One sign that we’ve entered a strange new time is that a Princeton Seminary prof has written an essay in order to instruct WTS/P faculty about the meaning of the Definition of Chalcedon as understood by the Westminster Confession.
Bruce McCormack has weighed in to the WTS/P “Enns Controversy and he does so on the basis of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
What is ironic about this is that Princeton decided a long time ago, at least by 1929, that the Reformed confessions don’t define the Reformed faith. That’s one of the reasons why WTS (and later WSC) came into existence. Machen was a confessionalist and it became clear by ’29 that PTS was no longer going to be a confessional institution. It was going to be a broadly evangelical, latitudinarian, pluralist institution that would continue to include a few confessional folk (until they died or retired) but that it would be dominated by those who did not think that the WCF should be the operating norm for PTS or the Presbyterian Church.
The mainline (PCUSA) ratified that marginalization of the historic confessions with the adoption of the Confession of 1967, as part of which the PCUSA declared that the WCF could theoretically trump the Confession of ’67 but the working assumption is now that the Confession of ’67 is the norm unless the WCF could be shown to be more biblical. I don’t know that has happened in the intervening 40 years. With the adoption of the Confession of ’67 the WCF was made officially a museum piece, a witness to the religious experience of the 17th century and no more.
It is especially interesting that McCormack has commented on this because, he is one of the more prominent faculty members at PTS. He is a leading Barth scholar. His volume on Barth was, I think, a breakthrough piece of research. It located Barth in his time and, it seems to me, vindicated the substance of Van Til’s critique of Barth. Whether that was intentional or not I have no idea. He has also contributed usefully to the contemporary debates on justification. We both read papers several years ago at the Wheaton Theology conference. At one point in the discussion McCormack remonstrated with Robert Gundry for ignorantly beginning down the soteriological road to Rome—McCormack was quite clear that he did not think that was a bad thing necessarily but that it is an odd thing for an “evangelical” to do.
It is striking that a PTS prof is even paying attention to a theological argument happening at WTS. Perhaps there is some explanation. Though it is not widely known, he has roots in the marginalized NAPARC world (the PCUSA has about 2 million members meeting in prestigious tall-steeple congregations and PTS has enough money—much of which was once donated by orthodox confessional people who were naive about what was happening at PTS—to continue operating indefinitely whereas there are about 500,000 folk in NAPARC congregations meeting in obscure, ugly buildings and served by growing number of small NAPARC seminaries living hand-to-mouth). He isn’t writing entirely as an outsider, but, as I understand it, as one who was once a student, at least briefly, in a NAPARC seminary. He writes as an emigrant from the NAPARC world to the pluralist mainline world.
As to the substance of McCormack’s Christological argument, there is much with which to take issue.
There is, you see, an ambiguity at the heart of the Chalcedonian Definition where the “Person” is concerned. On the one hand, the Definition can say that “the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being.” On the other hand, the Definition can say, “he is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ…” On the basis of the first formulation, it would seem that the person is formed out of the coming together of the natures. On the basis of the second, it would seem that a straightforward and direct equation is being made of the “person” and the pre-existent Logos as such.
I am not a scholar of modern theology, but 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. He has a view to defend and propagate, i.e. a renewed version of a kenotic Christology. The Reformed churches do not confess a kenotic Christology of any sort. I’m willing to be corrected, but wouldn’t it raise eyebrows if someone proposed to revise a Eutyichian or Nestorian Christology?
Second, I am puzzled by his analysis of the Definition. When it says “into a single person” it is not obvious that it is intends to teach that the person of Jesus is composite. One cannot add up the two natures to get Jesus any more than one can add up the three persons and get the sum of the Trinity. The one God subsists in three persons. The one person of Jesus subsists in two natures. This seems to be a flawed premise in his argument. It seems that McCormack finds something in Chalcedon that isn’t there and, as a consequence, misreads the Reformed confessions.
According to McCormack there is tension between two propositions in the Definition that find witness here and there. He critiques the Second Helvetic Confession as unorthodox. He is particularly offended by Bullinger’s use of the phrase “two hypostases,” noting that A. C. Cochrane omitted that expression from his edition of the Second Helvetic. Now there are things in Bullinger’s theology from which I dissent but the Scots Presbyterians didn’t see any fundamental, Christological heresy or error in the Second Helvetic when they adopted it as a secondary standard. The Second Helvetic was widely used in England and across the Continent. So far as I know, none of the Reformed churches accused the Second Helvetic of being Christologically unorthodox.
One difficulty with McCormack’s analysis with the Second Helvetic is that in the Latin text of the Second Helvetic, the only place I can find the word “hypostases” is in 3.3 where it says, “ita ut sint tres non quidem Dii sed tres Personæ consubstantiales, coæternæ et coæquales, distinctæ quoad hypostases, et ordine alia aliam præcedens, nulla tamen inæqualitate.” [Therefore there are not three gods, but three persons, consubstantial, co-eternal, and coequal; distinct regarding hypostases, and regarding order, the one preceding the other nevertheless without any inequality.]
I don’t see how this is problematic. In ch. 11, where Bullinger actually deals with Christology, he doesn’t use the word “hypostasis.” On the two natures he wrote:
6. Agnoscimus ergo in uno atque eodem Domino nostro Jesu Christo duas naturas vel substantias, divinam et humanam; et has ita dicimus conjunctas et unitas esse, ut absorptæ, aut confusæ, aut inmixtæ non sint, sed salvis potius et permanentibus naturarum proprietatibus, in una persona, unitæ vel conjunctæ; ita ut unum Christum Dominum, non duos veneremur: unum inquam verum Deum, et hominem, juxta divinam naturam Patri, juxta humanam vero nobis hominibus consubstantialem, et per omnia similem, peccato excepto.
7. Etenim, ut Nestorianum dogma ex uno Christo duos faciens, et unionem personæ dissolvens, abominamur: ita Eutychetis et Monothelitarum vel Monophysicorum vesaniam, expungentem naturæ humanæ proprietatem execramur penitus.
[ We therefore acknowledge two natures or substances, the divine and the human, in one and the same Jesus Christ our Lord. And we say that these are bound and united with one another in such a way that they are not absorbed, or confused, or mixed, but are united or joined together in one person the properties of the natures being unimpaired and permanent.
Thus we worship not two but one Christ the Lord. We repeat: one true God and man. With respect to his divine nature he is consubstantial with the Father, and with respect to the human nature he is consubstantial with us men, and like us in all things, sin excepted.
And indeed we detest the dogma of the Nestorians who make two of one Christ and dissolve the unity of the Person. Likewise we thoroughly execrate the madness of Eutyches and of the Monothelites or Monophysites who destroy the property of the human nature.]
The Second Helvetic goes on to affirm explicitly a doctrine of the “communicatio idiomatum,” (communication of properties) i.e. what can be said one nature or the other can be said of the person.
McCormack accuses Calvin of following Bullinger’s alleged error. “The same idea can be found in Calvin (who mistakenly believed that this was the view of all the orthodox Fathers).” McCormack contrinues by attributing to the WCF the doctrine that Jesus is a “compound person,” a doctrine which he says is derived from John of Damascus, whom Zwingli read in Latin, and which was transmitted to Bullinger, and finally to the WCF.
Here is Belgic Confession Art.19:
We believe that by this conception the person of the Son is inseparably united and connected with the human nature; so that there are not two Sons of God, nor two persons, but two natures united in one single person; yet each nature retains its own distinctive properties. As, then, the divine nature has always remained uncreated, without beginning of days or end of life, filling heaven and earth, so also has the human nature not lost its properties but remained a creature, having beginning of days, being a finite nature, and retaining all the properties of a real body. And though he has by his resurrection given immortality to the same, nevertheless he has not changed the reality of his human nature; forasmuch as our salvation and resurrection also depend on the reality of his body.
Two natures, one person. This is substantially the same Christology in all the Reformed confessions, including WCF ch. 8:
2. The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.
3. The Lord Jesus, in his human nature thus united to the divine, was sanctified, and anointed with the Holy Spirit, above measure, having in him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge; in whom it pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell; to the end that, being holy, harmless, undefiled, and full of grace and truth, he might be thoroughly furnished to execute the office of a mediator, and surety. Which office he took not unto himself, but was thereunto called by his Father, who put all power and judgment into his hand, and gave him commandment to execute the same.
The phrase, “without conversion, composition, or confusion” is essential to this discussion. It would seem that his whole argument depends upon the premise that there was an unresolved tension in Chalcedon, in which the Reformed confession took sides, and upon his claim that he, of course, represents the Reformed confessional view.
All this is prologue to his criticism of one side in the Enns controversy. He concludes by accusing the writers of the WTS/P Historical and Theological Field Committee Report of unintentionally stumbling toward a Lutheran and E. Orthodox Christology, of not articulating clearly enough the true doctrine of the anhypostatic human personality of Christ and thereby moving toward a kind of theosis (which he rightly notes is very hip right now).
This last aspect of the argument, about 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. Most fascinating of all, however, is to see an early 21st-century PTS prof lecturing WTS/P profs about not being confessional enough. Fascinating indeed.
UPDATE 22 May: For those looking for a more substantial review of McCormack’s essay here’s Mark Jones’ take.
UPDATE 23 May: Stephen Holmes has commented here. He says, in part, “…it seems to me that WTS cannot be criticised for being a confessional institution. It is open and honest about its stance, Enns and everyone else knows about it.”
“… my overwhelming sense is that the real problem is that WTS was not confessional enough, or at least not secure enough in its own confessional status. What was needed was a paragraph, at most two, saying ‘Peter Enns published the following statements which we judge to contradict such-and-such an article of the Westminster Confession of Faith,’ which could then have been argued over by interested parties.”
UPDATE 23 May: Arthur Boulet was kind enough to email saying that Bruce has written a response to my questions/observations and it is to appear at 5:00PM. I assume that’s 5PM Eastern.