The Antiochian biblical commentator, Theodoret of Cyrus, writing in the 5th Century makes a comment that Christians have thought in almost every century since the time of Christ: things are so bad now that it has to be the “end times.” During Holy Week the Church reminds us through its Gospel readings and hymns to think about the “last things” – our world which rejected its Creator and God and nailed Him to a cross is facing an impending judgment. Commenting on the words of St. Paul in one of his epistles, Theodoret’s words resonate with many 21st Century Christians:
Then he foretells the coming ruin of most members of the churches, teaching him not to be upset by the indifference of some, as those coming later will be in a far worse plight. Be aware of this, that in the last days there will be the threat of difficult times: there will be people who are lovers of themselves, lovers of money, arrogant, blasphemous, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, loveless, implacable, slanderous, licentious, unfeeling, uninterested in the good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, in love with pleasure rather than God, bearing the semblance of piety but denying its efficacy (2 Timothy 3:1-5). In my view he has this age in mind in his prophecy: our lifetime is full of these vices, and though we don the trappings of piety, we are building the idol of wickedness in our works.
I mean, we have become attached to money rather than devoted to God, we embrace the slavery of the passions, and to put it in a nutshell, you could find us all in the other vices the divine apostle cited. (Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, pp. 243-244)
It is pretty hard to imagine that life in the 5th Century was as devoted to money as is our current age. We measure everything in terms of money and value things above people and set the worth of people almost entirely by what they can produce. Even churches see their success in terms of how much money they can raise. What is the value of godliness?
“Again he called Christ the Lord head, and the structure of the Church body, using all the terms metaphorically: just as in the case of the body the brain is the root of the nerves, and through the nerves the body has the senses, so from Christ the Lord the body of the Church receives both the founts of instruction and the basis of salvation. What sinews are in the body apostles, prophets and teachers are in the structure of the Church.” ( Commentary of the Letters of St. Paul: Vol. 2, pg. 96)
1 Tim 2:1-7 is the Epistle reading assigned for the celebration of the Orthodox Church New Year on September 1. It reflects the Church’s thoughts about how we should begin the New Year. We are called to begin the year with prayers of all kinds for everyone in the world and for world rulers. Certainly our world leaders today need prayers as much as they needed them 2000 years ago.
Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle – I am speaking the truth in Christ and not lying – a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
“This, you see, is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who wishes all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth (vv. 3-4): he wants all to enjoy salvation. Then he confirms this statement on another basis as well. God is one, after all (v. 5): there is not one maker of the faithful and another of the unfaithful; there is one creator.” (Commentary on the Letters of Saint Paul, pg. 214)
There is one God for believers and unbelievers, the faithful and sinners, the Orthodox and the heterodox, the Christian and the non-Christian. When we pray to God we pray to the Lord who is the Maker of Heaven and earth and the Creator of every human being.
As we continue throughout Bright Week to continue our praise of the Holy Trinity for our salvation through Jesus Christ’s triumph over death, we continue to think about the human condition and God’s effort to save us. St. Theodoret of Cyrus (d. 457AD) wrote that even if we haven’t committed the same kind of sin that Adam did, we nevertheless have sinned in our ways against our loving Creator. Thus we all fell under the power of death. Christ came destroying the power of death by His own death and resurrection:
“Death reigned, however, even over those who did not sin in a manner similar to the transgression of Adam. After all, even if they did not break the commandment, they still committed other lawlessness. Now, he referred to Adam as a type of Christ, whom he call the one to come on this reasoning, that just as that first human being by sinning fell under the norm of death, and the whole race followed the firstparent, so Christ the Lord by fulfilling the utmost righteousness destroyed the power of death, and being the first to rise from the dead he led the whole human race back to life.” (Theodoret of Cyrus: Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul: Volume 1, pg. 73)
Father Alexander Men, a Russian Orthodox priest, wrote before his death, that Christ’s own death ended the corruption that death brings to the physical body as well as bringing eternal life to us all:
“Paul’s expression ‘spiritual body’ is clearly critical to an understanding of the Passover mystery. It means that in Joseph of Arimathea’s garden a singular victory of the Spirit took place, which, rather than destroying the flesh, gave it a new, higher form of existence. The stone was only pushed aside so that the disciples could see that the tomb was empty, that the Resurrected no longer knew boundaries. Passing through agony and death, He obtained, in a manner incomprehensible to us, a new, spiritual corporality. The Apostle spoke of it as a stage in existence, one which awaits all people, but at that moment God-Man was the first to anticipate this general transformation.” (Son of Man, pg. 207)
“And he made him head over all things for the Church, which is his body (Eph. 1:22-23):
Christ the Lord has the position of head, whereas those who believe in him have the position of the body. The fullness of him who fills all in all. By Church he refers to the collection of the faithful; he called it Christ’s body and the Father’s fullness: he filled it with all kinds of gifts, he dwells in it and walks about in it, according to the inspired text.”
“All creation needed the remedy of the Incarnation: the elements, made with a view to usefulness to human beings, he made subject to decay since the Fall was destined to make them mortal as well. The invisible powers were probably distressed to see the wickedness practiced among human beings: if they rejoice at one sinner doing penance, as the Lord said, it is very obvious that they grieve to behold the opposite. But the Incarnation of the Only-begotten, by doing away with death, revealing the resurrection and giving the pledge of the common resurrection, dissipated that dismal cloud. By gathering together, then, he refers to the sudden transformation of things: through the dispensation involving Christ the Lord, human nature revives and clothes itself in incorruptibility, and the throngs of unseen beings will live in happiness when pain, sorrow, and groaning take their leave. This is the teaching of the divine apostle in these verses: he did not say simply heaven and earth, but things in heaven and things on earth.” ( Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul: Volume Two, pgs. 34-35)
I am always intrigued by the ways in which the Patristic writers used the scientific knowledge of their day as they endeavored to understand the Scriptures and as they formed their theology. For example Theodoret understands that darkness is really nothing more than shadow something which St. Macrina also had commented on according to her brother St. Gregory back in the 4th Century when she postulated the darkness of night occurred because the sun had rotated to the other side of the earth and so night was really the earth’s own shadow. Theodoret writes:
“Thus, we have precise knowledge of the necessity of darkness. And it is simple to grasp the truth that it is not a substance of some kind but only an accident, being a shadow cast by heaven and earth. This is why it vanishes when the light appears. Light, on the other hand, is and subsists as a substance; after setting, it rises, and after departing, it returns. In other words, just as our body is a substance, but the shadow created by the body is an accident, not a substance, so heaven and earth, the largest bodies, are substances of different kinds, but the shadow caused by them in the absence of light is called ‘darkness,’ and once the light enters, the darkness disappears. … A house with no windows is full of darkness, but when a lamp is brought in, it lights up – not that darkness has moved off elsewhere, for, being insubstantial, it does not subsist. Rather, it is completely dissolved with the coming of the light. After all, a shadow is caused by the roof, the floor, and the walls, and is dissipated by the beams of light. We see this occurring every day. When the light recedes, the shadow cast by heaven and earth brings darkness, and when the light rises again, the darkness is dissipated.” (p 23)
Theodoret using simply observation is able to figure out that the darkness of a room is simply that the walls and ceiling are casting shadows in the room – darkness is thus just the absence of light. Not a bad observation for a 5th Century pre-scientific man. He also speculates about why God would have created inedible plants – might seem like a waste.
“Why did God ordain the growth of inedible plants? … God foresaw the development of disease in the human race which, as a result of its sins, was to receive the sentence of death. So he ordered the earth to produce not only edible plants but also those that would repel sickness. Those versed in medical science could give you more detailed information about plants that, while seeming harmful, actually cure disease. When mixed with others, they have curative properties and promote good health.” (pp 33-35)
Everything serves a purpose in the world which emerged as a result of God’s creative activity. Theodoret acknowledges the medical science of his day saying it knows how to make use of inedible plants for medicinal purposes. He accepts that there is a knowledge not found in the Scriptures or in religion which is invaluable to humanity, namely medical science. Even though such science was also associated with paganism in his day he was not afraid to use the knowledge of science and to recommend it to his flock. He also used the common medical knowledge of his day concerning the body being composed of the four humors whose imbalance in classical thought was blamed for disease and the four elements which were said to make up all material things in the universe – fire, water, earth and air.
“Life would be impossible without these fluids, and by these the body is watered and flourishes, requiring, as it does, gall, blood, and both kinds of bile. As it needs these to grow, it is through them that it also deteriorates; excess or deficiency in any on of the aforementioned causes the dissolution of the living creature. …. Fire, for example …. Is one of the four basic elements of which everything is composed, and mortal nature cannot survive without it.” (p. 43)
I make reference to Theodoret’s use of science because in today’s world some Christians fear scientific truth thinking it disproves Genesis or biblical literalism. Theodoret for his part accepted the scientific theory of his day and made use of it in his writings not worrying about trying to reconcile it with Scripture. Truth is truth no matter what its source. Christians do not have to fear science but like Theodoret can recognize that science might offer truth not found in the bible. It makes me think that he would likely have accepted DNA, genetics and other ideas found in the science of our day had he lived in the modern world.
Lastly I point out a quote from Theodoret about when life begins.
“What is the meaning of ‘with human features’? (Ex 21:22)
It is the general opinion that life is communicated to the fetus when its body is full formed in the womb. Thus, right after forming Adam’s body, the Creator breathed life into him. So, in the case of a pregnant woman who suffers miscarriage in the course of a fight, the lawgiver ordains that if the infant comes out with human features – that is, fully formed—the case is to be considered murder, and the guilty party must pay with his own life. But if it comes out before it is fully formed, the case is not be to considered murder, since the miscarriage occurred before the animation of the child.” (p 301)
Unlike many Orthodox Ethicists today, Theodoret does not believe life begins with conception. He sees human life animating the fetus only at some later time – the sign of the fetus being human is that it has all of the features (fully formed) of the human. He bases this on his interpretation of the Septuagint version he was reading of Exodus 21:22 which discusses whether injuring a pregnant women which results in a miscarriage is murder or not. It is hard to know whether he based his thinking on purely Christian principles or whether he relied on the Theology of his day. He offers his commentary saying it is the “general opinion” which seems to imply that it is the common thought of Christians of his day. He is speaking as a bishop and in other places in the text he is careful to distinguish between his personal opinions and those which are truly Orthodox.
Theodoret like many of the Patristic writers in the Antiochian biblical commentary tradition does not hold to the tenets of what is commonly called “original sin” as translator Robert Hill noted in his comments. “Theodoret never speaks of original sin or the transmission to posterity of the guilt for Adam’s sin…” (translator’s note p 81). Commenting on the fall of Adam Theodoret writes:
“Thus the punishment is not the result of anger, but part of a divine plan of the greatest wisdom…. So that the human race would hate sin as the cause of death, after the transgression of the commandment, God, in his great wisdom, passed the sentence of death and in this way both ensured their hatred of sin and provided the race with the remedy of salvation, which, through the Incarnation of the Only-begotten, achieves the resurrection of the dead and immortality.” (p xlix)
“Indeed, death is healing, not punishment, for it checks the onset of sin: ‘He who has died has been acquitted of sin.’ (Rom 6:7) He ordered him to live directly opposite the garden so that he would remember his trouble-free existence and hate sin for causing his life of hardship.” (p 91)
Theodoret sees mortality not a punishment for human sin but rather part of God’s own merciful plan. By making death the result of sin, Theodoret sees humans hating sin and regretting their sin. Additionally by making death the consequence of sin, God was providing the way for salvation through the death of His Son and His resurrection.
(Theodoret writes) : “We learn from all these passages (i.e., from Ps 51:5; Gn 8:21; Rm 5:12), not that the power of sin is built into human nature—for if that were the case, we would not be liable to punishment—but that our nature is inclined to slip and fall, as it is undermined by the passions. Nonetheless, rationality prevails when supported by our efforts” …. Compare this with Augustine’s remark… on the same verse: “No one is born without trailing along with him the punishment [i.e., for Adam’s sin] and the guilt that merits that punishment.” (translator’s note, p 95)
Augustine has humans inheriting the guilt of original sin as well as the punishment for this sin. Theodoret does not believe humans have inherited a depraved human nature – otherwise each human would not be responsible for his own sin. Theodoret recognizes that humans are each subject to passions which lead us to sin, but he believes optimistically that the rational part of human can overcome the passions.
To those Patristic writers who suggested that Adam and Eve were originally pure spiritual beings who received bodies and flesh only when God clothed them with skins after the Fall, Theodoret writes:
“Since holy Scripture says that the body was formed even before the soul, how can this claim that the man and woman took mortal flesh only after the transgression of the commandment amount to anything but a fable?” (p 89)
Theodoret believes bodily existence is part of human nature from the beginning, not something which became part of humanity after humans sin.
“Why was it that, though Adam sinned, the righteous Abel was the first to die?
God wanted Death’s foundation to be unsound. If Adam had been the first to die, Death would have established a strong base by taking the sinner as his first victim. But since he first took the man unjustly slain, his foundation is insecure.” (p 97)
Theodoret offers a rational idea about why Adam does not immediately die after eating the forbidden fruit as God had threatened him. If death had claimed Adam first, death would be just for humans. But since death wrongfully took the life of the innocent Abel, as death will later unjustly claim the innocent Christ, so death proves itself not part of justice and righteousness but part of evil which God rightly destroys.
Theodoret was in the Antiochian tradition regarding biblical commentary and interpretation. This generally means that he shied away from pure allegorical interpretation of the text. He does however use allegory at times but with constraint. He more readily looks for the historical and “literal” meaning of the text. “Literal” often implies the meaning the author intended. Theodoret is critical of those who blindly or woodenly read all Scripture texts only literally. Hill notes:
“Yet, in Q.40.1 on Ex, the commentator reminds his readers that those who attend to no more than ‘the face value of the text’… will not arrive at the full meaning of Scripture.” (p xlii)
The “full meaning of Scripture” is generally what the Patristic writers were always seeking whether they turned to allegorical or literal interpretive methods of reading Scriptures. He does not deny that the literal is meaningful, but just that it may not be the full or best meaning of a given text. He is aware that a literal reading of a text can create problems in reasoning. For example, commenting on Genesis 18, Theodoret writes:
“Holy Scripture declares that angels ate in Abraham’s tent. (Gn 18:8)
That same passage of Scripture says that Abraham had a vision of men. If we must attend to the mere letter of the text, it was men, not angels, who ate. But if we are to unfold the meaning, they ate in the same form in which they had appeared. In other words, as they were incorporeal beings—they and their Lord—and yet seemed to have bodies (for this is how they appeared), so they seemed to eat. Not that they put food into their mouths and stomachs, for they were incorporeal. Rather, they consumed it as they wished. Only the worst fool would try to pry further into the ways and means of a holy mystery.” (p 145)
In commenting on the above Genesis passage, Theodoret deals with the difficult issue of angels who are immaterial beings who “appear” as men to Abraham. Angels are not humans and don’t have physical bodies. Theodoret accepts the “literal” statement of the Scripture that the angels appeared as men, but he had already labeled this a “vision.” He however is willing to concede we may have to accept the literal notion that the these “men” ate with Abraham. But how could they actually eat real food since they are incorporeal beings and/or a vision? We have him here dealing with that point at which a “vision” interfaces with empirical reality. His conclusion is that however angels can appear as men – appear to have bodies – is the same way in which they appear to eat. He is not willing to explore the mystery any further. Literally the text presents a problem – can apparitions consume real food? Theodoret attempting to stick with a more literal interpretation of the Scriptures in general, realizes the literal interpretation presents a logical problem which he cannot completely resolve and so he has to accept that it is some form of mystery.
There are other texts which Theodoret acknowledges should not be interpreted literally. Commenting on Exodus 20:5 which uses the phrase that the Lord is a jealous God – thus attributing to God the human emotion jealousy, which is also a vice – Theodoret strongly comments:
“God himself teaches us that it is irreligious to focus on the face value of the text when he requires the opposite.” (p 289)
In this Theodoret acknowledges that some passages of Scripture do not have an obvious (= literal) interpretation. Accusing God of being jealous is unacceptable to him (though in the text God Himself lays claim to being jealous). Thus Theodoret has to seek a meaning beyond the literal reading of the text in order to keep a theology of a good God.
Theodoret also acknowledges that the Scriptures do not tell us everything we want to know about God, and sometimes are not clear enough for our purposes.
“When the questioner presses him on that sensitive issue of the creation of angels, he explicitly indicates that he can do no more than hazard an opinion on a question that does not admit of a conclusive answer (Q .4.2 on Gn): ‘Now, I do not state this dogmatically, my view being that it is rash to speak dogmatically where holy Scripture does not make an explicit statement; rather, I have stated what I consider to be consistent with orthodox thought.’” (p xxix)
The issue is that Genesis does not mention when or how angels were created by God. Since angels exist they must have been created at some point. Since the Scriptures do not answer the question, Theodoret acknowledges that he can only make a reasonable guess based upon what he knows about Orthodox theology. Thus the full interpretation of Scripture does require at times human logic and even speculation as the Scriptures have some gaps which mean they cannot fully interpret themselves. Theodoret assumes God gives us intelligence, creativity and wisdom to come to reasonable interpretations of those questions which cannot be answered directly from the Scriptures.
I finished reading Robert C. Hill’s translation of THEODORET OF CYRUS: THE QUESTIONS ON THE OCTATEUCH Vol 1 GENESIS AND EXODUS and decided to offer a few quotes from the book. Theodoret was the bishop of Cyrus who died about 457AD. He received training in the Antiochian tradition for Christian interpretation of the Scriptures and wrote extensive commentaries on the books of the Old Testament. Theodoret’s commentaries are important because they give us some insight into how Christians in the 5th Century were interpreting the Bible. This is insightful because it shows that not even in the ancient Patristic writers insisted that the Scriptures must be read only literally.
Regarding the reading and interpretation of the Scriptures Theodoret though a serious historian when reading the Scriptures warns against an overly literal reading of the Bible especially regarding those passages in the Old Testament in which God is described in human (anthropomorphic) images.
“These simpletons fail to understand that the Lord God, when speaking to humans through humans, adjusts his language to the limitations of the listeners. Since we see with our eyes, he refers to his power of vision as ‘eyes.’ He refers to his power of hearing as ‘ears,’ since it is through these organs that we hear, and to his command as a ‘mouth.’” (p 51)
Theodoret writes about Scripture as God “speaking to humans through humans.” In this phrase he acknowledges that we receive God’s revelation mediated through the authors of Scripture. This is important because it shows that He understands the Word of God to also be a product of human work – there is a synergy with God using a human intermediary in addition to human language and images to convey His message to the world. Additionally he speaks against any literal reading of the text in which it anthropomorphizes God – such language, Theodoret says, is strictly for our benefit and because of our human limitations in understanding things abstract or divine.
At another point, speaking about Moses who Theodoret accepted as the author of Genesis, he wrote:
“Why did the author (i.e., Moses – my note) not first set down the true doctrine of God before relating the creation of the universe?
Holy Scripture normally adapts the contents to the learners… Since the Egyptians used to worship the visible creation, and Israel, in their long association with them, had joined in this idolatry, he had to set out the facts of creation and explicitly teach them that it had a beginning of existence, and that the God of the universe was its Creator. … Those he was teaching, however, had already learned of the eternity of God. When the divinely inspired Moses was sent into Egypt by God, he was commanded to say to his fellow, ‘He Who Is has sent me to you.’ Now, “He Who Is’ conveys eternity, and it will be obvious to the attentive that that statement was made before the teaching in this chapter. He taught them the former while they were still living in Egypt but composed this chapter in the wilderness.” (pp 7-9)
In this passage we see that Theodoret does accept Moses as the author of Genesis – Moses, not God, actually wrote the text down. Theodoret rhetorically asks why didn’t Moses begin with a systematic theology – give a scholarly explanation of who this “God” is before launching into what God did? His first answer again has to do with writing something that the Israelites could understand – they weren’t prepared for pure theology so Moses prepares them for it by writing narrative. Obviously Theodoret believed Moses had a choice in what he wrote or how he wrote it. Moses was inspired by God to write, but Moses under the influence of the Holy Spirit had to make choices about what to write. The divine-human synergy is real to Theodoret; Moses is not merely an instrument of God’s actions – Moses co-operates with God and uses his free will and human creativity to accomplish what God wants him to do. And Theodoret does not have Moses composing the Genesis creation story before becoming their leader in Egypt. Rather, Theodoret clearly says that Moses composed the creation story after the Exodus while the Jews were in the desert. So the creation story by Theodoret’s understanding is written after the Passover – after God wrought His salvation for His people. Only after experiencing God’s salvation does Moses compose for the people of God an explanation about how the world came into existence in the first place. (see also my blog The Literal Value of Genesis regarding the modern scholarly opinion that the creation narrative of Genesis was probably written down and became Scripture only after the Babylonian captivity of the Jews).
Later in his commentary, Theodoret reminds his flock that Scriptures contain many different genres of literature and that the reader must pay attention to not only what is being read but also who in the Scriptures is speaking.
“The distinctive features of Scripture are the oracles of the Spirit, God’s laws, and the teachings of the devout; the rest is historical narration. So one must take into account not only what is said but also who says it.” (p. 173)
In other words sometimes Moses may be the mouthpiece for God and is giving voice to God’s Word. At other times, Moses is simply the historian who is humanly reporting what the humans were doing. The reader of Scripture must pay attention to these distinctions in order to properly understand “the Word of God.”
In discussing the origins of the word “Hebrew” Theodoret concedes no one answer can be offered with any absolute certainty. So he advises: “No point, however, in squabbling over this: no harm is done to religion, which ever opinion we adopt.” (p 129) He thus holds to the notion that some questions which might rise as a result of reading the Scriptures may be worth pursuing to a degree, but ultimately the answer makes no real difference to the true faith. Further, commenting on Genesis 15:9, “Theodoret offers several interpretations and then concludes: ‘I cite this view and the other for readers to take whichever strikes them as closer to the truth.’” (p 139) He actually allows for the fact that in some cases several interpretations of a text are possible, all of which can be correct. In such cases he leaves it to the reader to decide which interpretation is correct. This works for him whenever a main point of doctrine is not at stake. He does not demand absolute uniformity in interpretation nor does he believe that each text has one and only one possible and correct interpretation.