According to Tillemont, he was born at Antioch in 393, and died either at Cyrrhus (“about a two-days’ journey east of Antioch” or eighty Roman miles), or at the monastery near Apamea (fifty-four miles south east of Antioch) about 457.
The following facts about his life are gleaned mainly from his Epistles and his Religious History (Philotheos historia). His mother having been childless for twelve years, his birth was promised by a hermit named Macedonius on the condition of his dedication to God, whence the name Theodoret (“gift of God”). He was brought up under the care of the ascetics and acquired a very extensive classical knowledge, and, according to Photius, a style of Attic purity. That he was a personal disciple of Theodore of Mopsuestia and heard the orations of John Chrysostom is improbable.
At a young age he became a lector among the clergy of Antioch, then resided a while in a monastery, was a cleric at Cyrrhus, and in 423 became bishop over a diocese about forty miles square and embracing 800 parishes, but with an insignificant town as its see city. Theodoret, supported only by the appeals of the intimate hermits, himself in personal danger, zealously guarded purity of the doctrine. He converted more than 1,000 Marcionites in his diocese, besides many Arians and Macedonians; more than 200 copies of Tatian‘s Diatessaron he retired from the churches; and he erected churches and supplied them with relics.
Extensive and varied were his philanthropic and economic interests: he endeavored to secure relief for the people oppressed with taxation; he divided his inheritance among the poor; from his episcopal revenues he erected baths, bridges, halls, and aqueducts; he summoned rhetoricians and physicians, and reminded the officials of their duties. To the persecuted Christians of Persian Armenia he sent letters of encouragement, and to the Carthaginian Celestiacus, who had fled the rule of the Vandals, he gave refuge.
The Nestorian Controversy
Theodoret stands out prominently in the christological controversies aroused by Cyril of Alexandria. Theodoret shared in the petition of John I of Antioch to Nestorius to approve of the term theotokos (“mother of God”), and upon the request of John wrote against Cyril’s anathemas.
He may have prepared the Antiochian symbol which was to secure the emperor’s true understanding of the Nicene Creed, and he was a member and spokesman of the deputation of eight from Antioch called by the emperor to Chalcedon. To the condemnation of Nestorius he could not assent. John, reconciled to Cyril by the emperor’s order, sought to bring Theodoret to submission by entrenching upon his eparchy.
Theodoret was determined to preserve the peace of the Church by seeking the adoption of a formula avoiding the unconditional condemnation of Nestorius, and toward the close of 434 strove earnestly for the reconciliation between the Eastern churches. But Cyril refused to compromise and when he opened his attack (437) upon Diodorus of Tarsus and Theodore, John sided with them and Theodoret assumed the defense of the Antiochian party (c. 439). Domnus II, the successor of John, took him as his counselor. After the death of Cyril, adherents of the Antiochian theology were appointed to bishoprics. Irenaeus the friend of Nestorius, with the cooperation of Theodoret, became bishop of Tyre, in spite of the protests of Dioscorus, Cyril’s successor, who now turned specially against Theodoret; and, by preferring the charge that he taught two sons in Christ, he secured the order from the court confining Theodoret to Cyrrhus.
Theodoret now composed the Eronistes (see below). In vain were his efforts at court at self-justification against the charges of Dioscurus, as well as the countercharge of Domnus against Eutyches of Apollinarism. The court excluded Theodoret from the Second Council of Ephesus (the “Robber Council”) in 449 because of his antagonism to Cyril. Here, because of his Epistle 151 against Cyril and his defense of Diodorus and Theodore, he was condemned without a hearing and excommunicated and his writings were directed to be burned. Even Domnus gave his assent.
Theodoret was compelled to leave Cyrrhus and retire to the monastery of Apamea. He made an appeal to Leo the Great, but not until after the death of Theodosius II in 450 was his appeal for a revocation of the judgments against him granted by imperial edict. He was ordered to participate in the Council of Chalcedon, which created violent opposition. He was first to take part only as accuser, yet among the bishops. Then he was constrained (October 26, 451) by the friends of Dioscurus to pronounce the anathema over Nestorius. His conduct shows (though hindered from a statement to that effect) that he performed this with his previous reservation; namely, without application beyond the teaching of two sons in Christ and the denial of the theotokos. Upon this he was declared orthodox and rehabilitated.
The only thing known concerning him following the Council of Chalcedon is the letter of Leo charging him to guard the Chalcedonian victory (PG, lxxxiii. 1319 sqq.). With Diodorus and Theodore he was no less hated by the Monophysites than Nestorius himself, and held by them and their friends as a heretic. The Three-Chapter Controversy led to the condemnation of his writings against Cyril in the Second Council of Constantinople (553).
In literature Theodoret devoted himself first of all to exegesis. The Scripture was his only authority, and his representation of orthodox doctrine consists of a collocation of Scripture passages. The genuineness and relative chronology of his commentaries is proven by references in the latter to the earlier. The commentary on the Song of Songs, written while he was a young bishop, though not before 430, precedes Psalms; the commentaries on the prophets were begun with Daniel, followed by Ezekiel, and then the Minor Prophets. Next that on the Psalms was completed before 436; and those on Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the Pauline Epistles (including Hebrews), before 448. Theodoret’s last exegetical works were the interpretations of difficult passages in the Octateuch and Quaestiones dealing with the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, written about 452 to 453.
Excepting the commentary on Isaiah (fragments preserved in the catenae) and on Galatians ii.6-13, the exegetical writings of Theodoret are extant. Exegetical material on the Gospels under his name in the catenae may have come from his other works, and foreign interpolations occur in his comments on the Octateuch.
The Biblical authors are, for Theodoret, merely the mouthpieces of the Holy Spirit, though they do not lose their individual peculiarities. By the unavoidable imperfection of the translations, he states, the understanding is encumbered. Not familiar with Hebrew, Theodoret uses the Syriac translation, the Greek versions, and the Septuagint.
In principle his exegesis is grammatical-historical; and he criticizes the intrusion of the author’s own ideas. His aim is to avoid a one-sidedness of literalness as well as of allegory. Hence he protests against the attributing of The Song of Songs to Solomon and the like as degrading the Holy Spirit. Rather is it to be said that the Scripture speaks often “figuratively” and “in riddles.” In the Old Testament everything has typical significance and prophetically it embodies already the Christian doctrine. The divine illumination affords the right understanding after the apostolic suggestion and the New Testament fulfilment. Valuable though not binding is the exegetical tradition of the ecclesiastical teachers. Theodoret likes to choose the best among various interpretations before him, preferably Theodore’s, and supplements from his own. He is clear and simple in thought and statement; and his merit is to have rescued the exegetical heritage of the school of Antioch as a whole for the Christian Church.
Works: Apologetic, Historical
Among apologetic writings was the Ad quaestiones magorum (429-436), now lost, in which he justified the Old Testament sacrifices as alternatives in opposition to the Egyptian idolatry (question 1, Lev., PG, lxxx. 297 sqq.), and exposed the fables of the Magi who worshiped the elements (Church History v. 38).
De providentia consists of apologetic discourses, proving the divine providence from the physical order (chapters i-iv), and from the moral and social order (chapters vi-x).
The Cure of the Greek Maladies or Knowledge of the Gospel Truth from the Greek Philosophy, of twelve discourses, was an attempt to prove the truth of Christianity from Greek philosophy and in contrast with the pagan ideas and practises. The truth is self-consistent where it is not obscured with error and approves itself as the power of life; philosophy is only a presentiment of it. This work is distinguished for clearness of arrangement and style.
The Church History of Theodoret, which begins with the rise of Arianism and closes with the death of Theodore in 429, falls far behind those of Socrates Scholasticus and Sozomen. It contains many sources otherwise lost, specially letters on the Arian controversy; but it is defective in historical sense and chronological accuracy, and on account of Theodoret’s inclination to embellishment and miraculous narrative, and preference for the personal. Original material of Antiochian information appears chiefly in the latter books.
Theodoret’s sources are in dispute. According to Valesius these were mainly Socrates and Sozomen; A. Guldenpenning’s thorough research placed Rufinus first, and next to him, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius, Sozomen, Sabinus, Philostorgius, Gregory Nazianzen, and, least of all, Socrates. N. Glubokovskij counts Eusebius, Rufinus, Philostorgius, and, perhaps, Sabinus.
The Religious History, with an appendix on divine love, contains the biographies of thirty (ten living) ascetics, held forth as religious models. It is a document of remarkable significance for understanding the complexities of the role of early monastics, both in society and in the church; it is also remarkable for presenting a model of ascetic authority which runs strongly against Athanasius’s Life of Antony. Upon the request of a high official named Sporacius, Theodoret compiled a Compendium of Heretical Accounts (Haereticarum fabularum compendium), including a heresiology (books i-iv) and a “compendium of divine dogmas” (book v), which, apart from Origen‘s De principiis and the theological work of John of Damascus, is the only systematic representation of the theology of the Greek Fathers.
Among dogmatic treatises Theodoret mentions (Epist. cxiii, cxvi) having written against Arius and Eunomius, probably one work, to which were joined the three treatises against the Macedonians. There were, besides, two works against the Apollinarians, and of the Opus adversus Marcionem nothing has been preserved. The treatises On the Trinity and On the Divine Dispensation (cf. Peri theologias kai tes theias enanthropeseos; Epist. cxiii), assigned by A. Ehrhard to the work On the Holy and Life-giving Trinity and On the Incarnation of the Lord of Cyril of Alexandria, certainly belong to the Antiochian School and to Theodoret. To the same belong cap. xiii-xv, xvii, and brief parts of other chapters of the fragments which J. Gamier (Auctarium) included under the title, Pentology of Theodoret on the Incarnation as well as three of the five fragments referred by Marius Mercator to the fifth book of some writing of Theodoret. They are polemics against Arianism and Apollinarianism.
Theodoret’s Refutation of the twelve anathemas of Cyril is preserved in the antipolemic of Cyril (PG, cxxvi. 392 sqq.). He detects Apollinarianism in Cyril’s teaching, and declines a “contracting into one” of two natures of the only begotten, as much as a separation into two sons (Epist. Cxliii). Instead of a “union according to hypostases,” he would accept only one that “manifests the essential properties or modes of the natures.” The man united to God was born of Mary; between God the Logos and the form of a servant a distinction must be drawn. Only minor fragments (cf. Epist. xvi) of Theodoret’s defense of Diodorus and Theodore (438-444) have been preserved (Glubokovskij ii. 142).
His chief christological work is the Eranistes etoi polymorphos (“Beggar or Multiform”) in three dialogues, describing the Monophysites as beggars passing off their doctrines gathered by scraps from diverse heretical sources and himself as the orthodox.
God is immutable also in becoming man, the two natures are separate in Christ, and God the Logos is ever immortal and impassive. Each nature remained “pure” after the union, retaining its properties to the exclusion of all transmutation and intermixture. Of the twenty-seven orations in defense of various propositions, the first six agree in their given content with Theodoret. A few extracts from the five orations on Chrysostom were preserved by Photius (codex 273). Most valuable are the numerous letters (Eng. transl., NPNF, 2 ser., iii. 250-348).