Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Dubious “Scholarly” Approach of Jonathan Prejean

Here are seven brief points in response to some of Jonathan Prejean's ramblings vis-a-vis McGuckin's book and the Christological controversies:

1. Prejean refers to McGuckin’s work as “the most recent” contribution to patristic studies, and concludes on that basis that “the notion of Chalcedon as a compromise between Alexandria and Antioch is no longer tenable,” and that “St. Cyril's victory as the standard of orthodoxy was absolute,” and that his view is “quite simply the correct understanding of history.” Here, Prejean demonstrates his unfamiliarity not only with scholarship in general but with how scholarship works. Prejean’s reliance on a single work (McGuckin) is in the first place an example selective citation. No scholar would ever uphold one man’s opinion as the be-all-and-end-all of the discussion, and dismiss out of hand what all other scholars are saying. That’s not what a scholar does; that’s what a groupie does.

2. McGuckin is quite obviously a polemicist for Cyril and for defending the place of Mary in his tradition. The dedication page on at least one of the books to which he contributed his thesis reads, “To Mary—Theotokos.” Such a dedication betrays the true goal of the book. The cards were stacked long before the authors even began playing.

3. There is absolutely no evidence that the scholars I cited in my series on this have conceded the point to McGuckin, even though they’ve had ample opportunity to do so.

4. Indeed, Prejean has misrepresented this work entirely. He claims it is the “most recent” work on this, but it is not. The book was originally published in 1994, being reprinted in 2004. So McGuckin’s thesis has been available for over a decade. At least two of the works I cited in my series postdate the release of McGuckin’s work.

5. And that’s really the telling point. McGuckin’s work stirred very little activity among patristic scholars when it was originally published, and there is no evidence that it has convinced anyone else in its reprint. Pelikan’s 1996 work on Mary, for instance, makes absolutely no mention of McGuckin. That could mean he was unfamiliar with McGuckin; or it could mean he was familiar with him and just did not see much merit to his work. Neither option bodes well for McGuckin’s sphere of influence. There were a couple of favorable reviews of Guckin’s book by others who were “relieved” that “St. Cyril” (a partisan title used by his polemicists) has been vindicated; but the way the reviews were written make it obvious we’re not dealing with neutral observers here.

6. Most telling, however, is the way McGuckin’s work is treated in scholarly publications by those who are familiar with his work. Joseph Hallman, who cites McGuckin’s work extensively in his “The Seed of Fire: Divine Suffering in the Christology of Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius of Constantinople,” in Recent Studies in Early Christianity: A Collection of Scholarly Essays (ed. Everett Ferguson, NY: Garland Publishing, 1999), makes it clear he is not in full agreement with McGuckin. Moreover, when listing “The most recent and definitive work on Cyril’s understanding of the unity of person in Jesus,” he does not list McGuckin’s work at all, but instead points us back (foremost) to a 1966 work by R.A. Norris, “Toward a Contemporary Interpretation of the Chalcedonian Definition” in Lux in Lumine: Essays to Honor W. Norman Pittenger (NY: Seabury, 1966). Indeed, Hallman is forthright in saying (specifically contra McGuckin) that Cyril held contradictory premises in positing that Christ “suffered impassibly,” and is quite frank in saying that “[Cyril’s] logic fails.” Moreover, Hallman contends (again, specifically contra McGuckin) that Cyril never finally or satisfactorily resolved the question of the suffering Logos, or of the human soul of Jesus, and was rightly criticized by the Antiochene school as teaching Monophysitism (86). Hallman further observes that whereas McGuckin excels in expressing how important the soul/body analog was for Cyril in explaining the union of the divine and human in the Incarnation, “yet he does not mention the problem which it presents, a problem which Nestorius saw clearly: if the union is reciprocal, when one suffers or changes, so does the other. But as we saw above, Cyril does not think of the union as completely reciprocal in any case.” (91, fn 87).

Here is a scholar who, though thoroughly familiar with McGukin’s work, states specifically that he does not agree with it. This point could be made about every patristic scholar. There is absolutely no evidence that any patristic scholar changed his view of Ephesus/Chalcedon or Cyril/Nestorius based on McGuckin’s work. Yet that work has been available to them for over a decade! Yet Prejean would have us throw these scholars out the door in favor of embracing a single polemicist for Cyril; namely, McGuckin. That’s how Prejean does scholarship. In my book on Mary, most of the scholars I cite are hostile witnesses for my case. That’s what makes a convincing argument. Yet Prejean cannot cite anyone who formerly held to the current majority view of the conflict between Cyril/Nestorius and the beliefs each one held, but who now holds to McGuckin’s view. If so, who is he? Which scholars have changed their views based on McGuckin’s decade-old work? If he knows of such scholars, let him cite them. Until then, we are perfectly free to treat McGuckin’s work in the same way all scholars treat it—a novel but otherwise unconvincing revision of the history of Cyril and Nestorius.

7. Here is the most important point of all. Prejean’s desire to be right on this, and to retreat into and cling to the world of unverifiable philosophical speculation, is for one reason and one reason alone: He cannot contend with his opinion of Mary on biblical grounds. Much less can he contend with the ramifications of his views on biblical grounds. As I mentioned before, Prejean is not really concerned about the controvery regarding the person and nature of Christ. That’s just a smokescreen for a larger end. What he really wants is to find some kind of rock-solid ground for imposing his view of Mary which he thinks quite naturally follows from his view of Christ. If Mary gave birth to deity, then she is the Mother of God; and if she is the Mother of God, then she has special privileges with Him. (And by the way, Prejean shows he really doesn’t understand this issue when he confuses the statement “he who died on the cross was God” with “God died on the cross.” In the special case of Christ, one can affirm the former and deny the latter quite easily). That allows him to find a basis for nonsense such as Mary’s immaculate conception and Mary’s assumption, and her perpetual virginity, as well as all the Marian titles: Redemptress, Mediatrix, Queen of Heaven, etc. These things he cannot sustain on biblical grounds, because as I demonstrate in my book, the biblical record is squarely against such things. So, I am challenging him to put aside his empty, extra-biblical speculations on the person and nature of Christ—things which, as I have always contended, no one can ultimately know apart from what the Scriptures state about them—and to get on to the goal of all of this; namely, what does all this imply for Mary. All the nonsense leading up to that question is easily put away once we explore the biblical record of the role and status of Mary.