., 252. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., 253. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., 258 ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., 263 ↩
- Ibid., 263 ↩
- Ibid., 287. ↩
2 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Humility of the Eternal Son” by Bruce Lindley McCormack”
Such a helpful review; thanks immensely.
Yet another brilliant analysis and summary, telling why one would want to read the book, and showing as well the book’s importance for both academic theology and faith.