Will the real orthodox Christology Please Stand Up?

Christopher Beeley was one of my professors when I attended Yale, and The Unity of Christ was included in our patristics course. It was optional, but some of the chapters helped shine light on the Christological readings of various Church Fathers. Returning to it again, graduated and ever learning, Beeley’s work is so much more illuminating after the fact.

Beeley is an Anglican scholar-priest in the old mold; Anglicans have long had a rich patristic scholarship tradition (the most famous recent representative probably being Henry Chadwick). Beeley shines in this light. Providing a tour through the so-called Patristic “Golden Age,” Beeley does several things: First is to show the influence of the Christological program established by Origen; second, recover Eusebius of Caesarea as a major Christological thinker; third, provide a robust but readable summary of the conflict among the so-called “orthodox” Fathers of the Church.

While many people are probably aware of various heresies that existed during the early centuries, most famous among them Arianism and Nestorianism, as well as Apollinarianism, this book doesn’t concern itself with these heresies per se, they are only brought up in the context of patristic Christological development after Origen. Beeley recasts the narrative of the patristic golden age of the Fathers to show the tension between revered saints and churchmen in the Christian tradition. In doing so, he highlights two principal strands of Christological thinking that would influence the various ecumenical councils, especially Constantinople and Chalcedon.

In sum, there are two competing Christologies from the “orthodox camp”: a unitive Christology and an implicitly dualistic Christology. The dualist Christological strand is best exemplified in St. Athanasius of Alexandria, the supposed hero of Nicaea, but who was, in fact, not as influential as later received tradition made him out to be. Beeley highlights the “Logos Christology” of Athanasius in his confrontation (highly polemical) with Arius and other opponents (namely, pagans). Athanasius has two goals: Defend Christianity as eminently rational against the pagan critics charging Christianity to be an irrational religion, and show how Christ truly is Son of God in the fullest sense contra Arius. However, in doing so, Athanasius develops a very dualistic Christology. Although bringing the Logos into human form (hence the unity), Athanasius wants to protect the Divine Nature of Christ from his humanity and human suffering. This leads to a tension in Athanasius’ Christology. What we have, in effect, are two natures that act and are acted upon separately. The Divine Nature of Christ doesn’t suffer the human temptations or even Passion and crucifixion! Athanasius defends divine impassibility so much that he splits Christ into two halves that don’t really “mix.”

The Unitive Christology largely builds from Origen and Eusebius, but go beyond them (as there are implicit dualistic tendencies in both men, especially Origen) through the writings of Gregory Nazianzen, Augustine, and Cyril of Alexandria. The unitive Christologies strongly emphasize the united nature of Christ: both God and Man, the Godman. For Gregory and Augustine especially, the Godman, Christ, does really suffer all the human temptations and sufferings—divine nature included.

For Gregory, the principal reason for the united Christ is to redeem the sufferings of the human flesh by having God assume suffering human flesh. Moreover, this necessitates a human will and mind so as to rescue our corrupted human will and mind and bring full participation into the divine life. Gregory’s Christology is primarily one of the redemption of the flesh through the mixing of the divine immortality to transform corporeal mortality into immortality.

Augustine’s Christology follows largely the same line of reasoning as Gregory, but Augustine’s more principal reason for a united Christology is for love. The “totus Christus” of Augustine is united through love. By assuming human flesh and suffering and dying for us, God showed the magnanimity of his love and mercy for the world. Additionally, it is fitting for God to have done so because we, as creatures, desire love—God who is Love becomes human and raises human nature into the divine nature through Love itself. This allows humans to know and love in this life in preparation for knowing and loving in the next.

Cyril, who cites Athanasius and Gregory, thus producing the false impression of Athanasius as the great unitive authority of the fourth century (he was not!), largely follows the Gregorian Christology for much the same reason. God must assume fallenness (human flesh) in order to redeem it. However, in various letters and theological conflicts, Cyril runs two courses. Where the hand of Athanasius is influential, Cyril moves in a more dualistic direction. Where Gregory has the upper hand of influence, Cyril charts a unitive direction. In the end, Cyril’s moderate unitive Christology is not as unified as it appears, especially when compared to Gregory and Augustine.

There are many other figures whom Beeley discusses including Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose of Milan, Gregory of Nyssa, Leo of Rome, Maximus the Confessor, and John of Damascus. Beeley also shows the complexities of the Christologies of these thinkers. All of the men sampled can either fall in the unitive or dualistic Christological camp. Some, perhaps, showing influence of both, might be said to be moderate in this regard. Hilary is a moderate unitary Christologist who has strong dualistic tendencies at times. Ambrose is a unitive thinker. Gregory of Nyssa is very much a dualist. So are Leo and John of Damascus. Maximus is the final great unitive Christological theology at the close of the patristic age.

This book is written for moderately well-read scholars, thinkers, or laypersons in Christology or Early Christian history and theology. It would be difficult, in my estimation, for someone with little background into these controversies to pick up the book and find it helpful. However, those who have read the early Fathers in some capacity, are familiar with these disputes, will find this short but scholarly work extremely helpful. In teaching Augustine myself (I wrote my thesis on Augustine at Yale and have published on Augustine somewhat modestly in real life), I have tried to strongly emphasize how Augustine is a “unitive” thinker in all respects (not just Christology), especially his theology/philosophy of love. The section on Augustine is illuminating and very helpful in this regard. As such, this is a book I would recommend for those who have done some dappling in Patristics for clarity and insight.

Even in reading the dualistic theologians, there was much insight that opened my eyes to the tensions in Christian Christology. Cultural context clearly influenced some early Fathers more than others (Eusebius and Athanasius) while others were remarkably consistent irrespective of the changing winds of the time (Gregory of Nazianzen and Augustine). To highlight one example from the cultural context reality: Christ as liberator of the fallen human mind (found especially in Eusebius and Athanasius) are influenced by the fact that Christianity was becoming an ascendant religion (Eusebius) and was being attacked as irrational (Athanasius). Eusebius, looking at the spread of Christianity, confirmed the incarnational purpose of freeing man from idolatry and returning him to a rational relationship with the Creator. Athanasius, in confronting his critics, went to extreme lengths—drawing on the gospel of St. John—to emphasize Christ the Logos (re-popularized nowadays by Jordan Peterson) that the purpose of the incarnation (“Against the Pagans-On the Incarnation”) is to restore man’s rational nature which has been lost due to Original Sin and the Fall.

In the end, Chalcedon and post-Chalcedonian orthodoxy seems to be a messy conglomeration of these two “orthodox” strands of Christology. The “two-nature” language owes from Leo’s Tome and heavily incorporates the major dualist Christological thinkers (as is the theology of divine impassibility) . At the same time, the emphasis on “One and the Same” and Christ’s “single-subject,” as well as the acceptance that God did, in fact, suffer (not just the human part of Jesus), show the influential of unitive theologians (largely thanks to Cyril’s influence and reception in the East where all the major Ecumenical Councils were held). Lastly, Beeley highlights how the Alexandrian school of Christology—largely credited as pioneering unitive Christology against the heavily dualistic Antiochene school—is, in fact, still very dualistic in many regards.

Christopher Beeley
The Unity of Christ: Continuity and Conflict in the Patristic Tradition
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012; 391pp.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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1 comment

  1. Have you read Martin Chemnitz’ “De Duabus Naturis in Christo”? (English Translation, “The Two Natures in Christ,” Preus, J.A.O., Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO, 1971.


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