Reviewed by Ian Clary
Los Angeles might not be the first place one would think of when looking for a source of creative dogmatic formulation, but thanks to Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders exciting theology is being done in the City of Angels. This is due to a relatively new annual conference that they and their respective institutions — Fuller Theological Seminary and Biola University — host, namely the Los Angeles Theology Conference dedicated specifically to themes in systematic theology. It is, as the contributors say in their introduction, a sign of what John Webster has called “theological theology” (18). Christology Ancient & Modern is the fruit of the first iteration of this conference, with the majority of the papers given at its inauguration in 2013.
Though the contributors do not come from a homogenous theological whole, all share in mining the depths of the Christian tradition towards giving fresh theological expression — in the case of this volume, specifically Christological expression. Thus the goal is more direct, though coming from a variegated authorship. It might be worth noting that the one “modern” theologian (to borrow from the subtitle) who gets most interaction, at least judging by the index, is Karl Barth, with Friedrich Schleiermacher at a close second. The engagement with the “ancients” is largely limited to Augustine and Aquinas, with Athanasius also making a healthy showing. This is not to point out a deficiency, but only to note the nature of the book’s interface with the past. In spite of this, the tenor of each chapter has the ancient/future feel. Crisp’s important methodological essay on determining models of the hypostatic union is crafted with conciliar orthodoxy in mind, particularly that of Chalcedon, but also the two Niceas and three Constantinoples. This chapter is a good entry to the volume as a whole, setting forth a trajectory for how to do creedal Christology that is both faithful to the tradition and engaged with recent thought, as he does with Schleiermacher, Jürgen Moltmann, Bruce McCormack and others.
The quality of contributions is high. This is not an introductory book on Christology, but a collection of deeply thought explorations of the way Jesus as the God-man is important for twenty-first century theology. The general themes involve such subjects as Christ’s humility (Katherine Sonderegger) and humiliation (Jeremy R. Treat), Christ’s relationship to the Spirit (Telford C. Work), and the continuing priesthood of Christ (Alan J. Torrance).
The latter chapter by Torrance has a different aura than the others, its prose is less technical and more, dare I say, worshipful. Torrance develops the work of his father, James B. Torrance, which also makes it personally reflective, though in a subtle way. Effectively spring-boarding from the Puritan tradition, Torrance moves from the theology of Christ’s ongoing priestly office to the application of it in the life of the church. He concludes with apt observations about aspects of contemporary Protestant practice that take the church’s focus away from Christ’s ongoing mediatorial role, for instance, the church’s fear of sliding into Arianism that has stripped our understanding of Christ’s humanity. He argues that the church also suffers from a latent Apollinarianism and anti-trinitarianism, the latter sparking from a failure to link the incarnation to the Trinity. Torrance is quite interesting in his footnotes, particularly in his insightful side observations. For instance, he rightly points to the ambiguity in some discussions of “social trinitarianism,” that can be too reliant on models of human relationships rather than the “biblical witness” (202).
Peter J. Leithart’s essay on “sanctuary Christology” in the fourth gospel is typical (pardon the pun) of his creative theologizing. He argues that before creeds, “typology controlled Christology” (115). Typological readings continued after creedal formulations, as seen in some of Athanasius’ anti-Arian writings, particularly with the implications of sonship, radiance, etc. Using Thomas Aquinas’ commentary on John as a foil, noting that sanctuary language is wholly absent, as is any comment on John 1:14, Leithart develops a figural reading of sanctuary as it relates to Christology. He does so by developing the theme of sanctuary in the Old Testament and in the Gospel of John, and moves forward by taking up N. T. Wright’s challenge to make the temple a key to our Christology. A powerful conclusion that Leithart draws is that by viewing Christ along these lines, we see not only that we receive benefits by being in Christ, but that Christ himself is the great benefit. All of this drives us breathtakingly from Christology, through soteriology, to eschatology as the new creation will be the place where God dwells with his people.
One chapter that self-consciously steps outside of the bounds of the ecumenical creeds is that by Jordan Wessling who argues for the possibility of a break with dyothelitism — the notion that Christ has two wills — particularly as it was pronounced on at Constantinople III. Under the influence of Maximus the Confessor this council argued that if Christ is fully human and fully divine, he must have both a human and divine will. Instead Wessling sees monothelitism as a viable Protestant option.
In this he follows his teachers at Biola, namely J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, as well as Garrett J. DeWeese and Bruce A. Demarest, who have argued along similar lines. Wessling works philosophically through what it would mean for an evangelical to break with a conciliar pronouncement if it was concluded that such a pronouncement was unbiblical. He then traverses the standard arguments for dyothelitism and those counter as argued primarily by the more recent advocates of monothelitism noted above. Interestingly, Wessling critically engages with the work of Oliver Crisp, one of the editors of the book, who argued that dyothelitism did not conflict with Scripture. Without dealing with the arguments in detail, this reviewer found them unconvincing if only because they do not deal overmuch with biblical texts, and because Wessler, et al breaks the test of catholicity that is so vital to orthodox theology. Incidentally, the importance of catholicity was well argued by Scott R. Swain and Michael Allen in their chapter on the obedience of the eternal Son.
All in all, this book is an excellent resource for more advanced thinking on themes in Christology. While it may not be appropriate for the initiate as it does have some difficult terminology and heady discussions, engaging with this volume will be important for any Protestant thinking about the Christological heritage that the twenty-first century church has inherited.
Ian Hugh Clary is a Ph.D. candidate at University of the Free State (Bloemfontein) and is the review editor for apologetics here at Books At a Glance.
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Christology Ancient And Modern: Explorations In Constructive Dogmatics