The School of Antioch
Our next catechetical school is the school of Antioch. Here is some background on this school of thought from historian Philip Schaff:
Lucian is the reputed founder of the ANTIOCHIAN SCHOOL of theology, which was more fully developed in the fourth century. He shares this honor with his friend Dorotheus, likewise a presbyter of Antioch, who is highly spoken of by Eusebius as a biblical scholar acquainted with Hebrew. But the real founders of that school are Diodorus, bishop of Tarsus (c. A.D. 379-394), and Theodorus, bishop of Mopsuestia (393-428), both formerly presbyters of Antioch.
The Antiochian School was not a regular institution with a continuous succession of teachers, like the Catechetical School of Alexandria, but a theological tendency, more particularly a peculiar type of hermeneutics and exegesis which had its centre in Antioch. The characteristic features are, attention to the revision of the text, a close adherence to the plain, natural meaning according to the use of language and the condition of the writer, and justice to the human factor. In other words, its exegesis is grammatical and historical, in distinction from the allegorical method of the Alexandrian School. Yet, as regards textual criticism, Lucian followed in the steps of Origen. Nor did the Antiochians disregard the spiritual sense, and the divine element in the Scriptures. The grammatico-historical exegesis is undoubtedly the only safe and sound basis for the understanding of the Scriptures as of any other book; and it is a wholesome check upon the wild licentiousness of the allegorizing method which often substitutes imposition for exposition. But it may lead to different results in different hands, according to the spirit of the interpreter. The Arians and Nestorians claimed descent from, or affinity with, Lucian and his school; but from the same school proceeded also the prince of commentators among the fathers, John Chrysostom, the eulogist of Lucian and Diodorus, and the friend and fellow student of Theodore of Mopsuestia. Theodoret followed in the same line.
After the condemnation of Nestorius, the Antiochian theology continued to be cultivated at Nisibis and Edessa among the Nestorians. (Schaff, pages 815-816)
Little, it seems, is known of Lucian (c. 240 - 312 A.D.) or Dorotheus besides a few historical details. We know, for example that Lucian was tortured for nine years and then martyred for his Christian faith ("Martyr Lucian the Presbyter of Antioch"). We also know that both Lucian and Dorotheus favored literal and historical interpretations of scripture over allegorical interpretation and that Dorotheus was competent in Hebrew, which was rare at the time. It also seems that their writings have not survived, so it is impossible to really reconstruct their views. For these reasons, we will need to study the school of Antioch primarily by looking at the views of what Schaff calls its “real founders,” Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia.
But before we get into the history and theology of these men, it is worthwhile to notice that the school of Antioch had a different way of looking at the Bible than the school of Alexandria by focusing on “the plain, natural meaning” of the text rather than on the hidden allegorical meaning. In that sense, the school of Antioch was a rival to the school of Alexandria. This is significant in that it shows that the concept of universal salvation that arose there was independently derived from the biblical text and did not rely on Origen’s system of thought. Indeed, a focus on the “plain, natural meaning” of the biblical texts in Greek inevitably leads to the understanding that all people will ultimately be saved from sin and death, so this is not surprising.
That the universalist founders of the Antiochian School were highly esteemed in their lifetimes, and that they made significant contributions to orthodox Christian thinking seem to be indisputable facts. Diodore, for instance “was one of the leading figures at the Council of Constantinople (381)” where the current form of the Nicene creed was established (Greer, Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, page 331). Theodore's significance was likewise great. Citing the assenting views of several other scholars, William A. Jurgens asserts that “none contributed more than Theodore to the growth of a sound Christology in the period between the second ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. and the third ecumenical Council of Ephesis in 431 A.D” and that “his teaching … does actually point the way to the fourth ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D." (Jurgens p. 78).
In spite of these major contributions to orthodox Christian thought, however, some people in the West tend to be dismissive of Diodore and Theodore. The primary reason for this seems to be Theodore's posthumous condemnation at the fifth ecumenical council of Emperor Justinian, which occurred 125 years after his death in full communion with the orthodox church. The circumstances of this entire council were very strange and questionable, as we will analyze in more depth later. At any rate, his condemnation was certainly not justified, and is just another example of the negative effect of imperial politics on Christianity. A more objective, scholarly look at Theodore leads to the conclusion that "at the fifth ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553 A.D., he was perhaps more deserving of tribute than condemnation” (Jurgens p. 78). This brings up an important point that is necessary to address if we are ever to arrive at truth about history and Christian doctrine. Namely, it is this: there seems to be a tendency in the West to assume that all the decisions regarding doctrinal disputes were essentially agreed upon by the whole church, and that those on the losing end of a controversy must have been wicked heretics. This biased, and frankly ethnocentric assumption is unfounded. In fact, a closer look at the history of some of these controversies leads to some serious questions as to the legitimacy of the decisions that were made.
For example, the so-called “Nestorian” Church of the East is probably unknown to most American Christians but was a very significant portion of the church whose founder, Nestorius, was a pupil of the Antiochian School. By one estimate, the number of Christians belonging to the churches of the East were equal or nearly equal to the number of Christians in Europe, but with a deeper faith that was not forced upon them by powerful monarchs on pain of death (Camp, p. 150). The Nestorian Church still exists today and is typically referred to as the Assyrian or East Syrian Church (Namato). It gets its moniker from Nestorius, archbishop of Constantinople, who was condemned by the council of Ephesus as “heretical.” One primary reason for this condemnation seems to have been his preference for calling Mary the mother of Christ (Christotokos) instead of the mother of God (Theotokos). Interestingly, I imagine that most Protestants at least would agree with Nestorius, since I’ve never in my life heard a single Protestant refer to Mary as the mother of God (maybe some do, but it does not seem common to me by experience). I think the reason for this is not the denial of Christ’s divinity (which Nestorius did not do), but rather the desire to avoid confusion, since referring to Mary in such a way could lead to misunderstanding for some people. For example, some might tend assume that God began to exist when He was born (i.e. that prior to birth He did not exist). Stating that Christ was born to Mary seems to avoid such potential confusion as well as avoiding possible mistaken assumptions that Mary was superior to God since she bore Him.
Regardless of your position on what to call Mary, it is important to realize that Nestorius was not condemned for his views on universal restoration. If fact, none of the ecumenical councils of the early church made any attempt whatsoever to condemn the idea of universal restoration (apokatastasis) until the Fifth Ecumenical Council (also known as the 2nd Council of Constantinople) in 553 AD, probably because up to that time it was a widely held doctrine. Instead, most of the early doctrinal disputes focused on Christology, especially the relationship between divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus, and some of them would be difficult for a modern Christian (who is not a well-trained theologian) to clearly distinguish, much less evaluate whether they are “orthodox” or not. I will leave it to you to ascertain the differences between Monophysitism, Miaphysitism, Nestorianism, and Dyophysitism (for a short list) if you so desire. I think that if you make the attempt, you will discover that much of what is disputed comes down to semantics, technicalities, and misunderstandings. I do not always like to cite Wikipedia but in this instance, it summarizes the nature of such disputes quite well:
Much has been said about the difficulties in understanding the Greek technical terms used in these controversies. The main words are ousia (οὐσία, 'substance'), physis (φύσις, 'nature'), hypostasis (ὑπόστασις, 'being'), and prosopon (πρόσωπον, 'person'). Even in Greek, their meanings can overlap somewhat. These difficulties became even more exaggerated when these technical terms were translated into other languages. In Syriac, physis was translated as kyānâ (ܟܝܢܐ) and hypostasis was qnômâ (ܩܢܘܡܐ). However, in the Church of the East, which followed the East Syriac rite, qnômâ was taken to mean nature, thereby confounding the issue further. The shades of meaning are even more blurred between these words, and they could not be used in such a philosophical way as their Greek counterparts. ("Miaphysitism" 2018)
It is also noteworthy that these technical terms and precise formulations that resulted in so much divisiveness were largely speculative, since the Bible does not spell out the nature of Christ using such terms. The Greek word ousia, for example, is only used twice in the New Testament and both times refers to the estate or goods of the Father in the parable of the prodigal son. It is never used to describe the relationship between Christ’s humanity and divinity. From a purely biblical point of view, the exact nature of this relationship is, in fact, never defined explicitly in the ways that the church attempted to define it. No wonder there were disagreements. In an effort to define and enforce “orthodoxy,” it seems that the church at this time began to succumb to petty squabbles on metaphysical mysteries rather than focusing on clearer biblical teachings such as loving one’s neighbor (for example).
At any rate, the circumstances surrounding condemnation of Nestorius by the Council of Ephesus, make the entire council seem suspicious. For example, Cyril of Alexandria (Nestorius’ chief adversary), obtained Nestorius’ condemnation at the council before the Eastern bishops from Antioch who supported him had even arrived. These bishops then convened their own council to have Cyril deposed. Emperor Theodosius II, apparently exasperated with all of this nonsense, decided they should both be removed from office and even had Cyril imprisoned as a troublemaker (Walker, p. 148). The whole scenario sounds less like a council of reasonable, pious men debating matters of faith, and more like a soap opera (or telenovela, if you prefer), complete with bribery and corruption.
As Theodoret, bishop of Cyrus commented, "the partisans of Cyril have deceived everyone by domineering, cheating, flattering, and bribing" (Theodoret, Letter CLXV). Such an accusation was well-founded. Cyril did, in fact, bribe his way back into power. The details of the bribery are recorded in his Letter 96, in which he details its terms, which included hundreds of pounds of gold and many other costly goods distributed to at least 17 members of the imperial court. These were expressly given “in order that he would help us in the cause about those matters which were written to him” and “that she would persuade Augusta” and “so he may use persuasion to forward the proposal” etc. (Cyril of Alexandria, Letter 96). It is impossible to deny that this was a bribe since Cyril expressly tells us, in his own words, that it was.
So, it is not clear that the alleged “winners” of church council debates won honorably; in the case of the council of Ephesus, there was clearly some significant cheating. Likewise, the fruit of the various church bodies that spun off from said events should make us pause to consider whether the “winners” might have been corrupt. In the case of the Nestorian schism, the “orthodox” church developed into a brutal church-state complex, while the Nestorian churches did not, but instead were involved in peacefully spreading Christianity throughout Asia, reaching as far as China, Korea, and Japan. As Michael Camp aptly observes, while Nestorian Christians were peacefully coexisting and even respectfully collaborating with people of other religious traditions in Asia, “newly crowned Christian Emperor Charlemagne had 4,500 Saxons beheaded because they resisted a campaign of forced conversion to Catholicism.” (Camp, p. 149). This Massacre of Verdin occurred in 782, and the pope declared Charlemagne to be the Holy Roman Emperor in 800, since mass execution was apparently not a disqualifying action for such a title as long as Charlemagne would protect him militarily ("Charlemagne" 2009). This sort of violence and political maneuvering became the rule rather than the exception throughout much of European history with the so-called “winning” church.
The reason I bring this up is that there seems to be a tendency in the West to assume that we have inherited perfect spiritual truth from whatever theological tradition we individually subscribe to. For this reason, some people will no doubt refuse to consider the viewpoints of the church fathers of the Antiochian School due to their alleged connections to supposed “heresies.” Never mind that Antioch was one of the greatest centers of Christian thinking in the early orthodox church, or that these Eastern fathers were highly revered in their time, or that they died in full communion with the orthodox church. Never mind that the theology developed by them resulted in fruitful, peaceful missionary activity and church growth throughout the farthest regions of Asia. Never mind that many of our so-called Western “heroes of the faith” heartily participated in and promoted the extreme violence, corruption, and oppression of the militaristic church-state complexes they helped create and expand.
Perhaps it would be a good idea to drop our biases for a moment and examine the thoughts of the Antiochian school more objectively. It was, after all, a major (and highly respected) part of the early orthodox church. With this in mind, let’s now examine the theology of Antioch in regard to the salvation of all people. We will begin by going back in time, even before the so-called Antiochian school was founded, to a church father who was Patriarch of Antioch well before any of these controversies began.
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Notes and Citations
Camp, Michael. Craft Brewed Jesus: How History We Never Knew Taps a Spirituality We Really Need. Resource Publications, 2016, https://books.google.com/books?id=wEUJDAAAQBAJ&pg=PA146&lpg=PA146&dq=nestorian universalist liturgy&source=bl&ots=z9ljzHK_I3&sig=-2hoBVb_U40X5lEib24UOMAdQSY&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjFmcKkmYrfAhWLHXwKHSBcD1AQ6AEwBXoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=charlemagne&f=false.
Greer, Rowan. Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. Edited by Everett Ferguson, Routledge, 2013. https://books.google.com/books?id=oUFFAQAAQBAJ&pg=PR18&lpg=PR18&dq=Rowan+A+Greer,+%22Diodore+of+Tarsus,%22&source=bl&ots=in6_qYwIUM&sig=-NcZwoLb5npth98UYbNzFufWpZI&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjglK-dsZ3cAhVMlFQKHcybDwMQ6AEwBXoECAMQAQ#v=snippet&q=Diodore%20of%20Tarsus&f=false
Jurgens, William A. The Faith of the Early Fathers. Vol. 2, Liturgical Press, 1998.
Editors, History.com. “Charlemagne.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 Nov. 2009, www.history.com/topics/middle-ages/charlemagne.
Cyril of Alexandria. Fathers of the Church, St. Cyril of Alexandria: Letters 51-110. Translated by John I. McEnerney, Catholic University of America Press, 2007, https://books.google.com/books?id=7-NktOwEjYMC&q=letter 96#v=snippet&q=letter 96&f=false. Letter 96 starts on page 151.
“Is Someone You Know Worth Their Weight In Gold? Find Your Weight in Gold.” History of Gold, Only Gold, http://onlygold.com/Info/Value-Your-Weight-In-Gold.asp.
“Martyr Lucian the Presbyter of Antioch.” Orthodox Church in America, https://oca.org/saints/lives/2000/10/15/102973-martyr-lucian-the-presbyter-of-antioch
“Miaphysitism.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Nov. 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miaphysitism.
Namato, Lawrance. Nestorian Theology, www.nestorian.org/nestorian_church.html.
Schaff, Philip, and David Schley Schaff. History of the Christian Church. 8th ed., Charles Scribner's Sons, 1901, https://books.google.com/books/about/History_of_the_Christian_Church.html?id=Rqk8AAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q=nisibis&f=false.
The 1910 version of this work is also available here: http://www.bible.ca/history/philip-schaff/2_ch13.htm#_edn333
Theodoret, and Blomfield Jackson. “Fathers of the Church, Letter CLXV.” Fathers of the Church | Catholic Culture, www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/fathers/view.cfm?recnum=3057. This letter was written by Theodoret, bishop of Cyrus in 431 A.D. Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (NPNF II/III, Schaff and Wace). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.
Walker, Williston. A History of the Christian Church. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1919, https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=AOBDAAAAYAAJ&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA148.