Which Christology? Refining the Economic Basis of the Christian Doctrine of God (McCormack Kanter Lecture 5, Part 1)


Bruce McCormack’s sixth Kantzer Lecture, “Which Christology? Refining the Economic Basis of the Christian Doctrine of God,” moved to the constructive section of his proposal in which he sought to set forth a construal of the ontological (not metaphysical) constitution of the mediator (classically treated under the heading ‘person of Christ’).

McCormack began by noting that critics often think modernity brought about the conditions which rendered theology in the 20th century problematic; however, it was his contention that the problems—especially visible in Christology after the contemporary advancements in developmental psychology—existed all along and that Modernity only intensified and clarified the problems that Chalcedon had left undeveloped. To be precise, Cyril and his followers championed a single subject Christology in which the logos was the acting subject of the life of Christ (more on this below). This provided (in their minds) a sufficient way for making sure that the human nature of Christ did not instantiate a second subject. But, once developmental psychology began suggesting emotional maturation to the human nature of Christ, the human nature began to look much like a thinking and willing subject. For McCormack, the Nestorian drift of modern theology was therefore inevitable.

In the first major section of his lecture, McCormack asked the question “Who is the subject?” (referring, of course, to the subject of the person of Christ). Was it the logos or the composite individual existing in the new mode of being existing in the hypostatic union? McCormack noted that the word “subject” is a modern one. In contemporary thought, “person” is used to describe a fully self-conscious rational agent of will and activity. The ancients used the word “person” but meant something different by it. For them, prosopon referred to the mask that actors wore, which meant that persons were referred to as presentations; the reality behind the appearance could be spoken of, but who or what was behind the mask was a matter of self-disclosure. Mapping modern concerns onto Christ, we seek to ask who or what was the subject or performative agent in and during the life of the person of Christ.

To answer this question, McCormack appealed to Cyril (relying on the work of John McGuckin), who offered both an explicit and implicit answer, the two of which are not obviously compatible. Cyril’s explicit answer to the question ‘Who is the subject?’ comes from a line of reflection similar to that of Appolinaris, who switched the human subject with the logos. The tendency on this line of thought was to instrumentalize the human nature of Christ into the economic agent of the logos. On this view, the performative agent of the God-man was the logos—the second person of the Triune Godhead. However, Cyril’s implicit answer was a bit different and makes use of the concept of “appropriation.” To appropriate something is to make that something one’s own. In this way, the logos appropriated the body of Jesus, making it his own. Therefore, what took place in the body of Jesus was appropriately considered to belong to the logos. Cyril (on McGuckin’s view) can therefore say that God suffers insofar as his own body suffers. That is, he suffers in his humanity by appropriation, not according to his deity. For McCormack, this view renders passibility an impossibility. Appropriation is in no way a literal communication of attributes from one nature to another (be it from the human to the divine or vice versa); rather, it is a figure of speech which expresses possession. This is why Cyril used the metaphor of a fire heating iron: there is unidirectional traffic whereby Christ’s humanity is suffused with deity. To repeat, such a view carefully guarded the divine nature of the logos from suffering, for the logos only and strictly suffered in the body that he assumed. He suffered qua man, not qua God. What this meant is that the “communication” of attributes was now ascribed to the whole (composite) Christ and not the logos as such. McCormack stressed that a subtle shift had taken place in Cyril between his explicit and implicit answer. The explicit answer (motivated by divinization theology) spoke of the logos asarkos as such, while the implicit answer (motivated by the communication of attributes) spoke of the whole Christ—the logos ensarkos. The implicit answer given by Cyril continued to plague theologians through the centuries, such as John of Damascus and others in the Reformed camp. In contrast, the Lutherans put more weight on the explicit answer.

McCormack then asked how this change in the answer to the question “Who is the subject?” impacted the idea of the self-emptying of the logos—of the concept of kenosis. For Cyril (again, making use of McGuckin), the logos assumed a human life, and the subject remained unchanged. The self-emptying of the logos is certainly not an act whereby the logos makes himself the direct subject of human attributes. However, Paul Gavrilyuk wants to say more than this for Cyril, for if McCormack/McGuckin are right, then Gavrilyuk’s idea of “qualified divine impassibility,” according to McCormack, “fades into incoherence.” Gavrilyuk wants to say that the logos let his body suffer, but McCormack finds this meaningless and more like “unqualified divine impassibility.”

McCormack noted that the bishops of Chalcedon did not address the communication of attributes, an omission that made certain that the issue would re-emerge in later thought. Chalcedon is also seen as a clear victory for Cyril and his followers. Unfortunately, the decrees of the 6th ecumenical council at Constantinople in 681, which were intended to clarify Nicaea, made it possible to read Chalcedon in a manner closer to Leo than to Cyril. The council argued for two wills in Christ: a human will and a divine will. This move made things more complicated. McCormack said that he thought this was actually a step in the right direction, for it attempted to make Jesus a self-activating human and avoided the pitfalls of instrumentalization. Constantinople also identified the person of Christ as a composite of natures rather than the pre-existent logos, but this move was not present in Chacledon. In this way, a real communication of attributes in which the human attributes of Jesus are communicated to the logos was definitively ruled out by Constantinople.

So what does McCormack make of this? In his mind, the Jesus of the Synoptics needs the power of the Holy Spirit to carry out his mediatorial activity, but this is where the pinch lies. For why would Jesus need the Holy Spirit if the second person of the Trinity made Christ to be his own instrument of omnipotence? Put differently, if the hypostatic union meant that the logos acted through the human nature of Jesus, the Holy Spirit would be redundant. This does not render the hypostatic union impossible; it merely means that we need a new Christology which will give due justice to all of the Synoptics at once.

Of course, in all of this the extra-biblical idea of divine impassibility (in McCormack’s mind) is the elephant in the room. This idea was the motivating source for confusing the subject of Christ’s life, since given impassibility, the subject had to be the whole Christ and not the logos simpliciter (i.e. the logos as such apart from his human nature). For McCormack, impassibility caused the shift to a metaphysical subject that was intended to serve as a buffer between the divine and human nature, and this metaphysical structure of natures made Christ appear to be two persons. So, as he sees it, impassibility made this unavoidable and made orthodox Christology untenable. Modernity did create the problems; it merely recognized them and made them clearer.


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 Which Christology? Refining the Economic Basis of the Christian Doctrine of God (McCormack Kanter Lecture 5, Part 1)

  1. Andy Rowell says:

    Thanks for this good summary. Just listened to this lecture. I have made it through #5! Whew! McCormack starts this lecture on a more conciliatory note after a nice weekend away relaxing as opposed to his pugnaciousness at the end of lecture #4. By the time he finally got to his conclusion, I found it breathtaking! Good stuff.

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