The Whole Mystery of Christ
Creation as Incarnation in Maximus Confessor
- ISBN: 9780268203474
- Published By: University of Notre Dame Press
- Published: October 2022
Jordan Daniel Wood’s The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus the Confessor sets out to free Maximus the Confessor from the captivity of scholarly discourses that have misperceived him. Thus proceeds an enormous effort to inquire whether Maximus “means what [he] says” when he says that creation and (Christic) incarnation are the same (55; cf. xiv-xv, 4, 14). Wood asks what it would or could mean for theology if Maximus really does mean that creation is incarnation. My own background as a reviewer is in systematic rather than historical theology, and so this review will emphasize systematic questions.
The book contains four main chapters. The first outlines Maximus’s “Christo-logic” (19-53) and lays out the heart of Wood’s argument. For Wood and for Maximus, the event of the incarnation of the Word reveals not only its own historical facticity, but also the metaphysical truth of all creation. This metaphysical truth is that creation and incarnation are one in the hypostasis of the Word (cf. 51-53). The second chapter (55-83) reconsiders Maximus’s theology of creation under the light of this Christological revelation and its metaphysics. Here, the center of the argument is the meanings of logos and logoi (word and words; truth and truths), and how Maximus understands these to be identical in a particular sense, such that creation is incarnation. The third chapter (85-140) studies the Trinitarian and eschatological implications of Maximus’s creation-incarnation Christo-logic. For Maximus, writes Wood, every finite nature requires not only “a” hypostasis, but also the hypostasis of the Word made flesh, in order to be. This finite nature nevertheless remains itself: “analogy does not preclude hypostatic identity” (137).The last chapter (141-193) draws a portrait of the total theology at work in Maximus’s pattern of insights. It is a synthesis but it also gestures forward to Maximus’s usefulness in modern theology. I should also mention that there is an appendix of central concepts and their Greek terms (205-212), which a reader might do well to read first.
Wood’s efforts unearth a Maximus both fascinating and strange. The principle of participation fades away before, or receives absolute modification by, the hypostatic identity of all things in the incarnate Word. I am not able to say whether the Maximus in The Whole Mystery of Christ is the real Maximus. It is certainly a compelling Maximus, and the work that Wood does helps such a portrait of Maximus be successful. The text sometimes rises to a shining yearning for the eschaton—that is the book at its most convincing.
The Whole Mystery of Christ challenges readers to think through what it would mean if creation is incarnation. “My toe only is to the degree it is me,” contends Wood. “If then we are members of Christ’s Body, it follows that he is us in just that way—hypostatically” (138). More than once, Wood anticipates that readers will worry over what happens to finite essences in a theological system like this one. This problem shares an epistemic twin: the book insists that its metaphysics is revealed by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and that in this sense being can only be revealed by the event of the hypostatic union (50-53, 78-80). The whole of things really is the incarnation.
Jean-Luc Marion’s saturated phenomenon arrives in the text to hold in place Maximus’s epistemic and metaphysical claims (50). But Marion’s notion relies on a very different “whole,” which is Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Gestalt (wholeness, form; material intelligibility). This Gestalt is always fragmentary. Its fragmentariness includes the “whole” that is Christ. It is a very different epistemic and metaphysical vision, one suspicious of completeness, system, “the whole.” In a related way, I am concerned about how The Whole Mystery of Christ understands understanding, and how that understanding understands finite essences. I wonder if, for Maximus or for Wood, anything can or even should escape the panoptic eye of the incarnation. I wonder what that means for Christian supersessionism; I wonder what that means for Maximus’s anti-Judaism, which the text never mentions.
The author structures the book oddly. After the foreword by John Behr, there is a preface to the work written by Wood himself. It argues that this book has speculative as well as historical value, and then it explains historical theology itself. The preface begins the book on poor footing, signaling a text that feels its own importance and looks down on its reader. This bad footing continues through the rest of the argument. The Whole Mystery of Christ suffers from a brazen tone that belies an insecurity about whether the book can be understood or found persuasive. Wood tends to ask himself rhetorical questions whose answers are clear in their contexts. These verbal flourishes suggest an impatient lecture: “How can the imparticipible God become participle in his eternal works?” asks Wood (78). The transition sentence in a new paragraph is simply: “[Here is] A hint.” These belittling gestures fill the book. The text often aggressively signals its author’s authority. “I submit,” writes Wood (138); “I therefore contend that” (80); and so on. “There is no denying [this cosmic vision’s] speculative élan” (197). But of course there is; other theologians will ask their questions, as is their job. A stronger editorial hand would have helped a first-time author here. The tone makes the book hard to read, and that is unfortunate.
The book’s tone and argument unite to offer a point of view too anxious to be acknowledged for its originality. But its thesis is intriguing despite its self-distraction. As the work presently stands, it contains at its heart a good argument that scholars will be able to forward, offer counterpositions to, and complicate with further insights. Scholars ought to do so, and by this collaboration render The Whole Mystery of Christ in the shape of its best truths and most worthy hopes. As with every scholarly work, so may it be for this one.
Anne M. Carpenter holds the Danforth Chair in Theological Studies at Saint Louis University.Anne M. CarpenterDate Of Review:May 9, 2023