Theodoret of Cyrus on The Mash-up of Tiered Cosmology and Philosophical Theology, with An Eye to The Ascension, 4

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, post five-two is here, and post five-three is here.


At first it seemed unclear to me whether these revelations were understood by Theodoret psychologically, apparitionally, or as providential natural events that functioned theophanically. It is possible that Theodoret can accommodate all three. With regard to the Sinai theophany, I incline to the last of these –theophanic naturalism, rather than to apparitionalism (to coin a barbarous term). Hebrews 12:18–21 reads:

18 For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, 19 and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. 20 (For they could not endure what was commanded: “And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow.” 21 And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.”) [NKJV]

Commenting on this passage, Theodoret wrote:

What happened on Mount Sion was fearsome […] fire plain to be seen, smoke going in all directions, gloom, darkness, hurricane and fearsome sound of a trumpet. […] While [the author of Hebrews] brought out the fearsome things […] [h]e did not say “appeared,” because what they saw was not the God of all in person but some impression of the divine coming. [Theodoret, Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, vol. 2 transl. Robert Charles Hill (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2001), 191]

“[W]hat they saw was not the God of all in person but some impression of the divine coming.” Now, in a previous post we looked at how Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 4, and especially with Nehemiah 9 explicitly to resolve the tensions between them (together with a host of psalms) — these give the very clear combined sense that God, still in heaven, moved heaven down to touch the top of Sinai, and spoke from heaven atop Sinai. Theodoret begins by following Hebrews in qualifying this picture, and seems to go further and appears actually to reject the sense, in Nehemiah, of the texts from Exodus & Deuteronomy on heaven descending atop Sinai. Despite his granting that God dwells in heaven in some sense in his Commentary on the Psalms and in his Commentary on Daniel, he seems to deny any notion of divine location here at Sinai (simply providential pedagogical instruments), or the kind of locationality that seems very clearly implied by God’s presence in the temple in the Hebrew Bible.

Note, however, that in his Commentary on Daniel, Theodoret glosses the words of Daniel in 3:53 (these verses are not found in the edition of Daniel in most English-language Bibles, though they contain a hymn that seems to have held a key place in the worship of the first Christian centuries), “Blessed art thou in the holy temple of thy glory” with the words “that temple where your glory is accustomed to manifest itself”, even going so far as to say that the temple “shares in your [God’s] holiness” no matter how many times it is destroyed, but that “the incorporeal and uncircumscribed God [is not being confined] in a place” here [Commentary on Daniel, 91], given that the song of the youth goes on to hymn that “Blessed are you on the throne of your kingdom, highly to be exalted forever”, and “Blessed are you in the firmament of the sky”. Theodoret is pleased by the hymn out of a concern that, if people thought that God were localizable, he would be circumscribable, and so “harm would come to the listeners”. In another gloss on the hymn in v.58, however, Theodoret mentions that the Hebrew children “summon to the choir heaven, the waters above the heavens and the powers encircling the divine throne”, which does make it sound like God has a location and a circumference. A more rigorous Neoplatonic theology of images would need to wait until Pseudo-Dionysius, but the grating of the theology of the biblical authors against this Platonistic theology is notable.

The above passage from Hebrews 12 goes on to say not only “you have not come to a mountain perceptible to the senses” but that “instead, you [i.e., Christians] have come to Mount Sion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless angels”, &c. Hebrews 12 then says (v.25) that the Israelites “did not escape” when refusing the one who spoke to them on earth (seemingly Moses), and contrasts that with “h[e] who speaks from heaven”. Theodoret glosses this:

God gave them the Law, he is saying, not from heaven but on Mount Sinai, whereas in our case we look forward to the Lord’s coming from heaven. [Theodoret, Commentary on The Letters of St. Paul vol. 2, 192]

Before examining this phrase about “the Lord’s coming from heaven”, it is worthwhile to examine the way that the author of Hebrews seems to intend the differences between Moses speaking from earth and Jesus speaking from heaven. Theodoret clearly thinks that this contrast means that the Sinai theophany itself occurred on earth, and shows no awareness of the earlier biblical conceptions of heaven “bending” or moving to touch the earth.

When contrasting “from earth” and “from heaven”, the author of Hebrews seems to be speaking about the location from which Moses speaks to the Israelites, namely, from earth after leaving heaven atop Sinai, vs. the location from which Jesus was thought to be then currently speaking to Christians through some earthly prophetic functionary, namely, from heaven, from above the firmament. (For other analogies, see Paul of Tarsus’ lines in 1 Corinthians where he writes, alternatively, “concerning the matter of which you wrote, I received no instruction from the Lord” vs. the time when he brings a divine message; see also his line in Galatians where he writes “but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus”, &c. Of course, the itinerant ministers who were “sent” after a vision experience like the commissioning of Jeremiah or Isaiah [“Am I not an apostle? –have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?” 1 Cor 9] could not always be with a rooted community, so these needed local prophets. There is a reason why Paul lists prophecy as the gift of the Spirit to be desired above all in 1 Cor 14. Given the distance from the sky to the earth, given that they are different locations, with very different ways of life, the sharing of the sky Spirit means that the distance is bridged in a number of ways.) Theodoret shows no awareness of this alternative take on earlier Christian religiosity, and likely reveals an example of shifting baseline syndrome by colonizing the text’s meaning with a theological sense that could be contemporary with himself.

The Lord’s coming “from heaven” is his coming from the sky for both the biblical writers and for Theodoret. The language itself comes from 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17:

For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. [NKJV]

Almost no educated Christians today will interpret these verses literally, because to do so would be embarrassing in its quaintness. The idea that Jesus descends from the sky seems like backwater village superstition combined with ignorance of the actual structure of the world. ‘Do you imagine he comes from the moon?’ one can almost hear a modern cosmopolitan honestly ask, puzzled. –and so on. (More on contemporary Christian interactions with contemporary cosmology with regard to the ascension of Jesus in later posts.) Theodoret glosses this verse:

the Lord in person will descend and appear from the heaven in first place before all things, the unseen powers preceding him […] [118] [Paul] brought out the greatness of the honor: as the Lord was taken up in a bright cloud, so too those believing in him, both those rising from the dead and those still alive, riding on the clouds will meet the Judge of all, and living with him they will pass an age that has no end.  [Theodoret, Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, vol.2, 117]

The clouds are not symbols here, and the ascension of the faithful is not a metaphor. Jesus literally rose on a cloud, and those who meet him in the air, after he moves his body down from above the dome of the sky, will be honored by rising to meet him by the same means. The language only makes sense when referred to a cosmology in which there is absolute direction and where the space above the firmament is both the present location of Jesus’ body and the one from which he will return. Intelligent, conservative, modern commenters find this hard-set notion of space and a location above the firmament unacceptable, whether they are Ratzinger or C.S.  Lewis or N.T. Wright or J.I. Packer or John Polkinghorne or Bulgakov or Alfeyev, but they want to preserve the authority and the truth of the text, so the biblical language is assimilated to poetic devices that are compatible with our post-Copernican, post-Gagarin cosmic imaginary.


Header image found here.

10 thoughts on “Theodoret of Cyrus on The Mash-up of Tiered Cosmology and Philosophical Theology, with An Eye to The Ascension, 4

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