Address on Theodore of Tarsus, pt. 2

31 08 2007

As much time as we have spent looking at the details of Theodore’s biography, our real purpose here is to examine what it is he contributed to the formation of a distinctive church in this land. Before continuing, though, I would ask you to take note of my use of the word ‘contribution.’ I am not suggesting that, as inspiring a figure as I believe Theodore to be, he single-handedly established, created, or otherwise shaped the character of the British Church. It is more helpful, rather, that we think about Theodore’s contributions as something like ingredients added in baking. Whatever it is I will be proposing he put in, the result is a more appealing product than might have been the case without. Having said that, as you will shortly be shown, the ingredients Theodore did add were exotic indeed.

Aside from the obvious, more practical contributions enumerated by Bede, including the consolidation of authority in the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the reduction in size of dioceses and the consecration of appropriate bishops, the establishment of an exceptional school in Canterbury, and the application of a conciliar model for decision-making, I suggest that what Theodore brought to bear on the Church here was a theological perspective on christological matters that was aligned more closely with the Greek, and particularly Antiochene, tradition than with the Latin tradition, an exegetical approach that again was more rigorously Antiochene than anything else, and an application of certain sources, such as Ephrem the Syrian and Irenaeus of Lyons, that would colour the British theological and ecclesiastical landscape for generations to come.

For the sake of time, I will skip over the substantial insights to be gleaned from the Canterbury Commentaries – biblical glosses gathered from the lectures of Theodore and Hadrian at the school, discovered by the German palaeographer Bernard Bischoff and edited by both he and Michael Lapidge – in favour of those to be drawn from the Laterculus Malalianus.

First of all, I want to comment on the style of the Laterculus. Jane Stevenson, whose work on the text first brought it to public notice in 1994, has provided us with a great deal of commentary on it, including numerous suggestions without which I would not have been able to undertake my own work. One of the most important things she accomplished with the text, however, was to identify its hermeneutical style, which she showed to be strongly Antiochene in orientation. That this is the case is born out across each chapter, as Theodore employs typology and a rigorous analysis of historical detail to different aspects of the life of Christ. This approach to Scripture differs from its ‘rival’ Alexandrian approach by the avoidance of allegory – that is, the exposition of a biblical text according to an extra-biblical, spiritual meaning. It is an important difference, especially since a great deal of suspicion was levelled at the Antiochene exegetical method in light of the christological controversies that dominated the fourth and fifth centuries. But the particular hermeneutic of the Laterculus is only a part of the picture, as it is proffers only the beginning of any insight into what Theodore was to bring to the British Church in his time. The rest, while related to hermeneutic, held greater meaning for theology.

I was in the midst of reading a paper by William Ralston in a small volume on Christian anthropology when the key to reading Theodore’s Laterculus virtually fell into my lap. It struck me just how much Theodore uses the terminology of restoration in his work, and how much his meaning seemed to correspond to the meaning of recapitulation set forward by Irenaeus, the second-century bishop of Lyons.

Scholars are virtually universal in their judgment that the doctrine of recapitulation, which would act as the nucleus around which the Greek Christian tradition’s primary christological attitude would develop, is the theological brainchild of this early Christian apologist. Using the Apostle Paul’s statement from Ephesians 1:9-10, that ‘[God] has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth,’ as his starting point, Irenaeus interpreted the Greek verb anakefalaiosasthai, literally as ‘to re-head’, thereby portraying the purpose of God’s Incarnation as the ‘re-heading’ (or the ‘summing up’) of all creation. The implications of this idea are immense, and were certainly not lost on the Fathers who came after Irenaeus, as they set their minds to even deeper considerations of the meaning and purpose of the Incarnation.

Recapitulation begins with the idea that humankind was created in the image and likeness of God. As the story goes, shortly after humanity’s creation, we succumbed to the sin of disobedience, thereby losing God’s likeness. The head of our race, Adam, intended to be our prototype, became instead the means by which order was rendered into disorder, life was turned into death. The solution to this problem was for a second Adam to come and take up our cause and be our champion. The disorder could only be set right if God took on the clothes of Adam, and re-ordered those things which had come to afflict us as a result of the first transgression. This is what he did in the Logos. God the Word took on flesh, lived through every aspect of what it is to be human, and thereby put to right everything that was wrong with us. He liberated us from death, and by becoming this new, triumphant prototype, made it possible for humankind to once again bear his likeness, just as he bore ours. By this exchange, Irenaeus taught that God ‘recapitulated’ us; that is, he gave us a new head in the second Adam. A brief summary of this divine work he set out in the phrase, ‘God became what we are in order that we might become what he is.’
Other theologians of the Church – most notably Athanasius – would take up this theme and develop it further, eventually establishing as the Incarnation’s primary purpose the deification of human beings; what the Greeks call theosis.

Theodore does not use Athanasius’ language of deification, but his appeal to the restorative side of recapitulation is indubitable. By some means, Irenaeus has taken a firm hold on Theodore’s theological imagination, and influenced the way he interpreted and taught concerning the person and work of Christ.

Now, I say ‘by some means’ partly because it has not yet become clear to me just how it is that Theodore encountered Irenaeus. One possible channel is Ephrem the Syrian, whom I introduced you to earlier. The christological imagery Ephrem uses in his poetry is often reminiscent of Irenaeus, and sometimes even directly evocative of a question originally raised by him. A parallel drawn between the Virgin Mary and virgin earth, for example, used originally by Irenaeus to illustrate the role Mary played in God’s work of recapitulation, is taken up by Ephrem almost word for word. This being the case, it is possible that Theodore actually took his cue from the Syriac father whom he so explicitly revered.

That Theodore took more from Ephrem is certain. I have already mentioned Theodore’s interest in medicine in terms of his having studied it when at Constantinople. This interest in reflected in the Laterculus by means of the attention paid to gestational theory, and the meaning he was able to draw from it as it related to his greater purpose of restoration. But this interest also extended to medicine as a metaphor for Christ’s work among human beings. The idea of Christ as a Physician of souls is one we may take for granted now, but the way it was employed by Ephrem in the fourth century was quite original. Others, such as Ambrose and Augustine used it to describe how Christ acted on human sins. Ephrem used it much more broadly, and in terms of what the Incarnate Logos did for wounded humanity. It is this latter use that Theodore makes of the image, as if seeing the particular way in which it fit with his programme of portraying Christ as restorer.

Together, I suggest that it is these two figures, Irenaeus and Ephrem, who act as Theodore’s greatest influences. Of course there are others whom he cites in the Laterculus, and there are still others whom we can identify as sources for something he says. Yet in one way or another, either in overarching theme or formative metaphors, Irenaeus and Ephrem loom large over Theodore’s work.

So now we ask the question: what does all of this have to do with a distinctive British Church on the crux of late antiquity / the early middle ages?

If posterior history is anything to go by, the answer is a great deal.

Scholars like J.D.A. Ogilvy and J.T. Dempsey both discuss the strong Antiochene strains in Bede’s approach to exegesis, while earlier in the last century, Beryl Smalley said in The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages, that ‘Much of the Antiochene material was irretrievably lost to the medieval Latin student…. On the other hand, enough material existed in the early middle ages to enable a Latin reader to learn at least the principles of Antiochene exegesis and to experiment with them for himself, if he wished. We shall see that some of the early Irish scholars availed themselves of the opportunity. But they were alone in doing so. The Antiochenes in fact were generally neglected.’ Could it be, then, if the Antiochene method of exegesis was not so widely disseminated through Western Europe in the early middle ages, that Bede’s familiarity with it was something inherited from Theodore and his school at Canterbury of a generation earlier? I, myself, have identified at least one place where Bede’s own exegesis of a passage is alone in being strikingly similar to Theodore’s, and I have suggested that this may be because he had access to the Laterculus. At the very least, it seems, the great historian and venerable doctor of the Church was inspired by a technique for reading Scripture that was not shared by many of his contemporaries in the West, and which we know came to Britain just a generation earlier with the archbishop from the East.

With some confidence, we can conclude that one of Theodore’s lasting contributions to the British Church in his time and after was the Antiochene Scriptural hermeneutic; something that appears to have been further perpetuated by Bede and so preserved in Western tradition. But I cautiously propose that what he also left behind – again, in addition to the obvious, more practical considerations recorded by Bede – was an unparalleled exposure to a series of somewhat eclectic sources, including the already-discussed Ephrem the Syrian, and the imagery that Theodore gleaned from him. But as I have already recounted, Theodore was most likely acquainted with Maximus the Confessor too, and while Maximus takes up the idea of exchange that lies behind Christ’s work of restoration in an intricate, philosophical way – a way, it has to be said, that Theodore’s approach in no way replicates – the importance of restoration is present in both, and it would not be unreasonable to suggest that Theodore represents something of Maximus the Confessor as well.

The fact is, the Greek monk who would travel through Syria to Constantinople, then establish himself in Rome before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury – that is, Theodore of Tarsus – bears in his person the influences of the whole Christian tradition to his time. This is an incredible claim, I know; but the facts of his life, along with the still-emerging evidence, together suggest that he is one of very few people in Christian history that not only passed through, but actually lived in and absorbed (through the critical eyes of a scholar) so many Christian cultures and traditions.

For all his obvious scholarship and wisdom, he was not a speculative theologian like his more famous contemporary Maximus; but neither was he someone without sound views and the means to express them. He was, fundamentally, a teacher and a pastor; but an intellectually rigorous one for all that. His reform of the British Church through diocesan reorganisation, conciliar structures, and pastoral discipline, is renowned. Yet his influence on theology, in terms of hermeneutics and christology is only now being appraised. We can suppose that Bede was a beneficiary, as, perhaps, was Aldhelm. The Irish students that we know attended the school at Canterbury, and who enjoyed Theodore’s tutelage, may also have carried on something of what they learned. In this regard, at least, we can be sure that Theodore’s influence extended well beyond his own time and into the Middle Ages. But there are signs his significance was greater still. Pope Agatho would not have sought to enlist an elderly Theodore’s aid if he did not think it worthwhile. In Theodore, the British Church had a remarkable man her midst: A philosopher, theologian, teacher, and pastor. His understanding of the person and work of Christ was unlike anything else being considered in the West at the time, and the exegetical methods he used were of a tradition that would otherwise have been forgotten here.

I will conclude by saying that if Theodore of Tarsus did nothing else, by the close of his life at the end of the seventh-century, the province of the Church that was placed under his authority was a well-educated, well-connected, well-respected institution that could eventually be looked on as one of the great contributors to an emerging new Europe.

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