by Timothy Pawl, Ph.D.
I’d like to thank Fr. Kimel for hosting this exchange, and Mark for his characteristically insightful comments on my book. Also, I’d like to thank Paul Gavrilyuk who, as Mark said, originally hosted our exchange at an Interdisciplinary Colloquium. As Mark notes, he and I are colleagues at the University of St. Thomas (MN). We are also friends. I’ve discussed theology a fair bit with Mark over the past few years, and I’ve never left a conversation as ignorant as I entered it. I should note here, lest I be misread, that my original reply to Mark was tongue-in-cheek, as were his original comments. Some of that same playfulness comes through in these blog posts.
An autobiographical point as a segue into responding to Mark’s comments. In Defense of Conciliar Christology began as an invited talk at an annual philosophy of religion conference. I planned to write a brief paper noting some problems with contemporary philosophical understandings of the incarnation. That talk ballooned into a paper, then an overly long paper, then a planned series of articles, and finally, this book. What I found in my reading was that there are a lot of people, both philosophers and theologians, both now and in Christian history, who raise philosophical objections to the coherence of traditional Christology. My goal in this book is to show those objections unsound. In that sense, my project is defensive. I don’t attempt to argue that the Christology of the councils is true, or even possibly true. Rather, my goal is to show that folks haven’t yet given good philosophical reason for thinking it to be false.
I count six critiques raised by Mark: first, I overly esteem Leo and his Tome; second, I appeal to medievals for definitions and not patristics; third, I stack the deck; fourth, I give a Nestorian account; fifth, what I call Conciliar Christology isn’t even a thing; sixth, my account removes paradox at great detriment to the Christology of the fathers. I’ll consider these in order.
First, do I over-esteem Leo? How much esteem is too much? I’ll allow my esteem to be tempered by the conciliar fathers, the vast majority of whom were easterners, who at Chalcedon write,
To these it has suitably added, against false believers and for the establishment of orthodox doctrines, the letter of the primate of greatest and older Rome, the most blessed and most saintly Archbishop Leo, written to the sainted Archbishop Flavian to put down Eutyches’s evil-mindedness, because it is in agreement with great Peter’s confession and represents a support we have in common. (Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, ed. Norman P. Tanner, 85)
Or 3rd Constantinople, which writes:
it approves … the Tome of the all-holy and most blessed Leo, pope of the same elder Rome, which was sent to Flavian, who is among the saints, and which that synod called a pillar of right belief. (Tanner, 126-7)
I’m happy to moderate my esteem in him and his work to the degree these eastern conciliar fathers did: he is all-holy and blessed, most-holy and most-blessed, and his work is in agreement with Great Peter’s confession and a pillar of right belief. If I come off in the book as esteeming the man or his works more than this, I repent of it now.
Second, Mark says I appeal to medievals more than the patristics, and the Latins more than the Greeks, in my definitions of the relevant terms. Norman Tanner made this same point in a review of my book for the Heythrop Journal. I think this is a fair point. I do rely on Latin medievals more than Greek patristics in my work. But note well: my goal is merely to show a way in which one can interpret the councils from within the tradition, and on which they are not incoherent in their teachings on Christ. I trust that following the likes of Aquinas on such definitions is not, in itself, a way of veering dangerously outside the acceptable bounds of tradition. Moreover, while I do rely more on Latin medievals, the patristic Greeks don’t go unmined, as Mark notes. I discuss John of Damascus’s views of the proper definition of “hypostasis” at least as much as Aquinas’s. I also cite patristic era eastern authors, such as Emperor Justinian, Cyril of Alexandria, and many experts on such thinkers, such as our own colleague Stephen Hipp at the St. Paul Seminary and Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev in an attempt to show the sympathy such thinkers would have for the medieval-inspired definitions I eventually employ. Provided that the definitions I eventually employ are not prohibited by the eastern Fathers in concert (and the case would have to be made not only that my definitions are faulty, but the definitions of many medieval western councils and authors whom I cite as well), I don’t see that my reliance on the medievals vitiates my goal.
Third, have I stacked the deck? I don’t think so. Recall the dialectic. Someone says to me, “that stuff you believe is incoherent.” The job I have taken up is replying. In doing so, I’m allowed to revise and clarify. That’s not stacking the deck; that’s part of an adequate response. I suppose it is true that if I were to provide revised definitions that were straightforwardly incompatible with theological or historical usage, that would be a problem. On that front, I’m happy to see that Mark claims that I acquitted myself well theologically and historically.
Fourth, is my answer Nestorian? I have a section on that topic in the last section before the book’s conclusion (Ch9; SectV). Mark says, “Thus for the Fathers it is the person of Christ that must be the subject of experiences, not one or the other nature.” Depending on what we mean by “subject of experiences,” I have different things to say here. If we mean the psychological subject of experiences, the guy who experiences things, then I agree with both parts of Mark’s claim: Christ, and not a nature, is the subject of psychological experiences. But if we mean merely the thing which stuff happens to, or the thing we can linguistically predicate of, then I deny his second part. It is true that Christ is the subject of experiences (he hung on the cross), but it is also true that the same is aptly said of the human nature: the human nature hung on the cross.
In the previously-mentioned section of my book, I rely on the definition of Nestorianism given by that great eastern Father, St. John of Damascus. He says Nestorians believe that the Word and the humanity exist by themselves, that the ignoble attributes are said of the humanity alone, and the noble attributes said of the Word alone. My view isn’t Nestorian in that sense. For while I say, following Leo in his Tome, that the human nature was causally affected, while it hung and bled, that is not said of the human nature alone, it is said of the human nature and the Word himself.
Perhaps someone will reply that, even still, while my view isn’t explicitly Nestorian on the Damascene’s definition, it is still, nevertheless, Nestorian to say such things as “was causally affected,” “hung,” or “was pierced” of the human nature. Persons, not natures, hang, get pierced, or are affected.
To that reply, I note that I’m saying no more than the councils themselves say. For all-holy Leo says in his pillar of right belief, in agreement with Peter’s great confession, that the human nature “hung, pierced with nails, on the wood of the cross” (Tanner, 81). Third Constantinople says that “each nature wills and performs the things that are proper to it in communion with the other” (Tanner, 129). What of Cyril, the great opponent of Nestorius? Would he view my predication of the predicates both of the human nature and of the person of the Word as beyond the pale? According to Cyril (on Christopher Bellitto’s reading, which some of you are better placed to evaluate than I am), “Jesus’s human nature suffered because it is human and therefore capable of suffering.” Likewise, another scholar, Herbert Relton, writes that Cyril “assigned to his human nature the hunger, the thirst, the suffering, the dying.” Khaled Anatolios provides evidence that Athanasius likewise predicated such ignoble predicates of both the Word and his human nature. Thus, if my view, which has me saying some ignoble predicates both of the person and of the nature is Nestorian, then so is Athanasius’s, Cyril’s, Leo’s, and the councils that explicitly accepted Leo’s Tome. Insofar as we have reason to think that Cyril – Cyril! – isn’t a Nestorian, we have reason to think that my view is not, too.
Fifth, is Conciliar Christology a thing? Well, Mark has been reading theology since I was a pre-teen, and he’s never seen the concept, let alone the term. I can see how the term eluded him. I thought I was making it up at first, but Google Scholar tells me it was used a handful of times prior to my stipulation of its meaning in this context. But the concept itself – the concept of all the stuff the councils officially taught about Christ back when the church wasn’t in east-west schism – that concept is new to him? Kallistos Ware wrote, in 1964, that “the Councils defined once and for all the Church’s teaching upon the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith – the Trinity and the Incarnation.” Isn’t he writing here about Conciliar Christology and Conciliar Trinitarian Theology? There are a lot of books dedicated to the history and theology of the first seven councils. When they discuss the Christology of those councils, isn’t it precisely Conciliar Christology that they are discussing?
Mark notes that Conciliar Christology is a simplification, or a reduction, or a distortion…of what exactly? Of, it appears, a “full understanding of the Christological legacy of the early Church.” Well, sure: if one were to present Conciliar Christology as if it were the full Christological legacy of the early church, that would be a simplification and reduction. But why think anyone was trying to do that? I agree wholeheartedly with Mark that Christ is a “who” that we encounter in the sacraments. Christ is a person we adore, and rightly so. The Christian God we worship is not merely the God of Classical Theism. Let my “Amen!” resound to these claims! I never claimed that Conciliar Christology is the fullness of expression of patristic Christology. But I do think that what I’ve called Conciliar Christology is a necessary condition for any viable Christology based on the teachings of the first seven councils. If the objectors can show it to be incoherent, then, they have shown that no Christology based on those councils, patristic or otherwise, is coherent.
Finally, even if Mark is right and Conciliar Christology is not a thing, and no one in the history of the world has ever stopped to consider the ecumenical councils of the undivided church, and whether what they teach about Christ is internally consistent – if no one has ever stopped to ask whether the Christology defined once and for all, allegedly unrevisable and protected from error by the Holy Spirit, harbors an alleged contradiction – well, is being the first to do so such a very bad thing?
Sixth, have I wronged the paradox that is necessary to Christology? Perhaps Mark and I mean different things by paradox. To claim that something is a paradox is to claim two things: first, that it appears contradictory; second, that it isn’t contradictory. Perhaps you disagree. Perhaps you think that something can be both a paradox and contradictory. Even so, in this context we shouldn’t allow the paradox to be contradictory, since no logical contradiction (i.e., claim of the form P is true and P is false) is true, and as I assume for argument’s sake in the book, and something Mark and I both affirm, the Christian story is true. Paradox in a case of commitment to the truth is a case of seeing something as appearing but not being logically contradictory.
Here, Mark tells us that paradox is needful. It is “the only way” to convey the truth, it is “the best way” to affirm what happened in the incarnation. And so on. To remove the paradox is problematic. And he thinks I’ve removed it. I think it is the other way around, though: it is Mark who has removed the paradox (I’ve been told that theologians appreciate provocation in their talks; I’m trying to play along here).
To have reason to think something a paradox, you need reason to think it both appears but isn’t contradictory. Now, everyone – Christian and atheist alike – will find the appearance of logical contradiction in the passages I cite in the book. Is the teaching really contradictory? Well, there are those who have provided logical arguments to the conclusion that it is contradictory. If so, then it isn’t a paradox after all. How does one go about answering such charges? I see no other way than by considering their arguments and attempting to show that they are unsound. How does one go about giving evidence that the alleged paradox is not contradictory? I say you try to show a way of understanding the terms and statements that doesn’t imply a contradiction. How else? But then, to retain the paradoxical nature of the claims, we need some reason for thinking it is not contradictory, and I see nothing in what Mark says that could provide that. In short, to be paradoxical but true, it has to appear logically contradictory, but not in fact be logically contradictory. My book is an attempt to show that latter part.
From my perspective, there are people giving carefully constructed, logical arguments in good faith, which attempt to show that the paradox is more than paradox, it is inconsistency. A proper response to such people isn’t reassertion of the paradox and its importance. The proper response is considering the arguments they give. If the Holy Spirit has protected these councils from error, as the Orthodox and Catholics both profess, then there is a fault somewhere in the argument. We do a service to the objector and ourselves if we meet their arguments in the same manner in which they are given, with careful logic.
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Dr Pawl is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minnesota. He works on metaphysics and philosophical theology. In metaphysics he works on truthmaker theory, modality, and free will. In philosophical theology, he has published on transubstantiation, Christology, and divine immutability. Some places where his work has appeared include: The Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Faith and Philosophy, and Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion. With Dr Gloria Frost he leads the Classical Theism Project.