Tag Archives: Bruce McCormack

Reading Karl Barth on Election (9)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:94-103, Jesus Christ, Electing and Elected.

In his prolegomena to the doctrine of election Barth argued for three things:

  1. That the doctrine of election is oriented toward grace; it is the “sum of the gospel.”
  2. The foundation of election is found in Jesus Christ who is the subject and not merely the instrument or mirror of election.
  3. The doctrine is located within the doctrine of God proper, for the election identifies God as the gracious God, gracious in himself and in all his works ad extra.

Now, in this new section, Barth turns to the substance of the doctrine. For Barth, Jesus Christ is the divine election of grace, the focus of election, and as such, also the subject and content of election. Jesus Christ is the beginning of all God’s ways ad extra, the ground and telos of all God’s creating, reconciling and redeeming activity.

He is the election of God before which and without which and beside which God cannot make any other choices. Before Him and without Him and beside Him God does not, then, elect or will anything (94).

That is, Jesus Christ is the name that God—as Father, Son and Holy Spirit—has from all eternity decided to bear. The election is the eternal self-determination of the one God; there is no God nor work of God nor decree of God other than that of this God who bears this name. In an extended statement crucial for understanding Barth’s doctrine he argues that,

In the beginning, before time and space as we know them, before creation, before there was any reality distinct from God which could be the object of the love of God or the setting for His acts of freedom, God anticipated and determined within Himself (in the power of His love and freedom, of His knowing and willing) that the goal and meaning of all His dealings with the as yet non-existent universe should be the fact that in His Son He would be gracious towards man, uniting Himself with him. In the beginning it was the choice of the Father Himself to establish this covenant with man by giving up His Son for him, that He Himself might become man in the fulfilment of His grace. In the beginning it was the choice of the Son to be obedient to grace, and therefore to offer up Himself and to become man in order that this covenant might be made a reality. In the beginning it was the resolve of the Holy Spirit that the unity of God, of the Father and Son should not be disturbed or rent by this covenant with man, but that it should be made the more glorious, the deity of God, the divinity of His love and freedom, being confirmed and demonstrated by this offering of the Father and this self-offering of the Son. This choice was in the beginning. As the subject and object of this choice, Jesus Christ was at the beginning. He was not at the beginning of God, for God has indeed no beginning. But He was at the beginning of all things, at the beginning of God’s dealings with the reality which is distinct from Himself. Jesus Christ was the choice or election of God in respect of this reality. He was the election of God’s grace as directed towards man. He was the election of God’s covenant with man (101-102).

Barth’s comments here must be understood in the light of his doctrine of the Trinity in which he distinguishes between the immanent and the economic Trinity, and his model of the Trinity as one divine subject in three modes of being (Church Dogmatics I/1). In this text, God’s triunity precedes his election. God exists and so elects as the eternal Father, Son and Holy Spirit; election is the work of the triune God. Thus the Father elects, the Son elects, the Holy Spirit elects, and yet this is not three electings, but the one divine electing of the triune God. There is in Barth’s theology, no social trinity in which the will of the Father differs from that of the Son and the Spirit after the analogy of three distinct human persons, where the will of the three is utterly distinct from that of the others, and may even be in competition or conflict with the others. There may be distinction in the manner in which this one divine will is expressed in the choice of the three persons, but no division or separation.

Barth, of course, goes further than this: Jesus Christ is in the beginning—not in the beginning of God “for God has indeed no beginning. But He was at the beginning of all things, at the beginning of God’s dealings with the reality which is distinct from Himself.” Thus, election concerns not simply “the Son,” but Jesus Christ, the incarnate, the Son of God who is also the Son of Man. But how is this so, given that Jesus Christ is the man born in time?

In the eternity of God—that is, in the eternal wisdom and counsel of God, before there was any reality other than the life and being of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God, in the freedom of his love, determined that he would give himself to and unite himself with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. Before anything else this is a divine self-determination, a reflexive action in which God determines God’s own eternal being to be God only in this way, as the One who is with humanity and gracious to humanity in the person of his Son. Jesus Christ, then, is the object and “result” of the divine electing.

But Barth will go one step more. Not only is Jesus Christ the object of the divine election, but because this is an act of divine self-determination, the Son who chooses this electing together with the Father and the Spirit is none other than the Son united with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, then, is the subject of election, the one who elects, as well as the object of election, the one who is elected.

Jürgen Moltmann at Princeton

Moltmann at PrincetonThank you Jason Goroncy for finding and posting this lecture from Jürgen Moltmann at the recent Karl Barth Conference in Princeton. I wish I could have been there, but alas! The lecture is entitled “Predestination: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Election of Grace.”

One of our friends, Carolyn Tan, made it to the Conference and was privileged to meet and spend a little time with Moltmann, whose work forms a major aspect of her own doctoral project. The old man must nearly be ninety by now, one of the last great theologians of his generation still with us.

Jason has also posted a lecture by Bruce McCormack from the same conference. I am reading a paper on McCormack at Anzats in Sydney next week, and so will listen to it before then…


Bruce McCormack on Barth’s Doctrine of God

God-the-Father-1779-xx-Pompeo-Girolamo-BatoniBarth’s Doctrine of God in Church Dogmatics Volume II/1

McCormack argues that Karl Barth has developed a post-metaphysical—i.e. Christological—doctrine of the divine being in which God assigns his own being to himself, and constitutes himself as triune, in the singular event of divine election. That is, God is who and what he is only in this decision. The result of reading Barth in the way McCormack does is that he can assert (a) that there is no immanent trinity prior to this divine determination of God’s own being; and (b) there is no “eternal Son” as such, that is, no eternal Son who has an existence independent of and prior to the divine determination that the Son’s being would consist in his union with humanity.[1]

McCormack turns to Church Dogmatics II/1 where Barth discusses “The Being of God in Act.” Barth agrees with Augustine, Aquinas and the Protestant scholastics that God is actus purus: the living God whose very essence is life. But Barth wants also to go further and insist that God is actus purus et singularis.[2] McCormack interprets this in terms of Barth’s later statement: “No other being exists absolutely in its act. No other being is absolutely its own, conscious, willed and executed decision.”[3] He goes on:

This is why God is actus purus et singularis. The eternal act in which God determines to be God-for-us in Jesus Christ and the act in time in which this eternal act reaches its (provisional) goal are a “singular” act, an act utterly unique in kind. God is what he is in this act—which is not true of anyone or anything besides God.[4]

God is what he is in the eternal act of divine election in which God determined his own being as God for and with us in the covenant of grace. Indeed, God is Jesus Christ in his second mode of being, not simply the “eternal Son.” McCormack argues that Jesus Christ can be both the electing God (i.e. the subject of the decision of election) as well as the consequence of the decision of election because in Barth’s view of the triune God there is but a single subject, whether in the mode of being of Father or of Son. Thus the decision which constitutes the person of Jesus Christ—and also the eternal Son—is also his decision because as the one God he participates in the sole divine subjectivity. McCormack is aware that he is straining the limits of language and logic:

Logically, the “transformation” of a Subject into another mode of being cannot be carried out by a Subject who already is that mode of being; otherwise no “transformation” has taken place at all. In truth, however, Barth’s claim will never be understood where we rest content with playing with the logic of Subject-object relations. What is happening here is quite simply a refinement of Barth’s earlier doctrine of the Trinity.[5]

Instability in Barth’s Doctrine

McCormack argues that Barth’s concept of the eternal being of God was altered as a consequence of his mature Christology. Barth, he notes, actualised and historicised the being of Christ, and so also of God. In so doing he preserved the immutability of God while jettisoning divine impassibility and timelessness. (Here McCormack reiterates his contention that Chalcedonian Christology remained in some ways ambiguous in its treatment of Christ’s person, and in other ways is not wholly sufficient for contemporary Christological reflection. See my earlier posts in this series on Chalcedonian Christology and Barth’s Historicised Christology.)

In the next sections of his essay, then, McCormack identifies three aspects of Barth’s doctrine of God in II/1 in which the Swiss theologian still works within the frame of a classical metaphysic to some degree at least, which produces, in McCormack’s view, instability and incoherence in his earlier doctrine. McCormack traces this instability to Barth’s desire to retain God as God, to secure the divine freedom of God from us and for us. Thus, he speaks of God’s “immutable vitality” as something that God possesses in himself above and beyond the “holy mutability” assigned to the attitudes and actions of God in the coming of Jesus.[6] So, too, the power of God, his divine omnipotence, is viewed in II/1 as something prior to and above his work of creation and redemption, etc. God could have been omnipotent in a different form. After his doctrine of election, however, Barth says, “May it not be that it is as the electing God that He is the Almighty, and not vice versa?”[7] McCormack finds great significance in the vice versa of this citation, where the “door is firmly closed against the possibility that election…will be seen as simply one possibility among others available to a God whose omnipotence has been defined in abstraction from what he has actually done in Jesus Christ.[8] Such is the case also with God’s knowledge and will.

There is an instability at the heart of Barth’s treatment of the being of God in Church Dogmatics II/1—an instability which finds its root in the belief that to God’s “essence” there belongs both a necessary element and a contingent element. … To define the “essence” of God in terms of both necessity and contingency, of immutability and mutability, of absoluteness and concreteness is to allow both elements in these pairs to be canceled out by the other. An essence that is contingent, mutable, and concrete is not and cannot be necessary, immutable, and absolute—unless God is necessary, immutable, and absolute precisely in his contingency, mutability, and concreteness. Where the two are allowed to fall apart as polar elements, the result can be only incoherence.[9]

The reason for this instability in Barth’s doctrine lies in the fact that Christology does not control his theological ontology. Once Barth has reworked his doctrine of election in Church Dogmatics II/2, these kinds of tensions are, says McCormack, eliminated.

[1] In fact, McCormack quite openly notes that “what I offer in the pages that follow is a reconstruction—what Barth ought to have said, had he followed through, of the ontological implications of his revised doctrine of election with complete consistency.” See McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 211, emphasis added; cf. also pp. 211-213, 215, 234, 237-239.

[2] Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics II/1: The Doctrine of God, ed. Torrance, G. W. Bromiley & T. F., trans., T. H. L. Parker, W. B. Johnston, H. Knight, J. L. M. Haire (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 264.

[3] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 215. McCormack is citing Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, 271, though the emphasis is his.

[4] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 215, original emphasis.

[5] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 218.

[6] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 233.

[7] Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics II/2: The Doctrine of God, ed. Torrance, G. W. Bromiley & T. F., trans., Bromiley, G. W. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 45.

[8] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 236.

[9] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 237-238, original emphasis.

Bruce McCormack on Open Theism Part 2


With respect to theological considerations, open theism has a quite narrowly defined project:

What these theologians are interested in is basically two things: the will of God as it relates to free rational creatures and the question of what God knows and when he knows it. So open theism has to do, above all, with the doctrines of providence and divine foreknowledge. … The basic intuition is that the future is “open” not only for us but also for God. … Open theists hold…that an exhaustive divine foreknowledge is logically incompatible with human freedom.[1]

Again, McCormack is concerned that the open theists’ method compromises their Christology, and so threatens their entire endeavour:

I regard the lack of an adequate Christology—i.e., one which gives comprehensive attention to the problem of the ontological constitution of the Mediator—to be the single biggest defect in open theism; one which threatens to undermine the entire scheme and render its justified protest against classical theism ineffectual.[2]

It is clear from this statement that McCormack is sympathetic to the open theists’ aim but also rejects their approach to the matter. Addressing the work of Clark Pinnock particularly, McCormack finds that he holds a “fairly classical understanding” of the divine attributes. Although God is said to “suffer,” Pinnock evidently means by this, a kind of suffering distinct from the divine being: “What God is, it would seem, is something that is complete in itself, above and prior to any experience by God of suffering and pain.”[3] The Son who becomes incarnate also puts aside the use of any divine attributes which would conflict with his experience of being human. In this form of kenotic Christology, suggests McCormack, Jesus suffers humanly but his suffering as such has no impact on what the Logos is essentially, and so no effect on the divine nature.[4]

McCormack notes that the open theists’ Arminian account of salvation also drives their doctrine of providence: the way God works in conversion is typical of the way God works with human beings generally.[5] God limits his own power in order to provide space for the relative independence of human creatures, and then deals with them by means of persuasion.

Quite clearly, God’s will is a work-in-progress—and on this point, open theism is in agreement with process theology. “God has the power and ability to be (in Harry Boer’s words) an ‘ad hoc’ God, one who responds and adapts to surprises and to the unexpected. God sets goals for creation and redemption and realizes them ad hoc in history. If Plan A fails, God is ready with Plan B.”[6]

The open theists’ commitment to an open future entails a rejection of exhaustive divine foreknowledge, possibly their most controversial claim. The Achilles heel of this position for McCormack is that they confuse “certainty” with “necessity.” He borrows this distinction from William Lane Craig who argues that certainty is a predicate of persons, and so God’s certain knowledge of what will transpire in time does not render those things “necessary,” for they will occur as a function of the natural and historical conditions under which they take place.[7]

In his final assessment of open theism McCormack calls upon them accept wisdom of the church where it has spoken formally concerning the relevant topics. Here, the open theists’ Arminianism is not of concern for the Council of Orange decided that those who held to conditional or unconditional forms of election may be upheld as orthodox.[8] The same cannot be said with respect to their denial of exhaustive divine foreknowledge: “The truth is that the doctrine of an exhaustive divine foreknowledge enjoys fairly widespread ecumenical support, having been affirmed by both the Reformed and the Roman Catholics.”[9] In a quite remarkable statement that indicates something of McCormack’s understanding of theological authority, he writes,

Pinnock would, no doubt, dismiss the Westminster Confession as a Presbyterian confession without significance for his church and the churches of his allies. But given the radically divided nature of Protestantism in the West today, it seems to me…the better part of wisdom to grant to the teaching office in Rome relatively binding authority on questions in relation to which no existing Protestant confession has taken a different position.[10]

Thus McCormack faults open theism for the rejection of one element of classical theism which he suggests must certainly be upheld.[11] He remains sympathetic to their rejection of “a putative divine impassibility and timelessness” but suggests that such a case must be built on an entirely different metaphysical platform. In the end, open theism remains wedded to the essentialist presuppositions of classical theism and as a result cannot prosecute their case coherently. McCormack will go on to explore how Karl Barth’s actualistic conception of divine being might more fruitfully be applied to issues of interest to the open theists though without sacrificing either divine foreknowledge or immutability.[12]

[1] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 190.

[2] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 201, original emphasis.

[3] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 199, original emphasis.

[4] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 199.

[5] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 203.

[6] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 203, citing Pinnock in The Openness of God, 113.

[7] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 205.

[8] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 207.

[9] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 209.

[10] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 209.

[11] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 210.

[12] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 209-210.

Bruce McCormack on Open Theism Part 1


McCormack begins his essay with a brief overview of the relation of God to the world as understood in classical and process theism. Classical theism understands God as a transcendent being complete and perfect in himself and standing over against the world, thus maintaining a very robust Creator-creature distinction. Process theism, by contrast, envisages continuity between the being of God and the being of the world, so that God is deeply affected by everything that happens in the world. God is not simply responsive to the world, but “the being of God grows, develops, changes, evolves through the history of his interactions with the world.”[1] Yet McCormack suggests that which is common to these two views is more important than their differences:

In spite of these rather significant differences, what classical theism and process theism have in common is far more important. What they have in common, in the first place, is the belief that the “order of knowing” runs in the opposite direction to the “order of being.” That is to say, though the being of God is above and prior to the being of all else that exists (and therefore first in the “order of being”), our knowledge of God proceeds from a prior knowledge of some aspect or aspects of creaturely reality (and therefore the knowledge of God follows knowledge of the self or the world in the “order of knowing”). … Thus epistemology controls and determines divine ontology. … Both [classical and process theism] are exercises in metaphysics because both take up a starting point “from below” in some creaturely reality or magnitude and proceed through a process of inferential reasoning to establish the nature of divine reality. And this means…that both claim to know what God is before a consideration of Christology.[2]

Having laid this foundation McCormack goes on to define open theism as a “highly aggressive, missionary movement in theology which seeks to convert the evangelical churches to what it alleges to be a more “biblical” understanding of God.” Open theism has to do with God’s interaction with the world, and has a primary concern to protect human libertarian freedom, and derivatively, provide an explanation for the existence and persistence of evil. God exists in a reciprocal and open relation to the world and is responsive to human activity. The biblical grounding for this view is twofold. First, the open theists operate with a hermeneutic based on 1 John 4:16: “The statement God is love is as close as the Bible comes to giving us a definition of the divine reality.”[3]

What is happening here is that a definition of a term devised originally for speaking of love on the plane of human relations is being applied in a rather straightforward fashion to the being of God—without any sense that an illegitimate anthropopathizing of God might be taking place. … the Johannine axiom—and the meaning assigned to it—provides the open theists with (1) a criterion of selectivity for identifying passages in the Old Testament which are supportive of their claims and (2) a hermeneutical key for ordering these passages to other, more problematic passages.[4]

Second, McCormack notes that the open theists’ biblical case is largely build on passages in the Old Testament, and that “virtually the whole of the open theistic understanding of God has been fully elaborated on the basis of the Old Testament before the incarnation comes into view.”[5] He observes that both open theists and classical theists tend to harmonise the various texts of the Old Testament with respect to this issue, reading texts problematic to their view in light of other supposedly “more central” texts. McCormack’s own hermeneutical approach is of interest. He wants to allow Old Testament tensions to stand because (a) Scripture is not the work of a single author but a record of revelation received, and so somewhat ambiguous, especially in the Old Testament, which (b) requires interpretation in the light of Jesus Christ in whom alone God’s ultimate intentions are made known.[6] But the open theists’ treatment of the New Testament is largely predicated on a reading of Jesus’ interactions with others and his death on the cross as illustrative of the nature and being of God. McCormack is concerned, once more, that the open theists have applied their “metaphysic of love” so that Jesus is introduced only to validate a conception of God that has been worked out without reference to him.[7]

[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), 187.

[2] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 187-188, original emphasis.

[3] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 192, citing Richard Rice in Pinnock, C., The Openness of God, 16.

[4] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 192, 193.

[5] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 191, original emphasis.

[6] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 195.

[7] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 197.

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.

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.


Bruce McCormack on Chalcedonian Christology

council-of-chalcedonThe Council of Chalcedon in 451 is one of the milestones of Christian theology where the church sought to understand the relation between the deity and the humanity of Jesus Christ. In its famous Definition, the Council affirmed its faith as follows:

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence , not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God , the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

Bruce McCormack unpacks the achievement and significance of the christology of Chalcedon as “two natures in one person,” with the person being identified as God. He depicts the form as Chalcedonian christology as follows:

The diagram shows that the two        McCormack - Chalcedon Christology 1
natures coming together to form the
one person, but that person is  identified with the person of the Logos. As such, the Logos is the acting subject of the union and the human nature of Jesus, although real, plays no active role in the work of Christ.[1]

The main problem, for McCormack, is that Chalcedon remains ambiguous, open to both Apollinarian and Nestorian distortions. One the one hand, the Alexandrian christology which won the day at Chalcedon, while rejecting Apollinarianism, still proposed a way of understanding the person of Christ in which the Logos was the acting subject, and the humanity of Jesus a passive instrument in his hands.

The heart of [Apollinarian Christology] lay rather in…the drive to understand the Logos as the ruling principle of Christ’s human nature. Apollinarius’s own way of achieving that end—through the notion that the Logos simply takes the place of the human mind (nous)—was rather crude. A more sophisticated way of achieving the same goal would be through the affirmation of a “communication” between the divine nature and the human nature such that it becomes reasonable to think of the Logos as acting upon his human nature. In both cases, the human nature is reduced to the status of a passive instrument in the hands of the Logos; it is the object upon which the Logos acts. Against this tendency it has to be said that if the mind and will that are proper to Christ’s human nature do not cooperate fully and freely in every work of the God-human, then Christ’s humanity was not full and complete after all.[2]

On the other side, theologians for centuries have divided between the natures—in opposition to Chalcedon—parcelling out the work of Christ in such a way that some work is attributed to the divine nature and some to the human nature. This means for McCormack that “the ‘natures’ were made ‘subjects’ in their own right. The singularity of the subject of these natures was lost to view—and with that, the unity of the work.”[3] The reason for this widespread tendency is the hold that the concept of divine immutability has had on theology since ancient times. “It was unthinkable for the ancients that God could suffer and die. Only a human was believed able to do that. Confronted by theopaschitism, even the most Cyriline theologian often turns into a Nestorian.”[4]

However contrary they are with respect to their results, both of the tendencies we have examined—the tendency toward Apollinarianism resident in the thought that the Logos is the operative agent who achieves redemption in and through his human nature, as well as the tendency toward Nestorianism generated by the flight from a mutable God—have the same source. Their source is a process of thought that abstracts the Logos from his human nature in order, by turns, now to make of the human nature something to be acted upon by the Logos and now to make of that nature a subject in its own right in order to seal the Logos off hermetically from all that befalls that human nature from without. In both cases, the Logos is abstracted from the human nature he assumed…[5]

That is, the subject of the person of Jesus is understood as the Logos, rather than the God-human in his divine-human unity. Thus McCormack proposes a different way to understand the person of Jesus Christ:

In this portrayal, the person stands outside   McCormack - Chalcedon Christology 2
and above the two natures as it were,
so the person is not aligned with the Logos,
but with the man Jesus Christ in his
divine-human unity. The arrow indicates
that there is a communication to the divine nature of that which belongs to the human nature. That is, the acts and experiences of the human nature are also experienced by the Logos in his union with the human nature, so that as Jesus suffers and dies, he does not do simply simply in his human nature, as such. Jesus Christ in his divine-human unity suffers and dies, and the Logos experiences this suffering and death instead of being sheltered from it. In this way suffering and death are taken up into the very life of God so that God takes upon himself in the person of the Incarnate, the suffering and death that properly belongs to humanity.


[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), 350.

[2] McCormack, “Ontological Presuppositions,” 352-353.

[3] McCormack, “Ontological Presuppositions,” 354.

[4] McCormack, “Ontological Presuppositions,” 355.

[5] McCormack, “Ontological Presuppositions,” 355.

Bruce McCormack on Modern Christology

“Colorful Jesus Painting”

“The Person of Christ” in Kapic & McCormack (eds), Mapping Modern Theology, 149-173.

McCormack introduces his essay on the Person of Christ by noting that the doctrine of the person of Christ has to do with the ontological constitution of the mediator as divine and human. This duality of Jesus’ being has its roots in Scripture, and led to ancient debates culminating in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon. Here the essential parameters of the doctrine were set: the union of two natures—divine and human—in the one person, Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Chalcedon did not fully settle the christological questions. The relation of the two natures to one another, and the identification of the Subject of the person’s activity continued to arise in the history of the church as matters of controversy. For example, in the seventh-century, the church debated whether, in fact, Jesus had two wills. The Sixth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople III, 681) concluded that he did, the human will functioning as any other human will, though always in agreement with the will of the Logos. The sacramental dispute between Lutheran and Reformed theologians in the Reformation period revolved around whether the attributes of the one nature may be applied to the other nature, or whether the attributes of each nature should more properly be attributed to the person of Christ. For example, may we say that Jesus’ humanity is omnipresent or that God can die? Or would we better apply these various attributes to the person of Jesus in his unique divine-human unity?

In the modern period, a growing awareness of human self-consciousness and development posed sharp questions to Chalcedon. Cyril of Alexandria had portrayed Jesus’ humanity as static, almost an inert instrument of the Logos who was the acting Subject of the man Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Constantinople III affirmed that each nature possessed its own mind and will. In 1848, then, David Friedrich Strauss argued that this must mean that Jesus was possessed of two personalities, one infinite and one finite. If this was so, it must inevitably mean that Jesus’ divine nature overwhelms his human nature with the result that his humanity differs from ours. Is Jesus fully and genuinely human? This modern concern is one that McCormack shares.

McCormack identifies the Friedrich Schleiermacher and Georg Hegel as the two men who set the agenda for modern christology. Schleiermacher conceived of God in classic terms of an absolute and omnipotent God standing outside the created order. Nevertheless God’s activity is directed toward the world as a continual causative power, guiding and sustaining the ‘system of nature’ as a whole. God’s whole creational and providential purpose finds its climax and goal in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is perfectly open to God and so possesses a perfect God-consciousness. So powerful is this God-consciousness that he is able to live a sinless life and so become the Redeemer who communicates the power of his own God-consciousness to others. But Schleiermacher is concerned about human development and so in his view, the divine essence unites itself to human nature in the person of Jesus only gradually. This allows room for personality development in the human Jesus, as McCormack notes:

It was only as Jesus’s “higher powers” (reason and will) developed that the uniting activity could produce that redemptive power that would emanate from him to those who came after. To be sure, the uniting activity was present in such a way that it kept him preserved from sin at every point—but always in a manner congruent with his stage of human development.[1]

Because Jesus has a perfect passivity with respect to God’s uniting activity,

he is the replication in human form of the pure activity which God is—an incarnation of God by any other name. And he alone can be this. It is in him alone that the creation of human nature is made complete (in his pure receptivity to God). This is something that can only happen once. Therefore, Christ is utterly unique, and what takes place in him is final (in the sense of being unrepeatable) and universal in its significance.[2]

Hegel, more a philosopher than a theologian, approaches the question very differently. Whereas Schleiermacher clings to classical theism, Hegel’s God is a being-in-becoming, a God who is realising his divine being in and through the processes of world history. God is not a being complete and external to the world. Rather, God is on a journey to become who he is; God requires another to become self-conscious. Thus, God posits another alongside himself, a finite creature, the world, and in the world, a particular finite and personal creature, who is yet identified with God himself: Jesus Christ. Now, God has another over against himself in whom he also recognises himself. This other—Jesus—is separate from God, the opposite of God, and indeed in his suffering and death experiences the very antithesis of all that God is. In Jesus Christ, then, God has created and embraced and experienced the extremity of human alienation, finitude and death, and has taken it into the very life of God, triumphing over it.

The God who identifies himself with the crucified Jesus by raising him from the dead is the God who is made known as Self-sacrificial love, a love that goes to any extreme to be reconciled with the object of his love. And in that all of this is revealed to those who follow Jesus, their knowledge of God is made to be the vehicle of God’s own Self-knowledge. God knows himself in and through their knowledge of him.[3]

Albrecht Ritschl
Albrecht Ritschl

McCormack then goes onto discuss other forms modern christology has taken, including the kenotic christology of Gottfried Thomasius, the moral-historical christology “from below” of Albrecht Ritschl, and the “classical” yet post-metaphysical christology of Karl Barth. McCormack refers to all these christological models as the “basic paradigms” which shape the contours of almost all other modern christologies, including those of Moltmann and Pannenberg, the liberationists and feminists, Walter Kasper and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

McCormack’s essay is typically thorough, learned and well worth reading. Yet a significant question can be raised about his treatment of modern christology. McCormack argues that,

Modern Christology was born in a reaction not so much against the theological values that sought expression in and through those categories [of the Chalcedonian formula] as against the categories themselves. We make a huge mistake at the outset if we understand modern Christology as simply a repudiation of the dogma of the church. Initially, at least, it was anything but that. … The modern period saw a transformation in the categories employed to explain the basic values that came to expression in the formula, but no abandonment of those values.[4]

McCormack identifies these values very simply in terms of the Chalcedonian formula: Jesus is both divine and human in one person. By limiting the theological values of Chalcedon and the broader ancient tradition in this fashion he can suggest that Schleiermacher, Hegel and Ritschl are, to some extent at least, “orthodox” in a Chalcedonian sense. He is, of course, certainly aware that this is a problematic suggestion and acknowledges with respect to Schleiermacher and Hegel,

For both, the triunity of God is the consequence of the divine act of relating to the world in Christ and through the church. The Trinity is an eschatological rather than a protological reality. And that means, as Schleiermacher put it, God is not differentiated in himself in independence of his union with Christ and with the church.[5]

Surely this is a fatal departure from ancient theological values in which God is eternally the triune God, and Christ and the Spirit are eternal God. Why, then, has McCormack argued thus?

[1] McCormack, “The Person of Christ,” 159.

[2] McCormack, “The Person of Christ,” 160, original emphasis.

[3] McCormack, “The Person of Christ,” 162.

[4] McCormack, “The Person of Christ,” 150-151, 157.

[5] McCormack, “The Person of Christ,” 163.

Bruce McCormack on Barth’s Doctrine of Election

Bruce McCormack“Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology” in McCormack, B.L., Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, 183-200.

This was the article that started what has become a debate if not a furore, in Barth studies. In his essay McCormack not only sketched the primary outlines of Barth’s doctrine of election but registered ‘a critical correction against Barth,’ aiming to remove what he viewed as an inconsistency in Barth’s thought.[1] To understand what this critical correction is, it is necessary to briefly trace McCormack’s argument in the essay.

McCormack begins by correctly asserting that Barth’s revision of Calvin’s version of the doctrine has more to do with the doctrine of God than with the question of who belongs amongst the elect, although Barth does indeed replace Calvin’s double predestination with a universal election. Barth asks who the predestining God is, and more fundamentally, how it is possible that God could become human without introducing a rift into the very being of God. He addresses both questions by positing Jesus Christ as the subject of election: the God who elects is none other than the God revealed in the person and history of Jesus of Nazareth. From all eternity God self-determined to be God for us, God who became human in history in the person of Jesus Christ, and who, through his human experience of death, took death itself into the very life of God in order to triumph over it and deliver all humanity from its power. Because election is an eternal decision of self-determination, God’s being is unchanged by the incarnation and crucifixion. That is, God is in himself and from all eternity, what he became in time in the person of Jesus Christ:

God does not cease to be God in becoming incarnate and dying in this way. God takes this human experience into his own life and extinguishes its power over us. But God is not changed on an ontological level by this experience for the simple reason that God’s being, from eternity, is determined as a being-for this event.[2]

As stated, Barth’s intent in formulating his doctrine in this way, was to identify the electing God. God is not an absolute and hidden despot who has for reasons beyond human comprehension, divided humanity into those elect and those reprobate. Rather, the electing God is Jesus Christ whom we encounter in the history of redemption. God’s election is not a twofold division of humanity in eternity, but a covenant of grace whereby God takes upon himself the wrath that ought to have fallen on humanity in order to be gracious to us in Christ.

Thus far McCormack has accurately reported the intent and content of Barth’s doctrine. But McCormack wants to go further, and to suggest that the divine decision of election is constitutive of the divine being. Initially, he argues as follows:

In what sense, then, is the incarnation of the “Son” and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit “constitutive” of the eternal being of God? In this sense only: as a consequence of the primal decision in which God assigned to himself the being he would have throughout eternity (a being-for the human race), God is already in pretemporal eternity—by way of anticipation—that which God would become in time.[3]

If one considers the decision of election as an eternal self-determination, then one can understand McCormack’s point in this citation. Because there is no before and after in eternity, God’s eternal decision has no before and after, so that God is, was, and always will be the God he determined to be in this primal decision. Further, because God determined to be God in relation with humanity, to become human, to dwell within human persons, these determinations which would become actuality in time and place, are already actual—by way of anticipation—in the eternal being of God.

It is at this point that McCormack introduces his innovative proposal:

Throughout the exposition provided above, an unarticulated question hovered in the immediate background…what is the logical relation of God’s gracious election to the triunity of God? … It should be noted that Barth never put the question to himself in this precise form… Logically, his mature view of election would have required the retraction of certain of his earlier claims about the relation of revelation and triunity, finding in them a far too open door to the kind of speculation his mature doctrine of election sought to eliminate. … Of course, it would always remain true for Barth that God is triune in himself (in pretemporal eternity) and not just in his historical revelation. Were God triune only in his revelation, the immanent Trinity would collapse into the economic Trinity. But that God is triune for the sake of his revelation? How could Barth deny this without positing a mode of existence in God above and prior to God’s gracious election—the very thing he accused Calvin of having done?[4]

McCormack insists that Barth’s mature christology, grounded in his doctrine of election, and developed subsequently to his doctrine of the Trinity, requires a change in his doctrine of the Trinity. In this citation, McCormack goes “beyond” Barth, suggesting that “God is triune for the sake of his revelation.” This appears to suggest that God’s triunity is incidental to his essential being, but this is not what McCormack means. He spells it out more clearly as follows:

These commitments require that we see the triunity of God, logically, as a function of divine election. Expressed more exactly: the eternal act of Self-differentiation in which God is God “a second time in a very different way” (CD I/1: 316, 324) and a third time as well is given in the eternal act in which God elects himself for the human race. The decision for the covenant of grace is the ground of God’s triunity and therefore of the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son. In other words, the works of God ad intra (the trinitarian processions) find their ground in the first of the works of God ad extra (viz., election). And this also means that eternal generation and eternal procession are willed by God; they are not natural to God if “natural” is taken to mean a determination of being which is fixed in advance of all actions and relations.[5]

It is now evident why McCormack’s proposal has generated intense discussion amongst Barth scholars. First, he goes beyond what Barth said and continued to say into his late career. Second, his proposal appears illogical: how can God’s decision be constitutive of God’s being, in the sense of being its ground? Surely God must be prior to his decision? Third, if God’s decision issues in the eternal missions of the Son and the Spirit, then does God as a monad somehow precede God as triune, despite the rhetoric of it being an eternal decision? Care is needed here, for McCormack takes pains to reiterate time and again that he is speaking of a logical relation that has nothing to do with temporal categories. Nevertheless, the questions must be put and have been put to McCormack, who has also risen to the challenge of defending his proposal against his critics. How successfully he has done so remains to be seen.


[1] McCormack, Bruce L. “Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology.” In Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, 183-200. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008: 193. (Originally published in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (ed. John Webster; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 92-110.

[2] McCormack, “Grace and Being,” 189.

[3] McCormack, “Grace and Being,” 191, original emphasis.

[4] McCormack, “Grace and Being,” 192-193, original emphasis.

[5] McCormack, “Grace and Being,” 194, original emphasis.