The God Who Reveals Himself: The Mystery of the Trinity in the New Testament (McCormack Kantzer Lecture 4)

Bruce McCormack’s fourth Kantzer Lecture, “The God Who Reveals Himself: The Mystery of the Trinity in the New Testament,” turned from historical description to exegetical focus by looking at the New Testament conception of the doctrine of God. For McCormack, the Scripture principle (Sola Scriptura) is a distinctively Protestant contribution and the foundation upon which reform in the doctrine of God must be located. After all, it is Scripture that must judge the church, not the church Scripture. That is to say, ecclesial authority cannot exceed its proper bounds and must submit to biblical authority. Importantly, as McCormack sees it, some aspects of Modern theology reflect the witness of Scripture better than historically-affirmed doctrines.

The questions that guided this lecture were the following: How is the God spoken of in the NT revealed, and what does this revelation tell us about who or what God is? What is the relation of Jesus to God? What is the relation of the Holy Spirit to Jesus and His Father? Is there a doctrine of the Trinity?

McCormack began with a brief look into apocalypticism in the study the NT. In contemporary theology, eschatology is not merely a doctrine dealing with the second coming; rather, it is a way of understanding the entirety of God’s redemptive activity. Similarly, Paul speaks of this age and a coming age. He does not need to be taught the evils of ontotheology. His thought is occupied by the imminence of Christ’s return. This means that passages like Romans 1 do not license any sort of speculative theology which builds a doctrine of God’s being and attributes from cosmology. Paul is simply explaining why the wrath of God has fallen upon the godless. What this meant for McCormack is that reconciliation is revelation—revelation cannot be abstracted from Christ’s work. That is to say, God does not reconcile simply by revealing, but by executing reconciliation in and upon himself in Jesus Christ.

Turning to the God proclaimed by the apostles, McCormack appropriated the recent work of Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham, arguing that the NT writers believed they worshiped the one God of Israel and therefore stood in continuity with the faith of Israel in the OT. This ‘Christological monotheism’ of the NT authors had little concern for the being of God. According to McCormack, the authors did not address ontological questions and had no interest in metaphysics. What they were concerned about was God’s revealed purposes in history and his identity in and through his redemptive activity in Christ.

Importantly, the ‘before the foundation of the world’ language seemed to play a significant role in McCormack’s proposal. As he sees it, there is no abstract eternal Son through which all things were created. Controversially, the Son was, from all eternity named Christ Jesus–the one through whom all things were made. The apostles had no conception of a logos asarkos. McCormack cited Hurtado approvingly, arguing that there was a direct personal identity of the human Jesus as the divine agent of creation—not an indeterminate logos asarkos through whom all things were made.

McCormack moved on to treat the doctrine of the Trinity, asking whether it had a place in NT theology. Strictly speaking, there is no doctrine of the Trinity in the NT, but it is true to say that the problem to which the Trinity provided an answer was seen by the NT writers. First, regarding the deity of Christ, McCormack suggested that rather than an act that was constitutive, Jesus’ exaltation was a definitive revelation of God’s identity. What was revealed in time was eternally true of the Son. Paul had no knowledge of the logos as such; the Son is Christ Jesus, and Jesus is the Son. But what about John’s talk of the logos? For McCormack, even John provided no clear foundation for a metaphysical understanding of the immanent Trinity. Of course, this does not mean it is impossible to construct a doctrine of the immanent Trinity. But it is important to keep in mind that metaphysics will always (necessarily) distance such a doctrine from the conception of the NT authors. Second, McCormack argued strict readings of the hypostatic union that see the logos operating through the human nature are guilty of negating the need for the Spirit in the life of Christ. As such, for any Christology to be successful, it must take account of the role of the Spirit and rethink the directionality of the hypostatic union.

To conclude, McCormack stated three principles that can be derived from the apostolic discourse on God. First, all thinking about the Triune God must begin where the apostolic writers began: the divine missions. They knew nothing of processions abstracted from those missions, which means we must be careful of the content we assign to the processions. Second, we need to stop trying to eliminate every last vestige of subordination in the doctrine of the Trinity. The dialectic of subordination in Scripture is not definitively subordinationism (McCormack sees a major difference here). And third, in reversing the order of reflection to proceeding from Christology to the Trinity to the divine attributes, we must realize that the Trinity is not the thing of first importance. Christology must have an absolutely fundamental significance. If we are to be faithful to the NT, then we must do what its authors did by making Christology a part of our doctrine of God. The question then becomes ‘which Christology?’ And it is this question that McCormack takes up in his fifth lecture.

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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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