Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Christology in Theodore of Mopsuestia's Commentary on the Gospel of John

Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Christology in Theodore of Mopsuestia's Commentary on the Gospel of John

Article excerpt

THEODORE OF MOPSUESTIA'S SYRIAC Commentary on the Gospel of John comes out of the most mature period of his life. (1) The Commentary contains all the major facets of his trinitarian theology, Christology, and soteriology, especially the central roles the Holy Spirit plays in the union of Christ's nature, the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, and in forming the Body of Christ. Marco Conti's 2010 English translation of the Commentary affords many more readers access to Theodore's thought. (2) While each aspect of his thought deserves in-depth treatment, my aim here is to provide a clearer understanding of his Commentary, particularly regarding how he conceived Jesus Christ to be both human and divine within a true unity and of how his humanity plays a unique, essential role in universal salvation. (3)

I first clarify from the text what Theodore means by the principal christological terms that underpin his theological framework. I then apply this understanding of terms to those Johannine passages where he sees John presenting Christ as acting in divine and human ways, while at the same time maintaining the existence of a true unity between his two natures and their ways of acting as one prosopon. Following this, I treat the mediating roles that Theodore sees Christ's humanity playing, together with the Spirit of God, in universal salvation, especially as this closely relates to the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. I conclude by stressing the need to judge whether Theodore is orthodox or not, in light of what he wrote about the unity of Christ's natures and not to prejudge him because of his condemnation by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553.


The Fathers of Constantinople II anathematized Theodore in their fifth canon. This will serve to highlight Theodore's major christological terms:

If anyone accepts the one hypostasis of our Lord Jesus Christ in the following way as signaling many hypostaseis and then attempts to introduce two hypostaseis or two prosopa into the mystery regarding Christ, and then, after two prosopa have been introduced, speaks only about one prosopon according to dignity, honor, and worship, as Theodore and Nestorius have done in their madness, and then falsely charges that the holy Synod in Chalcedon has employed the phrase "one hypostasis" in the same sense as they have done in their impiety, without confessing that the Word of God is truly united to his flesh hypostatically--it is in this sense that the one hypostasis or the one prosopon is one (for this is how the holy Synod at Chalcedon has professed the one hypostasis of our Lord Jesus Christ)--let such a one be anathema!

Theodore's Understanding of Hypostasis and Prosopon

The Greek terms hypostasis and prosopon both express in general the idea of a "person." In his Commentary on the Gospel of John, Theodore provides insightful examples of what he means by these terms, especially when he asserts that Christ's two prosopa are united in one common prosopon. Being a true Antiochene exegete, Theodore has derived his specific meanings of these terms from a literal (5) interpretation of how John has employed them in their own contexts. The meaning of these terms were fluid in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, thus one must realize how Theodore understood them. First, since Christology has been so deeply influenced by Cyril's understanding of hypostasis, I begin with how this term is understood in general.

In ancient times it had two principal but interrelated meanings in Greek, depending on whether one derives hypostasis from the middle (hyphistamai) or the active forms of hyphistemi. (6) When used in reference to a "person" or a living thing such as a tree, and even an existing object such as the sun, the intransitive meaning adds the notion that a complete nature is an existing individual.

In his Commentary, Theodore uses hypostasis primarily in reference to human beings and members of the Trinity, as seen in the following passages. …

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