Theodore of Mopsuestia on Christology

Christology: Theodore of Mopsuestia

Christology: The Christological ControversyChristology: The Christological Controversy
In this article I will explain the Christology of fourth century theologian Theodore of Mopsuestia, which contrasts with the Christology of his contemporary Apollinaris of Laodicea. I will explore three aspects of Theodore’s Christology: 1) the relationship between divine and human in Christ; 2) the connection of this divine-human relationship to salvation; and 3) the mode of unity in Christ. Theodore’s Christology originates in his interpretation of John 1.14, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Parenthetical textual references are to Apollinaris’s works in The Christological Controversy (shown to the right).

Divine and Human in Christ

For Theodore, the divine and human natures are present in Christ through “indwelling,” referenced in John 1.14. Theodore explains this concept of indwelling as a special nearness of God that not all people experience (T-114, VII-2). Since indwelling is not ubiquitous to humanity, it cannot be by God’s essence or by His active operation. Both God’s essence and God’s active operation are omnipresent in creation, and so neither can be the mode of this unique nearness of God. Instead, indwelling takes place by “good pleasure,” as an act of God’s will: “By ‘good pleasure’ he is far from some and near to others (T-115, VII-2).” Furthermore, Theodore notes that there are gradations of indwelling (T-116, VII-2; T-120, VII-6), and that Christ received a special kind of indwelling, “as in a son (T-117, VII-2).” This special indwelling means that Christ’s human nature is united to God in its entirety, and thereby shares in the dignity of the divine Son (T-117, VII-2).
For Theodore, it was clear that the indwelling of Christ implied the conservation of two complete and distinct natures, both human and divine. Referring to the two natures in Christ, Theodore writes, “When we try to distinguish the natures, we say that the person of the man is complete and that that of the Godhead is complete (T-120, VIII-8).” Furthermore, he notes that indwelling does not imply a change in nature of either the Logos or the indwelt man (T-121, IX-9), and that Christ’s human will was maintained through the indwelling (T-118, VII-3). Therefore, according to Theodore, Christ is fully human, possessing both human spirit (or rational soul) and human flesh (T-59.22).

Divinity, Humanity, and Salvation

Theodore’s concept of the divine-human relationship in Christ is also connected to his soteriology. He drew an analogy between God’s relationship to Christ and God’s relationship with His redeemed. Just as God’s Spirit guides the soul of a believer now, and will perfectly govern it in the future, so the indwelling Logos guided and governed Christ. In Theodore’s words, “Therefore, just as we, if we come at last to the future state, shall be perfectly governed by the Spirit in body and soul, but now possess a kind of partial firstfruits of that condition…so also the Lord (T-117, VII-3).” By indwelling Jesus, God increasingly governed Him through the Logos, just as He increasingly governs the redeemed.

Furthermore, for Theodore the Logos had to indwell a complete man—flesh and spirit—since, by his account, the human spirit (or soul) is also a source of sin and requires redeeming. In fact, he argues that the human soul is the origin of sin: “It is indeed clear that the strength of the sin has its origin in the will of the soul. In the case of Adam also it was his soul which first accepted the advice of error and not his body (T-56.25).” Therefore, it is crucial that Christ also possess a human soul or He would not have redeemed humanity from the sins of the soul. Theodore writes: “It is with justice, therefore, that our Lord assumed the soul so that it should be first delivered from sin (T-58.3).” Theodore finds the Christology of God indwelling a complete man—body and soul—to be a necessary basis for salvation: the sins of both flesh and soul had to be overcome by God.

The Unity of Christ

For Theodore, Christ’s humanity was clear since He possessed a complete human nature, body and spirit. In his words, “the one who was assumed and in whom God the Word dwelt was a complete man, perfect in everything that belongs to human nature (T-59.22).” Moreover, Christ’s divinity was clear since He received the “whole grace of the Spirit within himself (T-120, VII-6).” Theodore clearly thought of both the divine and human natures as complete in Christ (T-120, VIII-7). The union of these two natures Theodore likened to the union of husband and wife: “Just as in the example of marriage the mention of unity of flesh is not contradicted by the duality of subjects, so in the case of Christ the personal union is not destroyed by the distinction of natures (T-120, VIII-7).” As a husband and wife remain distinct, and yet are understood as one flesh, so the two natures remain distinct in Christ, and yet unite in a single person. For Theodore, the single name, “son,” points to both the divine and human nature united in Christ (T-113, V-1).

Summing up, in contrast with Apollinaris, Theodore insisted that Christ has a complete human nature, flesh and spirit, indwelt by the divine Word. Theodore claimed that the human soul is a source of sin, and so Christ had to assume and redeem it also. Finally, Theodore likened the unity of Christ to the “one flesh” of husband and wife: each spouse is distinct, and yet together they compose a single person. So the two natures in Christ.

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