The School of Antioch and Theodore of Mopsuestia
Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350 – 428) was an incredibly influential theologian of the School of Antioch. Referred to as “the crown and climax of the school of Antioch” and the “Master of the East (Magister Orientis), and revered as “the Interpreter,” he is probably the best representative of the Antiochian school of thought. Additionally, “he seems to have been the most profound thinker and independent inquirer of the Fathers of the Church in the golden age of Christianity: the fourth and the fifth centuries.” (Mingana). He also undeniably believed in the ultimate salvation of all people, as we shall soon see.
But before we delve into Theodore’s views, it seems necessary to learn a little of the man and his reputation. In the prefatory note to his translation of the Commentary of Theodore of Mopsuestia on The Nicene Creed, Alphonse Mingana does a nice job summarizing how Theodore was viewed by his contemporaries as well as by scholars. In doing so, he shows the high esteem in which he was held. Because Mingana’s summary contains the views of so many significant people and because it firmly establishes the character and reputation of Theodore, I will now quote it at length:
A glimpse of the early life of Theodore is supplied by the writings of his bosom friend John Chrysostom who testifies that his days were spent in reading and his nights in prayer, that his fasts were long and his bed was the bare ground, that he indulged in every form of asceticism and self-discipline.
A letter from Chrysostom to Theodore shows that the former's affection and admiration for the friend of his childhood remained till the end of his days. The letter was written while Chrysostom was in exile at Cucusus (a.d. 404-407). In it the exiled Patriarch testifies that "he can never forget the love of Theodore, so genuine and warm, so sincere and guileless, a love maintained from early years," and thanks him for the efforts that he had made to obtain his release, and ends his correspondence with the memorable sentence: "Exile as I am I reap no ordinary consolation from having such a treasure, such a mine of wealth within my heart as the love of so vigilant and noble a soul." As the late Dr. Swete points out, higher testimony could not have been borne, or by a more competent judge.
Death did not put a stop to the fame of Theodore. It is recorded in Tillemont that Meletius, Theodore's successor to the see of Mopsuestia, asserted that he would have endangered his own life if he had uttered words detrimental to his predecessor. Even Cyril of Alexandria whose views on the Incarnation were not in harmony with those of Theodore was obliged to avow that in the Churches of the East one often heard the cry: "We believe as Theodore believed; long live the faith of Theodore!" The same Cyril of Alexandria informs us that when a party of bishops was found ready to condemn him, the answer of the bishops of Syria to them was: "We had rather be burnt than condemn Theodore." Leontius Byzantinus informs us also that Cyril of Alexandria advised against the condemnation of Theodore because all the bishops of the Eastern Church considered him an eminent Doctor, and if he were condemned there would be serious disturbance in that Church. The famous Church historian, Theodoret, was pleased to call him "Doctor of the Universal Church." This title is also ascribed to him by a much later Greek author, Nicephorus Callistus, who calls him "Doctor of all the Churches."
There is no need to emphasise the fact that Theodore's memory and especially his writings have always been considered as the most esteemed treasures of the East Syrian Church. They were gradually translated after his death; and their authority among the innumerable adherents of the Eastern Church, which for a long time stretched from the eastern Mediterranean shores to Manchuria and from the Caspian Sea to the Indian Ocean, was only one degree below that of Paul. With them he was the "interpreter" par excellence. The only discordant note seems to have been struck towards the end of the sixth century by individual teachers of no great importance in the councils of the Church, but the Synod held in a.d. 596 by the Patriarch Sabrisho` rose vehemently against them: "We reject and anathematize all those who do not adhere to the commentaries, the traditions and the teaching of the eminent Doctor, the blessed Theodore the interpreter; and who endeavour to introduce new and foreign doctrines saturated with errors and blasphemies, which are in contradiction to the true and exact teaching of this saint and of all the orthodox Doctors, heads of the schools, who have followed in his steps, corroborated his doctrine and taught the true faith of the incorruptible orthodoxy in our eastern regions."
In the Synod of Gregory I, held in a.d. 605, all the eastern archbishops and bishops bound themselves to abide by the teaching of Theodore: "We all assembled in this Synod have decided that each of us should receive and accept all the commentaries and works written by the blessed Theodore the interpreter, bishop of Mopsuestia, a man by the grace of God set over the treasures of the two Testaments: the Old and the New, and who like a river of abundant floods watered and nurtured the children of the Church in his lifetime and after his death with the true meaning of the sacred Books in which he was instructed by the Holy Spirit. ... No one, who in these days wishes to perform the office of teaching in the Church, is allowed to deviate from the works of this eminent and divine man. . . . All our venerable Fathers who have handed down this true faith to us, in their teaching, from his day to our own, have studied his writings and adhered to his statements."
I will also refer to two of the earliest East Syrian historians: "He (Theodore) did not astonish the world in his lifetime only, but also astonished every one with his books after his death. Who is able to narrate the good works of this sea of wisdom, or who is in a position to describe the prodigies which the Spirit worked in him! When other bishops came near him, they considered themselves as mere pupils; and philosophers, subtle in reasoning, were before him as students. Every knotty and difficult problem stopped with him and never went beyond him, and he explained it before inquirers and made it as clear as the light of the sun."
"At that time shone in all branches of knowledge the truly divine man St. Theodore the interpreter, who was the first to explain philosophically and rationally the economy of the divine mysteries of the birth and the passion of our Lord." (Mingana)
There is quite a lot there, and I will leave it for you to digest. The point, however, is obvious: Theodore was a beloved and revered Christian theologian, whose influence was felt, not simply because of his writings, but also because of the way he lived. This respect for Theodore extended well past his lifetime, even in those who likely did not share his views on the restoration of all to God. For example, referring to 19th century Protestant theologian J.A. Dorner, historian and theologian J.W. Hanson states that “the moderate and evangelical Dorner becomes eulogistic when referring to this eminent Universalist” (Hanson). From Dorner himself:
Theodore of Mopsuestia was the crown and climax of the school of Antioch. The compass of his learning, his acuteness, and as we must suppose also, the force of his personal character, conjoined with his labors through many years as a teacher both of churches and of young and talented disciples, and as a prolific writer, gained for him the title of Magister Orientis. (Dorner)
Mingana further observes:
It tells much in favour of the high esteem in which Theodore was held by all his contemporaries that in condemning doctrinal points which had their origin in his writings no one dared to mention his name in relation to them, and the first Synodal fulminations in which his name is found are those of the fifth Council, held about one hundred and twenty-five years after his death. (Mingana)
This, of course, brings up the question of how and why Theodore was condemned by a church council 125 years after he died as one of the most respected and influential members of the Church. The following is a useful summary of some of the events that led up to this unjustified maligning of Theodore:
It was not until Nestorius had been condemned by the Council of Ephesus in AD 431 that Theodore's writings and teachings came into open question. Charges of heterodoxy were brought against him by several bishops, most notably Cyril of Alexander, whose tome Contra Diodorum et Theodorum proclaimed the association between these two men. Still, Theodore remained a revered figure among the Church of his day, and the fathers of the Council of Chalcedon, AD 451, accepted the characterisation of him as a 'herald of the truth and doctor of the Church' (made in the second epistle of Ibas of Edessa). ("Theodore of Mopsuestia: Resource Materials")
This summarizes some of the events that began the criticism of Theodore while still acknowledging the fact that he “remained a revered figure among the Church of his day” and was accepted as a “herald of the truth and doctor of the Church” at the fourth ecumenical council (Chalcedon). It is noteworthy that the alleged errors criticized by Cyril were related to Nestorianism, not universal reconciliation. It is also worth remembering that the Council of Ephesus was quite a mess in many respects and that Cyril too was deposed as a result, but cunningly bribed his way back into his position with massive sums of gold and goods as we saw here.
At any rate, his alleged association with Nestorian Christology was only brought up after his death when he could no longer clarify his position or defend himself. Furthermore, this association seems to have been greatly exaggerated. William A. Jurgens clarifies that although “the Nestorians themselves have always appealed to his authority, regarding him even yet as their greatest exegete,” that “it is obvious, of course, that he was never formally a Nestorian.” He goes on to say the following:
In the light of modern scholarship it has become highly questionable whether he ought in any sense be regarded as a proponent, even an unwitting one, of Nestorianism. The great triple play which made him a Father of Nestorianism, Diodore to Theodore to Nestor, is failing (Jurgens p. 78).
Jurgens backs up this claim by citing several scholars who agree that it is considered proven that “the texts which were the cause of his condemnation as the father of Nestorianism in 553 are mostly spurious,” and 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.” He concludes that “at the fifth ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553 A.D., he was perhaps more deserving of tribute than condemnation” (Jurgens p. 78).
We see, therefore, that most of the documents used to condemn Theodore were not even his work but were instead falsified (that is what “spurious” means) and that his post-mortem condemnation was unjust. This, of course, brings up the 2nd Council of Constantinople, in which the person and works of Theodore were posthumously anathematized at the behest of the tyrannical emperor Justinian. Again, the circumstances of the council were highly questionable, and its decrees therefore highly suspect. Many of the bishops who gave in to Justinian’s demands protested at first but were coerced and declared in writing “that they acted under compulsion” (Bacchus). Justinian even sent his general Belisarius to arrest pope Vigilius in the middle of a mass and bring him back to Constantinople where he remained, essentially in prison, for about eight years (Pavao). This was done in order to compel him to sign. Nevertheless, “despite brutal imperial pressure to condemn the writings, Vigilius long vacillated” ("Vigilius" 2018, Encyclopædia Britannica) Eventually, Vigilius succumbed to Justinian’s forcible methods. He was then released from captivity but died shortly thereafter on his way back to Rome. His story of failed resistance to imperial compulsion was not unique: “Of the other bishops those who subscribed were rewarded, those who refused were deposed or had to "conceal themselves" (Bacchus citing Liberatus, "Brev.", 24; Facundus, "Def.", II, 3 and "Cont. Moc.", in Gallandi, XI, 813).” It is not surprising that those who did not give in to his demands felt the need to hide, considering that Justinian apparently had no problem torching and drowning his religious opponents in his presence (Hauck, p. 286). The bishops under his despotic reign "recognized that nothing could be done in the Church contrary to the emperor’s will and command” (Hauck, p. 286).
Given these circumstances, I’ll leave it to you to decide whether the decisions of the council to curse a beloved, devoted Christian leader (long after his death) should be considered legitimate and binding. At any rate, I hope that I have established the fact that Theodore was no fringe theologian, but rather a central figure in the early Church, and that his posthumous condemnation should at least be taken with a grain of salt. Establishing these facts is necessary because so many who wish to shut down discussion of universal reconciliation make false claims that it is a new thing and that only Origen and a few fringe weirdos believed it. As we will continue to see, these claims, while effective at preventing most people from truly investigating the issues, are ridiculous. The best and brightest of the early Church are precisely those who saw God’s love for humanity in the biblical sense, as love that always protects, always perseveres, and never ends (1 Corinthians 13).
All this being said, let’s now examine Theodore’s views. According to historian and theologian J.W. Hanson “Theodore held that evil was permitted by the Creator, in order that it might become the source of good to each and all.” In support of this claim, he gives Theodore’s own words (in quotes below) along with some accompanying commentary:
"God knew that men would sin in all ways, but permitted this result to come to pass, knowing that it would ultimately be for their advantage. For since God created man when he did not exist, and made him ruler of so extended a system, and offered so great blessings for his enjoyment, it was impossible that he should not have prevented the entrance of sin, if he had not known that it would be ultimately for his advantage." He also says that God has demonstrated that "the same result (that is seen in the example of Christ) shall be effected in all his creatures." * * * God has determined "that there should be first a dispensation including evils, and that then they should be removed and universal good take their place." He taught that Christ is an illustration of universal humanity, which will ultimately achieve his status. (Hanson, Chapter XVI)
Theodore’s solution to the problem of evil is that it was only permitted by God temporarily, and only because it will result in a greater benefit to humanity later. God’s goodness is so comprehensive, for “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5, ESV), that it would be impossible for Him to permit evil if it did not result in a good purpose. According to Theodore, this good purpose is the complete replacement of all evil in all people by universal good. Presumably, the evil in the world teaches humanity of its destructiveness and builds our character so that we learn to freely choose righteousness.
Other scholars agree with Hanson’s assessment of Theodore’s views:
Professor E. H. Plumptre writes: "Theodore of Mopsuestia teaches that in the world to come those who have done evil all their life long will be made worthy of the sweetness of the divine beauty." And in the course of a statement of Theodore's doctrine, Prof. Swete observes that Theodore teaches that "the punishments of the condemned will indeed be in their nature eternal, being such as belong to eternity and not to time, but both reason and Scripture lead us to the conclusion that they will be remissible upon repentance. 'Where,' he asks, 'would be the benefit of a resurrection to such persons, if they were raised only to be punished without end?'… Moreover, Theodore's fundamental conception of the mission and person of Christ tells him to believe that there will be a final restoration of all creation." (Hanson)
- H. Plumptre: Page 194 of A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects and Doctrines, Being a Continuation of "The Dictionary of the Bible".
- Professor Swete: Page 946 of A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects and Doctrines, Being a Continuation of 'The Dictionary of the Bible'
That Theodore believed in the final restoration of all to God is clear to these scholars, even though they likely did not agree with his conclusions. Even those who have done evil their entire lives “will be made worthy” of God’s blessings, as they repent of their sins and experience His cleansing judgment and forgiveness. Swete shows that even a punishment belonging to eternity need not be eternal in duration, although I would argue that the Greek word aionios, which we find in the Scriptures would better be translated as “belonging to the age to come” than “belonging to eternity.” Regardless, it is clear that Theodore did not view aionios punishment as unending in duration.
The assertions of these scholars are definitively supported by Theodore’s own words:
The wicked who have committed evil the whole period of their lives shall be punished till they learn that, by continuing in sin, they only continue in misery. And when, by this means, they shall have been brought to fear God, and to regard him with good will, they shall obtain the enjoyment of his grace. For he never would have said, 'until thou hast paid the uttermost farthing,' unless we can be released from suffering after having suffered adequately for sin; nor would he have said, 'he shall be beaten with many stripes,' and again, 'he shall be beaten with few stripes,' unless the punishment to be endured for sin will have an end. (Hanson, citing Theodore's work as found in Assemani's Bibliotheca Orientalis)
The purpose of punishment is clearly corrective, for through it even the most wicked of people learn that continuing in sin only perpetuates misery, and thereby are taught to fear God, have good will toward Him, and enjoy His grace. For Theodore, the end of punishment is a logical necessity that is supported by Scripture. He asserts that verses like Matthew 5:26 and Luke 12:47-48 that speak of quantifiable consequences (many and few stripes, and punishment until payment is made) make no sense with an endless punishment paradigm. Instead, Matthew 25:46 speaks directly of an end to punishment, for it only occurs until an appropriate payment has been made. And Luke 12:47 clearly states that the penalties incurred are proportional, fair, and based on the offenses committed by each individual. Interestingly, it is those who do not know better that receive the lighter penalty, suggesting that Christians and others who are aware of Jesus’ commands will be disciplined more strictly than those who are unaware of the gospel. At any rate, “many stripes” and “few stripes” represent different quantities and therefore cannot both refer to endlessness.
Commenting on Romans 6:6, which states that “we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin,” Theodore writes:
All have the hope of rising with Christ, so that the body having obtained immortality, thenceforward the proclivity to evil should be removed. God recapitulated all things in Christ * * * as though making a compendious renewal and restoration of the whole creation to him. Now this will take place in a future age, when all mankind, and all powers possessed of reason, look up to him as is right, and obtain mutual concord and firm peace. (Hanson)
Since Christ was crucified for humanity before we came to faith in Him and our old selves were crucified with Him, it is apparent to Theodore that salvation from sin is a universal gift that was given prior to our belief and faithfulness. It only remains for us to acknowledge and appropriate this gift. This is why all have the hope of rising with Christ and having evil removed entirely in the all-inclusive renewal and restoration of the whole creation to Him. This is the restoration of all things, the apokatastaseōs pantōn that is spoken of in Acts 3:21. It is obvious that this total restoration could not be complete until “all mankind, and all powers possessed of reason” adore God and experience his perfect peace with Him and with each other.
Hanson also observes:
In Theodore's confession of faith he says, after stating that Adam began the first and mortal state, "But Christ the Lord began the second state. He in the future, revealed from heaven, will restore us all into communion with himself. For the apostle says: 'The first man was of the earth earthly, the second man is the Lord from heaven,' that is, who is to appear hereafter thence, that he may restore all to the likeness of himself." (Hanson)
This logic is firmly supported in the Bible. This is essentially the reasoning of Romans chapter 5 that comes forth most directly in Romans 5:18: “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.” 1 Corinthians 15:22 also makes this forthright claim, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive,” with the end result that all are made subject to God so that “God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:20-28). Just as sin and death reigned universally because of Adam, so justification and life will reign universally because of Christ. This is why Adam “is a pattern of the one to come [Jesus]” (Romans 5:14).
Theodore of Mopsuestia’s commentary on the Nicene Creed further confirms that this eminent church father was indeed a proponent of Christian universalism:
It is with justice, therefore, that our Fathers, in beginning their teaching concerning the Economy of His humanity, formed the starting-point of their discourse from this purpose: For us children of men and for our salvation. It was also fitting on their part to place the words "for our salvation" after the words "for us children of men," in order that they might show the aim of His coming, which was not only for the "children of men" but also "for their salvation." He came down from heaven to save and to deliver from evil, by an ineffable grace, those who were lost and given up to iniquities…It is with justice, therefore, that our blessed Fathers said: He was incarnate and became a man in order to show that He was a man, as the blessed Paul testifies, and that He fulfilled this Economy for the salvation of all. (Mingana, Chapter V)
Theodore points out that Christ came specifically for the salvation of the children of men and for “those who were lost and given up to iniquities.” This salvation is an overwhelming grace-based deliverance from evil, not merely from hell. It is obvious that the Incarnation was fulfilled “for the salvation of all” since “the children of men” obviously applies to everyone and since all of humanity was lost and full of sin. Everyone is being described. This, of course, is significant because Theodore is not only describing his own views but rather commenting on the views held by the many bishops who wrote the Nicene Creed, the basis for orthodox thought in most churches. Theodore’s understanding is that this fundamental creed taught universal salvation as the purpose of the Incarnation (“the Economy of His humanity”). When it is remembered that his teacher, Diodore of Tarsus, was a central figure at the council where the current form of the Nicene Creed (also known as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed) was finalized, it seems obvious that he is getting this understanding directly from those who were present, or as the saying goes, “straight from the horse’s mouth.” This is significant because it confirms Augustine’s assertion that “indeed very many” in his day, while not opposing Scripture, believe that punishment will come to an end (Enchiridion, Chapter 112). Again, the ultimate salvation of all was no fringe belief in the early church, not even close.
And rather than being opposed to Scripture, it is strongly supported by it. Another example from Theodore:
And in order to teach us why He suffered and became "a little lower" he said: "Apart from God He tasted death for every man." In this he shows that Divine nature willed that He should taste death for the benefit of every man (Mingana, Chapter VIII).
This reference to Hebrews 2:9 is quite clear. If Jesus did indeed taste death for every man, as this verse explicitly states, how can some argue that He only died for a few? And if he died for every man, it surely must be for the benefit of every man. Would He have died for every man in order to bring every man harm? Obviously not! Theodore’s understanding that Jesus’ death was accomplished to benefit everyone is the only reasonable way to interpret this verse.
Lest anyone suggest that Christ’s death benefits every man in some other way besides salvation, Theodore writes:
After having taught us these things concerning the divinity of the Only Begotten they proceeded to teach us concerning the Economy of His humanity and said: Who for us children of men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate and became a man like us in order to effect salvation for all the human race. (Mingana, Chapter VI).
Notice that He effects salvation for all the human race. To “effect” something is to cause it. It is not merely an offer. His death and resurrection definitively results in the salvation of the entire human race, and the complete victory over evil and death. The evil serpent’s head is already crushed; it is only a matter of time before its body stops twitching and all become aware of their redemption (see Genesis 3:15 if this allusion is unclear to you). Then, in the fullness of time, God, the Savior of all people, will unify all under Him and will truly be “all in all” (1 Timothy 4:10, Ephesians 1:10, 1 Corinthians 15:28).
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Citations and Notes
Augustine. Enchiridion: On Faith, Hope, and Love. Translated by Albert C. Outler, 1955, www.tertullian.org/fathers/augustine_enchiridion_02_trans.htm.
Bacchus, Francis Joseph. "Three Chapters." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 15 Mar. 2019 http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14707b.htm
Dorner, J. A. History of the Development of the Doctrine of the Person of Christ. Translated by David Worthington Simon, vol. 1, Division Second, From the End of the Fourth Century to the Present Time.T. & T. Clark, 1869, https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=lsUUAAAAQAAJ&hl=en&pg=GBS.PP11
Hanson, John Wesley. Universalism: the Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years, with Authorities and Extracts. Universalist Publishing House, 1899. http://www.tentmaker.org/books/Prevailing.html
Hauck, Albert (Theologe). The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge: Embracing Biblical, Historical, Doctrinal, and Practical Theology and Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Biography from the Earliest Times to the Present Day; Based on the Third Edition of the Realencyklopädie Founded by J.J. Herzog ; Complete in Twelve Volumes. Edited by Samuel Macauley Jackson et al., vol. 12, Funk and Wagnalls, 1910, https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=Pp5AAQAAMAAJ&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA286
Jurgens, W. A. The Faith of the Early Fathers a Source-Book of Theological and Historical Passages from the Christian Writings of the Pre-Nicene and Nicene Eras. Vol. 2, Liturgical Press, 1979.
Mingana, Alphonse, and Theodore of Mopsuestia. Commentary of Theodore of Mopsuestia On The Nicene Creed. Translated by Alphonse Mingana, V, 1932, www.tertullian.org/fathers/theodore_of_mopsuestia_nicene_01_intro.htm
Pavao, Paul. “Pope Vigilius.” Christian History for Everyman, 2014, www.christian-history.org/pope-vigilius.html. Accessed 3/15/2019
Plumptre, Edward Hayes. “Eschatology” A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects, and Doctrines: Being a Continuation of "The Dictionary of the Bible". Edited by William Smith and Henry Wace, vol. 2, Little Brown and Company, 1880, Google Books, https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=cqT-R6-CPxoC&hl=en&pg=GBS.PR1
Swete, Henry Barclay. “Theodore of Mopsuestia” A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects, and Doctrines; During the First Eight Centuries. Being a Continuation of "The Dictionary of the Bible". Edited by William Smith and Henry Wace, vol. 4, John Murray, 1887, Google Books, https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=e3DYAAAAMAAJ&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA946
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Vigilius.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 3 June 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/Vigilius. Accessed 3/15/2019.
“Theodore of Mopsuestia: Resource Materials.” Orthodoxy through Patristic and Monastic Study, http://www.monachos.net/content/patristics/patristicstudies/46-specificfathers/246-theodore-m-resources