The Processions Contain the Missions: Reconstructing the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity (McCormack Kantzer Lecture 6)

Bruce McCormack’s 6th Kantzer Lecture, “The Processions Contain the Missions: Reconstructing the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity,” set forth his constructive proposal for understanding the identity of the Triune God. As he noted, the doctrine of the Trinity contains all other doctrines of importance. However, most theology done by evangelicals is done from the top down, disdaining a starting point in the economy and beginning from above. John Webster was McCormack’s example of this. The only argument one has for beginning from above is that a version of this type of theologizing was declared orthodox in 381. But, as he sees it, Scripture sets forth no doctrine of the immanent Trinity. The NT authors did not theologize from above; they began with that which they had seen and heard and touched with their own hands: Jesus Christ.

In the first section of the lecture, McCormack looked at Karl Barth’s doctrine of the immanent Trinity as set forth in Church Dogmatics I/1. For Barth, the Trinity is an eternal repeition of the one divine subject in eternal simultaneity. God is the one divine personal subject in all his modes of being. This is not modalism, which is, for Barth, any model that distinguishes the immanent Trinity from the economic Trinity. McCormack argued that the use of “person” and “perichoresis” should be abandoned, but the doctrine of begetting remains important. Of course, there are proper names given to the Trinitarian modes of being (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), but the content must be defined on the basis of how God reveals himself to be. For McCormack, the best way to make sense of this is to replace the rhetoric of eternal generation with the Hegelian language of self-positing and self-posited. Although McCormack agreed with Bauckham and Hurtado that Jesus is included in the identity of YHWH, Barth’s model is for him far more coherent than the Moltmannian social Trinitarianism of Bauckham.

McCormack continued by explaining that creation exists for redemption and has no independent significance on its own terms (supralapsarianism). Moreover, if the epistemic root lies in the economy of salvation, then the furthest responsible theological talk can go back is to God’s decision to elect. That is to say, if God had a different being, we could not know it on any basis other than natural theology. Only on such a basis could we convince ourselves that God had another, higher state of being and authorize ourselves to speculate about it or retreat to affirmations of ineffability. If God makes himself known as he truly is in himself, then there is no state of being in God prior to election. Furthermore, no before-and-after scheme can be imposed upon eternity, for God has his being in the eternal act of electing. If there is nothing behind this act, then God’s eternal act of electing to be Triune and turning towards the world are one eternal act rather than two separate acts (one necessary and one free). A two-act structure of thought is possible solely on the basis of natural theology.

The second section of McCormack’s lecture turned to Barth’s doctrine of election and his later Christology. McCormack sees his own views on the Trinity as authorized because of Barth’s revision in his doctrine of election; indeed, he suggested that his reading of Barth is prominent in the German literature. Nonetheless, what we can say with certainty is that, for Barth, Jesus Christ is both the subject and object of election. He has chosen reprobation in himself, which means that election and reprobation do not stand in an eternal dualism. God chooses election and reprobation for himself; he takes death into his own life and destroys it. This is what it means to say that Jesus Christ is the object of election. But what does it mean that he is also the subject of election? If the Triune God is in fact one subject, then God is fully himself in all three of his modes of being. He is himself as the one who brings himself forth from himself and he is himself as the one who is brought forth. Thus far, McCormack said that he has not added anything to Barth; but we need to say more. For McCormack, the willing of the Father is itself a generative act. Barth does not affirm one divine subject is subordinate to another. Rather one single subject is fully himself in different modes of being. As such, there is an eternal self-humiliation which is constitutive of God’s second mode of being. Therefore, there is no logos as such in and for himself. But McCormack was quick to note that this does not mean that he rejects the existence of a logos asarkos, for the logos is united to his humanity in time. He does not bring his body down from heaven. The man Jesus is conceived by the Holy Ghost for the union. The logos is asarkos before ensarkos. McCormack noted that he has affirmed a logos incarnandus—the logos who is eternally determined for incarnation but who has yet to be united to the man Jesus. The eternal Word has a determination for incarnation, which is the distinguishing property of God’s second mode of being. The obedience of Jesus is the concrete realization of his identity in eternity. Without the logos asarkos, there can be no distinction between eternity and time and the logos incarnandus and the logos incarnatus. Importantly, the history of Jesus does not constitute the being of God. God constitutes himself in the pre-temporal event of election. In this way McCormack made it clear that he differed from Paul Dafydd Jones. Moreover, the eternal processions contain the temporal missions, but the former must never be reduced to the latter. To do so would be to affirm the God of process theology and give up divine immutability.

The final section of McCormack’s lecture turned to his own constructive proposal on the immanent Trinity.

McCormack had argued that the eternal processions contain the temporal missions. This was not a move that is entirely without precedent. If Matthew Levering is right, then Aquinas thought there was a single event with two terms. For Levering’s Thomas, the processions contain the missions. Essence and existence are one for Aquinas, but McCormack wanted to say more than that. He wanted to solve a problem that the Cappadocians, Augustine, and Thomas, were not able to solve: to distinguish the persons by more than modes of origination. McCormack stated emphatically that he is not a social Trinitarian. The personal property of the Son is that he is eternally generated for humility and obedience. Eternal generation, in this way, is purposive. What then of the Holy Spirit? Augustine said the spirit was the bond of love between the Father and Son. McCormack thinks he was right but that we can say more. McCormack proposed that the Holy Spirit is the power by which the Father and Son act ad extra. This suggests that the Son acts eternally in the power of the spirit, which secures the identity and content of the logos incarnandus and logos incarnatus. The Son never acts immediately upon his human nature but only through the power of the Spirit. What about the Father’s personal property? The Father has his eternal being in his one act as the origin of election. What is the effect of this view? Previously the common properties of the Trinity were said to belong to the shared divine essence. But McCormack wanted to move the modes of being to the center of the discussion. As such, the common properties are a description of the personal properties taken together. God’s essence is not to be found in a substance, for God is subject not substance. And therefore, God’s common properties describe the one eternal act of election. God’s equality must be determined by the eternal act of God, which allows the inseparable operations of the modes of being to be maintained.

McCormack noted that Bruce Marshall tried to get him to choose between two alternatives: Either such a move made the identity of the persons as contingent as the events on which they depend (i.e., it may have been otherwise) or it made the temporal events themselves necessary, which would mean that the command of the Father and obedience of the Son are necessary. However, McCormack noted that this presupposes the metaphysics that he denies. The objection is hardly fatal for either the constructive proposal or his reading of Barth. Marshall assumed that election is a free decision of God that could have been otherwise (i.e., he employs a voluntaristic definition of freedom). Marshalled asked, who or what makes the decision of election? God, but not God the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. These are the contingent outcome of God’s decision. So they cannot be the ones who make it. Who or what this electing thing is is the unknown God. However, for McCormack, the identity of God is not dependent upon contingent events. It is an act of sovereign authority. God’s foreknowledge is exhaustive, and he is not dependent upon the foreseen events to have his being as God. Marshall said that the divine being is unknowable, but the critique does not hold (at least in McCormack’s mind), for nothing is prior to election. In this eternal pre-temporal event God is Father, Son and Spirit. What is truly fatal to Barth’s view is the attempt to wed it to metaphysics. And this is what McCormack sought to avoid. McCormack then asked whether creation and redemption are necessary to God? And, if so, can grace be grace? McCormack simply stated that he rejects this definition of necessity, for it is not derived from God’s work in Christ but in some abstract, speculative natural theology.

In his conclusion, McCormack asked how Nicene this proposal is. As he saw it, the Nicene Creed is minimalist. What does affirmation of the Creed require? It requires that the Son is begotten, not made. The Son is not a creature. He is both truly and fully God. The target of the Creed is Arianism, which consists in three elements. Arius was motivated by impassibility; McCormack rejects impassibility. He also rejects that there was a time when the Son was not. Only the Son could have been Incarnate in McCormack’s mind because the eternal determination to do so is what gives him his unique identity. Regarding homoousios: this would not have been McCormack’s preferred term. However (for McCormack), this language was intended to express equality, and nothing more than equality. McCormack therefore thinks what he has said is orthodox, but what determines its orthodoxy most is Scripture. His proposal is Nicene in Spirit, and he said that he was more concerned about what Biblical scholars might say about the proposal.

Later in the week I will turn from summarizing to offer some brief reflections on McCormack’s entire lecture series.

[Note: for those interested, a preview of Bruce Marshall’s essay can be found here.]


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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