The Crisis of Visible Divinity

Kirsten Sanders on Brian Daley

Brian Daley. God Visible: Patristic Christology Reconsidered. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. $93.00 (hardcover).

The opening chapter of Brian Daleys God Visible introduces an earnest church historian. He has set out on the railways of post-war Europe, making himself as silent and inconspicuous as possible in railway carriages.”  He is hoping to encourage scholars to participate in a Festschrift to commemorate the fifteenth centenary of the Council of Chalcedon.  Editing this collection would require great determination on his part; due to the War, theological faculties had dispersed, libraries were under-resourced, and even paper was scarce, but our resourceful historian perseveres, traveling to Leuven, Brussels, and Paris to encourage contributors to participate in the volume.

Word traveled and our earnest scholar is invited to a Patristics conference at Oxford in 1951, convened by the great F.L. Cross.  The conference occurs only a year after Pious XII’s Humani Generis, which condemned “eirenism…under the mark of virtue.”  In fact, Jesuit superiors in Rome had forbidden members to attend this “crypto-ecumenical gathering,” but our intrepid historian had already left home for the conference when the letter prohibiting his attendance arrives at his home. At the conference he gives a paper that not only identifies and challenges the predominant assumptions of his day but capitalizes on a quiet resurgence in Catholic theology.  The paper is so well-received that our young hero develops it into a book, which eventually becomes a three-volume work that is now the standard text in the study of the development of Christological thought. In other words, the opening chapter of Brian Daley’s God Visible reads like a John LeCarre novel if LeCarre had written for theologians.

Anyone who reads any theology at all knows that this is not a common opener- we specialize in verbiage more genteel, more allusive, and so plodding as to appear almost sedentary. But Daley’s opener is not a gimmick. The suspense is real, in his mind, and the crisis that will lead to a dramatic conclusion is warranted by the historical circumstances at hand. The second world war presented a double challenge to theologians. Not only were the material circumstances- university life and its accommodations- unavailable, the philosophical underpinnings of intellectual life were under threat. How can one think of contemplating dialectical principles, when oppositions outside one’s door lead to daily bloodshed?

Theology has often been done in times of “crisis”- hat tip to Karl Barth. But that it ought to be, or that it can be done, does not seem a foregone conclusion. That crisis produces good thought is not an example of Hegel’s dialectic, the two opposing forces that like carbon and time-pressure produce a diamond. Crisis, at least like that of human conflict, produces pressure that crushes, annihilates, destroys. Post-traumatic growth is not inevitable. Two opposing realities— oil and water, perhaps, or fire and ice- do not necessarily produce a third thing, refined of the best qualities of the two separately.  Oil and water refuse to mix, the oil becoming an unpleasant skin on the otherwise clear liquid.  Fire sets upon the ice and slowly melts it, turning what was once a solid entity into water.  When opposites mix, when the natural world comes under pressure, positive outcomes are not always guaranteed.


As specialists might have guessed, the man on the train is Aloys Grillmeier, author of the magisterial Christ in Christian Tradition. The influence of Grillmeier’s scholarship cannot be overstated in the theological disciplines. Grillmeier’s two-volume Christ in Christian Tradition traces the development of thought about Christ from the apostolic age to the ninth century.  Meticulous and somewhat plodding, Grillmeier’s style suits the Christian tradition’s (finicky and somewhat plodding) treatment of the person of Christ.  What is sometimes thought of as a single question solved by a consensus at Chalcedon is more like a few generations of family squabbles dominated by the loudest but not necessarily the sharpest voice in the room.  What emerges from the Council of Chalcedon (451) is less a diamond under pressure, and more a lowest common denominator family truce, it’s famous “alpha privatives” (without change, confusion, separation or division) intended to satisfy Cyril of Alexandria, but not to arrive at a final conclusion.

You see, in Christ we have a kind of crisis, not of equal and opposite forces but of God and human.  These two realities- God and not-God- are not a dialectic.  The crisis is not the collision of two opposing forces, but a crisis of what to call the one who appears.  We have not oil and water, who stubbornly remain unmixed, or fire and ice with their destructive consequence, but one perfectly ordinary (by all appearances) human being. The crisis is not for Christ, the one who appears, but for those who saw him.


Grillmeier’s Christ in Christian Tradition identifies two ways of speaking about how God became man in Christ.  The first, Logos-sarx, refers to the eternal Son taking flesh (sarx) by replacing one aspect of a preexistent human person.  So the eternal Son “replaced” something of the human person (Apollinarius thought the something replaced was the human “nous”, or soul).  The individual that resulted was human, but without a human soul and with the addition of a divine one.  The individual that resulted was human, sort-of.  It resembles a divine-human robot, with the human flesh “controlled” or “operated” by the divine addition.  When it comes to the most tricky questions about Christ’s humanity, such as his suffering or temptation, this model leaves a lot to be desired.

If the Logos-sarx-model conceives of an external union, where God inhabits a human form, the Logos-anthropos model (Grillmeier’s second form) aims for an internal union.  In this version of things, God truly becomes human, including all the operations of soul, mind, and will that accompany humanity.  God becomes really human, experiencing all of the passions and change that humanity entails.  The union in this second version is from the inside, a “true union,” and is the form that is grasped at with the Council of Chalcedon. This is the broad sketch of early Christian thought about Jesus that Aloys Grillmeier argued in two volumes.  It is the broad sketch that has dominated Christian theology since its publication in 1965.  And it is the broad sketch that Brian Daley, in a very careful and considered way, will challenge.

For Daley, Grillmeier’s work, though irreplaceable, leads to painting the whole of early Christian thought as if it was self-consciously leading to the year 451, and as if all that followed was simply a recapitulation of the Chalcedonian consensus.  As Robert Willken notes (and Daley quotes), views of the triumph of Chalcedon” narrative are more dogmatic than historical”, a habit of theologians who consult history only when it suits them.  Daley’s concern with this misreading is not simply its historical laziness, reading the Council as if it descended from heaven on a sheet.  It’s the way such a reading risks missing Christ himself, not the result of an equation but the Son of Man.

Daley’s chief concern, therefore, is not simply correcting the reception of Chalcedon; it is about renewing the heart of Christology. Daley notes that Grillmeier himself was involved in such a renewal.  This period of what is sometimes called ressourcement included such figures as de Lubac, Karl Rahner, von Balthasar, Chenu, and Yves Congar.  This period of ressourcement focused on recovering the sources of the early Church as sources, lively generative texts that offered intellectual and spiritual liberation from the abstract, dogmatic rationalism of the officially recognized scholastic manuals used in seminaries.” This renewal, this reapproach of the “heart” of the matter, is the task the Brian Daley himself is set upon.  Cast in the shadow of Grillmeier’s courageous quest and Chalcedon’s own contentious one, Daley offers his own attempt.

One way to engage this reading of the Council of Chalcedon would be simply to draw attention to the various developments that occurred after 451, most notably Justinian’s recapitulation of Cyril of Alexandria’s insistence on the unity of the subject in Christ.  But Daley is after something different.  Daley’s means of renewing the heart of Christology is to turn the reader’s attention from dispute and formulas toward the person of Christ, the one who is seen, the one who is visible.

He does this by re-engaging Christological queries beginning with the second-century and ending with the Iconoclastic controversy.  In each chapter, Daley deftly re-engages topics that have been extremely well trod, with an eye toward how each might contribute toward our understanding of Chalcedon’s heart.

His chapter on the period “After Chalcedon” exemplifies this particularly well.  Grillmeier notes that up to this point he has been revisiting early Christian scholars to expand our reception of them:

“If one reads what ancient authors themselves have to say about Christ, without particularly looking for the relation of their Christology to the Chalcedonian formula, or asking how much their portrait of Christ did or did not anticipate the Chalcedonian model, one finds a much wider range of concerns and priorities- indeed, a sense that practically all the questions we raise, as Christians, about God and the world, ourselves and our future, are rooted and mirrored the questions we raise about the person of Christ.”

So with Leontius (writing between 540-553) in Daley’s hand we see a thinker not hammering out a formula but contemplating the mode of the union between God and the world.  The question in this period shifts from the nature of the union to the logic of it: how does the relation between hypostasis and physis designate a means for God to be truly seen?

For Leontius the key lies in understanding “the relationship between ‘what’ and ‘this.’’ Christ as the single divine hypostasis- “this” one and not another— possesses a set of uninterchangeable idiomata, or particularizing features.  As God, he is the one that Christ is- but he is God humanly, as Christ.  So these sets of particularizing features (divinity, which remains invisible) and humanity (which is rendered visible) are set in a relationship of its own.  It is this relationship between the nature and hypostasis, between the universal and the particular, that allows God to be seen.

It is this set of relationships that Daley thinks Leontius is most concerned with.  Christ as the Son shares a unique relationship to God, as one of the Trinity.  And yet as Jesus, Christ shares a real relation with all of humanity, as one of us. These relationships are nested in Christ, ontologically internal to the union— they are who Christ is.  (This is what it means to say that the union between divine and human is “hypostatic”.)

But it is not the hammering out of vocabulary here that matters for Leontius or Daley, but the means whereby these relations in Christ render possible our relationship to God.  “The person of Christ,” Daley writes, “fully God and fully human in the functional realms where he lives and acts, reveals how God works in the created world to save and transform all of us.” For Leontius, for many patristic thinkers, and so it seems for Daley, the work of Christ is the union itself.  The union of one concrete individual, in whom all things were created, in whom only one human is seen and yet all of humanity is indicated.  “Divinity and humanity…never cross their ontological or behavioral barriers” and yet God is rendered visible to his many disciples.

In the American context, the relationship between teacher and student is often a complicated one, known perhaps more for its failures than its success.  But to have had a true teacher is a real gift.  To be the recipient of anothers mind is to share for that time another person’s interior life.  A good teacher remains ones own for a lifetime, even when the student and teacher are separated—this is a friendship of the minds that can be lifelong.

In The Invisible God, Brian Daley picks up Grillmeier’s two-volume work and says “yes, and.”  He takes Grillmeier’s two categories and moves to enlarge them, to move beyond the dialectic of either/ or, to remind the reader that the God who is known in Christ exists not as the constellation of opposites, or a confusion or mixture of them, but in the one Christ, the God-man, the one who is seen and who teaches. And so Daley stands among the cloud of witnesses with their mouths agape, contemplating the one who is more than the sum of a formula and is the heart of all creation.  For they saw him, the invisible God, and then he disappeared from their sight.

Kirsten Sanders is a theologian interested in Christology and questions of material embodiment. She is passionate about teaching specialists and non-specialists how to think theologically.  She is working on an introduction to theological anthropology for laypeople and a book that examines the relationship between Christology and women’s embodiment.