The Two "I"s of Christ: Revisiting the Christological Controversy Books Discussed: The Christology ofTheodoret of Cyrus: Antiochene Christology from the Council ofEphesus (431) to the Council of Chalcedon (451) by Paul B. Clayton, Jr. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought by Paul L. Gavrilyuk. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy by John McGuckin. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2004.
The christological controversy of the fifth century is notoriously difficult to understand, and even more so to appreciate. However dizzying the debates regarding the nature(s) and person(s) of the Incarnate Christ, what eludes many students and scholars alike is why anyone then (or indeed now) should have cared so deeply about the precise solution as to effect the dissolution of the Eastern Christian oikoumene in order to see it prevail. To teach this controversy well - as I try to do - requires exploring with my students what seems to be most at stake in it. This is harder than it might seem: the different contestants cannot agree on exactly what is or should be at stake; they make a virtue of speaking past one another; and the terminology is as shifting sands beneath the reader's feet. As a result, some students throw up their hands in frustration, and dismiss the whole mess as clear proof that these Christian elites heartily deserve the pejorative title "Byzantine." So too some scholars in despair search for an explanation on another plane of causality: they reduce the theology of the controversy to social and political forces, such as the rivalries between ancient sees (especially Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Rome), currying capricious imperial favor, the persistent threat of Persia and the security of the military limes, or the need for Egyptian bread in order to feed the Eastern Empire.1 All of these factors, and many more, are certainly relevant to the controversy of the fifth century, but none can sufficiently explain why these theologians cared so deeply about the question of the Incarnate Christ that they would devote themselves as they did to its adequate resolution, and suffer exile and persecution on its behalf.
All the books under consideration here try mightily to understand and appreciate what is at stake theologically in the christological controversy - and so are for that fact alone to be commended. I will start with the most recent, Paul B. Clayton, Jr. s The Christology ofTheodoret of Cyrus, but turn to the other two as the discussion warrants. My aim in reviewing these three books together is not principally to give a review of recent scholarship, but rather to use them as a means to discern what I regard as the crucial issue animating the christological controversy, and advocate why we today should still care about these seemingly arcane debates. At the root of this controversy, I contend, is a debate about the subjectivity of Christ, and by extension, our own subjectivity. The Antiochenes offer a startling answer to the question, "Who do you say that I am?" - an answer that deserves to be heard and heeded again.
If you are not familiar with the christological debates, Clayton's learned treatise is not the best place to begin. It condenses a lifetime of study, and offers a nuanced picture of the controversy that is hard to appreciate without a broader, and perhaps simpler, backdrop in place. A somewhat easier entrée is John McGuckins Saint Cyrìl of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy (reissued in paperback in 2004 by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press), although this too can be demanding for the uninitiated.2 Perhaps the best introduction is still chapter 6 of Frances Youngs From Nicaea to Chahedon, newly updated and expanded …