The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology
by thomas joseph white, op
catholic university of america press, 552 pages, $65

This closely reasoned and clearly written collection of essays, many of them previously unpublished, presents an invaluable perspective upon many of the crucial issues debated in contemporary Christology. As one would expect, Thomas Joseph White demonstrates an intimate familiarity with the thought of Thomas Aquinas. But he has also read carefully and deeply in modern and contemporary Christologies. His knowledge of Schleiermacher and Barth, Rahner and Schillebeeckx, von Balthasar, Pannenberg, and Moltmann is impressive.

The volume as a whole is exceptionally well-crafted. White helpfully frames the collection with a Prolegomenon (“Is a Modern Thomistic Christology Possible?”) and a Conclusion (“The Promise of Thomism: Why Christology Is Not Primarily a Historical Science”). The project, then, is a “Thomistic Study in Christology,” not a study of St. Thomas’s Christology—though, in following the exposition of the former, one learns a great deal about the latter.

In many ways the individual chapters constitute a series of explorations of quaestiones disputatae in Christology. Among the topics White treats are: “The Ontology of the Hypostatic Union,” “The Necessity of the Beatific Vision in the Earthly Christ,” “The Death of Christ and the Mystery of the Cross,” and “Did Christ Descend into Hell? The Mystery of Holy Saturday.” Each exploration presents, fairly and at length, views contrary to White’s own, before he sets forth his own Thomistic-inspired position.

Significantly, even prior to the Prolegomenon, White provides an introductory essay: “The Biblical Ontology of Christ.” This essay grounds his conviction of the need for ontological reflection in Christology, by indicating how the New Testament itself supports its claims concerning the uniqueness and universality of Jesus Christ with an incipient ontology. The “hypostatic union” of classical Christology finds clear warrant in the Christological hymns of the New Testament. As Pliny famously attested of the early Christians: “They sing hymns to Christ as God.”

White contends that many modern Christologies, by scanting ontological reflection, lack sufficient resources to undergird the New Testament confession of Christ’s uniqueness and its elaboration in the Church’s creedal and conciliar Tradition. Liberal Protestantism, beginning with Schleiermacher, has, in White’s view, tended toward a “Nestorian” Christology. Here the man, Jesus Christ, appears joined to the Eternal Word through a moral attunement of wills. This trend has only accelerated as a result of the growing sensitivity to historical context and cultural diversity. In this regard, though respectful of the legitimate concerns and the speculative richness of Karl Rahner’s theology, White does not exempt Rahner from his critique of a “subtle Nestorianism.”

What is at issue in White’s reflections is whether many modern and contemporary Christologies (a number of which he engages) can support the Tradition’s claim regarding the unique Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, or whether they fail to rise above a view of Jesus as inspired prophet—a Spirit Christology that begins and remains “below.” Thus, a perfectly valid concern to underscore the full humanity of the Savior can fall short of the Chalcedonian insistence on both “truly God and truly man.”

Suggestively, White holds that Karl Barth’s “high” Christology faces the opposite peril. By espousing a uniquely Christological ontology that excludes any appeal to metaphysics and natural theology, Barth risks compromising Jesus’s humanity and commonality with us. Paradoxically, Barth’s aversion to a metaphysics of the analogy of being results in limiting, not expanding, the scope of Christ’s dominion.

Hence, White insists upon the doctrine of the “hypostatic union” as guarantor of the Tradition’s confession of Christ’s uniqueness—as well as upon the legitimacy, indeed the necessity, of reason’s probing of the essential traits of human nature, notwithstanding the deformation wrought by the Fall. Throughout the book, the Catholic celebration of fides et ratio is on full display.

Avowedly, White’s is an exercise in “speculative theology.” In this regard, it is exemplary: a feasting in the company of Thomas the systematician. However, this reviewer would also have appreciated a morning collation with Thomas the magister sacrae paginae, showing the Scriptural and liturgical matrix of the Church’s doctrine. When White writes, “In some real sense it is true to say: ignorance of ontology is ignorance of Christ,” one appreciates his meaning in the context of his valid concerns. But his assertion would certainly have confounded the usually voluble Jerome!

White is alert to “the dangers of an all-too-conceptual or reified vision of the person of Christ that is insufficiently sensitive to the biblical historical life of Jesus of Nazareth as it is portrayed in the Gospel.” But at times, in this discerning and demanding study, the shining face of the Savior can appear clouded by the sheer intensity of metaphysical speculation. Nonetheless, the book provides excellent material for a doctoral seminar in Christology, compelling both instructor and students to come to grips with their own positions, and the spiritual and pastoral implications of those positions, in this most crucial of theological disciplines.

Father Robert Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is associate professor emeritus at Boston College and the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination (Liturgical Press).

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