Religion Booknotes

Infinity Dwindled to Infancy
A Catholic and Evangelical Christology
Edward T. Oakes, SJ
Eerdmans, $44, 459 pp.

What is “Catholic and Evangelical Christology”? Roughly, it is the belief that Jesus Christ is one person with two natures, which was affirmed as dogma by the Council of Chalcedon. Edward T. Oakes, SJ, understands that there is a profound paradox in Chalcedonian Christology. That paradox involves a tension between time and infinity, creation and creator, humanity and divinity. To lose this tension—what the tradition calls the “coincidence of opposites”—is to fall into one of two general sets of theological error. To hold the tension in place, to affirm the orthodox faith of Christianity, means not forcing a resolution of the paradox, which can also be called a mystery. It is one of the many merits of Infinity Dwindled to Infancy that Oakes keeps this tension in focus as he takes the reader through the history of Christology, from its biblical origins to contemporary debates.

The book’s origins are in a graduate seminar Oakes has taught at Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago, and, like any good seminar course on Christology, Infinity Dwindled to Infancy aims at comprehensiveness. Oakes would agree with the observation of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, that Catholic theologians should neither avoid philosophical concepts and methods in discussing Christology nor try to reduce Christology to philosophy. Both approaches lead to a dead end. The model Oakes holds up as exemplary is the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar (no surprise there: Oakes is a Balthasar scholar). Balthasar refused the distinction between a “low” Christology, which would emphasize Christ’s human nature, and a “high” one, which would emphasize Christ’s divinity at the expense of his humanity. Oakes has reservations about the Christology of liberation theology—reservations he expresses with care and fairness. He is also fair and sympathetic in his criticism of theologians, like the late Jacques Dupuis, who have wrestled with the vexatious question of how to understand Christ as the only redeemer in the face of other major religions.

Though Oakes explores the Christology of Eastern Christianity no further than Maximus the Confessor (a pity, but one cannot do everything in one book), he has some very interesting pages on the early modern period, including a wonderful excursus on Christologies of the heart, which examines the now-neglected devotion to the Sacred Heart and the affective Christology of the Pietists, who were a major influence on John Wesley. The book concludes with a brief survey of recent magisterial statements from the Vatican and some useful appendices on the first councils.

Oakes’s book would be of value to two kinds of reader: a relatively sophisticated lay person who would like a broad overview of what the Christian tradition has taught about who Christ was, and a student who wants a vademecum for a course on Christology—such a student would have the assurance that Oakes’s work has been field-tested in the classroom. This extraordinarily well-written book manages to compress a mountain of material into a compelling narrative. If only Oakes could now be persuaded to provide a companion collection of primary sources, to be read in tandem with this engaging survey.   


Font of Life
Ambrose, Augustine, and the Mystery of Baptism
Garry Wills
Oxford University Press, $21.95, 208 pp.

Garry Wills has been interested throughout his career in the life and thought of St. Augustine. In this latest book he turns his attention to Augustine’s mentor and sometime pastor, St. Ambrose of Milan. The book is divided into three large sections. Part one describes Milan in Ambrose’s time, with special emphasis on the Ambrosian churches (Will toured them all with his wife). It also examines the saint’s ministry and his struggles with imperial power, before explaining how Augustine ended up in Milan. Wills ends the first part of the book with a short study of Augustine’s own account (in the Confessions) of his initial encounter with Ambrose.

Part two, drawing on both published research and Ambrose’s own writings, outlines Augustine’s path to conversion. We get a wonderfully evocative description of the initiation rites: Augustine approaching the baptismal font, the post-baptismal ceremonies for new converts. Wills goes on to contrast the sacramental practice of Ambrose in Milan with Augustine’s more juridical approach as a bishop in North Africa. The small but significant differences are explained by the fact that Ambrose presided over a well-established church in an imperial city, while Augustine’s church in Hippo was provincial and, by the standards of many large parishes today, modest in size.

Readers interested in the history of the Christian tradition will learn much from this tidy study. It was from Ambrose that Augustine learned how to read the scriptures figuratively, and that method is the key to understanding both the sacramental practice of the time and the sermons that have come down to us from Augustine. Wills also writes perceptively about the architecture of the time, noting that the spaces created for the celebration of the church’s sacred mysteries—and especially its rites of initiation—have an effect on how those mysteries are understood by the faithful.

Not much in Font of Life is new or path-breaking, but Wills does manage to say a good deal in a relatively short book. One could wish he had given himself the space to say more. For instance, he might have mentioned Egeria’s contemporaneous descriptions of how the church in Jerusalem practiced the rites of initiation. He might also have discussed the post-baptismal homilies of Cyril of Jerusalem. But why cavil with a book already so rich in detail?


Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators
Translated and Edited by J. Patout Burns
Eerdmans, $46, 428 pp.

This is the latest volume in “The Church’s Bible,” a series edited by Robert Louis Wilken. The general idea of the series is simple but demanding: Append each verse of a biblical book with commentaries from the church’s first few centuries. In this volume, devoted to Romans, the first commentaries are roughly from the time of Origen of Alexandria; the last, from the end of the fifth century.

My practice has been to read each volume in this series over an extended period of time (in this case, Lent), getting a small but nourishing dose of commentary every day. The patristic commentators were mainly interested in how this Pauline epistle amplified the basic Christian message. They knew it was a difficult text to interpret well. Origen said that in Romans Paul was working at a “higher level” than in his other letters. John Chrysostom told his congregation that Paul could not be understood properly unless one “spent time” with him.

Following the standard format of this series, J. Patout Burns ends the volume with appendices that provide biographies of the commentators and original-source information for the quoted commentaries. Burns also gives us ample indices of subjects and scriptural sources. The care taken with all the volumes in this series is a credit to the learning and the industry of the editor/translators. The monumental project is a valuable resource not only for preachers and scholars but also for anyone who wants to practice lectio divina. Fortunately for Burns, his remit was not too monumental: he did not have to worry about the later commentaries of Luther and Calvin, to say nothing of Karl Barth’s book on Romans, which was once described as a hand grenade rolled out onto the playground of theologians.

Published in the 2012-09-14 issue: 

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

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