The Heart of the Matter

by Michael Potemra

Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, is a rising star in the Catholic Church, frequently mentioned as a possible successor to Pope Benedict XVI. Ignatius Press has recently done a great service by publishing a translation of his work God Sent His Son: A Contemporary Christology. I’ve been reading the chapters on the early councils of the church, and I think the author does a wonderful job of demonstrating how important those early Christological and Trinitarian controversies were; how deeply rooted in the earliest Christian experience their dogmas were; and — above all — how shocking  and counterintuitive the central tenets of Christianity really are. Often I hear people — usually, it’s self-consciously intellectual Christians who are defensive in the face of atheistic and other polemics — warning against “fideism,” and stressing the rational aspect of religion. But reading Schönborn’s account, one can’t help thinking: One God, yet plurality within God; a man who is truly Son of God and True God; God who descended to become a creature to save his creatures – if you think that all this is commonsensical, and that any rational chap who looked into it sincerely would have to believe it, well, you simply must not have been paying close enough attention.


All these dogmas are well known, at least verbally, to virtually everyone in our culture, and there are countless essays and textbooks laying them out; when I was in school, a standard Christology textbook was Jesus the Christ by Walter Kasper (himself since elevated to the cardinalate). What distinguishes Schönborn’s work is a gentle yet provocative insistence on the centrality of these most challenging concepts. A couple of years ago, I was discussing Islam with my then-pastor, a Presbyterian minister, who delivered himself of the opinion that Islam arose because of a spiritual vacuum that arose from the Trinitarian and Christological controversies; his clear implication was that those controversies were to be regarded chiefly as fruitless and regrettable distortions of a more fundamental Christian truth.

Schönborn, to the contrary, makes a compelling case that these controversies were a necessary exploration of the content of Christian revelation. The earliest proclaimers of that religion’s message recognized that it would be “folly to the Greeks” – but yet, they believed it, on the authority of the One who revealed it to them; and they did not shrink from declaring it, in all its scandalous and perplexing essentials. That is Schönborn’s endeavor, as well; he accomplishes it accessibly, and with great lucidity.

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