Monthly Archives: October 2014

Bruce McCormack on Prevenient Grace

prevenient-grace1I enjoy finding biographical data about the theologians I am studying. Knowing something of their life helps me better understand their theology. In his discussion of Open Theism, Bruce McCormack inserts this interesting biographical note, which not only describes his views on prevenient grace, but also “conversion” to Reformed faith:

On a personal note, when I was a student at Covenant Theological Seminary in the late 1970s, Pinnock’s newly edited volume on the universality of grace and the conditionality of election provided me with arguments which helped me to withstand the Calvinist perspective which was dominant there. It was not until I had transferred to my denominational seminary, Nazarene Theological Seminary, that I experienced a “second conversion”—one which moved me from a Wesleyan-Arminian perspective to a Reformed outlook. The occasion was a paper I wrote on John Wesley’s doctrine of prevenient grace. The disappointment I experienced as a consequence of close study of this doctrine was tremendous. I regarded it then (and continue to do so to this day) as a sophistical attempt to overcome the doctrine of “total depravity”—a doctrine to which Wesley was theoretically committed—by means of a “grace” which is alleged to restore in all just enough freedom so as to put every human being in the position of being able to accept or reject “saving grace” when it is “offered.” The problem for me did not lie simply in the fact that such a view only pushes the logic of irresistible grace back one step (since the liberty which is restored in all must be the work of God alone if the affirmation of total depravity is seriously meant). It did not even lie in the fact that the net effect of Wesley’s teaching was to make his affirmation of total depravity meaningless, since the totally depraved turn out to be an empty-set. The real problem for me lay in the fact that there is not a hint, so far as I can see, of such a concept of grace to be found in Holy Scripture. Having said that, I should add that I do understand the allure of Arminianism, for I too was once an Arminian.[1]

[1] McCormack, Bruce L., “The Actuality of God: Karl Barth in Conversation with Open Theism,” in Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Responses, ed. McCormack, B. L., (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 202-203.

Sheldon Cooper’s Fun with … Words

sheldon_cooper_bazinga_wallpaperOne website I find useful and sometimes visit just for interest or “fun” is I keep the link in my toolbar because I often need to check the meaning or pronunciation of a word. The audio pronunciation function is a particularly useful feature. Sometimes, though, I go to check the meaning of the word and find this:


In this case I know what the word means in a periphrastic (use the dictionary!) kind of way, but wanted a clear, concise definition. What I got was the word as its own definition. As I said: Annoying!

At least with “periphrastic,”

a) I get a sufficient definition, and
b) there is an example to illuminate the use of the term.

But – fun with words – click on the definition where it says “like an epexegesis” and, Bazinga!, a better definition of sorts shows up.

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:12

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:12
Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. (NASB)

Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. (NRSV)

These two translations indicate an immediate interpretive issue with respect to this verse: does it belong with the section dealing with the matter of trials which began in verse two, or is it the beginning of a new section incorporating verses twelve to fifteen and dealing with the matter of temptation? The key word is peirasmos which appears in verse two, here in verse twelve, four times in verse thirteen, and once in verse fourteen. The word has two basic meanings in the New Testament, corresponding to the two meanings used in this chapter of James. First, the word can denote external afflictions, especially persecution, and second, it can refer to the inner enticement to sin (Moo, 59). This range of meaning suggests that James may be using verse twelve to transition his focus from the external pressures experienced by the community, to the internal motives and attitudes which they experience precisely on account of the external trials. It is not uncommon that one’s response to external trials may itself be another trial. The two often belong together, and we err when our entire focus is turned outward as though our circumstances are our only trial, when in fact, our response to those circumstances is also a trial which we must endure and perhaps overcome. This way of viewing the text helps us find unity in the overall section from verse two through eighteen, rather than viewing the whole as a series of disconnected exhortations.

We begin by noting the resonance in this verse with what has gone before. As already noted, the key term peirasmos picks up the opening thought of verse two. The testing (dokimion) of our faith in verse three produces endurance (hypomonē). In this verse James pronounces as blessed those who endure (hypomenē, the verb form of hypomonē), for they have stood the test (dokimos). Finally, the promise that they shall receive (lampsetai) the crown of life stands in subtle contrast to the double-minded person of verse seven who must not expect to receive (lampsetai) anything from the Lord. These verbal links with the earlier passage suggest that James is reiterating and extending his earlier comments, and bringing those exhortations to their climax. Not only does endurance under trial develop good character, but it also brings the promise and hope of eschatological blessing. In light of these considerations, the NASB’s interpretation is preferred.

“Blessed is the man” (Makarios anēr hos) is almost formulaic language in Old Testament appearing six times in Psalms and twice in Proverbs (Davids, 79; cf. Psalms 1:1; 2:12; 32:1; 112:1; 119:1-2; Proverbs 8:32, 34, etc). James, then, is taking over biblical language, though his use of anēr (“man”) is not required to make sense of the sentence and should not be used to limit this blessing merely to males. Thus, while the NASB provides a very literal translation, “blessed are those” or the NRSV’s “blessed is anyone” are more appropriate to convey the sense intended. The person so blessed is the one who perseveres under trial as already explained in earlier verses. Such a one, having stood the test is approved (dokimos). In verse three dokimion emphasised the process of testing, whereas here the emphasis is more on the person who has successfully endured that process and so “passed” the test (McKnight, 111). This person will receive (lampsetai) the crown of life, the future tense indicating that the promised blessing still lies in the future, especially perhaps for James’ suffering community.

What, precisely, is “the crown of life” (ton stephanon tēs zōēs)? Virtually all commentators read this phrase as epexegetical, that is, “the crown which is life.” This is another way of saying that those who persevere will receive God’s promise of salvation which is eternal life. The same phrase is found in Revelation 2:9-10 and its use there, in the ascended Christ’s message to the suffering church of Smyrna, may have relevance for interpreting our text:

I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life (ton stephanon tēs zōēs).

This text has similar characteristics to James 1: the apocalyptic context of trials by which the community is tested. It is not insignificant that James’ community may well be persecuted by other (wealthier?) Jews. Nevertheless the trials are limited in duration, and over against the threat of death is the promised “crown of life.” In Revelation chapter four, the elders clothed in white garments (a picture of the church?) are crowned with golden crowns which they cast in worship before throne (Revelation 4:4, 10). As God’s people endure the testing of their faith even to the point of death, they will be crowned as victors, as those who have triumphed over the opposition. The imagery of the crown is most commonly used of the wreath awarded to victorious athletes in the games (Davids, 80; cf. 1 Corinthians 9:25 where “wreath” translates stephanon). A similar sense is seen in Paul’s words to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:7-8:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

Paul’s crown of righteousness is the equivalent of James and John’s crown of life, and Peter’s “unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4). Each in slightly different ways refers to the eschatological blessing and recognition awaiting those who faithfully endure. The whole life of the believer will be “crowned” as it were, by their entering into the life “promised” (epēggeilato) to those who love him (tois agapōsin auton). They shall receive the honour and acknowledgement of those in God’s royal presence, his children, and heirs of the kingdom.

The subject of the promise is identified in both translations above as “the Lord,” the italics in the NASB indicating that these words have been supplied by the translators. A better translation would supply “God” as the subject of the promise and so bring this verse into harmony with James 2:5 where an identical construction is used (“promised to those who love him”), and where the subject of the sentence is explicitly identified as God. There is no explicit promise in the Old Testament that James is here citing, though a number of texts do promise God’s steadfast love to those who love him (see, for example, Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 7:9; Psalm 145:20). James generalises the broad sweep of Scripture in which those who love God and therefore stand firm in times of trial will be those who receive his blessing.

George Hunsinger on Karl Barth’s Chalcedonian Christology

hunsinger, george (200x220)Hunsinger published his excellent article in 1999 with an aim to correct other Barth interpreters who suggest variously, that Barth’s Christology is one-sided, falling into either an Antiochene or Alexandrian mode of expression. Chalcedon, of course, navigated and distinguished the primary concerns of these two ancient christological models. The bishops affirmed the particular truth brought by each model while also steering clear of the problematic aspects of each proposal, Nestorianism in the case of Antioch, and Apollinarianism/Eutychianism in the case of Alexandria. Nevertheless, the council gave greater affirmation to Alexandria, affirming two of its priorities (the divine nature in the single person of Jesus Christ), while affirming only one of Antioch’s priorities (the true human nature of Jesus).

Hunsinger begins by outlining the general features of a Chalcedonian Christology as a “type,” since in his view,

Chalcedonian Christology does not isolate a point on a line that one either occupies or not. It demarcates a region in which there is more than one place to take up residence. The region is defined by certain distinct boundaries. Jesus Christ is understood as “one person in two natures.” The two natures—his deity and his humanity—are seen as internal to his person.[1]

He argues that Barth developed his Christology in Chalcedonian terms, rather than along the lines of simply an Alexandrian or Antiochene model, as has been suggested. He shows that Barth took a dialectical approach to the person of Christ, using now an Alexandrian idiom and now an Antiochene idiom, and insisting that both voices must be heard. Hunsinger defends Barth’s approach by calling upon his readers to attend to Barth’s distinctive method.

Barth is probably the first theologian in the history of Christian doctrine who alternates back and forth, deliberately, between an “Alexandrian” and an “Antiochian” idiom. The proper way to be Chalcedonian in Christology, Barth believed, was to follow the lead of the New Testament itself by employing a definite diversity of idioms. Any other strategy for articulating the Chalcedonian mystery would inevitably have unbalanced or one-sided results.[2]

Barth’s distinctive contribution is to view the work of Christ as at one and the same time both divine and human. In so doing, he managed to be “resoundingly traditional and brilliantly innovative” at the same time.[3] Hunsinger demonstrates Barth’s creative adaption of Chalcedon in three case studies: “First, he actualized the traditional conception of the incarnation. Second, he personalized the saving significance of Christ’s death. Finally, he contemporized the consequences of Christ’s resurrection.”[4]

With respect to the incarnation, for example, Barth views it as a history rather than a state. Jesus Christ acts and does so as a divine and a human act, fully and completely both simultaneously. As such, there is no dividing the activity of Jesus amongst the two natures. In Barth’s hands then, doctrines like the humiliation and the exaltation of Jesus are not read as successive, but as the one act in two aspects:

As he died the death of the sinner, the Son of God entered the nadir of his humiliation for our sakes, even as his exaltation as the Son of man attained its zenith in that sinless obedience which, having freely embraced the cross, would be crowned by eternal life. His humiliation was always the basis of his exaltation, even as his exaltation was always the goal of humiliation, and both were supremely on in his death on our behalf. “It was in this way that the reconciliation of the world with God was accomplished in the unity of his being” (IV/1, 253).[5]

Thus, the inherent dialectic of Christ’s person is at work in the single event of his death: active obedience and exaltation as the Son of man and passive obedience and humiliation as the Son of God, all simultaneously, the work of the one person in the one event. Yet an additional feature of Barth’s dialectic must also be reckoned with:

No symmetry between the two natures that met in Christ was possible. Christ’s deity after all was deity, whereas his humanity was merely humanity. The precedence, initiative, and impartation were always necessarily with his deity even as the subsequence, absolute dependence, and pure if active reception were always necessarily with his humanity (IV/2, 116).[6]

In this way, both the divine will and the human will of Jesus are retained and active, but in a definite and irreversible order. Nevertheless, this “double agency” in the person of Christ is

…not only one of “coordination in difference” (IV/2, 116), but also of one of “mutual participation” for the sake of a common and single work (communicato operationum) (IV/2, 117). When in Christ’s one divine person two natures, and thus also two wills or operations, met, they did so not merely analogically or externally, but in a relation of mutual participation, indwelling or koinonia, and thus in a Chalcedonian unity0in-distinction and distinction-in-unity (IV/1, 126).[7]


[1] Hunsinger, George, “Karl Barth’s Christology: Its Basic Chalcedonian Character,” in Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 132.

[2] Hunsinger, “Karl Barth’s Christology,” 135.

[3] Hunsinger, “Karl Barth’s Christology,” 141.

[4] Hunsinger, “Karl Barth’s Christology,” 140.

[5] Hunsinger, “Karl Barth’s Christology,” 142.

[6] Hunsinger, “Karl Barth’s Christology,” 146.

[7] Hunsinger, “Karl Barth’s Christology,” 140.

Bruce McCormack on Karl Barth’s Historicised Christology

NativityBruce McCormack is not content simply to refer to Barth’s Christology as Chalcedonian, contra George Hunsinger. McCormack acknowledges that Barth has retained the “values” of Chalcedon (i.e. “two natures in one person”), but argues that Barth has fundamentally reworked what this means by developing his Christology on entirely different grounds to that of Chalcedon. He argues that Barth’s Christology developed over the course of his career, even within the period of the Church Dogmatics. In volume I/2 his Christology is largely Chalcedonian, but by volume IV/1-3, Barth had reworked his ontology in light of his doctrine of election, with the result that there are now fundamental differences between his Christology and that of Chalcedon, and yet without compromising the fundamental achievement of Chalcedon. McCormack develops his thesis as follows.

Barth rejected the underlying substantialist ontology of Chalcedon in order to preserve the immutability of God in the human life of Jesus. That is, the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus do not constitute “change” in the divine being, for God can become human and as human even die without ceasing to be God, because God has eternally self-determined to be God only in this way. Jesus Christ, in his divine-human unity has taken death into the divine life, but has not been conquered by it.[1] This “death in God” does not change God because Barth does not conceive of God’s being in terms of substance but in terms of act. McCormack defines his terms as follows:

The language of “essence” is certainly innocent enough. It refers merely to the thought of a self-identical element that perdures through all the changes that take place in a person/thing through time. It is that which makes a person/thing to be what it is, all other qualities being understood as nonessential. The Greek category of “substance” (in all of its various forms) makes the self-identical element in “persons” (which is our interest here) to be complete in itself apart from, and prior to the decisions, acts and relations by means of which the life of the person in question is constituted. “Substance,” then, is a timeless idea; a concept whose content is complete in abstraction from an individual’s lived history.[2]

For McCormack, if God is conceived in terms of an eternal and underlying substance, the incarnation must mean a change in what God is. Further,

If the definition of “immutability” is controlled by a notion of “substance” in the way described, then it becomes impossible to understand the human nature of Jesus Christ as the human nature of the eternal Logos. Any attribution of human qualities or activities of experiences to the Logos would set aside the “immutability” of the Logos. … The unity of the Logos and his human nature can only be achieved through the abandonment of substantialist thinking and the “abstract” theological epistemology that makes it possible.[3]

For McCormack—following Barth—not only is God known through what he does, God is what he does. We learn what God is and does not through philosophical speculation, but by attentively “following after” God’s movement into history in all its concreteness.[4] That is, Barth asks concerning the constitution of God in eternity given what God has done in time. This divine doing has its ground in the first divine act of election in which God determined to be God in this way and not otherwise. That is, God determined to be God-for-us in the covenant of grace, in uniting humanity into his own being in the person of the Logos.

To God’s being-in-act in eternity there corresponds a being-in-act in time; the two are identical in content (or, as we might also say, the “immanent Trinity” and the “economic Trinity” are identical in content). Clearly, immutability has been preserved here. But it has been newly defined.[5]

[1] McCormack, Bruce L., “The Ontological Presuppositions of Barth’s Doctrine of Atonement,” in The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological & Practical Perspectives, ed. Hill, Charles E. & Frank A. James, (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), 361.

[2] McCormack, “Ontological Presuppositions,” 357, original emphasis.

[3] McCormack, “Ontological Presuppositions,” 357.

[4] McCormack, “Ontological Presuppositions,” 358.

[5] McCormack, “Ontological Presuppositions,” 359.