Theodoret of Cyrus on The Mash-up of Tiered Cosmology and Philosophical Theology, with An Eye to The Ascension, 2

This is the fifth follow-up to the post, “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens“. The first follow-up post is here. The second follow-up post is here. The third follow-up post is here. The fourth follow-up post is here. The fifth follow-up post will be broken up into several parts; follow-up post five-one is here.


There are other, older aspects of the biblical cosmology that Theodoret does affirm, or strives to render consistent with the kind of Platonistic theology that very quickly became normative within Christianity. In his commentary on Psalm 115, therefore, Theodoret affirms that the sky is the dwelling of God:

The heaven of heavens is the Lord’s, but the earth he has given to sons of human beings (v. 16): he has the heaven as a dwelling, not the visible one but the one above it, which the former has as a roof, as we have the lower one as ours. The Lord of all, however, dwells in heaven, not with his nature circumscribed but rejoicing in the choirs of the holy angels living there. The earth, of course, he has assigned to the human race. So he takes care not only of Jews but of all human beings, to whom he has given the earth as a dwelling. [Theodoret, Commentary on the Psalms 73-150, 227]

This affirmation of divine “dwelling” in heaven (vi&., the sky) strongly suggests divine location in a modestly strong sense.

It is repeated again in his Commentary on Daniel. There, in his commentary on Daniel 2:25ff., Theodoret exegetes that the Hebrew Prophet Daniel,

on being asked if he could tell the king [Nebuchadnezzar] both the dream and its interpretation, he replied as follows, It is not possible for wise men, soothsayers, magicians, diviners to tell the king the mystery of which he asks—only for God in heaven, who reveals mysteries (vv.27–28). He made a remarkable beginning to his teaching: eliminating the band of those foolish people and laying bare their limitations, he said that God is the instructor in the revelation of mysteries, adding in heaven to eliminate gods made and worshiped here below. On the one hand, by the use of the singular he eliminates the plurality of the false gods, and on the other by mention of a dwelling in heaven he shows those appearing to be gods here below not to be so but only a deceit that has its basis in human artifice. [Boldface mine. Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentary on Daniel transl. Robert Hill (Boston: Brill, 2006), 45]

In his recounting of the life of Simeon the Stylite in his History of the Monks of Syria, Theodoret recounts that Simeon chained himself within an enclosure that was atop a hill, and

lived all the time inside [that hilltop enclosure], thinking of heaven and compelling himself to contemplate what lies above the heavens — for the iron chain did not hinder the flight of his thought. [Theodoret, History of the Monks of Syria transl. R. M. Price (Trappist, KY: Cistercian, 1985/2008), 164.]

The same Life, Simeon exhorts of his listeners:

Making exhortation two times each day, he floods the ears of his hearers, as he speaks most gracefully and offers the lessons of the divine Spirit, bidding them look up to heaven and take flight, depart from the earth, imagine the expected kingdom, fear the threat of hell, despise earthly things, and await what is to come. [Ibid., 171]

There seems to be a very clear sense, here, that divine things are above the dome of the firmament.

In reflecting on the incarnation of the Word in Jesus, Theodoret follows what I believe to be a typical Cappadocian understanding (I suspect that it could be found also in Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, though I am not sure) that the incarnation does not represent a change in God nor a change in the location of the Word, but simply the assumption of a bounded human being, and with it human nature as such, into God.

Thus the Creator, commiserating with his own threatened image [i.e., human nature] exposed to death, bent down the heavens and descended, not [in the sense of] changing place or going elsewhere, for he fills all things and is, rather, infinite and boundless, holding everything in his hand as the prophet says: ‘Who has measured the waters with his hand,and meted out heaven with the span, and the whole world with [his] palm?’ (Isa. 40:12). David says again: ‘For in his hands are the margins of the earth’ (Ps. 95:4). Even God himself [says] through the prophet: ‘The heaven is my throne and the earth is the footstool of my feet’ (Isa. 66:1). Therefore, let us understand the descending [of God] as condescending: so he bent down the heavens, descended and chose the virgin womb of a holy maiden nurtured in piety. [István Pásztori-Kupán, Theodoret of Cyrus (Routledge, 2006), 161]

It may be that Theodoret, here, seems to be running against the plain sense of the texts about Sinai that we looked at before, or perhaps not. He does not seem to be able to shake this notion that God has his dwelling above the hard dome of the sky, as a location, in at least a moderate sense.

Theodoret seems unclear about the difference between God dwelling in the heaven above the firmament, and the implications, for divine location, of the theology of divine simplicity that he elsewhere advocates.


 God’s “dwelling” in heaven, in a sense that gives him location, sits uncomfortably next to two other ones: that God is incomparable (“nothing in existence can be likened to God’s nature, power, or operation” [commenting on Psalm 113:5, in Commentary on the Psalms 73-150, 221]), and that God is uncircumscribable. (Uncircumscribability means not that God extends indefinitely, or endlessly: it means that there is no extension to God at all, for all extension implies a limit that can be “traced around” = circumscribed, and God has no limit to “trace around” or circumscribe.)

“[T]he property of being uncircumscribed belongs really and truly to the God of the universe, though the human mind imitates this to some extent. In a moment it surveys east and west, north and south, high and low — but not in actual presence, only through its mental powers of imagination. God, on the other hand, is uncircumscribed in his being, his wisdom, and his power. [Theodoret, Questions on the Octateuch vol. 1, 55]

This comes out clearly in his statement about what is not meant in saying that humans are made “in the image of God”:

“What is the meaning of “in the image”?

[…] Other superficial commentators claim that the human body was made in God’s image, since they hear holy Scripture saying, “Open [51] your eyes and see, incline your ears and hear” [2 Kings 19:16]; “The Lord smelt a sweet fragrance” [Gen 8:21]; “The mouth of the Lord said this” [Isa 1:20]; “In his hands are the ends of the earth” [Psalm 95:4], and similar statements. 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.” But they should have paid attention not only to these words but also to those that teach of God’s uncircumscribed nature: “Where am I to go from your Spirit, and where am I to flee from your face? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I descend to Hell, you are present” [Psalm 139:7] and so on.  Furthermore, the Lord said to the Samaritan woman, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” [John 4:24] Now, if God is spirit, surely he is simple, without composition, and beyond representation. [Theodoret, Questions on the Octateuch vol. 1, 49, 51]

We will ignore Theodoret’s equating of “spirit” with the developed language of simplicity in the Platonic tradition, without his demonstrating this at all. We will point out, however, that in his commentary on Psalm 5 (“Give ear to my words, O Lord”), Theodoret succinctly puts the matter he is seeking to elucidate thus: “cry is not to be understood as cry, nor ear as ear: the divine Scripture customarily speaks of the God of all in rather corporeal terms, and gives names to the divine activities from parts of the human body”. [Theodoret, Commentary on the Psalms 1-72, 69]

A similar comment on divine corporeality mocks the idea that the breath God breathes into humanity is his own, because that “would require us first to imagine lungs, muscles to squeeze and contract them, a windpipe attached to the lungs, a palate, and last of all a mouth to breathe in [61] air. But, if the divinity is incorporeal, surely his breath should also be thought of in a manner befitting God.” [Theodoret, Questions on the Octateuch vol. 1, 59, 61]

Similarly, in his note of caution about the text in Daniel 7 about the

Now, we should realize that God is [186] incorporeal, simple and without form, uncircumscribed; yet while being uncircumscribed in nature, he often takes visible forms for people’s benefit. It is possible to see him making himself visible in one way to Abraham, in another to Moses, yet another to Isaiah, and likewise in a different form to Ezekiel. So when you see the difference in the revelations, instead of thinking the divinity has many forms, listen to him speaking through the prophet Hosea, “I multiplied visions, and adopted likenesses in the works of the inspired authors.” He said, I adopted likenesses, not I appeared: he presents himself under the forms he wishes. Likewise, of course, blessed Ezekiel had a vision of someone composed of amber and fire, and after describing the revelation he added, “It was a likeness of the glory of the Lord:” he did not say he saw the Lord, or the Lord’s glory itself — only the likeness of the Lord’s glory. And here blessed Daniel, therefore, in the phrase Ancient of Days conveys the eternal; some of the commentators, in fact, took it likewise and rendered it “The one who makes days old.” He sees also the purity of the hair and the splendor of the clothing, and is instructed to recognize the complete innocence and holiness, not only of the divine nature but also of what it betokens, namely, righteousness, providence, care, judgment […]. [Theodoret, Commentary on Daniel, 185-186]

“[H]e presents himself under the forms he wishes.” While attempting to make God seem infinitely nameable, without a theoretical language to order the names, he simply makes God look like a chameleon trickster, like Loki or somesuch. If God is unnameable and uncircumscribable, how do the manifestations of the non-representable God give any knowledge of him? If “God adopts likenesses”, is every form a veil, giving no truth? He seems to want to say that there are real qualities — “innocence”, “holiness”, but then how is this simplicity? –does not simplicity mean that all names are names of God, but giving various degrees of light, based in how universal they are? –but the pagan gods are not names of God, Theodoret says. Here, there seems to be an elusive being who is not simple who adopts names.

Theodoret’s affirmations of the simplicity and not-representability of the Godhead seem to sit rather uncomfortably next to the actual biblical language that employs representations, particularly spatially circumscribed bodily representations that show no self-consciousness of having a symbolic character — such as the previous texts from Daniel. Any notion of dwelling requires location, and the language of God’s body –even when spiritualized so that it is no longer read to refer to a body– suggests particular acts of engagement with particular locations and times, acts that can be named and described, violating simplicity and non-representability.


This is potentially an aside, although potentially not so. This concerns the language of divine simplicity. In Plato’s Republic and in his Laws, there are arguments against divine mutability (changeability): the gods do not change, for if they are good, then a change can only be a change for the worse, towards evil. Thus, in the Laws, sacrifices and prayers to get a god to do what they were not going to do is really no different from bribing an evil guard. If the god is good, the god would do the good thing; if the god was not going to do the thing, it was not a good thing, and you are asking for something more evil than what the guard was going to do. This problem does not go away with monotheism, but is exacerbated by it.

The literature on prayer was not always very cognizant of this dilemma. Theodoret will say that

the divine is unchangeable and unalterable […]. [István Pásztori-Kupán, Theodoret of Cyrus (Routledge, 2006), 156]

Yet there is one passage that seems to be an interpolation into Theodoret’s manuscript (Simeon the Stylite died twenty years after Theodoret wrote about him, so it is possibly authentic — I leave the matter to God and to competent scholars) seems to endorse a theology of prayer that does not address these concerns, but which makes God inactive in doing good until activated by the prayers of a holy person:

[Simeon the Stylite] also saw on one occasion two rods descend from the sky and fall on the land both east and west. The godly man [Simeon] explained it as a rising of the Persian and Scythian nations against the Roman empire; he declared the vision to those present, and with many tears and unceasing prayers stopped the blows with which the world was threatened. Certainly the Persian nation, when already armed and prepared for attack on the Romans, was through the opposition of divine power driven back from the proposed assault and fully engaged in domestic troubles within. [Theodoret, History of the Monks of Syria transl. R. M. Price (Trappist, KY: Cistercian, 1985/2008), 169]

It is not clear how any theology of divine simplicity is not also a theology of immutable goodness. Either the swords that descended from the sky meant that these empires were sent from God, and so should necessarily be conceived as good by Theodoret, or else that they were coming down swiftly (“from the sky” indicating the sudden and unexpected nature of the attack). If the latter, then why does God not act until Simeon prays? This seems to make God “the most moved mover”, and that is a very different theology than the language of simplicity suggests.

Now, these are not problems for the later tradition, East or West, which found ways of dealing with this problem. Further, I understand that figures like Eric Perl have traced the heritage of Neoplatonic language from Pseudo-Dionysius (I assembled a comparative translation of Book One of his On the Divine Names here, and did the same for his Epistle 9) down across the centuries of the Church, and that certain major philosophical developments were necessary to allow these two kinds of affirmations to sit together comfortably. I am here not focusing on a philosophical framework that can square the circle, but on the fact that these circles need squaring in the first place — or are being squared inadequately by otherwise-skilled interpreters like Theodoret.

I would guide the reader’s attention, not to the theological developments within the tradition, but to the particular stages that provide the problems requiring development in the first place (such as the earlier stage suggesting a divine body and divine location), to the lurching discontinuities that are bridged by continuity-making interpretive moves.


Header image found here.

12 thoughts on “Theodoret of Cyrus on The Mash-up of Tiered Cosmology and Philosophical Theology, with An Eye to The Ascension, 2

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