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Catholic Culture Solidarity

Fathers of the Church

Letter CXLIV. to the Soldiers


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 Theodoret explains to some soldiers who have written him how Our Lord’s suffering should be understood. God, he begins, is all-powerful, but this does not imply a capacity for evil or anything else that is incompatible with his nature. Therefore, being immutable, he cannot suffer, and so it was necessary that without ceasing to be God, the only-begotten Son take on a human nature capable of suffering. He responds to a Scriptural objection, and adduces in support of the orthodox belief statements of St. Athanasius and Popes Damasus and Leo.


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 letter was written after Theodoret’s recall from exile and before the Council of Chalcedon.

by Theodoret in 450-451 | translated by Blomfield Jackson

Human nature is everywhere the same, but pursuits in life are many and various. Some men prefer a sailor's career, some a soldier's; some men become athletes, some husbandmen; some ply one craft and some another. To pass by all other differences, some men are zealous and diligent about divine things, and get themselves instructed in the exact teaching of the apostolic doctrines; while others, on the contrary, become slaves of the belly, and suppose that the enjoyment of base pleasures is happiness. Others again are there, lying in a mean between these two extremes, who do not exhibit this praiseworthy enthusiasm, nor embrace a life of incontinence, but still honour the simplicity of the faith. Men who attack the statement that some things are altogether impossible with God must not, I apprehend, be classed with the zealous and the well instructed in divine things, but rather either with those who have no exact knowledge of the apostolic doctrines, or those who have been enslaved by pleasures and shift hither and thither at the caprice of a moment, setting forth now one thing and now another.

You have asked me to write on these points. I should prefer at the present time to keep silence. But in obedience to the commandment of the Lord, "Give to every man that asketh of time," I am constrained briefly to reply.

I say then that the God of the universe can do all things, but that in the word "all" is comprehended only what is right and good, for He who is naturally both wise and good admits of nothing that is of a contrary nature, but only what becomes his nature. If any objectors gainsay this statement, ask them if the God of the universe, the lawgiver of truth, can lie. If they say that lying is possible to God, expel them from your company as impious and blasphemous. Should they agree that lying is not possible to the God of the universe, ask them in the second place, if He who is the fount of justice can become unjust. Should they allow that this too is impossible to the God of all, you must yet again enquire if the unfathomable depth of wisdom can become unwise, God cease to be God, the Lord cease to be the Lord, the Creator be no Creator, the Good not good but evil and the true Light not light but its opposite. If they admit that all these things and the like are impossible to God, you must say to them therefore many things are impossible with God; and that their being impossible so far from being a proof of want of power, indicates on the contrary the greatest power.

Even in the case of our own soul, when we say that it cannot die, we do not predicate weakness of it, but we proclaim its capacity of immortality. And similarly when we confess the immutability, impassibility, and immortality of God, we cannot attribute to the divine nature change, passion, or death. Suppose them to urge that God can do whatever He will, you must reply to them that He wishes to do nothing which it is not His nature to do; He is by nature good, therefore He does not wish anything evil; He is by nature just, therefore He does not wish anything unjust; He is by nature true, therefore He abominates falsehood; He is by nature immutable, therefore He does not admit of change; and if He does not admit of change He is always in the same state and condition. This He Himself asserts through the prophet. "I am the Lord I change not." And the blessed David says "Thou art the same and Thy years shall have no end." If He is the same He undergoes no change. If He is naturally superior to change and mutation He has not become from immortal, mortal nor from impassible, passible, for had this been possible He would not have taken on Him our nature. But since He has an immortal nature, He took a body capable of suffering, and with the body a human soul. Both of these He kept unstained from the defilements of sin, and gave His soul for the sake of the souls that had sinned, and His body for the sake of the bodies that had died. And since the body that was assumed is described as body of the very only begotten Son of God, He refers the passion of the body to Himself. But the four evangelists testify that it was not the divine nature but the body which was nailed to the cross, all teaching with one voice that Joseph of Arimathea came to Pilate and begged the body of Jesus; that he took down the body of Jesus from the tree and wrapped in fine linen, and laid in his own new tomb the body of Jesus; that Mary the Magdalene came to the tomb seeking the body of Jesus and ran to His disciples, and reported these things when she could not find the body of Jesus.

This is the unanimous teaching of the evangelists. But if your opponents urge that the angels said "Come see the place where the Lord lay" let the foolish folk learn that the divine Scripture says also about the victorious Stephen "And devout men carried Stephen to his burial." And yet it was the body only which was deemed proper for burial, while the soul was not buried together with the body; nevertheless the body alone was spoken of by the common name. Similarly the blessed Jacob said to his sons "Bury me with my fathers." He did not say "Bury my body." Then he went on "There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife; and there I buried Leah." He did not say "their bodies." The names are common to bodies or souls, but nevertheless it is only the bodies which he called by the common names. In this manner too we constantly describe the shrines of the holy apostles, prophets and martyrs, one it may be of Dionysius, another of Julianus another of Cosmas. And yet we know that only fragmentary remains of bodies lie there, while the souls in diviner regions are at rest. Precisely the same custom is to be found in common use, for such an one, We say, died; and such all one lies in this place; although we know that the soul is immortal and does not share the tomb with the body. In this sense the angel said "Come see the place where the Lord lay" not because he shut the Godhead in the tomb, but because he spoke of the Lord's body by the Lord's name.

In proof of this being the view of the holy Fathers let them mark the words of Athanasius, illustrious archbishop of Alexandria, who adorned his episcopate with confession. He exclaims "Life cannot die, but rather quickens the dead."

Let them hear too the words of the farfamed Damasus bishop of Rome, "If anyone allege that on the cross pain was undergone by the Godhead and not by the body with the soul, the form of the servant which He had taken in its completeness, let him be anathema."

Let them hear too the very sacred and holy bishop of the Church of the Romans, the lord Leo, who has now written "The Son of God suffered as He was capable of suffering, not according to the nature which assumed but that which was assumed. For the impassible nature assumed the passible body, and gave it for us, to the end that He might work out our salvation and at the same time preserve His own nature impassible."

And again "For He did not come to destroy His own nature but to save ours."

If therefore they accuse us for saying that God can do what He wishes, but that He wishes what is becoming to His own nature, and what is unbecoming He neither wishes nor is capable of; let them accuse too these saints and all the rest who maintain this position. Let them accuse even the Apostle who say's 'That by two immutable things in which it was impossible for God to lie." And again "If we believe not, yet He abideth faithful: He cannot deny Himself."

Repeat these passages to your opponents, and if they are convinced, praise the good Lord for that, by means of your zeal, He has benefited them. If they remain unconvinced, enter into no discussion with them about doctrines, for it is forbidden by the divine apostle to "strive about words to no profit but to the subverting of the hearers." But do you keep inviolate the teaching of the Gospels, that in the day of His appearing you may bring to the righteous Judge what has been entrusted to you with its due interest, and may hear the longed for words "Well done good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things I will make thee ruler over many things. Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord."

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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