Theodoret of Cyrus on The Mash-up of Tiered Cosmology and Philosophical Theology, with An Eye to The Ascension, 7

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, post five-three is here, post five-four is here, post five-five is here, and post five-six is here. This is post five-seven, the final part of post five.


Interestingly, in a contrast to these two examples of heaven and paradise, most of the passages I can find in Theodoret’s commentaries about Hades or She’ol seem to indicate that he interprets them as metaphors. This is how he takes the phrase “the lower parts of the earth” in his commentary on Ephesians 4:9: “by lower parts of the earth, note, he referred to death”. [Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul vol. 2 transl. Robert Charles Hill (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2001), 46] See Robert Hill’s footnote on pp. 178-179 of his translation of Theodoret’s Commentary on the Psalms 1-72, where he notes that Theodoret did not seem to grasp the notion of She’ol in the Hebrew Bible. One clear exception to this trend, however, is in Theodoret’s comments on Psalm 139:8

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I descend to Hades, you are present.

Theodoret is here consistent with the three-tier universe:

You fill every [place], he is saying, both those above and those below; one is the limit of height, the other of depth. It was good for him to link the phrase you are there with heaven, and you are present with Hades: with the angels whose existence is in heaven he is at rest, whereas he is present everywhere and is ready to assist everyone. “In him we live,” according to the divine Apostle, “we move and have our being.” [Acts 17:28] [Theodoret, Commentary on the Psalms 73-150, 331]

Note Theodoret’s use of the word “limit” with regard to height and depth: the three-tiered universe is bounded, finite, has limits. Note one exception with regard to the descent of the Word in the incarnation: “the descent does not imply any change in place”. [Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, vol. 2, 46] In his Eranistes, however, Theodoret quotes from St. John Chrysostom

66. By the same author from the discourse on the assumption.

Across this space and height, therefore, he raised our nature. [John Chrysostom, On the ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ 3. CPG 2.4342.] See where it lay below and where it ascended on high. It was impossible to descend lower than humanity had descended, or to ascend higher than God had raised it. [Theodoret, Eranistes, 161]

“Across space” and “[across] height”; this is not metaphorical. In his History of the Monks of Syria, Theodoret accounts for one part of the life of Simeon the Stylite:

Since the visitors were beyond counting and they all tried to touch him and reap some blessing from his garments of skins, while he at first thought the excess of honor absurd and later could not abide the wearisomeness of it, he devised the standing on a pillar, ordering the cutting of a pillar first of six cubits, then of twelve, after-wards of twenty-two and now of thirty-six — for he yearns to fly up to heaven and to be separated from this life on earth. [Theodoret, History of the Monks of Syria transl. R. M. Price (Trappist, KY: Cistercian, 1985/2008), 166]

“[H]e yearns to fly up to heaven and to be separated from this life on earth.” The ascent is not metaphorical.

Thus, we part with Theodoret.


As a postscript, I should say that I did not investigate the implications of Theodoret’s reported Antiochene-school style of biblical interpretation, to see how it bears upon the topic at hand. There are a number of texts that I did not have the leisure to examine which would undoubtedly put Theodoret’s comments in a broader historical, biographical, and theological framework. Theodoret, historically, was prolific, and highly influential. He also seems to have been a good and even holy person, with a remarkable life (read Kupan’s overview). (I cannot say the same for some of his contemporary bishops, such as Cyril of Alexandria, who by all accounts seems like a dangerous and murderous tyrant. How can a murderer be deemed a saint, and a seemingly holy man be anathematized?)

Further, I am not here engaging with the matter of Theodoret’s treatment at the fifth ecumenical council. That is a matter for another time, if ever. (Though, of course, I acquired the relevant texts.)

Divine simplicity still strains under the weight of anthropomorphisms here, particularly with regard to the earlier anthropomorphic theology’s locating of God in the sky. It seems that, even under Platonistic influences, the biblical God is still boundedly personal in Theodoret, that the Platonistic impulses and metaphysics grate against the notion of specific personhood (“The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire” Deut 5:4). This lingering residue of a divine body is shown in a divine agency –stripped here of a divine body– that is free and makes choices, that transposes the framework of our biologically-rooted agency into a divine framework, and crashes into a metaphysic with which it is not clearly coordinated. This personal God is also very specially localized because of choices, rather than by the alignment of historical contingencies with transcendent forms — he calls a people, engages in discrete acts, is present or not present, cares or does not care, with an ineliminable element of will and preference and appearances that express a person.

This seems most clearly indicated by the instrumental use of apparitions and forms by the personal God –something that seems incompatible with the divine simplicity that Theodoret wants to propose– as well as the residual indications that God is tied somehow to his dwelling with angels above the dome of the sky, and his apparitional anchor in the temple to which he has bound himself.

“Of course the biblical God is a personal God!” both believers and skeptics alike say.

This kind of believer shows no signs of having tried to hold together an awareness of Plato’s critiques of the gods and change as this relates to goodness; this reply shows no awareness of the problems this affirmation of bounded personality that this naive retort faces. (Perhaps it is aware, but no rigorous theological response to philosophical questions is evidenced in this kind of reply.) The Lutheran option is still on the table, together with some Plotinianistic option via figures like Pseudo-Dionysius.

The skeptics, on the other hand, seem to be uninterested in sympathetically receiving the kinds of religious experiences that are indicated by the 4th- and 5th-century Christian synthesis, and finding a robust theological metaphysics for them, seem unaware of how this heritage –which some New Atheist types want to say is superfluous to western civilization– is at the root of so much of what we all hold in common as worthwhile in the secular age. One does not need to be a believer to take it seriously as a common heritage and object of concern, as several modern atheist thinkers have shown. Modern secularism may not be Christianity, but it comes to us through the Christian moment, and it is important for us in the West to understand what this was, historically, in order to grasp what it is, presently, and what it does and does not enable.

There have been modern attempts to account for the personhood of God phenomenologically, while situating this experience in the context of a metaphysics that does not anthropomorphize God (e.g., Pannenberg, &c.). It is not clear that Theodoret is there; to investigate this properly would require more reading in languages that either I do not know (e.g., French) or to which I have only an introduction (vi&., Greek).


Header image found here.

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