Robert BARRON. The Priority of Christ. Toward a Postliberal Catholicism. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007. pp. 352, $29.99 pp. ISBN 978-1-58743-198-2.
Reviewed by Daniel P. SHERIDAN, Saint Joseph’s College of Maine, 278 Whites Bridge Road, STANDISH, ME 04084

The title of this book states its primary thesis: the epistemological priority of Christ. Robert Barron seizes the opportunity that postliberal thinking offers to Christian theology and a distinctly Christian metaphysics. Nothing can take priority over Christ. A radically christocentric theology is the result. A Catholic theology derived from Aquinas, Newman, Lonergan, Lindbeck, and Balthasar and occasioned by the exhaustion of the liberal theological project. “Postliberal” has several related meanings. Negatively it refers to the fatigue of liberal theology which attempted to ground theology in the quagmire of religious experience. Postitively it recaptures the insight of the classical Christian dogmatic tradition. “Postliberal” is related to a “postmodernism” which realizes that the foundationalisms of Descartes and Locke do not actually provide a foundation commensurate with the structure of faith to be built on it. The “postliberal” liberal moment is a Catholic moment which allows the recapture of the metaphysics of creation without the hermeneutical suspicions of modern philosophy. The “postliberal” no longer fears the stigma of appearing illiberal.

Barron’s book has five parts. Part 1 treats the priority of Christ developing a Christology “that takes seriously the dense particularity and spiritual complexity of the picture of Jesus as it emerges in the New Testament narratives.

In Part 2 Barron uses this Christology to explore nine sacred scenes from the Gospels, organized under the headings of Jesus as Gatherer, as Warrior, and as Lord.

Part 3 develops a christocentric epistemology. Christian faith cannot be simply contrasted with the knowledge assumed by reason. Faith in Christ is not itself naked, but is coinherent with a knowledge that is privileged because it is prior and cannot be reduced to, or subsumed under, any other knowledge. Here Balthasar’s reflections on the coinherent inclusion of pistis and gnosis come into play. Faith in Christ includes knowledge of God and Christ capacious enough to order all the rest of knowledge from any other source.

In Part 4 Barron treats the doctrine of God. He places “special focus on the issue of primary causality and secondary causality in relation to both nature and the will, arguing for a non-interruptive coinherence of God and the world. Barron recalls Herbert McCabe’s comparison of the relationship of creator and creation with the relationship of singer and song. There really is a creator and a singer; the creation and the song are really different from the creator and the singer; and without the creator and the singer there would really be no creation nor song. This is a metaphysics of the free gift of God’s presence to the world which leads to participation in God’s life of love. God’s transcendence is not in competition to the reality and destiny of the creature.

In the final Part, Barron shows the implications for a dense ethics of the priority of Christ. This ethics moves beyond both Kantian deontologism and rationalistic understandings of natural law. To illustrates this Christ-centered ethic, Barron pains icons of four woman saints who “participated in the new life made available in Christ”: Edith Stein=Elevated Courage, Thérèse of Lisieux=Elevated Prudence, Katharine Drexel=I, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta=Elevated Temperance.

Barron’s project is impressively traditional and thus postmodern, aggressively independent and thus postliberal, and philosophically undistracted and thus properly theological. This book brings together many of the motifs of a re-emergent, unembarrassed, and confident Catholic theology.

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