the demise of a doctrine? :: Weinandy and Tilley

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.

–G.K. Chesterton

While this quip from Chesterton may not quite capture the contours of the conversation, may it at least bring a touch of humor to an unfortunately acrid encounter between Terry Tilley and Thomas Weinandy.

For those who are unfamiliar with the situation (and care to acquaint themselves further): Tilley (who, in the interest of full disclosure, chairs the department where I am a student) delivered the presidential address at the CTSA this summer on three Christological impasses. Weinandy responded, pointing to what he regarded as superficial, fallacious, and theologically dangerous elements in that address. This article subsequently sensationalized the conflict. Tilley gave a short reply, to which Weinandy added a full stop. I, on the other hand, learned about the whole mess from a fellow student.

Being neither Roman Catholic nor a member of the CTSA, I am an outsider to this conversation in many regards; but I am also, perhaps, uniquely prepared to comment on it, having taken a course on Christology from Tilley and worked carefully through several of Weinandy’s texts on the same subject. Furthermore, this conflict raises questions about the nature of the theological task and the relation of contemporary theologians to a normative tradition (and about the nature of theological normativity itself). I hope to comment on the larger issues afoot in this conversation without getting too far embroiled in the ecclesial politics surrounding them.

Weinandy’s reading of Tilley’s address is not charitable; that much is hard to dispute. Weinandy’s reading is best explained by a perception (perhaps a fear?) that Tilley’s address is indicative of a larger glacial shift, one that remains largely unspoken in the address itself, but which nevertheless represents the slow drift of academic theology into vapid conformity with an anti-ecclesial culture. Weinandy’s concerns about “relativism” and “style” certainly sound this note (though I should add, having been graded by Tilley, I can personally attest that his Christological relativism is not absolute!). To my mind, the most prescient question is less whether Weinandy responded to Tilley’s address with sufficient care and charity, (I am convinced that he did not) but whether this larger perception/fear is justifiable and whether it is justifiably applied to Tilley, or whether it is altogether misplaced.

So, where precisely is the disagreement?

Weinandy and Tilley agree in speaking about the task of theology in terms of clarifying or illuminating the mysteries of faith, taking care not to misrepresent or prematurely resolve those mysteries. Yet, Weinandy accuses Tilley of a determination to explain away the mysteries of faith in the kind of resolution of paradox that has historically marked heretical movements. And in his defense of the CDF, Tilley likely sees Weinandy upholding an unhealthily narrow fixation on particular terminology, a cathexis that distorts the concepts originally communicated by that terminology—to the detriment of the faith. In other words, both see each other defending a position that would lead to the collapse of the mysteries of faith, putting the task of theology at risk either in the stalemate of a dogged dogmatic insistence on the sufficiency of fifth-century terminology or in capitulation to a contemporary rationalistic historicism averse to any advent of the supernatural (such as the Incarnation).

So, it would seem that Tilley and Weinandy agree about the task of theology, but differ substantially on how to carry out this task. Weinandy, the historical theologian, would have us accept the dogmatic formulations of conciliar history, and then illuminate these formulae by filling out their meaning through distinctions, elaborations, and elucidations that maintain the absolute integrity of the verbal formulae used. The theologian is to explain the Christological formula of Chalcedon, for example, from the inside taking the propositional content of the formula as a foundation. The tradition’s normativity for Weinandy is largely propositional (though, I think that for Weinandy this normativity includes the cultural-intellectual framework where those propositions arose, i.e. the Christian-Platonic synthesis).

Tilley, the constructive theologian, would have us labor at some length to understand Scripture and the negotiated settlements of the conciliar tradition, and then to communicate the living truth of the tradition in the terms that best make that truth present in the contemporary situation. The theologian is to work in radical continuity with the tradition precisely by extending the tradition into the present. The tradition’s normativity for Tilley, then, is largely conceptual, and thus to a degree, not susceptible to containment within a single static vocabulary, as essential as a given vocabulary (say, Chalcedon) may remain for coming to grips with the concepts of the tradition. Tilley himself insists on expressing this in terms of a normativity of practice (in opposition to a purely intellectual conceptual normativity), but I think that the broader approach of which Tilley is representative is marked by this concern for conceptual fidelity.

Weinandy, then, either thinks that conceptual continuity is not sufficient to authentically practice theology (as distinct from propositional continuity), or thinks that Tilley’s particular conceptual development of the tradition breaks continuity and fails to measure up to the norm of the tradition. The latter charge would require a substantial engagement with Tilley’s published work, and frankly, such an engagement will fail to produce anything approaching the adoptionism/arianism that Weinandy alleges. The former, I think, requires a more extended argument than Weinandy is able to provide in his short article. Such an argument would also entail invalidating an enormous swath of contemporary theology, from Rahner to Pannenberg and beyond, figures deeply concerned to think faithfully in categories and conversations not available to early Christian writers.

Tilley is not arguing, as Weinandy suggests, that he has a monopoly on the original meaning of the terms of the Chalcedonian definition, nor that they are irretrievably lost in the abyss of history. Rather, he is arguing that it takes long, arduous work (the very sort of work that Weinandy does quite well) to inhabit the tradition sufficiently so that one can follow the contours of complex ancient conversations, and that employing the same language cannot guarantee that the same concepts are communicated. It is truly perverse for Weinandy to argue simultaneously that the plain meaning of Chalcedon is accessible to any intelligent person who reads the text with a degree of care and that Tilley has not (after a career of research) adequately grasped the Chalcedon definition. Nowhere does Tilley repudiate Chalcedon, nor call it a “total failure.” If Tilley’s recent book on Christology does not take Chalcedon as the starting point, it’s not because he’s abandoned the Incarnation of the Logos, but rather because he is tracing out the trajectory of other biblical christologies (particularly in the synoptics) that were instrumental in arriving at the convictions formulated in the creeds, but nevertheless underrepresented therein. The Disciples’ Jesus is, quite literally, a discursive effort at retracing the steps of the earliest Christological confessions, confessions that were rooted in and sustained by the practices of the communities that forged them.

Tilley’s presidential address is not sufficiently clear in articulating his conviction that the variety of christological traditions in the New Testament are not contradictory (a view that Weinandy unfairly imputes to him), but complementary in their diversity. There is more to the mysterious life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ than a single narrative trajectory can possibly contain. While Chalcedon provides a helpful hermeneutic to the New Testament, the compositional statement about two natures and a person cannot supplant the range of views of Jesus Christ that are contained in the New Testament and early Christian traditions.

To conclude, is Weinandy’s perception of an anti-ecclesial drift in the culture of academic theology justified? Perhaps, but this drift is no recent phenomenon, and it is a matter of certain conversations and movements, not a ubiquitous tipping of the theological playing field so that the academy becomes a slippery slope. Can the perception of this drift justifiably be applied to Terry Tilley in the public excoriation that he received from the pen of Thomas Weinandy? Not in the least. Weinandy needs to pick a new figurehead for the movement leading to the “Demise of the Doctrine of the Incarnation.”

personal belief and corporate confession :: creeds and community (part IV)

The last entry thinking about the creeds focused on the relationship between the creeds and scripture. As normative confession, the creeds guide the boundaries of our interpretation of scripture in order to enable us to read scripture well. The creeds stand as a history lesson about God’s people reading God’s word; they are our opportunity to hear and understand the thought of those Christians who down through the generations have passed on the gospel and put the scripture in our hands. We disregard their advice at our own hazard. We cannot even touch scripture until someone gives it to us – and that event (taking the book into our hands) links us to a long chain that reaches back to the roots of our tradition. Any loss of memory constitutes a crisis of identity, but especially an intentional ignorance with regard to tradition.

In this entry however, I’d like to dig into questions about the normative influence of the creeds within the church today – look at how we relate to these ancient documents, and how we are to look at them. How do creeds function within our communities? What do communities that move away from creeds replace them with? Continue reading “personal belief and corporate confession :: creeds and community (part IV)”

creeds and criticism (Part III) :: the Bible :: or why reading scripture apart from theology is like eating without food

Despite the contemporary desire to treat it this way, the Bible did not fall out of the sky. Christians are not “people of the book” in the same way that Muslims or Mormons are. The Bible is not eternal truth dictated word for word from the clouds to faithful scribes waiting pen in hand. Christianity’s attitude toward its book is significantly different.

As a starting point, we need to realize that the Bible wasn’t written for us. At least not primarily. Paul was not thinking of you when he wrote (or dictated) his letter to the Romans. We abuse scripture itself if we refuse to let Paul write to his friends at Rome, and recognize this as a conversation that we’ve been allowed in on. And if we start there, we had better understand what his friends would have understood from his writing before we start proof-texting individual verses out of context. That means hard work and study. Continue reading “creeds and criticism (Part III) :: the Bible :: or why reading scripture apart from theology is like eating without food”

creeds and criticism :: history lessons (part II)

It is the task of history, once the other world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world.

Here, Karl Marx raises his disdain for any story that focuses its attention on an “other world” to ground the meaning of the life we experience. The truth of this world, as Marx sees it, is made of the power relationships expressed through money and control. The truth of this world is the subjugation of the working classes by means of ideology, coercion, and religion – that great opiate by which the masses are kept from demanding all that they deserve in this life.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of man is a demand for their real happiness…. Religion is only the illusory sun about which man revolves so long as he does not revolve around himself.

Properly then, according to Marx, history’s task is to write the real story of what goes on in the world, without reference to “higher” realities or other worlds. The task of history is to set down the meaning of the only world we know in concrete political and economic terms, cutting through all the bourgeois cultural accretions that obscure the real power relationships. Continue reading “creeds and criticism :: history lessons (part II)”

creeds and criticism :: hellfire and history (part I)

“I reject any creed that would send the Dalai Lama to hell.” I watched an author of fiction (one I’m quite fond of) offer this phrase at a book release last year. As he spoke, the vast majority of receptive ears were attached to heads nodding in agreement and righteous indignation.

Inner monologue: “Who could possibly be so stupid as to send the Dalai Lama to hell? What group of people could possibly hold a set of beliefs that would send such a man to such a place? They must be ridiculous! The Apostles creed is bunk! We’d be better off if it were never repeated again!”

So… wouldn’t we as a species make it a few steps further along our evolutionary journey if we dropped the self-righteous possession of truth in pretty little formulas? Weren’t the creeds the attempt of the powerful majority in the early church to subjugate all dissenting opinions? Who in their right mind would want to follow such a legacy? Continue reading “creeds and criticism :: hellfire and history (part I)”