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The Last Christology of the West: Adoptionism in Spain and Gaul, 783-820.

Dr Cavadini has taken up an interesting theme: a study of the teachings of Elipandus, archbishop of Toledo from 753 to c. 805, and his defender Felix of Urgel; and of their opponents, Beatus of Liebana and the much more celebrated Alcuin. Condemnation of the teachings was secured at three Carolingian councils in the 790s (Ratisbon, Frankfurt, and Aachen) and from popes Hadrian I and Leo III. What was condemned was the teaching that `Jesus at his baptism was adopted into his position as Son of God' (p. 1). But what did the `Spanish adopionists' actually teach and why? Predictably perhaps, it emerges that the controversy was more subtle and the theology more profound than the condemnation suggests. Dr Cavadini establishes convincingly that the Spaniards drew their arguments entirely from Latin sources, though Alcuin treated the heresy as a version of `Nestorianism', and in so doing vastly educated his readers in historical theology. The Spanish Christology had nothing to do with the council of Chalcedon or the characteristically Greek debates; rather (and here we verge upon the moot) it is `the last christology developed wholly on Western turf and governed by concerns indigenous to Western texts' (p. 105).

The book starts from the prelude to the controversy in Elipandus' refutation of the errors of a certain Migetius who had (allegedly) said that there are three bodily personae in the Godhead viz. David, Jesus, and Paul: David being a (or the) persona of the Father, Jesus of the Son, and Paul of the Holy Ghost. These are mantic utterances and I do not find them much clarified by Dr Cavadini's discussion. I would suppose that Migetius meant something to the effect that Jesus is the spokesman for the eternal Son in the same way that David is the spokesman of the Father's words (cf. Ps. 47: 10) and St Paul the Spirit's (cf. 1 Cor. 5: 5 ?). However that may be, Elipandus in reply declared that there was but one persona of Christ, viz. the Word of God who emptied himself of his Godhead and was made man, experiencing human existence in all its shame. `Through this Son at once both of God and of man, adoptive in manhood and in no way adoptive in Godhead, [God] redeemed the world.' The adoptive sonship is, according to this viewpoint, a feature of the kenosis of the single subject: Christ as fully man shares all the conditions of humanity and is (as one might put it) the exemplary Christian. Beatus' reply to Elipandus starts from the same presumptions (`they have a common christology, a variant of the one person, two nature homo assumptus christology long familiar in the West' (p. 51)) but rejects the notion that the homo assumptus could be adoptivus. For, as Dr Cavadini puts it, `if the Word has become an adoptive son' as Christians are adoptive sons, `all he can mediate to us is ourselves' (p. 67). Dr Cavadini brings out sympathetically the arguments used by Beatus to support the conclusion, and in particular the link established by Beatus between a doctrine of the Church as Christ's persona and Christology in the narrower sense. As for Alcuin's lengthy and learned arguments against Elipandus and Felix, they were, according to Dr Cavadini, in large part not ad rem. Alcuin did not deliberately distort, but his cultural milieu was different and he did not share the Spaniards' approach to the question. For Alcuin, Elipandus' position that the same Son of God is, in his human nature, an adoptive son by grace is simply an absurdity, which if it means anything at all means `Nestorianism' viz. two sons, one by nature and one by grace. The success of his critique, though, was to persuade people that the Spanish Christology was a naive provincial variant of a condemned heresy. In fact there was much more substance to a Christology which had a `potentially significant contribution' to make (p. 105).

This is the nub of an intelligent and resourceful book. The main conclusions about the arguments here unravelled are sound. The book limits itself to theological issues, so that the Church-political background, clearly important, is only lightly sketched. On the broader question of whether this is the last Christology of the West I am left wondering, unsure whether it is Elipandus' (and Felix's), or Beatus', or their common Christology which is being referred to and commended. As for the point about `Eastern' and `Western' I do not think the distinction can be pressed; and even if it could be maintained in any important sense, I think I would need a strong argument that doctrines or Christologies grow up in different regions and are to be conserved and valued for that reason.
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Author:Wickham, L.R.
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1994
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