Bruce McCormack on Reformed Kenoticism

Today I did a seminar with my students where we read Bruce McCormack’s piece on  “‘With Loud Cries and Tears’: The Humanity of the Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews,” in The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology, ed. R. Bauckham et al (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009).

McCormack constructs a Reformed Kenotic Christology by building on John Owen, Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar and a bit of John Calvin.  In contrast to the Lutheran genus majestaticum – where the divine attributes are communicated to Jesus’ human nature by virtue of union – which always ran the risk of the divine nature overriding the human nature of Christ, McCormack builds a Reformed alternative. According to McCormack, Reformed Christology always had a “healthy tilt towards Nestorianism” which affirmed the Chalcedonian formulae of the unity of the two natures in the person but without endangering Jesus’ humanity or slipping into a soft docetism. He argues instead for a genus tapeinoticum, a communication of humanity to God, i.e., a humanization of God. McCormack reads Phil 2:5-8 not as a divestment of divine attributes, but as an communication of the human to the divine. Thus, Jesus’ self-emptying was not about what he left behind (the “omni-” attributes), but what he took on as a human servant. This is a reading which has exegetical warrant, esp. in Gordon Fee’s exegesis of the passage. According to McCormack:

If the acts and experiences of the man Jesus are to be the acts and experiences of the Son of God, if they are to be taken up into the divine life, then the relationship of the “person” to his human nature must be characterized by receptivity. And if this receptivity is not to effect a change in being of the eternal Son, then it must itself be grounded in the sovereign and free decision in which God makes himself to be a God “for us” in the covenant of grace. There must be, in other words, an eternal humility of the Son which makes the second mode of being of the one God to be what it is, as distinct from the first and third modes. To say this much is completely commensurate with saying that the Logos is already in eternity, as a consequence of election  a “composite Person.” But it should also be noted that if the incarnation is to effect no change in the being of the eternal Son, then the eternal humility of the Son  cannot consist in a divestment of anything proper to him as God. Such a divestment is ruled out of court by the concept of an eternal humility in any case. Therefore, the idea of a kenosis by divestment must be replaced by kenosis as an eternally willed non-use of the omni-attributes in and through the human nature to be assumed. I call this version of kenoticism “Reformed” because it lays all of its emphasis on the freedom of God and the sovereignly willed non-use of divine attributes (p. 50).

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  • Terrance Tiessen

    Michael, are you happy with this statement by McCormack: “To say this much is completely commensurate with saying that the Logos is already in eternity, as a consequence of election a ‘composite Person.’”

    I like everything else about McCormack’s proposal, but on this I have doubts, and I welcome your own perspective. Doesn’t this perspective make the Word eternally incarnate (something I firmly reject)? Does that not have strange implications for the existence of believers, which were likewise elected in Christ before the creation of the world? I don’t pretend to understand time or God’s relationship to it, but the framework represented in this statement by McCormack seems to make God completely transcendent with regard to time, and makes events in time meaningless. (As John Feinberg says, for instance, a problem if God is completely timeless, is that God knows eternally what happens at every moment in time, but he doesn’t know what time it is now.)

  • Matthew B

    I’m interested in Reformed kenoticism, and I respect McCormack. But speaking as a philosopher, I find this whole paragraph confusing. “If this receptivity is not to effect a change in being of the eternal
    Son, then it must itself be grounded in the sovereign and free decision
    in which God makes himself to be a God “for us” in the covenant of
    grace.” What does this mean? What is the sense of “groundedness” at play here? How would grounding some change in a free decision make the change not a “change in being”? (And what does it mean for a change to be a “change in being”?)

    And as the other commentator said: does this imply an eternal incarnation? Perhaps it does; but McCormack is mistaken if he thinks that this removes all problems related to immutability. For presumably the incarnation is still a contingent fact; and it is plausible to think that this makes the sovereign choice logically posterior to God’s nature. And it is plausible to think that any sovereign choice to receive something into God which is posterior to God’s nature involves a change in God.

    There-I got that off my chest!