Review: Timothy Pawl, In Defense of Conciliar Christology

Timothy Pawl, In Defense of Conciliar Christology: A Philosophical Essay, Oxford University Press, 2016, 251pp., $110.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780198765929.

I like action movies, despite overly familiar tropes like the hero having to disarm a bomb with only seconds to spare. Something similar is occurring with Timothy Pawl’s book, In Defense of Conciliar Christology. In a panic-inducing short amount of time (less than 300 pages, all told), the hero (Pawl) seeks to disarm a bomb (the allegation that Conciliar Christology—the doctrine of the Incarnation as portrayed by the seven Ecumenical Councils—results in contradiction).

Like the action hero, Pawl expertly analyzes the situation. He proposes that there are several different means to disarming the allegation of contradiction. But some methods, like the missteps in an action movie, does nothing at all (the explosion still goes off), or it may make things worse (the countdown accelerates), or it might make things a bit better, but still results in contradiction (the explosion is smaller, but nevertheless still occurs). Pawl is looking for the right wire to cut to render the entire explosive inert: There is no logical contradiction in Conciliar Christology.

If my analogy to an action film makes Pawl’s book sound like a quick page-turner, let me disillusion my reader right now. It is not. But that is not because Pawl’s book is boring. Rather, it is deeply technical, thought-provoking, and a treasure trove of references (I found myself stopping on almost every page to think very carefully of the inferences he was drawing and to look up—and often sneak away to check out from the library—the sources with which he interacts). Do not expect this to be a quick weekend read if you are anything like me.

I won’t burden the reader with reciting all of the chapters of Pawl’s book. The best way to understand the tight argumentative narrative in which Pawl is engaging is to negate one of the individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for a contradiction. A logical contradiction is committed if one affirms of one and the same object an attribute and the attribute’s compliment at the same time and in the same sense. So claiming that Kevin Wong is both five-and-a-half feet tall and not-five-and-a-half feet tall at the same time in the same way is a contradiction. Pawl explores the various options:

  • Maybe we’re not talking about one and the same object
  • Maybe we’re not talking about an attribute and its compliment (i.e. its opposite)
  • Maybe we’re not talking about the object’s two kinds of predications at the same time
  • Maybe we’re not talking about the object’s predications in the same sense.

Pawl’s solution to the problem is unique in that he embraces the last option, but in an unexpected way: What would otherwise be contradictory predicates is not for an object of two natures. I won’t spell out for the reader just quite how he does so, since any summary of mine will not do his solution justice (though I highly recommend pgs. 155–59 for a summary in Pawl’s own words).

A colleague here at Wheaton, inquiring about the nature of Pawl’s book, asked if Pawl did anything new. Sic et non, as even he would admit (e.g. 206). This is nothing new in the sense that the Church has always struggled to make sense of the Incarnation, to evade formal contradiction with sophisticated and technical metaphysical theorization. But, it is something new in that it has been updated to meet today’s standard on formal logic and to engage the broad range of alternate solutions.

The virtues of this book are many. In the first instance, I wish to commend Pawl for making a serious attempt at delving into the complex conceptual history of theology. I will leave for historians of theology whether Pawl is successful at his attempt or not. I highlight his attempt as a virtue, however, since a perennial complaint against analytic theology is that it does not pay enough attention to tradition. Happily, I have yet another counterexample against that complaint.

Second, this is an exemplar of analytic theology at its best. Pawl is incredibly careful and nuanced, sure to leave no stone unturned for drawing inferences and laying out in painstaking steps why certain options are unavailable or unsavory for those holding to all seven Ecumenical Creeds.

Third, I am thoroughly impressed by the novel appropriation and modification of Aristotle’s square of oppositions in service of the Christological logic (p. 166). This was indeed quite clever and thought-provoking. I am not sure I am entirely persuaded by this move, but neither am I entirely un-persuaded either (perhaps, to borrow Pawl’s logical technique, the properties of being persuaded and being un-persuaded are subcontraries). This is indeed something worth revisiting and re-thinking.

Impressive as Pawl’s book has been, I have some hesitations for a wider, non-analytic audience. His intended audience is both theologians and philosophers (p. 2). But I wonder how well theologians, particularly of the non-analytic stripe, could follow. The tight logical inference is of great benefit for those who can track it. His explanation on pg. 84 seems to be something a non-specialist could follow quite easily. However, the same cannot be said for pgs. 79 or 82–84. I could follow those because I have had some training in formalized logic (admittedly, I am not as proficient as I ought to be). But how will theologians track the argument? Perhaps that is more of a commentary on contemporary theologians than it is on Pawl. Certainly, the quality of interdisciplinary dialogue and cross-training is often not what we want it to be given the academic push towards (hyper)specialization.

Further, despite Pawl’s overall careful style, there were moments of ambiguity that muddied his account. I had just praised him for the innovative use of the square of opposition. But I am not entirely convinced simply because I don’t think Pawl spent enough time making the distinction between passibility, impassibility, non-passibility, and non-impassibility such that the square of opposition works for the Incarnation. I want it to work. I think it would be a valuable contribution. But as it stands, I’m not sure I understand the distinction well enough to be convinced. That is, no doubt, in part due to my inadequacies. But if we use my skills and experience as a heuristic for other theologians, again I wonder how successful Pawl actually communicates to contemporary non-analytic theologians.

Another ambiguity is the lack of characterizing the “sustaining” relation between the Logos and his human nature. I think what Pawl was getting at, but I am not entirely certain, is something akin to the substance-accident relation. That is, while a substance is qualified by the accident (i.e. some characteristic is conferred to the entity; blueness makes my coffee mug blue), the accident is made to exist by the substance (i.e. the coffee mug will continue to exist even if its particular instance of blue is destroyed, but the converse is not true—should the coffee mug suddenly cease to exist, its particular instance of blue would go with it). Something akin is occurring with the Incarnation. The Logos is qualified by his human nature; he is made human in virtue of his human nature; his human nature confers humanity to the Logos. And there is reciprocity: The Logos confers existence to the human nature. While the Logos presumably confers existence to all creaturely things whatsoever, he is not qualified by any of them. Nothing about me returns to the Logos any sort of qualification. “Aptly said” (and its cognates) are pervasive throughout Pawl’s text, but little is said about what it actually means, and it would have served the reader had Pawl taken some time defining or characterizing what he means.

So, did Pawl disarm the bomb? I think he has. Besides those flaws, Pawl’s work is outstanding. He is to be applauded for a marvelous contribution and I hope he will continue to develop these ideas further. And while not all of us could be an action hero in a like way (some of us might be the plucky sidekick comic relief), we can nonetheless appreciate the Herculean accomplishment. This is a book well worth reading and re-reading for years to come.

My thanks to Oxford University Press for the review copy.








About Kevin W. Wong

Ph.D. student in systematic theology at Wheaton College, studying with Marc Cortez.
This entry was posted in Analytic Theology, Book reviews, Philosophical Theology, Systematic Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

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