A Friendly Response to Bruce McCormack

Here is the first post in this series.

Here is Bruce’s response to that post.

Hi Bruce,

Thanks for your thoughtful responses to my questions. Judging by your responses I think I was not clear enough in a few places.

1. I am a confessionalist and think that the historic Reformed confessions ought to be the definition the adjective “Reformed.” Thus I am encouraged to see you (or anyone) seeking to apply the WCF to a contemporary theological issue. My chief interest in your post was to note a certain irony in this situation.

As I noted in response to a comment, my chief point was observe that your initial comment suggests that some form of confessionalism has found purchase beyond the narrow confines of the separatist Presbyterian/Reformed ecclesiastical world. There are theologians and writers within the NAPARC world who would sooner jump off a bridge than make an argument that such and such a view is not confessional. In other words, here we have a significant mainline voice attempting to argue a creedal/confessionalist case to people who should be confessional when many in our own circles are committed to biblicistic methods. This is ironic. I hope my intent is not lost in the discussion.

2. I was a little cryptic in my comments about Barth and Van Til. I only meant to say that, it seems to me, in contrast to the way evangelicals often seem to read Barth—as if his context were Wheaton or Moody rather than Berlin, you rightly placed him in his post-Kantian context. Barth was a Modern theologian. He has no time for an historic Adam or the covenant of works etc. He accepted Modernity as a given.

3. I only raised your own work in Christology as a matter of context. It’s what historians do. If I am writing on the history of the doctrine of justification it would be only fair for someone to note my own dogmatic interests in the current controversies over justification. I was careful not to claim much about your views other than to suggest that any sort of kenotic view would be, from the perspective of the Reformed confessions, idiosyncratic. What I said was, “I’ve perceived that McCormack is defending what might politely be called an idiosyncratic Christology, so that his entrance into the controversy is not innocent.”

4. I did not intend to characterize your reading of Chalcedon as idiosyncratic. What I said was, ” I am puzzled by his analysis of the Definition.” I doubt that my puzzlement rises to the level of an accusation. I suggested that your reading of the Definition was not obvious. I am not a Patrologist, however, and your argument has alerted me to some important issues and stimulated me to further study.

5. On the text critical questions in the Second Helvetic, I was using the Latin text in Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom (1931). He doesn’t alert the reader to any textual-critical problems in the text. I am familiar with Müller’s BSRK, having had access to it in the UK and elsewhere, but unfortunately we do not have it in our library (something I’ve asked the Library to remedy).

I see that Niemeyer’s Collectio Confessionum (1840; which I do have at hand) has a footnote on p. 484 which says, “hypostases vel substantias.” I assume that David Schaff must have had BSRK and Niemeyer to hand and yet he chose to ignore this variant. It would seem that there’s considerable doubt as to whether this variant is the correct reading. I look forward to seeing BSRK. Even if it is the correct reading, it is evident from the grammar that he’s using it as a synonym for “naturas” or “substantias.” In other words, I’m not sure I see the point. Bullinger may have used “hypostases” but if he did he meant “naturas” or “substantias.” If Bullinger himself changed the reading, why is it an issue?

6. Thanks for clarifying what you were saying about Calvin. I’m skeptical about your claims concerning the WCF’s Christology only because I’ve never read anyone making such a claim about the divines’ intent, but I’ll keep an open mind as I look into it. I do try to model for my students the ethos: “its not being right but getting it right.” As a historian I’m committed to telling the truth about the past as best I can.

7. I quite agree with you that the Reformed orthodox held that Christ was graced by the Spirit with all manner of gifts.

You complain that I didn’t engage you on this point, but my point wasn’t really to engage the substance of that discussion, at least not in detail, and not on a blog, but to observe the dynamics of the current discussion and to raise questions about some things I noticed along the way.

Maybe we have different understandings of the medium, of what a blog is and does? I see it as a medium to alert readers (thus the links to the original documents) to interesting questions and discussions and to encourage the development of confessionalism in my own little world. I use it to rant and have fun. I don’t do much “academic” work here because the medium doesn’t lend itself to that. It’s too ephemeral.

I hoped that my intent was clear when I said, “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.”

I’m thrilled that someone in the mainline academy is reading and taking seriously not only the WCF but Reformed orthodoxy. I’ve noted your interest in Reformed orthodoxy. In fact, I do so in a forthcoming book as an encouragement to NAPARC types to follow suit.

8. I deliberately haven’t engaged the substantive issues in re WTS/P simply because I realize that they have enough on their plate and, having been in their shoes not very long ago, I decided that I would let them work it out for themselves. If Pete’s views are confessional, then he should stay. If they aren’t, then he should go. If my views aren’t confessional then I should go. That’s the point of having confessional schools.

Your posts have been most stimulating. A colleague and I were looking up texts yesterday (in between marking term papers) and working through some of the Christological issues you raise.

Yours friendly,


Mark Jones comments here.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. I was going to do a post called Princeton Lecturing WTS/C on the Confessions?… on the irony of a prof at PTS thinking deeper about the confessions, and having better copies of it than a prof at WTS/C… and knowing their history better… now that is interesting. 😉

  2. This has been interesting for an Anglo-Irish Anglican (to peek into a bit), who was once very Anglican Reformed…the Thirty Nine Articles. But I have found the Articles somewhat time conditioned. The essence of both Nicaea and Chalcedon remain, but their spiritual truth and reality must be renewed in every generation.

    The question I would have for the Reformed, is which Reformed Creed? And has the Westminister become also time conditioned? These are friendly questions, but our beliefs must be applicable and relevant in this modern and postmodern time.

  3. Sam,

    Yes, but you wouldn’t do that would you, since that would be beneath you and ungracious.

    I tend to read the Reformation from left to right. I wonder (just asking here!) whether, since Bruce’s main interest is in modern theology, he’s reading history from right to left? I teach a course in the Reformed confessions that takes me through the Three Forms and Westminster Standards alternately every year. I’ve done a good bit of reading in them and about them and I’ve not read that they were asking the same questions as Bruce is asking about the two natures. I think Mark made a good point.

    The historical question I have is whether the 16th and 17th-century divines saw the tension that Bruce sees in the Definition? It’s one thing for modern scholars to see the tension. That’s fine, but it’s another thing to impute that view to the Reformation era and then to read the documents in that light.

    As to finitude, I think Art’s blog is called Finitum non capax infiniti. Amen. I’m just a student (after all, that’s what a scholar is!) at a small-ish, underfunded seminary. You’re welcome to help relieve our poverty and advance our scholarship. Our address is 1725 Bear Valley Parkway, Escondido, CA. 92027. Our director of development is Dawn Doorn. She would love to hear from you? Perhaps you or someone you know would like to endow a faculty position? We’re hoping to remodel the library, for the first time in 25 years — including new carpet!– maybe you would like to help with that project?

    I’m happy to learn from everyone and anyone. Aren’t you?

    I trust that you’re praying for God’s provision for the fulfillment of our vocation.

  4. Irish,

    Everything is historically conditioned but the question is how does one respond to that fact? Do we then place ourselves in judgment over the churches that confess the faith? The Reformed confessions are certainly historically conditioned but so what? We still confess them. Yes, we have a moral and intellectual obligation to understand the circumstances of their formation. That’s one of my prime vocations and why this discussion interests me so much.

    For example, I’m very grateful to Chad van Dixhoorn for his ground-breaking work in the minutes of the Westminster Assembly. We do have a copy of the minutes now and I intend, Dv, to make work this summer of finding out about their Christological discussions.

  5. Indeed I have found the so-called Oecumenical Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon as mainstay. They though historic must be pressed into our so-called postmodern time. The Church of God will always be the vessel to challenge the world with both moral, spiritual and salvific reality. But the question remains, in what manner is divine revelation propagated among men and perserved in the true church? And is there a living tradition, as a method of preserving divine revelation, have or has the priority in time? And is there a Holy Tradition that is complementary to Holy Scripture in the sense that it directs the right understanding, the right or proper administration of the sacraments, and the preservation of the sacred rites in the purity of their original institution? And how does Acts 2:42 both exegete and give interpretation today? These are important questions today as always for all human beings.

  6. Irish,

    Are you advocating what Willimon calls theology “in the translation mode”?

    I’m influenced by Z. Baumann and others who argue that were in “liquid” or “late” modernity rather than postmodernity.

    I am encouraged to see young people showing genuine interest in the creeds and confessions and historic liturgies. This is a departure from the pattern of their baby-boomer parents and grandparents who were too clever to submit to creeds and confessions.

    The confessional Protestants have always held what Oberman called T-1, i.e. we read Scripture with the church but the Scripture always norms the church. That’s the way confessional Protestants still ought to think. I don’t think that our late modern (i.e. subjectivist) context really changes that obligation or our confession materially.

  7. R. Scott Clark,

    I do think we are in some kind of position between a kind of late modernity and postmodern place. The west is under siege for certain! Why are so many evangelicals going over to Orthodoxy right now? It is a fact that Orthodoxy is growing in both Great Britain and America. I feel this pull myself, it does not just mean authority..though that is part of it. It has to do with “spirit and truth”! That the Incarnation is still both the Christ above (the Father’s throne), and His body “below” here on this earth. See the Reformed book by Gerrit Scott Dawson: Jesus Ascended..The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation.

    I am myself a baby-boomer. I was not one of those that rejected my roots or heritage, but being a Royal Marine officer I guess had something to do with that. And my younger brother was an American Marine also.

    But to my question, what is “the” Reformed Protestant confessional? Which Creed? Or is it as T.F. Torrance’s older book: The School Of Faith – The Catechisms Of The Reformed Church, which persents an anthology? And what of Philip Schaff and his: Creeds Of Christendom? My point is where is the creedal authority? And if the Scripture norms the Church, who norms the Creed’s?

  8. Irish,

    Well, narrowly my tradition subscribes the Three Forms of Unity, the Heidelberg, Belgic, and Canons. The Presbyterians subscribe the Westminster Standards. Asa as prof I subscribe all 6. I don’t see any great tension between them. They were written at different times and in different settings and the language reflects that fact but they are harmonious. Beza and others did produce a Harmony of Reformed Confessions, in response to the Book of Concord, to illustrate the fundamental harmony of the Reformed churches (and they included the Augsburg Confession!).

    So the “which” creed question doesn’t trouble me as I don’t see any great difference between most of them.

  9. R. Scott Clark. I have sometimes noted with Reformed theology, that they don’t spend much time on the older Ecumenical Councils themselves. My point to Torrance’s book: The School Of Faith, that these are catechism’s. Torrance even states that Calvin sort of reworks “both sides of the Chalcedonian fence”. Whatever that means? My point and question, is that the Reformed Church appears to “norm” their creeds. And this appears to be sort of like the later antibaptist idea, of picking and choosing..etc., i.e. The London Baptist confession, etc. Picking out what you or one would like in the creed, and perhaps leaving other parts..silent or just alone, or even changing it! What do you think of this? So for you the Church would “norm” the Creeds, yes?

    Chalcedon for example brought forth the very important truth of the Theotokos. But again, the Reformed say nothing creedally here. Many will and do accept this, but there is nothing formal.

  10. Irish,

    I’m not sure that’s a fair assessment or at least it’s misleading. I’ve written at length on the Reformed appropriation of and appreciation for the catholic creeds. The Reformed worked extensively with the Apostles’ Creed.

    Article 9 of the Belgic Confession says, “This doctrine of the Holy Trinity has always been affirmed and maintained by the true church since the time of the apostles to this very day against the Jews, Mohammedans, and some false Christians and heretics, as Marcion, Manes, Praxeas, Sebellius, Samosatenus, Arius and the like who have been justly condemned by the orthodox fathers. Therefore in this point, we do willingly receive the three creeds namely, that of the Apostles, of Nicea, and of Athanasius; likewise that which, conformable thereunto, is agreed upon by the ancient fathers.”

    The Definition of Chalcedon is often included in that list. I know of none of the 16th or 17th century Reformed who deny the theotokos. I certainly teach it. Art. 18 of the Belgic teaches the substance of the doctrine Mary as theotokos.

    Frankly, TFT is not my chosen guide in things Reformed.

    There is a good bit of scholarly work on the reception of the fathers by the Protestant. See Irena Backus especially on this.

    Anabaptists? Hardly! Uncritical of the fathers? No. Selective of the fathers? Yes. Who believes everything Tertullian wrote? No one.

    Of the genuinely catholic creeds, the Reformed churches have not been selective but submissive.

  11. Sam,

    While I was out running errands I was thinking about your post and remembered what my tutor at Pembroke once told me. He asked me a direct question and instead of saying “I don’t know,” I fumbled around for something. See that I was unable to admit my ignorance, he remonstrated with me to the effect that “There’s no shame in not knowing. Never be afraid to say you don’t know.” That was quite liberating.

    That’s where learning begins (so long as one isn’t satisfied with not knowing). That was good advice I’ve tried to follow.

    I recall a certain evangelical scholar criticizing with me for overlooking (a fairly obscure) Luther text in a paper I gave. He said that it was common knowledge in Reformation studies that x was the case that x more or less disproved my point. I was surprised and actually misunderstood him completely. It took several months to grasp what he was saying. It took me a while but I did some research and I discovered that this fellow was talking about a text that is not widely known and he was relying on a secondary work to explain it to him. I sat down and translated the hitherto untranslated text and found that both my critic and the secondary work on which he relied were fundamentally wrong about this text. It didn’t say anything like the sorts of things they were, no pun intended, imputing to it.

    That research helped fuel a recent article I published in the Concordia Theological Quarterly on Luther’s doctrine of justification. I’m thankful for the stimulation I received at that conference. It gave me opportunity to learn any number things I wouldn’t have and it gave me an opportunity to share that with others.

    I guess all this is the say, I’m not a teacher because I know everything. Far from it. I’m a teacher because I’m at least a reasonably diligent student and quite dissatisfied with my own ignorance.

  12. R. Scott Clark. I stand corrected, if that is true. But recently I brought forth the very Article 9, and was told (by a reformed presb. pastor) it did not really mean the totality of Mary as theotokos. Can you enlighten me further with explanation?

    Tertullian, well we all struggle with him. But he lived in the time of the apologists. The second century was a hard time for Christian doctrine. He was, as the time, influenced by Montanism. He was the first real Latin Father. We could say that he created the Christian Latin literature. A western church writer for certain.

    Thanks for Irena Backus, I shall check Her out.

    Have you read TFT’s book: The School Of Faith? His intro is almost a 1/4 of the book. It has some good thought in my mind, but has some questionable ideas also.

  13. Scott — Going back to Dr. McCormack’s original article, I think his main point is this: ” I have to say that this is the last thing I expected to discover in a report issued by Westminster Seminary theologians. 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); theosis is the hot topic in soteriology and both Lutheran and Reformed theologians are struggling mightily to find something akin to a theosis doctrine in their own church fathers (in Luther but also in Calvin – as Todd Billings’ recent book amply demonstrates). Mind you, I am not accusing the theologians of Westminster of abandoning Reformed soteriology! But they do not seem to realize that in advocating the version of Chalcedonian Christology they do, unreconstructed by Reformed sources, they have taken a most important step in that direction. After all, which soteriology do they think the Chalcedonian Definition was originally designed to support? ”

    In this thread, there has been a mention of “ongoing incarnation.” That is the very thing that Michael Horton has argued against in “Covenant and Salvation.”

    I am very much “in over my head” with the discussions over the definition of Chalcedon, but when I see “ongoing incarnation,” I get very much alarmed. That is where McCormack was going with his allusion to “a truly Protestant theology” in contrast to the “theosis” toward which many others (especially in RCC and EOC circles).

    That, istm, is what was the real point of McCormack’s initial article.

  14. For John… By the way, the book that I mentioned about the continuing of Christ’s Incarnation is by an American (PTS & Reformed Theo. Sem.) He is also a Presbyterian. Just passing along what has come our way T&T Clark pub. There is also a new book I have just gotten (American): Partakers of the Divine Nature – The History and Development of Deification in Christian Traditions, editors..Michael J. Christensen, and Jeffery A. Wittung. It has many essays, two are about both Calvin’s view (As ya mention by Todd Billings), and Luther’s (the Finnish school). And is “theosis” or final sanctification and glorification foreign to the NT?

    But as to Chalcendon, it is either historic…or off with the Miaphysites. Which would you prefer?

  15. Irish — I’m just a patzer. But have you read Horton’s “Covenant and Salvation”? When I encounter “ongoing incarnation” (Horton following McCormack argue against this model for the church), usually it is from an amateur Eastern Orthodox who is trying to persuade me to move east. Horton discusses all of the issues that you mention.

    The Finnish School, I know, attempts to move in that direction by keying on Luther’s earlier writings, in much the same way that Catholic apologists key on his adherence to such concepts as the perpetual virginity of Mary. The early Luther, too, retained some measure of deference to the papacy. But not the later Luther!

  16. Hi Irish,

    I’m quite familiar with TFT’s “School of Faith.”

    Some contemporary Reformed folk get unnecessarily queasy about Mary as Theotokos. Over-reaction to Rome I guess.


    I agree that’s Bruce’s main point. I’m with him entirely about theosis etc. I argued against the notion that Luther had a theotic doctrine of justification at some length in the CTQ. I intend to do the same in re Calvin. I think the idea that Calvin held to any form of divinization is bizarre and unhistorical. I haven’t read Todd Billings’ book but I’ve read most of the other lit on Calvin re theosis etc and footnote it in the Luther essay.

    The Creator/creature distinction was fundamental to Calvin’s theology and, I think, to all Protestant theology.

    My question is whether or to what degree there was tension within Chalcedon, and whether and to what degree the Reformed were aware of it in the 16th and 17th century and whether they deliberately took sides in the ancient argument. That will take some research to settle.

  17. John…I must confess I have not read “this” Horton book. I did meet him years ago when I was in S. Cal for a bit (my brother lives there..American Marine then), he was (Horton) a Reformed Episcopal at the time…years ago now. I have been a Reformed Anglican myself, and still both my Augustinian conversion (so-called) and my western mind and education are with me. (I am Irish born, but educated in England. And now Anglo-Irish). But as I have confessed I am quite drawn toward Orthodoxy. Mostly their Trinitarian truth, but I am finding much more indeed! I was raised RC…very typical Irish, lol. But I am not there now of course, for many, many years. I have a very fair Calvin library (I can remember when the London book shops were full of Calvin books, by or about him – years back now). When I chat with my Orthodox friends, I am too western, and with you folk..I am too open to the east? But I have been part of an Anglican-Orthodox group for dialogue. But, I am not without criticism both ways! And I am quite familar with Dr. Luther also. My friend Alister McGrath has been close to him also.

  18. R. Scott Clark. Can I recommend John McGuckin’s books on Nicaea, and his new one on St. Cyril and the Christological Controversy? I think he is valid in both his history and theology. One of the people to read at least on the subject.

  19. Scott — My knowledge of the definition of Chalcedon comes from Reymond’s rather hearty affirmation of that statement. One of the next things I intend to study in some detail is the Michael Himes book “Ongoing Incarnation: Johann Adam Mohler and the Beginnings of Modern Ecclesiology.” I think this is at the heart of modern Catholicism, and I do not think that this can be opposed too strenuously.

    Irish — I too was raised RC, and I looked into Eastern Orthodoxy, but as I’ve mentioned here and elsewhere, I genuinely believe the Protestant Reformation was necessary (not a “necessary evil,” as some have said, but a necessary good), and that if there is such a thing as a Christian “gold standard” this side of heaven, it is to be found within the Reformed world.

  20. I was a Benedictine monk years ago…I know I have something of a mystical bent. But I would just beware of any pendulum swing either way..too far against Rome, or any other swing. Indeed God’s own self-disclosure produces the immediate authority of both the Christological and very Spirit (the “person” of the Spirit) and spiritual reality in both scripture and God’s people and church. And our mental and intellectual pursuits must be in both “spirit and truth”…always in and under God’s grace. I would now call it as the Greek text…a synergy. I know bad word, but a biblical one!

  21. Irish, we are not talking about pendulum swings when dealing with Rome, because there is a standard against which to measure its many errors. The alternative is to accept its “authority” and its reasons for contradicting our standard. I don’t see a middle ground here. And that is after a half a lifetime of exploring all of this.

    I would rather focus my efforts on being wary of encroachments toward Roman errors, than wary of any subjective types of feelings that I may or may not be able to discern the source of.

  22. You far overestimate my maturity level. 🙂 And as a side note, I apologize generally for comments where I seem like a jerk. I think my points are defensible, but it’s challenging to be short and prove points at the same time, so I opt for being memorable… and sound abrasive. I like to think that I put a lot more thought into comments than I actually write, so I apologize for coming across as thoughtless.

  23. John, I completely understand. (I am well into my 50’s). But, we simply must hold the tension of scripture and our own mental and spiritual reality very near. I maintain for the Christian, the Cross is a spirituality of redemptive suffering in this life (2 Cor. 4: 7; 10-11). It must be as St. Paul states: “Christ in you the hope of glory or glorification” (Col. 1: 27). Both the Pauline and the Johannine truth have deep spiritual and mystical overtones! And yes our minds are always fully engaged! This is no mere quietism at all! Always the Apostles doctrine and teaching! (Acts 2:42)

  24. Well mates, I need to run…so good to chat on this your Reformed blog. Thanks R. Scott Clark! Semper Fi as your American Marines say it! I was a Royal Marine myself (Gulf War 1, etc.)

  25. I’m coming to this thread late but can’t help but leave a couple of comments:

    You wrote “The historical question I have is whether the 16th and 17th-century divines saw the tension that Bruce sees in the Definition? It’s one thing for modern scholars to see the tension. That’s fine, but it’s another thing to impute that view to the Reformation era and then to read the documents in that light.”

    I would agree that this is an important question you have raised but don’t see how it is relevant to McCormack’s essay. I would guess that the Reformers did not see a tension (“McCormack uses the less loaded and probably more accurate “ambiguity”) within Chalcedon. That would not prevent them from possibly falling on one side of that ambiguity in their interpretations of Chalcedon. The little bit of literature I have read on Chalcedon has not overblown Chalcedon’s ‘tension’ but have only noted that it did not finish the job, so to speak. As theologians ever since have attempted to finish that job they have left aspects of Chalcedonian terminology recede to the background or to disappear altogether.

    If you are interested in how Roman Catholics are and have responded to this ambiguity Aaron Riches recently published an article in Modern Theology, 24:2, entitled “After Chalcedon: the Oneness of Christ and the Dyothelite Mediation of His Theandric Union” that is germane.

    Regarding your statement against theosis:
    “The Creator/creature distinction was fundamental to Calvin’s theology and, I think, to all Protestant theology.”

    I would only say that not all theologians intersted in the doctrine are guilty of erasing the creature/Creator distinction the reformers so faithfully upheld.

  26. Jedidiah – Perhaps you missed it but both the eastern Miaphysite position was brought up by me per Chalcedon. (Though no reponse?) And the book by Fr. John A. McGuckin, Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy. ( A must read in my opinion on Chalcedon.)
    We must remember that Chalcedon, like Nicaea was on eastern ground!

    Fr. Robert (Anglican)

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