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Fathers of the Church

Letter CXXX. to Bishop Timotheus


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) In this letter he praises his fellow bishop for standing firm against the Monophysites, and answers his question about how Our Lord’s suffering should properly be understood. In his explanation, which proceeds by considering the divine and human titles given to Our Lord, he focuses on the correct doctrine of the Incarnation as a key to understanding the Passion.


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. Letters CXIV-CXXXII were written during his exile from Cyrus after the “Robber-Council” of Ephesus.

by Theodoret in 449-450 | translated by Blomfield Jackson

Not without purpose does the supreme Ruler allow the spirits that are against us to agitate the waves of impiety. He does so that He may try the courage of the sailors, and, while He exhibits some men's manliness, convicts others of cowardice, stripping the mask from the faces of some who put on an appearance of piety, and proclaiming others as foremost fighters in the ranks of the truth. We have seen an instance of this in the present time. The storm rose high; some shewed their secret impiety; some abandoned the truth which they were holding, went over to the phalanx of our foes, and now, with them, are smiting the very men whom they used to call their chiefs. The witnesses of these things detest the enemy and pity the deserters, but are afraid to give aid to the victims of the attack upon the apostolic doctrines. Nay, suppose the traitors to urge them with greater insistency, they will perhaps themselves pass over to the side of the assailants, will give no quarter to their fellow-believers, but will drive against them their barbs side by side with the very men whom they accuse. They will act thus though they have been taught by the divine Scripture that a wrong done to one's neighbour incurs punishment, while the suffering of injustice entails great and lasting rewards.

Your own piety, your zeal for the faith, and your good will to myself, have been proved by this agitation. Twice you have written me a letter in contempt of all that might deter you, and have thus shewn your brotherly affection. You have also indicated the conflict you are sustaining on behalf of the apostolic doctrines. You ask me to tell you by letter what we ought to think and preach concerning the passion of salvation. I have received your request with delight, and, not indeed to give you information but only to remind one who is beloved of God, will proceed to tell you what I have learnt from the divine Scripture and from the Fathers who have interpreted it.

Know then, most godly sir, that before all things it is necessary to observe the distinction of terms, and, in addition to this, the cause of the divine incarnation. Once let these be made clear, and there will be no ambiguity left about the passion. We will therefore first, to those who endeavour to contradict us, put this enquiry. Which of the names given to the only begotten Son of God are anterior to the incarnation, and which posterior, or rather, connected with the operation of the economy? They will reply that the terms anterior are, "God the Word," "only begotten Son," "Almighty," and "Lord of all creation"; and that the names "Jesus Christ" belong to the incarnation. For, after the incarnation, God the Word, the only begotten Son of God is called Jesus Christ; for "Behold" He says "unto you is born this day Christ the Lord" and because others had been called christs, priests, kings, and prophets, lest any one should suppose Him to be like unto them, the angels conjoined the title Lord with that of Christ, in order to prove the supreme dignity of Him that was born. And, again, Gabriel says to the blessed Virgin, "Behold thou shall conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son and shalt call His name Jesus" "for He shall save His people from their sins." Before the incarnation, however, He was never called either Christ or Jesus. For truly the divine Prophets, in their predictions of things to come, used the words, just as they prophesied about the birth, the cross, and the passion, when the events had not yet come to pass. Nevertheless, even after the incarnation He is called God the Word, Lord, Almighty, only begotten Son, Maker, and Creator. For He was not made man by mutation, but, remaining just what He was, assumed what we are, for "Being in the form of God," to use the words of the divine Apostle "He took the form of a servant." On this account, therefore, even after the incarnation, He is called also by the titles which are anterior to the incarnation, since His nature is invariable and immutable. But when relating the passion the divine Scripture nowhere uses the term God, since that is the name of the absolute nature. No one on bearing the words "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" and similar expressions, would suppose that the flesh existed before the ages, or is of one substance with the God of the universe, or was Creator of the world. Every one knows that these terms are proper to the Godhead. Nor would any one on reading the genealogy of St. Matthew suppose that David and Abraham according to nature were forefathers of God, for it is the assumed nature which is derived from them.

Since then these points are plain and indubitable even among extreme heretics, and we acknowledge both the nature which is before the ages, and that which is of recent time, so are we bound to recognise at once the passibility of the flesh, and the impassibility of the Godhead, not dividing the union nor separating the only begotten into two persons, but contemplating the properties of the natures in the one Son. In the case of soul and body, which are of natures contemporary and naturally united, we are accustomed to make this distinction, describing the soul as simple, reasonable, and immortal, but the body as complex, passible, and mortal. We do not divide the union, nor cut one man in two. Far rather, then, in the case of the Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, and of the manhood assumed of David's seed, is it becoming to adopt a similar course, and distinctly to recognise the everlasting, eternal, simple, uncircumscribed, immortal, and invariable character of the one nature, and the recent, complex, circumscribed, and fluctuating nature of the other. We acknowledge the flesh to be now immortal and incorruptible, although before the resurrection it was susceptible of death and of passion; for how otherwise was it nailed to the tree, and committed to the tomb? And though we recognise the distinction of the natures, we are bound to worship one Son, and to acknowledge the same as Son of God and Son of man, form of God, and form of a servant, Son of David, and Lord of David, seed of Abraham, and creator of Abraham. The union causes the names to be common, but the community of names does not confound the natures. With them that are right- minded some names are plainly appropriate as to God, and others as to man; and in this way both the passible and the impassible are properly used of the Lord Christ, for in His humanity He suffered, while as God He remained impassible. If, according to the argument of the impious, it was in the Godhead that He suffered, then, I apprehend, the assumption of the flesh, was supererogatory; for suppose the divine nature to have been capable of undergoing passion, then He did not need the passible manhood. But grant that, as even their own argument contends, the Godhead was impassible, and the passion was real, let them beware of denying that which suffered, lest they deny with it the reality of the passion; for if that which suffers does not exist, then the passion is unreal. Now for any one who likes to open the quaternion of the sacred evangelists, it is easy to perceive that the divine Scripture distinctly proclaims the passion of the body, and to learn from them how Joseph of Arimathaea came to Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus; how Pilate ordered the body of Jesus to be delivered, how Joseph took down the body of Jesus from the tree and wrapped the body of Jesus in the linen cloth, and laid it in the new tomb. All this is described by the four evangelists with frequent mention of the body. But if our opponents adduce the words of the angel to Mary and her companions, "Come where the Lord lay," let them be referred to the passage in the Acts which states that devout men "carried Stephen to his burial" and observe that it was not the soul, but the body, of the victorious Stephen, to which the customary rites were paid. And to this very day, when we approach the shrines of the victorious martyrs, we commonly enquire what is the name of him who is buried in the grave, and those who are acquainted with the facts reply peradventure "Julian the martyr," or "Romanus," or, "Timotheus."

Very often it is not entire bodies that are buried, but only very small remains, yet nevertheless we speak of the body by the name that belongs to the whole man. It was in this sense that the angel called the body of the Lord, "Lord," because it was the body of the Lord of the universe. Moreover the Lord Himself promised to give on behalf of the life of the world, not His invisible nature, but His body. "For," He says, "the bread that I will give is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world," and when He took the symbol of divine mysteries, He said, "This is my body which is given for you." Or according to the version of the Apostle, "broken." In no place where He spoke of the passion did He mention the impossible Godhead.

It is therefore before all things necessary that the question should be put to those who are endeavouring to contradict us whether they confess that the perfect manhood was assumed by God the Word, and assert the union to have been made without confusion. Once let these points be admitted, and the rest will follow in due course, and the passion will be attributed to the passible nature. I have now summed up these heads and have exceeded the limits of my letter. I have sent also what I lately wrote at the suggestion of a very godly and holy man of God, the lord in the form of a concise instruction designed to teach the truth of the apostolic doctrines. Should I find a good copyist, I will also send your holiness what I have written in the form of a dialogue, extending the argument, and strengthening my positions, by the teaching of the Fathers. I have moreover now sent a few statements of the ancient teachers, sufficient to shew the drift of their instruction. Give me in return, most godly sir, the succour of your prayers, that I may pass through the terrible tempest and reach the quiet haven of the Saviour.

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.

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