Theodore of Mopsuestia, Universalist
Leader of the Nestorians
Theodore of Mopsuestia was born in Antioch, A.D. 350, and died 428 or 429. He ranked next to Origen in the esteem of the ancient church. For nearly fifty years he maintained the cause of the church in controversy with various classes of assailants, and throughout his life his orthodoxy was regarded as unimpeachable. He was bishop for thirty-six years, and died full of honors; but after he had been in his grave a hundred and twenty-five years, the church had become so corrupted by heathenism that it condemned him for heresy. He was anathematized for Nestorianism, but his Universalism was not stigmatized. His great renown and popularity must have caused his exalted views of God's character and man's destiny to prevail more extensively among the masses than appears in the surviving literature of his times.
His own words are: "The wicked who have committed evil the whole period of their lives shall be punished till they learn that, by continuing in sin, they only continue in misery. And when, by this means, they shall have been brought to fear God, and to regard him with good will, they shall obtain the enjoyment of his grace. For he never would have said, 'until thou hast paid the uttermost farthing,' unless we can be released from suffering after having suffered adequately for sin; nor would he have said, 'he shall be beaten with many stripes,' and again, 'he shall be beaten with few stripes,' unless the punishment to be endured for sin will have an end."
Views Defined by Great Scholars
Professor E. H. Plumptre writes: "Theodore of Mopsuestia teaches that in the world to come those who have done evil all their life long will be made worthy of the sweetness of the divine beauty." And in the course of a statement of Theodore's doctrine, Prof. Swete observes 2 that Theodore teaches that "the punishments of the condemned will indeed be in their nature eternal, being such as belong to eternity and not to time, but both reason and Scripture lead us to the conclusion that they will be remissible upon repentance. 'Where,' he asks, 'would be the benefit of a resurrection to such persons, if they were raised only to be punished without end?' Moreover, Theodore's fundamental conception of the mission and person of Christ tells him to believe that there will be a final restoration of all creation."3 Theodore writes on Rom. 6:6, "All have the hope of rising with Christ, so that the body having obtained immortality, thenceforward the predisposition to evil should be removed. God summed up all things in Christ as though making a concise renewal and restoration of the whole creation to him. Now this will take place in a future age, when all mankind, and all powers possessed of reason, look up to him as is right, and obtain mutual concord and firm peace."
Author of Nestorian Declarations
Theodore is said to have introduced universal restoration into the liturgy of the Nestorians, of which sect he was one of the founders. His words were translated into the Syriac, and constituted the office of devotion among that remarkable people for centuries. His works were circulated all through Eastern Asia, through which, says Neander, the Nestorians spread Christianity. This great body of Christians exerted a mighty influence until they were nearly annihilated by the merciless Tamerlane. He is still honored among the Nestorians as the "Interpreter."
In Theodore's confession of faith he says, after stating that Adam began the first and mortal state, "But Christ the Lord began the second state. He in the future, revealed from heaven, will restore us all into communion with himself. For the apostle says: 'The first man was of the earth earthly, the second man is the Lord from heaven,' that is, who is to appear hereafter thence, that he may restore all to the likeness of himself."
Dorner on Theodore
The moderate and evangelical Dorner becomes eulogistic when referring to this eminent Universalist: "Theodore of Mopsuestia was the crown and climax of the school of Antioch. The compass of his learning, his keen perception, and as we must suppose also, the force of his personal character, joined with his labors through many years as a teacher both of churches and of young and talented disciples, and as a prolific writer, gained for him the title of Magister Orientis." He "was regarded with an appreciation the more widely extended as he was the first Oriental theologian of his time." Theodore held that evil was permitted by the Creator, in order that it might become the source of good to each and all. He says:
"God knew that men would sin in all ways, but permitted this result to come to pass, knowing that it would ultimately be for their advantage. For since God created man when he did not exist, and made him ruler of so extended a system, and offered so great blessings for his enjoyment, it was impossible that he should not have prevented the entrance of sin, if he had not known that it would be ultimately for his advantage."
He also says that God has demonstrated that "the same result (that is seen in the example of Christ) shall be effected in all his creatures." God has determined "that there should be first a dispensation including evils, and that then they should be removed and universal good take their place."
He taught that Christ is an illustration of universal humanity, which will ultimately achieve his status.
Unity in Diversity
It may be mentioned that though Origen and Theodore were Universalists, they reached their conclusions by different processes. Origen exalted the freedom of the will, and taught that it could never be totally restricted, so that reformation could never be excluded from any soul. He held to man's pre-existence, and that his native sinfulness resulted from misconduct in a previous state of being. He was also extremely mystical, and allegorized and spiritualized the Scripture. Its literal meaning was in his eyes of secondary account.
Theodore, on the other hand, developed the grammatical and historical meaning of the Word, and discarded Origen's mysticism and allegorizing, and his doctrine of man's pre-existence, and instead of regarding man as absolutely free, considered him as part of a divine plan to be ultimately guided by God into holiness. Both were Universalists, but they pursued different routes to the same divine goal. It is interesting to note the emphasis the early Universalists placed upon different points. The Sibylline Oracles argued universal salvation from from the prayers of the good who could not tolerate the sufferings of the damned; Clemens Alexandrinus proved it from the remedial influence of all God's punishments; Origen urged the foregoing, but added the freedom of the will, which would ultimately embrace the good; Diodorus put it on the ground that God's mercy exceeds all the desert of sin; Theodore of Mopsuestia, that sin is an incidental part of human education, etc.
After the condemnation of Origen, Theodore and Gregory, most of their works were destroyed by their bigoted enemies. The loss to the world by the destruction of their writings is irreparable. Some of Theodore's works are thought to exist in Syriac, in the Nestorian literature. The future may recover some of them, as the recent past has rescued the Sinaitic codex, the "Book of Enoch," and other ancient manuscripts.
The liturgies of the Nestorians, largely composed by Theodore, breathe the spirit of the universal Gospel. In the sacramental liturgy he introduces Col. 1:19,20, to sustain the idea of universal restoration:
"For it pleased the Father that in him should all fullness dwell, and having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven."
The creed of the Nestorians never did, and does not in modern times, contain any recognition of endless punishment. Mosheim says: "It is to the honor of this sect that, of all the Christian residents of the East, they have preserved themselves free from the numberless superstitions which have found their way into the Greek and Latin churches."
A.D. 431, Nestorius and his followers were ex-communicated from the orthodox church for holding that Christ existed in two persons instead of two natures. They denied the accusation, but their enemies prevailed. Nestorius refused to call Mary "The Mother of God," but was willing to compromise between those who held her to be such, and those who regarded her as "Mother of man," by calling her "Mother of Christ." 8 The wonderful preservation and Christian zeal of the Nestorians under the yoke of Islam is one of the marvels of history.
The Nestorian Liturgies
The worse than heathen Athanasian creed is not contained in any Nestorian ritual. Nor is the so-called Apostles creed. But the Nicene is recognized. Among those immortalized in the "Gezza" are Gregory, Basil, Theodore or Mopsuestia, and Diodore, all Universalists. In the liturgy, said to be by Nestorius himself, but in which Theodore probably had a hand, occurs this language: "All the dead have slept in the hope of Thee, that by thy glorious resurrection Thou wouldest raise them up in glory."
Subsequent hands have corrupted the faith of Nestorius and Theodore. For example, the "Jewel," written by Mar Abd Yeshua, A.D. 1298, says that the wicked "shall remain on the earth" after the resurrection of the righteous, and "shall be consumed with the fire of remorse. This is the true Hell whose fire is not quenched and whose worm dieth not." But the earlier faith did not contain these ideas. The litany in the Khudra, for Easter eve, has these words: "O Thou Living One who descendest to the abode of the dead and preached a good hope to the souls which were detained in Sheol, we pray thee, O Lord, to have mercy upon us." "Blessed is the king who hath descended into Sheol and hath raised us up, and who, by his resurrection, hath given the promise of regeneration to the human race."
Dr. Beecher on Theodore
After giving numerous testimonials to the educational, missionary and Christian zeal of the Nestorians and other followers of Theodore, Beecher says that these advocates of ancient Restorationism were "in all other respects Orthodox," and that their views did not prevent them "from establishing wide-spread systems of education, from illuminating the Arabs, and through them the dark churches who had sunk into midnight gloom." The Universalism of Theodore was beneficial in its effects on himself and his followers. It did not "cut the nerve of missionary enterprise."
It is then apparent in the writings of the fathers, during the first centuries of the Christian Era, that whatever views they entertained on human destiny,--whether they taught endless punishment, the annihilation of the wicked, or universal salvation, they use the word aionios to describe the duration of punishment, showing that for half a millennium of years the word did not possess the sense of endlessness. And it is noticeable that there is no controversy on the apparent difference of opinion among them on the subject of man's destiny. And it is probable that many of the writers who say nothing explicit, held to the doctrine of universal restoration, as it is seen that as soon as an author unmistakably accepts endless punishment he warmly advocates it.
J.W. Hanson (Excerpt from "Universalism, the Prevailing Doctrine of the Church for its First 500 Years")