The Christology of Theodoret of Cyrus: Antiochene Christology from the Council of Ephesus (431) to the Council of Chalcedon (451). By Paul B. Clayton, Jr.
Article first published online: 8 JUN 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 4, pages 709–710, July 2009
How to Cite
Rousseau, P. (2009), The Christology of Theodoret of Cyrus: Antiochene Christology from the Council of Ephesus (431) to the Council of Chalcedon (451). By Paul B. Clayton, Jr. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 709–710. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00501_13.x
- Issue published online: 8 JUN 2009
- Article first published online: 8 JUN 2009
(Oxford Early Christian Studies) . Pp. x, 355 , Oxford/NY , Oxford University Press , 2007 , £75.00 .
Dr Clayton's book is useful at three levels. First, it shows that detailed theological analysis can be joined to a passionate engagement with the issues at stake. (We acquire in the process a valuable navigator's chart through the shoals of theological distinction.) Second, it gives a full account of scholarly debate since the late nineteenth century, chiefly because the author wishes to defend carefully his own stand within that tradition. The question is whether Theodoret was creative, or merely consistent. The possibility of detecting ‘evolution’ is raised very soon (p. 2) but denied at length. Third, we are invited to assess what the author's message implies for an understanding of Theodoret's career and character (although the author does not do so himself). These are worthy merits.
The structure of the book is important because it is simple and, by keeping that simplicity in mind, we are helped through the density of each chapter. There are also two governing preoccupations. First, one has to keep the options in mind: either Theodoret was a ‘Nestorian’ throughout his career, or he was a Chalcedonian before the event, simply developing his Antiochene heritage, or, between Ephesus and Chalcedon, he veered towards a Cyrillian position. Second, there is frequent reference to what, in his 1956 work The Christology of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Francis Sullivan referred to as the ‘Arian syllogism’. Its major premiss is that the Word is the ‘subject’ (in the anthropological and psychological senses) of Jesus's human operations and sufferings; the minor, that what is predicated of the Word is predicated in the divine nature; and the conclusion, that the Word is limited in its nature because it is passible. Athanasius and the Alexandrians denied the minor premiss; but those working within the tradition of Antioch (like Theodore and Theodoret) denied the major (p. 56).
Dr Clayton's ‘Prolegomena’ provide an historical outline and an account of the scholarly debate. The rest of the book is unashamedly a commentary on texts, set out chronologically. In spite of relentless précis and abundant quotation, one really needs the texts beside one as one reads. The thesis is that Theodoret was consistent, whatever appearances there may be to the contrary; a thesis that requires exhaustive argument: everything has to be picked over thoroughly, to show how an admittedly careful man was able, in a sense, to hide himself. The chronology is designed, in other words, to undermine any sense of change or development. The author admits readily to some repetition, even tedium. The long chapter 7 on the ‘Eutychian Crisis’ (seventy-odd pages) is most markedly a rehearsal of what one might read for oneself. There is perhaps too much reference to this ‘laborious and lengthy process’ (p. 1), ‘the admittedly involved and time-consuming chronological approach’ (p. 33), ‘the evidence here gathered at toilsome length’ (p. 134). A statement on p. 166, ‘All the usual fundamentals we have seen developed appear over and over again’, is echoed many times: ‘we have seen all this before’. An unnecessary impression is created that the difficulty of the material is less a factor than the doggedness of the author.
That is not to deny, however, the usefulness of what is a genuine narrative, with several telling highlights. Cyril and his supporters, in this account, always knew that Nestorius by himself was not the chief enemy: it was Antioch they were up against. That was Theodoret's base, which, with Theodore dead, made him the pre-eminent exemplar, dead centre in Alexandria's sights. His inherited position before 431 is to be found in the De incarnatione domini, although the work was adapted in response to Cyril's assertions (the only essential adjustment Theodoret, according to Dr Clayton, ever made). The authenticity and dating of this treatise is essential, therefore, to the argument of the whole book. (The defence is no less convincing for not being original.) The dominant conviction was that Jesus, in order to save humanity, needed to resist temptation and to suffer (literally) fear and death, and that these crucially human idiomata could not be predicated of the divine Word without putting its divinity in doubt (see especially the excellent summary on p. 102). The following chapter 4, therefore, ‘Two Physeis in one Prosopon’, is arguably the most important, for it lays out the position from which, so it is averred, Theodoret never strayed. The ‘Mature Theodoret’ of Chapter 6 is at heart unmoved, simply avoiding (in deference to Cyril's ‘victory’) ‘concrete formulae’, by which Dr Clayton means terms like ‘the perfect man’ and ‘the assumed man’ (p. 167). The same is true of the Eranistes, written in the later 440s. Here, as suggested above, the detailed labour serves chiefly to illustrate an argument already presented by others (although of course, in all fairness, a choice is being made): the quotation from Saltet on p. 219, ‘il cesse de constituer une oeuvre originale; il devient une adaptation d'une idée anterieure’, is taken from the Revue d'Histoire Ecclésiastique for 1905. (The devil lies in the ‘adaptation’.)
The chief problem lies deeper. Dr Clayton's Theodoret is a devotee of Christological debate and little else. The book, in its direct focus, ignores anything that does not illustrate this apparently consuming preoccupation. Now, it is not enough to say that that is what the book is about. Obviously, it matters historically if what the author says is true – namely, that Theodoret was not seriously seeking new ways out of a theological impasse. His virtue, for Dr Clayton, rested in his unflinching (indeed, rather myopic) ability to lay bare (for us) the philosophical limitations of Antiochene Christology. His Jesus may be ‘an actual human being’, but ‘his picture of God is sterile’ (p. 288). He comes off, in the end, as little more than a deceitful coward. If he was eirenic, it was only in response to ‘the political strength of the Alexandrines, victorious at Ephesus in 431 and having the Emperor's full support’. The added accolade – that he showed ‘genuine concern for the unity of the Church’– is left hanging, without substantial evidence from beyond his theological ruminations (p. 285).
What we miss, therefore, is a sense of why Theodoret worried. The turmoil of combat is disguised by the tranquillity of the text. This is not to ask, of course, why anyone would have worried: the issue was clearly important (is important), and any defence of what was considered orthodox required tireless attention to detail. It is more a matter of wanting to know what it was in Theodoret's training and circumstance that made him worry in this way. (How frustrating to know so little about his education; about what he read, where, and under whom.) Talk of ‘Antiochene Christology’, therefore, is not enough. Let me list briefly the roles that Theodoret played, in addition to that of religious philosopher.
He was, to begin with, a bishop. Dr Clayton admits early on to his ‘pastoral concerns’ (p. 3), backed up by the emphases of scholars before him; but little use is made of Theodoret's abundant letters, for example, as keys to a broader context. He (like Cyril – indeed, more than Cyril) was an exegete; but little is said about the sociology of scriptural commentary (audiences, settings) or its links with homily (still – the links, I mean – a seriously neglected feature of church life in that age). Can it be honestly argued that the meaning of Theodoret's commentaries is circumscribed or exhausted by their Christological implications? Even the tenor of the controversy itself is relatively unexplored. If Theodoret was wary of Cyril and Theodosius II, what does that tell us about the structures of and relationships within the church, the unity of which (apparently) concerned Theodoret so much? Was the doctrine that eventually won the day (at Chalcedon, in so far as it did) the result only of argument? What are we to make of Theodoret's constant demand (reiterated when his head really was on the block at the end of the 440s) that cards be laid on the table and that positions be argued in a public forum (so much a lawyer's view)? Orthodoxy (like incarnation) had to be visible.
Theodoret was also an historian: his understanding of the pagan challenge and of the ascetic heritage was that of a man who felt the pressure of the past. In his Christological formulations, the enemies are always ancient. He wrote his Historia ecclesiastica, for example, long after Ephesus; but it ends before it, and concentrates on Arians. Similarly, in his arguments against Cyril, direct or indirect, the objects of his attack are exactly those identified in his letters as infesting his diocese – Marcionites not least. There is something to be made, I think, of this generally conservative anxiety, the surprisingly remote historical context within which some controversialists of the time were able to place their fray. Dr Clayton knows this, but admits it en passant almost, in a footnote: ‘To attack the consequences of Arianism is a subtle but entirely characteristic approach on Theodoret's part to get at what he saw as the dangers in Alexandria's Christology’ (p. 171). Yes, but ‘characteristic’ of much more than texts.