The Christology of Theodore of Mopsuestia

Theodore, Bishop of Mopsuestia, lived from 350-428. A friend of John Chrysostom, he was a proponent of the Antiochene school of biblical exegesis, which focused heavily on what might today be called the “grammatical-historical” interpretation of the text.

Theodore was known in his own day for staunchly defending the full humanity of Christ against the Apollinarians and Arians. Following the basic patristic principle that “what is not assumed is not redeemed,” Theodore maintained against the Apollinarians that Christ had a real human soul, not that the Word took the place of the human soul. Only in this manner could the human soul be redeemed.[1]

A few quotes from Theodore demonstrate his concerns. First, while taking seriously the full humanity of Christ, he sometimes spoke in a way that sounded adoptionist: “He who assumed is God and only-begotten Son; he who is assumed is man.” But elsewhere he made it clear that it was human nature, not a second person, that the Son took on: “It was our very nature that he assumed, clothed himself with and dwelt in…with it He united Himself.”[2] It may be from Theodore that Nestorius derived the notion that the joining of the Word with man resulted in a single prosopon, or single object of perception who could be addressed as God.

On this point he wrote, “When we distinguish the natures, we assert the integrity of the nature of God the Word and the integrity of its prosopon, for a real object (hypostasis) without perceptible presentation (prosopon) is a contradiction in terms; we also assert the integrity of the nature of the man, and its prosopon likewise. But when we regard their combination, then we assert a single prosopon.” Similarly: “we preach that the prosopon constituted by both the natures is single, the manhood receiving through the godhead the honor rendered by the created world, and the godhead accomplishing all appropriate action in the manhood.”[3]

Davis observes that Theodore at times seemed to distinguish the two natures the way that the Council of Chalcedon would.[4] Yet, his Christology often sounded like adoptionism, as when “he represents the man Jesus as thanking the Father for counting him worthy of adoption, or discoursing with the Word as if they were separate Persons.”[5]

Although considered orthodox in his own day, at the Fifth Ecumenical Council, Constantinople II (553), Theodore was roundly condemned as a heretic on the grounds of selections from his writings “deliberately compiled in order to discredit him.”[6] Since the rediscovery in Modern times of his Catechetical Homilies, the past judgment of Theodore as a “Nestorian before Nestorius” has been somewhat mollified. He is now generally represented “as a theologian who championed the reality of the Lord’s manhood against Apollinarianism and strove to do justice to His human experiences.” Indeed, “he was only a Nestorian in the sense that there were certain tendencies in his Christological thinking which, harmless enough in themselves and in their context, lent themselves to dangerous exploitation at the hands of his less cautious disciples.”[7]

As Kelly explains the flaws with Theodore’s views, “What was lacking to his thought, as to Antiochene theology generally at this time, was a clearly worked out metaphysic of personality; in particular, the difference between ‘nature’ and ‘Person’ had not been properly appreciated.”[8] Given that the Alexandrian school had not itself been able to provide answers to the same questions, it would be unfair to judge Theodore a heretic on the basis of characteristically Antiochene conceptual difficulties. Nevertheless, his views were such that one has called him “the godfather of Nestorianism.”[9] His works were condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical Council, Constantinople II, in the year of grace 553.

Linknotes:

  1. Leo Donald Davis, The Seven Ecumenical Councils [325-787]: Their History and Theology [Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1983], pg. 144
  2. ibid.
  3. ibid.
  4. ibid., pp. 144-145
  5. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines [Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 2003], pg. 308
  6. ibid., pg. 303
  7. ibid., pp. 307-308
  8. ibid., pp. 308-309
  9. Davis, pg. 219
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