Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, was bound by ties of close friendship both to Theodoret and to John, patriarch of Antioch. In August, 430, the western bishops, under the presidency of the Pope Celestine, assembled in council at Rome, condemned Nestorius, and threatened him with excommunication. Shortly afterwards a council of Orientals at Alexandria, summoned by Cyril, endorsed this condemnation and despatched it to Constantinople. Then John received from Celestine and Cyril letters announcing their common action. When the couriers conveying these communications reached Antioch they found John surrounded by Theodoret and other bishops who were assembled possibly for the ordination of Macarius, the new bishop of Laodicea. John took counsel with his brother bishops, and a letter was despatched in their common name to Nestorius, exhorting him to accept the term theotokos, round which the whole war waged; pointing out the sense in which it could not but be accepted by every loyal Christian, and imploring him not to embroil Christendom for a word. This letter has been generally attributed to Theodoret. But while the conciliatory sage of Cyrus was endeavouring to formulate an Eirenicon, the ardent Egyptian made peace almost impossible by the publication of his famous anathematisms. John and his friends were distressed at the apparent unorthodoxy of Cyril's condemnation of Nestorius, and asked Theodoret to refute Cyril. The strong language employed in Letter CL. conveys an idea of the heat of the enthusiasm with which Theodoret entered on the task, and his profound conviction that Cyril, in blind zeal against imaginary error on the part of Nestorius, was himself falling headlong into the Apollinarian pit. An eager war of words now waged over Nestorius between Cyril and Theodoret, each denouncing the other for supposed heresy on the subject of the incarnation; and, with deep respect for the learning and motives of Theodoret, we may probably find a solution of much that he said and did in the fact that he misunderstood Nestorius as completely as he did Cyril. Cyril, nursed in the synthetic principles of the Alexandrian school, could see only the unity of the two natures in the one Person. To him, to distinguish, as the analysis of Theodoret distinguished, between God the Word and Christ the Man, was to come perilously near a recognition of two Christs, keeping up as it were a mutual dialogue of speech and action. But Cyril's unqualified assertion that there is one Christ, and that Christ is God, really gave no ground for the accusation that to him the manhood was an unreality. Yet he and Theodoret were substantially at one. Theodoret's failure to apprehend Cyril's drift was no doubt due less to any want of intelligence on the part of the Syrian than to the overbearing bitterness of the fierce Egyptian.
On the other hand Theodoret's loyal love for Nestorius led him to give his friend credit for meaning what he himself meant. While he was driven to contemplate the doctrines of Cyril in their most dangerous exaggeration, he shrank from seeing how the Nestorian counter statement might be dangerously exaggerated. Theodoret, as Dr. Bright remarks, |uses a good deal of language which is prima facie Nestorian; his objections are pervaded by an ignoratio elenchi, and his language is repeatedly illogical and inconsistent; but he and Cyril were essentially nearer to each other in belief than at the time they would have admitted, for Theodoret virtually owns the personal oneness and explains the phrase God assumed man' by He assumed manhood.'| Cyril |in his letter to Euoptius earnestly disclaims both forms of Apollinarianism -- the notion of a mindless manhood in Christ and the notion of a body formed out of Godhead. In his reply (on Art iv.) he admits the language appropriate to each nature.|
Probably both the Egyptian and the Syrian would have found no difficulty in subscribing the language of our own judicious divine; |a kind of mutual commutation there is whereby those concrete names, God and Man, when we speak of Christ, do take interchangeably one another's room, so that for truth of speech it skilleth not whether we say that the Son of God hath created the world and the Son of Man by his death hath saved it or else that the Son of Man did create, and the Son of God died to save the world. Howbeit, as oft as we attribute to God what the manhood of Christ claimeth, or to man what his Deity hath right unto, we understand by the name of God and the name of Man neither the one nor the other nature, but the whole person of Christ, in whom both natures are. When the Apostle saith of the Jews that they crucified the Lord of Glory, and when the Son of Man being on earth affirmeth that the Son of Man was in heaven at the same instant, there is in these two speeches that mutual circulation before mentioned. In the one there is attributed to God or the Lord of Glory death, whereof divine nature is not capable; in the other ubiquity unto man, which human nature admitteth not. Therefore by the Lord of Glory we must needs understand the whole person of Christ, who being Lord of Glory, was indeed crucified, but not in that nature for which he is termed the Lord of Glory. In like manner by the Son of Man the whole person of Christ must necessarily be meant, who being man upon earth, filled heaven with his glorious presence, but not according to that nature for which the title of Man is given him. Without this caution the Fathers whose belief was divine and their meaning most sound, shall seem in their writing one to deny what another constantly doth affirm. Theodoret disputeth with great earnestness that God cannot be said to suffer. But he thereby meaneth Christ's divine nature against Apollinarius, which held even Deity itself passible. Cyril on the other side against Nestorius as much contendeth that whosoever will deny very God to have suffered death doth forsake the faith. Which notwithstanding to hold were heresy, if the name of God in this assertion did not import as it doth the person of Christ, who being verily God suffered death, but in the flesh, and not in that substance for which the name of God is given him.|
As to the part played by Theodoret throughout the whole controversy we may conclude that though he had to own himself beaten intellectually, yet the honours of the moral victory remain with him rather than with his illustrious opponent. Not for the last time in the history of the Church a great duel of dialectic issued in a conclusion wherein of the champion who was driven to say, |I was wrong,| the congregation of the faithful has yet perforce felt that he was right.
The end is well known. Theodosius summoned the bishops to Ephesus at the Pentecost of 431. There arrived Cyril with fifty supporters early in June; there arrived Theodoret with his Metropolitan Alexander of Hierapolis, in advance of the rest of the Orientals. The Cyrillians were vainly entreated to wait for John of Antioch and his party, and opened the Council without them. When they arrived they would not join the Council, and set up their own |Conciliabulum| apart. Under the hot Levantine sun of July and August the two parties denounced one another on the one side for not accepting the condemnation of Nestorius, which the Cyrillians had passed in the beginning of their proceedings, on the other for the informality and injustice of the condemnation. Then deputies from the Orientals, of whom Theodoret was one, hurried to Constantinople, but were allowed to proceed no further than Chalcedon. The letters written by Theodoret at this time to his friends among the bishops and at the court, and his petitions to the Emperor, leave a vivid impression of the zeal, vigour and industry of the writer, as well as of the extraordinary literary readiness which could pour out letter after letter, memorial after memorial, amid all the excitement of controversy, the weariness of travel, the sojourning in strange and uncomfortable quarters, and the tension of anxiety as to an uncertain future.
Though Nestorius was deposed his friends protested that they would continue true to him, and Theodoret was one of the synod held at Tarsus, and of another at Antioch, in which the protest against Cyril's action was renewed. But the oriental bishops were now themselves undergoing a process of scission, John of Antioch and Acacius of Beroea heading the peacemakers who were anxious to come to terms with Cyril, while Alexander of Hierapolis led the irreconcilables. Intellectually Theodoret shrank from concession, but his moral instincts were all in favour of peace. He himself drew up a declaration of faith which was presented by Paul of Emesa to Cyril, which Cyril accepted. But still true to his friend, Theodoret refused to accept the deposition of Nestorius and his individual condemnation, and it was not till several years had elapsed that, moved less by the threat of exile and forfeiture, as the imperial penalty for refusing to accept the position, than by the entreaties of his beloved flock and of his favourite ascetic solitaries that he would not leave them, Theodoret found means of attaching a meaning to the current anathemas on Nestorianism, not, as he said, on Nestorius, which allowed him to submit. He even entered into friendly correspondence with Cyril. But the truce was hollow. Cyril was indignant to find that Theodoret still maintained his old opinions. At last the protracted quarrel was ended by Cyril's death in June, 444.
On the famous letter over which so many battles of criticism have been fought we have already spoken. If it was really written by Theodoret, to which opinion my own view inclines, there is no reason why we should damn it as |a coarse and ferocious invective.| If genuine, it was clearly a piece of grim pleasantry dashed off in a moment of excitement to a personal friend, and never intended for the publicity which has drawn such severe blame upon its writer.
But though the death of Cyril might appear to bring relief to the Church and Empire as well as to his individual opponents, it was by no means a ground of unmixed gratification to Theodoret. Dioscorus, who succeeded to the Patriarchate of Alexandria, however Theodoret in the language of conventional courtesy may speak of the new bishop's humble mindedness, inherited none of the good qualities of Cyril and most of his faults. Theodoret, naturally viewed with suspicion and dislike as the friend and supporter of Nestorius, gave additional ground for ill-will and hostility by action which brought him into individual conflict with Dioscorus. He accepted the synodical letters issued at Constantinople at the time of Proclus, and so seemed to lower the dignity of the apostolic sees of Antioch and Alexandria; he also warmly resented the tyrannical treatment of his friend Irenæus, bishop of Tyre. Irenæus had indeed in the earlier days of his banishment to Petra after his first condemnation in 435 attacked Theodoret for not being thoroughly Nestorian, but Theodoret was able to claim Irenæus as not objecting to the crucial term theotokos, reasonably understood, and accepted him as unquestionably orthodox. When therefore Dioscorus, the Archimandrite Eutyches, and his godson the eunuch Chrysaphius attacked Domnus for consecrating Irenæus to the Metropolitan see of Tyre, Theodoret indignantly protested and counselled Domnus as to how he had best reply. But Dioscorus and his party had now the ear, and guided the fingers, of the imperial weakling at Constantinople, and the deposition of Irenæus (Feb.17, 448) was followed after a year's successful intrigues by the autograph edict of Theodosius confining Theodoret within the limits of his own diocese as a vexatious and turbulent busybody.