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.
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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):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?￼
 “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.
 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.