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A History Of The Church In Five Books by Theodoret

THEODORET, the author of the following history, was born at Antioch, about the year 387. His parents had long been childless; and it is related that much prayer was offered, and especially by Macedonius, a hermit, that a son might be born unto them. Hence, when at length, in answer to prayer, this child was granted to them, the name Θεοδώρητος was conferred upon him, signifying, given by God.

Little is known respecting the childhood and early youth of Theodoret, except that his mother, who seems herself to have been a remarkable character, dedicated him to God from his very cradle. According to some accounts he was placed in a monastery at the age of seven, where he studied theology and the sciences under Theodorus of Mopsuestia and St. John Chrysostom. Certain it is, that much of his life was devoted to study; for it is evident from his works that he was a very learned man, conversant with classical and theological literature, and acquainted with several languages besides his own, which was the Syriac. He entered upon the work of the ministry at a very tender age; for he was but a child when he was appointed to be one of the public readers of Scripture. His parents, who were persons of rank and affluence, died when he had scarcely attained to manhood, leaving him in possession of a splendid inheritance. He, however, despised the gifts of fortune, and chose a life of voluntary poverty. He renounced his land and his honours, and distributed all that he possessed among the poor, reserving nothing for himself but his clothes, which were of very inferior quality. The next years of his life were spent in retirement in a monastery about thirty leagues from Antioch. In A.D. 423 he was compelled, almost by force, to relinquish his solitude, and to enter upon the duties of the episcopal office. He was ordained by the bishop of Antioch, and sent to govern the church of Cyrus, in Syria Euphratensis, with its eight hundred villages. This new field of labour offered many discouragements, yet the self-denying and zealous spirit of Theodoret soon changed the whole aspect of affairs. Although, on his first appointment, the diocese was full of Arians, Macedonians, Eunomians, and other heretics, yet in the year 449 not one heretic could be found throughout the whole region. Nor were his labours confined to his own diocese; for Pagans and Jews from distant countries constantly resorted to him, and he publicly confuted all the arguments and objections which they could advance against Christianity. He attributed his success to prayer, and particularly to the persevering supplications of James, a hermit.

Theodoret was also active in promoting the temporal welfare of his flock. He greatly beautified the city of Cyrus, which was but a small and almost deserted town when he first fixed his residence in it. He built an aqueduct and a canal to supply the former deficiency of water. He likewise repaired the baths, and erected public galleries and two bridges in this city. His whole public life seems to have been one of ceaseless exertion; and in one of his works he describes himself as engaged “in the hurry of a thousand occupations, both in the city and in the country, both military and civil, both ecclesiastical and secular.”

The rage of controversy, so characteristic of mediæval history, interrupted the useful and dignified tenor of his existence. About A.D. 430, he became involved in a dispute concerning the heresy of Nestorius, whose cause he espoused. The distinguishing tenet of Nestorius was, his refusal to give to the Virgin Mary the title of Θεοτόκος, or Mother of God. That Theodoret should have sided with this heresiarch can only be accounted for upon the supposition that he did not perceive, that, unlike most of the disputes of the period, this heresy was not a mere quibble about words, but involved a doctrine of no less importance than the divinity of the Son of God. Theodoret uniformly and strenuously adhered to this doctrine, although he rejected this particular term, Θεοτόκος. Most probably his conduct in rejecting the term, while he maintained the thing signified, was mainly, if not wholly, attributable to the friendship which had long subsisted between him and Nestorius, and to the personal pique which had arisen between him and St. Cyril, the principal opponent of the heresy.

In A.D. 431, the council of Ephesus was convened by the emperor Theodosius, for the purpose of allaying the dissensions which the Nestorian heresy had excited in the church. At this council Nestorius was excommunicated, and his heresy condemned. Several of his most zealous partizans, and among them was Theodoret, were deposed from their ecclesiastical offices. The disputes, however, still continued with unabated acrimony; and it was not till A. D. 435 that Theodoret was induced, by the entreaties of certain holy brethren, to become reconciled with the hostile party: he then renounced the defence of Nestorius, and was accordingly reinstated in his bishopric.

The remainder of his life was not spent in tranquillity.

He soon became involved in a fresh controversy with Dioscorus, the successor of St. Cyril in the see of Alexandria. Theodoret was accused of maligning the memory of St. Cyril. Another cause of the dispute was, that Theodoret vehemently opposed the Eutychian heresy, which Dioscorus as firmly upheld. The heresy of Eutychus was directly opposite to that of Nestorius; for while the latter denied that the divine nature was truly united to the human nature in Christ in one person, the former denied that the two natures in Christ remained distinct. In this controversy Theodoret suffered a second defeat. Dioscorus raised up enemies against him in Constantinople, who accused him of propagating heresy in the church, and of teaching that there are two Sons. Theodosius the younger received these calumnies without examination: he signed the deposition of Theodoret, and forbad his quitting Cyrus. This mandate was pronounced about the year 447. Theodoret was then at Antioch: he quitted the city without saying farewell to any one, and, according to this sentence, retired to Cyrus, where he remained till 450, wholly occupied in literary labours, and in writing letters in self-justification. One of these letters was addressed to Dioscorus, but no regard was paid to it: on the contrary, Theodoret was publicly anathematised in Alexandria, and fresh complaints against him were laid before the emperor. Soon after, another council was held at Ephesus, at which Dioscorus presided, and here Theodoret was excommunicated. Theodoret appealed to St. Leo, the bishop of Rome, in a long letter, in which he recounted the services which he had rendered to the church, referred to his writings as containing proofs of his orthodoxy, and complained of the injustice of the council in condemning him unheard and during his absence. In 450 he obtained permission from Theodosius to quit Cyrus, and to retire to a monastery. Theodosius died the same year (450), and was succeeded by Marcian, who had married his sister Pulcheria. Marcian recalled Theodoret; and, at the instance of St. Leo, convened the council of Chalcedon. Here the enemies of Theodoret raised loud clamours against him, recommenced their accusations, and insisted upon his pronouncing anathema against Nestorius. Theodoret desired rather to explain his own doctrines than to anathematise his friend: at length, overpowered by the numbers of his enemies, he exclaimed, “Anathema to Nestorius, and to all who do not confess that the Virgin Mary is the Mother of God.” Upon this compliance with the demands of the council, he was formally re-instated in his episcopal dignity. The few remaining years of his life seem to have been passed in retirement. He is thought to have died about A.D. 458, probably in the seventieth or eightieth year of his age. Even after his death his enemies renewed their attacks, and again called his orthodoxy into question. His works were condemned as heretical at the fifth general council: but, according to the almost unanimous decision of posterity, this sentence was unjust; for from his earliest youth he had been diligently instructed in the doctrines of the Nicene confession of faith; and throughout his life he invariably adhered to the principles of the homoousians, or those who maintained the consubstantiality of the three divine Persons of the Trinity. The condemnation of the council referred to those points wherein he was blameless, while the real errors of his doctrines escaped undetected. The defectiveness of his views, especially with respect to justification, adoption, and regeneration, may, however, be easily detected by all who feel inclined to peruse his voluminous writings, and at the same time to search the Scriptures as to whether these things be so.

The most considerable of the works of Theodoret is a “Commentary on the Bible.” The first part of this Commentary is arranged in the form of question and answer, and those passages only are proposed for elucidation which were considered difficult of interpretation by the author. The literal and most obvious sense of Scripture is generally adhered to throughout this work; yet some very singular opinions are occasionally advanced. For instance, the Spirit of God, which is stated to have moved upon the face of the waters (Gen. 1), is here represented as signifying only the air; and a supposition, equally untenable, is introduced of there being two heavens, namely, the heavens properly so called, and the firmament, “which,” says Theodoret, “God made of the fluid substance of the water after he had condensed it and rendered it solid.” A most charitable construction is put on the conduct of some of the persons mentioned in Scripture. Thus our author adduces the intemperance of Noah as a proof of the previous sobriety of his life, and asserts that he was ignorant of the inebriating property of wine. He acquits Jacob of falsehood and deceit in passing himself off for his elder brother, on the ground that, having purchased the right of primogeniture, he was, in truth, the first-born son. In the same spirit, he says that Rachel was merely actuated by her anxiety to deter her father from idolatry, when she purloined his idols.

Although Theodoret has been generally accused of being too bold in his metaphors, some of his illustrations seem particularly happy. For instance, in the answer to the twelfth question on Exodus, “What am I to understand by God’s having hardened Pharaoh’s heart?” Theodoret, after giving some explanation of the subject, illustrates it in the following manner: “The sun is said to melt wax and to harden mud, although it possesses only the property of giving heat; so the patience and goodness of God produce two contrary effects in different individuals, being useful to the one and rendering the other more guilty; hence it is said, that some are thus converted and others hardened.” Select passages in each successive book, from Genesis to the Psalms, are expounded by means of question and answer in the mode above-mentioned: but, in the commentaries on the Psalms and the succeeding books, Theodoret has adopted a form of exposition analogous to the method pursued by Henry, Scott, and other well-known modern commentators. We possess his commentaries on every book in the Old Testament, except that on Isaiah, of which only some fragments have been preserved. In the elucidation of the New Testament he seems to have omitted the gospels, the Acts, the catholic Epistles, and Revelation, confining himself solely to the epistles of St. Paul. The whole work is valuable as affording a clear view of the mode in which Scripture was usually handled by the theologians of the fifth century, and of the interpretation most commonly attached by them to controverted passages.

The other writings of Theodoret, in the editions of his works, are usually arranged in nearly the following order:—

1. “Ecclesiastical History, in five books.” It was written before the death of Theodosius the younger; for, in book v., chapter 36, Theodoret speaks of him as then reigning. Theodosius died July 29th, 450, and the history was probably completed the same year. It comprises a period of 105 years, namely, from A.D. 324, when Constantine the Great, having become master of the East, began to oppose the Arian heresy, which had then but recently arisen, to A.D. 429, or, according to some authors, A.D. 428; so that part of this history may be called the narrative of Theodoret’s own times. It was intended to be supplementary to the ecclesiastical history of Socrates and Sozomen, both of which were written about the year 450. The author also designed it as a continuation of the ecclesiastical history of Eusebius; for he takes up the chain of events from the very point at which Eusebius broke off. Many important events, which are omitted by Socrates and Sozomen, and which would not otherwise have been transmitted to posterity, are recorded by Theodoret; he has preserved many particulars relative to the life of Athanasius, and of the Eastern bishops, and particularly those concerning Melitius, Flavian, and Eusebius of Samosata; and he thus throws light on various circumstances, which, but for him, would have created much doubt and obscurity in our knowledge of the history of this period. It is also by means of this history that we now possess some of the most important documents of the fourth century, such as synodical epistles, and the original letters of Arius, of emperors, and of other celebrated persons. The crying evil in the history of Theodoret is, the total omission of all chronology, and even of chronological order. Among the anachronisms and errors contained in it, may be specified the following:—Theodoret makes Eusebius of Nicomedia the successor of Alexander, bishop of Constantinople, whereas Eusebius succeeded Paul (book i. chap. 16). He places the election of St. Ambrose at the commencement of the reign of Valentinian, although it took place ten years after the accession of that emperor (book iv. chap. 5). He places the sedition of Antioch after the massacre of Thessalonica; but the sedition occurred A.D. 388, and the massacre not till A.D. 390 (book iv. chap. 5). He also confounds the siege of Nisibis by the Persians in the year 350, with another siege which took place A.D. 359. These errors, however, do not affect the intrinsic value of the work. This history is, according to the learned Photius, superior to those of Socrates and Sozomen, being written in a style more consonant with the subject, and containing little that is superfluous.

2. The history entitled “Philotheus” is a record of the lives of about thirty anchorites, with some of whom Theodoret was personally acquainted. It chiefly consists in an account of the almost incredible austerities which they practised, and of the miracles which they wrought; for our author, like all the theologians of the period, was a firm believer in miracles. Several cases, even of women, are adduced, who sequestered themselves from the world, and lived in a state of perpetual bodily mortification. He instances in particular an interview he had with two women who lived in the most rigid solitude within a narrow cell, but who, out of respect for his sacerdotal office, permitted him to enter: he found them loaded with chains, which the strongest men could scarcely have borne; and one of them was literally bowed down upon the ground beneath the weight, and unable to move: their existence was passed in this state. The most remarkable memoir in this work is that of St. Simeon Stylites, originally a peasant of Cilicia, who fixed his abode on the top of a pillar upwards of thirty-six cubits in height. The life, however, which he led upon this exalted pinnacle, was by no means an idle one, for he delivered public exhortations twice a day, and, according to report, performed the most extraordinary miracles, so that those who were diseased went to him, and were healed. He adjudged differences, and performed all the functions of a judge. He had much influence in the transactions of public affairs, and frequently wrote to the emperor, and to persons in authority. It was by him also that the affairs of the church were regulated, that the future success of any enterprise was determined, and that the arguments of Pagans, Jews, and heretics were confuted. The style in which this history is written may almost be called bombastical; and the author, by way of giving dignity to his subject, frequently compares his heroes to the patriarchs and prophets of old. Yet this history cannot but be pronounced useful; for the deluded men of whom it treats occupy a very prominent place in the records of those periods in which they lived. They held the highest place in the esteem and veneration of the public, and were not unfrequently called from their solitary and comfortless cells to the head of the largest and most important dioceses.

3. “Eranistes or Polymorphus,” a work which derives its name from its being designed to combat error under the many forms or shapes imparted to it by different heresies. Two persons are introduced as conversing on the subject: the one proposes questions and starts objections, the other defends the true faith. The doctrines mainly advocated in these dialogues, may be briefly stated as follows:—Jesus Christ is both man and God. The human and the Divine nature are united in one person, yet those two natures subsist without mixture or confusion. At the end of the dialogues is a synopsis of the arguments previously advanced, arranged in the scholastic form; the dialogues themselves are written in an easy and familiar strain, and are intended for general readers. The style of the whole work is clear and logical. The objections of the opponent are well and fairly propounded, and the arguments brought against them, though not always very convincing, may yet be said, on the whole, to give indications of strong reasoning powers.

4. Another work on heresies. This treatise gives a detailed account of the errors held by various heresiarchs and sects. Four volumes, one devoted to these descriptions, arranged not chronologically, but, as it were, in classes according to the subject. In the fourth volume there are some very severe strictures against Nestorius; but their authenticity is doubted. Theodoret drew his materials for the compilation of this history from the most esteemed writers; and he cites St. Justin, St. Irenæus, St. Clemens of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius of Palestine, and several others as his authorities. A fifth volume is annexed, containing a clear and eloquent statement of the doctrines of the church as opposed to those of heretics.

5. “A Series of Ten Discourses on Providence,” which have been pronounced the finest productions on the subject that have been handed down from antiquity. The first of these discourses treats on natural theology, constantly referring the sceptic to the works of God, to the sun, moon, and stars, which he has made. It seems probable that these were sermons prepared by Theodoret for the benefit of some particular congregation; but the power of analogical reasoning which they exhibit, as well as the brilliant eloquence of the style, render them permanently valuable.

6. “Twelve Discourses on the Cure of Pagan Errors,” a work in which the classical erudition of Theodoret is more fully displayed than in any other. He here quotes upwards of a hundred writers. The style is very elaborate; the author evidently endeavoured to imitate that of Plato. These discourses were suggested by the public disputations which he frequently held with heretics of different denominations.

7. “Discourse on Charity.” This is considered to have been intended as the conclusion of the work entitled “Philotheus,” which has been already mentioned. It extols the love and charity exhibited by those who suffered for the faith.

8. “Sermon upon St. John.”

9. “Confutation of St. Cyril’s Twelve Chapters.” It must be observed, that Theodoret does not here combat any of the doctrines received as orthodox, but that he merely attacks the mode in which these doctrines are enunciated by St. Cyril.

10. Fragments of a book against St. Cyril.

11. “The Letters of Theodoret.” These were very numerous; they are generally arranged in the following order:—

1. “Letter to Sporatius,” which, however, is rather a fragment of the treatise on heresies.

2. “Letter to John, bishop of Germanica.”

3. “Some Letters written during the Time of the Council of Ephesus.”

4. “Some Letters written in the Time of negotiating the Peace.”

5. “Letters written after the Peace.”

All these letters are divisible into two classes; those which relate to his disputes with the bishops of Egypt, and which are all more or less imbued with the acrimony of party spirit; and, secondly, the friendly and familiar letters which, though likewise very frequently of a polemical nature, relate chiefly to his own private affairs. These letters give an insight into the character and motives of Theodoret. They serve to prove the blamelessness of his course of life, and the piety, charity, and true humility of his spirit. He seems to have excelled particularly in the epistolary style of writing; and his letters have been described as being just what letters ought to be, “short, plain, neat, courteous, elegant, full of matter, wit, and holiness.”

The first collection of Theodoret’s writings was printed at Cologne in 1573. An excellent edition of his works was published as early as 1642 at Paris, by Sirmond, in four volumes, folio, to which Garnier, in 1684, added a fifth volume, containing the letters and discourses of Theodoret, with long dissertations by the editor. An edition from this recension was published at Halle, A.D. 1769–74, by Nonselt, and this is the most recent edition which we possess of Theodoret’s entire works.

Although it is evident, even from the above enumeration, that Theodoret was a voluminous writer, yet all his works have not been mentioned, many of them having been lost. The following is a list of those which are no longer extant:—

Commentary on Isaiah.

Five Books against St. Cyril.

Treatise upon the Incarnation.

Several Treatises against the Arians, Apollinarists, Marcionists, and Jews.

An Answer to the Questions of the Persian Magi.

A Mystical Book.

Apology for Diodorus, bishop of Tarsus, and for Theodorus, bishop of Mopsuestia.

The following works are attributed to Theodoret, though not upon the best authority:—

Preface upon the Psalms.

Fragments of a Commentary upon the Psalms.

Five Sermons in Praise of St. Chrysostom.

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