Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A Christian and a Scholar

Marc Cortez, Christological Anthropology In Historical Perspective: Ancient and Contemporary Approaches to Theological Anthropology

I’ve written repeatedly on this blog about my frustrations regarding how Christian authors seemingly write down to their audiences, keeping believers at primary-school levels. No wonder “no religion” has become America’s second-biggest religious label: our biggest religion has become boring. I’ve specifically criticised Phil Rehberg and Johnnie Moore, to name only two, for keeping intellectually ambitious Christians trapped at the Bible 101 level indefinitely.

Thus it heartens me to see Zondervan, a house mainly famous for publishing the New International Version (NIV) Bible, getting heavily into distributing Christian scholarship for mainstream audiences. Though owned by HarperCollins, and thus technically part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, Zondervan remains operationally independent, and dedicated to Christianity over political ideology. And it’s demonstrated a welcoming attitude to theological debate, hard scholarship, and dedication to knowledgeable, informed Christian faith.

Wheaton University professor Marc Cortez has chosen, with this book, to address one of theology’s more arcane corners, the intersection of the study of humanity with the study of Christ. Rather than trying to create a truly encyclopedic umbrella of this discipline, which he admits early would be difficult, even futile, he chooses case studies of past writers. The result is interesting, deep reading for enthusiastic, scholarly-minded Christians.

Cortez sets himself an interesting set of parameters. He unpacks writings of seven religious scholars, from Gregory of Nyssa in the 3rd Century CE to the still-living James Cone, analyzing how they understand humanity through the lens of Christology. If that sounds obscure, it is: “Christology” is the academic study of Christ, understanding Him not through Jesus’ teachings or actions, but through Christ’s unique being.

Christology is so specialized that, of the four canonical Gospels, only John significantly addresses it. The Synoptic Gospels approach Christology head-on only through Peter’s confession and Jesus’ defense before Pilate. It also compounds understanding Cortez’s points, as it entails understanding humanity, monolithically, through the divine manifestation of Christ’s dyophysite nature. Functionally, Cortez places the key to understanding human outside humanity. You can imagine how fraught this makes his exegesis.

Nearly every chapter includes some disclaimer how, despite the superficial appearances, each respective author Cortez unpacks really has a truly Christological anthropology. This despite not only the seeming evidence, but even the criticisms his subjects levy on one another: throughout chapter 4, Cortex defends Friedrich Schleiermacher against Karl Barth, the subject of chapter 5. These theologians’ interpretations of both anthropology and Christology are deeply loaded, and sometimes contradictory.

It’s important to note that, when Cortez says “Anthropology,” he doesn’t mean what non-sectarian university Anthropology departments mean. The theologians Cortez considers seek the true definition of human nature prior to the circumstances of life, like upbringing and culture. Secularist anthropologists largely abandoned this pursuit in the 1960s, acknowledging life’s circumstances as defining, not accidental. Thus Cortez is initiating an intellectual pursuit that doesn’t travel outside strictly theological circles.

That’s especially compounded by the specific contexts each theologian writes from. In Cortez’s telling, Gregory of Nyssa spends considerable time parsing how necessary the biological body, especially sexuality, really is to human nature. Martin Luther expounds on how the righteous shall live (act) by faith (belief)—thus humans naturally translate knowledge into action. And James Cone, possibly America’s foremost Black Liberation Theologian, defines humans by race and relationship to power.

Thus, as with studying Scripture, more knowledge leads to less certainty, or anyway it should. The authors seemingly contradict one another; sometimes, as with especially prolific authors like Luther or Barth, they appear to contradict themselves. But arguably, this represents what we in the logic-chopping business call “an essentially contested debate”: that is, the positions gain definition from being contested. The point isn’t to win, but to test new ideas.

In that, Cortez succeeds. His case studies challenge audiences’ preconceptions, widen avenues of discussion, and introduce new ideas. Non-scholarly Christians probably won’t read Gregory of Nyssa or Karl Barth; most probably haven’t even heard of Friedrich Schleiermacher or John Zizioulas (I hadn’t). But Cortez makes their key ideas accessible, in plain English with ample footnotes. He invites us into the debate. And that, more than “winning,” truly matters.

This book joins Zondervan’s recent additions to challenging theology for non-seminarians. I’ve already reviewed Five Views on the Church and Politics, part of a series Zondervan publishes on today’s most important spiritual debates. Part-time Christians seeking vague affirmations or easy beach reading will find this volume imposing. But serious-minded believers seeking more intensive insights into their faith with find this book rich, as few mass-market Christian books are anymore.

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