The Rev Professor Christopher Stead: Scholar of patristic thought who was the last Ely Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University
Tuesday 24 June 2008
Christopher Stead, former Ely Professor of Divinity, was one of the last living links with Cambridge and Cambridge philosophers of the 1930s. He was born into a family with strong educational and academic connections, his father with Marlborough College, where Christopher was educated, and his mother with Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. From Marlborough, Christopher Stead went to Cambridge as a classical scholar at King's where in his second year (1934) he had the distinction of being made Pitt Scholar. His principal academic interest was in philosophy and so it was a natural move for him to read Part Two of the Moral Sciences Tripos, as the discipline was then known.
He attended the lectures of G.E. Moore, best remembered for his contributions to ethical theory, to the notion of sense data as the assured basis of empirical knowledge and to the solution of conundrums in metaphysics through careful analysis of everyday language. Somewhat surprisingly, Stead did not rate Moore highly as a lecturer, but his own work as a critical scholar of patristic thought was to owe much to Moore's approach.
Of Wittgenstein, he told the story of having invited to tea the distinguished philosopher, who entered his room humming the opening Kyrie eleison of Bach's B minor Mass, music for which Stead had a great love. He was, indeed, a keen performer of Bach, ranging in amateur fashion through the master's complete keyboard works. From Cambridge, he went in 1935 to New College, Oxford where he began work on Kant's Critique of Judgement but found the material rebarbative and lacking intellectual clout.
The year 1938 found Stead at Cuddesdon College, an Anglican seminary, preparing for ordination. His formal training as a theologian was the bare minimum and he remained unduly modest about his want of expertise in run-of-the-mill Biblical studies, Church history outside the patristic period and the like; his doctorate in 1978 was to be the Cambridge LittD and not the DD.
Ordained, he served as curate in Newcastle in 1939, retaining the fond memory of organising a collection of clogs for incoming evacuees. For the rest of the war he was an assistant master at Eton, from where he went to Keble College, Oxford as Fellow and Chaplain from 1949 until 1971. This was to prove a happy period of life (he married Elizabeth Odom in 1958) and that is when he began the scholarly work which was to found his international reputation.
Cheerful anecdotes about him circulated amongst undergraduates, but when a few of them were retailed to him in much later life he disclaimed them all with amusement, observing that their existence explained much in the mythic biographies of Origen and Athanasius. He found the Warden's policy of encouraging at degree level the study of theology by ordinands, regardless of their aptitude, a small tribulation but in general he was a good and effective teacher of all.
In 1971, he succeeded Geoffrey Lampe as Ely Professor at Cambridge, a post which came attached to a canonry. He enjoyed the office, although it entailed shuttling between Cambridge and Ely in the autumn fog of the fens. Stead was to be the last to suffer that inconvenience: the post was suppressed in return for the establishment of two lectureships in the Divinity Faculty. He brought to the study of the Greek and Latin patristic authors a formidable grasp of the texts and of the philosophical background of ideas to which he coupled clarity of expression and a gift for illuminating illustrations.
He acknowledged a special debt to Henry Chadwick, then editor of The Journal of Theological Studies, where some of his most important essays were published, for encouragement and stimulus; many another student of the Fathers would do the same. His main interests lay in the philosophical theology of his chosen authors: Athanasius and Athanasius' bête noire, Arius, Augustine and, still in process of receiving modern editorial treatment, Gregory of Nyssa. But he wrote a good piece on Valentinus and the Gnostic myth of Sophia and could be relied on in debate to speak with authority and insight of all the main thinkers of the period. His best known work is his book Divine Substance (1977) in which he treats the notion of "being" (usia/substantia) historically from Plato and Aristotle onwards through its use in the doctrine of God as presented in Christian writers up to and including the fathers of the Council of Nicaea (325). It is a detailed and technical study but, as always, well-written and of Pennine rather than Himalayan difficulty. The approach is respectful, even devout (in the book it is regularly "St Athanasius" and "St Basil" and in conversation it was always "Our Lord" and not the over-familiar "Jesus"), without flattery or blindness to crude argument and simple misrepresentation.
I twitted him once on patronising the Fathers. Indeed, he could be apprehended as it were arranging them in Tripos Part Two categories: Plato and Aristotle were awarded Firsts, Augustine a near-First (his mistake being to suppose himself the average and typical member of the human species and to describe human nature accordingly), Origen a good 2:1, Athanasius a 2:2 and Gregory of Nyssa might scrape a Third from an indulgent examiner.
Stead believed it a serious hindrance to the development of Christian thought that no trained philosopher appeared before John Philoponus in the sixth century, the patristic theologians being preponderantly men of letters and rhetoricians. But he felt himself to be standing in their tradition and that the issues with which they struggled were real and religiously important.
The respectful criticism levelled against the book was that it treated the subject almost without reference to 20th-century contemporary relevance. It was unjustified, because relevance is mutable, and he makes the adequate reply at the end of the book to John Robinson that "to characterise God as substance is to stake a claim against reductionist theories which in effect represent God as dependent on the human experience which he is invoked to explain".
Stead's work in its entirety received international recognition. Into his eighties, he chaired a graduate seminar and was given a Festschrift for his 80th birthday, Christian Faith and Greek Philosophy in Late Antiquity (1993), from pupils and friends.
He was an assiduous walker and sailor, fond of trains and railways. A German friend summed him up as "an English Christian gentleman". Of late, he had become frail.
Lionel R. Wickham
Christopher George Stead, priest and theologian: born London 9 April 1913; ordained deacon 1938, priest 1941; Curate, St John's, Newcastle upon Tyne 1939; Lecturer in Divinity, King's College, Cambridge 1938-49, Fellow 1938-49, 1971-85, Professorial Fellow 1971-80; Assistant Master, Eton College 1940-44; Fellow and Chaplain, Keble College, Oxford 1949-71, Emeritus Fellow 1981-2008; Ely Professor of Divinity, Cambridge University 1971-80; Canon Residentiary, Ely Cathedral 1971-80 (Emeritus); FBA 1980; married 1958 Elizabeth Odom (two sons, one daughter); died Ely, Cambridgeshire 28 May 2008.
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