Nick's Reviews > The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism

The Priority of Christ by Robert E. Barron
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's review
Jan 18, 09

bookshelves: intellectual-history, theology-straight-up, biblical-studies
Recommended for: those looking for a narrative of the dialogue between Christianity and modernity
Read in May, 2008

We went chapter by chapter through this book last year, guided by the author. Aside from the unique experience of discussing a work of theology in front of the one who composed it, I found this to be a worthwhile read. Father Barron's thesis is essentially this: we've been so busy trying to fit Christ into our preconceived categories that we've lost sight of the original figure. It is this diversion that has caused much of the crises in contemporary theology, from the classroom to the pulpit, and Father Barron argues convincingly for the solution: let Christ speak for himself. When we do so, allowing him to reveal himself through the Scriptures as they ask to be interpreted, we recover the inherently attractiveness of the life of faith and receive a new incentive to give ourselves over completely to the life of discipleship.

Father Barron points to certain medieval theological controversies as the germ of our current theological troubles. Specifically, certain nominalist thinkers (most notably William of Ockham) proposed a kind of theological system in which the divine existence was not "other" than our own, but could be placed within the category of "being" alongside created beings, without qualifying this claim. Thus, God was seen to be one being among many--albeit the most powerful and glorious being--and it was this strain of thought that ultimately lead to the view that God's freedom is incompatible with our own. That is, if God is all-powerful in the same way that I (or an angel) would be if given unlimited power, then those with less power are subject to him in such a way that limited, created freedom is compromised. Human freedom can only be achieved over and against divine freedom. As Enlightenment thinkers appropriated this understanding of the divine-human relationship, it became clear that one or the other had to go, and the more strident voices of secular humanism won out (in some sense, rightfully so). Obviously, this had its effects on certain thinkers of the Reformation as well--most notably John Calvin and his doctrine of double predestination (God wills some souls to go to heaven and others to go to hell, from all eternity, without any regard for their works on earth).

Yet, Father Barron reminds us that Deism/atheism held in the name of human freedom and radical interpretations of "justification by faith" held in the name of divine sovereignty are not the only alternatives. In accordance with the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas, Barron cries "a plague on both your houses" and puts forward a startling solution (at least to those of us conditioned by the terms of the debate): God Incarnate. "If the incarnation is an accomplished fact, then the presence of the ture God is not invasive or interruptive but noncompetitive. In light of this coming together, we must say that there is a rapport of coinherence between divinity and humanity, each abiding in the other in such a way that humanity is elevated by the proximity of the divine." The first portions of the book explore the meaning and origin of this thesis in such a way as to provide an introduction to the major sources of the theological and philosophical tradition even as they are accepted or rejected as valid.

The reference in the title to "postliberal Catholicism" is quite accurate. Father Barron sees the pattern of the liberal project (defined as the integration of Enlightenment thought into Christian theology in an effort to sidestep the problems presented by the historical particularity of Christ) as essentially corrupting the Church's self-understanding and her mission. He is unabashedly in favor of recovering the rich theological tradition that takes as its starting point the Incarnate Lord and his life, death, and resurrection, though without a sentimental naivete that strives to return to an era that has passed. What results is a compelling portrait of postliberal theology that allows itself to be positioned by the Scriptures, and not the other way around.
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message 1: by Sara (new) - added it

Sara Excellent review, thank you. I must read this.


Nick Hey, thanks! I think I need to brush up on this myself--your comment popped up just in time for some lecture preparation I need to do. Glad the review was helpful.


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