the demise of a doctrine? :: Weinandy and Tilley

by Eric Daryl Meyer

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.”