The Humility of the Eternal Son: Reformed Kenoticism and the Repair of Chalcedon

Written by Bruce Lindley McCormack Reviewed By Sergiej Slavinski

McCormack’s book is the first in a trilogy whose goal is to ‘construct a personal ontology of the triune God that takes as it starting point the act of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ’ (p. 6). His work makes two claims: (1) ‘the eternal Son has an essential relation to the personal life of Jesus’ and (2) ‘the nature of that relation is best understood in terms of “ontological receptivity”’ (p. 7, original emphasis).

The book unfolds in three parts according to critical history, biblical material, and constructive theology (p. 20). Part 1 provides a ‘Critical History of Kenotic Christologies and Their Antecedents’. This critical history covers ancient Christologies and nineteenth and twentieth-century kenotic theories (i.e., the ‘self-emptying’ of the Son of God). It clarifies the modern Christological tradition to which McCormack’s Christological construction belongs and identifies Christologies from which this construction departs (p. 195). Part 2, on ‘Returning to Scripture’, seeks to provide a ‘biblically funded picture of the Self-humiliating God’ (p. 199). Part 3 is all about the repair of Chalcedon by way of McCormack’s ‘Reformed Version of Kenotic Christology’.

By way of commendation, McCormack’s book challenges one to think carefully about what metaphysical ideas are biblically appropriate for describing the unity of Christ’s person. McCormack reminds us that ontological reflection about this unity cannot ignore Chalcedon’s contribution, even if one wishes to reconstruct Chalcedon’s Christology.

In what follows, this review focuses on five points of analysis. First, the reader needs more engagement with both primary and secondary literature in several areas. McCormack leapfrogs much of medieval and early modern Chalcedonian accounts. If the claim of the book is to offer a repair of Chalcedon, then surely this invites further analysis of post-Chalcedonian Christology. Indeed, McCormack perceives that Chalcedonian orthodoxy needs to be repaired because it presents a logical aporia: human properties can and cannot be predicated of the Logos (pp. 31, 58, 63). It would be helpful if this claim was discussed in relation to scholarship on scholastic treatments of the incarnation (e.g., Richard Cross). Theologians have variously understood the person-nature distinction in the metaphysics of the incarnation. Here, McCormack ought to have defined more clearly the categories of person and nature as represented by Chalcedonian expositors.

Second, McCormack’s discussion of Reformed Christology is thin: he invokes John Calvin, Francis Turretin, and John Owen in particular as representatives of Reformed Christology (pp. 250–51). Extending this discussion would help to distinguish clearly ‘essential commitments’ from ‘non-essential commitments’ of Reformed Christology. One is not persuaded that McCormack’s reconstruction of Chalcedon does not ‘violate the fundamental commitments of classical Reformed Christology’ when he rejects the doctrine of divine simplicity (pp. 252, 254–55).

Third, McCormack’s exegesis of Philippians 2:6–8 requires extended analysis. He understands kenosis as an expression of equality with God because equality with God ‘continues’ in the incarnation (p. 210). True, as McCormack notices, equality with God ‘continues’ and a parallel exists between the ‘form of God’ and ‘equality with God’. But if kenosis expresses ‘equality with God’, why does Paul say in v. 6 that Christ did not take advantage of that equality? McCormack informs us that Christ ‘did not regard what was his by nature (equality with God) as something to be used for his own advantage’, but argues that Christ expressed that equality with God in the ‘act of taking the form of a slave’ (pp. 209–10). Of course, McCormack foregrounds the single Christological subject in his divine-human unity, but what precisely does ‘equality with God’ mean?

Fourth, according to McCormack, kenosis as ‘ontological receptivity’ is the ‘personal property’ of the Son; it is what establishes the identity of the Son in eternity (pp. 19, 260–61). How this logically squares with the Father’s generation of the Son needs extended clarification. He speculates that ‘self-emptying’ could be ‘contained in the Son’s eternal (equally necessary) response to his eternal generation by the Father’ (p. 211). This likely means that the Son’s mission of humiliation is rooted in eternal generation (p. 279). But does all this imply that the Son’s identity is not established in the Father’s generation but in the Son’s relation to the ‘human Jesus’? Is the Son generated in order to be personally constituted in relation to the ‘human Jesus’? Does the Father generate a ‘composite person’ (p. 264)? What exactly is eternal generation? And does this also imply that creation is necessary? Clarity on the Father-Son relationship is needed here.

Fifth, granted that McCormack rejects the idea of inequality in God, his account warrants reflection on how the eternal obedience of the Son squares with divine unity (pp. 19, 279). McCormack writes: ‘Clearly, the Son is in some sense subordinate to the Father—not just in time but in himself’ (p. 288). The word ‘clearly’ only makes sense within McCormack’s Christology. And ‘in some sense’ is somewhat vague: what precisely is this subordination in the context of divine unity and co-equality? Discussion of ‘equality with God’ would also serve to explain this.

For many of the points that I have raised, we must await McCormack’s next volume on his reconstructed doctrine of God. Agree or disagree, McCormack’s work asks the right questions and will doubtless be an important interlocutor for research on modern Christology.

Sergiej Slavinski

Sergiej Slavinski
University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

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