In Defense of Conciliar Christology

A Philosophical Essay

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Timothy Pawl
Oxford Studies in Analytic Theology
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Defense of Conciliar Christology is an exceptional explanation of conciliar christology (following the first seven ecumenical councils) and a response to the charge of incoherence that has been leveled toward it. Timothy Pawl advances another model of what it means to do analytic theology in what has become an important series, the Oxford Studies in Analytic Theology, edited by Michael C. Rea and Oliver D. Crisp. Like other volumes in the series, Pawl offers the reader a careful and articulate treatment of one doctrinal topic, representing the virtues of analytic philosophy for theology. What stands out about Pawl’s work from the others in the series is his ability to logically parse out the issues with impressive rigor. This is not to say that the other works in the series are not logically rigorous—they in fact are—but rather to say that Pawl’s work stands out as a representative of this virtue. His strength, however, is also his weakness.

Pawl is not concerned so much with advancing some novel constructive option to the christological literature, although a careful analysis of old problems and common solutions often yields several insightful gems worthy of reflection. His aim is more modest than that. He contributes to a set of growing literature on the incoherence charge to what is considered traditional, Chalcedonian, or conciliar christology. Some responses have been to give up traditional/Chalcedonian christology (John Hick’s approach), while others have sought to modify the claims of conciliar christology and offer up alternative models (Thomas Morris, Moreland and Craig, Andrew Loke, to name a few). As Pawl understands the charge of logical incoherence or incompatibility, there appear to be incompatible properties (or as he prefers, “predicates”) ascribed to the same person: Christ. The charge is that predication of properties to Christ end up amounting to Christ’s person instantiating incompatible properties or predicates. In Defense of Conciliar Christology is a response to this common charge.

In this short review, I will note the main ligaments of Pawl’s argument and leave it to the reader to explore its details. Pawl is convinced that the attempts thus far to make good on the charge of incoherence or incompatibility are unsuccessful. This is different than finding the traditional model plausible. Pawl’s argument does not take this additional step. His fundamental strategy is to articulate how it is that the reduplicative strategy (commonly used by traditionalists and Thomists) is able to predicate what are otherwise incompatible properties to two different natures. It is important to note that Pawl understands the framers of conciliar christology to explicitly endorse a concrete nature view, not an abstract nature view (following Oliver Crisp in Divinity and Humanity). In other words, Christ is one person, not two (contra Nestorianism); however, he has two distinct concrete natures. There are several reduplicative strategies that use alternative ways of modifying the claim that Christ can bear two incompatible attributes. Pawl uses a copula strategy (that is, Christ is qua-human passible and Christ is qua-divine impassible [121]), particularly what he calls the substitutional strategy (where the copula has built into it a place for persons with kind natures, construed concretely [145]), which he develops in chapter 7.

The strength of Pawl’s work is quite clear, but there is one drawback to his style of writing and this is arguably his weakness. Pawl is clear that he wants theologians to draw from his work (3). The style of the book, however, is written for technicians in philosophy. While Pawl is at pains to spell out the logic clearly for those not trained in logic, the mathematical precision with which he writes remains unappealing to most systematic theologians. I say this not so much as a critique, but to point out the apparent stylistic differences at work in the philosophical literature compared to the theological literature. In light of this, it is important to point out that Pawl offers one example of how do analytic theology, but it is not the only model of analytic theology on offer. Not every systematic theologian utilizing analytic tools must follow Pawl in his approach to analytic theology or his style of writing.

There is another question that arises upon reading Pawl’s work that remains important for analytic theologians. What is distinct about analytic philosophy of religion as compared with analytic theology? I take it that analytic philosophy of religion is interested in defending religious beliefs or justifying specific religious claims, which is precisely what one finds in Pawl’s book. But beyond mere interpretation of dogmatic symbols (e.g., Chalcedon), what is it that sets apart Pawl’s work as a piece of analytic theology? Some would argue that it is indistinguishable from philosophy of religion.

With all that said, I do hope theologians will pick up In Defense of Conciliar Christology. It is an exceptional defense of conciliar christology that deserves serious consideration. Minimally, those theologians inclined to the traditional conciliar stance must take seriously Pawl’s careful analysis, for it is now a go to resource on conciliar Chalcedonian Christology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua R. Farris is assistant professor of theology at Houston Baptist University.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Timothy Pawl is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul.

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