1/ Reviewing Bruce McCormack’s: The Humility of the Eternal Son

I am going to attempt to write a series of blog posts that will be sections of what potentially could be turned into a review essay on chapter 7 (the final chapter) of Bruce McCormack’s book The Humility of the Eternal Son: Reformed Kenoticism and the Repair of Chalcedon. Chapter 7 is where McCormack presents his constructive proposal on what he considers to be the needed ‘repair’ of Chalcedonian Christology. As the reader will see, he doesn’t abandon Chalcedon, he constructively engages with it offering an interesting proposal that I believe might be a way forward for thinking the Divinity and humanity of the eternal Son together in the singular person of Jesus Christ. I plan on sharing what I take to be key passages from McCormack’s chapter 7 and engaging with his thinking from there. The first passage presents McCormack’s general proposal, which he develops throughout the rest of the chapter.

Karl Barth was right, I think, to translate two “natures” into understandings of the “divine” and the “human” that arise out of close attention to “the history of God in his mode of existence as the Son.” Both “divine” and “human” being are “defined” by this history, for this history constitutes the “essence” of each. And so, in the place of two discrete (substantially conceived) “natures” subsisting in one and the same “persons,” I am going to posit the existence of a single composite hypostasis, constituted in time by means of what I will call the “ontological receptivity” of the eternal Son to the “act of being” proper to the human Jesus as human. “Ontological receptivity,” it seems to me, is the most apt phrase describing the precise nature of the relation of the “Son” to Jesus of Nazareth as witnessed to in the biblical texts we treated.

I am going to argue further that it is the Son’s “ontological receptivity” that makes an eternal act of “identification” on the part of the Logos with the human Jesus to be constitutive of his identity as the second “person” of the Trinity even before the actual uniting occurs. This is what I believe to have been missing in Jüngel and Jenson. The “Son” has as “Son” an eternal determination for incarnation and, therefore, for uniting through “receptivity.” He is, in himself, “receptive.” To say any more than this at this point is impossible in the absence of a more thorough reconstruction of Chalcedon, so I will stop for the moment. Suffice it to say that “ontological receptivity” on the part of the Logos does all the heavy lifting that the genus tapeinoticum would have done (had the Reformed accepted it). And it does this without requiring acceptance of the classical metaphysics that made both the genus majesticum and the genus tapeinoticum to be (logical) possibilities. In any event, the reconstruction that follows will in no way violate the fundamental commitments of classical Reformed Christology. It will, in fact, extend essential commitments while breaking with non-essential commitments.

What is essential to any genuinely Reformed Christology is (again) the emphasis placed upon the integrity of the divine and human elements in their uniting. And I will secure that emphasis. The unimpaired integrity of the divine will be secured by means of the stress laid on a determination for incarnation that is essential to the eternal Son. The unimpaired integrity of the human will be secured by the Son’s receptivity that prevents instrumentalization of the human. What emerges will be in the spirit of Chalcedon even if it is not according to the letter.

So much by way of introduction.1

I have been reading Bruce for a long time. When I read his ‘repair’ or proposal it doesn’t fall on fresh ground. In other words, I have heard this from him, and some of his students, for decades now (one in particular, Darren Sumner; see his work Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God). These first inklings of what McCormack is only bringing together now (in this book, and we can assume the following two forthcoming in this trilogy) I was first introduced to in McCormack’s essay/chapter in the Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, Grace and Being: the role of God’s gracious election in Karl Barth’s theological ontology.” This chapter from McCormack represented, at that point, a type of watershed moment, which ended up being known quaintly as the “Companion controversy,” and/or the “Barth Wars.” Without getting into that, the controversial nature of what McCormack was proposing then in certain ways seems to be the seedlings of what is now blossoming in his ‘repair of Chalcedon.’

The critique has always been (by George Hunsinger, Paul Molnar et al.) that McCormack’s reading, and “revisionist” appropriation of Barth’s themes works against the grain of Barth’s textual theological offering. Be that as it may, that hatchet, for McCormack has been buried; he has moved on, and is developing here, not an intentionally “Barthian” account of things, instead, his is simply an offering of constructive Christological imagination. If the reader is familiar with modern theology, what the reader senses, if they do, and they’d be right, is a type of so-called postmetaphysical or post-Barthian analysis by McCormack. The reader might pick this up merely by reading the passage I offered from McCormack above. But if the reader had indeed read McCormack previous to this final chapter, they would have understood that McCormack is distancing himself from unqualified post-Barthian readings of the Christological history of ideas. He proffers what he along with his colleague Alexandra Pârvan identify as a ‘psychological ontology,’ which fits well with what he describes for us above as ‘ontological receptivity,’ to which we now turn.

When McCormack writes the following, “I am going to argue further that it is the Son’s ‘ontological receptivity’ that makes an eternal act of ‘identification’ on the part of the Logos with the human Jesus to be constitutive of his identity as the second ‘person’ of the Trinity even before the actual uniting occurs …,” one gets the type of ‘narratival’ feeling you might get when reading Robert Jenson’s own “Barth” inspired oeuvre. I would suggest that it is this thesis offered by McCormack that serves most controversial for his proposal, and yet I find it rather compelling in certain ways (which I will have to address in a later post). It is this theory, in regard to ontological receptivity, that has been inchoately present in McCormack’s thinking (at least in published form) since at least his ‘Companion’ piece. The controversial aspect of this comes back to the fear that McCormack is engaging, at the christological level, in some form of adoptionism or Ebionism. But McCormack attempts to elide this charge by emphasizing, as we see in the second paragraph above, the notion that the eternal Son has always already been Deus incarnandus (God to become flesh); which fits with McCormack’s understanding of Barth’s doctrine of election, to a point (McCormack does not think Barth’s doctrine of election goes far enough to allow McCormack to speak in the ways he now is with reference to “ontological receptivity,” which you can read about here).

For McCormack, thus far, he believes that Godself’s choice or election to be enfleshed in Christ, makes His reception in the man from Nazareth the most fitting and organic outcome that Godself eternally pre-destined for Himself as the fundamentum or foundation of the Divine identity. One could argue that this escapes adoptionism insofar that in this choice to be incarnate, God has always already been the eternal identity, or the inner-reality for which creation itself had been fitted in its own independently contingent and ordered way. As such, the Christological heresy of adoptionism has no air to breathe insofar that the type of abstract creation required for such a notion to exist never obtains; that is, the condition for an abstract notion of humanity apart from its predetermination to be what it is vis-á-vis God is a counterfactual with no factual basis in the economy of God as revealed in His history for the world in Jesus Christ. This might seem to lend itself towards a failure to secure a proper Creator/creature distinction in a God-world relation, thus resulting in some type of panentheism through a christological malaise. But McCormack will attempt to rebuff this error by appeal to a robust reposition on a Pneumatological-Christology forthcoming. If the Divine identity is contingent on God’s life for the world in Christ, the Spirit will need to do the type of “heavy-lifting” that McCormack is wont to stress as “ontological receptivity.”

Even as I write this, I am still processing whether I can co-sign with Bruce, and say amen. His reception and constructive engagement with Barth’s doctrine of election has always been intriguing to me. His Christological proposal in this book is no less intriguing; indeed, it seems to take his form of thinking, in regard to his constructive imagination with Barth, to another level. To be sure, his proposal here is not intended to be a “Barthian” proposal, per se; McCormack makes this clear throughout the book. His primary modern interlocutors are Karl Barth, Robert Jenson, Eberhard Jüngel, Sergius Bulgakov, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. He is not slavishly committed to any of his ‘teachers,’ but the reader can see bright pieces throughout, informing his ‘repair’ work as he attempts to harvest the best from them and imaginatively bring them into a concerto of his own rhythmic orchestration.


1 Bruce Lindley McCormack, The Humility of the Eternal Son: Reformed Kenoticism and the Repair of Chalcedon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 252-53.