Friday, April 24, 2009

Articles from Vasileios Syros and James J. Cassidy

I'm reading two new articles that I thought worth a mention here.

Vasileios Syros, "Absalom's Revolt and Value-Neutral Advice in Profiat Duran" History of Political Thought, XXX.1 (2009), pp. 60-74.

Dr. Syros is my professor for Medieval Mirrors for Princes this semester, and mentioned the Absalom narrative briefly one day in class as an exempla in political advice literature. Here he lays out its use in Profiat Duran (d. 1414 or 15) a Jewish thinker. While Absalom and his counsellers are often depicted negatively (as in Augustine, Peter Lombard, Dante, etc.), there is a tradition of literature in political thought lifting up the episode of his revolt as exemplary, and especially the advice of Ahitophel, which when unheeded led to Absalom's downfall. Syros connects the thought of Duran with that of Maimonides in how it upholds the relativity of "goodness", which must be situated in relation to the end that is sought. The distinction between this political reading and the moralizing purposes of much traditional exegesis sheds important light on the reception of this episode. Normally it is through the interpretative lens of the rape of Tamar that Absalom is viewed (as well as the privileged position of David in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thought), but Absalom's revolt as a retribution for David's sins has also been a live option, as has the "value-neutral advice" literature discussed in this article.

James J. Cassidy, "Election and Trinity", The Westminster Theological Journal, 71.1 (2009), pp. 53-81.

I was surprised to find this article in WTJ... it's a discussion of the current debate over election in Barth studies. I haven't finished the article, but Cassidy lays out the arguments of McCormack, Hunsinger, and Molnar, and then discusses Barth's work in response to them. The most unique aspect of this article is surely his introduction of Cornelius Van Til and Geerhardus Vos to the question in section 5.

Cassidy compares the whole affair to the Braun-Gollwitzer debate that Jüngel attempted to mediate and says, "To be sure, the swinging pendulum between the contenders is reflective of Barth's dialectical framework. In fact, the debate itself, rather than one side of the argument or the other, captures the true meaning of dialectical theology. If Barth were alive today watching it all unforld before him, we might imagine him sitting there, smoking his pipe, nodding his head, and thinking to himself, 'Exactly.'" (77) That said, Cassidy also comes down on a particular side: "in this debate there are two mutually exclusive positions: a position that proves itself to be a more accurate interpretation of Barth, and a position that proves itself to be closer to the historic Christian position on the matter." (53) assessment, I suppose, that even McCormack wouldn't be overly opposed to if it weren't for the additional accusation of Eutychianism that goes along with bucking the historic position!


  1. Would you mind explaining the Eutychianism charge?

  2. Hello Lucy, thanks for stopping by. Cassidy's reference to Eutychianism is here:

    "in Barth and McCormack's desire to avoid being Nestorian in Christology, and in the latter's constructive project to set forth a "Reformed kenoticism," they seem to have fallen into the problems of Eutychius. McCormack, again faithfully following Barth, denies the "communication of operations" doctrine, in which it was taught that the two natures were at work in the acts of Jesus Christ. McCormack has trouble with this because he cannot believe that a divine nature could work "co-operatively" with the human nature without overpowering it. Of course, this potential problem led the church to conclude that Christ had two wills and two minds[...] McCormack dismisses this two-will doctrine as Nestorianism, and instead advances a Barthian Christology in which all that belongs to the human nature is "communicated" to the divine nature under one eternal Subject. However, the collapsing of the human into the divine under one Subject, rather than one person in two natures without confusion or separation, was the error of Eutychius." (80-81)

    Accusations of Eutychianism and Nestorianism were hurled back and forth often enough during the christological controversies of Protestant scholasticism. Eutychianism, however, was more of an accusation made against the Lutherans, and McCormack meets it here because of his move towards the whole "reformed kenoticism" idea, at least so I gather. Here's a worthwhile article to read on another aspect of Barth's christology, and I think it offers some caution for taking the received framing of such debates so much for granted.

    I've remained at the sidelines of this debate because of how it has developed a whole bunch of heat regardless of any light that it's produced. I lean more towards Hunsinger on this so my suspicions line up with Cassidy, but I haven't read nearly enough of the relevant literature and I don't feel strongly enough about the stakes at this point to take a strong stand. Maybe one day.

  3. Hi Evan, thanks for your response. I have not read the whole article yet, and I should. But based on the quote you provided, it seems that Cassidy has yet to fully understand aspects of McCormack's position. The "collapsing" charge is unclear. Also, McCormack is very clear that he upholds a two natures Christology and affirms two minds, two wills, etc. McCormack's concern is to articulate how the divine and human relate in the person of Christ. The divine nature in Jesus relates "receptively" to the human nature, such that the human Jesus in the power of the Spirit is the operative agent in the in the eternal Son's incarnate life. But McCormack is clear that the distinction between divinity and humanity is always upheld. He is very Reformed on this point.

    His main problem with the "communication of operations" is that it posits an ambiguous category--person of the union--that mediates between the natures. Operations are communicated from each nature to the this person. But Chalcedon teaches that the eternal Logos is the Person of the union. And the Logos is never separate from his divine nature such that the divine nature would need to communicate operations to some separate Person of the union. So positing some third category as the "buffer" between the two natures just doesn't work. Reformed theologians did it because they were worried about the Lutheran communication of attributes. They didn't want divine attributes being attributed to the human nature so they attributed them to an ambiguous person of the union instead.

    McCormack's aim is to find a way to uphold the Reformed concerns--not deifying Jesus' humanity--while also giving place to Lutheran concerns--not positing some ambiguous "person of the union" between the two natures. He honors the Lutheran concern for a real communion of natures with a real (not simply verbal) communication of attributes, while upholding Reformed concerns by saying that the communication between the natures goes only "one way," from the human to the divine. The divine Logos (eternally) exists in a state of "receptivity" to everything that will come in and through the human nature. In this way, the unity of the Subject/Person is upheld, the Logos and the human Jesus are living ONE history, and the distinction between divinity and humanity is upheld--Jesus is not deified.

    Cassidy does not seem to get this. Or is all this addressed in the article?

  4. No, I think you're probably right about this with regard to Cassidy. I'd have to pull the article back out to give a very substantial response, but I don't tend to take the cutting and pasting of Chalcedon- or Nicea-era heresies on to present theological disputes all that seriously. Sometimes it works, but in most cases it's a convoluted logic of what the extended conclusion "must be", often in the face of explicit statements to the contrary as you mention in McCormack. And I'd say the same for Lutheran accusations against Reformed christologies as Nestorian, too.

    I have trouble with McCormack on the logos asarkos rather than on some of these other christological issues... but again, I'm not well-read enough in the debate to say much more than that I have some trouble with it.

  5. Lucy,

    I do not know you - I wish I did. What you represent me as saying is what I do say. Mr. Cassidy could scarcely have missed the mark more badly had he actually been trying to do so. I would like to make your aquaintance if I could. Could you email me - and let me know who you are.


    Bruce McCormack

  6. For those who are interested, WTS has its latest issue up online, so the link to Cassidy's article now goes to an actual PDF rather than simply the journal website.