Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Edinburgh Dogmatics: Christ and Kenosis

The actual title of the paper given by Prof Bruce McCormack (Princeton) was The Humility of the Eternal Son: The Failure of the Older Kenoticism and a New Proposal. Got that? Here's a summary of the paper, and a bit of comment to boot:

  • Almost all classical forms of kenotic Christology have failed - even if advocates of it achieved some remarkable insights. Kenosis (n), of course, comes from ekenosin (v) in emptied Himself in Ph2:7. Does the hymn speak of a pre- or post-incarnation emptying? The former - for many reasons that time precludes examining, but mainly due to the association of the name of Jesus with the name of Yahweh in Ph2:10 (see Is45:23). Fee's commentary and an essay by Bauckham help to establish this rather fundemental point. And this is when the really significant theological questions arise and also the point when we must move from exegesis to synthetic systematic construction.
  • A quite thorough history of kenotic Christology followed, from roots in Erasmus; early Luther through Chemnitz; Thomasius (first full-blown kenotic theory); Gess (a more or less complete transformation of the Logos into a human soul); and British Kenoticism.
  • Reformed Christology agreed with Lutheran on the first two genera of communicated attributes between the natures: (i) the communication of the essential attributes of the divine nature of the Logos and the human nature to the person of Christ (communication of attributes between the human nature and the Logos within the Person) (ii) the communication of works, whereby in every act of Christ, both natures are active.
  • But Reformed theology refuted the third Lutheran genus: the genus majestaticum, whereby the human nature partook of the omni-attributes of the divine nature, due to a perichoresis of the natures. However, in Lutheran (as opposed to mediaeval) Christology, this communication was not two-way, in order to maintain divine immutability and impassibility.
  • Reformed Christology added it's own third genus, the communicatio gratiarum, whereby the Holy Spirit bestowed created gifts of grace upon Jesus.
  • It also added the extra calvinisticum to ensure that the Logos maintains his divine fulness.
  • The problem, for McCormack is: (i) the extra calvinisticum sets up a double-Logos, with two identities; (ii) how can we allow communication of human properties to the Logos (first genus), but not allow these properties to be communicated to the divine nature?
  • Logically, for McCormack, the use of the 'person' in the first genus as a metaphysical buffer cannot preserve divine impassibility. For Christ, human properties, actions and experiences are properties, actions and experiences of this divine 'person'.
  • McCormack also sees no need for the second genus, but proposes that we simply think of the one God-human acting humanly.
  • And so we arrive at the kenosis as a sovereignly-willed and therefore active receptivity on the part of the pre-incarnate Logos vis-a-vis His human nature, a refusal to make use of certain attributes. This governs the relation of the Logos to his human nature throughout his lived existence.
  • Up until this point, I'm in sympathy with Prof McCormack. Obviously, classical Reformed formulations of immutability go out of the window, but then it's hard to keep all the windows closed and classic should not be beyond question. We have to be prepared to think through the windows, don't we?
  • Anyway, the big problems happen now, since Prof McCormack wants to keep classical immutability intact. So, in a rapidly steepening curve that gets a bit frightening, the receptivity becomes an eternal act. Then it becomes an act constituting the Trinity. Then, because redemption is normally considered a free choice of God, the question gets asked 'did God have to be Triune?' Whoa, whoa, whoa! At this point it seems as if we're away with the fairies in the kind of footloose metaphysical speculation that Prof McCormack warned against earlier in the conference. It seems a high price to pay for maintaining the immutability that the older kenoticism dispensed with.

Ouch, my head hurts! Prof McCormack is at least grappling with these thorny issues. This paper in many ways was the most honest - I greatly appreciated it. He said something else, when referring to the writings of Forsyth and MacIntosh (two British kenoticists) that will stay with me: that he was wistful that 'theologians could once have shown themselves to be so deeply centred in the needs of others, rather than being consumed with career advancement and self promotion as so many now seem to be'. One to remember.