In The Divine Sense A. N. Williams provides an insightful and much needed account of the role of the intellect in patristic theology. Struck by the ease with which early Christian writers move back and forth in their works between theology and spirituality, she focuses her energy on a twofold task: uncovering the contemplative aspects of texts regarded as dogmatic and polemical and making explicit the theological dimension of works deemed solely ascetical. Crucial to this undertaking is Williams's contention that patristic authors use the intellect as a connective principle to bind together the various elements in the texts that comprise their vision of Christianity. For Williams, then, early Christian texts are systematic in that their authors exhibit a concern for different forms of reasoning, coherence, and organization that revolve around the intellect as a principle of unity and relation. As a result of her meticulous attention to detail, what emerges from the first book-length treatment of this subject is a portrait of patristic theology that is radically distinct from pagan philosophy, contemplative and hierarchical in orientation, and dynamic and relational at its core.
In order to accomplish this task, Williams selects a representative sampling of texts drawn from a wide range of authors from the beginning of the patristic era up to the fifth century. The scope of her inquiry includes the apostolic fathers together with Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian (chapter 1), Clement and Origen (chapter 2), Nazianzen and Nyssen (chapter 3), Augustine (chapter 4), and Cassian and Evagrius (chapter 5).
Because her approach to these texts is largely comparative in nature, Williams is able to provide a clear sense of the various ways in which these authors are able to harmonize the construction of a theological vision of the divine with the promotion of the spiritual life. Her skepticism regarding the fruitfulness of undertaking a lexical study of these texts, however, leaves the reader in the dark with regard to the precise meanings of terms, such as nous or mens, and their relation to other technical terms that constitute the lens through which ancient authors expressed their understanding of the intellect. Consequently, the core of her argument rests on the assumption that, generally speaking, patristic authors were as reluctant to define terms as they were to incorporate pagan ideas into their texts. By short circuiting the search for pagan philosophical influences on Christian texts, Williams envisions patristic theology as encapsulating a uniquely Christian vision of reality uncontaminated by pagan notions of the intellect.
The thematic nature of her analysis focuses largely on a common set of themes that enables her to demonstrate the relevance of the intellect for understanding patristic texts. In the chapter on Nazianzen and Nyssen, for example, Williams begins the discussion by commenting on the divine attributes and connecting the cosmic ordering of human beings in relation to God and the rest of creation with the presence of the imago dei in the human mind. She then turns her attention [End Page 124] to the psychosomatic unity that is a person in order to explore various themes pertaining to the person: soul and body, mind and will, virtue and passion, wisdom and knowledge, contemplation and asceticism. In other authors she replicates these themes while at the same time respecting the particularities of their thought (e.g., the notion of order in Augustine's thought).
Williams concludes her analysis of the intellect by reflecting on two concerns: the lack of emphasis on the divine intellect during the patristic era and the implications of secularism for the study of theology. The answer to the latter question lies perhaps in Williams's own analysis of patristic texts. As she singles out the human intellect and the intellect's relation to God, the relevance of the Incarnation and the love of God and neighbor as conduits of salvation fail to retain their full value in the here and now. To her credit Williams does at times recognize this fact. But if a renewed interest in lived theology is to occur in the...