The Virgin of the Veil, Ambrogio Borgognone, 1500
Last Saturday it was with great sadness that we reblogged from First Things the news of the passing and the short tribute to Fr. Edward T. Oakes. I’ve been scouring about for some piece of his writing that would capture not only his scholastic rigor but his extraordinary breadth of learning and perception. I think I’ve done pretty good here – the introduction to his 2009 book Infinity Dwindled to Infancy. Note that all references to “this book” and various chapters refer to Infinity Dwindled to Infancy.
A key has no logic to its shape. Its logic is: it turns the lock.
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
In common parlance, the word “evangelical” has both a more generic meaning, referring to all styles, schools, and denominations of Christianity that are explicitly confessional, and a more specific (and usually American) meaning, which refers to specific churches and denominations that require a confession of Jesus as Lord for church membership.
Thus there can be evangelical Anglicans within the Church of England, while other (usually independent) churches are entirely evangelical. My title of course is meant in the generic sense, but not as if only some Catholics confess Jesus as Lord and others don’t. The word here is meant in the methodological sense: rather than arguing to the possibility of confessing Jesus as Lord (that would be the apologetic approach), I shall begin by presupposing the faith that Jesus is Lord and then seek to understand what that means scientifically (the explicitly confessional approach).
That said, I should also add that my years of involvement in Evangelicals and Catholics Together have taught me how little divides Evangelicals (in the specific sense) from Catholics in matters of Christology. For that reason, especially in the historical sections of this book (Chapters 4 through 10), I shall freely draw on Protestant and Orthodox authors who are themselves evangelical (in the generic sense). In this I will of course be following the directive of the Second Vatican Council, which urged Catholics in these terms:
Catholics must joyfully acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren. It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood. For God is always wonderful in His works and worthy of praise. [Vatican II, Unitatis redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism), §4, in The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter M. Abbott, S.J. (New York: Guild Press, 1966), p. 349.]
As the subtitle indicates, this work will also be frankly and unapologetically Catholic in its outlook, as will emerge especially in Chapter 11, where the developments of modern Christology will find their response in the contemporary Roman magisterium. Throughout the history of Christology the reader will notice a dialectic at work in which certain proposals are moot by individual Christians: when inadequacies are noticed, other writers m respond, often heatedly, but the ultimate resolution of these debates will found in official responses by magisterial bodies: ecumenical councils p manly but also by individual bishops, very much including the Bishop Rome; and what was true of the ancient Church holds true for the Rom Church today.
Finally, there is the matter of the title itself, which is meant as no mere nod to the poets, insightful as they are. It will be the fundamental thesis this book that there can be no getting around the essential paradoxicality the Christian confession of Christ as Lord. “Take away paradox from thinker,” Soren Kierkegaard once quipped, “and you have a professor.” Transposed into Christology, we may paraphrase the line as: “Take away paradox from a theologian, and you have a heretic.“ [As we will notice throughout this book, but especially in Chapter 4, denial of the central paradoxes of Christology will inevitably lead to heresy; and pagan critics of Christianity were explicit in their rejection of the Christian message for that same reason: "For the one whom the church was calling God was also the one whose suffering and death on the cross were the burden of the church's witness....
The claim that he who was God had suffered called forth some of the earliest doctrinal controversy in the church. Speaking for pagan critics of the gospel, Celsus made this claim the object of his attack, and he contended that `the body of a god would not have been born ... nor eat,' ... and the Gnostic gospels sought to put a screen between the person of the Savior and the pain and suffering described in the canonical Gospels." Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100- 600), vol. I of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 174.]
Indeed, long before the poets began to sing the praise of infinity dwindled to infancy, the most important defenders of Christian orthodoxy were adamant that theology would invariably go astray if it did not openly confess the utter strangeness (strange to worldly logic, at least) of the Christian message of salvation. For just that reason, early Christian writers were generally suspicious of Aristotle, not so much for his specific and distinctive philosophical doctrines but because his logic was unsuited, they felt, to the transcendent “logic” of the Logos incarnate, the application of which was bound to lead to heresy. As Harry Wolfson observes:
Patristic opponents of Arianism as well as Patristic Church historians a heresiographers trace the Arian heresy to Aristotle…. But when we study the passages in which Aristotle is mentioned as the source of this here we are surprised to discover that the reference is not to any particular theory with which the name of Aristotle is generally associated, such, for instance as his denial of Platonic ideas, his belief in the eternity of the world, his conception of God as only a prime mover, or his view that the soul is only a form of the body, but only to the Aristotelian method of reasoning….
And when we examine these references to the Aristotelian method of reasoning as being the cause of the Arian heresy, we are further surprised to discover that they do not mean reasoning by the Aristotelian method from premises which are also Aristotelian, but rather the application of the Aristotelian method of reasoning to generally accepted Christian premises.
[Harry A. Wolfson, Philosophical Implications of Arianism and Apollinarianism, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Number Twelve (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), pp. 3-28; here 5; emphases added. Thomas Aquinas of course had a much higher appreciation for Aristotle, as everyone knows. But he too admits the limitations of reason vis-a-vis the mysteries of Christology: "Among divine works, this [the incarnation] most especially exceeds reason.” Summa contra Gentiles IV 27.1, a passage that will be cited at greater length at the end of this chapter and in Chapter 5. Aristotle, by the way, was perfectly aware that logic could not dictate reality but was merely an instrument for its clarification, which was the whole point of his book Sophistical Refutations: “By a sophistical refutation and deduction I mean not only a deduction or refutation which appears to be valid but is not, but also one which, though it is valid, only appears to be appropriate to the thing in question.” Aristotle, Sophistical Refutations 16gb2o, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), vol. i, p. 287.]
As we will see in Chapter 4, this is particularly true of the fifth-century Cyril of Alexandria, without whom the Council of Chalcedon — itself the touchstone for all later orthodox Christologies — would never have had available to it the conceptual armory that proved necessary for its teaching. Indeed, Cyril frankly avows that in Christ we find “the strange and rare paradox (aethes to kai xenon paradoxon)” of a master who serves and an abased divine glory. ["We see in Christ the strange and rare paradox of the Lordship in servant's form and divine glory in human abasement." Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ, trans. John Anthony McGuckin (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995), p. 101. Earlier in that same work Cyril describes the incarnation of Christ as meaning that "... the one who is immaterial could [now] be touched; he who is free in his own nature came in the form of a slave; he who blesses all creation became accursed; he who is all-righteousness was numbered among the transgressors; life itself came in the appearance of death” (p. 61).]
In another work he describes Christ in these terms: “He is filled with wisdom who is himself all wisdom…. Rich in poverty; the Most High in humiliation:… so thoroughly did God the Word empty himself!” [Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, trans. R. Payne Smith (New York: Studion, 1983), p. 63.]
Such statements could be multiplied at will, both in Cyril’s writings an throughout the annals of historical theology. For example, Cyril asks why the Fourth Evangelist said that the Word became flesh rather than became man. The answer for Cyril was that John wanted to stress the paradox of the incarnation:
That, in my opinion, is the most probable reason why the holy Evangelist, indicating the whole living being by the part affected, says that the Word God became flesh. It is so that we might see side by side the wound together with the remedy, the patient together with the physician, what sank towards death together with him who raised it up to life,… that which has been mastered by death together with him who conquered death, what was bereft of life with him who was the provider of life. He does not say that if Word came into flesh; he says he became flesh in order to exclude any idea of a relative indwelling, as in the case of the prophets and the other saint He really did become flesh, that is to say, a human being.
Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, at John 1:14a, in Cyril of Alexandrea trans. N. Russell (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 105-6; emphases added.
Going back even further, as early as the second century we read in Ignatius of Antioch: “There is only one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ of Lord. [Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians 7.2, in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Michael W. Holmes, p. 141. A bit later, Melito of Sardis speaks of Christ's crucifixion as predicating Christ both as divine Creator and as the one who suffered a shameful death: "He who hung up the earth is himself hung up; he who fixed the heavens is himself fixed [upon the cross]; he who fastened everything is himself fastened on the wood” (Melito, On the Past p. 96).]
Origen agrees: “He who was in the form of God saw fit to be in the form of a servant; while he who is immortal dies, and the impassible suffer and the invisible is seen.” [Origen, In Leviticam Homiliae 3, 1; Origen's Homilies on Leviticus 1-16, trans. W.Barkley (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1990), p. 52: qui immorta est, moritur et impassibilis patitur and invisibilis videtur.] Athanasius, who would later prove so instrumental in undermining Origen’s proto-Arian subordinationist Christology, refused, however, to jettison Origen’s paradoxes; indeed, he attacked Origen Christology for the sake of these same paradoxes:
For it is a fact that the more unbelievers pour scorn on Him, so much the more does He make His Godhead evident. The things which they, as men, rule out as impossible, He plainly shows to be possible; that which they deride as unfitting, His goodness makes more fit; and things which these wiseacres laugh at as “human” He by His inherent might declares divine.
[St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, translated by a Member of the C.S.M.V. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1953), p. 25]
To be sure, “there is,” as Paul Gavrilyuk rightly reminds us, “a thin line between a plain contradiction and a paradox,” [Paul L. Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought, Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 14.] and how that line should be drawn will occupy much of the rest of this book. In that regard, we will discover that Paul’s use of the concept of the kenosis (self-emptying) of the Logos in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians will prove crucial. [The very fact that Cyril's paradoxes will find their resolution in his interpretation of the kenosis passage in Philippians once again points to the intricate connection of Christology with Trinitarian doctrine.]
But one thing will become clear in the course of the history of Christology: attempts to dissolve the paradox because it is somehow found to be scandalous will invariably run into dead ends, usually heretical. [As the renowned nineteenth-century theologian Matthias Scheeben says: "Here again the Church proposes two doctrines that seem to contradict each other; yet both have been simultaneously upheld by the Church.... With regard to Christian epistemology, the same order is mysterious, that is, it is hidden from natural reason which, by itself and its natural resources, cannot know such an order. It lies above the reach of reason, for it surpasses reason as much as it surpasses nature." [Matthias Scheeben, Nature and Grace, trans. Cyril Vollert, S.J. (St. Louis: Herder, 1954), pp. 7, 14] Reason’s final task, says Pascal, is to recognize where reason’s competence ends; or as Thomas Aquinas says:
It now remains to speak of the mystery of the Incarnation itself. Indeed, among divine works, this most especially exceeds reason. For nothing can be thought of which is more marvelous than this divine accomplishment, that the true God, the Son of God, should become true man. And because among them all it is most marvelous, it follows that toward faith in this particular marvel all other miracles are ordered.
[St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles IV, 27.1]
Maximus the Confessor agrees: “For who could know how God takes on flesh, yet remains God? How he, while remaining true God, is yet truly a human being? … Only faith understands this, by paying silent homage to the Word of God.” [Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua, PG 91, 1057A.
A few pages before, he says: "For the super-essential Word, who took on himself, in that ineffable [virginal] conception, our nature and everything that belongs to it, possessed nothing human, nothing that we might consider `natural’ to him, that was not at the same time divine, negated by the supernatural manner of his existence. The investigation of these things exceeds our reason and our capacity for proof; it is only grasped by the faith of those who reverence the mystery of Christ with upright hearts.” PG 91, 1053A.] John Calvin builds on this tradition and shows how this Christological paradox is fundamentally a saving paradox:
This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us: that, by his descent on earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself that had so sore oppressed us, he has clothed us with his righteousness.
[John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), vol. 2, p. 1362, at 4.17.2]
Joseph Ratzinger adopts this same perspective and locates the most fundamental of Christian paradoxes above all in the execution notice that Pontius Pilate placed on the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” Pilate spoke more truly than he knew, as the future pope explains: “This execution notice, the death sentence of history, became with paradoxical unity the `profession of faith,’ the real starting point and taproot of the Christian faith which holds Jesus to be the Christ: as the crucified criminal, this Jesus is the Christ, the King. His crucifixion is his coronation; his kingship is his surrender of himself to men, the identification of word, mission, and existence the yielding up of this very existence.“
[Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, trans. J. R. Foster (San Francis( Ignatius Press, 2004), p. 2o6; emphasis added.]
Such a stress on paradox can lead to some astonishing vistas for apologetics. Even though this book intends to speak within the faith, rather than arguing from skeptical positions to show the reasonability of faith in the manner of apologetics, nevertheless an admission of the paradoxicality of the logic of the incarnation can itself be an entry point for addressing the concerns of the skeptic, even the atheist, a point stressed throughout Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:
It is written, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” No; but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this is what happened in Gethsemane. In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God…. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God…. [Let] the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.
[Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 145. The paradoxes of the Trinity will not be the focus of this work except as they affect Christology proper, probably the most important of which is the one noted by Ratzinger: "[According to Augustine] `In God there are no accidents, only substance and relation’ [quoting De Trinitate 5, 5.61. Therein lies concealed a revolution in man's view of the world: the sole dominion of thinking in terms of substance is ended; relation is discovered as an equally valid primordial mode of reality." Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, p. 184. See further on this point Francis Cardinal George, "Being through Others in Christ: esse per and Ecclesial Communion," The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion and Culture (New York: Crossroad, 2009), pp. 307-26.]
So much, at any rate, for the title and subtitle of the book. As to its structure, the chapters follow in rough chronological order: Chapters 2 and 3 give an overview of the New Testament witness to Christ; they survey the titles applied to Jesus in his lifetime and then in the proclamation by the early church of him risen.
Here the question of the historicity of the Gospels will constitute the main focus of treatment. Chapters 4 through io then give an overview of the history of Christological reflection from the close of the New Testament canon to the present. Finally, Chapters 11 and 12 provide an overview of current magisterial teaching on the identity and work of Christ. (Past magisterial teachings will be taken up as they arise in the course of Christological history covered in the earlier chapters.)
Now because contemporary magisterial teaching has taken in, and responded to, the many challenges thrown up by modernity to the Christian gospel, we shall be discussing church teaching not as a kind of reference work that can enable the student to look up “the right answers” and be done with it.
Rather we shall see that the teaching of the contemporary church takes place in the same kind of context as did the teaching of the church in the great councils of the first six centuries that will have been treated in Chapter 4: that is, it is a teaching that responds to challenges and speaks definitively from the crises thrown up in each period of church history.
One final point: precisely because Christology is confessional and ecclesial, it both springs from and returns to worship. Nor should this surprise us. As Abbot Vonier says so marvelously:
Christ the Son of God could never be man’s eternal life, if He were not man’s eternal wonder. A Christ whom we could fully comprehend, who we could understand through and through, could never be our life and our hope because we could not wonder at Him anymore. It is an indispensable condition of all true and lasting admiration that its object should be greater than our knowledge of it; and the growth of knowledge far from touching the limits of the marvelous, should convince us more and more of their inaccessibility. Love, no doubt, is born from knowledge and understanding; but short-lived and fragile would be the love which would be merely commensurate with knowledge and understanding. Love is actually noblest and strongest when we know enough of a person to realize that there is in him vastly more….
We find strong love for Christ the Son of God, a love fresh as a spring morning and unchanging the eternal hills, only where there is the belief in His divine nature, because there alone the created spirit has scope for endless wonderment. To make of Christ a merely human being is to deprive Him of the attribute incomprehensibility. Such theology would be the cruelest science, destroying in the soul the most life-giving element of religion — that wonderment which makes it `old yet ever new”
[Abbot Vonier, The Personality of Christ, in The Collected Works of Abbot Vonier, vol.1: The Incarnation and Redemption (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, no date for publication but The Personality of Christ was itself first published in England in 1914), P. 107.]
So the paradoxes of Christology not only give rise to theology but, when rightly understood, they also return to worship. In a fascinating collection early liturgical texts, The Lenten Triodion, we find, not surprisingly, the worship of the early church expressed in the most frankly paradoxical terms.
For example, in Canticle Five of Good Friday, the early church prayed thus: “I seek Thee early in the morning, Word of God; for in Thy tender mercy wards fallen man, without changing Thou hast emptied Thyself, and impassibly Thou hast submitted to Thy Passion. Grant me Thy peace, O Lord who lovest mankind.” [The Lenten Triodion, translated from the original Greek by Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware (London: Faber & Faber, 1978), p. 593.]
And at the moment in the service when the church commemorates the ninth hour, when Jesus gave up his spirit, the congregation sings: “Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross. He who is King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns. He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery. He who in Jordan set Adam free receives blows upon His face. The Bridegroom of the Church is fixed with nails.” [The Lenten Triodion, p. 609] And then comes silence. We should expect no less:
Jesus, we will frequent thy Board,
And sing the Bounties of our Lord:
But the rich Food on which we live
Demands more Praise than Tongues can give.43
Isaac Watts (1674-1748), “The Church the Garden of Christ,” in The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, p. 149.
But that speechless, tongueless praise is still at all points the praise of prayer, where reason finally yields to the light of reason-transcending faith, a point made to brilliant effect in what is probably the most famous English poem of the nineteenth century, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam:
Strong Son of God, immortal Love
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove.
Thou seemest human and divine,
The highest, holiest manhood, thou:
Our wills are ours, we know not how;
Our wills are ours, to make them thine.
Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.
We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see;
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness: let it grow.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam, ed. Erik Gray, A Norton Critical Edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004/1850), Prologue, p. 5.
This book, too, is but a “little system” and will someday “cease to be. And even if it speaks the truth, it will do so only as a “broken light of they for God-in-Christ is more than all can say.