The Being of God as Gift and Grace: On Freedom and Necessity, Aseity and the Divine Attributes (McCormack Kantzer Lecture 7)

Bruce McCormack’s final lecture provided a fitting end to the Kantzer Lectures at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. It was here that the other six lectures came together to form a “post-metaphysical evangelical doctrine of God that adheres to sola scriptura.” The audio and video should be made available in the next 3-4 weeks (maybe sooner) and the lectures will eventually be revised and expanded for their publication with Eerdmans.

McCormack was very honest (as usual) at the end of his lecture and said that he was trying to do the impossible: trying to change Baruch de Spinoza into an evangelical Christian! To be sure, McCormack does not mean that he was allowing Spinoza’s thought to determine his reading of Scripture or dogmatic constructions. Nevertheless, Spinoza gives McCormack various categories and concepts that help him explain what arises from the biblical texts (see the linked entry in the SEP for more info on Spinoza).

The lecture began by focusing on divine freedom and necessity in conversation with Karl Barth. Both terms must receive their meaning in relation to the being and act that God is. They must not be brought to God from the outside. This doesn’t mean we can’t use human words, but the norm for their correct usage must be God himself and not something else.

Freedom and Necessity
Freedom doesn’t mean that God was free prior to choosing to create, elect, and so on, but is free is his eternal act. God’s freedom consists in his ability to relate to the world and be conditioned without giving his being (as God) away. In other words, this is divine self-determination. Is God act free or necessary? The either/or form of such a question reveals a metaphysical grounding where either option would be wrong. According to this account, the world is either absolutely necessary or we must make divine freedom voluntaristic where God freely chooses between many options. Instead, God’s freedom is his freedom to give himself over without giving himself away.

Necessity is typically defined as the polar opposite of voluntaristic freedom. Applied to God, this means that he has no choice but to do what he did and this is wrong. What God can choose is revealed in the choosing itself. This doesn’t require that God have more than one option – one option is quite fine. In fact, multiple options is actually counterfeit freedom. Here, McCormack linked this idea to the serpent’s lie in Gen 3: once you know the difference between right and wrong then you will be able to make a real choice. However, God’s choice is still a real and free choice. By being so fully committed to good God is aware of the only good choice. “God is necessarily free and freely necessary and both simultaneously.” Bruce Marshall was briefly brought back into the conversation according to his critique of McCormack’s position (i.e. McCormack must choose between freedom or necessity). For McCormack, God is not constrained to act by anything external to himself or due to a deficiency of being. What God does is not necessary in this sense. But ‘necessity’ is not an altogether inappropriate term to use. The point is such: choices aren’t limited to “no choice” (necessity) or “having options” (voluntaristic freedom).

McCormack then moved from his discussion of freedom and necessity and directed his attention on divine aseity. In agreement with John Webster, aseity means that God is from himself and of himself (reference is made to Webster’s chapter in this book). Aseity, for Webster, has to do with the fulness of being and God’s self-sufficiency. Where does this come from? Webster looks to Jesus Christ but leaves room for a different approach in which one must leave room to expand and fill the concept completely. According to McCormack, he and Webster could agree that “the eternal processions contain temporal missions” as McCormack has been arguing throughout the lectures. However, the difference is that Webster speaks of God’s immanent life according to Exod 3:14 and makes no mention of Christology, the definitive self-naming of God. Webster is correct to say that aseity is a positive concept but his positive view is rooted in Exod 3:14 and this can’t get him as far as he desires. Webster’s account becomes abstract and formal since lacks Christological reflection. In essence, Webster’s view is Barth’s view, but ultimately a version stripped of Barth’s later mature Christology. How, then, should we define aseity? Building on Webster’s positive definition, McCormack asserts that God is free also with regard to his freedom to be unconditioned and conditioned. The act of divine freedom looks both inward (as the Trinity) and outward (God’s loving and redemptive self-giving). Aseity is and is not a divine attribute. It only becomes an attribute as a description of God’s being in election. It sounded as though much more would be said in the published version.

Divine Attributes
The next section moved to implications for the divine attributes. Barth’s account allowed for the three ways (the way of eminence, the negative way, and the way of causality) but there must be a proper order that begins with revelation and then moves to hiddenness. (The tradition’s problem is that they did not presuppose a knowledge of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ and therefore often resulted in mere metaphysical thinking.) Even in Church Dogmatics II/1 Barth is not as Christocentric as he will be in III/1. His account is still too formal and abstract due to his controlling concept of revelation. He tried to give content to biblical words through the dialectical strategy of love and freedom rather than allowing each word to be given content through the history of Jesus.

McCormack then argued that the time has come to do away with the division of attributes into two classes: immanent/relative, love/freedom, incommunicable/communicable, and so forth. All have their scheme in the metaphysics of apophatic and cataphatic thinking (i.e., the elevation of certain human faculties). Their ground of reflection on God is something other than Jesus, whether it be cosmology, anthropology, or a combination of the two. [McCormack noted here that not everything classical theologians say is wrong. The truly great ones wrestled with Scripture and their statements had biblical content. Thus, we can learn much from them, especially from someone like Aquinas. Nevertheless, they still emphasized the apophatic over the cataphatic and wrongly upheld accounts of simplicity, impassibility, etc.] We can eliminate the division(s) of attributes through three steps: a realization that (1) there are no purely negative attributes. All of God’s attributes are relative in the sense that they are relational; (2) all of the attributes are communicable and yet incommunicable in that human participation is not substantial participation. If every attribute has some element of both then this distinction is inadequate; (3) love and freedom as master concepts are not adequate (though it comes closer than previous schemes). What happens in CD II/1 is that specific concepts are used to strip the metaphysical baggage of other concepts that come with them. A better option would be to avoid the metaphysical terms altogether.

What happens to the “omni” attributes on McCormack’s account? First, omni refers to an infinite expansion. This may be logical, but the use of logic in the sphere of the unique event invites problems by comparing God to creatures. Omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence cannot be illegitimately expanded. For example, omniscience means that God knows all things that were, are, and will be. He knows what is real. But the Bible doesn’t allows us to say that God knows counterfactuals (contra Molinism). Omnipresence has classically stated that God is fully present everywhere in the universe he has made. His being is not diffused. For McCormack, this is sound and shouldn’t be challenged. But we might also add that while he may be present everywhere this does not imply that he causes everything (contra omnicausality). Wrath and mercy do not differ from God’s other attributes. God is all of these things in relation to this world. Wrath is an instrument of God’s mercy and both express his holy love. McCormack noted that more will be said in the published version of these lectures.

In the meantime, readers may be interested in Rob Price’s book, Letters of the Divine Word: The Perfections of God in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

McCormack’s project can be summed up as a post-metaphysical evangelical doctrine of God that adheres to sola scriptura (his rendering). His project fights the anti-metaphysical tendency since this leads to deconstruction and away from positive dogmatic construction. Again, we can still learn much from theologians who engaged in metaphysical reflection. The best theologians engaged Scripture and have given us many insights that can and must be taken on board. McCormack’s project has tried to do this in a way that is commensurate with Scripture and avoids the problems inherent in traditional accounts.


About Jordan P. Barrett

PhD, Systematic Theology, Wheaton College
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