Which Christology? Refining the Economic Basis of the Christian Doctrine of God (McCormack Kantzer Lecture 5, Part 2)


The second main point of McCormack’s lecture examined two failed strategies at solving the dilemma seen in the first section: the kenotic Christology of Gottfried Thomasius and the Idealistic Christology of Isaak Dorner. McCormack sees these attempts as the greatest efforts to save the affirmations of the councils. Both Thomasius and Dorner were Lutherans committed to the “genus of majesty,” which is the idea that the attributes of the divine nature are communicated to the human nature of Christ (and not vice versa). Of course, the divine properties did not become essential to the human nature; the human nature merely shared in them when and where God willed (in events such as the Transfiguration). Jesus Christ would only receive full use of the divine attributes at his exaltation. For Thomasius, the kenosis involved a divestment of properties, and the subject of the divestment was the logos asarkos. This made kenosis the ontological precondition of the Incarnation, and the self-humiliation was not a loss of essential attributes of the logos but merely his relative attributes (omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, etc.) that were acquired as a result of the Triune God’s free decision to create the world. This meant that the attributes could be given up without any ramification to God’s essential being. All of this was to serve Thomasius’s goal of creating space in Chalcedon for a normally functioning human consciousness to exist in Jesus. However, the problem for him came as a result of the fact that the logos had to surrender his divine self-consciousness since the existence of the divine consciousness alongside of the human consciousness would cancel out the human consciousness. As a result of this, Thomasius ended up with a man who was said to be God, which was the same problem that his liberal counterparts had.

According to McCormack, Dorner was the greatest German dogmatic theologian in the period between Schleiermacher and Barth and was the main critic of Thomasius. As Dorner saw it, if the logos were to divest himself of divine consciousness, he would also divest himself of divine love, which was the goal of God’s reconciling and redeeming activity. In other words, Thomasius’s effort to restrict the divestment to the relative attributes of the logos simply cannot be sustained. For Dorner (according to McCormack), Thomasius’s view results in both theopaschitism and subordinationism since God would be transformed into a human and the Son would not be equal to the Father. Moreover, God’s revelation would be in appearance only; it would be a theophany. Instead, Dorner looked to Strauss in order to posit a gradual uniting of the logos with a human being. Dorner saw Jesus as a special creation of God that was created in the act of uniting. As such, kenosis was voluntary, free self-restraint. There is no divestment of properties on Dorner’s account. McCormack believes that the theandric personality of Christ shows that Dorner has rejected Chalcedon’s affirmation of the anhypostasia, but this thoroughly Lutheran solution is a bit odd. If it is said that Jesus could not participate in the attributes of the divine majesty without ceasing to be human, how could he do so in the exaltation without the same result? Does this mean that the human personality of Christ is absorbed in the eschaton? For McCormack, the problem is that Dorner has made the genus of majesty the ground of the theandric person. One cannot accept Dorner if one rejects the genus of majesty.

So, to summarize, the orthodox tradition was characterized by two definitions of the Christological subject. Impassibility made it impossible for there to be a communication from the human to the logos, and the soteriology of divinization (which resulted in instrumentalization) wanted to see the logos act upon a human nature. Similarly, the genus of majesty in Thomasius turned revelation into theophany and eliminated the humanity of Christ in Dorner. Additionally, the Catholic position is problematic insofar as it reads Chalcedon in light of Leo and thereby emphasizes diothelitism. And finally, the classic Reformed position does not emerge unscathed either since Calvin predicated attributes to the whole composite Christ.

The final section of McCormack’s lecture provided his own constructive proposal for a Christology that avoids the mess that he has already described. He suggested, first of all, that the only way forward in Christology was to unequivocally surrender divine impassibility. In addition, McCormack suggested that the Christological subject must not be viewed as the logos as such but the logos made flesh: a composite person. But, McCormack is not using the word “composite” traditionally, wherein the logos made his own that which he possessed. Rather, McCormack understood the communication of attributes in a realistic manner finding its ontological basis in the receptivity of the logos. Of course, McCormack was quick to note that this would mean mutability in God if the logos were not precisely already in eternity a being for this outcome in time. As such, election must be revised as well; it must be the ontological ground of God’s being in the same way that Christology is the epistemic ground. Put most simply: the logos relates to his human nature in the mode of receptivity; this simply is his way of being. This does not eliminate the divine will in Christ, for the performative agent is the man Jesus acting in the power of the Holy Spirit. This receptivity is a willed activity in which the logos wills to experience human life but does not cease being God. In this way, the infinite self-consciousness embraces Jesus’ finite self-consciousness without ceasing to be what it is. McCormack made it clear that his reason for adopting this view was motivation from the NT witness (specifically, Philippians 2). The church fathers were right to see the subject of the self-emptying as the eternal Son. But, McCormack noted that the Philippians 2 is not clear whether this self-emptying is instantaneous in the act of the Incarnation or whether it is an eternal act of self-emptying. Clearly, however (at least for McCormack), the subject in Philippians 2:5 is Jesus Christ. However, precisely how Christ can be the subject of an eternal act through which he becomes Jesus Christ will be treated in lecture six. But, McCormack did say that Philippians 2 leaves no option except to see Christ as the subject of the eternal act. As such, verse 8 only can refer to the human existence of Christ. This makes sense of the rest of Scripture by allowing Christ to live his human existence through the power of the Holy Spirit. McCormack also appealed to the work of Gathercole in arguing for the pre-existence of the Son, and he argued that in Paul’s mind, creation took place through Jesus Christ. Does this then mean that Jesus is real prior to his coming in the flesh? Yes, unequivocally so. Jesus pre-exists as a real subject before his coming. How does he pre-exist? The NT writers do not specify, but McCormack thought it was safe to say that his identity is already defined by what he will become. He is no other in himself than what he is in time. The NT knows nothing of divine and human natures; the NT writers speak only of history. In addition (importantly), if Jesus Christ pre-exists his incarnation, it will not be possible to say that his person is constituted by his lived historical existence.

In conclusion, McCormack argued that there is no logos as such and never has been. He said that his argument was self-consistent and in the spirit of Chalcedon. To be clear, McCormack said repeatedly that he was not rejecting Chalcedon but merely trying to improve upon it. And, in moving forward, McCormack argued that nothing should be said of God that exceeds the limits of this biblically responsible Christology, for to do so would be to accept natural theology. And, to do that is to take the sola out of sola scriptura.

Readers may be interested in listening to McCormack’s chapel message on Phil 2:5-13 at Wheaton College (April, 2003).


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 Kantzer Lecture 5, Part 2)

  1. Steve says:

    Thanks for these updates James (and for your earlier ones Jordan). Very helpful since I haven’t been able to watch some of the lectures. Looking forward to hearing more.

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