Fathers of the Church

Letter CXIII. to Leo, Bishop of Rome

Description

Theodoret’s letters are a mine of information for the history of the fifth century, of the author’s life and of the history of dogma in general. This large correspondence is distinguished for its unpretentious learning, felicitous diction and perfect grace of style. (Quasten) Here Theodoret writes to Pope Leo appealing the condemnation leveled against him at Ephesus. He praises Leo’s defense of the true faith and the theological exactness of his teaching on the Incarnation, and puts forward in his defense his record or pastoral ministry, his writings, and the fact that he was condemned without a hearing. Finally, he expresses his willingness to accept the sentence if Leo should confirm it, along with his concern that the people of his diocese may be led astray if he is not vindicated. Pope Leo’s personal response came after the Council of Chalcedon; it congratulates Theodoret on their joint victory, by God’s grace, over the error and excesses of Dioscorus. It is printed among Leo’s letters as letter CXX.

Provenance

Theodoret of Cyrus (c. 393-466), the wise and zealous bishop of Cyrus, a small town near Antioch, was the last great theologian of the school of Antioch. Although he first considered Alexandrian Christology dangerous, and refused to condemn Nestorius until the Council of Chalcedon, his commitment to the correct doctrine of the Incarnation should not be questioned. As late as the 14th century more than 500 of his letters were extant, of which we still have 232. The present appeal to Pope Leo the Great was written from exile shortly after the “Robber-Council” of Ephesus in 449, at which Theodoret had been illegitimately deposed by Dioscorus, bishop of Alexandria.

by Theodoret in 449 | translated by Blomfield Jackson

If Paul, the herald of the truth, the trumpet of the Holy Ghost, hastened to the great Peter in order that he might carry from him the desired solution of difficulties to those at Antioch who were in doubt about living in conformity with the law, much more do we, men insignificant and small, hasten to your apostolic see in order to receive from you a cure for the wounds of the churches. For every reason it is fitting for you to hold the first place, inasmuch as your see is adorned with many privileges. Other cities are indeed adorned by their size, their beauty, and their population; and some which in these respects are lacking are made bright by certain spiritual boons. But on your city the great Provider has bestowed an abundance of good gifts. She is the largest, the most splendid, the most illustrious of the world, and overflows with the multitude of her inhabitants. Besides all this, she has achieved her present sovereignty, and has given her name to her subjects. She is moreover specially adorned by her faith, in due testimony whereof the divine Apostle exclaims "your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world." And if even after receiving the seeds of the message of salvation her boughs were straightway heavy with these admirable fruits, what words can fitly praise the piety now practised in her? In her keeping too are the tombs that give light to the souls of the faithful, those of our common fathers and teachers of the truth, Peter and Paul. This thrice blessed and divine pair arose in the region of sunrise, and spread their rays in all directions. Now from the region of sunset, where they willingly welcomed the setting of this life, they illuminate the world. They have rendered your see most glorious; this is the crown and completion of your good things; but in these days their God has adorned their throne by setting on it your holiness, emitting, as you do, the rays of orthodoxy. Of this I might give many proofs, but it is enough to mention the zeal which your holiness lately shewed against the ill-famed Manichees, proving thereby your piety's earnest regard for divine things. Your recent writings, too, are enough to indicate your apostolic character. For we have met with what your holiness has written concerning the incarnation of our God and Saviour, and we have marvelled at the exactness of your expressions.

For both writings agreed in setting forth both the everlasting Godhead of the Only-begotten derived from the everlasting Father, and the manhood derived from the seed of Abraham and David; and that the nature assumed was in all things like unto us, being unlike to us in this respect alone, that it remained free from all sin; since it springs not of nature but of free will.

The letters moreover contain this, that the Only-begotten Son of God is one, and his Godhead impassible, immutable, and invariable, like the Father who begat Him and the Holy Spirit; and that on this account He took the passible nature, divine nature being incapable of suffering, that by the suffering of His own flesh He might bestow freedom from suffering on them that have believed in Him. These statements and others of like nature were contained in your letters. We, in admiration of your spiritual wisdom, have landed the grace of the Holy Ghost uttered through you, and we invoke and beseech and beg and implore your highness to protect the churches of God that are now assailed by the storm.

We had expected that through the instrumentality of the representatives sent by your holiness to Ephesus, the tempest would have been done away, but we have fallen under severer attacks of the storm. For the very righteous bishop of Alexandria was not content with the illegal and very unrighteous deposition of the most holy and godly bishop of Constantinople, the lord Flavianus, nor was his soul satisfied with a similar slaughter of the rest of the bishops, but me too in my absence he stabbed with a pen, without summoning me to the bar, without trying me in my presence, without questioning me as to my opinions about the incarnation of our God and Saviour. Even murderers, tomb-breakers, and adulterers, are not condemned by their judges until they have themselves confirmed by confession the charges brought against them, or have been clearly convicted by the testimony of others. Yet I, nurtured as I have been in the divine laws, have been condemned by him at his pleasure, when all the while I was five and thirty days' march away.

Nor is this all that he has done. Only last year when two fellows tainted with the unsoundness of Apollinarius had gone thither and patched up slanders against me, he stood up in church and anathematized me, and that after I had written to him and explained my opinions to him.

I lament the disturbance of the church, and long for peace. Six and twenty years have I ruled the church entrusted to me by the God of all, aided by your prayers. Never in the time of the blessed Theodotus, the chief bishop of the East; never in the time of his successors in the see of Antioch, did I incur the slightest blame. By the help of God's grace working with me more than a thousand souls did I rescue from the plague of Marcion; many others from the Arian and Eunomian factions did I bring over to our Master Christ. I have done pastoral duty in eight hundred churches, for so many parishes does Cyrus contain; and in them, through your prayers, not even one tare is left, and our flock is delivered from all heresy and error. He who sees all things knows how many stones have been cast at me by evil heretics, how many conflicts in most of the cities of the East I have waged against pagans, against Jews, against every heresy. After all this trial and all this danger I have been condemned without a trial.

But I await the sentence of your apostolic see. I beseech and implore your holiness to succour me in my appeal to your fair and righteous tribunal. Bid me hasten to you, and prove to you that my teaching follows the footprints of the apostles. I have in my possession what I wrote twenty years ago; what I wrote eighteen, fifteen, twelve, years ago; against Arians and Eunomians, against Jews and pagans; against the magi in Persia; on divine Providence; on theology; and on the divine incarnation. By God's grace I have interpreted the writings of the apostles and the oracles of the prophets. From these it is not difficult to ascertain whether I have adhered to the right rule of faith, or have swerved from its straight course. Do not, I implore you, spurn my prayer; regard, I implore you, the insults piled after all my labours on my poor grey head.

Above all, I implore you to tell me whether I ought to put up with this unrighteous deposition or not; for I await your decision. If you bid me abide by the sentence of condemnation, I abide; and henceforth I will trouble no man, and will wait for the righteous tribunal of our God and Saviour. God is my witness, my lord, that I care not for honour and glory. I care only for the scandal that has been caused, in that many of the simpler folk, and especially those whom I have rescued from various heresies, cleaving to the authority of my judges and quite unable to understand the exact truth of the doctrine, will perhaps suppose me guilty of heresy.

All the people of the East know that during all the time of my episcopate I have not acquired a house, not a piece of ground, not an obol, not a tomb, but of my own accord have embraced poverty, after distributing, at the death of my parents, the whole of the property which I inherited from them.

Above all I implore you, O holy sir, beloved of God, to grant me the help of your prayers. I have told you this by the reverend and godly presbyters Hypatius and Abramius chorepiscopi and by Alypius exarch of our monks. I would hasten to you myself were I not kept back by the chains of the imperial order, which imprison me as they do others. Treat my messengers, I beseech you, as a father might his sons; give them kindly and unbiassed audience; deign to grant your protection to my old age, slandered as it is and attacked in vain. Above all, regard, to the utmost of your power, the faith conspired against; preserve for the churches the inheritance of their fathers unimpaired. So will your holiness receive the recompense due for such deeds from the great Giver of all good gifts.

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.