The Great Reversal: From the Economy of God to the Trinity in Modern Theology (McCormack Kantzer Lecture 3)

Bruce McCormack’s third Kantzer Lecture, “The Great Reversal: From the Economy of God to the Trinity in Modern Theology,” continued his overview of the historical development of the doctrine of God by looking at several important figures in Modern theology: Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Ritschl, and Barth (notably passing over both Medieval and Reformation developments). McCormack sees several key features that characterize Modern theology. First, the content of revelation and the being of God were seen as identical to one another. And second, classical theism (and its metaphysics) were replaced by anthropological metaphysics. Quite often, theologians see this overcoming of classical metaphysics as a victory of Modern theology, but McCormack was not so quick to appropriate this victory, for he wondered whether Modern theology merely exchanged one instance of anthropologizing for another. What is needed, he suggested, was an ontology in which God in his acts is both the starting point and the ending point of theological talk. For McCormack, the shifts in Modern theology, which find their pinnacle in Karl Barth, put a definitive end to the theologian’s enslavement to both ancient and modern metaphysics. To speak intelligibly of Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Ritschl (Hermann), and Barth in just over an hour (with sophistication and precision) was a task that only a giant of a theologian such as McCormack could pull off.

McCormack began by explicating what he sees in Spinoza as a natural theology without remainder. Spinoza did not want to affirm that anything about God could be learned from special revelation. Additionally, rather than a subject freely acting to bring the world into being, Spinoza’s God was the one and only substance which contains all things in itself. There are no other substances, and all finite things are modes of the one ultimate substance. None of these modes of substance are causally self-sufficient; indeed, the definition of substance consists precisely in being causally self-sufficient (thus God as the only substance). Moreover, on Spinoza’s concept of God, there are no possible worlds; any conception of freedom (of humans or of God) was ultimately too anthropomorphic. God acts out of the necessity of his nature. McCormack noted that the apparent value of Spinoza lied in the explanatory value of his entire system.

Next, McCormack moved to Kant, who he notes often brings fear to many evangelicals because of a reading of him which makes him out to be a skeptic. However, this picture is not entirely accurate. Kant represents the end of classical metaphysics, and as McCormack noted, the extent to which this critique of metaphysics succeeds depends on how successful Kant’s epistemology is. Kant critiqued the classical doctrine of God by suggesting that it if human knowledge is limited to the world of sensible knowing, no true knowledge of God is possible. As a side note, McCormack made a brief comment suggesting that Schleiermacher made the corrections needed to uphold the lasting influence of Kant. But, Kant’s weakness was that he operated with fixed, a priori set of categories.

Hegel realized that theology could not survive on agnosticism. On Hegel’s view, God is only known through God—that is, through human participation in God’s knowing himself. Only that which is finite is to be considered other than God; yet, the infinite subject can only achieve consciousness through taking up the human consciousness into itself. That is to say, God’s otherness must be realized in a concrete human life. McCormack made the point that–contra many readers of Hegel–Hegel was concerned with doing Christian theology through his entire project. As such, Jesus Christ is the divine self-revelation and the history of God’s self-knowing. In becoming a human subject, God takes human existence into his own being, killing death. Of course, as McCormack noted, this may seem like speculative theology with no basis in Scripture. And while this may be the case, for him, it is no further away from Scripture than classical metaphysics. At the same time, there is an echo of Hegel in the biblical depiction of Christ conquering death. Importantly, Hegel’s view of divine freedom is not a problem for McCormack. While creation and incarnation are necessary for God, Hegel buys Spinoza’s definition of freedom which means that God is free from any external restrictions.

Turning to Ritschl, McCormack argued that the biblical scholar became a Biblicist in his quest to avoid the pitfalls of Hegel in the search for a personal God. For Ritschl, things exist in their relationships, and there is no ultimate reality standing behind the thing as it appears in reality.  This is important for his doctrine of God, because there is nothing that stands behind God in his action in history. God is known through Jesus alone. McCormack noted that Ritschl was not comfortable saying that God is what he does, but he hinted in this direction. The reason for this, per McCormack, is that Ritschl failed to cast off the last least of metaphysics from his thinking.

McCormack concluded with his theological hero, Karl Barth, whose 2nd edition of his Roman’s commentary is what McCormack takes to be the greatest anti-metaphysical treatise in the history of theology. Barth avoids what plagued those before him by refusing to begin with God as an abstract, absolute subject. Instead, he starts with Christology, letting God’s history determine and control what is said about God’s being. God is known through God; the economic Trinity makes known the immanent Trinity.

In his conclusion, McCormack made an important distinction between being anti- and post-metaphysical. To be anti-metaphysical is to take a polemical stance against theology’s corruption by metaphysics (be they Greek or modern); such a stance is solely negative and fails to make any constructive move as a feasible alternative. In contrast, a post-metaphysical approach realizes that ontology is not (necessarily) metaphysical. Rather, to ground ontology in history is to ask what must be true of God (who and what God must be) because Jesus God incarnate in this history. That is, postmetaphysical theology is able to turn the corner towards the home stretch of a theology without the baggage of metaphysics but with an ontology that takes account of the history of God in Christ.


About James R. Gordon

I did my PhD at Wheaton College in Systematic Theology, and I currently teach in the Philosophy Department at Wheaton College.
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One Response to The Great Reversal: From the Economy of God to the Trinity in Modern Theology (McCormack Kantzer Lecture 3)

  1. Robbie says:

    Great summary, James. Thanks for that.

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