Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.08.21
Frederick G. McLeod, Theodore of Mopsuestia. The Early Church Fathers. London/New York: Routledge, 2009. Pp. x, 194. ISBN 9780415434089. $34.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Mark DelCogliano, University of St. Thomas (email@example.com)
Table of Contents
The volumes published in Routledge’s The Early Church Fathers series introduce seminal figures of early Christianity. Each volume is divided between an overview of the life, writings, and thought of a particular church father (Part I) and an ample selection of translations from extant works, often from those hitherto unavailable in English (Part II). One would be hard pressed to think of a scholar more qualified than Frederick McLeod to produce a volume for this series on Theodore of Mopsuestia (ca. 350–428). Not only does he possess the requisite linguistic skills to translate a corpus which survives in Greek as well as in Latin and Syriac, but he has also been one of premier scholars working on Theodore in the last few decades. In this book McLeod gives an excellent introduction to the thought of Theodore, particularly those aspects of it which scholars continue to debate, and has judiciously chosen to translate texts that help illuminate these issues.
Theodore of Mopsuestia is commonly associated with the “Antiochene School” of exegesis and routinely tagged as the “Father of Nestorianism.” Accordingly, most of the Introduction (Part I) deals with Theodore’s biblical exegesis and Christology. But before tackling these issues, Chapter 1 summarizes Theodore’s life and his posthumous condemnation at the Council of Constantinople in 553, and Chapter 2 provides a historiographical survey. The latter traces opinions about Theodore from Narsai’s promotion of him as the principal “Interpreter” (biblical exegete) of the East Syriac tradition to modern scholarly reassessments starting in the second half of the nineteenth century. As is often the case, scholarly reassessment has proceeded in tandem with the recovery of genuine writings. McLeod offers brief comments on the most important scholarly contributions of the past 150 years or so.
The next two chapters of the Introduction examine Theodore’s exegetical theory and practice. Chapter 3 presents Theodore as “the leading spokesman” (18) of the “Antiochene” view that the interpreter should not go beyond what the biblical text itself states. Allegorical interpretation is thus rarely justified. But Theodore’s interest in the historia of the scriptural text is not a precursor to the historical-critical method, but rather exegetical attention to the biblical narrative itself, not what the allegorical method might project onto it. Yet this does not mean that Theodore was opposed to a spiritual interpretation when the text itself warranted it. Chapter 4 turns to examples of Theodore’s exegesis, focusing on Adam’s pristine condition (whether he was created immortal or not) and in what sense Adam transmits sin to his progeny, issues hotly debated in his day. The examples of the fourth chapter effectively illustrate and further explicate the exegetic methodology outlined in the third chapter.
The next three chapters turn to Theodore’s Christology. Chapter 5 explores Theodore’s explanation of the unity of the human and divine natures in Christ as an “indwelling of good pleasure in one prosōpon.” McLeod situates Theodore’s Christology in its anti-Apollinarian context and notes that Theodore rejected a substantial union of the Word and Christ’s humanity. Rather, the Word indwells Christ’s humanity of Christ by grace, similar in kind to others in whom the Word dwells but dissimilar in degree. For in Christ’s humanity alone did the fullness of God dwell, making Christ’s graced indwelling radically different from that of all others. McLeod notes, however, that Theodore’s understanding of the union of the humanity and divinity in Christ made him susceptible to the critique that he espoused only a moral union. In Chapter 6 McLeod turns to Theodore’s understanding of two key technical terms in the Christological controversies: hypostasis and prosōpon, both usually translated as “person.” According to McLeod, Theodore understands the hypostasis as the real existence of a nature, which means that he believed there were two hypostases in Christ, one divine and one human. In contrast, Theodore’s understanding of prosōpon is less clear. Each hypostasis has an outward form, a prosōpon, yet at the same time Christ’s two hypostases are united in a single, common prosōpon. McLeod helpfully discusses three analogies used by Theodore to explain how two prosōpa can become one. Chapter 7 turns to the functional unity of Christ’s two natures. McLeod reviews how Theodore sought to preserve the full integrity of Christ’s humanity, especially his human free will, in its prosopic union with the divine Word. This preservation of Christ’s human will plays a key role in Theodore’s soteriology. The seventh chapter concludes with an assessment of Theodore’s defense against the charge that he taught “two Sons,” that is, that Christ was interiorly divided into a human and divine Son. In these three chapters, McLeod has provided a lucid, nuanced, yet brief, discussion of the central aspects of Theodore’s Christology that have challenged interpreters until the present day.
The eighth and final chapter of the Introduction is an assessment of Theodore’s achievement and posthumous condemnation. While admitting that aspects of Theodore’s Christology can be ambiguous or susceptible to being pushed to heretical conclusions never intended by Theodore himself, McLeod contends that Theodore was unfairly judged by the standard of Cyril’s Christology—a Christology formulated after Theodore was dead—and thus condemned unjustifiably in 553. McLeod offers a sympathetic summary of Theodore’s Christological achievements to show that he was one of the great theological minds of his era, who attempted to provide answers to the pressing Christological issues of his day. My one quibble with McLeod’s portrayal of Theodore in the Introduction is the subtle emphasis on the “biblical” basis of Theodore’s Christology (see e.g. pgs. 36, 41, 49, and 64). All theologians of the patristic period viewed the Bible as the single most important source for theological reflection and employed a variety to hermeneutical methodologies to extract meaning from it; Theodore is not unique in this regard.
Most of Theodore of Mopsuestia’s corpus did not survive in the wake of his condemnation at the Council of Constantinople in 553. Nonetheless, modern scholarship has recovered a substantial portion, some preserved in the original Greek, but most of it in ancient Latin or Syriac translations. Part II presents translations of selected texts. In Chapter 9, McLeod surveys what has been salvaged of Theodore’s writings, and the remaining ten chapters of Part II—100 pages in total—are each devoted to excerpts (in most cases) from a single work. The chapters of Part II are ordered by theme according to the presentation of Theodore’s thought in the Introduction. Thus the first three concern Theodore’s exegesis. Chapter 10 presents an excerpt from the Treatise against the Allegorists, in which Theodore gives the reasons for his opposition to Origen’s use of allegory. Chapter 11 provides Theodore’s interpretation of Psalm 8, one of only four psalms he believed to be a messianic prediction of Christ. This except gives insight into Theodore’s understanding of typology. Chapter 12 contains Theodore’s interpretation of the creation of Adam and Eve, which displays how he put his exegetical principles to use. Chapters 13-17 present passages useful for understanding Theodore’s Christology. McLeod offers extracts from Theodore’s Commentary on the Gospel of John; his commentary on Philippians 2:5-11, an important Christological text (109-117); selections from his commentaries on the Pauline epistles to the Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians; most of the extant fragments from his chief Christological treatise, On the Incarnation; and a selection of anti-Apollinarian fragments preserved in the works of others. Chapter 18 offers selections from Theodore’s Catechetical Homilies, which treat of the Nicene Creed, the Lord’s prayer, baptism, Eucharist, and the mass. The final chapter gives a translation of the anathemas against Theodore issued at the Council of Constantinople in 553. And so, having read through the previous extracts, the reader can now judge for herself or himself whether these condemnations were justified. In these selections, McLeod displays enviable philological expertise, translating texts from Greek, Latin, and Syriac into clear, readable English. One could wish, however, that a chapter had been added with at least an excerpt from Theodore’s Disputatio cum Macedonianis, or On the Holy Spirit against the Macedonians, the only one of Theodore’s dogmatic works still available in its entirety (in a Syriac translation). This treatise has been neglected in scholarship, and its inclusion would have introduced readers to another aspect of Theodore’s theology. All in all, however, the texts McLeod chose to translate provide a solid introduction to Theodore’s thought.
The volume concludes with a bibliography of primary sources and secondary literature. Thus after reading this superb introduction to Theodore of Mopsuestia, the interested reader knows where to go next.