The Christ of Analytic Theology: A Review Essay

by Mark DelCogliano, Ph.D.

Any scholar is indeed fortunate to have conversation partners at his or her academic institution that make a communal intellectual life possible amid the mundane duties of university life, when topics of mutual interest are studied, discussed, and debated from our varying disciplinary perspectives, to the mutual enrichment of all. At the University of St. Thomas, Professor Timothy Pawl of the Philosophy Department has been one such colleague for me. My own understanding of Christology and other matters has benefitted immensely from our conversations, which have taken place in contexts ranging from formal seminars to pubs. I am indeed fortunate.

At the University of St. Thomas, one of the regular gatherings at which we pursue a communal intellectual life are the Interdisciplinary Colloquia that are hosted by my department, the Theology Department, once or twice per semester and organized by our Aquinas Chair in Theology and Philosophy, Professor Paul Gavrilyuk. When Tim’s recent book, In Defense of Conciliar Christology: A Philosophical Essay, published in 2016 in the Oxford Studies in Analytic Theology series edited by Michael C. Rea and Oliver D. Crisp, was scheduled to be the subject of discussion of a colloquium on February 27, 2017, he asked me to be the one to offer some comments in review of the work. I was quite honored to be asked. As I mentioned at the colloquium, I planned to read the book anyway, but the event surely forced me to read it sooner than I would have. What follows is a version of my remarks at the colloquium, revised to bring greater clarity to what I said at that time perhaps without felicity and certainly with inexactitude, while still retaining the informal genre of these remarks and forgoing the usual scholarly apparatus of extensive references to primary and secondary literature. My own Christological thinking is still very much a work-in-progress. I beg the reader’s indulgence for my inarticulateness on certain matters. And I look forward to continued debate over these Christological issues.

* * *

I am going to skip over the book’s many merits, such as its clarity, the vigor of its argumentation, its engaging style, its thought-provoking proposals, and its humor, especially in the footnotes – I believe this is the first time I have read a scholar express his willingness to host the bonfire to burn his book in case it contains heresy (see footnote 14 on page 22). I believe this is also the first time I have read a work of academic theology published after, I don’t know, Vatican II, that has received the ecclesiastical approbations of the Roman Catholic Church: the famed and fearsome Nihil Obstat and the Imprimatur, signaling that the book is “free of doctrinal error.” Thus the willingness to host bonfires, I suppose! In any event, I have learned much from this book and it has led me to reflect on Christology in ways that I have not before. For this I am exceedingly thankful.

I would like to begin my remarks by summarizing how I understand the project of the book. For the sake of argument, the book assumes the truth of what Tim calls “Conciliar Christology”—that is, the conjunction of teachings on Christ associated with the first seven ecumenical councils, ranging from Nicaea in 325 to Nicaea II in 787. In the first chapter Tim lays out the contents of Conciliar Christology by appealing to a number of conciliar texts, and summarizes it with five assertions (and here I quote from pp. 27-28):

  1. There was (and is) one person, Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who, after the incarnation, has two complete and distinct natures.
  2. One of these natures is the one and only divine nature, according to which the person of Christ is rightly considered immutable and impassible, and which he shares in no less when incarnate than he did otherwise.
  3. The other nature is a human nature. This nature either (a) is composed of a body ensouled by a rational soul, or (b) entails that the bearer, at least during life, have a body ensouled by a rational soul. According to this nature, Christ is like us in all ways—including having a created will—except sin.
  4. These two natures were united in a unique, ineffable manner, which leaves the natures whole and intact, able to perform their own individual operations, which they perform in communion with one another. This union can aptly be characterized as similar to the union between a soul and the body it informs.
  5. Finally, predications are true of the one person, Christ, according to his two natures. Sometimes these predications are true of him according to one nature but explicitly not true of him according to another. In fact, sometimes the natures make apparently incompatible predications true of the one Christ. In such circumstances, both expressions are true of the one God-man, though the predications need not be true of both natures of the God-man.

The chief aim of the book, then, is to solve what Tim calls the “Fundamental Problem”—that is, the problem of incompatible predicates, such as passible and impassible, being predicated of one and the same person. The problem, in other words, is that the one and same person cannot be, for example, passible and impassible, at the same time and in the same way. To claim such for any person or thing is incoherent. The bulk of the book, then, is devoted to establishing a metaphysical model that encapsulates Conciliar Christology and then on this basis solving the Fundamental Problem. The solution takes the form of a denial: what seem to be incompatible predicates are not really incompatible if one has a proper understanding of what these predicates mean. The lynchpin for this denial is what Tim calls the “revised truth conditions” for the predicates. Rather than taking predicates such as “passible” in the intuitive, ordinary sense (such “able to be affected by another thing”), Tim revises this account to include a reference to natures. For example, the revised truth condition for “passible” is “having a concrete nature that is able to be affected by another thing.” In this way, since Christ has two concrete natures—a fully human nature and a fully divine nature—both of these seemingly incompatible predicates are true of him without any logical contradiction or incoherence. Applying the same two predicates to a human being, like myself, would result in contradiction, since any human being has only a single nature, a human nature, and that’s passible. Uniquely, however, Christ has two natures, so he is both passible and impassible at the same time and in the same way in a philosophically coherent way. There is no contradiction, and thus the Fundamental Problem is solved, and thus a major philosophical objection to Conciliar Christology is eliminated.

In the Introduction, Tim expresses worry over the critiques that theologians and historians might level against his philosophical essay. He imagines a theologian saying to him, for example, “Where the hell is Barth!?” Not to worry, I am not the kind of theologian who will complain about the lack of Barth! My unBarthian sympathies notwithstanding, I think Tim has displayed considerable moxie in asking a patristic theologian, and one who specializes in the Trinitarian and Christological debates of the early Christian centuries, to review his book. Let me say that, all in all, I think Tim has acquitted himself well in matters historical and theological. His care to be historically grounded is greater than one typically finds in works of analytic theology. That said, Tim’s worry was not without merit: as a historian and a theologian, as a historical theologian, if you will, I do, in fact and perhaps predictably, have criticisms of his book. Some concern method in historical-theological research, and others concern theological content and implications. I will first give two examples of my concerns with method before turning to what I take to be more substantial issues.

First, in its construction of Conciliar Christology the book exhibits a typical Western Latin over-estimation of the importance of the Tome of Leo. I take this document to be somewhat incongruous with the Christological debates in the Greek East, of which Leo had scant knowledge when he wrote it. It is thus unrepresentative, I think, of the main thrust of Christological thought in the East in the period. Let me explain. After Eutyches was condemned and deposed for heresy in Constantinople in late 448, Flavian, Archbishop of Constantinople, sent a report to Pope Leo in Rome, though it did not reach him for many months (see Leo, Ep. 22). It was on the basis of this report that Leo wrote his famous Tome in June 449. In the writing of the Tome, then, Leo had access neither to any writings of Eutyches (admittedly there are not many to read anyway) nor to the Acts of the Home Synod in Constantinople in November, 448, that had condemned Eutyches (I believe it is these Acts which provide the best resources for understanding his theology). In other words, Leo had very limited first-hand knowledge of the theological issues under debate in the imperial capital. Furthermore, in the Tome Leo reused portions of his sermons written before the controversy over Eutyches broke out. Accordingly, his defense of two-nature Christology in the Tome, which is typically Latin and Western in approach, is, to a degree, behind-the-times, off-target, and out-of-step with the debates raging in the Greek East. Over-optimistically, Leo intended the Tome to be a definitive statement of faith that would resolve all the issues at the upcoming Council at Ephesus in 449—Ephesus II, the infamous Robber Council. But at Ephesus II Dioscorus of Alexandria managed to keep the Tome off the agenda, having the cover letter of the Tome “received” by the council but not read, and the Tome itself not even received (see Acts of Chalcedon I.82-106). This was widely interpreted as a breach of communion between the East and Rome. At Chalcedon in 451, however, Emperor Marcian was determined to have the Tome accepted, mostly likely for political reasons, that is, to reestablish communion and thus garner Leo’s support for the soon-to-be-penned Chalcedonian definition of faith. So at the second session on October 10 the Tome was received and read at Chalcedon (II.10-23). But it was still not without controversy, in spite of the political stakes. The Illyrian and Palestinian bishops, as a bloc, voiced concerns with three passages from the Tome, which other bishops tried to allay by quotations from the writings of Cyril (II.24-26). Even after this, apparently some doubts about the Tome still remained because the imperial officials instructed Anatolius, Archbishop of Constantinople, to set up a task force to persuade those with objections to the Tome of its orthodoxy (II.31-33). Between the second and fourth session there were meetings to convince those hesitant to accept the Tome that it was orthodox. It appears that the issues were successfully resolved. At the fourth session on October 17, each of the bishops present was asked to affirm that the Tome was in harmony with the Creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople and the conciliar letters of Cyril, and they all did this (IV.6-10). These individual affirmations, however, bear all the marks of an orchestrated, imperially-backed plan to have the Tome endorsed by Chalcedon in spite of the theological objections of a significant numbers of bishops. Chalcedon’s acceptance of the Tome was one of the main reasons that many in its aftermath considered the council to have endorsed Nestorianism. Even still, defenders of Chalcedon have consistently upheld its orthodoxy—a judgment that I too hold. But it remains a Christologically problematic document and the centrality that Tim accords to the Tome risks a distorted, “Westernized” understanding of Conciliar Christology.

Another methodological concern is Tim’s treatment of technical terms. As is well-known, a large part of the Christological dispute in the early centuries revolved around confusion and disputes over the precise meaning of technical terms such as ousia (“substance”), physis (“nature”), prosōpon (“person”), and hypostasis (“subsistence”). Indeed, it was the Christological debates from the fourth through eighth centuries that helped to secure the meaning of these terms in their Christological usage in later centuries. These terms were for the most part adopted from earlier theologians, such as the fourth-century theologians Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nazianzus, and put to new uses in the subsequent centuries, though not always with consistency and often with regrettable ambiguity. For example, Cyril of Alexandria was comfortable, for a time at least, using both physis and hypostasis for what we would call the “person” of Christ; later theologians would restrict the usage of physis to the human or divine nature of Christ. There is plenty of textual material from these early centuries outside of conciliar documents that investigates and works out the meaning of these technical terms and thus is useful for reconstructing their meanings as used in the era. So I find it methodologically problematic when Tim defines the technical terms used in his metaphysical model of Conciliar Christology by appeal to Latin medieval thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and not Greek sources contemporary with the councils themselves. Yes, Tim does cite a few Greek Fathers when discussing technical terms, but in the final analysis his definitions have a decidedly medieval Latin ring to them. Of course, in the Greek sources the technical terms are used with considerable ambiguity and difference in meaning, and are only in the process of acquiring their later technical meanings, and so they do not supply the precision Tim needs. But lack of precision in technical terminology is precisely the methodological problem that the theologian faces when interpreting patristic Christology. It seems to me that Tim has assigned to these technical terms a precision and scope of meaning that does not reflect the terminological usage of the documents from which he extracts Conciliar Christology. For example, it not at all easy to tell whether an unqualified use of physis in a source means an abstract or a concrete nature, though Tim takes Conciliar Christology to endorse concrete natures. Another example: while rightly positing no psychological weight to the term “person,” Tim makes a distinction between “person” and “hypostasis” that seems to me foreign to the period. I fear that by importing the fine distinctions of medieval Latin scholasticism into the patristic Greek Christological debates that Tim has invested Conciliar Christology with a precision and limitation of possible meaning that does not do justice to the conciliar documents themselves.

Let me now turn from these two methodological concerns to an issue that is more properly theological. Tim’s solution to the Fundamental Problem causes me to wonder about two things. First, I wonder if by means of the revised truth conditions he has merely (and ingeniously?) stacked the deck in his favor. In other words, including a reference to natures in the revised truth conditions for seemingly incompatible predicates like “passible” and “impassible” seems too convenient. This theologian lacks the philosophical expertise to determine whether Tim is really guilty of a kind of “begging the question” (petitio principii), and it remains a nagging question for me. I am happy to leave this one to the philosophers to figure out. Second, I wonder if the book really does solve the Fundamental Problem in a way that is faithful to the Christology it claims to defend. While the book’s project is not to offer a historical-theological interpretation of Conciliar Christology, but a way of interpreting the councils that responds effectively to modern objections, I think any Christological interpretation should be true to its conciliar sources. So I wonder: does the solution to the Fundamental Problem veer into a Christological dualism that the Fathers in their more polemical moments would have labelled “Nestorian”? A revised truth condition is satisfied because it is true of one or the other nature. But can a nature really be the subject of experiences in this way? A nature would have to be concrete in order to be the subject of experiences, but I am not sure that Tim is correct when he claims that the conciliar documents assume that the natures in Christ are concrete. Natures become concrete when they are instantiated, or hypostasized. In other words, instances of the natures only exist when there is a person of that nature. It seems to me that the concrete reality is the person, not the natures. Thus for the Fathers it is the person of Christ that must be the subject of experiences, not one or the other nature. This is what makes the communicatio idiomatum possible, at least as I understand the doctrine. To dole out experiences to one or the other natures would be deemed Nestorian by the Fathers. Of course, Tim affirms that the person of Christ is the (psychological) subject of all the Christological experiences, but the seemingly incompatible predicates are true of Christ only because one or the other of his natures is the thing to which the experiences happen. But I would argue that when it is said in virtue of communicatio idiomatum that the person of Christ is the subject of all the Christological experiences, I take this to mean that it is the whole person of Christ—the Christological compound which exists in two natures—that is the subject of the experiences. To separate the person of Christ from his two natures is impossible except conceptually. The person is the two natures. Claiming that the predicate “passible” is true of Christ because he has a human nature that is passible seems insufficient to me because it cordens off the divine nature of Christ from any “participation” in passible experiences. I am not suggesting that in the incarnation Christ’s divine nature suffers; rather, I am claiming along with Cyril of Alexandria and many others that both natures share in the Christ’s experience of suffering, albeit each in the manner appropriate to its nature: the human nature in a passible manner, the divine nature in an impassible manner. I fear that in solving the Fundamental Problem Tim has separated the two natures of Christ from each other too much and perhaps fallen into some sort of Christological dualism that the Fathers would say amounts to Nestorianism. When the theopaschite claim is made that “God suffered” or “God died on the cross,” it isn’t true simply on a linguistic level in virtue of a weak form of communicatio idiomatum; rather, in virtue of a strong version of communicatio idiomatum God really in actual fact suffered and died on the cross—passibly in his human nature and impassibly in his divine nature.

I have a deeper concern, though, with the construct “Conciliar Christology” itself. I’ve been reading patristic texts and patristic scholarship for nearly 25 years, and I have never encountered the idea of Conciliar Christology, let alone the term. Now that may be the result of omissions in my reading. But it may also be because Conciliar Christology, as Tim has defined it, is not really a thing. In other words, it is, at best, an abstraction, or perhaps a simplification; at worst, it is a reduction or distortion. I question whether one can attain a full understanding of the Christological legacy of the early Church simply by extracting a set of propositions from documents explicitly associated with councils. The bishops themselves at these councils understood their own project as reaffirming the perennial Christological faith of the Church, so that it was in harmony with the teachings of “the Fathers,” such luminaries as Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus. In other words, the documents associated with the councils must be interpreted and understood within the wider context of the theological tradition that precedes and continues alongside the councils. Conciliar Christology is constructed principally upon documents which by their very nature are not meant to provide detailed positive accounts of Christ. Rather, creeds, definitions, and other conciliar documents—in this period, at least—are minimalist and one might even say apophatic statements designed for consensus; they provide a “grammar” for speaking about the issues, giving the boundaries of acceptable orthodox discourse on the subject. They rule out heresies. To take these as being substantive accounts seems to me problematic methodologically. Furthermore, Conciliar Christology smooths over tensions between the councils and within the theological tradition that develops alongside of them. There’s a reason why our Oriental Orthodox brothers and sisters accept Ephesus but not Chalcedon: what these two councils said is not perfectly harmonizable. It seems to me that patristic Christology contains within itself creative tensions that account for its long-term viability. I don’t see these tensions reflected in Conciliar Christology. As a result, while the construct is more or less accurate as far as it goes, it seems to me an abstraction that may be unfaithful to the tradition it claims to encapsulate. It reminds me of the God of classical theism: while the Christian concept of God surely includes the features of the God of classical theism, any Christian concept of God would be woefully inadequate were it equated with the God of classical theism. I can’t shake the sense that Conciliar Christology is something similar: an account of Christ that may be useful for philosophical reflection, but far from representing the Christological vision of early Christianity.

According to this Christological vision of early Christianity, Christ is not primarily a thing, a “what” that has certain properties, a puzzle to be solved, but rather a person, a “who,” that has acted in history and who continues to act and who can be encountered in the sacraments, in the liturgy, in prayer, and in a host of other ways. The Fathers’ Christology is above all a narrative of the manifestation of the divine goodness that begins with creation, continues with God’s self-revelation to and covenantal dealings with Israel, and culminates in the saving work of Christ and the sending of the Spirit. This narrative of human salvation by God in Christ lies, I think, at the heart of the Christological vision of early Christianity. In speaking of the Chalcedonian Definition, but expressing an idea applicable to all early conciliar texts, Sarah Coakley writes that the Definition “takes for granted the achievement of salvation in Christ and then asks what must be the case about Christ if such salvation is possible.”1 All the creeds, formulas, and conciliar documents produced in the early Church seek to preserve this vision of Christ against theologies that would compromise the narrative of God’s saving work in Christ or render it altogether impossible.

One of the primary ways the Fathers preserved the saving economy of the incarnation against distortions was to affirm the paradox that Christ was both divine and human. Only a Savior who was both divine and human could achieve salvation for humanity. When attributing to Christ the incompatible predicates associated with the two natures, I think the Fathers intended to be paradoxical. Such language was meant to be as striking, as shocking, as saying, to borrow from John Hick, that a circle is also a square. Now I don’t mean that they didn’t value logic or were promoting incoherence; rather, the paradoxical language they used was the best way to affirm that in the incarnation something quite contrary to expectation, something not previously conceivable had happened, and that this was for our salvation. And so, the affirmation of a paradox was the only way to convey the utter scandal of the incarnation. The paradoxical metaphysical account of Christ given by the Fathers was aimed at preserving the central point of the soteriological purpose of the incarnation. The paradox of Christ being able to bear incompatible predicates preserved the narrative that culminated in the saving work of Christ in the incarnation. The divine-human Christ was not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be contemplated and experienced along the path of salvation. The paradoxes in the account of Christ are meant precisely to show and affirm the mind-boggling reality of the two natures of Christ, against reductive accounts in either direction, making Christ “too human” (the Arian problem) or “too divine”—it was this latter that was more often the tendency in the early Church in theologies as diverse as Docetism, Apollinarianism, Monophysitism. Such deviant Christs cannot save. The qualifications given to these paradoxical expressions, such as that Christ suffered qua humanity, not qua divinity, were not intended so much as philosophically satisfying explanations but apophatic qualifications that excluded incorrect and indeed heretical interpretations of the paradoxical language.2

I know that philosophers roll their eyes when theologians appeal to mystery. But even Conciliar Christology, as Tim has defined it, allows for mystery, but in this case the details of the hypostatic union, which Tim does not attempt to explain in the book. In the end, I fear that, if the Fundamental Problem has been solved, it is a solution that comes with too great a cost. What is lost when the paradox of the incarnation is given a philosophically satisfying explanation? Would the Fathers recognize this Christology as preserving their affirmation of the paradox of the Word shockingly becoming human in Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world?

End Notes

[1] “What Does Chalcedon Solve and What Does It Not? Some Reflections on the Status and Meaning of the Chalcedonian ‘Definition’,” in Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, and Gerald O’Collins, The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 143-163 at 159.

[2] I take Theotokos to be another of the these paradoxes: Mary gave birth to Christ qua humanity, not divinity.

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Dr Mark Delcogliano is Assistant Professor of Theology at the University of St Thomas. His specialty is patristics. He is the author of Basil of Caesarea’s Anti-Eunomian Theory of Names and has translated into English several works of the Fathers, including various homilies of St Basil the Great, St Athanasius’ Letters to Serapion, and St Gregory the Great’s Exposition of the Song of Songs. He is also co-translator of St Basil’s important treatise Against Eunomius.

(Go to Tim Pawl’s rejoinder)

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32 Responses to The Christ of Analytic Theology: A Review Essay

  1. Basem says:

    Thank you for sharing Father. I believe, as Fr Matthew The Poor elegantly articulated, “Conceptual Theologians divided The Church”. The person of Christ is a mystery; He is not amenable to “dissection”. I personally believe that both the Cyrilian and the Chalcedonian Christological formulas are “orthodox” however I also believe that both fall short of fully expressing the mystery of Christ. Christ never called us to “understand”: at least not in the sense of we are trying to. Knowledge of God is available but not “understanding” because “understanding” means that we can fit God into the confines of our own created mental faculties and the uncreated cannot be contained in the created. In the same line of thought, our reformed brethren reduce knowledge of God into a mental/conceptual exercise based on scriptural exegesis which inevitably lead to the God in a box situation where the lines between the essence of God and our doctrines of Him become blurred and He fails to exist outside the confines of our tight doctrines.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tim says:

    Thanks for this review essay, Mark! I, too, appreciate our conversations, and look forward to them for years to come.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Matthew Hryniewicz says:

    Hi Prof. DelCogliano,

    Could you elaborate on what you mean when you say that “…God really in actual fact suffered and died on the cross—passibly in his human nature and impassibly in his divine nature.” In particular, the idea of suffering impassibly in the divine nature is what I don’t understand. It sounds like saying that God suffers without experiencing suffering. Did you word it this way to maintain the emphasis on paradox?

    I have been wondering lately about how it is possible to predicate anything of Jesus as the God-man. We are able to speak of God analogically and man univocally, but what do we get when we attempt to predicate anything of the mysterious union between the two? For example, if I were to say that Jesus is wise, I feel like I’m stuck with saying that Jesus is wise both univocally and analogically at the same time. I wonder whether there can be an adequate grammar to speak of the union of divine and human natures or if we are limited by necessity to speaking of them separately while acknowledging that they are unified in some mysterious way. I’d appreciate any thoughts on this matter.

    God Bless


    • Mark DelCogliano says:

      “Suffering impassibly” is Cyrilline language. There’s been enough written on it, better than what I could summarize here.


    • Anna S. says:

      In talking about the communication of the operations, activities and attributes in one person – there is a recognition of the interpenetration of the two natures in which the attributes and operations of the one nature are always imbued with the other. Pope Martin in the Lateran Acts: ‘He did not perform what is divine with his Godhead alone nor what is human with his bare manhood, but through the flesh …he performed the miracles in an extraordinary fashion, and with almighty power he voluntarily accepted the experience of his life-giving sufferings’

      But there is also a recognition of an asymmetry between the natures. The created dependent upon and formed by the Uncreated. Dumitru Staniloae (The Experience of God vol 3) explains this in this way, “Between the divine impassiblity and the Son of God’s suffering in the body there is no contradiction. Out of the ocean of divine power, equivalent to divine impassibility, there is a ray of power in the suffering of the Son of God as man, which is also a strengthening of the human nature in bearing the passions.” p. 56


  4. Tom says:

    Let me just stoke the fires a bit and warm myself some before commenting. 😀


  5. “does the solution to the Fundamental Problem veer into a Christological dualism that the Fathers in their more polemical moments would have labelled “Nestorian”?”
    Possibly. Either that or monophysitism. I think that theologians tend to stumble into a lot more problems than solved when they try to explain the hypostatic union in terms that can be explained by reason. God is not a man and is a man…become a man. God is not a creature. We are. So the incarnation is overall a mystery to us.
    As for the nihil obstat and imprimatur, there seems to be a lot of politics involved in current ecclesiastical disputes nowadays to take them as implying a book contains no heresy whatsoever. Though it does not seem based on the review the book is heretical, it does seem to be littered with deeply flawed human reasoning.


    • Mark DelCogliano says:

      I don’t understand why you think Pawl’s solution to the Fundamental Problem, as he defines it, could veer into monophysitism. Can you explain what you mean?

      I’m not sure what to make of your comments about the nihil obstat and imprimatur. Tim sought these in good faith and my remarks on the subject were meant tongue-in-cheek, as Pawl’s comment about hosting bonfires was. I am sorry you missed the intended humor of that bit.

      I do take except to your characterization of the book as “littered with deeply flawed human reasoning.” That’s not what I said in my review, I certainly don’t think that, and I can’t see how you take that from my review. In fact, I find the reasoning deeply rigorous and careful, even if I disagree with its results.


      • “I don’t understand why you think Pawl’s solution to the Fundamental Problem, as he defines it, could veer into monophysitism.”
        I think you misunderstood my comment…I was referring into Christological explanations in general. I’ve read a lot of them. One time it’s monophysitism, the next it is Nestorianianism…all unintentional but because humans cannot get their minds into explaining the incarnation and that’s okay.
        “I’m not sure what to make of your comments about the nihil obstat and imprimatur. Tim sought these in good faith and my remarks on the subject were meant tongue-in-cheek”
        I was also being slightly tongue-in-cheek. But indeed, there is quite a lot of politics nonetheless in pursuing those things for a given book. Especially with the state of the Church nowadays where you have bishops holding closet-heresies themselves.
        Canon law even allows this political game to take place as well.
        “I do take except to your characterization of the book as “littered with deeply flawed human reasoning.” That’s not what I said in my review, I certainly don’t think that, and I can’t see how you take that from my review.”
        It is the overall scope of trying to explain a Divine mystery in human terms. It may be filled with reasoning deeply rigorous and careful BUT…regardless of agreeing or disagreeing, it is still a human trying to explain God in human terms (which is flawed).


  6. A very nice review.

    I did want to note something in particular, not to pick on this review but because it is a common misframing found in analytic theology:

    Rather than taking predicates such as “passible” in the intuitive, ordinary sense (such “able to be affected by another thing”), Tim revises this account to include a reference to natures. For example, the revised truth condition for “passible” is “having a concrete nature that is able to be affected by another thing.”

    As a matter of psychology or history, it’s a little odd to take the former as the intuitive and ordinary sense and the latter as not so. Nobody goes around making any sharp distinction between having an ability (or susceptibility) and having a nature with an ability (or susceptibility), much less regarding it as intuitive and ordinary, unless they are forced to do so by a technical apparatus to which they are committed. If you try to describe Pawl’s project to most people (I know from experience), one finds that even with explanation they tend to regard it as verbal maneuvering in response to a non-problem because they don’t see the distinction at all; and there are plenty of historical philosophical accounts on which they would be right, although sometimes one would need a qualification or two for extreme cases. In the intuitive, ordinary sense, there is no difference between “having a nature able to be affected” and “being able to be affected”.

    The real question is how one ends up with such a surprising distinction in the first place, and while there’s probably more than one story, for analytic philosophy it lies in the history of thinking about truth conditions — hence the specific need to rethink how they work — and the tendency to think of attribution as working completely on the model of the predicate calculus (put crudely, pure predicates attached to bare subjects). Change that context, things can be very different.

    I’ve only had a chance to look at parts of Pawl’s work, but I wonder if this goes part of the way to addressing some of the concerns in the review. There are really a number of questions, e.g., “How can something have two natures given that they are so different?”, “How, precisely, should it be understood?” and “How does this not necessarily result in a contradiction when one applies methods typically used by analytic philosophers?” And one can well have “a philosophically satisfying explanation” for one of the questions without holding that one has exhausted the answers to them all.


    • Mark DelCogliano says:

      Brandon, Thanks for your comments. I see your point and the distinction. I think I borrowed the language of “intuitive, ordinary” from Tim himself. I suppose my working “truth condition” in this particular case would be derived from a typical patristic understanding of passibility. Insofar as I can recall, I don’t remember a reference to a nature being part of an account of passibility (or impassibility for that matter). For me, the vagueness of their definition precludes imparting a precision to it that seems to me unfaithful to the sources.

      But the deeper issue for me is whether an analytic project like Tim’s — which pursues the sort of questions you list in your last paragraph — loses sight of, or misses the point of, something far more central to the patristic legacy of Christology. At this point, for me, I think it does.


  7. Ed says:

    Dr. DelCogliano writes:

    “Natures become concrete when they are instantiated, or hypostasized. In other words, instances of the natures only exist when there is a person of that nature.”

    I find this confusing. If this is so, then would it not imply two persons in Christ, one corresponding to each of the natures? Either this, or there would be one person corresponding to a new hybrid “God-man” nature. But aren’t these both heretical statements?


    • Mark DelCogliano says:

      Your instincts seem right to me. In the incarnation the divine person of the Word assumes a human nature, resulting in a compound divine-human person. The anhypostatic-enhypostatic distinction may be helpful here. Christ’s humanity can be considered “anhypostatic” in the sense that there is no human person constituted by the human body and soul (assumed by Christ at the incarnation) independently of the person of the Word. His humanity can be considered “enhypostatic” in the sense that Christ’s human body and soul, at the incarnation, become a person only by being assumed by the divine person of the Word and thus forming the divine-human person of Christ.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Robert Fortuin says:

        yes, which is another way expressing the hypostatic union, a unity which is not of nature; hence ‘divine-human person’ but not ‘divine-human nature’


  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Mark, thank you again for allowing Eclectic Orthodoxy to publish your fine address. Yesterday, we had more “hits” than we have had for several months–a blogger lives for “hits”! 🙂

    I have not read Dr Pawl’s book and so cannot comment upon it. My acquaintance with analytic theology has been limited (a couple books by Swinburne and essays by various scholars here and there). While I find the clarity of analysis helpful (up to a point), I also find it worrisome–and for the same reason that I find medieval scholasticism worrisome: once defined the concepts seem take on a life of their own, divorced from the biblical narrative and the proclamation of the gospel. I’m thinking, e.g., of Richard Swinburne’s The Christian God. Swinburne intends his analysis as orthodox, yet he ends up with an understanding of the Trinity that would have been regarded by the Fathers as heretical–and he doesn’t even realize it. The scholastics too valued philosophical precision and were capable of high levels of abstraction (which I am not!), but their reflections were also thoroughly informed by their exposition of Scripture and their immersion in the Mass and the daily offices. My sense (and perhaps Dr Pawl can comment here) is that this is not true for most, or at least many, analytic theologians. They seem to theologize in a rarified world separate from the life of the Church.

    This statement of yours jumped out at me: “while the Christian concept of God surely includes the features of the God of classical theism, any Christian concept of God would be woefully inadequate were it equated with the God of classical theism.” Quite right!


  9. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Mark, your comments on the problematic dualism of Pope Leo’s Tome, reminded me of Robert Jenson’s pointed, and humorous, translation of one of its sentences: “Each nature does its own thing, in cooperation with the other.”


  10. David S says:

    Fr Kimel, Dr DelCogliano,

    Thank you for this thorough and interesting review.

    One question: You commend the author ‘rightly positing no psychological weight to the term “person,” ‘but at the same time you argue that it is Christ’s single person, rather than his two natures, which is the subject of experience. What does it mean to be a subject of experience as a person, but stripped of all psychological content?

    Doesn’t that imply that three persons are all three ‘distinct’ subjectives of experience, and therefore conscious? This makes sense to me, but sounds an awful lot like the social trinitarianism that seems to be rejected by this blog.

    More generally I wonder if, while rejecting social trinitarianism, this blog basically endorses the core of what it affirms – three distinct subjectivities, aka three streams of conscious experience – but denying the individualistic, Swinburne-style silliness of imagining these three streams add up to three independent beings who could theoretically disagree.

    At the risk of moving the conversation too far away from this excellent review and into my own pet peeve, it would be extremely helpful if you could take a look at Brian Leftow’s explanation of the trinity (you’re likely familiar with it) and give a view. This gives pretty much the most robust defense of three distinct psychological subjectivities/consciousnesses streams in God while preserving a single ‘Subject’ of God

    Many thanks


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Great question, David. I’ll let Dr DelCogliano field your question. I too am eager to hear what thoughts he has on this topic.


      • Mark DelCogliano says:

        Yes, it’s a great question and I admit that I don’t have an immediate answer, or at least a good one. Let me think on the fly here.

        I commend a de-psychologized notion of personhood because I think it is representative of patristic thinking on the matter and thus goes against the modern tendency to think of persons in terms of their psychology or consciousness. Thus I would reject any form of social Trinitarianism that prioritizes the individual psychologies of the persons — I see this as veering into tritheism.

        When I said that the person of Christ is subject of experience I suppose I mean “that which things happen to.” What I am trying to affirm is that the whole Christ is the subject of all experiences, not just one or the other of the two natures.

        I see how these two affirmation may not be consistent with each other, and I need to think through this more. Thanks for raising the point.

        I’ve read a bit of Leftow on Christology but not Trinity, so thanks for the recommendation.


        • David S says:

          Thanks for this response Dr DelCogliano.

          I suppose my point is that, if (as you argue), natures cannot be subjects of experiences, therefore God’s essence – or divine nature – equally cannot be the subject of experiences. But surely we want to say that God is, at least in some sense, conscious and the subject of experiences! And if it can’t be the single nature/essence that is subject to experiences and conscious, then surely it must be the persons.

          Your clarification of subject as “that which things happen to” is helpful, but I suppose I think that kind of definition would also imply “that which does things”. And one of the things that Jesus does is to become conscious of particular things, have streams of thought etc., and it certainly sounds that (at least) God the Father is portrayed of being similarly conscious of particular things within the gospel narrative as well.

          On Leftow, I’d recommend checking out his two pieces ‘Anti Social Trinitarianism’ and ‘A Latin Trinity’ – notable as the former is probably one of the most scathing rejections of full blown social trinitarianism one could find, while the latter firmly endorses the idea of three persons as being/having three distinct thought streams (using a curious but surprisingly convincing time travel analogy to preserve the numerical unity of these).

          I thought Leftow’s case was interesting as it makes clear how ‘social trinitarianism’ is not (especially to its critics) clearly defined, and that those who reject it can mean very different things in doing so. For some, it seems that rejecting social trinitarianism is intended to reject all hint of understanding consciousness as being a property of the persons, rather than the single divine nature – following, say, Rahner, in being explicit that there is no true ‘reciprocal Thou’ within the divine life of the Trinity. Whereas others understand rejecting social trinitarianism as rejecting only a “too extreme” understanding of each person having their own consciousness – perhaps rejecting the idea of three totally separate consciousnesses, if this is understood to mean they all possess three separate wills that could theoretically disagree with one another (as with Swinburne), but are happy with three distinct consciousnesses, aka three genuinely distinct subjectivities, so long as it clear they are mysteriously united as one being (as with Leftow).

          Headache inducing stuff for sure…


          • Mark DelCogliano says:

            Many thanks for the thoughtful reply. You’ve given me a lot to think about. I only have a reply, now, to the first paragraph. I think I would want to say that the divine ousia cannot be the subject of experiences either, but rather it must be the persons who are the subject of the the experiences. (I am uncomfortable treating the divine ousia as something “different” than the persons except conceptually.) I hold to the pro-Nicene idea of the inseparable operations of the Trinity; I suppose I would be in favor of something like “inseparable experiencing” too. For example, Augustine implies something like this in Sermon 52.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      David, I don’t know if you have seen my earlier postings on the question of God as three subjectivities (and I honestly don’t know if they are worth reading); but here are two that address the matter. Let me know what you think:

      Do Unitarians Understand the Trinity?

      Father, Son, Spirit as Divine Selves

      I do not have a firm opinion and am open to further discussion. But I am confident that, e.g., a position like Swinburne’s in fact falls into tritheism and would have been rejected by the Church Fathers and medieval Doctors. On the other hand, the gospel story presents us with three dramatic personae: the one God who is Creator, Jesus the divine Son, and the mysterious Spirit. I do not pretend to know how to systematize all of this in a philosophically convincing fashion. I suspect it’s easier to identify positions that clearly fall outside the faith.


      • David S says:

        Thank you Father. I enjoyed both of your earlier postings, and help in teasing out the issues a great deal. I certainly agree that it’s easier to spot heresies than to define orthodoxy precisely.

        In your first piece, you define mind, perception, and consciousness as belonging to the divine nature, not the persons. But surely, if we do not want to divide Christ’s person, we need to affirm that it is his person that perceives and is conscious, not (both of?) his natures. Of course you do not not say it is the divine nature that is conscious and leave it at that, but rather that this consciousness is mysteriously ‘shared’ by the persons – but what exactly that could mean remains a bit of a mystery to me. Are these three distinct subjectivities, who share a consciousness in the sense that they are are all conscious of the same thing? Or are they three distinct subjectivites again, but who share a consciousness in the sense that there is one principle or mechanism by which they are conscious, but nevertheless maintain three distinct streams of thought? Or is there only really one subjectivity, one stream of consciousness, one set of thoughts – and the persons are then mere ‘aspects’ of this one Supreme Person, who ‘share’ in this one consciousness only in a purely notional sense?

        I think a lot of this all boils down to the question of ‘What precisely are we rejecting when we reject social trinitarianism?’ Are we rejecting even the merest hint of three streams of conscious experience? Or are we just rejecting the strong sense of persons which imagines these are three individuals with three different wills, who have to choose to work in concert with one another and could theoretically disagree, while still leaving open the possibility that there could be more than one ‘thing’ in God which has something like a consciousness.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          David, let’s put aside for the moment the question of three subjectivities. In what sense does it make sense to speak of God as a subject that experiences stuff? I have a vague idea what it means to speak of human beings as personal subjects that experience stuff, but it’s all predicated upon existence within a material universe. But God obviously does not exist in our material universe; he is its Creator and Sustainer. He doesn’t “experience” the world as an observer or even as a participant; he confers being upon it, at every moment. At what point does our talk about the subjectivity, consciousness, and personhood of God become anthropomorphic projection? Do we know what we are talking about?


          • David S says:

            Now that’s a question! I think it does make sense to talk of God (or the Persons of God) having a subjectivity and being conscious – albeit in an analogical way – just as it makes sense to talk of the Father as being good, loving, one who creates and performs certain actions, etc. Exactly what that ‘feels like’ is unknown to me, but I think we can at least affirm that there is some feeling going on.

            And of course, we also need to affirm that the person of Jesus has a subjectivity and is conscious, and that this should give us some clue as to the subjectivity of the divine persons in general. As this is one unified subjectivity that the whole person has – not just the human nature – I think we also need to affirm the other two persons have such subjectivities.

            Obviously the issue of God’s atemporality complicates matters still further here. I suppose having a divine, atemporal subjectivity, and a totally separate, temporal subjectivity, to me appears Nestorian – at least if the human Jesus’ subjectivity ‘goes on forever’ post ascension and into the eschaton. But could it be possible to speak of these temporal and eternal subjectivites being ‘reunited’ somehow at the ascension, mirroring the Son’s original descent? i.e. if it is coherent to have, during the earthly incarnation, a subjectivity of a divine person in time, can we also imagine the subjectivity of a human person being eternalised?


  11. Anna S. says:

    I am only an “at home” theologian, not really a scholar, but it seems to me just as wrong, and a similar type of mistake to impute some kind of subjective experience to “Person” as it is to impute will to person. A person is not the operator of a nature, nor the subjective center of a nature, nor the “theandric” center of subjectivity of the two natures.

    In the ancient world it was commonly accepted by all that God knows,perceives, experiences things as Creator, and this is totally different then how a created being knows, perceives experiences things. In fact the Arians, because they believed the Word was a creature stated “For neither perfectly nor accurately does the Logos know the Father, nor is he able to see him fully. And indeed the Son, as he is, does not even know his own essence.”

    This whole issue was dealt with during the debates of the 7th century. I highly recommend reading the florigelium of the Latern Council of 649. ( It is clearly taught here that Christ knows, perceives, experiences things according to the natural mode of both natures. These two modes of experiencing are united in the person of Christ, interpenetrating each other.

    If we say maybe that enpersonated nature is the subject of experiences, then the Word is the subject of two sets of experiences, however we cannot say this is one united subjective experience (no more than there is one united operation or will) but that it is one and the Same who wills, knows, acts, experiences as both God and man without confusion, the two natures being in communion with each other. It is mostly Maximus the Confessor who pulls together and the articulations of both St Cyril and the Latin tradition showing how both ways of seeing are really necessary for a full Christology. (Cf. Barthellos- The Byzantine Christ)


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