Thursday 21 July 2016

2 reviews: Cortez and Volf/McAnnally-Linz

The new book by Marc Cortez, Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective, offers
interesting snapshots of the interaction of christology and anthropology in the history of Christian thought.  Cortez constructs his argument on the assumption that Christ reveals both natures of the hypostatic union: Christ discloses humanity to us.

Cortez orders the book around thematic expositions of the christologies of select figures from Christian history. He assembles a solid cast of theologians from history to probe the question of Christ’s humanity and ours. The inclusions and topics are select but pertinent: Gregory of Nyssa and gender, Julian of Norwich and suffering, Luther and justification as the foundation of humanity, Schleiermacher and ecclesially mediated humanity, Barth and embodiment, Zizioulas and personhood, and Cone and liberation. Each chapter offers a coherent and focussed reading designed to illuminate the impact of christology on the considered topic of theological anthropology. The figures are utilised more as models of thinking through the issues of humanity rather than as offering settled conclusions.

For instance, his discussion of gender through a reading of Gregory of Nyssa works its way right into the heart of contemporary questions about biological sexuality and constructed gender. But rather than argue that Gregory’s theology furthers (or hinders) arguments for gender fluidity, Cortez hones in on the way that Gregory’s discussion of gender pivots on the resurrection. It is to the author’s credit that he pulls back from proclamatory judgements. Cortez’s mostly noncommittal stance invites the reader to reflection.

However, the curation of topics and authors does not escape a sense of arbitrary judgement. Why does the book avoid Augustine, Irenaeus, Kathryn Tanner, and the many others who meet the book’s guiding criterion of developing a christology that sheds light on humanity? The selection criteria are obscure. 

Further to this, the rendering of the human developed here is fragmentary and incomplete, which seems to be an accident of design, rather than a deliberate constructive proposal. Expected topics were omitted without explanation—sin, the human and the environment, culture, etc. The conclusion attempts to tie the readings together, but this serves primarily comparative purposes, rather than offering a unique vision of the human through the lens of Christology.

The main contribution of the book lies in its offering of these models of thinking, rather than in any proposal of a christological anthropology. This is a fine end in itself, and the book would be at home on any undergraduate reading list in theological anthropology.


This decade seems to be marked by a gradual escalation of Christian concern for public issues. A new book co-authored by Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz,  Public Faith in Action: How to think carefully, engage wisely, and vote with integrity, addresses these concerns directly. Born from a series of Facebook posts, the book contains short digestible chapters arranged by topic. Volf and McAnnally-Linz aim to equip Christians to reflect on public issues. The authors attempt to avoid needlessly adopting stances that would only limit discussion, and instead aim to provoke questions that might lead to healthy dialogue and debate. Each chapter closes with an excellent list of introductory and advanced readings (Quite a number of ABC Religion and Ethics pieces appear in these lists).

The authors have aimed their book at the church, hiding much of the theological reasoning behind the text. Most of the time this method proceeds without difficulty. For instance, the authors outline four possible approaches to the question of same-sex marriage, and comment that each stance has compelling theological reasons, without delving into the theologic itself. On other occasions, however, they advocate a settled “Christian stance” on a particular issue. Can opposition to the death penalty, for instance, be argued to be the only (note the italics) option available to Christians? I fear that only a very limited definition of “Christian” would enable such a claim. Similarly, the authors present opposition to euthanasia as the Christian stance, and then back this up with social rather than theological argumentation. The authors would have been better served at these points to put forward such positions as compelling rather than exclusive.

Despite this limitation, Volf and McAnnally-Linz have produced a very fine book that will ignite some healthy discussion in the churches about our common life. Kathryn Tanner once wrote that fruitful theological discussion emerges as we are drawn to the controversial edges of belief and thought. This book is all about such edges, and invites every Christian to reflection and disputation.


Unknown said...

Thanks, Steve.

Speaking of "Christian concern for public issues" -- I've not long finished Samuel Wells' How Then Shall We Live? Christian Engagement with Contemporary Issues (2016). Highly recommended. Christologically soaked, culturally and politically informed, seriously intelligent and often wise, huge-hearted, and just when you thought you were unlikely to hear anything new or nuanced on, say, LGBT identity or assisted dying ...

Btw, you write: "Can opposition to the death penalty, for instance, be argued to be the only (note the italics) option available to Christians?"
That man Myers -- he has now got everyone who has recently visited this blog scared crapless about using italics (I propose the term "italics-shaming"). Indeed I hear he is working on some software that will trigger a crescendo of contemptuous laughter as your mouse-directed cursor heads for the "I" on Word. Nor, I suspect, will his solecism crusade end there. My prediction: next on his hit-list the dastardly -- (dash).

Nathanael said...

It's a shame Cortez's book doesn't interact with the medieval proponents of supralapsarian christology like Rupert of Deutz, Robert Grosseteste, Albert the Great, Alexander of Hales, and John Duns Scotus. I would think those theologians would have some very interesting things to say about christological anthropology. But sadly, it is more or less the norm to ignore the medieval "Franciscan" theological tradition unless you need a whipping boy.

Steve Wright said...

Kim -- And yet he speaks with an emphatic italicised accent.

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