Dr. Edward Peters 

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10 jan 2013

Review of Daniel Keating, The appropriation of divine life in Cyril of Alexandria (Oxford 2004) 315 pp.

Edward Peters, Review of D. Keating, The appropriation of divine life in Cyril of Alexandria (2004) in Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly 29/3 (Fall 2006) 64-65.

While at a popular level, invocations of the Spirit are common in post-conciliar pastoral practices, genuine contributions to the science of pneumatology are also being made in our lifetime, albeit with less fanfare. Advancements in studies of the Holy Spirit are not easily achieved, however, despite the relatively underdeveloped state of these studies as compared to, say, Christology or ecclesiology. Serious contributions require authors with sophisticated backgrounds in Scripture, patrology, systematics, and the language skills necessary to support critical research in such fields. To put it briefly, pneumatologists need to be very comfortable in Minge, and all that implies. But more than this, they require, in my opinion, men and women with a prayer life equal to the intellectual challenges being imposed on them, for so much of the work that needs to be done in pneumatology must be carried out on academic sources and under conditions hardly distinguishable from those in which foundational texts on the Holy Spirit were first laid down, that is, when most theology was being done by bishops and monastics. Dr. Daniel Keating’s monograph, The appropriation of divine life in Cyril of Alexandria, a significantly expanded (by some 30,000 words) form of his doctoral dissertation from Oxford, shows him to be the sort of scholar needed to advance our understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit.  


Dr. Keating, I suspect, did not set out to write work on the Holy Spirit, of course: his stated aim was to present Cyril of Alexandria’s explanation of divinization, specifically, the process of our appropriation of the divine life over time from a God who works outside of time, and to answer, or at least to refine, some vexing questions about Cyril’s Christology (especially his understanding of the Incarnation). But one can read hardly a few pages past Keating’s excellent overview of Cyril’s life in the introduction, before encountering the seminary professor’s first remarks on Cyril’s hitherto under-appreciated (in my opinion) efforts to explore the role of the Holy Spirit in Christ’s salvific work.


Keating examines Cyril’s use of Scripture, of course, and carefully assesses the latter’s creative juxtaposition of, for example, baptismal and Eucharistic narrations (and some elaborations thereon in other Old and New Testament passages) on its own merits—albeit not in a way that ignores modern exegesis of these texts. Indeed, in several places, Keating confronts modern commentators (e.g., Burghardt, Grillmeier, and Meunier) on Cyril and gently but firmly asks of these and others whether the conventional explanation that Cyril simply moved from a pre-Nestorian physicalist explanation of divinization, to a post-Nestorian “divination by spiritualization” needs some refinement.


Keating repeatedly makes the point that Cyril’s eclectic interests (well, aside from the saint’s fundamental focus on Christ, of course) and his incomplete systematics leads to some inconsistencies in Cyril’s theology. But I think it a special strength of Keating’s work that, besides frequently looking at Cyril in comparison to Athansius and Origen (and in a semi-independent essay, such figures as Augustine and Leo the Great), Keating underscores the importance Cyril’s diffuse, and therefore somewhat neglected, biblical commentaries for their purely theological insights. As a result, Keating can plausibly suggest there to be a greater harmony in Cyril’s writings as a whole than some have seen to date (in large part, I think, because they undervalued Cyril’s appreciation of the pneumatological), but it is not a point Keating presses hard. He sets out the evidence and cogent assessment of same, and leaves others to draw their own conclusions.


Keating does not write for the beginner and those, such as myself, with spotty backgrounds in patristics will, I frankly say, need to read this book slowly, a comment that has nothing to do with Keating’s writing style, which I found consistently accessible. But such efforts will be rewarded at several levels, including: first, one’s coming away with renewed confidence that, underneath the at-times superficial shouting about the Holy Spirit’s being at work today, there has always been a sophisticated and rich bedrock of doctrine waiting to be mined; and, second, that in scholars such as Keating, the Church has men and woman capable of bringing that theology to surface for the rest of us to use and enjoy.