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Bruce L. McCormack: Engaging the Doctrine of God

Bruce L. McCormack, ed., Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008).

Bruce McCormack, the Frederick and Margaret L. Weyerhaeuser Professor of Theology at Princeton, is the most interesting and helpful Barthian working today. He has made his mark working to correct a certain North American distortion of Karl Barth’s thought. His contributions now include a number of edited works, including this one, which gathers the essays presented at the 2005 Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference.

As always with an edited work, the articles collected here are of uneven quality. They are also of varying atmosphere. Most of the essays breathe the air of British evangelicalism (which theologically has a lot of variation within it), while others are academic versions of something one might find in Christianity Today. Now and again, the staler air of the World Council of Churches wafts through the volume. The contributors vary from biblical scholars, to historical theologians, to systematic theologians. McCormack classifies some of the contributors as holding to a form of “classical theism”, and others as being more “‘progressive’ … in their willingness to pose questions to concepts of divine timelessness, impassibility, and so forth” (pp. 9-10). The decision to include biblical scholars was perhaps a move toward a broader outlook, but as everyone’s topic appears to have been assigned, the gain of including biblical scholars in the program has been minimized. The program as a whole has a systematic-theological stamp through and through. Topics like “divine simplicity” and “divine aseity” are not on the radar screen of biblical scholars, and for a good reason: they’re not on the radar screen of the Bible.

McCormack’s own contribution consists of a suit against Open Theism. Although McCormack’s admirers have already applauded this essay (on the internet), it ultimately fails to convince. He tries to show that Barth’s dissolution of metaphysics (as if that were conceptually possible!) presents a better solution to the problems that Open Theism has adduced. (McCormack prefers to think that God’s election “stands at the root of God’s being” [p. 210], but I think that is as nonsensical as it sounds. I much preferred Paul Helm’s case against the McCormack-Barth dissolution of metaphysics, found earlier in the same volume.) Much depends on one’s starting point. McCormack really only shows that Open Theism is incompatible with Reformed presuppositions, but he in no way shows that it is a poor fit for Christian theology in general. (Throughout many of these essays, this reader was constantly reminded that, for the Reformed tradition, the word “Protestant” basically means “Reformed”.)

This volume packs a lot of food for thought, and should be rewarding reading for those interested in a somewhat safe entry into the speculative side of modern theology. Those interested in biblical theology, however, will find considerably less of a reward.

Reviewed by John C. Poirier

Read an excerpt from Westminster Theological Seminary: [available as of June 6, 2014]

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Category: In Depth

About the Author: John C. Poirier, Th.M. (Duke Divinity), D.H.L. (Jewish Theological Seminary), is an independent scholar who has published numerous articles on a wide range of topics. He is the author of The Invention of the Inspired Text: Philological Windows on the Theopneustia of Scripture (2021).

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