In this chapter, I will survey some of the most notable works of Thomistic Christology that have appeared in recent decades. These include historical works on Thomas Aquinas’s Christology; dogmatic works of Reformed, Anglican, and Eastern Catholic Thomistic Christology; and dogmatic works of (Roman) Catholic Thomistic Christology. My purpose in this first chapter is to present the arguments of these books and to make clear that I associate my “reconfiguring” closely with their theological and metaphysical perspectives. Modern Christology benefits greatly from attention to the richly biblical, patristic, and metaphysical Christology offered by Aquinas.
Since I also hold that some important biblical elements should be added to Thomistic Christology as presently practiced, this makes it even more incumbent upon me to provide a detailed portrait of contemporary Thomistic Christology. If I am calling for contemporary Thomistic Christology to be reconfigured in a certain way, this proposal requires an assessment of the contributions of recent scholars in the domain of Thomistic Christology.
Before proceeding, let me add that I recognize that Aquinas’s Christology was never merely ignored even by those theologians who sharply disagreed with the neoscholastic thinkers who predominated in Catholic theology between the late nineteenth century and the 1950s. To name one influential example, Karl Barth makes relatively frequent references to Aquinas in the first volume of his Church Dogmatics. Rather acerbically, Barth states of Aquinas that the “story that when he was engaged in the christological part of the work [the tertia pars] Christ appeared to him with the words: Bene scripsisti de me, Thoma! seems to be less in accord with the facts!”Footnote 1 Barth thinks that Aquinas, in treating of Christ, not only did so in an improper order – in the third part of the Summa rather than in its opening part – but also imported far too much Aristotle.Footnote 2 Barth warns that Protestant theologians must not become “so weary of Descartes that we throw ourselves into the arms of, e.g., Aristotle or Thomas.”Footnote 3
Barth goes on to say that he does not agree with Aquinas’s conception of a divine “person” or with Aquinas’s approach to identifying Jesus Christ in his eternal Sonship as the “Word.”Footnote 4 He thinks that Aquinas’s doctrine of the “Word” arises more from his anthropology than from Scripture. Barth criticizes Aquinas’s account of Mary’s fiat at the Annunciation.Footnote 5 In arguing that Jesus represented us as Priest, Barth finds Aquinas’s position too weak, because Aquinas does not perceive that the category “priest” applies solely to Christ. Moreover, Aquinas does not present Christ as the Judge judged in our place: “Jesus Christ is the One who was accused, condemned and judged in the place of us sinners.”Footnote 6
In the Christology and soteriology of his Theo-Drama, Barth’s fellow Swiss dogmatician Hans Urs von Balthasar likewise cites Aquinas at important junctures, even if to criticize him. More than Barth, Balthasar finds himself in agreement with Aquinas. In his account of Christ’s Person, for example, Balthasar refers to Aquinas’s argument that the Person of the Son, in the economy of salvation, is a “mission.” For Balthasar “the economic Trinity cannot be regarded as simply identical with the immanent,” but nevertheless the incarnate Son is indeed “the Subject in whom person and mission are identical.”Footnote 7 Aquinas would surely agree, even if Aquinas’s understanding of “person” and of “mission” is somewhat different than Balthasar’s.
Balthasar describes Aquinas’s account of Christ’s knowledge in some detail, while differing from it.Footnote 8 He disagrees with Aquinas’s view that the Word’s activity in the Incarnation precedes (non-temporally) that of the Spirit.Footnote 9 In his view, too, Aquinas’s position that Christ has only one esse is mistaken.Footnote 10 Remarking that “Thomas’ view of Christ’s ‘representation’ builds on the soteriology of Anselm,” Balthasar contends that the New Testament requires us to go beyond this perspective.Footnote 11 In his historical overview of Christian soteriology, Balthasar devotes four pages to Aquinas, arguing that while Aquinas does better than Anselm, he fails to grasp the radical nature of Christ’s bearing of our sin.Footnote 12
Elsewhere I have challenged some of these criticisms of Aquinas. For present purposes, however, the point is simply that Aquinas’s Christology never disappeared entirely from the scene, even among its critics. No doubt, in the first few decades after the Second Vatican Council, Aquinas’s Christology garnered far less interest among Catholic dogmatic theologians than it had prior to the Council. In Jon Sobrino’s Jesus the Liberator, for example, Aquinas’s contribution to Christology is summed up by including Aquinas in a list of patristic and medieval theologians who failed to take seriously enough Christ’s abandonment by the Father and also by asserting, without further comment, that Aquinas’s denial that Christ had faith is the result of his reliance on “a scholastic and non-biblical concept [of faith], and a type of argumentation starting from the hypostatic union.”Footnote 13 Sobrino, a Spanish Jesuit who received his theological formation in the years immediately after the Council and then became a noted liberation theologian in El Salvador, does not apologize for paying only dismissive attention to Aquinas’s Christology. Whereas Balthasar takes some time to criticize Aquinas and draws upon him positively in certain ways, Sobrino does not.
Sobrino’s companion volume to Jesus the Liberator – titled Christ the Liberator: A View from the Victims – mentions Aquinas only once, stating that although Aquinas should be commended for devoting twenty-five questions in the tertia pars to the mysteries of Christ’s life, contemporary theology must entirely revise Aquinas’s approach, through the lens of historical-critical exegesis. For Sobrino, Aquinas has to be superseded because, like his patristic predecessors, he grounded himself in “doxological and not historical statements,” whereas contemporary theology must focus upon “the reality of Jesus of Nazareth, recalling it and understanding it as history.”Footnote 14
In the wider Church, Sobrino’s burial of Thomistic Christology in the 1990s was generally assumed to be justified. On this view, Thomistic Christology would continue to be studied by historical theologians, but no more would it be taken seriously by dogmatic theologians. How mistaken this perspective was!
1.2 The Revival of Thomistic Christology
Thomistic Christology began to revive in the 1980s when historically minded studies reintroduced the value of Aquinas’s perspective. Romanus Cessario’s 1982 Christian Satisfaction in Aquinas: Towards a Personalist Understanding and Thomas Weinandy’s 1985 Does God Change? planted the seeds for the reintroduction of Thomistic Christology in the English-speaking world. By expositing and defending Aquinas’s theology of the Incarnation and the Cross, these published dissertations made the case that Aquinas’s Christology remains highly relevant. Cessario studied at the University of Fribourg under the Thomists Colman O’Neill, Servais Pinckaers, and Jean-Hervé Nicolas, and Weinandy studied at the University of London under the Anglican Thomistic theologian Eric Mascall.Footnote 15 Cessario’s book has appeared in two subsequent editions (1990 and 2020), demonstrating its value. Weinandy has continued on the path of constructive Thomistic Christology in later books such as Does God Suffer? (2000) and Jesus: Essays in Christology (2014).Footnote 16
In the 1990s, Jean-Pierre Torrell was at work on studies of Thomistic Christology that have exercised a notable influence throughout the Catholic world. He first published L’Initiation à Saint Thomas d’Aquin: Sa personne et son oeuvre in 1993, and he published its companion volume, Saint Thomas d’Aquin, maître spirituel, in 1996. The first book is a historical introduction to Aquinas’s life and writings, and Torrell shows that “in Thomas’s thought not only does the Incarnation not introduce any disruption into the schema exitus-reditus [that governs the Summa theologiae] but, on the contrary, it is only through the Incarnation that this movement achieves its fruition.”Footnote 17 The second book gives full rein to Torrell’s valuation of Aquinas’s Christology, though by no means does Torrell neglect Aquinas’s other themes. The Son is “the Father’s Art and perfect Image” and is the one “through whom we come forth from the Father and return to Him.”Footnote 18 The Son becomes incarnate as Jesus Christ as our Savior, model, and path to union with the Trinity. Torrell emphasizes the centrality of the imitation of Christ for Aquinas’s spirituality and understanding of the moral life.
In 1999, Torrell published a landmark two-volume study, Le Christ en ses mystères: La view et l’oeuvre de Jésus selon saint Thomas d’Aquin.Footnote 19 This book tracks Aquinas’s treatise on the mysteries of Christ’s life, questions 27–59 of the tertia pars. Torrell covers all the topics that Aquinas investigates in this profound section of the Summa theologiae. In his study, Torrell expresses a debt to the Italian scholar Inos Biffi’s historical research on Aquinas’s Christology, synthesized as I Misteri di Cristo in Tommaso d’Aquino.Footnote 20 As Torrell shows, Aquinas finds in all of Christ’s words and deeds matter for inexhaustible theological reflection and spiritual meditation.Footnote 21 I should also mention Torrell’s 2008 translation and commentary on the tertia pars, published as Jésus le Christ chez saint Thomas d’Aquin, as well as various essays (mainly from the 1990s and early 2000s) that were translated and published in English as Christ and Spirituality in St. Thomas Aquinas.Footnote 22 Torrell’s historical retrieval of Aquinas’s Christology helped to make it a respectable object of study again.
1.2.1 Historical, Reformed, Anglican, and Eastern Catholic Retrievals of Aquinas’s Christology
Beginning in the late 1990s, a steady stream of historically erudite studies of Aquinas’s Christology began to appear. Let me mention a few of them here. Michael Gorman defended a dissertation at Boston College under Matthew Lamb in 1997 that was eventually published, in a much revised form, as Aquinas on the Metaphysics of the Hypostatic Union.Footnote 23 Gorman clears Aquinas of the charge of rationalism in his metaphysics of the Incarnation – showing that Aquinas never pushes too far but instead tacitly grants that “our reflection must always reach a point where we must settle for something that is, in itself, not fully satisfying” – while also demonstrating that Aquinas does not reach this point too soon but instead fruitfully allows metaphysical inquiry to address the problems that challenge the doctrine of the Incarnation.Footnote 24 Gorman also responds to the view that Aquinas’s account of the Incarnation tends toward monophysitism.Footnote 25 Around the same time, Paul Gondreau completed his doctoral dissertation under Torrell at the University of Fribourg. First published in 2002 and twice republished since (most recently in 2018), Gondreau’s The Passions of Christ’s Soul in the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas is a tour de force of historical scholarship, exhibiting a mastery of the various sources and systematic conclusions of Aquinas’s on Christ’s passions. In exploring Aquinas’s account of Christ’s full humanity, sinlessness, and suffering, Gondreau makes clear that Aquinas “ranks as the one medieval author who paid the greatest heed to the demands of the Incarnation and who did more than anyone to shed light on the human face of God.”Footnote 26
In 2012, Corey Barnes published his dissertation, completed under Joseph Wawrykow at the University of Notre Dame, titled Christ’s Two Wills in Scholastic Thought: The Christology of Aquinas and Its Historical Contexts. Barnes helps us to appreciate the relation of the Incarnation of the Word and the human redemptive acts of Christ. Clearly, the unity of Christ as an acting Person matters greatly for orthodox Christian understanding of how this particular man can accomplish salvation for the whole world.Footnote 27 Most recently, Dominic Legge in 2017 published The Trinitarian Christology of St Thomas Aquinas, a revised version of his dissertation written at the University of Fribourg under Gilles Emery. In his foreword to this book, Emery notes that Legge reads “Christology in light of Aquinas’s theology of the divine missions,” with the result that Aquinas’s Christology is unveiled as “a genuine Spirit Christology” in which the words and deeds of Christ are interiorly unified and through which we come to appreciate that, as the Gospels attest, “Christ and the Holy Spirit lead us to the Father by giving us a participation in the very relations that they have with the Father.”Footnote 28 With Legge’s insights in hand, Christians can discover that “‘the Trinitarian shape of our salvation is derived from the Trinitarian shape of the mystery of the incarnation.’”Footnote 29
At the same time, serious Reformed interest in Aquinas’s Christology has emerged. Let me confine myself to a few notable representatives. First, Michael Allen has mined various elements of Aquinas’s theology in his work. This includes devoting considerable effort in his published doctoral dissertation, The Christ’s Faith: A Dogmatic Account, to understanding and criticizing Aquinas’s view of Christ’s knowledge. In his chapter on the metaphysics of the Incarnation, Allen approves Aquinas’s understanding of divine transcendence (and immanence) and analogous discourse. He then shows along Thomistic lines that “the claim that divine transcendence and analogy has been overcome in the hypostatic union fails to honor the otherness brought within the very life of the eternal Son.”Footnote 30 He rejects Aquinas’s view that Christ did not have faith, arguing that Aquinas’s understanding of “the moral and intellectual dimensions of Christ’s personality” is a weak spot that can be corrected by a fuller attention to “the emphasis on history and dynamism throughout the rest of Thomas’s Christology and soteriology.”Footnote 31
In his 2019 God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian Theology, Steven Duby devotes a chapter to the Incarnation. Duby is one of the clearest and most incisive theologians writing today, and he shapes his chapter as a Thomistic dialogue with Karl Barth, T. F. Torrance, Eberhard Jüngel, Robert Jenson, and Bruce McCormack. He argues that a proper understanding of God’s speaking through Scripture justifies “contemplat[ing] God from above in what Thomas calls a ‘way of descent,’ understanding God himself (in an ectypal manner) and then with God’s own guidance framing his outward works in the light of his eternal triune life.”Footnote 32 In short, everything that Christ does in the flesh must be understood in light of his relation to the Father and to the Spirit, but not in such a way as to derive that relation simply from (e.g.) the Cross. The Old Testament frames Christ’s identity, and the New Testament helps us to see, as Aquinas holds, that “the humanity of the Son is uniquely endowed with wisdom by the one who is the Spirit of the Son as well as the Father.”Footnote 33
In his 2021 The Same God Who Works All Things: Inseparable Operations in Trinitarian Theology, Adonis Vidu devotes chapters to the Incarnation, Christ’s “theandric” action and suffering, Christ’s work of atonement, and the Spirit of Christ. The central question that Vidu investigates is whether the three divine Persons can truly be said to be undivided in their operation ad extra. Are the Father and the Son distinguished from each other not only by the Father–Son relation (eternal generation) but also by distinct divine knowing and divine willing in the economy of salvation?Footnote 34 What is at stake here is the metaphysical simplicity and infinite plenitude of the Godhead. If the Son and the Father are not perfectly identical in attributes pertaining to the divine nature (such as intellect and will), then neither the Son nor the Father is the full plenitude of the Godhead. The result would be that the Father, Son, and Spirit are not infinite in being but rather each of them is limited: Where the Father’s will begins, the Son’s ends. On this view, they would be three finite gods.
Vidu inquires into how, if the divine Persons are not distinguished by acts ad extra, it makes sense to say that the Son, and the Son alone, became incarnate. In response, he draws upon Aquinas to articulate the Trinity’s agency in assuming a human nature to union with the divine nature in the Person of the Son. He also asks whether there is “a specific personal causality of the Son upon this human nature, consequent upon the assumption.”Footnote 35 Vidu’s answer makes appeal to John Duns Scotus and to the Thomistic Christology of the Reformed theologian John Owen. He addresses the criticisms of Aquinas’s position lodged by Karl Rahner and concludes along Thomistic lines: “The eternal Word remains extrinsic to the human nature in the sense that he is ontologically distinct from it, as uncreated. That said, the human nature upon its union with the Logos begins to manifest the unique mode of existence of the Logos on its own created level of existence.”Footnote 36 Indeed, Vidu argues that Aquinas’s account of the incarnate Son’s esse – an account that in the decades after the Council fell profoundly out of favor – is in fact crucial for understanding the historical Jesus Christ. He states, “The human nature mediates the revelation of the Son because it supernaturally acquires the personal esse (existence) of the Son as its ultimate metaphysical foundation.”Footnote 37
Further chapters on Christ draw heavily upon Aquinas, often in dialogue with Scotus. Vidu notes the agreement between Balthasar and Aquinas on the understanding of a person as “a particular realization of a given nature,” thereby ensuring that Person and nature remain united in the Trinity.Footnote 38 He probes into how the Son’s divine and human actions should be distinguished, arguing that “persons act from their natures” and therefore “two natures originate two sets of first acts, which come together in the one person of Jesus Christ, the eternal Logos.”Footnote 39 Clarifying this claim further (in a Scotistic rather than Thomistic direction), he observes: “Actions do not originate at the personal level; they are perfected by the person. Thus, the incarnate Logos perfects in himself a human operation that springs from his human nature.”Footnote 40 In a lengthy discussion of Aquinas’s Christology, Vidu argues that Aquinas succeeds in describing a truly theandric agency in Christ. Aquinas offers a fully Trinitarian Christology, with Christ in his human nature taking on the Son’s filial mode of being and thus receiving everything from the Father and manifesting the Father through his human actions.Footnote 41
I note that in unpacking the consequences of a properly Trinitarian doctrine of the atonement, Vidu turns to the Latin theology of Bernard Lonergan, specifically Lonergan’s The Triune God: Systematics.Footnote 42 I mention this fact in order to signal the value of the current recovery of Lonergan’s Thomistic Christology. Jeremy Wilkins remarks in his Before Truth: Lonergan, Aquinas, and the Problem of Wisdom, “Lonergan was convinced as a matter of faith seeking understanding, that Christ, throughout his human life, contemplated divine wisdom and love in the light of the glory proper to the heavenly Jerusalem.”Footnote 43
The Anglican theologian A. N. Williams’s 1999 The Ground of Union: Deification in Aquinas and Palamas began as her dissertation at Yale under George Lindbeck. Though her section on Aquinas’s Christology is short, it is notable. She begins with a helpful comparison of Aquinas’s Christology with his doctrine of creation, explaining that Aquinas understands “the Incarnation as the fruit of divine desire for self-communication and union with humanity.”Footnote 44 She reflects upon the ways in which the Incarnation brings human nature to its perfection, both in Christ himself and by enabling our minds – accustomed to gaining knowledge from the realm of the senses – to know God and thereby to love God. She points out that the “Incarnation,” as such, is a created reality, even though the term of the Incarnation is the Son and the cause of the Incarnation is the Trinity. In a sense, the Incarnation can be described as a “grace,” since the union of the divine and human natures in the Person of the Son is not anything that human nature could have merited. Too strongly in my view, she maintains that for Aquinas “our destiny is a sharing of divine life as intimate as that represented by the hypostatic union. To be divine by participation through grace constitutes no second-order, derivative union with God but a union after the manner of Christ’s very own.”Footnote 45 Williams’s emphasis on Christ’s deifying centrality – and thus on the centrality of his charity (and of the Eucharist) – is welcome.
The Anglican theologian Rowan Williams’s 2018 Christ the Heart of Creation deserves mention here for its extensive engagement with Aquinas’s Christology. The introductory first chapter, which sets the stage for all that follows, is devoted to Aquinas’s perspective. Williams’s speculative investigation focuses on the question of how “Christology itself generate[s] a new and fuller grasp of the ‘grammar’ of createdness.”Footnote 46 While he cautions against treating every aspect of Aquinas’s Christology as “timelessly true and adequate,” he nevertheless credits Aquinas’s synthesis with being “the point at which the broadest range of theoretical questions was brought into view and a robust and consistent vocabulary developed for integrating these questions.”Footnote 47 He argues that modern Christology could be spared many dead-ends and puzzles simply by retrieving what Aquinas has already worked out. The topics that he has in view include not only the Incarnation itself but also Christ’s knowledge and grace. Regarding the Incarnation, Williams shows that what at first may seem to be overly abstract or arcane questions in the tertia pars turn out to be, in fact, an extraordinarily valuable “grammatical clearing of the ground so that there is no room for any notion of incarnation as a heavenly individual ‘turning into’ an earthly one.”Footnote 48
Khaled Anatolios, a Greek Catholic Melkite scholar, offered in 2020 an account of Christ’s saving work that draws constructively upon Aquinas. In his Deification through the Cross, Anatolios seeks “to present the fundamental framework of a constructive theology of Christ’s doxological contrition that is grounded in the Byzantine Christian tradition.”Footnote 49 He observes how strongly Aquinas highlights Christ’s sorrow over sin. Indeed, for Aquinas the sorrow that Christ endures on the Cross is the greatest sorrow ever experienced. As Anatolios notes, this claim may appear exaggerated, given that there seem to be ways of dying that inflict even more suffering than does the torture of crucifixion. Yet, for Aquinas, Christ’s immense interior sorrow or contrition regarding each and every human sin is constitutive of the superabundant “satisfaction” that Christ offers for sin. Placing his finger on a theme that has been somewhat neglected by Thomists in their accounts of Aquinas’s theology of the Cross,Footnote 50 Anatolios observes that Aquinas “speaks explicitly of the representative suffering of Christ as a contrition that transcends all other human experiences of repentance.”Footnote 51 As our representative, Christ on the Cross makes satisfaction for us by experiencing the profound contrition that we should have had for each and every sin.
Anatolios combines Aquinas’s insight with some elements of Matthias Joseph Scheeben’s doxological or latreutic understanding of Christ’s Paschal sacrifice. The combination of these two thinkers serves Anatolios’s presentation of the Cross as “doxological contrition,” an insight that arose for Anatolios primarily through celebrating the Byzantine liturgy. Even without drawing upon Scheeben, one can find a link between Christ’s sorrow and doxology in Aquinas himself. This link is Aquinas’s insistence that while sorrowing most intensely in his lower soul, Christ in his higher soul enjoyed beatific communion, praising God perfectly. Here Anatolios moves from Summa theologiae III, q. 46, a. 6 to q. 46, a. 8. According to Aquinas, Christ did not allow the joy he experiences in his higher soul to overflow upon his lower soul; thus his immense sorrow was not alleviated by joy but rather both were present at the same time in different ways. For Anatolios, the important thing is not parsing the psychology of this claim but rather the fact that Aquinas places front and center both immense sorrow and immense doxological praise. Anatolios describes these two elements in terms of coinherence, rather than in terms of a higher and a lower part of the soul. In Anatolios’s view, Aquinas approaches this solution when he holds that if Christ did not know and praise God perfectly, then Christ could not have realized how intensely we should sorrow over sin. This is what Anatolios means by “coinherence,” namely, that “during his earthly life Christ’s perfect enjoyment of the vision of God was entirely intrinsic to and even constitutive of his contrition for human sin.”Footnote 52
Anatolios here shows an extraordinary penetration into and appreciation for Aquinas’s theology of the Cross. As Anatolios says, “the representative contrition of Christ was itself a certain mode of the ‘overflow’ of his glory…. Conversely, his vision of God persisted not by virtue of being oblivious of the suffering of some hermetically sealed ‘lower part’ of the soul but precisely in and through this suffering of Christ’s contrition.”Footnote 53 Anatolios argues that every moment of Christ’s life combines these two elements, but the sorrow for sin is intensified on the Cross, where Christ sorrows vicariously for us. The Resurrection takes up and glorifies Christ’s wounds and his contrition. Thus, the Paschal mystery “shines forth as divine forgiveness and the reconciliation of God and humanity.”Footnote 54 This is a constructive argument that retrieves Thomistic Christology in a fruitful way, in accord with Anatolios’s ecumenical intentions.
1.2.2 Thomistic Christology and Contemporary Catholic Philosophical Theology
Let me now mention a few examples of the contemporary interest in Aquinas’s Christology within (Roman) Catholic dogmatics. Eleonore Stump’s massive 2018 book Atonement followed upon an equally lengthy, but more strictly philosophical, set of essays published by Stump under the title Aquinas. Two of the essays in the latter work treat aspects of Aquinas’s Christology, specifically the metaphysics of the Incarnation and the atonement.Footnote 55 But whereas in Aquinas Stump’s primary concern is to understand Aquinas rightly – although she brings her immense creativity to the task, inevitably seeking the truth of the matter whatever Aquinas might have thought – in Atonement we find a fully constructive work of philosophical theology. She states, “I have tried to learn from varying interpretations of the doctrine of the at onement which are found in different periods in the history of the Christian theological tradition, but I have not adopted wholesale any one of them, not even that of Aquinas…. I am not either presupposing or defending Aquinas’s interpretation of the doctrine.”Footnote 56 Yet Aquinas appears in one way or another on nearly every page.
Stump divides theories of the atonement into two categories: theories that argue that God must be placated for human sin (she calls these theories “Anselmian”) and theories that argue that humans must be changed in themselves (she calls these theories “Thomistic”). The “Anselmian” theories refer above all to the divine justice or the divine honor, which requires the payment of a penalty or a debt in order to be “satisfied” – a payment that the merciful God himself pays. The “Thomistic” theories refer above all to the fallenness of the human will, which is turned away from God and is in need of God’s healing grace. By his love and grace exhibited on the Cross, Christ offers “a bridge that spans the gap between the condition in which sinful human beings find themselves … and the desired union with God.”Footnote 57 Or as Stump puts the matter at the end of her book, describing her own “Thomistic” theory of atonement that she calls “the Marian interpretation”: “[T]he atonement of Christ is the unquenchable love of God offered to all the suffering, the self-alienated, and the evil, so that in their own beauty they might be at peace with themselves and with others and at home in the love of God.”Footnote 58
To my mind, Stump has correctly identified an element of Aquinas’s understanding of Christ’s Cross, but she has overlooked or rejected other elements that Aquinas includes. Her polarity between “Thomistic” and “Anselmian” is unhelpful, partly because Peter Abelard’s position is much more like Stump’s than is Aquinas’s. Still, this does not take away from the fact that Aquinas’s Christology – linked with his doctrine of God, anthropology, and theology of grace – plays a highly significant role in Stump’s stimulating book.
Stump’s student Timothy Pawl has published two works on Christology that contain significant engagement with Aquinas: In Defense of Conciliar Christology (2016) and In Defense of Extended Conciliar Christology (2019).Footnote 59 Aquinas is a significant presence in the first volume and even more so in the second. Both volumes mount arguments employing analytic philosophy in order to show that the basic claims of classical Christological orthodoxy are intelligible. Pawl has recourse to the documents of the early Councils and to patristic theologians, but his favored interlocutor is Aquinas. In In Defense of Extended Conciliar Christology, he addresses various problems treated by Aquinas, including whether there could have been multiple Incarnations, Christ’s interim state, Christ’s freedom, Christ’s temptation, and Christ’s knowledge. In In Defense of Conciliar Christology, he asks whether it is intelligible to argue that an immutable God could become man, whether a divine Person could intelligibly subsist in two natures (divine and human), and whether Christ really is a unity. Pawl argues, “Aquinas’s incarnational theology is robustly metaphysical…. Showing that a Thomistic view of the Incarnation can survive philosophical objections suggests that other, less robust views can survive, too.”Footnote 60 Pawl’s books are not Thomistic Christology per se, but their ample use of Aquinas within an analytic-theology defense of the claims of conciliar Christology shows the significance of Thomistic Christology within the field of analytic theology.
In three lengthy books, Olivier-Thomas Venard has constructively reflected upon Aquinas’s theology of the Word. The titles of his books show his literary and hermeneutical emphasis, which he grounds in a metaphysics of the Word: Littérature et théologie, La langue de l’ineffable, and Pagina sacra.Footnote 61 For English-speaking readers, selections from these books have recently appeared as A Poetic Christ: Thomist Reflections on Scripture, Language and Reality. Consider for example the selection that appears as “Towards a Poetic Christology.” Venard asks, “Is the admirable literary complexity of the New Testament merely the result of clever rhetorical propaganda which then calls for deconstruction, or did Jesus himself lay the foundations of this literary complexity in the course of his ministry?”Footnote 62 In answering this question, Venard turns especially to the Gospel of John but also to Aquinas. Aquinas helps him to demonstrate “the extensive fittingness between the mystery of the incarnation and the being and functionality of the sign.”Footnote 63 In Venard’s work, the Christology of Aquinas’s Commentary on John plays a particularly important role. He brings Aquinas’s Christology into dialogue with postmodern theorists of the sign, and he reflects upon the relationship between the Incarnation of the Word and the various human modes of participating in the incarnate Word and in the Word as such. Here Aquinas’s Christology becomes important for the project of rethinking hermeneutics in general and biblical exegesis in particular.
Simon Francis Gaine’s Did the Saviour See the Father? Christ, Salvation and the Vision of God stands out for its broad defense of Aquinas’s position on Christ’s knowledge. Gaine critiques the ways in which some fellow Thomists, such as Jacques Maritain and Jean-Hervé Nicolas, have modified Aquinas’s account. What especially makes Gaine’s book interesting is his insistence that Aquinas’s view of Christ’s beatific vision does not pose problems for Christ’s growth in acquired knowledge and does not require to be “translated” into concepts via infused knowledge.Footnote 64 In dialogue with a wide range of contemporary theologians and biblical scholars, Gaine shows that Aquinas’s teaching in this domain is much worthier of consideration than is generally supposed today.
The work of Emmanuel Durand also deserves attention here. Christ’s Person and work receive a central place in Durand’s understanding of providence in his Évangile et Providence, where he devotes a chapter to Aquinas’s approach to providence. Aquinas offers a richly metaphysical account of divine providence in the prima pars; but Durand points out that for Aquinas, it is also the case that “faith in divine providence acquires a considerable importance because it implicitly contains faith in Christ the Redeemer.”Footnote 65 Influenced by Thomistic Christology as well as by the perspectives of other thinkers and by his own constructive biblical theology, Durand concludes by articulating the doctrine of divine providence in a fully Trinitarian key. Further works by Durand make a similarly constructive use of Thomistic Christology, as for instance his L’Offre universelle du salut en Christ.Footnote 66
In Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ, Aaron Riches offers an extensive survey of the patristic developments arising from the challenge of Nestorianism. He then takes up Aquinas’s Christology to address problems such as the esse or being of Christ and the theandric action of Christ. As he says, “Thomas Aquinas’s discovery of the conciliar texts of Ephesus, Chalcedon, and Constantinople II confirmed his own highly unitive doctrine of the hypostatic union.”Footnote 67 He shows how deeply Aquinas’s thought converged with the anti-Nestorian perspective of the Greek Fathers. Aquinas was fighting a Nestorian drift in the medieval West, and he employed Cyril and John of Damascus to hone his Christology. The influence of the Second Council of Constantinople increasingly appears in Aquinas’s writings, in particular through the doctrine that the union takes place according to subsistence, so that Christ only has one person and one subsistence. Riches explores how Constantinople III shapes Aquinas’s account of Christ’s two wills and two operations. He praises Aquinas’s understanding of the instrumentality of the human nature of Christ, which allows Aquinas to affirm that “Jesus works divine things humanly” and “theandrically.”Footnote 68 Riches also addresses Aquinas’s theology of Christ’s suffering in light of Christ’s beatific vision, and he advocates a reading of Aquinas’s position that fits with what Anatolios terms “coinherence”: “[T]he maximos dolores suffered by Jesus are internal to the fruitio beata he nevertheless enjoys.”Footnote 69 Riches’s work is an immensely stimulating dogmatic Christology that is as Eastern as it is Thomistic.
In addition, Aquinas’s Christology has recently been praised by Catholic scholars as diverse as Aidan Nichols, Denys Turner, and Bernard McGinn.Footnote 70 But arguably the most significant contemporary retrieval of Aquinas’s Christology is Thomas Joseph White’s The Incarnate Lord. Guy Mansini has noted that in the neoscholastic period, Catholic Christology was essentially an in-house theological affair in which a large role was played by Aquinas. The great figures of the Ressourcement movement brought an end to this in-house Christology, but the Christologies of the Ressourcement theologians also have deficiencies. As Mansini sees it, what was needed was to retrieve Aquinas’s Christology and thus also, to some degree, neoscholastic Christology – but now in dialogue with biblical scholarship, with the great Ressourcement thinkers, and with Protestant and Orthodox Christologies. It is this task that White’s The Incarnate Lord undertakes.Footnote 71
In his book, White proposes that a metaphysically rich, explicitly creedal outlook of the kind modeled by Aquinas is necessary for a Catholic Christology. Without metaphysical realism and analogous speech about God,Footnote 72 it will be impossible to speak suitably about either the human nature or divine nature of Christ, let alone about their unity-in-distinction in Christ’s divine Person. White shows that Scripture itself presumes an ontology,Footnote 73 both with regard to Christ’s preexistence as Creator and Lord and with regard to his human nature. Likewise, the “hypostatic union” is not a Greek imposition upon the New Testament but rather is an affirmation arising out of the New Testament’s testimony to Christ as the incarnate Lord. Metaphysical realism about human nature is not imposed by philosophically minded Christians upon Scripture but rather flows from the New Testament’s “presupposition … that Christ shared in some way in what is common to Adam and all other human beings, the natural form or essence that is possessed by each.”Footnote 74 This is not simply a Thomistic claim but one made by the Council of Chalcedon, and New Testament Christology makes no sense without it.Footnote 75
What about the notion that the one divine Person, the Son of God, acts through his two natures? White points to Philippians 2:5–11, among other passages, as evidence that this creedal claim derives from the New Testament. The very questions that Aquinas addresses at his most “metaphysical” in the tertia pars arise from Scripture and require to be addressed if the New Testament portrait of Jesus is to be intelligible.
In his chapters, White takes up themes that track the order of topics in the tertia pars: the hypostatic union, the grace of Christ, the knowledge of Christ, the obedience of Christ, the Cross, Christ’s death and descent in hell, and the Resurrection. While all of his chapters are important, I will here pay attention in particular to his “Prolegomenon: Is a Modern Thomistic Christology Possible?” and his “Conclusion: The Promise of Thomism: Why Christology Is Not Primarily a Historical Science.” These bookends of The Incarnate Lord go to the very heart of the contemporary debates.
White’s “Prolegomenon” argues that if Thomistic Christology is not possible, this must be because Schleiermacher and Barth, in their distinct ways, are correct that Chalcedonian doctrine must now be reinterpreted in a postmetaphysical way. Accepting the early historical-critical view that Jesus cannot rightly be thought of in Chalcedonian terms, Schleiermacher argues that Jesus still has theological significance insofar as he exemplifies the intensification of human religious consciousness and brings this consciousness to its highest point. On this view, elements such as Christ’s virgin birth, Resurrection, and Ascension can be reinterpreted for what they say about Jesus’ exemplary religious consciousness and its impact upon ours. Jesus’ divinity can be reinterpreted in terms of his followers’ experience of his profound God-consciousness. White sums up the methodological presupposition: “Historical study of Jesus in what is presupposed to be a post-metaphysical age permits us to recover anew the truth of Christianity that lies behind the artifices of ontological doctrine.”Footnote 76
Against Schleiermacher, Barth argues that historical-critical studies cannot get at the truth of Jesus, which is given by the Scriptures and by the community’s obedience in faith to the living Lord Jesus. Barth rejects speculation about Jesus’ consciousness. Yet, White argues that Barth cannot avoid the problem identified by Schleiermacher. If classical metaphysics is false, then Chalcedonian claims – whose intelligibility is inseparable from metaphysical realism – cannot stand. Absent metaphysical realism, it necessarily follows that “the transcendence of God incarnate as it is understood to be revealed in Christ is in fact something the mind simply does not have the capacity to entertain intellectually,” since we can “only conceive of the presence of the divine in this world univocally.”Footnote 77
White’s argument is that the rejection of the power of the human mind to think metaphysically, and thereby to think intelligibly about transcendent divinity and about the distinction between the human nature and the divine nature of Christ, cripples Christology. The solution must be to retrieve some form of Thomistic Christology – whether or not it is labeled “Thomistic.” White draws from Balthasar’s book The Theology of Karl Barth, in which Balthasar shows that (in White’s words) “a natural ontology and metaphysical theology are possible and even necessary within the framework of a Christological doctrine of the God-world analogy and a Catholic consideration of the relations of nature and grace.”Footnote 78 White’s argument is somewhat different: He defends the possibility of natural theology (i.e., classical metaphysics) on the Christological grounds that such metaphysical range turns out to be necessary for the intelligibility of Christ as the incarnate Lord. White emphasizes that Christ does not differ from us fundamentally in terms of his human powers, for example, his human consciousness; rather he differs from us fundamentally in his “primary actuality” or “substantial being,” his personhood rather than his operations.Footnote 79 For Christology, then, it is necessary to insist that “the union of God and man in Christ is substantial and not accidental. It takes place within the subsistent person of the Word, and not in the accidental operations of the man Jesus.”Footnote 80 Only in this way can we truly say that the eternal Word has become incarnate. This path requires the ability to distinguish ontologically the divine and human natures and operations of Christ.
Historical study and knowledge of God by faith both have a place in Christology, but the latter (faith’s knowledge) will be foundational, because it is the latter that attains “to the deepest ontological core of his person,” important though “the empirical, historical-cultural conditions” of the life of Christ are.Footnote 81 As an example, White offers historical-critical reconstructions of the sacrificial meaning of Jesus’ death, including reconstructions of Jesus’ own view of his death. These reconstructions are plausible and valuable, but they cannot prove what Jesus thought he was doing. They assist faith’s knowledge of the incarnate Lord, but they do not provide its foundation. White also observes that Christology must speak about the “ontological ground of unity between Christ and the Father,” given that Christ’s consciousness reflects his status as the incarnate Lord who “has come to us in human nature to reveal to us the inner life of God the Trinity, and to call us to himself in the eventual vision of the divine essence.”Footnote 82
Let me now describe White’s “Conclusion: The Promise of Thomism: Why Christology Is Not Primarily a Historical Science.” The last subtitle says it all. As a historical enterprise, Christology begins with a study of the New Testament, then turns to the Fathers, the medievals, and so on, eventually arriving at the current debates within systematic theology. This approach presumes progress in reflection and also presumes that history itself can be the standard for what is enduringly true doctrine about Christ. Yet, history is always told by a particular narrator who values some elements more than others. The question therefore becomes pressing: What is the standard for truth about Christ? One may answer: dogma. But as soon as this is done, then it becomes clear that history is not the fundamental science involved; rather, the guiding science turns out to be sacra doctrina, “informed by supernatural faith in the teachings of scripture and the Catholic church.”Footnote 83 Christology has to do with a historical reality and makes use of historical studies, but Christology interprets that history – explains its meaning – “in light of what unifies and transcends historical existence,” namely, God.Footnote 84
White therefore seeks to reclaim a “scholastic” approach – a dogmatic, metaphysically rich Christology, “not disinterested in the most subtle indications of historical learning but above all marked (in and through such considerations) by the study of the intrinsic essence and content of the mystery of Christ.”Footnote 85 I agree with this project, though in the present book I place emphasis on “in and through such [historical] considerations.” It seems to me that a new scholastic Christology will need to be sure to avoid mere prooftexting of scriptural and other sources; it will need to be sure to give ample room to the voice and narratives of Scripture and to the arguments (rather than simply the conclusions) of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. In addition, a new scholastic Christology will need to be ecumenically oriented, as White’s is. Earlier scholasticisms (like modern antischolasticisms) have sometimes been too quick to dismiss opponents.
White contrasts his viewpoint with that of Edward Schillebeeckx, who holds that the truth claims made by Christians are absolute only within a particular historical context and may have to be reformulated substantively in later historical contexts. The result for Schillebeeckx is that Christology is fundamentally a historical discipline and nothing more, since “there is no access to trans-historical truths of Christology that are simply available to every age.”Footnote 86 The key question in Christology becomes, then, what Christ means or should mean for us today, with “today” receiving a decisive role. It follows that every epoch reflects, in its Christology, its own faith experience of God.
As White points out, Schillebeeckx does not hesitate to interpret Jesus from within the faith experience of the time when Schillebeeckx was writing. On this view, a relevant Christology is one that is in solidarity with the political movements of liberation within and outside the Church. Christology becomes, fundamentally, an ethical praxis that changes and develops in accord with the supposed march of history.Footnote 87
White shows that Schillebeeckx’s project neglects a fundamental challenge to postmetaphysical modernity. Namely, how do we know that texts themselves “have some intrinsic signification that can be measured by external realities,” rather than having signification imposed upon them by “interpreters”?Footnote 88 Furthermore, how do we know even that there are “interpreters” or stable selves, or indeed any stable realities or values whatsoever? To Friedrich Nietzsche and others, many modern thinkers are guilty of importing a metaphysics according to which there exist real and identifiable referents of texts. The alternative is that texts are fundamentally collections of linguistic signs that refer simply to desires, especially the desire for power. From a Nietzschean perspective, the question is as follows: If doctrine simply expresses a particular era’s religious sensibilities, then how do we know that doctrine is not simply the expression of the will to power, rather than expressing “truth” at all? Likewise, if consciousness is reducible to culture (or prevalent semiotic signs) rather than to a “self,” then how do we know that a particular set of cultural values are more than arbitrary? White points out, “If our hermeneutics are those of Nietzsche, then the theological guilds that seek to challenge received doctrinal tradition through a series of ‘progressive’ and ‘empowering’ discourses are themselves adopting a morally arbitrary stance. They too give voice to a will to power.”Footnote 89 White shows that the alternative is to retrieve metaphysics – real existential referents, real natures, and (in the Christian domain) real dogmatic truth.
Schillebeeckx’s disciple Claude Geffré, recognizing the Nietzschean problematic, argued that the solution consists in granting that one’s own perspective is relative and thereby insisting that no one interpretation of Christianity can have hegemony.Footnote 90 But, as White observes, Geffré has not perceived the true problem. For example, Geffré continued to refer to the “Spirit,” but to whom or what is Geffré referring? The Personal status of the Spirit in the tri-Personal God was affirmed by the Council of Constantinople and belongs to Catholic dogma, but not if this is merely a contextual claim that cannot have hegemony over other opposite claims made before, during, and since the Council of Constantinople. Furthermore, in insisting that no one interpretation of Christianity may have hegemony, has not Geffré asserted hegemony over interpretations of Christianity that affirm the hegemonic truth of a particular interpretation? In repudiating the legitimacy of hegemonic claims, Geffré is making one himself. In such a situation, continuing with the project of dogmatic or systematic theology is useless; one might as well admit that in doing so, one is simply staking out a power-claim, not a truth claim about anything extrinsic to the “self.”
As White comments, therefore, perspectivalism in theology does no more than conceal its metaphysics, namely, its teleological “ontology that emphasizes either the normativity of the inclusive political good or the celebration of the will to power.”Footnote 91 It turns out to be impossible to narrate the history of theology, no matter how much one rejects enduring dogma and metaphysical realism, without some tacit account of enduring realities, such as “human nature, political justice, grammar, language, human volition, and so forth.”Footnote 92 It follows that a “scholastic” theology – understood as a theology that makes enduring truth claims about reality, rather than simply canvassing historical opinions or modes of political praxis – is inevitable.
This should not surprise us. The human mind is made for knowing being, and there would be no possibility of speaking about intelligible historical change unless there were in fact “realities that exist and that have essences and properties.”Footnote 93 History as such, then, cannot have primacy. Even the study of ideas is not merely a study of flux, since to identify their intelligible content “we must be able to identify what is essential or determinate in the ideas under consideration.”Footnote 94 And since the narrator of any history produces his or her narrative with an end in view, the narrator thereby not only confirms the existence of teleology but also reminds us that human nature seeks various ends and that these ends or goods are inevitably evaluated in terms of a hierarchy of goods. Indeed, even Nietzsche’s scorched-earth critique of teleology as an illusion continually inquired into why things are as they are (final causality) and urged people to pursue certain goals. Metaphysical realism, no matter how sternly rejected, turns up ever anew.
Returning to Christology, White observes that Jesus Christ is universally relevant for all human beings because he is the God-man, he is the Redeemer, and he has risen from the dead. These points fit with the principles of metaphysical realism: Jesus exists, he can be known in his essential identity, and he acts with an ultimate end. It follows that the Incarnation, the Cross, and the Resurrection will be at the heart of a Christology that has universal relevance. When Christians believe in these realities, they are able to understand in a deeper way the conclusions of the natural sciences about the cosmos – since Christ reveals its purpose – and they are able to integrate the reconstructions about Jesus offered by historians. Through faith in Christ, they are also able to describe the fallenness of humanity in light of its healing by Christ and its ultimate consummation in Christ. White concludes that Thomistic Christology is both speculative and practical, oriented “toward knowledge and enjoyment of the Trinity.”Footnote 95 Ultimately, Thomistic Christology is wisdom, since in Christ “we come to find rest in a wisdom that surpasses ourselves, and which redeems our human history and our personal lives in time, but which also orients us toward the world to come.”Footnote 96
In the above, I have sought to sketch the emergence in recent decades of a new historically informed, ecumenically valuable, and dogmatically constructive Thomistic Christology.Footnote 97 This movement emerged, in fact, just as the death knell of Thomistic Christology was sounding. There is good reason even to think that this renewed Thomistic Christology may sound the death knell of the modern Christology that had attempted to bury it. Ecumenically, the contributions of Reformed and Anglican theologians to this informal “movement” stand out, ensuring that contemporary Thomistic Christology is not solely the province of Catholic dogmaticians.Footnote 98 Although Eastern Orthodox theologians have yet to tap into Aquinas’s Christology, A. N. Williams’s observation certainly includes Christology: “The ground that Aquinas and Palamas share is vast compared to the points at which they diverge.”Footnote 99
More could be said about this movement of contemporary Thomistic Christology. For example, the contributions surveyed above could be organized more systematically. They represent different guiding principles for soteriology. Some of the authors focus on the hypostatic union; some on the two natures of Christ; some on Spirit Christology, inclusive of Christ’s “capital” grace and his perfection of knowledge; and some on Christ’s meritorious life and death as the principle of redemption. It would be worthwhile to compare these perspectives with the guiding principles of other contemporary Christologies, so as to show still more clearly why this movement is of constructive importance. Exploring in more detail the various Thomistic Christological emphases would also strengthen my case that the typological Christologies truly refer to the ontological reality of Christ and his saving work, rather than being mere metaphors or implausible stories.
In addition, expanding the above discussion of contemporary Thomistic Christology could assist in demonstrating how the New Testament typologies themselves enrich our understanding of Christ and salvation. The “kingdom of God,” the “new exodus,” and the renewed Temple can be expressed in ontological terms. But it adds something crucial to express them in narrative-typological terms. The typologies help to connect us with the historical figure of Jesus and to enable us to appreciate the various dimensions of our discipleship to, and sacramental inclusion in, Christ’s Pasch as members of the “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16). The typologies help to ensure that ontological reflection on Jesus Christ and salvation does not float free of the late Second Temple context in which Jesus lived and in which the New Testament took shape. The typologies also make clear that Jesus is not merely “the perfect homo religiosus” but rather is the incarnate Lord bringing salvation history to its goal.Footnote 100 As Bruce Marshall emphasizes, his are “the actions and sufferings of the Word of power who upholds all things.”Footnote 101
In his Heavenly Participation, Hans Boersma remarks, “Time and time again, the church fathers and medieval theologians explained the events reported in the Old Testament as ‘future mysteries’ (futura mysteria) or ‘future sacraments’ (futura sacramenta), referring to Jesus Christ and to the church.”Footnote 102 It was not only the Fathers and medievals who did this; the New Testament did so too in its literal sense regarding Jesus. This shared pattern explains why Aquinas’s own writings are seamlessly filled with so many references to Scripture and the Fathers, including the typological portraits of Jesus the New Adam, New Isaac, New Moses, New Joshua, and New David. Thus, my “reconfiguring” of Thomistic Christology depends upon the fact that Aquinas’s own metaphysical and dogmatic Christology is already figurally rich. If Thomistic Christology is to be reconfigured, therefore, it cannot be reconfigured in such a way as to imperil the metaphysical and dogmatic insights that I have noted in this chapter. A test for whether my proposal succeeds will be its reception among the theologians whose works I have examined above.
In the following five chapters, I explain my typological path for adding a more explicitly eschatological inflection to contemporary Thomistic Christology, building upon and augmenting Aquinas’s reflections on Adam, Isaac, Moses, Joshua, and David as figures of Jesus Christ. Piotr Roszak and Jörgen Vijgen point out, “The typically modern separation of speculative theology and biblical exegesis is foreign to the mind of Thomas Aquinas.”Footnote 103 Aquinas learned this unity from the Church Fathers, who made frequent recourse to the New Testament’s typological–eschatological portraits of Jesus. In this regard, the path that I propose involves encouraging contemporary Thomistic Christology to follow even more fully the example set by Aquinas himself.