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Review of Brian E. Daley’s God Visible: Patristic Christology Reconsidered

Friday 23 August 2019

By Adam Renberg, PhD Candidate in Historical Theology at the University of St. Andrews


Daley, Brian E. God Visible: Patristic Christology Reconsidered (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Brian Daley’s recent book, God Visible: Patristic Christology Reconsidered, seeks to shift how Christology is approached by scholars studying the early church. Or, more specifically, to de-center the Council of Chalcedon as the lens in which Christology is viewed, to allow for more space for differing perspectives and motivations in this period. He seeks “to look at the development of the classical Christology of the early Church apart from the lens of the Chalcedonian definition, as well as through it: to attempt to identify what the major patristic writers themselves, from the second century on, thought most important about the person and identity of Christ, what they chose to emphasize rhetorically and conceptually.” (24) For Daley, this is primarily a critique of Aloys Grillmeier’s “Word-flesh” and “Word human-being” models, which is guided and interpreted, according to Daley, by western scholastic dogma. Thus, his survey presents a new narrative of patristic Christology, one not predicated on a specific conception of Christ, but motivated by the plurality of perspectives emphasized in works dwelling on Christ incarnate.

Daley begins his text in Ch. 1 with a brief sketch of post-WWII patristic studies, while simultaneously critiquing their underlying assumptions—thus marking out the purpose and proposal for his project. His patristic research begins in Ch. 2 with some of our earlier Christian writers: The Odes of Solomon, Ignatius of Antioch, The Ascension of Isaiah, Melito of Sardis, and Justin Martyr. He draws out various common Christological threads, including a high Christology which emphasizes the prophetic fulfillment of Christ from the OT, the centrality of the cross, and the importance of Christ in the Eucharist. In Ch. 3, Daley surveys the theology of Irenaeus and Origen, arguing they both hold to a ‘“Christology of divine epiphany’—or, put more clumsily but perhaps more clearly, a ‘Christology of the saving self- manifestation of God the Word.’ In this, Daley demonstrates their use and prioritization of the whole biblical narrative, over (but not necessarily against) philosophical and ontological reflection on Christ.

Moving into the fourth century, Daley begins evaluating the Christology of different figures within broader theological controversies. The first, in Ch. 4, is the Arian controversy, where he discusses the ‘mediatorial Christology’ of Arius, Marcellus, Eusebius, and Athanasius. Daley writes, “It is really a controversy about mediation: about the way in which the Scriptural God, as the supreme and infinite being, the source of all, is related to the world Christians confess he has created and redeemed through Christ.” Continuing to the theological debate between Apollinarius, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa, in Ch. 5, he identifies how these writers begin to emphasize Christ’s transformation power in becoming man. Taking a ‘break’ from figures bound in Christological controversy, Daley discusses the Christology of Augustine of Hippo—which has previously been deemed as unremarkable. Daley, in direct opposition to this assessment, argues that Augustine views Christ as the ‘way’ in which one is able to understand divine wisdom—an eschatological vision of happiness through contemplation of the divine and human (historical) Christ. Thus, Christology is not a tangential doctrine for the church doctor, but is central to Augustine’s theological vision. In Ch. 7, Daley finally makes his way to the council which has been pivotal to so many: Chalcedon. He discusses the different schools of theology, of Antioch and Alexandria, and the ‘students’ therein: Diodore, Theodore, Nestorius, Theodoret, and Cyril. The great merit to this chapter is his charitable attitude to each of the figures (as in the whole work) and his ability to parse out their respective emphases on the natures of Christ (the former being the ‘otherness’ of God, the latter being the divine ‘involvement’ in human life), which led to the Nestorian controversy and their disagreement.

In the last several chapters, Daley continues to discuss Christological controversies after Chalcedon, reaffirming his conviction that Chalcedon is not the ‘end’ of Christology. Ch. 8 parses out the ‘relationship’ Christology theology of Leontius of Byzantium, Maximus the Confessor, and John of Damascus, who had “a new sense of the paradigmatic importance simply of the person of Christ, in its very structure, for revealing God’s way of saving and transforming humanity—for attaining the goal of creation itself.” (202-3) This included increased attention to philosophical considerations surrounding the functions and parameters for the natures of Christ. In Ch. 9, Daley surveys the iconoclastic controversy, spending less time with individual figures and allows the history of the controversy to drive his narrative. Here, he argues that Christology is the primary concern. He writes, “God, in a new way, had become visible, and that visibility engaged the heart as well as the senses.” For Daley, the nature of icons is predicated on our understanding of Christ. Finally, in his last chapter, he concludes with six general insights into patristic theology from the text and from a lifetime of research. These insights are exceptionally valuable to students and researchers alike.

God Visible: Patristic Christology Reconsidered is an insightful survey and a significant addition to the field but falls victim to the plight of many surveys: it does not dwell long enough on specific figures (or at least, on the specific aspects of these writers) and their text to support many of his claims or to add much to their fields at large, by way of analysis. This is especially clear in his second chapter, where some of his claims about the guiding threads in second century Christology are not substantiated or clear from the texts given. Further, some of the research is not up to date, such as the work on Eusebius and the Arian Controversy, and presents slightly archaic ways of categorizing figures and theological trends—such as the ‘Antiochene’ and ‘Alexandrian’ schools of theology. But, by shifting our lens off of Chalcedon, Daley allows us to better understand and assess Christology before and after the fifth century.

Brian Daley’s research has added many tremendous contributions for the field of patristics—this book is no different. In some regards, it is the culmination of a long and fruitful research career in theology and patristic studies. It is impressive in its breadth and knowledge, drawing conclusions from a lifetime of reading the Fathers. But it is perhaps better viewed as the summation of his teaching career, at Weston School of Theology and Notre Dame. No, it is not as detailed and up to date as many scholars (including this one) would hope, but it does make patristic Christology accessible to a wide audience and captures what is at stake in the field: the incarnate Christ, for the Fathers (as it should be for the modern church), is central to Christian faith. “The saving reality of Christ is God made present in our midst: ‘God with us.’ It is God visible—our brother.” (280) In this sense, Daley has done a great service to patristic scholars—he has made patristic Christology visible.


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