February 28, 2013
This is Part 5 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here.
One of the figures from the early church who has sparked the most controversy is Theodore of Mopsuestia, who lived in what is today southern Turkey in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Theodore lived his life in relative obscurity, but after his death his Christological thought (like that of his more famous student Nestorius) was condemned by the church. But scholars in the 19thand 20th centuries have argued that the condemnation of Theodore (and maybe also of Nestorius) was unjust, the product of church politics more than doctrinal inadequacies.
Part of the reason many modern scholars have sought to rehabilitate Theodore is the fact that they have regarded him as the greatest biblical interpreter in the early church. He is thought to have been the supreme example of the so-called “Antiochene school,” whose proponents sought to take the Bible literally and to take history seriously, in contrast to the “Alexandrian school,” whose proponents allegedly denigrated history through allegorical interpretation and philosophical speculation. This neat dichotomy between the two schools has been increasingly called into question by patristics scholars, but it remains very influential and still dominates most books on the history of biblical interpretation.
A couple of days ago I read a new translation of Theodore’s commentary on John’s Gospel. As I expected, I found much evidence of the concern for history that modern scholars find attractive. Theodore has a long discussion of the relation between the Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel. He injects many points of historical background into his exposition of specific passages. And he is particularly concerned to show how the various resurrection narratives in the four Gospels fit together without contradiction. All of these concerns are characteristic of Theodore as I knew him from other writings of his that I’ve read previously, and this historical concern is very commendable.
At the same time, this commentary also confirmed what I’ve long held to be the central problem with Theodore’s thought—he sees Christ not as God the Son incarnate, but as a man in whom the Word of God dwells. In John 3:13, 8:58, and 17:24 (among other passages), Jesus indicates that he—not just his divine nature but he as a person—has always existed and always been in fellowship with the Father. In his discussions of the first two passages, Theodore refuses to say that the Son as a person has come down from heaven or that Jesus as a person has existed before Abraham. Even more strikingly, in discussing Jesus’ statement that the Father has loved him before the foundation of the world (John 17:24), Theodore takes this to mean that the Father foreknew that he would love the man Jesus once he was born on earth, rather than taking it to mean that the Father loved the pre-existent Son from all eternity past.
These passages do indeed indicate that Theodore’s understanding of Christ was problematic (something I’ve argued on the basis of reading his other writings), but they also indicate something else. Why do scholars say that Theodore takes the Bible literally if he feels compelled to interpret some of Jesus’ most direct statements about his eternal pre-existence and eternal relationship to the Father in such non-literal ways? It is certainly true that Theodore takes many biblical passages more literally than orthodox church fathers do. But when it comes to passages on the most central affirmation of the Christian faith, Theodore seems much less literal than the orthodox church fathers. On what basis, then, should we classify Theodore’s interpretation as “literal” and others’ interpretation as “allegorical,” when the accuracy of those descriptors depends on which biblical passages one is considering?
You see, “literal” and “allegorical” are not merely neutral descriptors. They are labels with significant value judgments attached to them. To allegorize, we seem to think, is always bad. To take the Bible literally, we think, is always good. In fact, though, no one takes every biblical passage literally. All interpreters have a rationale for understanding some passages in one way and other passages in another way. When we study—and seek to learn from—the biblical interpretation of the early church, the value judgments attached to the labels “literal” and “allegorical” may hinder our task of understanding why they interpreted the Bible the way they did. Maybe we need to seek to understand more deeply, without being so quick to label patristic biblical interpretation as either “literal” or “allegorical.”
Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.
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