It is simultaneously a benefit and a challenge of living in a postmodern culture to recognize several perspectives from which to view any given reality. This is especially true when dealing with complex realities, such as the development of christology in the first five centuries of the Christian era. Sometimes the perspectives complement each other and sometimes they can be dialectically related. I suggest that Mark Edwards’ study of the development of what came to be the orthodox Christian doctrine of Christ Jesus reads well as a complement to other studies of this era such as Bernard Lonergan’s The Way to Nicea, which examines the genetic-dialectical development of early christological-trinitarian theology from an epistemological perspective, and Richard Rubinstein’s When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity in the Last Days of the Roman Empire, which examines the struggle from a different perspective, namely, that of Rubinstein’s discipline, conflict resolution and public affairs.
The perspective of Mark Edwards is “the power of assimilation” (2). This, according to Edwards, is a note of catholicity that must be acknowledged if one is going to interpret the data accurately. Edwards first develops his thesis by relating various Gnostic authors and positions to Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen (to whose thought a chapter is dedicated) in terms not just of the frequent dialectic of heresy and orthodoxy, but of assimilation by a process of re-conception and re-arrangement. Even more strongly Edwards claims, for example, that “the work of Irenaeus serves as a matrix for later catholic systems only when it is fused with elements that he considered foreign or repugnant to the teaching handed down by the apostles” (56). Prominent among these elements are Gnostic teachings that admit of various meanings in second and third century authors (12-13).
When going on to deal with the tensions surrounding the determination of doctrine at the Council of Nicea, Edwards finds the same principle at work, and then criticizes as simplistic (and false) a too rigid separation of the key players into camps, although in this chapter I find Edwards to be generally more favorable to mainstream scholarly interpretations of the key players in the formation of the Nicene doctrine.
As I read his book, Edwards’ thesis is spelled out most clearly in the longest chapter, that entitled “Apollinarius and the Chalcedonian Definition.” Here Edwards makes the case that the long-held division of the parties to the debate into Antiochenes and Alexandrians, and the distinction between logos-flesh and logos-man christologies, is artificial, and for several reasons (140-145).
In sum, Edwards argues that scholarly writing on this centrally important period of Christian history needs to become more nuanced if it is to be faithful to the various authors who, and positions which, played a role in what today is orthodox christological doctrine. Thus, he writes, “[i]t has been a consistent aim of the present study to dismantle the antithetical constructions which obscure the diversity of Christian thought in our modern patrologies” (142). For, after all, the early church’s “thought grew ripe by the absorption of ideas which it had once found indigestible” (175).
Perhaps no reader will agree with all the positions of “assimilation” that Edwards proposes, but his perspective is beneficially added to the conversation lest anyone conclude falsely that the determination of orthodoxy is a simple matter of developing some Cartesian clear and distinct idea. Further, Edwards’ argument confirms the statement of Alois Grillmeier at the end of Christ in Christian Tradition: From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon (451), that the Church always keeps working toward “an ever more profound intellectus fidei” (493). Two final notes: (a) this is a book for those well-read in patristic Christology; (b) this volume has an uncommon number of typographical errors, which pose an annoying distraction to the reader.