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Not two, but one Christ

22 March 2013

Edward Dowler praises a Christological study


The Unity of Christ: Continuity and conflict in patristic tradition
Christopher A. Beeley
Yale £35
Church Times Bookshop £31.50

IN HIS book The Unity of Christ, Christopher Beeley, a relatively young American Anglican priest and scholar, offers a fresh reading of the Christological controversies in the early Christian centuries. At the root of these is the remarkable theologian Origen of Alexandria (184-253), whose theology and biblical interpretation is, Beeley argues, both a "treasure chest of riches" for later theologians, but also a "Pandora's box of troubles".

Beeley convincingly defends Origen against the standard accusation that he was a subordinationist. In Origen's theology, the Father has an ontological, though not temporal, priority over the Son, with whom he shares a common nature, but they are equally divine, powerful, true, and wise. Nevertheless, the Father and the Son are differently divine: the Father is purely and absolutely simple, but the Son, in the economy of salvation, as Origen says, "becomes many things or perhaps even all these things, as the whole creation . . . needs him".

So far, so good. Origen's theology was also, however, deeply influenced by the strongly dualist environment of the ancient world, which presupposed a sharp distinction between the divine realm and that of sensate creatures. This dualism led Origen, and the generations of theological successors whom he influenced, to keep the divine and human elements of Christ "neatly and safely distinct in their respective spheres".

Thus, for example, in Origen's hands, the communicatio idiomatum - the ability to cross-predicate statements about Christ's human and divine natures - was little more than a verbal device: Christ the divine Son who is Wisdom, Word, Life, and Truth is, Origen says, "a different being as it were" from the Jesus whose soul is troubled and who suffers on the cross.

A triumvirate of early theologians achieves a more adequate account of Christ's unity. First, Gregory Nazianzen, with his doctrine of "one and the same God and Son", de- scribes how Christ in the drama of salvation unites himself with the fullness of human existence. We need not flinch at apparently human attributes' being predicated of the most high God, because, as Beeley puts it, "the Son's transcendent divine power is not to make him avoid creaturely suffering, but just the opposite: it leads him out of love and goodness, to embrace our suffering and death to the very fullest."

In a similar way, Augustine of Hippo insists that, because Christ has humbly assumed the form of a servant in order to save us from the results of our pride, a single united identity underlies both those biblical passages that "sound according to the form of God" and those that "sound according to the form of a servant". In his doctrine of the totus Christus (whole Christ), Augustine further depicts the unity of Christ embracing his body the Church, whose members are one with each other and with their Head, "fused in the furnace of charity".

Pre-eminently, Cyril of Alexandria puts the unity of Christ at the centre of his theological vision, arguing that, out of two distinct natures that, while remaining in their proper existence, meet in an unbreakable mutual union, there is now "one incarnate nature of the Word of God".

Beeley's remarkable sure-footedness in analysing ancient texts, his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Early Church, and his ability to trace continuities and contrasts through some daunting material surely make this a book that deserves to remain an authoritative work of patristic scholarship for many years to come. Among this work's many remarkable virtues are the lucidity with which he analyses notoriously complex material, and his palpable commitment to his subject-matter: Christ's unity is not some abstract philosophical game, but the cornerstone of living Christian faith today as much as in the Early Church.

The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is the Vicar of Clay Hill, London diocese.

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