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All Greek (or Latin) to me?

19 February 2016

Andrew Davison continues his chronology with a look at the theologians of the later patristic period


Icon of Gregory of Nyssa

Icon of Gregory of Nyssa

WE ENDED last week with the developing conviction that Jesus had to be spoken of as divine, as well as human. That invited a further set of questions. If we are going to say these two things about Jesus, how do we hold them together?

A useful link here is between Athanasius, that foe of Arius, and one of his pupils, Apollinaris of Laodicea (died 390). Apollinaris wanted to uphold what his master had taught: that Jesus is divine as well as human. His proposal for fitting those two claims together was that the eternal Son took the place of a human mind in Jesus.This is neat: the Son of God is Word or Reason, following the prologue to John’s Gospel, and so he became the mind or reason of Jesus.

That proposal received a forceful criticism from Gregory Nazianzen (329-389). As with Athanasius last week, Gregory argued on the basis of salvation: humanity is healed by being taken up by God in Christ, but “what he did not take up, he did not heal.” God didn’t substitute for anything in Christ.

This Gregory is one of the most acute of early theologians. He is joined in the theological imagination by his friends, the brothers Basil and Gregory of Nyssa (similar dates to Nazianzen). Together, they are known as the Cappadocian Fathers.

Their sister Macrina is held to have been their equal, although little of her theology comes down to us. Gregory of Nyssa is one of the more mystically inclined writers of this period, and he has received a great deal of attention in the later 20th century.


THAT is all a Greek-speaking story. The giant of the Latin theological world comes slightly later: Augustine of Hippo (354-430). A creative and literary whirlwind, he is best known for his magnificent theological autobiography, interwoven with meditations on associated themes such as time and memory, the Confessions. If new readers of the Fathers start anywhere, it is most often here.

Among Augustine’s biblical commentaries and sermons, those on the Psalms particularly stand out. In terms of his opponents, he took a stand against the Manichaeans over their dualistic disparagement of the world (having once been one himself); against the Donatists over their too-rigorous view that a failed Christian is no longer a Christian at all; and against Pelagius over his proposal that human beings can more or less sort themselves out, with divine grace as an aid, rather than a radical and entirely necessary intervention by God.

Among his other long treatises we have The City of God and On the Trinity, both about a great many things (the first not least about politics).


SO FAR as understanding Jesus was concerned, disputes about how to describe the union of divinity and humanity continued. One option was to stress unity in Christ over his duality. Using the “names-of-those-who-got-it-wrong” convention discussed in the last supplement — conceptually straightforward but historically two-dimensional — that position is associated with the name of Eutyches (c.380-c.456). The problem here is whether we end up with a hybrid, neither fully divine nor fully human.

The opposite tendency would be to stress duality over unity, and emphasise the distance between the divinity and humanity. History’s representative figure here is Nestorius, who did not want to call Mary the “God-bearer”, but only “Christ-bearer”.

These discussions came to their head at the Council of Chalcedon (451), which produced a formula about what was plural in Jesus and what is singular. It was to be an inspiration — for the Churches that accepted it — for years to come.

He is “truly divine and truly human”, those two “natures” being united in one “person”, “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation”. Particularly influential on this debate (otherwise rather dominated by voices from the Greek-speaking East), was a letter from Leo, the Pope of the time, known as the Tome of Leo. It is another patristic gem.


AMONG non-theological scholars of the ancient world, the period we have been discussing here (and even in the first supplement’s historical section) used to be seen as distinctly uninteresting. That has changed, and this period of “late antiquity” has come quite into vogue, not least through the work of the theologically minded scholar of this period, Peter Brown.

Even among theologians, however, interest in the period after the Council of Chalcedon used to be comparatively minimal, not least because Protestants tended to draw the line over the authority of councils after this one, the fourth. That too seems to be changing. Many significant questions remained to be discussed in the fifth, sixth and seventh.

Some were concerned how to interpret that “two natures in one person” formula, so as not to present the divinity as excluding anything human. Others picked up the question about how material things mediate grace and the Christian message to us.

An influential figure in that later period, much studied today, is Maximus the Confessor (died 662). Earlier — and an influence on Maximus — was Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (late-fifth or early-sixth century), whose influence on later theology is inverse proportion to what we know about him.

Finally we might mention John of Damascus (676-749), for his work on the validity of images, and for his magisterial On the Orthodox Faith, which is a fitting place to end this second half of a survey of the Fathers, summing up as it does a whole tradition and trajectory of Greek patristic thought.



Henry Bettenson (ed.), The Later Christian Fathers (OUP, 1970) — still an excellent anthology of brief passages

An accessible collection of writings by Gregory Nazianzen is On God and Christ and On God and Man (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002). For an anthology from Gregory of Nyssa, there is a selection by Jean Daniélou, From Glory to Glory (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1961).

Augustine’s Confessions has been translated well many times, for instance by Henry Chadwick (OUP, 1991). Penguin has translation of The City of God by Henry Bettenson (1984). Edmund Hill translated The Trinity for New City Press (1991), as part of their excellent rolling Augustine series. Erich Przywara’s An Augustine Synthesis (Sheed & Ward, 1945; reprinted by Wipf and Stock, 2014) is one of the greatest theological compilations one can buy.

St Vladimir’s Seminary again serves us well with a collection of Maximus, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ (2003), translated by Blowers and Wilken. Colm Luibheid translated all we have of Pseudo-Dionysius in the Classics of Western Spirituality series (Paulist, 1987).

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