Christology is a “distributed doctrine,” in the words of theologian John Webster: it is one of those rare theological loci which cannot be dispensed with all at once, regardless of where it appears in the system of doctrine, but rather one which touches every other part of Christian teaching. No theologian may avoid or ignore the person of Christ and who he is for believers today, and still maintain responsibility to the subject of their inquiry. In this weighty volume Francesca Aran Murphy has assembled nearly forty scholars to explore many of those dimensions, touching in seven sections upon the Bible, the church fathers, contributions from the medieval period, the Reformation, and modern and postmodern christologies, as well as art and imagination, and finally the “grammar” of christology as a doctrine of the church.
Each of the seven sections in The Oxford Handbook of Christology could very nearly stand on its own as a volume of collected essays. In the interests of concision I will briefly highlight one stand-out essay from each section.
Six essays on christology and the Bible make up part 1. In his piece Olivier-Thomas Venard masterfully traces the relationship between Christ and the Old Testament scriptures as well as the significance of scripture for the first-century world, as the earliest Christians reflected upon the historical, prophetical, and cosmic place of the pre-existent Christ in Israel’s history. Venard’s insights are profound, and he concludes that a truly biblical christology is one which sees the relationship between God and humanity as mediated not simply by Christ as incarnate but by Christ as one who is himself God’s linguistic, even textual self-communication.
Patristic christology comes into view in part 2’s four chapters. Brian E. Daley summarizes the distinctions (and divisions) between the Alexandrians and Antiochenes, whose divergent modes of exegesis and christological emphases were responsible for most of the theological battles waged in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Daley subverts the worn typology of “Word-man” and “Word-flesh” christologies, suggesting instead that these two ancient schools of thought are better distinguished by their respective concerns over God’s radical immanence (Alexandria) and God’s unimpeachable transcendence (Antioch) in the Christ event.
In the third section of the book, six essays examine medieval christology from Nicaea II to the scholastic era. Joseph Wawrykow summarizes the christology of Thomas Aquinas sharply and succinctly, with focus on the tertia pars of the Summa theologiae (ST III, qq.1-59) and the humanity of Christ in particular. Drawing upon the conciliar tradition (and especially Cyril and John of Damascus), Thomas’s doctrine of Christ is shown to be incarnational and instrumentalist. Perhaps the crucial point is that, for him, Christ is fully human but not merely human; he is like us, but because he is also God there are vital ways in which the incarnate Word is not like us (for example, in his possession of the beatific vision from the moment of conception).
Part 4’s consideration of the Reformation and the Enlightenment includes five chapters. Kevin Hector adroitly steps through the place of Christ and reconciliation in the thought of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and G. W. F. Hegel, demonstrating how the Kantian revolution radically upended the conversation about Christ’s person and work, at least among European Protestants. If the Reformation made ecclesially subversive philosophers such as Kant possible, then Schleiermacher and Hegel show two very different ways in which Christian thinkers attempted to reconstruct the possibility and necessity of Christian theology in Kant’s wake. Hector’s is an exceedingly lucid voice, and pieces such as this will go a long way in helping students come to terms with these important figures.
Part 5 picks up in the post-Enlightenment era. In her piece on feminist christologies Michele M. Schumacher describes the broad spectrum of criticisms leveled against the male-centered tradition—from those who reject Christian claims on the basis of the particular maleness of its savior, to Christian feminists who seek variously to engage and overcome the patriarchal limitations of traditional theology, conciliar formulae, and even the biblical witness itself. Schumacher is clear on the extraordinary diversity of these critiques, but what is perhaps near the center of their shared concern is the real dilemma diagnosed by Mary Aquin O’Neill: “Respecting the reality of Jesus’ body excludes women from the Incarnation. Including women in the Incarnation leads to unreal (i.e., Docetic or Gnostic) claims about Jesus’ body” (412).
In part 4 four authors write on Christ and the arts. With reference to Wittgenstein, Rowan Williams probes a provocative question: can Jesus be sufficiently depicted in literature? What would such a depiction look like, and what might it manage to accomplish? Through a steady and thoughtful survey of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and others, Williams finally concludes that while the better literary portraits of Jesus need not pursue a dogged orthodoxy, what is needed is a sort of “energetic passivity.” Such representations depict Jesus’s humanity credibly, yet leave much unsaid: “a surplus of unspoken and unresolved significance in the figure of Jesus, in such a way as not to give us a final ‘purchase’ on his meaning” (503).
Finally, the Handbook is anchored by seven important essays under the heading of “The Grammar of Christology.” This section is capped by a fitting final essay, “The Place of Christology in Systematic Theology,” by the late John Webster. With his usual care, Webster attends to the traditional ordering of theology (God in God’s inner life) and economy (God’s activity with respect to creatures), as well as the ways in which this organization has been subverted in the modern period. What kind of relation does christology have to the system of Christian teaching? And what shape ought christology take? With due respect to the “Christocentrism” of Karl Barth and others, Webster renders his careful judgment that though christology rightly comprehends both the immanent and the economic (the second person of the Trinity, and his incarnation and saving work), this locus bears a relation of derivation with respect to the doctrine of the immanent Trinity. The being of God—God’s inner perfection and the abundance of love which flows therefrom—ought to be considered first as the basis and bearing of christological reflection, lest the theologian become disoriented and steer toward history, or religious fellowship, or ethical self-consciousness as the object of her inquiry.
Christology is a field too broad and too deep to bother commenting on what is not present in this fine volume. One might say that Murphy and her contributors have chosen a path more historical and cultural than biblical and doctrinal. The result is not that the book is incomplete or out of balance, but that it suitably reflects the diversity of its subject matter. Although this is not necessarily a textbook, its individual essays would well serve the undergraduate or graduate classroom. This work is highly commended for interested readers of all sorts.
Darren O. Sumner is Affiliate Assitant Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.
Darren O. Sumner
Date Of Review:
September 2, 2016
Francesca Aran Murphy is Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of numerous books, including Christ the Form of Beauty (T&T Clark), God is Not a Story (OUP) and a theological commentary on I Samuel (Brazos).
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