Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.07.09 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.07.09

Christopher A. Beeley, The Unity of Christ: Continuity and Conflict in Patristic Tradition.   New Haven; London:  Yale University Press, 2012.  Pp. xii, 391.  ISBN 9780300178623.  $50.00.  

Reviewed by Mark DelCogliano, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN (


This volume attempts to revise typical but outdated narratives of Christological development between the third and eighth centuries, focusing on the crucial fourth and fifth centuries. Such an older narrative would go something like this: All early attempts to articulate a viably orthodox Christology are inadequate for one reason or another. Athanasius is the first to formulate a recognizably orthodox Christology and his becomes the basis of all subsequent ones. Gregory Nazianzen moves the project forward by playing the key role in defeating Apollinarius. The Antiochenes Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia are also part of this anti-Apollinarian tradition. Then Nestorius starts preaching that Mary should not be called Theotokos, and immediately Cyril is roused to action, setting off a new phase in Christological controversy. Cyril manages to get Nestorius deposed and exiled by depicting him as a mouthpiece for the Antiochene heretics Diodore and Theodore and himself as a spokesman for the orthodox tradition rooted in Athanasius. Cyril overplays his hand, perhaps, and eventually reconciles with some eastern bishops who moderately support Nestorius. After Cyril dies, his legacy is variously interpreted. One strand, espoused by Eutyches and Dioscorus, wins the day at the so-called Robber Council of 449, where Leo of Rome’s Tome is rejected. But their victory is short- lived when in 451 the Council of Chalcedon rejects their interpretation of Cyril as well as Nestorianism, and enshrines certain texts of Cyril and Leo as the new standards for Christological orthodoxy (in addition to the Nicene Creed). Not all agree with Chalcedon’s Definition of Faith, seeing it as unfaithful to Cyril: some reject it, some attempt to reinterpret it in one direction or another. But these are misguided endeavors because the Chalcedon Definition resolves all previous Christological squabbles; it is now the standard expression of Christological orthodoxy.

Beeley attempts to revise this narrative in three ways: (1) by decentralizing certain figures whose contributions to Christological orthodoxy, he argues, were negligible or problematic; (2) by highlighting certain figures whose contributions to Christological orthodoxy, he suggests, have hitherto been underappreciated; and (3) by refusing to view Chalcedon as the culmination of Christological debate and extending the narrative well beyond 451. The new narrative Beeley proposes runs along these lines. Origen is the ultimate source of Christological orthodoxy because of his insistence on the Son’s equality with the Father in terms of divinity and power, even if his Christology is quite dualistic( though not in the way that later theologians are understood as dualistic). For Origen, Christ is a moral union of the pre- existing soul of Jesus and the Word of God. Later Christological dualists view the humanity and divinity of Christ as distinct referents and sources of activity within him. Eusebius of Caesarea takes up the mantle of Origen, and yet moves his Christology in a more consistently unitarye direction, meaning that the humanity and divinity of Christ constitute a single subject of reference and activity. In contrast, Athanasius places such a stress on the divinity of Christ, the preservation of his incorruptibility, and the divinization of his flesh that his Christology is dualistic. According to Beeley, Athanasius turns the “Origenist” heritage in a modalist direction, to its detriment, unlike Eusebius who left it in better shape than when he found it. (Beeley uses but never defines “Origenist” – a highly controverted term in patristics if there ever was one.) Thus, the Nicene faith of 381 owes more to the “Origenist” tradition stemming from Eusebius than that from Athanasius (p. 158). Yet even Eusebius is not the final word in “Origenist” Christology – this distinction belongs to Gregory Nazianzen, whom Beeley considers the first theologian after Origen to produce a viable Christological synthesis. Gregory is commonly depicted as primarily anti-Apollinarian in his Christology, but Beeley argues that, while anti-Apollinarian and anti-Eunomian concerns are present, the real target of his unitary Christology, which is rooted in the Origenist-Eusebian tradition, is Diodore. In contrast, Gregory of Nyssa is more directly focused on refuting Apollinarius and as a result his Christology is more in line with the dualistic approach of Diodore. While Basil is not discussed at any length, his Christology is also characterized as dualist. So, Gregory Nazianzen stands apart from his fellow Cappadocians and is the only one that makes a lasting – indeed, decisive – Christological contribution. In fact, for Beeley, Gregory is the genius behind everything good in later Greek Christology.

While Cyril is typically thought to have rooted his Christology in Athanasius, Beeley argues that Gregory Nazianzen is his real source, despite Cyril’s rhetorical self-presentation as being inspired by Athanasius. Beeley shows that while the emphases of Cyril’s Christology varied through his career, being now anti-Antiochene, now anti-Nestorian, now conciliatory with Antiochenes, it remained unitary throughout and deeply indebted to Gregory, in spite of occasional – and problematic – uses of Athanasius. In contrast, the Christology of Leo exhibits an uneasy combination of unitary and dualistic streams of thought characteristic of the earlier Latin tradition. For Beeley, the Chalcedonian Definition is a flawed document, in which “Christ’s identity is understood in a dual, parallel sense, with no indication of the infinite difference between the divine and human natures, and hence Christ’s fundamental identity as the divine Son” (p. 282). The Definition, then, diverges from the mainstream of Christological orthodoxy found in Gregory and Cyril. Moreover, it is not a watershed Christological definition but a renewed impetus to Christological debate. Beeley does not treat the post-Chalcedonian debates in the same detail as the earlier ones, choosing to briefly discuss three representative figures from the Byzantine Chalcedonian tradition: Leontius of Byzantium, Maximus Confessor, and John of Damascus.

This book makes three significant contributions. The first is the rehabilitation of Eusebius of Caesarea as an important theologian in his own right, and one who had considerable influence upon pro-Nicene orthodoxy. In the past, Eusebius has been omitted from typical Christological narratives and Beeley’s chapter on Eusebius, in line with other recent positive reassessments of Eusebius as a theologian, restores him to his rightful place. The second significant contribution is the decentralization of Athanasius. For many, Athanasius represents a high-water mark in Christological development. Yet Beeley demonstrates that Athanasius’s Christology remained fundamentally dualistic and had a negligible influence, and in fact at times had a problematic influence, on succeeding generations. Thus, the chapter on Athanasius adds to the growing body of literature that has questioned the weighty theological influence traditionally attributed to him. The third major contribution is Beeley’s demonstration of the centrality of Gregory Nazianzen to Christological orthodoxy. The depiction of Gregory as not simply anti-Apollinarian, but also – and perhaps primarily – anti-Antiochene (i.e. anti-Diodorean) nuances our understanding of Gregory considerably. In addition, Beeley provocatively suggests that not only was Gregory the major influence upon Cyril, but was also heavily drawn up by subsequent theologians.

Yet the volume has its weaker moments too. The chapter on the Latin Christology of Hilary, Ambrose, and Augustine does not break any new ground and does not fit well into the revisionist narrative. The treatment of these three figures is for the most part cursory. The same can be said of the three figures treated in the last chapter on post-Chalcedonian Christology. One supposes the purpose of both chapters is simply to demonstrate the complexity and diversity of Christological traditions, and the point is made well enough. But one does not come away from these chapters with a fresh appreciation for the figures treated as is the case with the chapters on Eusebius, Athanasius, and Gregory. Another weakness of the book is its focus only on what later generations considered the mainstream orthodox tradition and its omission of a substantial discussion of those outside this tradition. For example, significant pre-Chalcedonian Christological figures like Theodore of Mopsuestia and Theodoret of Cyrus are not discussed. Major thinkers of various non- and anti-Chalcedonian traditions such as Timothy Aelurus, Severus of Antioch, Philoxenus of Mabbug, Narsai, and Babai are barely mentioned. This scant coverage of the post-Chalcedonian period is particularly problematic because Beeley rightly identifies Chalcedon as a spark to renewed debate. By only briefly discussing three squarely Chalcedonian theologians he ignores the rich diversity of Christological traditions that developed in the council’s aftermath. The failure to adequately explore post-Chalcedonian Christology in all its variety undermines one of the central aspects of the new narrative proposed in this book.

The book is also not without some methodological problems and unpersuasive historical theology. First of all, Beeley’s approach is very “high-level.” By this I mean that the focus is on ideas; there is little detailed source discussion of particular logic and arguments used by the ancient theologians to arrive at their positions. Beeley’s claims about trajectories of influence would be more persuasive if it could have been shown that later author B in text Y was borrowing from text X of earlier author A. For Beeley, a similarity of ideas suffices. For example, he claims that Cyril borrowed his “one nature” language from Gregory, or at least the idea of it. No doubt Gregory’s corpus does contain this idea. But in two texts written prior to Ephesus, Cyril explicitly ascribed the “one incarnate nature of the Word” formula to Athanasius (Apologia adversus orientales episcopos and De recta fide ad Principissas). Unfortunately, Cyril was wrong about the attribution. The formula was taken verbatim from Apollinarius, from his Profession of Faith To the Emperor Jovinian. And moreover Apollinarius employs the same “one nature” language elsewhere. As a result, Beeley does not even broach the topic of the possible influence of Apollinarius upon Cyril. This example is also indicative of a larger methodological problem: because of his devotion to Gregory, Beeley displays a lack of imaginative sympathy when analyzing other theologians. For Beeley, Gregory is the source of all that is good in Christology; he does not ever entertain the idea that Gregory might have been wrong or might not have been the high-water mark he is presented to be in this book. This problem is particularly acute in his treatment of Cyril. For example, Beeley says that Cyril’s quietly dropping of the “mixing” language was because he either “lacked Gregory's resolve” or realized that it was politically expedient not to use such language any longer (p. 271). Beeley does not even consider the possibility that Cyril came around to the idea that Gregory's usage of such language might have been problematic and that he actually agreed with the criticism of it. In addition, Beeley’s attempt to present a narrative of Cyril as first being Gregorian and then becoming Athanasian in 433 to achieve the reunion with the Orientals is also not very convincing. The sort of things that Beeley singles out as “Athanasian” (like partitive exegesis) Cyril is already doing before 428, during the controversy, and after 433.There does not seem to be any “Athanasian” turn in 433. In fact, in his first public statement about the issue, the Letter to the Monks of Egypt, Cyril quotes the very same passage from Athanasius that Beeley singles out as being problematic (Contra Arianos 3.29; p. 265). That letter is from 429, so it cannot be used as evidence of a later “Athanasian” turn. Moreover, it is clear that the passage is not simply cited because Cyril knew his audience loved Athanasius, but rather, it forms a key part of the letter’s argument. Basically, Beeley’s reading of Cyril is that everything good about him is from Gregory and everything bad about him is from Athanasius. Cyril’s lack of resolve to drop Athanasius and be purely Gregorian caused centuries of further controversy. And speaking of Athanasius, while there is some good theological work in the chapter on him, on a number of occasions Beeley describes him as formulating his theology in “desperation,” meaning that because of the many inconsistencies in his thought Athanasius was routinely forced into saying things utterly insubstantial and unconvincing (e.g. pp. 148, 155, and 337: “his desperation is plain”). Beeley treats Athanasius with disdain and could have interpreted him in a more charitable way, as Beeley does for his heroes Origen, Eusebius, and especially Gregory, the last of whom apparently, as alluded to above, managed to avoid all inconsistency and incoherence.

In conclusion, Beeley’s book makes some noteworthy contributions to our understanding of Christological development in the fourth and fifth centuries, but at times his zeal for Gregory Nazianzen gets in the way of objectively assessing others.

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