Tuesday 20 May 2008

Bruce McCormack on Peter Enns and Westminster

The redoubtable Bruce McCormack has weighed in on the Peter Enns debacle, with an excellent guest-post over at Arthur Boulet’s blog. McCormack argues that the Westminster report against Enns does not reflect a Reformed christology, but instead a Lutheran or even Eastern Orthodox christology.

In passing, he also makes a very interesting observation about contemporary Protestant theology: “I live in an ecclesial world in which those who value Christian orthodoxy as a concept seem invariably to drift towards either Rome or Constantinople or some amalgamation of the two which is represented by no existing church. The last thing most of my friends want is a truly Protestant theology (whether Lutheran or Reformed)…”


Zac said...

"....The last thing most of my friends want is a truly Protestant theology (whether Lutheran or Reformed)…”

Wow! This hits the nail on the head. It also connects with your post on Zizek and Universalism in interesting ways. Is not the debate around Peter Enns and Westminster hinged upon a misunderstanding of what the search for the truth really looks like? In a sense, one might say that Peter Enns is seen by Westminster as a fundamentalist universalist; one who so openly endorses tolerance that he cannot bow to biblical authority; yet in truth, perhaps Peter Enns is really engaging in what true submission to the word looks like, or what Schmitt called, the "political proper", which is the willingness to engage in the passionate struggle for the truth (christ) who compels him instead of taking the road of a protected, static identity (fundamentalist right) or dissolution of identity altogether(fundamentalist left). And in the end, as McCormack's quote suggests, Peter Enns might be more orthodox than those in Westminster who accuse him of heterodoxy....



Ben Myers said...

Hi Zac: yes, absolutely!

Anonymous said...

What a treat of an excursus in Reformed Christology! But are we not left with an unresolved tension? On the one hand, McCormack would have Reformed theologians attend more conscientiously to their own traditions as consolidated in their confessions. On the other hand, he concludes by saying that "Polemical situations rarely provide a seed-bed for careful theology." And yet is it not precisely from "polemical situations" that the confessions themselves derive?

Conversely, by the way, the context of the theosis bandwagon of which McCormack speaks - the Finnish school on Luther and recent explorations of Calvin's participatory Christology - is ecumenical eirenicism.

My own view, for what it's worth, is that while we should be suspicious of theological work that is so driven by the agenda of unity that it fails to make careful distinctions, neither should we be so obsessed with adhering to confessional identities that our traditions become beds of Procrustes - which, of course, ironically, is precisely what it means to be in the Reformed stable: reformata, sed semper reformanda.

Anonymous said...

Exactly... but perhaps this insistence on a truly reformed theology is, in itself, quite impossible to sustain. or better, Rome and Constantinople have, in the post reformation period, become much more sensitive to issues raised by the reformers and therefore have incorporated the reformed spirit in some form into their bodies...making a free standing reformed theology perhaps a little bit nonplussed and...nowhere.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony,

Perhaps not "in the post reformation period", but certainly, at least for Rome, post-Vatican II.

On the other hand - a warning - I have just finished reading Nicholas Lash's new collection of essays Theology for Pilgrims (2008), which devotes a whole section - the final section - to Lash's concerns about "the struggle for the council" (the title of the section), which he sees as "a struggle about memory", a struggle with those - like Ratzinger/Benedict - Lash pulls no punches - who would re-write what actually happened at Vatican II.

"'Is not, and cannot be interpreted as, a rupture with the past,'" Lash quotes Archbishop Amato. And he continues: "We have been here before... It is as if the teaching of Vatican II is either identical with what was taught before or there has been a 'rupture'. It does not appear to have occured to him that the Church might have learnt something - about itself, and about other Christian churches and communities. It does not, in other words, appear to have occured to him that, guided by the Spirit, doctrine might have, shall we say, developed?" (p. 272). (Lash, of course, is a disciple of Newman.)

Here is an eminent Catholic theologian extremely worried about the forces of reaction. Which suggests that a Reformed ethos - that a teaching church must be a learning church, that a church that is not learning is not fit to teach - can never be simply taken for granted.

Chris TerryNelson said...

A Westminster Prof. in California, R. Scott Clark, has made the following response over at his blog. H/T to Stratkey.

Ben Myers said...

Chris, thanks for the link to R. Scott Clark's ad hominem response.

His conclusion is disappointing: "This last aspect of [McCormack's] argument, about whether the HTFC report is orthodox or right or wrong, interests me less than how McCormack gets to his criticism and it interests me less than the fact that he’s paying attention to these sorts of discussions."

A strange response! He's clearly offended by the very idea that a Princeton professor might know a thing or two about Reformed history; but he's not even interested in whether McCormack's argument is correct.

Anonymous said...


You ask: "...is it not precisely from 'polemical situations' that the confessions themselves derive?" The answer is a tentative yes - but that is not all that there was to it. Karl Barth, who devoted more space to thinking about the conditions which make for a genuine "status confessionis" than anyone else, said that one of the preconditions is the presence of a heresy which is proving so seductive to the faithful that the being of the Church as a being in the truth that is Jesus Christ is imperilled. But he added that another precondition is that the Church is prepared, on the basis of a Church-wide encounter with the Word of God as attested in Holy Scripture to respond together to this threat. In other words, it is not just polemical situations which have given rise to confession but the presence of a shared faith to confess in response - a unity in the faith that must be proclaimed in other words. The fourth century Trinitarian controversies provide a wonderful illustration of the truth of what Barth says. The Nicene Creed of 325, as is well known, did not create unity in the faith. It created further unrest and disagrement. It was not until the conversion of the Cappadocians to a "Nicene" perspective that the conditions were created for the emergence of formluations capable of creating a significant degree of ecumenical agreement. Put another way, the Creed in the form in which we recite it today (the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381) is the greatest ecumenical achievement in the history of the church. So it was not simply a polemical situation which gave rise to this very careful piece of theology; it was the effort to establish the church in agreement in the truth. The same is true, I would say, of the Reformation-era confessions. They did not simply correct errors; they sought to re-establish unity through a proclamation of the truth as it is in Jesus Christ. My problem with Pete Enn's critics is that they care for only one side of this dialectic.

Zac said...

"Put another way, the Creed in the form in which we recite it today (the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381) is the greatest ecumenical achievement in the history of the church. So it was not simply a polemical situation which gave rise to this very careful piece of theology; it was the effort to establish the church in agreement in the truth. The same is true, I would say, of the Reformation-era confessions. They did not simply correct errors; they sought to re-establish unity through a proclamation of the truth as it is in Jesus Christ."

And isn't this a plain affirmation of what good theology should be: praise. As Barth put it;

"theology is not a creative act but only a praise of the Creator and of his act of creation -- praise that to the greatest possible extent truly responds to the creative act of God...[and] theology is free because it is not only summoned but also liberated for such analogy, reflection, and reproduction. It is authorized, empowered, and impelled to such praise of its creator." (Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology, p.17)

Indeed, if polemics is the motivating factor behind theology, then it has become bad theology.

Anonymous said...

Excellent, Bruce. Thank you for giving us the whole picture with such an indisputable illustration.

As for Clark's response to Professor McCormack's post, what it lacked in pith it made up for in petulance.

Anonymous said...

What Bruce has done, among other things, it seems to me, is to challenge a certain set of assumptions prevalent among theologians, not only those at Westminster, if they can even be included here. The assumption is, first, that Antiochian Christology seeks to preserve the integrity of Christ’s two natures, possibly to the “extreme” of Nestorian division of the subject or person. Another assumption is that, on the other hand, Alexandrian Christology seeks to emphasize the unity of the Person of Christ, possibly to the extreme of mixing the natures ala Mono-/Miaphysitism. These assumptions, by the way, seem to lead some to conclude that what is needed is a balance or combining the two types of Christology in a sort of Kierkegaardian dialectic.

Bruce challenges these assumptions in his post by showing us how, in fact, the Alexandrian option can be the best way of preserving the integrity (and with it, or as part of it, the non-instrumentalization) of the two natures, particularly the human nature. This is because theologians thinking along Alexandrian lines can build the human nature (with all its integrity, freedom, etc.), as it were, into the unity of the divine subject from the beginning. If you don’t do this, on the other hand, and imagine the divine subject of the Logos as possessing its unity before or apart from the human nature of Jesus (asarkos), then the human nature assumed in the incarnation becomes a puppet. It cannot contribute to the divine Person because the integrity and unity of the Logos is set beforehand.

Therefore, not only is the Antiochian option not necessary to “balance” the Alexandrian, but beyond this, better resources for meeting the legitimate concerns of Antiochians can be found, however counter-intuitive it is, in Alexandrian Christology. And, of course, also answered is the criticism that Alexandrian Christology, without Antiochian checks, becomes monophysite.

JKnott said...


It seems to me that Bruce is saying that classical Reformed theology followed the Antiochian model. So I don't see how he's showing us in his post in question how Alexandrian Christology can preserve the integrity of the natures, though of course he might think that.

Anonymous said...


I see what you're saying. I was a bit confused, and really still am.

Anonymous said...

The big question is: How do you build the human nature into the unity of the divine Subject from the beginning?

Anonymous said...


Now that I've thought about it a bit more, what I think I was getting at (or should now get at) is this:

Sure, there is something Antiochian about wanting to preserve the integrity of the natures in the hypostatic union, but there also seems to be something Alexandrian about allowing the human nature to contribute to the being of the Logos. Monophysitism seems to accomplish this at the expense of the integrity of the natures by mixing them together into a third something. I'm thinking other ways can be found to accomplish this without the monophysite solution, but still remaining distinctively Alexandrian.

I think the only way to really build it in from the beginning is through Barth's doctrine of election. God eternally decides that he will be for humans in Jesus Christ, and so though Jesus the man lived in time, his assumption is eternal and so his humanity is eternally constituative of the second person of the trinity. I think that is an adequate attempt at an explanation, though Ben and perhaps Bruce may have corrections, as they are both interesting in these issues.

Anonymous said...

If I have understood him correctly, Dr. McCormack's analysis and exposition of Reformed Christology actually sheds alot of light on his own election/kenotic Christology project.

If the one person is actually a "compound person" then it doesn't become a far stretch to argue, again if I have understood Dr. McCormack's argument elsewhere, that in election Jesus Christ is both object and subject of election, since this active decision is what constitutes the second person of the Trinity as such.

Anonymous said...

If the being of the second person of the Trinity is constituted by the decision for election, then that decision was made by the Father alone and not the Son, for the Son (apparently) did not have a being at that point. So Jesus Christ cannot be the subject of election in any way that Barth intended, he is only the object of election. Read Hunsinger's article on this in Modern Theology.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #2:

I presume you're talking about the article criticizing McCormack? If so, yes, let's all read it and ALSO read any response that may be forthcomming before presuming we have all the facts and arguments.

But my initial response to this is that we can go even farther and say that, if the being of the Father and the being of the Son, AS Father and Son, are constituted not in isolation but only in relation to one another, then why not say that the Father didn't make the eternal decision either? Because the decision constitues the Father's being (as the Father of Jesus Christ) just as much as it constitutes the Son's being (as the Word incarnate in Jesus Christ). And if we do not argue that the Father does not make the decision, then it is a bit arbitrary to say the Son did not make it.

In reality, it is possible to construe the eternal decision as a decision by the whole Godhead constituting the being of the whole Godhead. God as love constitues his Triune being by deciding to be for humanity in Jesus Christ, to assume a human nature. No divine person is therefore left out of the decision on either side of the equation, making the decision or being constituted by it.

Now for me to get that article.

Anonymous said...

I've read the Hunsinger article and it is very impressive. My main point was to note the structural parallel between McCormack's analysis of Reformed Christology and what he has been arguing both in terms of Barth and in terms of his own constructive project on Kenosis.

Frankly, I haven't made a decision on which position I think is the better way forward. I think McCormack has a point regarding the logic of Barth's doctrine of election, while Hunsinger raises important questions about the logical consistency of McCormack's articulation not to mention the kind of irony such an articulation would produce given Barth's concerns about Feuerbach, etc. My feeling at this point is that there is ground for McCormack's position in Barth's construction, but Barth was never all that impressed by logical consistency in theology. I look forward to reading McCormack's work on Kenosis and following the discussion at the conference down in New Zealand.



Anonymous said...


I just want to let you know that response to Mr. Hunsinger's theses will come in due course. That, as Mr. Hunsinger himself would say, is a "moral certainty."

Thanks for keeping an open mind. Would that my critics would have the patience to wait for a more complete case before rushing to judgment.

Anonymous said...

as one close to PTS, I can attest that while BM is spot on in regards to the Christological issue, R. Scott Clark has nailed it regarding PTS and their derision of Reformed orthodoxy and the WCF.

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