I’ve just finished Aaron Riches’ book Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016). All Christians should revisit the Church councils now and again to be reminded of how we’ve been formed over time. As Riches takes pains to point out, the careful work of a robust Christology remains relevant to the contemporary Church, both as a challenge and as a resource.
The book itself is a great review of the unfolding Christology of the councils. Riches makes some interesting historical arguments: that Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376–444) is more important and central than he’s usually given credit for being; that that centrality emerges especially from two councils after his death, Constantinople II (553) and III (680-681), which the West has misgivings about; this situation (the West’s relative neglect of the work done at these councils) contributes to a tendency towards Nestorianism in the West, an overemphasis on separation of the two natures of Christ; continuing in this historical vein, Riches credits Aquinas with recovering a better balance in the Latin church, in part because he demonstrably takes into account the later Chalcedonian conciliar documents (correcting an imbalance detectable in Peter Lombard, for instance). Finally, Riches has a point to make about the present in connection with this historical work: bracingly, he goes so far as to say that much contemporary Christianity is infected with Nestorianism.
So, besides the extensive historical work, the book develops a philosophical/theological explication of what’s at stake as well as a detailed reading of Thomas in this regard. Some highlights are his description of the orthodox position on the nature/grace relation in terms that resonate with the emphasis on there being no natura pura and the way that human being is only properly itself when completed by grace. Thus he says: “A true Christian ‘anthropological maximalism’… must rest in the expansive horizon of Jesus Christ as the content of true humanity. This, in contrast with Nestorius, implies the impossibility of a tidy parallelism of humanity and divinity: humanity must now be directly and symbiotically related to divinity in such a way that only the ground of union with God realizes what the human truly is and what he can do” (49).
Another big theme, deriving from the Theotokos controversy, is the importance of Mary in a proper Christology. Here’s how he puts it in the intro: “…the Jesus-Mary relation is so integral to the incarnational fact, and therefore to a coherent Christocentrism, that a Christology without a full Marian account fails to be incarnational in any meaningful way and is reduced to mere abstraction” (17). I actually sent him an email when I read that because it echoes so closely what I discovered about Chaucer’s attitude in The Canterbury Tales: “Looking forward, one discovers that Mary accompanies the storytelling fellowship. She is an image both of its unity and its revelatory power. One might be tempted to put all the emphasis on Christ in reading the allusions to the gospel narrative in The Miller’s Prologue as supplying the answer to the problem of tyranny (I was). Chaucer, however, pairs the Incarnation with its ongoing manifestation in the Church, of which Mary is an important symbol and of which she is the mother. One might describe his poetic in The Canterbury Tales as Marian-incarnational.”
Ecce Homo culminates in this Jesus-Mary relation, and it’s quite moving. Two things stand out. One is the following distinction: “Mary is neither deiform by nature nor merely by adoptive participation; she is the Theotokos who encompasses God in her womb…and therefore she is the prototype of adoptive filiation. This means that, on account of her unique relation to the Son at his incarnate source, she is the first and exemplary member of his mystical body and therefore the personal representative of mystical union” (228). The really moving bit is in his discussion of how Christ feels the “weight of the cross” and how “Mary too must plunge into the sorrow and suffering of the Paschal Mystery” (241). She “nourishes the child in order to give him to the Cross” (241), but there’s another side too, “a bond brought to perfection in their union-in-separation at Calvary” (241). Riches uses a seventeenth-century commentator, Louis Chardon, to track the way Jesus distances himself from Mary and sets her “on her via crucis” (243). Riches also has this great quote from Ratzinger: “If Mary no longer finds a place in many theologies…the reason is obvious: they have reduced faith to an abstraction. And an abstraction does not need a Mother” (209). Provocative…if not polemical!
One other feature of the book deserves mention. Not all discussions of the nature/grace question include the work of the Holy Spirit (though an introductory book on participation like A.M. Allchin’s Participation in God is very clear about the connection between participation, sanctification, and the role of the Spirit.) Riches ends the second section of his study, “The Synergy of Christ,” with a meditation on “pneumatological correspondence.” He returns to the role of the Spirit at the end of the book too, in an extended “coda” on “The Communion of Jesus and Mary”:
The Mother is in communio with her Son at the foot of the Cross: she suffers and sorrows with him; she is united with him in perfect co-being with the Son in the Spirit and her perfect docility to that same Spirit by which her perfect act of sequela Christi proceeds. (246)
Ecce Homo is an important study by a rising theological scholar. Aaron Riches is patiently and carefully articulating a “Christological humanism” (249). He considers his meditation “on the divine unity of Christ” to be a “prolegomenon” (249) to that theological vision, of which contemporary society needs somehow to catch a glimpse.
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