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Discovering McGill

January 17, 2011

One of the joys of the summer holidays, over the last few weeks, has been discovering Arthur C. McGill. Thanks to internet theology I had heard the rumour that he was American theology’s best kept secret, so I purchased a copy of Suffering: A Test of Theological Method and took it with me to Glen Innis in the sunny Hawke’s Bay. The first two chapters did not impress me too much. They are largely preludes concerning theological method, the nature of violence and how it is perceived in the world he was writing in (1960’s America). However the introduction (to the 1981 reprint) by Paul Ramsey and William May, and some of McGill’s brief comments on Christology lured me on. He writes for the non-specialist reader without technical vocabulary or footnotes, yet manages to condense a succinct and profound argument into a remarkably small space. By chapter 3 I began to realize that his argument was precisely the kind I had been seeking to articulate for some time; namely, one that demonstrated how the non-violence of God was intrinsic to Trinitarian faith.

Since I enjoyed it so much I will offer a summary as best I can, of what is already a succinct account. Perhaps a bit more detail will encourage more of you out there to read it for yourself and begin a bit of a McGill revival.

In Chapter 3 McGill hits his straps arguing that Jesus life is one of ‘self-expenditure’ which redefines the meaning of life itself. ‘Therefore, in his self-expenditure what is being exhibited is not just the power native to human life but the power of God himself, so far as men share in it.’ (p. 59). From this McGill goes on to see in Jesus the redefinition of power itself which lies in the contrast between divine power and the apparent power which dominates our world.

Christian faith looks upon Jesus as the power of the one and only God from whom all other powers in heaven and earth derive their real powerfulness. If Jesus discloses the unopposable power of love, it can only be because this love is the power of God himself… He does not vindicate himself with the kind of powerfulness that we have always admired. He does not assert himself, preserve himself or impose his will upon others. Obviously, then, the God revealed in Jesus Christ is not just any God, or even a being who is endowed with all sorts of supreme attributes. This God is very peculiar and in a fundamental way very ungodlike. (p. 60-1)

Key to McGill’s argument is Jesus statement in Luke 22: 25-27 (with near parallel in Mark 10) about the kings of the Gentiles and his own lordship as ‘one who serves’. However, McGill doesn’t stop with Jesus’ life as a revelation of God he goes on to draw ontological conclusions about the nature of God’s life in God-self.

In Chapter 4, entitled ‘Self-giving as the Inner Life of God’, he draws on the Athanasius-Arius debate for an argument for the essential non-violence of God. It is this redefinition of divine powerfulness which is key to the practical matter of responding to violence and living in a suffering world as a Christian. God’s power is not as we tend to imagine it to be, but is always and only the power of self-giving and receiving as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is arguably the climax of the book and is surely the most accessible (and clearly practical) account of the development of Nicene Orthodoxy by Athanasius in his struggle with Arianism that I have come across. For McGill’s purposes the dispute can be summarized as follows:

The issue between Arius and Athanasius, then has nothing to do with whether God is one or two or three. It has to do with what quality makes God divine, what quality constitutes his perfection. From the perspective of self-contained absoluteness and transcendent supremacy, Arius can only look upon God’s begetting as Son as a grotesque blasphemy…But from the perspective of self-communicating love, Athanasius can look upon the dependent derived Son, not as a blot upon god’s divinity but as a mode of it’s perfection.

Since giving entails receiving, there must be a receptive, dependent, needy pole within the being of God. It is pride – and not love – that fears dependence and worships transcendence. (p. 78) It is in the light of this stark contrast between the Arian and Athanasian view of God that McGill asserts with the Epistle to Diognetus “force is no attribute of God” (p. 82).

In chapter 5 McGill discusses the nature of evil as opposition to the self-donating God. Thus violence (conceived as violating force) is intrinsic to the nature of evil conceived theologically. God does not act towards creatures in violence because ‘the energy that informs all his dealings with men (sic) is the energy of his own being’ (p. 85). Thus for creatures to dominate others (i.e. use power over others) is for them to belong to the realm of evil. ‘If Jesus is the revelation of the essential power and life of God, then men cannot do violence to one another for their own self-expansion within the area of his Lordship.’ (p. 86). McGill then goes on in NT style to argue for the priority of evil as a trans-individual and trans-personal power over the evil of particular acts or ‘sins’. This then sets the scene for an account of salvation by the cross as ‘victory’.

McGill reminds us that the NT understand the Satan as ‘the murderer’ and that killing as the ultimate goal of violence is at act of ‘dispossession’ which assumes that a person’s identity is a kind of possession. A world controlled by the threat and use of violence is a world in which the forces of evil both treat people as self-possessed and threaten that self-possession. The satanic system is self-perpetuating until interrupted by the power of love, which from the perspective of the satanic is no power at all, but dispossession. The satanic system involves life in the worship of a certain kind of god who operates according to a certain model of power. McGill argues that this notion of power is only illusorily powerful. True power is the power of God, which, rather than setting up an opposition ‘between the active agent and the passive recipient’, is the power whereby the agent (God in the first instance) ‘confers something of his own life and activity on those he touches’ (p. 93)

Thus liberation that comes from being possessed by the power of God, is not a matter being dispossessed of one’s identity and life, it consists of receiving God’s life. This comes about through the death of Christ where the principalities and powers dispossess him of his identity (as they imagine his identity to consist). Meanwhile he gives himself in service of his fellow human beings and their ‘need to be shown the impotence of satanic power’. In doing this as the Son of God, Jesus gives himself to the Father who generates him. Thus in the cross we see the absolute incompatibility of God and the satanic realm, the non-violence of God and the dispossessiveness of Christian existence. Moreover, what is for Christ a loss of identity in satanic terms is the establishment of his identity in opposing terms. The satanic is impotent in relation to the self-donating identity of the triune God. Thus the cross is the victory of God and not merely a prelude to a resurrection victory. McGill’s comment on the resurrection suggests that it reveals and anticipates the final abolition of evil.

Chapter 5 is entitled ‘Resting in our Need’ is a reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan’ which places us where we belong as the person in need of a neighbour (robbed and beaten on the side of the Jericho road). This is the position of those who know that ‘need’ is no longer a threat, in the light of the cross. As McGill reads it Jesus is the excessive (self-offering) ‘Samaritan’, and in him, and only in him, we too can love our neighbours, rather than rest in our self-contained philanthropy.

Chapter 7 returns to the starting point of the phenomenon of suffering. McGill argues that the Christian life ‘not only begin[s] in the condition of need, but end[s] in the condition of need.’ (p. 113). Thus martyrdom (although McGill doesn’t use the term) lies at the heart of a life which believes in (and witnesses to) the power of God against all other powers. To follow Christ is to share in his sufferings, with those who suffer. Such witness is, of course, full of hope (and joy) for it knows the victory of Christ and the power of God. The concluding paragraph is worth citing in full.

To confess that “I believe in God the Father Almighty,” therefore, is to confess that I believe in the Almighty powerfulness of God’s self-communication and self-giving. It means that I renounce all awe and admiration for that which merely dominates. By this confession the Christian continues to serve in the face of affliction, until the time comes when the pretenses of demonic power are swept away.

Although Chapter 7 is the last chapter in the main flow of his argument, McGill offers a final postscript in Chapter 8 on Theological Method which is worth a brief mention. Here he attempts to describe a method which is neither a formal procedure or a passive reception, but which operates within the event of salvation we have just been discussing. Of theology he says: “From beginning to end it is embedded in the most relevant process in the world: God’s transfiguration of human existence.” This is to say that theology is Christocentric and requires a Christological hermeneutic. As a teaser to the ongoing theological journey McGill concludes with a fascinating list of further questions on the nature of suffering and evil.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Michael Westmoreland-White permalink
    January 17, 2011 11:13 am

    I read McGill in seminary and loved him. Thanks for this reminder of why.

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