Address on Theodore of Tarsus Pt. 1

31 08 2007

Lecture for the Wales & Marches Catholic History Society, Cardiff
9 June 2007

‘Theodore of Tarsus and the formation of a distinctive British Church, 668-690’

Before launching into today’s discussion of Theodore of Tarsus, let me begin by expressing my thanks to Daveth Frost for asking me on your behalf, and to all of you for having me speak this [morning] on a subject that is of immense importance to me. I trust you know what you have got yourselves in for, as I consider Theodore of Tarsus to be one of the most remarkable figures in the history of the British Church, but also one of the least represented. This means, of course, seeing as you are a captive audience, it is inevitable in the course of this talk that I should make up for all Theodore’s inadequate coverage, and give you as much information as I possibly can, without regard for the clock. So you better make yourselves comfortable.

Allow me now to introduce myself and what it is that drew me to the study of Theodore of Tarsus in the first place.

I am currently writing up my doctoral thesis at the University of Wales, Lampeter, under the supervision of Professor Thomas O’Loughlin, on the subject of Theodore’s understanding of the person and work of Christ, as manifest especially in a text entitled Laterculus Malalianus. The particular work I am concentrating on is coincidental to the fact that I first found myself drawn in by Theodore due to the cosmopolitan, truly ecumenical silhouette he cast against the background of late antiquity (or the early medieval period), and for what I thought he might have contributed to the formation of the British theological tradition at the time. In fact, as we shall see, Theodore was not known to have left much writing behind, so the Laterculus Malalianus, which was only attributed to him in the mid-1990s by Dr. Jane Stevenson, became my chief text almost by default – although, I have to say, it has ultimately proven a well-spring of complex theological motifs and references. I am indebted to Dr. Stevenson for the invaluable work she put into deciphering the text.

The man who would become Archbishop of Canterbury for more than two decades of the seventh-century, was born, as the appellation by which he is most commonly known suggests, in Greek-speaking Tarsus in the year 602, a son of the very city that gave St Paul to the Church. We do not know anything about his childhood, except that it is most likely he left Tarsus early for foundational studies in Antioch. This is significant for a number of reasons, for although Antioch’s importance as a hotbed of Biblical exegesis and theology had largely waned by the seventh century, it still retained a school of consequence, and was undoubtedly the most important centre of its kind in the region. In any case, it was most likely in Antioch that Theodore’s theological formation began to take place; after all, his Scriptural hermeneutic was rigorously Antiochene in orientation, as evidenced both by the Canterbury Commentaries and the Laterculus, and, as we shall see, there is an element of what John Meyendorff (echoing Florovsky) calls ‘anthropological maximalism’ in his thought that we can take as characteristic of Antiochene theology generally. In leaving Tarsus for Antioch, Theodore went to the birthplace of a tradition in biblical exegesis and christology that found expression in such a towering figure as St John Chrysostom, and rooted himself firmly in its soil.

But the intellectually-adventurous Theodore would not remain there. As his vocabulary and cultural references suggest, at some point he travelled further East to Syriac-speaking Edessa. We do not know how long he spent there, but it was surely long enough for him to have become familiar with the language, to have fallen under the influence of its great fourth-century theologian-poet Ephrem, and to have been impressed by certain features of life in this city beyond the Greek pale. Again as we shall see, what Theodore absorbs of Syriac tradition would become a prominent ingredient in his contribution to the British Church; in which case, a brief comment on the content of this oft-neglected tributary of the basin of Christian thought is probably warranted.

In talking about the Syriac tradition in relation to Theodore of Tarsus, it should be noted that what we are referring to is, in fact, the fruits it bore before the Council of Ephesus in 431. To date, the importance of this tradition to the wider Catholic Church has failed to make an impression on popular ecclesiological conceptions, yet the influence of at least one of its exponents can hardly be exaggerated. St Ephrem the Syrian, writing in the fourth century, has been identified as both an inspiration and an authority for writers East and West, Greek and Latin, from his own time to the present, to the extent that in 1920, he was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XV. He was an exegete and poet of note, with most of his writing taking the form either of hymns or sermons; yet by his own admission, he had no interest in a systematic presentation of the great theological mysteries. In spite of this, however, it is not difficult to discern a reasoned and consistent presentation of God and the Logos over the course of his writings. When we are considering Syriac influences on Theodore, then, what we are mainly dealing with – though not exclusively – are figures and metaphors for Christ as drawn from the work of Ephrem. Otherwise, the evidence in the Commentaries and the Laterculus attests to a general regard for the poet, the presence of a few images shared across the Syriac tradition, and recollections of life in Edessa. Having paid a brief visit to the Syriac East, however, if we are to continue drawing our sketch of Theodore’s life, we must return to more familiar territory. For from Edessa, we follow the future archbishop to Constantinople.

As one can imagine, considering the time and place of Theodore’s formation, he would have personally experienced the effects of great upheaval. Between the years 613 and 627, the Persian Empire expanded to include most of Syria, the decade following which was characterised by the Muslim Arab expansion in the direction of Asia Minor. For this reason, Theodore would most likely have been only one among many Christian students who left the region in the 630s; and so we find him in Constantinople by 637, studying medicine, law, and philosophy.

We don’t know precisely how long he spent in the great city, but we do know what effect his time there had on him, for it is attested to in the wide scope of his learning. That Theodore was learned in medicine, for example, comes across in various dedicated passages in both the Canterbury Commentaries and the Laterculus Malalianus. Likewise, there are medical references in the Penitential that bears his name, and that most certainly derive from him. In fact, his interest in the subject of medicine is one of the only pieces of personal information about Theodore mentioned by the Venerable Bede in the Historia. Otherwise, we can imagine that the adeptness with which he administered the British Church, and the confidence he displayed in making both pastoral and administrative decisions, was a result of his legal training. As someone who lived and studied in the Church’s greatest centres, at the very time that some of the most significant theological upheavals in the history of the Church were unfolding, it can only follow that with an intellect as substantial as his, Theodore would have learned a great deal from the mix of formal instruction and observation. Furthermore, that he was able to set his ministry in a cast of theological orthodoxy, as attested to by the Laterculus Malalianus and the decrees of the synods he oversaw, attests to a certain philosophical dexterity, the likes of which he would most likely have developed in an intellectual environment such as that provided by a significant stay in seventh-century Constantinople. Beside the fact that he would have been there at a time when the unparalleled Hagia Sophia would still have been a fresh wonder to behold, like a glittering beacon to the rest of the Christian world, we can assume that Theodore’s time in Constantinople was extremely fruitful.

While we do not know exactly when he moved from New Rome to the old, there are many reasons to believe that Theodore was in Italy – and resident in the Greek monastery of Saint Anastasias – by the time of the Lateran Council of 649. That this should be the case is of immense interest to us, for were Theodore to have been at the council, then it is most likely he was acquainted with that defender of orthodoxy and theologian of renown, St Maximus the Confessor. Such a connection is not inconsequential, for it indelibly binds the development of the Church in these islands to that of the Universal Church, and challenges any inclination we might have to construe the British Church as some kind of eccentric and provincial construct. Two facts make Theodore’s presence in Rome at the time distinctly possible: 1) the roll of names appended to the acta of the Lateran Council includes one ‘Theodorus monachus’, otherwise unidentified; and 2) Pope Agatho’s categorical appeal to ‘the archbishop and philosopher’ Theodore (of far-flung Britain) for advice on the Monothelete heresy, as the pope made preparation for the 6th Œcumenical Council of 680. Together, this suggests that not only was Theodore a member of one of the Greek monastic communities around Rome by the mid-7th century; he was an émigré of great consequence.

It seems characteristic of the life of Theodore that precisely when he might have raised his own recognition-factor in the Church, he retired instead to quiet study and prayer in his monastery. This would be conjecture only, but it is not unreasonable to suppose. That the legacy of his work in later life hardly gets a mention outside of Bede’s Historia certainly suggests this, but so does the fact that Pope Vitalian, when seeking to appoint an archbishop to the vacant see of Canterbury, needed to be introduced to Theodore by the Greek-speaking African, Hadrian. In other words, the profile we might have expected from someone with as extensive an education, as diverse a background, and as much to offer the Church at a time of theological turmoil does not correspond with that attested to by the secondary-source documents. If I could be permitted a personal observation on the man: I can not help but imagine him as an introverted sort, who, by force of learning and able mind, garnered the respect of those around him. I can see him working on his languages, spending time on translations and editions, but otherwise getting on with his life as a monk. And I can see him bearing all such qualities with him into whatever assignment he was presented with. In any case, the chance came when, in 667, he was called before Pope Vitalian for appointment to Canterbury.

And so we come to the part of the story I suspect you are already [at least somewhat] familiar with, as it is recorded by Bede in the History. The African Hadrian was called by Vitalian to go to Canterbury to fill the vacant archbishopric; but Hadrian refused, promising to find a better candidate. He then proposed Theodore, whom Pope Vitalian agreed to, on the condition that Hadrian accompany him anyway, at least partly to act as a theological guardian for the then unknown Greek. After some months more spent in Rome, in order – as Bede reports – to grow out his Greek-style tonsure and to be re-tonsured in the Roman-style, Theodore left with Hadrian for Britain. So it is that, by 669, Theodore was present in his new country, and set to become ‘the first archbishop that the whole country obeyed’, and one of the greatest that Britain has ever known.

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