Critique of Reformation Christologies

This is taken from John Milbank’s essay “Alternative Protestantism.”  Aside from a few howlers, it is one of the best critiques of Calvinist Christology out there. I’ve had to read this over a dozen times in the past three years to really understand what he is saying. If I “jump” it has to be for substantial reasons. As nice as incense, icons, and beards are, that’s not sufficient. Christology and Triadology are the most important. I will offer my comments on each paragraph.   Also, Milbank is a Western Protestant theologian.  Keep that in mind before you “slam” the East.  Milbank writes,

Calvin’s failure to truly grasp a participatory ontology means that, in the place of Luther’s overmonophysite fusion…one has a somewhat Antiochean dynamic interaction between the divine and human natures of Christ, as if this were some kind of schizophrenic interplay of persons. It is for this reason that Calvin, like Scotus, refuses a necessary deification of Christ’s humanity as a result of the Incarnation (ICR 2.14.3)–a refusal that carries the possibly heretical implication of a quasipersonality in the humanity alone. For if Christ’s human nature is divinely personified, then this must imply that he has a godlike character inseperable from the substantive aspect of enhypostasization. If, to the contrary, he has such a character simply in his conjoined humanity, then this suggests some sort of personal totality, since he would then possess an ethos that is purely human and that merely imitates the divine without sharing in it.

It is becoming more common to throw the “Nestorian” charge at Calvin–yet it is difficult to prove right away. Part of the difficulty is that Calvin really doesn’t discuss Christology in detail (nor do Reformed seminaries seriously teach it; my Christology course lasted not even a week!). There are other parts of Calvin’s theology that have Nestorian implications (e.g., imputational theology).

I think what Milbank is trying to say is if you don’t allow for the “deifying” effect on Christ’ humanity, there can be no real union. Christ’s humanity and deity are sort of “glued” together. Conversely, if you do allow it–using the illustration of an iron made red by fire–then you preserve the difference between deity and humanity, but they are allowed to participate in one another.  Part of the difficulty is the rabid hostility most Reformed folk have to anything sounding Platonic, thus any participation is out.  This also explains why some Reformed theologians even dislike talk of union with Christ.

There is at bottom here a failure to grasp the difference between nature on the one hand and hypostasis…on the other. Calvin defines hypostatic union as “that which constitutes one person out of two natures” (ICR.14)–a formula that apparently fails to grasp that the union, like the personhood, derives strictly speaking from the divine side…Calvin does indeed, with the tradition, see that the predication of nature here serves to ensure that, even in the incarnate person, the distinctions of created and uncreated remain absolute. On the other hand, it is less clear that he grasps the notion of the specifically personal and unilateral divine union in Christ.

This union, expressed by Maximus the Confessor, means that the same substantive way or pattern or character or moral tropos of being can be shown in the human as well as the divine nature, such that the limited human power can somehow express the style of omnipotence and inversely that the divine strength can be exhibited precisely in weakness–which can have the true idiom of strength, when suffering is actively and willingly undergone.

Calvin’s definition isn’t wrong; it simply avoids any of the real issues and leaves itself open to later problems. What I think St Maximus is saying is that, later anticipating Sergei Bulgakov, is that there is a divine pattern imprinted already on human nature, thus can Christ’s human nature anticipate the divine hypostasis (see Sergei Bulgakov,The Lamb of God).


11 comments on “Critique of Reformation Christologies

  1. If that second quote from Calvin represents his real position he surely has large troubles. However, that quote comes from a denunciation of Servetus, and though itself very problematic, can be explained as a slip of the tongue while he was not attempting precision on that point, but on others. But it is very unfortunate, and if paradigmatic, shows a serious problem with Calvin’s thought.

  2. Matthew,

    It is not a slip of the tongue. He says it in 2 14 5 more explicitly. As I’ve noted in the past, Calvin views the person of the mediator as being more qua hypostasis than the person of the Logos. “Christ” is formed OUT of the two natures.

    You can see this in Ursinus’ commentary on the Heidlberg Catechism, (Obj. 2, p. 210.) It is in lots of Reformed writers up to our own time. Muller catalogs it across every major Reformed theologian from Calvin to Perkins. Of course Muller thinks the dissent from Chalcedon is an advance rather than a defect. Muller is not alone in that view either. Just look at the exchange a year or so ago between Bruce McCormack and Scott Clark. McCormack fried Clark.

  3. […] Perry tipped me off to an interchange between Bruce McCormack and Scott Clark concerning Calvin’s Christology.  I can only find Clark’s reply to McCormack.  I’ve gathered that McCormack won the debate, but I can’t find his response at the moment.  In any case, I’ve pieced together the essence (no pun intended) of the debate. […]

  4. McCormack’s was up on Art Boulet’s blog but Art has made his blog private and I have no way of contacting him. One of McCormack’s replies is cached on goodle, here ->

    A big chunk of the original statement on the WTS report on Peter Enns is at the end of a post at my blog. The post is “A Deformed Christ.”

    It seems pretty clear to me that not only did Clark not know of what he spoke, but he really didn’t even understand the issues. It is not as if this is a state secret. Muller outlines this stuff in his Christ and the Decree and that’s been the standard work since 1986.

  5. Nathan says:

    I located the original post. You can read it here.

  6. Nathan,

    Thanks a bunch, that makes some of the newer stuff I’m working on easier.

  7. Nathan says:

    Glad I could be of some small assistance. I only happened to have it because I follow your excellent blog.

  8. tesla1389 says:

    Thanks for the links, Nathan.

  9. […] and of himself—a Nestorian structure of the hypostasis, and the extra-Calvinisticum.  Anglican John Milbank summarizes this admirably by noting that Calvin’s Christology “…has a somewhat Antiochean dynamic […]

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