- The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death
Fr. John Behr has written a number of erudite, accessible, and important works, beginning with Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement (2000), arguably one of the most significant works on Irenaeus to appear since G. Wingren's Man and the Incarnation. Behr's Way to Nicaea (2001) and subsequent The Nicene Faith (2004) provide a fresh examination of the theological issues involved in the development of normative Christology and emerging Trinitarian theology and are revisionist in the best sense of the term. They not only demonstrate sensitivity to the historical and social factors at play in these debates but [End Page 579] emphasize just as importantly the properly theological issues that were at stake. Behr's works reflect a historically informed awareness of just how theology was done, so to speak, in the first centuries, a perspective sometimes lacking in other studies of the same period.
The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death is the author's latest contribution. In a sense it is a book that could only have been written in light of his earlier works; in fact, it distills and rarefies his earlier research. His purpose is to offer "an account of Christian theology that is systematic, yet remains true to the way in which theology was first learned" (15); perhaps most importantly this goal will entail a renewed way of reading the Scriptures. In essence, Behr proposes a "premodern faith for a postmodern era" (19 and 173 ff.). He laments the modern "fragmentation" of the theological disciplines that reduces the truth of the gospel to the "criteria of historicity," which often means nothing more than degrees of factual plausibility. Behr wants to offer a fresh re-appropriation of the way theology was first pursued and the way in which the Scriptures were encountered and understood by the first Christians as the means of recovering such premodern faith.
In establishing the foundation for what follows, the author begins by observing that it is only through the passion, cross, and exaltation that the disciples understood Christ fully, and this understanding was facilitated through their reading of the Scriptures (by which is meant, of course, what we call the Old Testament). Their subsequent proclamation of God's work in Christ was then framed by their reading of the law, the psalms, and the prophets. Because Christ is grasped by faith, empirical, merely historical knowledge of the person of Jesus is itself insufficient for a full understanding. That is, the way the disciples came to know Jesus was not primarily through their interaction with him during his earthly ministry but by their experience of the Risen Lord as understood "according to the Scriptures" and as revealed in "the breaking of the bread."
Central to Behr's argument is the way the Scriptures were read and understood, and among the array of texts competing for recognition he emphasizes the four-fold gospel, which, unlike such sources as the Gospel of Truth or the Gospel of Thomas, are marked by a serious engagement with the Old Testament texts. (This is what is meant by proclaiming Christ "according to the Scriptures"). Further, drawing upon his long-standing engagement with Irenaeus, Behr clarifies the original meaning of "canon" (a term applied only later to the list of books considered authoritative and inspired) and elucidates some of the faulty presuppositions in modern considerations of the relation between Scripture and tradition. In the end, Behr argues that "meaning" cannot be discovered merely by removing layers of textual composition and the interpretive veneer accrued over time (and then, having discovered "what really happened," applying it by contorted analogy to oneself), but by an encounter with the person of whom the text speaks precisely in the idiom the text employs to speak of him (49–50).
In effect, Behr's book is an essay on theological method, one that will no doubt elicit criticism from some quarters. However, this inexpensive and very readable volume, which is beautifully illustrated with iconography employed to support the...