With the publication of Infinity Dwindled to Infancy, Edward Oakes has provided a comprehensive, historically-grounded guide to Christology. By way of clarification, Oakes’ monograph does not keep ecumenical issues at the forefront of the discussion, even though he clearly hopes that it will bear ecumenical fruit. As Oakes indicates in the introduction, he is using “evangelical” here in the more generic sense, as a reference to all Christian traditions and theological schools that are explicitly confessional (p. 14). In other words, Oakes does not make it his primary goal to adjudicate the disagreements that exist between Roman Catholics and (big-“E”) Evangelicals. Rather, he seeks to construct a Catholic Christology that is faithful to scripture and tradition, while remaining conversant with the most influential theologians from across the spectrum of Christian traditions. Thus, while Oakes draws upon his Roman Catholic convictions to criticize certain elements in the Christologies of Luther and Calvin, he is equally critical of the shortcomings that he finds in certain Catholic thinkers, such as Karl Rahner and Jon Sobrino (see pp. 350-362).
The title of Oakes’ book is inspired by lines from the poetry of the nineteenth-century Catholic convert and Jesuit, Gerald Manley Hopkins: “This air which by life’s law/My lung must draw and draw/Now, but to breathe its praise,—/Minds me in many ways/Of her who not only Gave God’s infinity,/Dwindled to infancy,/Welcome in womb and breast,/Birth, milk, and all the rest,/But mothers each new grace/That does now reach our race…” From Oakes’ perspective, these poetic words of Hopkins powerfully capture an essential facet of Christology—namely, that orthodox reflection on Christ always upholds the fundamental paradox of the Word made flesh. In Oakes’ estimation, theologians have gone astray whenever they have overemphasized either the humanity of Christ in detriment to his divinity or the divinity of Christ in detriment to his humanity. This insight serves as a guiding light for the course that Oakes charts.
Oakes begins his study with an analysis of the surface data regarding Jesus Christ—in specific, the biblical titles for Jesus—and then moves into an examination of the history of the data, engaging such questions as the sources used by the New Testament authors and also what we can know about the historical Jesus. With this foundation laid, Oakes turns his attention to the history of Christological reflection, beginning with the Patristic era and ending with recent magisterial teachings on Christology. Over the course of this survey, Oakes displays an impressive fluency with historical theology, moving with ease from medieval Christology to Christologies of the Reformation era, from Pietism to liberal Protestantism, etc. One possible criticism of Oakes’ finished product is the paucity of female theologians in the historical sections. While Oakes does briefly discuss Johanna Eleonora Petersen and Margaret Mary Alacoque, his treatment of modern Christological thought could have benefited from an engagement with at least one feminist theologian.
Another possible criticism of Oakes’ approach is that he allows his dogmatic convictions to control his handling of the biblical data. In my view, such a criticism would be unfair, since Oakes states upfront that he is working from a confessional stance. Nevertheless, those readers who are looking for a study of Christology that is driven by historical critical concerns might end up feeling disappointed. To put the matter another way, Oakes’ work much more resembles Benedict XVI’s recent volumes on Jesus of Nazareth than it does, say, Edward Schillebeeckx’s trilogy on Christology. Again, this characteristic could be seen as either a strength or a weakness, depending on the kind of treatment that a particular reader is seeking.
While one might justifiably criticize this or that element in Oakes’ book, overall he provides an invaluable guide to the history of Christological reflection. With this monograph, Oakes adds a landmark addition to his already impressive corpus, and advanced students in theology should benefit from his contribution for years to come.