Is the Reformation Over? Reflections on the Place of the Doctrine of God in Evangelical Theology Today (McCormack Kantzer Lecture 1)

The Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School have begun! Bruce McCormack gave the first lecture Tuesday evening and started with a bang. He recently gave the Croall Lectures in Edinburgh (Jan, 2011) and has continued to stay busy through the writing of numerous other essays and hosting the Barth-Aquinas conference at PTS in June, among other things. Below is a brief summary of the lecture (don’t forget that you can watch the lectures live – see here).

McCormack began by speaking of the “radical erosion of doctrinal seriousness” over the last 20 years in many Protestant denominations. Core beliefs (e.g., penal substitution) no longer command allegiance and many others are being challenged. It becomes difficult for theologians to serve the church when theology is so often carried out in a “hot-house atmosphere” with emotions running high. McCormack is disappointed not only with the neglect of doctrine, but also with the quality of theological debates taking place (e.g. open theism; subordination). Systematic theology does well to think across doctrines and to understand the development of doctrine “from the inside” so to speak. Is the Reformation over?  McCormack hopes not, for the doctrine of God in evangelical theology is lacking.  McCormack demonstrated this thesis by discussing two “case-studies”: subordinationism and the McCall-Piper debate.

[McCormack left Kevin Giles’ work aside since he wanted to focus directly on the American debate. He also noted that Giles didn’t have the problems that he (McCormack) would soon address.]

There were two key sets of questions:
(1) Is the obedience of the Son to the will of his Father the result of a merely economic arrangement so that subordination is confined to the period where the incarnate Lord is carrying out his work? If so, then subordination has a beginning and end.

(2) Or, is the obedience of the Son to the Father eternal? Is it somehow intrinsic to the differentiation of the divine persons? Is it necessitated by the fact that the Son is generated by the Father?

The first represents the view of Millard Erickson and the second of Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem. Both sides claim that their opponents have departed from Nicene Christianity. Most striking to McCormack was the fact that both appeared to be blatantly ignorant of the best literature on Nicea (e.g. Ayres and others). Ware and Grudem presuppose, in their own ways, a kind of social trinitarianism that patristic specialists would not recognize as Nicene. Had Erickson been aware of this then it seems he would have pointed it out, but didn’t. At this point McCormack expressed his disagreement with social trinitarians and at one point stated: “Gregory of Nyssa stands much closer to Karl Barth than Jürgen Moltmann.” Furthermore, McCormack noted the importance 1 Cor 15:24-28 has for Ware and Grudem, but is convinced that their interpretation is faulty [this passage will be discussed in the upcoming lectures]. For Barth, eternal subordination is through the self-humiliation of the Son, but is not a subordination of one subject to another. Ware, McCormack says, is a true subordinationist and, with a grin, said he (McCormack) doesn’t want to hear or read anywhere that he affirms a form of subordinationism like Ware. A final surprise for McCormack was that both sides of the debate were willing to dispense with the eternal generation of the Son when the processions seem to have such clear biblical grounding and support from the tradition.

The second case study involved the debate between Tom McCall and John Piper on the aseity of God. I’m personally not familiar with the debate and won’t try and summarize the details. For starters, you can find the articles by McCall and Piper here, here, and here. In short, McCormack doesn’t agree with Piper but is more sympathetic to his position than that of McCall. (It’s worth noting that McCormack shared his personal trajectory from Arminian theology to Reformed “Barthian” theology) Both McCall and Piper are committed to exhaustive divine foreknowledge (so is McCormack). God knows all things perfectly and eternally and thus knows from all eternity what he will do. Knowing and willing are equally original in God. He knows what he wills and wills what he knows. Therefore, any talk of God choosing between “possible worlds” or having counterfactual knowledge is abstract and speculative. But if God knew he would create and willed to do so then was he obligated to create? No. God is not conditioned by anything that is not himself in creating. He is not dependent on creation. He lacks nothing. He acts out the fullness of his being and not because of any want or desire. There is one subject who has his being in his eternal act. The point: you cannot define words like necessity and freedom that apply to an utterly unique event except on the basis of the event itself. If you do, you allow created events to control their meaning and function.

McCormack concluded by asking: is the Reformation over? “I hope not, but the signs aren’t good.” Why did McCormack not focus on justification? Because a forensic account of justification cannot be defended without a theological ontology to go with it. As stated above, this ontology must be defined by the unique event and not by something outside of it.

Lectures 2 and 3 will focus on historical development in the doctrine of God. Lecture 4 will look at Scripture. Lectures 5 – 7 will include doctrinal construction. Needless to say, I’m quite excited to hear the remaining lectures and see where this will go.

More summaries will follow.

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About Jordan P. Barrett

PhD, Systematic Theology, Wheaton College
This entry was posted in Conferences and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Is the Reformation Over? Reflections on the Place of the Doctrine of God in Evangelical Theology Today (McCormack Kantzer Lecture 1)

  1. Brilliant, thanks for this superb summary.

  2. Richard Brown says:

    I was greatly impressed, both by the insight and coherence of the lectures, and by the clarity and understanding of the summaries on this blog. It is amazing that after 2000 years of theological reflection, there is still space to make advances like this in the doctrine of God. I look forward to reading the book with great anticipation.

  3. Andy Rowell says:

    Thanks for this excellent summary of Lecture #1. Here are my tweets about it:

    Bruce McCormack’s Kantzer lecture #1: Vanhoozer intro. M takes on Grudem, Ware, Erickson, @JohnPiper. http://www.henrycenter.org/programs/kantzer-lectures/

    McCormack, a Barth scholar from Princeton Seminary, laments the growth of the Evangelical-Catholic agenda in theology. (Kantzer lecture #1).

    McCormack decries social trinitarianism of Moltmann/Volf as tritheistic and says people need to read “Nicaea and Its Legacy” by Lewis Ayres.

    RT @jonestony “@AndyRowell Oh, geez. Tri-theism? Puhleeze.” / Tony jumps in to defend his man Moltmann.

    Good summaries of Bruce McCormack’s Sept 2011 Kantzer Lectures at https://wheatonblog.wordpress.com/tag/kantzer-lectures/ from @WheatonBlog Audio/Video: http://www.henrycenter.org/programs/kantzer-lectures/

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