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NPNF2-03. Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, & Rufinus: Historical Writings
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VII.—The Condemnation of “the Three Chapters.”

A sketch of the life of Theodoret might well be supposed to terminate with his death. But it can hardly be regarded as complete without a brief supplementary notice of the posthumous controversy which has contributed to his fame in ecclesiastical history. The Council of Chalcedon was designed to give rest to the Church, and to undo a great wrong, and catholic common sense has since vindicated its decisions. But it was not to be supposed that the opinions and passions which had achieved a combined triumph at Ephesus in 449 would die away and disappear in consequence of the imperial and synodical action of 451. The face of the world was changing. The vandal Genseric captured and pillaged Rome. The Teutonic races were pushing to a foremost place, and accepting first of all an Arian Christianity. Clovis represented orthodoxy almost alone. Theodoric, the Arian Ostrogoth, mastered Italy. Then the turning tide saw Rome once again a city of sole empire, but not the chief city. The victories of Belisarius made of Rome a suburb of Constantinople, and empire and theology swayed and were swayed by the policy of Justinian and the palace plots of Theodora. All through monophysitism had had its friends and defenders. Metropolitans, monks, and mobs had anathematized one another for nearly a century. At Alexandria Dioscorus had won almost a local canonization, and the patriarch Timotheus, nicknamed “the Cat,” had left a strong monophysite party, consolidated under Peter the Stutterer as the “acephali.”9797    ᾽Ακέφαλοι = headless, i.e., without bishop. At Antioch Peter the Fuller had anathematized all who refused to accept the Shibboleth he appended to the Trisagion, “who wast crucified on our account.” Leo, Marcian’s successor on the Eastern throne, had followed Marcian’s theology, and Zeno, Leo; but the usurper Basiliscus had seen elements of strength in a bold bid for monophysite support. Zeno, on the fall of Basiliscus, had attempted to atone the disunited sections of Christendom by the henoticon, or edict of unity, but the henoticon had been for years a watchword of division. Anastasius had favoured the Eutychians. And in his reign Theodoret had been twice condemned, at the synods of Constantinople and Sidon, in 499 and 512.9898    Victor: Turon: and Mansi, viii. 371, Mansi, viii. 197–200.

Justin I., the unlettered barbarian, supported the Chalcedonians, but in 544 Belisarius had made the Eutychian Vigilius bishop of Rome. When Justinian aspired to become a second Constantine, and give theological as well as civil law to the world, it was proposed to condemn in a fifth œcumenical council certain so-called Nestorian writings, on the plea that such a condemnation might reconcile the opponents of Chalcedon. The writings in question were the Letter of Ibas of Edessa to Maris, praising Theodore of Mopsuestia; the works of Theodore himself, and the writings of Theodoret against Cyril. These three literary monuments were known as “the Three Chapters.”9999    Dean Milman (Lat. Christ. iv, 4), following in the wake of Gibbon, remarks that “the church was not now disturbed by the sublime, if inexplicable, dogmas concerning the nature of God, the Persons of the Trinity, or the union of the divine and human nature of Christ, concerning the revelations of Scripture, or even the opinions of the ancient fathers. The orthodoxy or heterodoxy of certain writings by bishops but recently dead became the subject of imperial edicts of a fifth so-called Œcumenic Council, held at Constantinople, and a religious war between the East and the West,” but it was on their explanation of sublime if inexplicable dogmas that the orthodoxy or heterodoxy of these bishops depended, and so far as the subject matter of dispute is concerned, the position in 553 was not very different from that of 451. In both cases the church was moved at once by honest conviction and partisan passion; the state was influenced partly by a healthy desire to promote peace through out the empire, partly by the meaner ambition of posing as theological arbitrator. Of the controversy of the Three Chapters it has been said that it “filled more volumes than it was worth lines.”100100    Gibbon, chap. xlvii. Schaff Hist. Christ. iii, 770. The Council satisfied nobody. Pope Vigilius, detained at Constantinople and Marmora with something of the same violence with which Napoleon I. detained Pius VI. at Valence, declined to preside over a gathering so exclusively oriental. The West was outraged by the constitution of the synod, irrespective of its decisions. The Monophysites were disappointed that the credit of Chalcedon should be even nominally saved by the nice distinction which damaged the writings, but professed complete agreement with the council which had refused to damn the writers. The orthodox wanted no slur cast upon Chalcedon, and, however fenced, the condemnation of the Three Chapters indubitably involved such a slur. Practically, the decrees of the fourth and fifth councils are mutually inconsistent, and it is impossible to accept both. Theodoret was reinstated at Chalcedon in spite of what he had written, and what he had written was anathematized at Constantinople in spite of his reinstatement.

The xiii Canon of the fifth Council runs as follows, “if any one defends the impious writings of Theodoret which he published against the true faith, against the first holy synod of Ephesus and against the holy Cyril and his twelve chapters; and all that he wrote in defence of the impious Theodorus and Nestorius, and others who held the same opinions as the aforesaid Theodorus and Nestorius, defending them and their impiety, and accordingly calling impious the doctors of the church who confess the union according to hypostasis of God the Word in the flesh; and does not anathematize these writings and those who have held or do hold similar opinions, above all those who have written against the true faith and the holy Cyril and his twelve chapters, and have remained to the day of their death in such impiety; let him be anathema.”

In this condemnation the works certainly included are Theodoret’s “Objections to Cyril’s Chapters,” some of his letters, and, among his lost works, the “Pentalogium,” namely five books on the Incarnation written against Cyril and his supporters at Ephesus, of which fragments are preserved, and two allocutions against Cyril delivered at Chalcedon in 431, of which portions exist in the acts of the fifth Council, and do not exhibit Theodoret at his best.

The Council has at least preserved to us an interesting little record of the survival at Cyrus of the memory of her great bishop, for it appears that at the seventh collation, held at the end of May, notice was taken of an enquiry ordered by Justinian respecting a statue or portrait of Theodoret which was said to have been carried in procession into his cathedral town, by Andronicus a presbyter and George a deacon.101101    Dean Milman (Lat. Christ. iv, 4), following in the wake of Gibbon, remarks that “the church was not now disturbed by the sublime, if inexplicable, dogmas concerning the nature of God, the Persons of the Trinity, or the union of the divine and human nature of Christ, concerning the revelations of Scripture, or even the opinions of the ancient fathers. The orthodoxy or heterodoxy of certain writings by bishops but recently dead became the subject of imperial edicts of a fifth so-called Œcumenic Council, held at Constantinople, and a religious war between the East and the West,” but it was on their explanation of sublime if inexplicable dogmas that the orthodoxy or heterodoxy of these bishops depended, and so far as the subject matter of dispute is concerned, the position in 553 was not very different from that of 451. In both cases the church was moved at once by honest conviction and partisan passion; the state was influenced partly by a healthy desire to promote peace through out the empire, partly by the meaner ambition of posing as theological arbitrator. A more important tribute to his memory is the fact that, though it officially anathematized writings some of which, composed in the thick of the fight, and soiled with its indecorous dust, Theodoret himself may well have regretted and condemned, the Council advisedly abstained from directly condemning a bishop whose character and person were protected by the notorious iniquity of the robber council that had deposed him, the friendship of the illustrious Leo, and the solemn vindication of the church in Synod at Chalcedon, as well as by his own confession of the faith, his repudiation of the errors of Nestorius, and the stainless beauty and pious close of his long life.

No better reconciliation between Chalcedon and Constantinople can be proffered than that which Garnerius quotes from the letter said to have been written by Gregory the Great, though sent in the name of Pelagius II, to the Illyrians on the fifth council, “It is the part of unwarrantable rashness to defend those writings of Theodoret which it is notorious that Theodoret himself condemned in his subsequent profession of the right faith. So long as we at once accept himself and repudiate the erroneous writings which have long remained unknown we do not depart in any way from the decision of the sacred synod, because so long as we only reject his heretical writings, we, with the synod, attack Nestorius, and with the synod express our veneration for Theodoret in his right confession. His other writings we not only accept, but use against our foes.”102102    Labbe. Act. Conc. Const. v. Coll. vii.


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