The Cappadocian Contribution to Christian Theology
by John Drury
“Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Peter 1:4)
As a group of Christian intellectuals, the Cappadocian fathers made countless contributions to Christian theology. In order to reflect systematically on their legacy, I will organize a number of aspects around a single theological theme. For a theme to be worthy of centralization it must serve as a thread that ties much if not all of their theology together. Salvation-as-theosis is such a thread. After briefly describing the basic contours of this soteriological center, I will discuss six discrete Cappadocian contributions to Christian theology. I aim to suggest that the Cappadocian fathers not only developed the doctrine of salvation but also were operating in this particular soteriological framework throughout all their numerous theological contributions.
The Cappadocians were indirectly schooled by the Alexandrian tradition, wherein theosis received considerable theological attention. Athanasisus – the great Alexandrian theologian who was active a generation before the Cappadocians – summed up salvation-as-theosis in his famous line, “God was humanized that we may be divinized.” Yet even for Athanasius the theme was underdeveloped, as the meaning of divinization was generally (though not exclusively) limited to the bestowal of immortality onto humanity. It was this particular divine attribute that caught the eye of Athanasius and drove his apologetic and dogmatic theology. It was left to the Cappadocians to unpack the wider significance of human participation in the whole divine life. Their entire corpus can be read as a training session for how to participate in the divine nature.
The first contribution for which theosis has direct relevance is the doctrine of God. One cannot speak coherently about the participating in the divine nature without an understanding of said divine nature. Despite contemporary portrayals of them as “Social Trinitarians,” the Cappadocian were thoroughly and even primarily interested in the theologia. Nowhere do they start with the economia of God and work backwards. Rather, they consistently apply their skills as natural theologians to speak of the nature (ousia) of God, and then turn to three persons (hypostases). Such a focus makes sense in their theosis framework, for salvation is located in God’s very eternal being.
Of course, the Cappadocians did not discuss the doctrine of God in a vacuum. The particular context of this discussion was the controversy with the “Macedonians” who opposed the divinity of the Holy Spirit. One of the key Cappadocian arguments for the divinity of the Holy Spirit was that since the Spirit makes us holy in baptism, and only God is holy by nature, then the Spirit must have a divine nature. This soteriological argument relies on a particular understanding of salvation that God is making us God-like. Our character is being transformed into his. Hence the Spirit’s role as sanctifier requires that he be divine. Such an argument would not function outside a salvation-as-theosis framework.
The Cappadocians not only addressed the person and work of the Spirit, but also the person and work of the Son. The Cappadocians asserted against Appolinaris that the second person of the trinity assumed a complete human being – body and soul. The crux of the argument was that the purpose of the divine-humanity unity in Christ was the divinization of his (and our) human nature. Hence salvation is incomplete if the human nature is incomplete. As Gregory Nazianzen famously averred, “What is not assumed is not healed.” Gregory of Nyssa developed this idea more fully, expressing it through the rich imagery of the shepherd who placed the lost sheep (humanity) on his shoulders to bring it home. The nature of their arguments shows forth that theosis provided the substructure upon which this crucial Christological development was built.
The Cappadocian contribution to Christian theology is not limited to these three “controversial” considerations. Christianity has also inherited a rich “practical” legacy from the Cappadocians. I will mention three, all of which depend on an understanding of salvation-as-theosis. The first is Cappadocian pedagogy. The Cappadocian fathers encouraged the proper use of pagan sources in order to encourage Christian virtue. Classical and Christian sources formed the character of their readers. This formative process was not ancillary to salvation, as the very character of God was imbued in the world, the texts, and the teachers. By study, one is not so much informed about God as formed by God into God. Such a formative view of education only makes theological sense if salvation is the divinization of the Christian.
Paralleling their pedagogy, the Cappadocian fathers approached exegesis and preaching as formative. The texts themselves were not intended to merely tell stories or establish laws. All scripture is God-breath to be useful. Hence even the literal sense of the text had a potent moral value, as the text / teacher formed the imagination of the reader / student so that he or she could see God’s hand in the world and in his or her soul. Hence proclamation always gives way to exhortation, for virtue is not a soteriological afterthought when the heart of salvation is theosis.
Finally, the Cappadocian fathers bequeathed to the Christian tradition a host of ascetical works and a more theologically developed form of ascesis. Renunciation of the “world” and the “flesh” were not merely construed as fleeing from evil and seeking personal holiness. Asceticism meant making contact with the divine holiness available to humanity. One must seek a simple life in order to perceive and participate in the simplicity of God himself. So ascesis is not “mere morality,” but salvific. An understanding of salvation-as-theosis elevates the soteriological relevance of the coordination of divine being and human being. The character of the Christian is not simply ethical; it is soteriological.
The Cappadocians are commonly cited in contemporary theology, so one must be weary of placid summaries of their contribution (including this one). I dare to suggest, however, that one can grasp their numerous contributions as a whole by ascertaining their soteriological center. The Cappadocian development of the doctrine of God, pneumatology, Christology, pedagogy, exegesis, and ascesis appear to be disparate loci unless one can understand salvation-as-theosis. Since the Cappadocians saw salvation as God drawing us into himself, everything from doctrine to education to ethics are approached as instruments to draw us toward God. This is the heart of the Cappadocian contribution to Christian theology.