Introducing St Theodore of Tarsus

by Fr James Siemens, Ph.D.

Work by unknowns is easy to ignore. Those whose contributions failed to find a recorder in their time, or a relay later, slip from memory and get dismissed as insignificant. This is especially the case when the figure in question represents a place not known for its ideas. After all, when it comes to theological life in the later Patristic period (the ragged border between late antiquity and the early middle ages), we tend to cast our minds to what was happening in Constantinople and its environs, to Rome and its environs; not to the mossy stones and damp thatch of some windswept islands off the Northwest coast of Europe. In the simplest of terms, people tend to think of Britain at the time as post-Roman: a place where, in the wake of the Roman exodus, rough, pagan Anglo-Saxons had pushed indige­nous, Christians Britons West, dividing the land into a patchwork of small kingdoms over which there were constant wars, and where the only memory of Christianity was an eccentric, ‘Celtic’ sort, notwithstanding some papal mission in Kent. Only, perhaps, the most avid reader of the Venerable Bede will be aware that there was more to the Insular picture than that.

Yet, it is in light of such notions that the memory of Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury from 668 until 690, has languished. Although he was a presence at the Lateran Synod of 649 alongside Maximus the Confessor and is named in its Acta; although he was so respected and renowned as to have been sought out by a pope in advance of the Sixth Ecumenical Council; although he had a reputation for learning that would earn him a place in the hearts of poets, historians, and theologians alike, it has been possible for this great figure to become obscured by the mists of time and, eventually, hardly thought of at all as among those worthy of study.

To be fair, it is not as though Theodore left behind a body of work easy for the student of theology to locate and consider. Even what we, in posterity, do possess is hardly going to set the library alight with its luminosity of language, depth, or scope. But that is not to say that the theology of Theodore of Tarsus is insignificant, or that it should be ignored. In fact, even if – on a popular level – little remains known of him today, Theodore is of supreme impor­tance for showing us how theological ideas were transmitted across the Mediterranean world in late antiquity, how Eastern thought and practice could be synthesised with Western at a time when the theological and political language of Greek and Latin were already becoming estranged, and, perhaps above all, for serving as an example of what theology looked like when undertaken in the midst of a life of practical, pastoral service.

Prior to the 1990s, little was known about Theodore of Tarsus other than what could be extracted from Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. To be sure, his name could be found peppered here and there across the literature, but hardly in the most obvious or accessible of places. The poet Aldhelm, in the first instance, who had himself studied with the Greek master, referred to him in a letter in which he wonders aloud why anyone would choose to go to Ireland for study, when just by going to Canterbury they could encounter so great a teacher as Theodore. Then there was the biography of St Wilfrid, written by Stephen of Ripon, in which the conflict between Theodore and Wilfrid over the division of Wilfrid’s see of York was recorded not inaccurately, but in a way that clearly favoured Wilfrid. The penitential that bears Theodore’s name, meanwhile, tended to be discounted due to a perceived problem: it never professed to be of Theodore’s own hand, but merely to represent his teaching. That this was an unfortunate misconception, and that to have read the penitential was indeed to have read material from Theodore’s mind if not his hand, bearing as it does all the hallmarks of his work, formation, and thought, has only been latterly understood. But that is not where his appearances stop. 

After the penitential, and somewhat confounding for more than a generation of historians, was Theodore’s mention by Pope Zacharias in a 748 letter to the missionary Boniface, as one who had been educated in Athens. The problem with this reference is that by Theo­dore’s time, the academy at Athens had long since been closed, and while there is no reference at all to Athens in any of the literature we now have to hand – formerly or latterly identified – there is to its intellectual successor, Constantinople – a centre that, precisely when Theodore would have been there, had been established under imperial patronage as a major centre of learning. Yet for all Pope Zacharias may have been mis­guided and led others astray with his Athens reference, it is actually another papal men­tion that takes on the greatest significance, especially where Theodore’s Christology is concerned. For prior to the Sixth Ecumenical Council of 680, in response to encouragment from Emperor Constantine IV, Pope Agatho called for Theodore’s advice on the question of monotheletism, as he was the only one still alive who had direct knowledge of the issues involved. That Theodore was unable to attend to Agatho’s request in person was a matter of great regret to the Pope, and he said so to the emperor: ‘We were hoping, there­fore, that Theodore, our co-servant and co-bishop, the philosopher and archbishop of Great Britain, would join our enterprise, along with certain others who remain there to the present day’ (recorded in Concilium Universale Constan­tino­politanum Tertium, Concilii Actiones I-XI; trans. M. Lapidge, Biblical Commentaries, p. 80).  So Theodore, alongside no less a name than Maximus the Confessor, was considered an expert on the Christolog­ical issues reflected upon, and determined at, the Lateran Council of 649, and was held in such high standing that his absence was a matter of personal regret to Pope Agatho as the Church headed into the Sixth Ecumenical Council.

Assembling, then, what we know from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History together with the evi­dence expounded since the 1990s, we can say of Theodore that he was born in 602 in the city of the apostle Paul, and that he died in Canterbury eighty-eight years later, having served as ‘archbishop and philosopher of Great Britain’ for twenty-two. Prior to his appointment to the archiepiscopal see of Canterbury by Pope Vitalian in 667 , he had spent a childhood in Tarsus under the boot heels of the Persian army, followed by time at Antioch, then Edessa, in Syria, then a period of study in Constantinople, before taking up residence in the Monas­tery of St Anastasius at Rome whence he attended the aforemen­tioned Lateran Synod, came under the notice of the pope, and ultimately found himself England-bound as archbishop.

In the midst of this, his written legacy is limited, but if we are to understand anything of his thought, it is necessary to be aware of the following texts: the Passio sancti Anastasii (the life of St Anastasius the Persian, patron of Theodore’s monastery in Rome, and the text mentioned explicitly by Bede as one he himself re-translated as it was written in such poor Latin); the Biblical Com­men­taries (a series of commentaries on a number of books of the Bible, made up of notes taken in classes taught primarily by Theodore and, to a lesser extent, the abbot Hadrian); the Penitential (a handbook of penance – a common genre in the early Middle Ages – made up of Theodore’s judgements and pastoral advice in response to sins that might have been raised in the context of confession); the Laterculus Malalianus (half chronicle text, half exegetical text dealing with the life of Christ, it is alone in being complete and entirely of Theodore’s hand. Jane Stevenson made the initial case for its ascription – a case which has since been strengthened and broadly accepted.). Of these, only the Later­culus explicitly explores the theology of the person and work of Christ; the Biblical Commen­taries, meanwhile, due to their nature and certainty of ascription, serve as a litmus test against which anything said about Theodore must be measured. Consequently, it is these two together that serve as the first stop in discerning Theodore’s personal theological assumptions.

The first thing to say about the theology of Theodore of Tarsus is that, while few figures boast the same extensive cosmopolitan formation as he, despite his sojourn in Rome and his manifest fidelity to the faith of the universal Church, his theological and hermeneu­tical bias is toward the East. The influences he cites directly in the Biblical Commentaries, the Penitential and, above all, the Laterculus Malalianus, are almost exclusively Greek or Syriac. In terms of his Christology specifically, his assumptions are built on an Irenaean foundation bolstered by Ephremic imagery, leading to a soteriological picture that would sit comfortably alongside other exemplars in, for example, Norman Russell’s magisterial work on deification. Russell is particularly worthy of mention here because, while count­less others have dealt with the idea of deification (theosis), in passing terms, as being of central importance to any Eastern model of salvation, and some, such as Nellas and Mantzaridis, have proffered specific theological treatises on its genesis and meaning, to date only Russell has undertaken such a critical historical survey, accounting for its appearance across the tradition – Greek, Latin, and Syriac – so effectively in a single volume. In dissecting it as an idea, though, and exploring how it develops in history, he also names a principle at the very heart of deification which happens to represent the single most prominent idea in the Laterculus: the ‘exchange formula’, the notion that God became as we are in order that we might become as He is.

The ‘exchange formula’, which first appears in the preface of Book Five of Irenaeus’ Adverses Haereses, and is then taken up by Athanasius in de Incarnatione and elsewhere, becoming a leitmotif of soteriological discourse in East and West (even if significant differences existed between them in terms of how it was developed), represents a theological interpretation of the Pauline principle of anakephalaiosis, or recapitulation. This principle posits that, in light of Adam’s failure as prototype, all a human being experiences bears the mark of failure. It takes Christ then, as New Adam and perfect prototype, to go through all the same experi­ences and so restore what had failed. It is this language that permeates the Laterculus, and this idea that informs even the composition of the Penitential. At least in this work – the sole explicitly theological of his known bibliography – Theodore comes across as being enam­oured with the idea. Yet even if a count of such words as restaurare and reparator across the text yields seven occurrences, Theodore’s interest in portraying Christ as restorer is established in more than technical terms. So, for example, his account of the Nativity narrative in chapter 14 uses neither of the above terms explicitly, but begins, in somewhat chiasmic fashion, with kenosis (Christ in the manger, as ‘food for the draughts animals’) and ends with restorative purpose (by which Christ, the paterfamilias of the apostles, directs the apostles in their task of feeding the world). The food becomes the feeder, granting to the fed what they need in order that they might live. The props of the Gospel story are turned into instruments of human salvation, whereby humanity is liberated from bondage, restored in the imago Dei, and led in the direction of eternal consolation, the paradisical day.

The development here is important, as it indicates something both theological and herme­neu­tical: something Daniélou described as the “Jewish-Christian” tradition. This is an early theological tradition associated with specific authors of the Semitic near east, generally Greek, but sometimes Syriac in language, and bearing the marks of Semitic thought and Semitic hermeneutics. Among the authors and works that match this description are Aphrahat and Ephrem the Syrian from within the Syriac milieu, Ignatius, Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, Clement, the Didache, and Irenaeus. Each of these figures share an interest in such themes as apocalypticism, millenarianism, and the aetates mundi, all of which are paramount to Theodore in the Laterculus, all of which have been shown in some way to feed into the stream of deification.

The intervening language, meanwhile, is also of immense significance.

Beginning and ending as it does in eucharistic metaphor, the middle of chapter 14 is filled in with the healing imagery of Christ often associated with Ephrem the Syrian, whose influence on Theodore was considerable. Of the infant in the manger Theodore declares, ‘Truly by his garments he is humbled, undergoing our trials; and so applying bandages to us, he produced remedies for our wounds.’ Not only does this connect Theodore with a particularly Eastern conception of Christ (Ambrose and Augustine, for example, when using Christus medicus imagery, apply it exclusively to the sin of the individual; simply put, between East and West, there is humanitashomines division), it weaves the language of restoration together with healing in a way reminiscent of Gregory Nazianzen: ‘That which is not taken up is not healed’ (Ep. 101:32). And although Gregory was here more concerned with illustrating the importance of the fullness of Christ’s humanity – a concern that Theodore would certainly have shared as a participant in the monothelete controversy – the convergence of imagery is both propitious and something that will find increasing traction over subsequent centuries, leading, as it does, toward a fuller, deifying, soteriology.

How does this all coalesce in a single, theological picture we might call Theodore’s Chris­tology? Above all, brightly. For Theodore seems fundamentally optimistic when it comes to God’s forgiveness in Christ. Not so concerned with the sins of individuals – none of which, as he demonstrates in the Penitential, are beyond the threshold of grace – he is instead interested in the bigger picture of what God accomplishes for humanity. This, he asserts across his principal work, is healing and restoration, and by framing it in language of aetates mundi, the historico-eschatological structure that necessarily concludes with the eighth age – that is, the eternal Sabbath, the day of paradise – he gives it a cosmic implica­tion. ‘For Theodore, restoration means the enjoyment of the Sabbath, as the consumma­tion of the divine operation – the ongoing work of creation and re-creation – the ultimate work of God: Et tunc vere sabbatizabunt iusti cum Domino et diem primam fit octavam in resurrec­tionem sanctorum’ (James Siemens, The Christology of Theodore of Tarsus, p. 80). His Christology then, is about a generous, healing Word that restores humanity to its original, iconographic, purpose. Meanwhile, lacking in the speculative depth of someone like his famous contemporary and fellow conciliar alumnus in Rome, Maximus the Confessor, Theodore’s thought nonetheless merges naturally with the doctrine of deification as developed across the Greek tradition whence he originally emerged. Indeed, drawing on Syriac, Greek, and Latin sources and vocabulary, Theodore might best be described as a synthesiser for whom notions of Christ and his restorative work had ultimately to be applied in the office of archbishop, the classroom, and the (proverbial) confessional, as healing balm for the soul.

Yet even if reading the Laterculus on its own tenders a remarkable picture of Theodore’s Christology, it is the fact that his assumptions and understandings are sustained across all his work – the Commentaries, the Penitential, and even the English councils over which he presided – that lends it further weight. Irenaeus, the Cappadocians, John Chrysostom, Ephrem the Syrian, Sophronius of Jerusalem, among others, all make an appearance in his writings, and while his marked desire is to remain in good stead with the teaching of the universal Church, it is important that his predominant christological influences and vocab­ulary are expressive of his formation in the Eastern Mediterranean world. In the end, though, it must be admitted that what we get from Theodore is not the profound philo­soph­ical Christology of someone like Maximus the Confessor; as something altogether more homely, it is unlikely to earn treatment in a dedicated volume on the Fathers. Rather, it is a Christology born of decades spent in study of the dominant disciplines of late antique Constantinople, formed within the Church, and applied to pastoral context. What it contains is a view of wounded humanity in need of healing, met by Christ the Physician who, in response, recapitulates all human experience in order that humanity might be restored. Perhaps most telling, though, is that Theodore does not leave ‘restora­tion’ unexplained. Indeed, it is not merely a re-introduction to some pre-lapsarian state; rather, is to a paradisical day, an eternal sabbath, an eternal day beyond the ages of the world, and it is perfection. At no point does Theodore of Tarsus use the words ‘deification’ or ‘theosis’ for Christ and what he accomplishes for humanity, but he almost certainly means it, and on this basis at least, he is worth extracting from the archives, blowing off the dust, and getting to know first-hand.

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Fr James Siemens is a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest in Wales whose PhD on Theodore of Tarsus, completed in 2008, was published as The Christology of Theodore of Tarsus. Affiliated with Cardiff University, his work since has explored questions around early Christian historiography and eschatology, as well as Anglo-Saxon penitential practice. He was elected as a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2012, and is currently working in cooperation to develop a new centre for theological education based in the UK.

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1 Response to Introducing St Theodore of Tarsus

  1. I am deeply grateful to you both for posting this remarkable brief essay and for introducing me to the work of Father Siemens. I was aware of St Theodore as a key figure in the early church history of my country but, to my shame and regret, I had no idea of his theological influence.

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