Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Initial response from Eric Svendsen

Svendsen replies:

Here's an excerpt from Jonathan Prejean's evaluation of my understanding of historical theology in his latest piece on the Christological Controversies:

Every one of these errors has been unequivocally refuted by John Anthony McGuckin's St. Cyril: The Christological Controversy: Its History, Theology, and Texts (1994, republished 2004). In terms of the most recent and careful scholarship, the notion of Chalcedon as a compromise between Alexandria and Antioch is no longer tenable; St. Cyril's victory as the standard of orthodoxy was absolute. Far from being the "pop apologetic" standard of history, it is quite simply the correct understanding of history.

I won’t be responding to this any time soon (if at all) due to the amount of work that would have to go into refuting it. Except to say this: I am highly dubious (and that’s putting it very mildly) about any attempt to rely on a single work that purports to overturn all previous scholarship in a field, particularly when that work happens quite coincidentally to be favorably disposed toward the view one is espousing in any case, and especially when the scholars whom the work has purported to "overturn" have not conceded the point. And while I appreciate his needed correction of those who share his view but are not knowledgeable enough in this area to render a fair judgment regarding the orthodoxy of those who don't share their view, I must say that I think Mr. Prejean knows better than to conclude, based on the reading of a single work, that the dissenting view--nay, the majority view--has thereby been "unequivocally refuted" and is "no longer tenable." That is overstating the case just a tad.

I reply as follows:

For the record, this does not purport to overturn all previous scholarship in the field; it purports to overturn European scholarship in the field that had been consistently disputed by Eastern scholars. The "noble Nestorius" has never been uniformly accepted, nor has the notion of St. Cyril as a Monophysite (and commentators like Meyendorff strongly took issue with the likelihood of the position even while conceding its possibility). Presumably Pelikan has, at least implicitly, conceded the gaffe by converting to Orthodoxy (and even in his own work, he clarified that Chalcedon was *later* interpreted as Nestorian).

The seminal authors on whom most of the later scholars were relying are all dead (e.g., Harnack, Grillmeier, Seeberg), so it would be hard to expect them to recant, and more importantly, McGuckin calls each of these authors out specifically and explains why they are wrong, which ordinarily would obligate those scholars or apologists for their position to construct a defense that has not been forthcoming in the decade since McGuckin's work was published. It may be a single work, but it is a single work by the extremely well-regarded author of the Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology who surveys the entire scope of literature in the field meticulously and leaves no stone unturned, the sort of work that demands an answer.

The "dissenting view," which had only been the majority view among certain quarters of the academic community (who were almost entirely relying on the work of the authors who McGuckin refutes, I might add) and among a number of non-specialists in patristic theology, has always been subject to serious objections from numerous scholars like Meyendorff, Sherrard, and Florovsky; McGuckin has simply exposed the errors in such a way that there is now no answer to them. And the dissenting view was always arguing from a weaker position because it required Chalcedon to back off from Ephesus (despite including many of the same bishops who were almost unanimously in favor of Cyril's position), a position that is difficult to sustain at best.
It's time to put this venerable old myth to bed. There can surely be no excuse for clinging to a position that was unlikely from its incipience when no response is given to a conclusive refutation. And trust me, I use the terms "unequivocally refuted" and "no longer tenable" advisedly; the "noble Nestorius" idea had been taking hits and suffering erosions in believability from the very moment it was proposed. McGuckin has simply provided the capstone to roughly 40 years of previous and subsequent scholarship undermining the thesis. Relying on continuity with the so-called "Antiochene school" to demonstrate one's Christological orthodoxy are doomed to failure, and it is the obligation of the Protestant community to explain this departure from historical orthodoxy unless they are willing to abandon their claims of historical continuity with earlier Christians.

Besides, it isn't reasonable to doubt an argument simply because there are scholars who say otherwise; the argument must be examined on its own terms. Lots of people can believe wrong things, so pleading that you are free to ignore it because the argument hasn't caught on simply doesn't provide a sufficient answer, which leaves me in a perfectly reasonable position to dismiss your view of Chalcedon as entirely false. That also leaves me entirely free as a *reasonable* person (and not as an irrational hatemonger) to condemn your position as Nestorian, because McGuckin has raised a reasonable argument to that effect, and you've declined to mount a reasonable defense. Also, you have made positive claims about "historical facts" and "contemporary patristic scholarship" that demand that you prove them, which requires that you actually interact meaningfully with authors like McGuckin rather than making appeals to authority.

It occurs to me also that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. The Antiochene-Alexandrian compromise account of Chalcedon is awfully convenient for Protestantism, and the fact that the majority of Protestant scholars have relied on it surely does very little to boost its credibility. Indeed, the disproportionate acceptance of that theory among that group likely suggests that it is a simple case of overrating credibility based on existing biases.