Theodoret of Cyrus on The Mash-up of Tiered Cosmology and Philosophical Theology, with An Eye to The Ascension, 3

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, and post five-two is here.


Although denied by the Deuteronomist, God’s manifestation in Exodus has a form at the top of the mountain, and is attended to by other forms regarding trumpet blasts and darkness &c.; in Theodoret, these manifestations are merely divine signs, “were surely all means of softening their ‘stony heart.’ ” [Ezek 11.19] The priests, being set apart, were in danger of arrogance; thus, they were in need of signs. [Theodoret, Questions on the Octateuch vol. 1, 283]

Theodoret does grant that Moses achieved divine contemplation:

Moses the great lawgiver, who often, in so far as man can attain to it, was counted worthy of divine contemplation and often heard the blessed voice, who was in the darkness for forty days together and received the divine legislation, who not only did not experience satiety but attained a desire still more fervent and intense. For as if he had felt a kind of torpor under the intoxication of that desire, or been utterly maddened with longing, he did not acknowledge his own nature, but yearned to see what it is not lawful to see. As if he had forgotten who was the Master and was thinking only of his longing, he said to the God of the universe, ‘Behold, thou sayest to me, “You have found favor before me and I know you before all”. Therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, reveal yourself to me: may I see you clearly. [Theodoret, History of the Monks of Syria transl. R. M. Price (Trappist, KY: Cistercian, 1985/2008), 193]

It is not clear just what is meant by this divine contemplation — is it vision? –it is certainly contrasted with “hearing the divine voice”, so it seems to be something somehow seen, even if only with the eye of the mind; “divine contemplation” is often that in the ancient literature, though the precise sense of vision –it does not seem to be imagination, which is mentioned favorably by Theodoret elsewhere in his History of the Monks of Syria— is unclear here. Theodoret does fall back on it being “unlawful” to see God, whereas elsewhere he suggests that it is simply impossible to see God. This seems to be suggested by other passages in Theodoret, such as one in his Eranistes that treats the question of theophany:

Orthodox. Can God be seen by human beings?

Eranistes. Absolutely not.

Orthodox. But nevertheless we hear divine Scripture say, “God was seen by Abraham near the oak tree at Mamre” [Gen 18:1]; and we hear Isaiah say, “I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne.” [ Isa 6.1] And Micah says this very same thing [Micah 1:1], as do Daniel and Ezekiel. [Dan 10:4–8 and Ezek 1:1] And the narrative about Moses the lawgiver says that, “The Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as one would speak to his friend.” [Ex 33:11] And the God of the universe himself said, “I shall speak with him face to face, clearly, and not in riddles.” [Nm 12:8] What shall we say, then? That they saw the divine nature?

Eranistes. Absolutely not. For God himself said, “No one will see my face and live.” [Ex 33:20]

Orthodox. Are those who said that they saw God lying, then?

Eranistes. Certainly not. They saw what they were able to see.

Orthodox. So does the Lord who loves us adapt revelations to the capability of those who see?

[44] Eranistes. Definitely.

Orthodox. And God made this clear through the prophet; for he said, “I multiplied visions and became a likeness in the hands of prophets.” [Hos 12:10 (LXX 12:11)] He did not say, “I was seen,” but “I became a likeness.” The likeness does not reveal the actual nature of the one who is seen. For the emperor’s image does not reveal the nature of the emperor himself, even if it preserves the emperor’s visible features.

Eranistes. This is vague and unclear.

Orthodox. The people who saw those revelations did not see God’s substance, did they?

Eranistes. Who would be so insane as to dare to say that?

Orthodox. And yet it was said that they saw.

Eranistes. It was.

Orthodox. So when we use religious arguments and rely on divine denials that explicitly state that “No one has ever seen God,” [John 1:18] we are saying that they have seen, not the divine nature, but certain visions adapted to their capability.

Eranistes. That is what we say.

Orthodox. Let us think about the angels in the same way, then, when we hear, “They see the face of your Father daily.” [Matt 18:10] For they do not see the divine substance, which is infinite, unlimited, incomprehensible, and embraces all things, but rather a certain glory that is adapted to their own nature.

Eranistes. I’ve admitted that this is correct.

Orthodox. After becoming human, however, he is also seen by angels, according to the divine Apostle, not in a likeness of glory, but using the true and living cloak of flesh as though it were a veil. For he says, “Who was made manifest in flesh, was vindicated in spirit, was seen by the angels.” [1 Tim 3:16] [Theodoret, Eranistes transl. Gerard Ettlinger (Washington, D.C., CUA Press, 2003), 43-44]

Against the Exodus affirmation of divine visibility (Exod 24 et al.), there are Deuteronomic denials that there was a seen form on Sinai (Deut 4), even though the expression “face to face” is used in Deut 4. There are superficially similar statements in the Johannine anti-Gnostic polemic (“no one has ever seen God” [1 John 4]) against the vision of God as a religious ideal (“Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us” [John 14]) — though, of course, those statements are differently motivated. Of course, in Platonistic theologies, all form is ontologically subordinate to the determining power of the simple Good that is beyond being.

It is interesting that, in Theodoret, unambiguous evangelical statements about divine visibility in these theophanies from the Hebrew Bible are assimilated, by way of the three streams mentioned just above, to a model in which theophanies are never the appearance of the form of God, and perhaps never an indication of divine location, but are natural or else phantasmal accommodations that are largely pedagogical in purpose.  The exception  for the flesh of the Word, which is visible to the incorporeal angels in its location above the firmament of the sky. “As man: now for the first time human nature went up to heaven.” [Theodoret, Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, vol. 2, 175]

The language of the veil is taken from the furniture of the biblical tabernacle sanctuary. Theodoret says (commenting on Hebrews 9) that the tabernacle

represents a type of the whole world: it is divided into two down the middle by a veil, one part of it called Holy, the other Holy of Holies. While the Holy represented the way of life on earth, the Holy of Holies represented life in heaven. The veil itself performed the function of the firmament; the divine Scripture taught us there are two heavens, the first of which God created along with the earth, and the second he made on the second day, saying, “Let there be a firmament in the middle of the water,” and adding, “God called the firmament heaven.” Blessed David likewise says, “The heaven of heaven is the Lord’s:” this heaven is our roof, whereas for the unseen pow[172]ers it performs the function of a floor. Accordingly, just as he separates what is below from what is above, so the veil stretched out in the middle of the tabernacle divided the Holy of Holies from the Holy. [Theodoret, Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, vol. 2, 171-172]

There can be no doubt that heaven, for Theodoret, is the space above the hard dome of the sky. (As an aside, it should be noted that it is generally accepted that the holy place represents the celestial sphere, whereas the court of sacrifice represents of the terrestrial. Theodoret, here, is probably interpreting the text this way out of a desire to render his cosmology consistent with that of the biblical text.)

Based on Theodoret’s commentary on the book of Hebrews, the Eucharist seems related to this in his thinking. Just as Christ, as fully divine and fully human, was the first human to break through the veil of the dome of the sky by his resurrection and bodily ascension, so Theodoret argues that Christians, too, in union with the veil of Jesus’ flesh that has, by resurrection and ascension, opened the way through the sky, allowing communities of humans on earth to participate in that sky temple and sky life.

By sanctuary he referred to heaven, having said in what preceded, Christ entered not a sanctuary made by human hands but heaven itself. By way of these he referred to the excellent manner of life and the resurrection of the dead, by opening of the way to the entrance through them for the first time. The Lord was the first to rise from the dead and ascend into heaven — hence his referring to the way that is new and living: new because appearing then for the first time, and living because death has come to an end, making it impossible for those who have attained resurrection to fall again into death’s clutches. He called the Lord’s flesh veil: through it we enjoy entrance into the Holy of Holies — that is to say, just as the highpriest by Law entered through the veil into the Holy of Holies, and otherwise it was not permissible for him to enter, so those who believe in the Lord enjoy the way of life in heaven through participation in the all-holy body. He called the faithful house of God. It was necessary for him to add in full assurance of faith: since everything is invisible — the innermost sanctuary of the tabernacle, the sacrifice, and the highpriest, they are discerned only through the eyes of faith. The meaning of the words, then, is this: Since it has been demonstrated (he is saying) that the realities of grace are greater than those of the Law, that heaven has been opened to us and the way is comely to behold, and that Christ the Lord in person is the first to travel it, let us make our approach in sincerity of disposition, believing this to be the case and eliminating any discord of spirit (which he implied by full assurance). [Theodoret, Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, vol. 2, 178-179]

Strangely, however, although Theodoret assumes Jesus’ ascension (“He offered […] his own blood; and through this blood he went up to heaven” [ibid., 173], and “whereas the priests entered the tabernacle made by human hands, or the temple cut by human hands, [Jesus] entered into heaven” [ibid., 175]), Theodoret writes things that could be taken to deny that there is a temple in the sky, in contradistinction to the new testament authors and the majority of the Jewish thought-world of the first centuries B.C. and A.D., so far as I can see from the welter of pseudepigraphal and apocalyptic texts that I’ve read together with the scholarly secondary literature on these. I don’t think one can claim a strong role for Jesus in heaven in Theodoret, even though this seems to play a strong role in Pauline thought, and certainly in Hebrews. When the author of Hebrews writes about “the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation” [Heb 9:11, NKJV] into which Jesus ascends, Theodoret says that

By a tabernacle not made by human hands here he referred to human nature, which Christ the Lord assumed; it was not made in accordance with the law of marriage: the all-holy Spirit was responsible for the tabernacle. The phrase, not of this creation, means, Not in keeping with the law of nature lived in creation. [Theodoret, Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, vol. 2, 173]

Thus, Theodoret gives this phrase a Christological interpretation, and leaves his conception of the liturgical context of life above the dome of the sky an open question. In this, he seems typical of the vast majority of the Christian tradition: the developed Christology of most of the early Church fathers don’t pay much attention to the ascension, even though the mainstream Christian tradition holds to it dogmatically. Perhaps this omission is only apparent, only because more is assumed than stated by these authors (things they commonly assumed that we no longer assume together with them), or else perhaps it is because they had no real strong place for the teaching any longer.

Theodoret will talk about how Jesus has enthroned our human nature:

[the God-Word] honoured it [i.e. the human nature] with a heavenly throne, and by that which was assumed he gave freedom to the whole [human] race. [István Pásztori-Kupán, Theodoret of Cyrus (Routledge, 2006), 155]


Although allowing [the manhood] to taste death for a short while, he immediately delivered it from its tyranny and imparting his own life to it, took it up into heaven. He seated [the manhood] at the right hand side of majesty, granting it a name above every name, bestowing his own dignity upon it and taking the appellation of its nature. [Pásztori-Kupán, Theodoret of Cyrus, 167]

This ascension seems to be a soteriological function that is stripped of the priestly-duties-in-a-heavenly-realm features it has in other New Testament texts, notably in Paul and Hebrews. The saving effects of the hypostatic union seems to come to eclipse any other soteriological image. It is not clear what the function of the ascension is, if we are to take the hypostatic union as the real point of salvation. It only seems to make sense if our human nature’s being “with God” requires Jesus’ body to have a location above the dome of the sky, because God is there permanently –or at least semi-temporarily, until the new heaven and new earth– in a way that he is not here. This notion of ascension does not necessarily follow from the teaching of the hypostatic union, and feels almost like an atavism.

This becomes clear in his commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. There, Theodoret comments on the verse, “Christ it is that died, yea rather that is risen again, who is ever at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.” Theodoret glosses this verse thus:

What more than all this seek ye? in our behalf the Lord Christ died, and having risen again sits by the Father; nor even thus has He ceased His care for us, but pointing to the first-fruits which He took from us, and showing its immaculate purity to the Father, by it He asks for salvation to ourselves. And this indeed he says as regards the humanity, for as God He asks not, but (Himself) grants. Nay, and even if the heretics should declare, that so the Son does as regards His divinity, neither so could they prove His glory to be the less. For let us suppose two kings to be equal in honour, and to have the same authority, and when some deputy or general has offended against both, the one of these having earliest received the prayer of the culprit to beg of the partner of his kingdom to admit him to reconciliation, does this at all diminish the dignity, of him that makes this request? By no means. But in the present case we cannot grant even so much as this, for whatsoever seems good to the Son, pleases the Father also, and the will of both is the same. The passage therefore is figuratively expressed by the apostle, through his desire to set forth the greatness of (Christ’s) zeal and watchfulness for us. [Theodoret, commentary on Romans 8:34 — see here]

It seems that Jesus’ priestly function is not really a priestly function; he “shows [the] immaculate purity [of the human nature he took from us] to the Father”, which seems almost like a raw display, an aesthetic deployment of sorts; further, Theodoret denies that the Son asks the Father for anything, for they share the same will; thus, he seems to reduce the entire set of images to “figurative[…] express[ions]”, so that Paul is taken to be writing about the soteriological system of the Nicene-Chalcedonian synthesis. This is beautiful, and it may be true, but it is historically different in some important ways than what Paul of Tarsus was suggesting.

The best that Theodoret can do is to connect the ascension of Jesus to the descent of the Spirit, which is done already in the New Testament texts. The logic of this is not given; it seems that the victories won by the Son in his hypostatic union (Jesus’ going into the desert was earlier, in this same treatise, characterized as going into a wrestling-gym or somesuch — words characteristic of the ascetical aspirations of monastics) are to be repeated by those who receive his Spirit, whether that is seen to secure or else otherwise to perfect this union.

So, after being taken up into heaven and proffering himself to the Father as guarantor of the peace of humankind, the Ruler Christ sends to humankind the grace of the Spirit as a pledge of the promised goods, as an instructor, trainer and champion of the pious. [The Spirit is] like a vigilant protector of believers, an unquenched and never setting light for those going forward, a healer of psychic wounds, a doctor of injuries caused by sin, a leader who teaches [how] to fight courageously against the devil. [The Spirit] gives wings to those falling to the ground, educates the earthly for life in heaven, to disdain flesh and take care of the soul, to despise the present and long after the things to come, to behold those [things] they are waiting for in faith, to consider none of the things in [this] life illustrious, to laugh at fame, to look down on the flood of riches, to see bodily beauty as a fading flower, not to grieve [because of being] poor, not to suffer [when they are] ill, to rejoice when being wronged, to be happy when despoiled, to endure hardships bravely, to pray for their persecutors and bless those who curse them, and simply to follow close after wisdom. The grace of the Spirit taught these things, and thus instructed the earth and sea, this is the wisdom of the barbarians also, since the arrival of their Saviour, this [is the wisdom] of the inhabitants of the mainland, of the soldiers and of those who live at the edges of the world. [Pásztori-Kupán, Theodoret of Cyrus, 170]

These ideals can be applauded or reviled, but their connection to the ascent-descent motif is unclear — unless the things that at which ascetics are aiming are literally characteristic of life above the dome of the sky, in opposition of life in the flesh on the earth, which –if this reading is right– is riddled inescapably with injustice and strife and a hungry attachment to things that are mortal.


Header image found here.

11 thoughts on “Theodoret of Cyrus on The Mash-up of Tiered Cosmology and Philosophical Theology, with An Eye to The Ascension, 3

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