This book seeks an understanding of the natural theology and classical background of the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa). The author adds a fourth person to this traid in the person of Macrina, whose role as an interlocutor in Nyssa's writings is taken as proof of actual input by this exceptionally well-educated woman (p. 108). The title belies the fact that the book's primary focus is on these figs. Pelikan is preoccupied with the Cappadocians' use of apophatic method in theology (p. 92), that is, the analyses of the idea of God through his negative attributes. In linguistic terms, this meant negation by use of the alpha privative in Greek words like "formless," "unpalpable," "invisible," inasmuch as "all language about the divine is inadequate" (p. 44). Put another way, it is a system of first determining terminologically what God is not: everything from his impassibility to the view that He is "One who is truly above all names" (p. 213). This is the reverse of kat aphasis or "affirmation of divine attributes," a characteristic, for example, of Greek myth. But apophasis is in essence a negative epistemology that controls metaphor and analogy, and eliminates myth with its corollary, the need for allegorical interpretation.
Pelikan's analysis takes the "Hellenism" of the Cappadocians as its starting point. For him this cultural category is bound up primarily with the Greek philosophical tradition, although the Greek Hellenismos was in the fourth century generally conceded to have a broader scope, embracing everything from pagan temple ritual to the pre-philosophical content of the paddies (the primary texts of Greek education in grammar and rhetoric like the Homeric poems, the tragedians, historians, etc.). It is unlikely that the Cappadocians' anthropology (as opposed to theology) can have failed to have been shaped by this (so for example Pelikan's discussion of the term arete "excellence"). But the reader should be aware that the discussion stresses the philosophical background of the three men and Macrina.
The body of the work is not, thankfully, a neat essay with an a priori thesis and all loose ends tied together. Rather it is an empirical analysis based on a thorough reading of the Cappadocian corpus with extensive quotations. As such the book makes few concessions to the reader. A synthetic reading of these texts has long been a desideratum, and so Pelikan's handling of the subject is most useful to scholars seeking a new understanding of the origins of the Christian Sophistic and the acculturation of the new religion to the Greek paddies.
It is hardly possible to summarize Pelikan's treatment of the subject, but a precis of some points will hopefully clarify the possibilities available to the reader. Thus, a carefully worked-out argument in favor of monotheism pervades the Cappadocians' works (pp. 77ff.), a telling comment on the cultural fact that the establishment of a Christian empire was far from being a foregone conclusion in the later fourth century. Indeed, by treating this dimension of the subject, Pelikan has given full expression to the arguments being pressed in the schools of Alexandria even in the late fifth century on behalf of Christian monotheism, as we learn from the pen of Zachariah of Mytilene, who with the philoponoi made regular use of the Cappadocians' natural theology in debates with the pagan sophists. The student of late Hellenic religion will discover many subjects in Pelikan's work that preoccupied Christian polemicists in the fourth and fifth centuries: dream interpretation (p. 63), Euhemerism p. 78), Christian hexaemeron works in contrast to the vogue for Plato's Timeaus (pp. 95f.), tyche and chance (p. 100), rejection of astrology (pp. 156f., etc.), daemons and their apokatastasis (pp. 324ff.), baptism of catechumens (pp. 299f.), and so forth. In essence, we have the models of argumentation used by Christian catechists everywhere in the Greek East against Hellenic theology and philosophy. It should not be difficult to project the fruits of Pelikan's work on the Cappadocians into the cultural and social context of the eastern Mediterranean towns: Christian Platonism (as opposed to mere Platonism, p. 20) could expose the "evil skill of the Aristotelian syllogism" and at the same time make use of lines from Homer's Odyssey in the epigraph of a letter (p. 17). If the cosmological myth of Plato's Timaeus was influential, knowledge of its argument is practically presupposed by the Cappadocians; but literary myth in Greek poetry was deemed unreformable and not a suitable vehicle for expressing theological ideas.
There is one caution that bears notice. It might occur to the reader that the thought of the individual members of the triad (or tetrad, with Macrina) differed inasmuch as each of them possessed an individual approach; but Pelikan mixes their statements as though something like a unified system of "Cappadocian thought" existed. While admitting that discussion and correspondence along with Platonism and the paddies gave them a common outlook, one is at times inclined to hope that the author would point out differences of approach among them. Admittedly this was not the object of Pelikan's analysis. This said, the importance of his book is patent. It has provided a firm foundation for the study of the cultural synthesis of Christianity and the Greek paddies in the post-Cappadocian period.
Frank R. Trombley