The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism

Thomas Joseph White, The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2017. pp. x + 316. $19.95, paperback.

One difficulty with polemics can be the tendency over time toward group think and, by implication, to merely secondhand familiarity with one’s opponents. Not surprisingly, engaging with one’s opponents at arm’s length can lead to a misperception of them (whether willfully or not). Maybe less obviously but no less significantly, it can sometimes lead to a difficulty in understanding one’s own position at least in as much as it has developed through conversation and disagreement with that opponent. The Resistance can’t be known apart from at least a cursory awareness of the evil Galactic Empire, and, perhaps a bit closer to home, you can’t appreciate the growth of so-called sideline denominations without knowing something of the mainline groups with which they differ. Similarly, Protestant theology – as a protest – demands to be considered not only in and of itself but also with reference to the Roman Catholic faith and practice to which it has lodged that protest.

Thomas Joseph White serves as a professor at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., and is one of the most significant Roman Catholic theologians writing today. He has written significant monographs on natural theology and on Christology; indeed, the latter volume (The Incarnate Lord) is surely one of the four or five most significant volumes on Christ in recent decades. He has penned a theological commentary on the Book of Exodus. He has also edited a major ecumenical conversation about differences amongst Protestants and Roman Catholics. He is trained as a philosophical theologian working in the Thomistic tradition.

The Light of Christ is a different volume, however, from this distinguished Roman Catholic scholar. Here White commends the order and clarity of Roman Catholic thought in a manner meant to be more widely accessible. Footnotes are minimal and frequently no more than scriptural references. The table of contents shows engagement of fundamental topics: revelation and reason (ch. 1); God and Trinity (ch. 2); creation and the human person (ch. 3); incarnation and atonement (ch. 4); the church (ch. 5); social doctrine (ch. 6); and the last things (ch. 7). An introduction on the Catholic intellectual life and a concluding essay on prayer fill out the volume. The production quality is high, with the presentation and the editing being done well.

The book has a number of strengths, not least in frequently commending classical catholic (note: not merely Roman Catholic) doctrine in clear and compelling ways. It offers a compressed but lovely sketch of Nicene Christological and Trinitarian theology (pp. 50, 78-83, and 148-152), a guide to the classical attributes of God (pp. 66-72), a significant argument for viewing the human person as an ensouled body and embodied soul rather than as mere material or merely spiritual or soulish reality (pp. 104-06), on the nature of the bodily resurrection of Jesus (pp. 172-179, though see the Roman sacramental theology flavoring the paragraph on p. 178), and on why sexuality matters spiritually over against Manichean claims (pp. 239-240). At times White will help shore up our logic or rhetoric in commending creedal claims.

At other points and often even in overlapping sections, White illustrates distinctly Roman Catholic reasoning. A review is not the place to argue or bicker and tallying the occurrences is likely not helpful. But perhaps even here we can observe a deeper trend and, in so doing, be in a position to see and to debate with contemporary Roman Catholic theology more productively. The volume illustrates a trend in Roman Catholic theology since the mid-twentieth century.[1] White, like figures ranging from Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar to John Paul II and Benedict XVI to Matthew Levering and Romanus Cessario, represents a more exegetical approach to commending Roman Catholic doctrine. Protestants need to be aware that the nouvelle théologie movement and the Second Vatican Council have prompted a return to exegetical reasoning as compared to many of the manualist volumes of neoscholastic theology in the early twentieth century. Now, that there is a much more exegetically infused conversation here does not mean that Roman Catholic-Reformed or Roman Catholic-Protestant/evangelical conversations are any less marked by dispute, but it may shift the nature of those disputes in a number of cases. For instance, White commends the doctrine of Mary’s bodily assumption (pp. 222) and does so by offering a brief but clear exegetical or biblical-theological argument; Protestant disputants need to address the argument as an exegetical claim and to oppose it with exegetical reasons, rather than suggesting that it’s a mere appendage rooted in extra-biblical reasoning or in sheer ecclesiastical power politics.[2]

In engaging a more exegetically infused Roman Catholic theology (whether in this volume by White or in other volumes, especially those participating in the movement known as Thomistic Ressourcement), we do well to remember what the Reformation was originally about. Protestant objections to Roman Catholicism were rarely as simple as Scripture versus Tradition but involved judgments about how the Bible fits together, how the exalted Christ relates to the ministry and leadership of the church today, how the notion of merit relates to the substitutionary work of Christ and to our faith in him, etc. White’s volume is a helpful guide into those debates. For example, contrary to the claims of some documents arising from the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement of the 1990s or the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Concordat on Justification from 1999, he does not paper over differences regarding the basis of justification (pp. 198-199). In these places as well as the broader argument, the nature of his text does help reorient his Protestant readers to grasp Roman Catholicism as an exegetical phenomenon deserving of nothing less than exegetical engagement and, where necessary, exegetical protest. Doing so can only help prompt us to remember that Protestantism does not continue as a mere historical relic but as a reform of the church by the Word of God. For those seeking a contemporary sketch of present-day Roman Catholic theology, then, this is one of the best introductions available.

[1] Note that I do not mean to suggest that all Roman Catholic theology today takes this more exegetically engaged form.

[2] I have tried to critically respond to a more extended such Roman Catholic articulation of that doctrine in Michael Allen, “Review of Mary’s Bodily Assumption by Matthew Levering,” Pro Ecclesia 26, no. 3 (2017): 340-343.

Michael Allen
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando