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McCabe on Jesus and the Trinity

One of the things that is strking about Herbert McCabe’s trinitarian theology is the way in which it is at once radically classical and radically biblical.  For McCabe the story of Jesus simply is the immanent triune life of God projected onto human history.  McCabe, better than nearly anyone else I have ever read is able to affirm with utter sincerity and emphasis the othernes of God from the world, always resisting reducing God to a mere inhabitant of the universe, while simultaneously understanding the triune God’s involvment with the world in the most radical and Christocentric terms possible.

Here’s one of his great statements of the doctrine of the Trinity vis á vis Jesus:

“The story of Jesus is nothing other than the triune life of God projected onto our history, or enacted sacramentally in our history, so that it becomes story.  I use the world ‘projected’ in the sense that we project a film onto a screen.  If it is a smooth silver screen you see the film simply in itself.  If the screen is twisted in some way, you get a systematically distorted image of the film.  Now imagine a film projected not on a screen but on a rubbish dump.  The story of Jesus — which in its full extent is the entire Bible — is the projections of the trinitarian life of God on the rubbish dump we have made of the world.  The historical mission of Jesus is nothing other than the eternal mission of the Son from the Father; the historical outpouring of the Spirit in virtue of the passion, death, and ascension of Jesus is nothing but the eternal outpouring of the Spirit from the Father through the Son.  Watching, so to say, the story of Jesus, we are watching the processions of the Trinity” (God Matters, 48).

On this point, McCabe is in many ways as one with thinkers like Robert Jenson, Bruce McCormack, Eberhard Jüngel, and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the relationship between Jesus and the immannent Trinity.  As McCabe points out “The mission of Jesus is nothing other  than the eternal generation of the Son.  That the Trinity looks like a story of (is a story of) rejection, torture and murder but also of reconciliation is because it is projected on, lived out on, our rubbish tip; it is because of the sin of the world” (God Matters, 49). 

A corollary of this point is that for McCabe, the doctrine of the “preexistence of Christ” has to be abandoned.  Not, however because the Son of the Father is not eternal, but rather because “There was, from the point of view of God’s life, no such thing as a moment at which the eternal Son of God was not Jesus of Nazareth.”  This is because God is not a demigod, an inhabitant of the universe like the idols of Israel’s neighbors.  “There could not be any moments in God’s life.  The eternal life of Jesus as such cold not precede, follow or be simultaneous with his human life.  There is no story of God ‘before’ the story of Jesus” (God Matters, 49-50).  Thus, McCabe tells us that he “would be much happier in an odd way with the notion of a ‘preexistent Jesus’” (God Matters, 51).  I for one feel much the same.


  1. Jim wrote:

    Halden, do you feel that God becoming a man somewhat diminishes the deity of a pre-incarnate Christ, unless that was His eternal state? Or did I miss the emphasis of this post?

    I would be interested in hearing you state this with a scripture assertion. I can think of one angle but am curious to hear yours.

    I do hope you are willing to continue our dialogue!

    Saturday, March 8, 2008 at 1:00 pm | Permalink
  2. Hill wrote:

    What I’m inferring from McCabe (rather obliquely) is that while in our temporal context, God has “become” man in a historical sense, this is more the result of God’s in breaking in to a temporal history by which he was never bound, and the saving act of Christ in history thus radiates in all directions, and in a sense, begins the process of lifting us out of that temporal history which had become subject to death and sin and putting us on the path towards full participation in the eternal Triune life, where Christ has existed with the Father and the Spirit since “the beginning.” So while there is a tendency for us to talk of “Jesus the man” versus the eternal son, I think the point McCabe is making is that Jesus the man is just Son transposed into the realm of creation.

    Saturday, March 8, 2008 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  3. Bobby Grow wrote:


    does McCabe hold to a concept of logos asarkos, or Deus Incarnantus? It almost seems that there is a collapse of the immanent into the economic so that there is no distinction. In other words how does McCabe avoid social and/or “process” views of God’s being? Does he hold to an always and already “being/becoming” dialectic?

    Saturday, March 8, 2008 at 2:08 pm | Permalink
  4. Tony wrote:

    It is all good St. Thomas, what McCabe is telling us…

    Saturday, March 8, 2008 at 11:51 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Jim, I don’t think God’s becoming man in any way diminshes his deity in any way whatsoever. It’s not that I think Christ had eternally be incarnandus, its just that I think that makes the most sense.

    Bobby, I don’t think that McCabe is reducing the immanent Trinity to the economic, and if you read is work further this will be very, very clear. Rather he is saying that what we see in Jesus is identical with who God is and “always has been” (though speaking of eternity in temporal terms isn’t really something that makes sense for McCabe).

    And process theology is one of McCabes biggest enemies. He is Thomistic if anything at all.

    Sunday, March 9, 2008 at 1:08 am | Permalink
  6. irishanglican wrote:

    Like Augustine we need to think more from the unity of the Substance, it more safeguards the co-equality of the Persons. And following Augustine we should see from the procession of the Holy Spirit both from the Father and the Son. And the Holy Spirit as the mutual love of the Father and the Son. And the Spirit is always the “Person” of love! (Col. 1: 8 / Rom. 15: 30) If we must, it is better to have some ‘psychological theory’ I believe, as the medieval Scholasticism developed, as in Aquinas. It reasserted the teachings of the Athanasian Creed. Beyond this thngs get smokey and very complicated!

    Tuesday, April 15, 2008 at 12:20 pm | Permalink
  7. irishanglican wrote:

    Would that western Christians, and certainly theological students would read, study and think more deeply on Augustine’s most profound work: De Trinitate! I would recommend the New City Press edition, The Works Of Saint Augustine – A translation for the 21 Century… The Trinity, introduction, translation, and notes by Edmund Hill, O.P. And editor, John E. Rotelle, O.S.A.
    This is done by Roman Catholic’s. But the intro by Hill, is worth the read!

    Tuesday, April 15, 2008 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  8. irishanglican wrote:

    This was for western Christians, is my point and Catholics! We must know the whole of the our western positions.

    Thursday, June 5, 2008 at 8:42 am | Permalink

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