Philosophical Wonder and the Biography of Christian Theology

Faced with the daunting task of responding to a work as significant as The Rise of Christian Theology and the End of Ancient Metaphysics, I must admit up front my own limitations, and play to my strengths. I am not a scholar of Patristic thought, nor is my discipline that of historical or systematic theology. And, while having a decent nose for good versus bad scholarship (and this is very good), I cannot play on the margins of a field’s knowledge in the way that most reviews of this sort require in order to generate some “critical” comments. And so, I write as a layman whose fascinations (and teaching) are broad and philosophically synthetic. As such, my comments will tend more to the “abstract” than the “concrete” side of the dialectic so essential (albeit in another context) to the book’s own narrative. And so first, the book’s argument; and second, some comments.

First, the book’s own narrative. In short, Dr. Zachhuber reads Christian theological discourse as a developing philosophy (and therefore as belonging to the common history of philosophy) in its own right. That is to say, the trinitarian and Christological controversies of late antiquity were not simply a matter of artificially “fusing” theology and philosophy together. Rather, the negotiation between dogma and the motions of the human mind proved to be a fertile union for the generation of fresh philosophical progeny. Specifically, Zachhuber claims that  “it was the Christological controversy…which for the first time truly directed intellectual energies towards the task of conceptualizing the individual as individual” (11). Put in broader context, then, “reflection on the Christian faith in its most peculiar and most idiosyncratic element–the postulation that a historical human person was at the same time God–led to profound changes to the intellectual fabric of Western civilization with far-reaching consequences over the centuries and, arguably, into our own time” (11).

Some will, of course, immediately hear echoes of the now-discarded thesis of Zizioulas that the origin of a focus on “the individual” can be found in fourth century trinitarian thought.[1] Fully absorbing the critique of such thinkers, and paying very close attention to an enormous number of texts, Zachhuber argues that by the time of John of Damascus (c.675-749), mediated through centuries of fine-grained Christological controversy, we discover “in reality what scholars have sometimes found in the Cappadocians: a philosophical appreciation of individuality that is rather novel in its radicalness” (309).

The narrative arc defies adequate summary and is full of philosophical detail, but the following is more or less the broad contour of the tale: drawing especially on Origen and Athanasius, the oft-called “Cappadocian” Fathers (Basil of Caesarea [330-379], Gregory of Nyssa [c.335-c.395], and Gregory of Nazianzus [329-389]) initiated a philosophical trajectory that was to dominate Christian discourse for the next several centuries. Primarily systematizing the doctrine of the Trinity over against their own contemporary conflicts, the Cappadocians left the Church at least two philosophical trajectories to follow. Quoting our author at length:

The full Cappadocian account of the Trinity is characterized by a duality of perspectives that I have here called abstract and concrete. They could also be named grammatical and physical or logical and metaphysical. The former is focused on properties grouped together into clusters or bundles which, as such, characterize ousia and hypostasis. It primarily has a logical, epistemic, and thus subjective focus. This account gives the impression that the two terms are clearly distinct; it is therefore unsurprising that it predominates where the purpose of a text was to argue for the legitimacy and indeed the necessity of employing both ousia and hypostasis, each with its own proper meaning and significance. The latter account is based more on physical or metaphysical, objective reality as it appears in its concrete forms of existence. Existence in this sense is tied to individuals but ontologically grounded in universal being which is identical in all of them. In this perspective, the distinction of ousia and hypostasis is less crucial; it is their coherence and continuity that is emphasized. Both sets of properties, after all, appear together in the same individual and indeed in any class of them.


Inheriting this twin-grammar from the Cappadocians, their successors–bedeviled by the Christological controversies–discovered that “the application of Cappadocian philosophy to Christology was far from straightforward. In fact, its particular conceptual strengths turned out to be weaknesses when measured against this new challenge. The outcome, consequently, was a considerable modification of the original Cappadocian philosophy in line with the requirements of the Christological dogma. More precisely, there was no single outcome as there was no single Christological doctrine at the end of late antiquity” (73).

The narrative that follows demonstrates the common authority of the Cappadocian philosophy across what was to be several centuries of debate concerning the person of Christ. There are several ways to account for the widespread influence of their thought, but chief among them was its synthetic power. Cappadocian thought was able to synthesize the doctrines of the Trinity, “creation, the Fall, anthropology, salvation, and the resurrection.” (93) But “applications…to Christology were initially rare.” (93) Particularly controversial was the rise of the “double homoousion.” The Chalcedonian creed defines Christ as “consubstantial” with God in his divinity and “consubstantial” with us in our humanity. Yet, in the context of Cappadocian philosophy, this confession raises many questions. Do both natures exist as hypostases in Christ? Are there two hypostases and two natures? If so, how is Christ’s personal unity maintained? Such questions, Zachhuber argues, led to the clarification of classical terms in ways that, even if sometimes latent in some Cappadocian thought, were nevertheless achievements in their own right.

“The Trinitarian and Christological controversies of late antiquity were not simply a matter of artificially ‘fusing’ theology and philosophy together. Rather, the negotiation between dogma and the motions of the human mind proved to be a fertile union for the generation of fresh philosophical progeny.”

The rest of Zachhuber’s narrative breaks up into two parts, “The Case Against Chalcedon” and “Chalcedonian Transformations of the Classical Theory.” The former section details the gradual interest of the anti-Chalcedonians in the “concrete aspect of the Cappadocian system” (143). Through this interest, the anti-Chalcedonians, as a strand of Patristic philosophy, made a major contribution to the wider history of ideas by “shift[ing] Patristic philosophy from its previous preference for the universal to a stronger emphasis on the particular…Whatever help generic notions of divinity or humanity may offer in understanding the person of Jesus Christ, must therefore be strictly limited by the primary focus on his irreducible individuality” (183). Zachhuber fascinatingly comments on the “conservative design” of miaphysite theology on the whole (182), and one cannot help but contrast it to the way he later writes about how the neo-Chalcedonians “forged a novel path not only for Christology but also for Pastristic philosophy more generally” (214). Neo-Chalcedonian Christology increasingly tended to specify the hypostasis as the locus of existence, and nature as existing only in the existence of hypostases. This would enable such theologians as Leontius of Jerusalem to claim that Christ’s human nature “was only hypostatized ‘in’ the Person of the Divine Logos” (263). Part 3 ends with a discussion of Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus, whose writings Zachhuber labels “the climax” of Chalcedonian philosophy. The discussion defies summary except insofar as to claim that in these figures we see the reunion of concrete and abstract accounts in accord with several post-Chalcedonian trajectories.  In short, we arrive at an ontology of “concrete existence” as such, worked out (especially in Maximus) in and alongside a powerfully synthetic account of creation, incarnation, Trinity, salvation, and Christology. Zachhuber concludes with a brief examination of the “posterity” of patristic philosophy, including the fascinating and continued influence of John of Damascus among early modern theologians and their protégés. He concludes, “It is intriguing to reflect that for all its absence from the major accounts of philosophical history, the intellectual tradition of Eastern Christianity never quite ceased to fascinate and influence its readers throughout the centuries” (321).

With this summary in place (and it is a summary much abbreviated, given the level of detail in Zachhuber’s work), it falls then to this layman to make two appreciative comments–specifically on how the book chronicles the “development of doctrine” and on the role of wonder in the philosophical enterprise.

“Zachhuber paints Cappacodian philosophy as just as fecund and resilient as that of the pre-Socratics and Socratics, whose gestures of the mind led to unexpected places on the frontier of human wonder and knowing–and he is a master of detecting the family resemblance in the difference.”

First: I have always been fascinated by the notion that humans might write a realistic history of, for lack of a better phrase, “understanding God.” What would be entailed, for instance, in really trying to understand what Abraham, David, Paul, Cyril, and Maximus really thought of God relative to our own understanding? If Christians worship the God of Abraham, how does one account for the continuity of belief (not to mention of its object) across such vastly different vocabularies? Said differently, can it really be claimed that Abraham, when he thought of God, thought of the same reality as we? Of course, any such genealogy is easily bedeviled by the tendency to write history teleologically. Analogously, living persons sometimes read their grandparents in such a way that they and their life are the teleological fulfillment of some ancestor’s influence, all the while forgetting that their thousand (and very different) cousins have equal claim to such patronage. As with physical patronage, so with philosophical patronage. Who are the truest inheritors of an originary motion of the mind? One subtle tactic, of course, is to claim that later mature ideas can be shown to be present in “seed form” in what came earlier. Unfortunately, as pressing the analogy might suggest, it could also be said that previous thought was the “seed form” of many possibilities that were never realized—ideas which were never given birth. Once a great school or thinker has become part of “the canon,” we rarely ask what seeds in their intellectual potting sheds failed to sprout, and why. One might also speak of seeds which sprouted from their thought and were later rejected. Zachhuber writes a sort of “development of doctrine” that remarkably escapes such historical determinism without, however, failing to be fascinated by precisely how what came before can be said to have “led” to what came after (especially what he labels the “abstract” and “concrete” accounts of the Cappadocians and their many applications). And while this is obviously not an entire “history of understanding God,” it is a very intimate account of one particular moment in that history—a “few steps” along the path of understanding which permit imagining what an account of “the whole” might look like if done well. 

In this, the book reminds me of Julian Marias’s attempt to write a “biography” of philosophy. Marias is famous for his History of Philosophy, but it is not well-known that he likewise wrote a Biography of Philosophy, treating the Mediterranean philosophical enterprise as having a sort of (analogical) life unto itself as a discourse that migrates across time. To stare at the development of human speech and thought in this manner is not to be bogged down with all of the obvious material and semantic contradictions that are common and inevitable in any real comparison of that sort. What stands out from this vantage point is the fertility of originary motions of the mind to re-assert themselves stubbornly despite the apparent problems that they cause us. Marias’s drama concerns the search for metaphysical unity, the manner in which the pre-Socratic attempt to grasp the whole of things at its most basic level. Such an enterprise, argues Marias, continues to animate the human mind and has proved a fertile discourse for 2500 years.

Zachhuber, on the other hand, paints Cappacodian philosophy as just as fecund and resilient as that of the pre-Socratics and Socratics, whose gestures of the mind led to unexpected places on the frontier of human wonder and knowing–and he is a master of detecting the family resemblance in the difference. This is particularly impressive because it would be easy to imagine such an account that failed to trace the migration of insight from (classically considered) heterodox communities to orthodox ones.  But patterns of thought take on a “life of their own”–not in that they ever incubate outside the hypostasis of particular individuals, but that their influence is often aggregate and irreducible to the particular shades of meaning found in one individual or definition. One might speak of a sort of philosophical “hivemind” not over and above individual minds, but precisely as their aggregate in a singular discourse. As philosopher Stephen R.L. Clark has written, “Words convey more than they say, and never say all that there is” (The Mysteries of Religion, 49). What emerges from an account like Zachhuber’s is that all Christological settlements in Late Antiquity required saying fundamentally new philosophical things, even though all sides saw themselves as simply expounding what the Church had always believed, proclaimed in worship, and articulated in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed. What demonstrates the fruitfulness of the Christological debates is that these new things were able to be synthesized and productive of greater insight in later centuries in the likes of Maximus the Confessor or John of Damascus. And their syntheses in turn shape us still today.

My second comment, and one with which I wish to conclude my response is this: philosophy begins in wonder. This is often a throwaway line in undergraduate philosophy courses, but it remains profoundly true. Philosophical wonder is not navel-gazing (even though the souls of philistines might project such upon it). Rather, wonder is that fertile existential place from which we experience intellectual and moral movement. Inasmuch as this is a book about a distinctly Christian philosophy, and a productive philosophy at that, it brings us into contact with exemplars in wonder. One of the fascinating observations of Zachhuber’s account, on this score, is the role that “theological conservatism” played in the view that ultimately fell afoul of Chalcedon. Now, to speak in such a manner is somewhat anachronistic, and it should certainly not imply that Chalcedonians were (by contrast) “the liberals” of their time. However, broadly speaking, within Zachhuber’s exploration of the Chalcedonian Christological controversies, we can detect two approaches to how the theologian and philosopher defers to the answers that have come before when he finds himself at a seemingly new frontier of human knowing. And interestingly, it would seem that the anti-Chalcedonians had stricter standards about not “moving beyond” previous syntheses and tended toward less bold intellectual innovation. The neo-Chalcedonians, while certainly deferential to their tradition and inspired by the syntheses already achieved by their intellectual ancestors, were nevertheless apparently more willing to make giant leaps of the mind to achieve a greater philosophical vantage point, with the result that they might unexpectedly be said to have discovered new frontiers of wonder.

Of course, the actual details are not so neat, as the language of conservation and progress break down the closer you get to the ground. Even those “conservatives” who treat previous arrangements as an “arrival” that must be defended, for instance, nevertheless find themselves making fascinating intellectual moves to avoid the problems that are pointed out with their systems. And these can in turn, as noted above, play surrogate to greater syntheses when integrated into other frameworks. Such is the history of ideas, ever driven on by wonder. And, at least for this reader, I cannot help but feel the synthetic power of a discourse that remains with us because it has proven faithful over against the many philosophical fads that have come and gone throughout the centuries. To read the Church Fathers, much like reading the Bible to which they stood in closer historical proximity, is both to discover something profoundly foreign and yet strangely evocative to the wondering modern soul. This is (in part) because these texts still shove us into the frontiers of knowing, and the attempt to understand metaphysics in light of this shoving has yielded much fruit. That questions remain is the price (and adventure) of finitude, and this is no innate argument against the explanatory power of a particular idea or ideas per se. Moreover, a book like Zachhuber’s persuades me that we do well to suspect that these Patristic theologians might be good guides even as we face contemporary frontiers. The account Zachhuber has written involves originary motions in some of the Cappadocian fathers–intellectual “starts”–that were sometimes not appreciated until generations later. Arguably, the same remains true today. Contemporary studies of Thomas and Maximus, for instance, demonstrate them to be full of insight that has not yet been excavated clearly. The cry of “ad fontes!”is not the interest of an antiquarian, but, at its best, the cry of a contemporary man who trusts that old masters, whilst they did not fully know, have still not yet been fully known. This is because “words convey more than they say, and never say all that there is.” It is left to the living intellect to mediate, see alongside, and perhaps on occasion, see beyond them.

Dr. Joseph Minich (Ph.D, University of Texas at Dallas) is a Teaching Fellow with The Davenant Institute. He is the author of Enduring Divine Absence (The Davenant Press, 2018), and co-host of the Pilgrim Faith Podcast. He lives in Texas with his wife and children.

[1] See Derrick Peterson’s response to Zachhuber’s book in this same issue for a fuller exploration of Zachhuber’s work in relation to that of Zizioulas.


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