The Vision of Didymus the Blind

A Fourth-Century Virtue-Origenism

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Grant D. Bayliss
Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     2016.
     304 pages.
     $110.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198747895.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Accounts of the oft-forgotten can serve us well in two distinct ways: first, they may cast light upon an overlooked or misperceived figure or incident and, in so doing, alert us to that to which we were inattentive. Second, they may illumine the way in which we have considered relatively common episodes in history, thereby reframing our perception of the seemingly familiar. With the help of such books, we may better “look at” and also “look along” these historical lights with renewed vision (to borrow a pairing of verbs from C. S. Lewis’s famous “Meditations on a Toolshed”). Grant Bayliss’s The Vision of Didymus the Blind offers this twofold renewal of our vision, that we might see new vistas, and also thereby see new dimensions even on familiar terrain.

Didymus, the fourth-century theologian from Alexandria, has drawn rather limited scholarly attention, at least compared to others from that famed city (such as Origen or Athanasius). His exegetical methods can be related especially to the influence of Origen, as in his adoption of a focus upon the idea of scripture’s difficulty being an intentional prompt for “transformation through remembered virtue” (29, 78-79), or in his approach to “elevated” or anagogical exegesis (see esp. 57-61, 82). But this book also opens up the possibility of looking along with Didymus at the wider world, as Bayliss really does illumine other things via his exposition of Didymus. For example, he shows how Didymus “offers some of the deepest insight into ancient educational settings,” including but not limited by Christian pedagogy (16). By sketching Didymus’s ethical and metaphysical framework and connecting it to his exegetical method, Bayliss can bring some renewed clarity regarding the actual commonalities and divergences between fourth-century Antiochene and Alexandrian exegetical practice (84, emphasizing a “disjunction in cosmology”). Didymus also offers moral arguments for his Origenistic adoption of the preexistence of the soul, showing how only such a tenet guarantees the priority of virtue (116). The volume covers ethical, cosmological, and exegetical facets of Didymus’s thought with breadth and care.

The Vision of Didymus the Blind is very compressed. Sometimes clarity is lost amidst the myriad of observations. For example, Bayliss observes that the chief image employed by Didymus for moral formation is that of “chorus-leader” (over against the archetype), though he does not explain how this metaphor plays out in Didymus’s writings with any specificity, leaving the reader to wonder in what ways this metaphorical world plays differently than would the more common focus on the archetype/type pairing (96-97). Thankfully, most other discussions show a deft sensitivity to tracing Didymus’s (sometimes inconsistent or at least differently accented) versions of a given teaching, as well as their sometimes underdetermined character, as with his rather loose framework used to survey the affections (144), and to identify ways in which the passions function as a “psychological motor towards virtue” (143). Bayliss moves from particular terms and images to a helpful sense of synthesis, such as can be given regarding Didymus’s oeuvre, though Bayliss also pauses to observe the reserve found therein (a reserve prompted by the primarily exegetical nature of Didymus’s vocation, no doubt). Similar reserve can be found in the way in which he gestures parallel to a (Middle) Platonic tripartite view of the soul without actually endorsing such an approach (199-200). While this book serves as a doubly useful light, it also helps by reminding us of the dark places not yet illumined (at least to the degree we might wish) remain in the work of figures such as Didymus. This fourth-century Alexandrian saw and commended much, yet even his spiritual perception did not enable vision of every potential question or disciplinary concern. Bayliss does well to convey Didymus’s vision and his blindness that we might better approach him and his contexts with sensitivity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Allen is Associate Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.

Date of Review: 
October 4, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Grant Bayliss has lectured on the life and theology of the early church in both Cambridge and Oxford Universities and is currently Lecturer in Liturgy and Patristics at Ripon College Cuddesdon, Oxford.

Keywords: 

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