- The Passions of Christ in High-Medieval Thought: An Essay on Christological Development
As the eminent linguist Bernard Cerquiglini reminds us, nowadays scholars are "fond of whatever is unstable, multiple and precarious." The observation encapsulates Kevin Madigan's provocative monograph. By examining the interpretive strategies of high-medieval thinkers, who sometimes represented their patristic legacy in ways hardly consistent with an earlier Christology, Madigan underscores the "fissures" and "discontinuities" that render "any talk of dogmatic continuity deeply problematic" (p. 7). [End Page 255]
As part of its background, the study considers the way Nicene defenders of orthodoxy treated biblical texts that especially appealed to "heretics," particularly Arians, who combed Scripture for evidence of Christ's subordinate position in relation to God the Father. The book itself is thematically arranged according to key scriptural passages, with the bulk of the chapters (3 to 7) treating the commentary tradition on the following biblical questions: "Did Christ 'progress in wisdom'?" "Was Christ ignorant of the day of judgment?" "Did Christ suffer pain in the passion?" "Did Christ experience fear or sorrow in Gethsemane?" "A praying God?"
Given this arrangement, the work's most obvious value is what it offers in terms of method. By focusing on the reception of salient pericopes, Madigan furnishes an approach for registering the tradition's fragility. These passages stirred theological controversy precisely because such verses seemed to heighten Jesus's humanity —his ignorance, susceptibility to suffering ("passibility"), powerlessness, and recalcitrance. They are hard places in the narratives on Christ's life, the very episodes Athanasius himself identified as heretical favourites. Diachronically tracing the interpretation of such passages proves to be a fruitful undertaking.
In their commentaries on scenes poignantly depicting an all-too-human Christ, such prominent fourth-century thinkers as Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose, and Augustine furnished the orthodox position with ample arguments, but these arguments are embedded in the highly specific Christological polemics of their era. The views of patristic authors, the auctoritates whose works serve as the definitive guide on Christian teachings throughout the Western Middle Ages, underwent intense scrutiny by later exegetes eager to claim their adherence to the tradition but at the same time facing very different theological and intellectual needs than those of Late Antiquity. In an attempt to bring together and compare these various interpretive components, each of the main chapters treats the patristic positions on the key questions (listed above) before moving to the reception of that tradition by thinkers of the High Middle Ages. Thus the way Madigan arranges the various textual layers provides a solid foundation for doing what we now call "historical theology": first comes the biblical passage, then the interpretive dossier, with the late-antique positions laid out and juxtaposed to the medieval ones. It is this encounter between the patristic and high-medieval commentators that the book illuminates.
What emerges most prominently from the encounter is the medieval resistance to patristic Christological teachings, which at the same time the medieval authors are reluctant to dismiss, precisely because such teachings are thought to have authoritative status in the tradition. Madigan's succinct comments on Bonaventure serve as a useful example, for this Franciscan "declared that several of Hilary's Christological positions appeared to be 'false, doubtful and erroneous'" (p 52). What to do when the writings of a fourth-century thinker combating a specific heresy could not be easily accommodated to the theological situation of the thirteenth century? Should Bonaventure reject Hilary's Christology? Could he ignore it? "No: A rescue and retrieval operation had to be undertaken. Hilary's erroneous opinions had to be revised, modernized, rectified — [End Page 256] transformed" (p. 53). Even more intriguing is the treatment of Ambrose by Thomas Aquinas, who takes up the question of whether Christ progressed in knowledge. It is a rivetting section to read (pp. 23–38), revealing not only Thomas's shifting position but also the way the intellectual climate of his era led him to take a stand that departed from his...