Some reflections on Theodore Abu Qurrah’s writings (Part 1): “Finding the true religion through intellect”

I’ve recently been reading Theodore Abu Qurrah’s (canonized under Saint Theodore of Edessa) writings on Islam and Christianity. Theodore is widely known as the first Christian author to compose a systematic defense of Christianity in the face of Islam (also the first to write in Arabic), and as far I’m aware the first Chalcedonian writer to do so (Saint John of Damascus lists Islam among recent heresies in the early 700’s but he did not interact with the religion in any great depth). Theodore composed multiple treatises specifically dealing with Islam (although often speaking of the religion or Muhammad rather generally to avoid inciting charges of blasphemy against him). Among the treatises he composed in Arabic are On Finding The True Religion Through Intellect, On Salvation in Christ, On the Incarnation of God, On Demonstrating that God has a Son, Christianity is from God, On the Nature of the True Religion, On the Confirmation of the Proof of the Gospel, and On the Trinity.

Here I’ll reflect on the first of these and offer St Theodore’s argument as to why Christianity is the only religion which agrees with the intellect. This is however only an extremely abridged summary of the full argument, for which the reader is advised to consult the text itself (link).

The Sick Son

St Theodore begins his treatise On Finding The True Religion Through Intellect by giving a (hypothetical?) story concerning his various travels among various religious groups after having grown in isolation on a mountain, seeking to find which religion is true. He encounters pagans, Marcionites, Manicheans, Zoroastrians, Muslims, Jews and Christians among others. Each religion claims to be correct. In the hypothetical story the “traveler” (St Theodore) notices each religion has some similarities, yet many differences:

“They each agreed there is a God, there are things forbidden and things allowed, and that there is reward and punishment, with one or two exceptions. They disagreed on the attributes of their gods, what is forbidden and allowed, and the nature of the reward and punishment.”

He further reasons that the nature of God “seems to be good and gracious”, God didn’t leave mankind astray but sent them messengers and books. St Theodore gives a lengthy analogy of a king, who was never seen by his subjects aside from a few extremely close friends. The king’s son got sick and the king wrote a letter in which he describes himself, the son’s disease and its causes and the medicine. He sent the letter to his son, and gave him a doctor as an assistant, (neither of which has never seen him!). He sent the letter with a messenger. However the king had many enemies which also sent messengers. each claiming to represent the king, and each falsified the the three things the king mentioned in the letter so each letter had contradictory claims. The son confided in the doctor, and the doctor reasoned that as the son of the father, he will resemble him, the true letter will likewise direct the son to health and forbid him from things which further the disease, and will describe the medicine correctly so the son will be healed. They compare the contradictory letters. The doctor makes the identification on the basis of the letter which best described the king’s characteristics because of filial resemblance. St Theodore then states:

“This worried king is God – may He be glorified and exalted! His son is Adam and his descendants, the doctor is the intellect (‘aql) which God gave to Adam, through which he can know God. With it he can understand and do that which is good, and understand and refuse evil, disobedience of the doctor and the sickness of the son is the fall of man into sin, movement from Paradise to earth, and the degradation of the mind to the level of life, like that of animals. The sending of the messenger represents the true messenger with a book. In it He describes His attributes truthfully according to which He must be served. In it, He forbids them from all sort of evil, and asks them to do good in this world….we should act as that wise doctor, put the books aside and ask with our intellect, how can we know the characteristics of God, which our senses and our intellects cannot [fully] grasp, what is good and what is bad, what is blameworthy and what is beautiful, and what is the eternal rewards He gives us, their goodness and [what is] sorrow.”

Adam as exemplar and image of God

After this St Theodore turns his attention to Adam. He reasons that our intellect can see in ourselves “the best qualities of the invisible God” although the “divine qualities are more sublime and utterly different”:

“We can give the following illustration: no one can see their own face in themselves, but only the reflection of their likeness. For example, when gazing in the mirror, a man sees his own face as a reflection. It is clear he has not seen as he is in himself with all his attributes and properties, but a mere reflection…in the same way we can note that when we look at Adam’s nature with our intellect and point out its virtues, we can see God in it and receive true knowledge concerning Him – although He is more exalted and something utterly different – it is similar to the face in itself and its reflection in the mirror.”

St Theodore goes on to point out the comparison is imperfect because human weaknesses are not found in God, because they do not originate in Him. Theodore also makes an interesting ontological argument: If Adam exists, the One Who caused his existence must also necessarily exist. He also goes on to compare Adam as living, knowing, and listing many other virtues and thus finding them in God (whilst constantly pointing out that human imperfections are not found in God).

Most interestingly, St Theodore makes a comparison between the Trinity and Adam:

“Adam also has other, more exalted, virtues. These reflect God just as the other virtues we examined and concluded we can see God having such virtues. I am now talking of birth (wilada), emergence (inbithaq) and headship (ri’asa). We can see that something which is of one nature with Adam has been born and emerged from him. We also see that his relation to these is as head. Adam is begetter and head to those who are from him. and hence the One Who made him into a begetter and a head, must Himself be Begetter and Head in relation to Those resembling Him exactly. In the case of God this is by necessity in a more exalted and ineffable manner…”

After pointing out that these relations in God aren’t at all like in humans but that the begetting of the Son and the procession of the Spirit from the Father are ineffable, St Theodore makes a fascinating counter and a response:

“What if someone says that Adam doesn’t have an analogy with God with regards to begetting, emergence and headship but has with these other, lesser virtues?…If Adam (human) was not a begetter, he would not have the joy of life, no headship (ri’asa)..or any other virtue, his joy would be with donkeys and other animals…each of Adam’s virtues has its origins in (its absolute sense) God. These cannot be denied from God, and if you agree with this, then begetting, which is the most noblest of virtues, must exist in God and cannot be denied. Otherwise Adam would be better than God, having two virtues which God doesn’t have, namely headship and begetting.”

(NB: it seems to me the usage of “headship” corresponds to the usage of the Father being the “origin” of the Son and the Spirit in Greek patristic theology)

Other virtues of the true religion examined

After a lengthy discussion on Adam, St Theodore moves to the other points of examination. namely how to live a virtuous life and to avoid evil whilst doing good. He makes an argument for selflessness:

“If someone is perfectly virtuous, he will love all people. Who acts like this resembles God. Namely that God – glorified is He – does not want anything to Himself from this world, overlooks those who are evil towards Him, and is merciful to those who lie about Him. He gives His goodness to those who are undeserving of it, with open hand He gives to regular people everything in the world. He does not favor the righteous at the expense of the unrighteous, but His goodness flows equally to all. “

Because our virtues are ultimately rooted in God, our behavior should reflect the selflessness of God . This comparison between God and man is fascinating (all Abrahamic religions affirm man is in the image of God, but this is mainly stressed in Christianity). St Theodore also highlights the natural human desire to move towards God (calling them “more noble desires), the top of such desires is God Himself:

“Each of us desires life which is eternal and free of anxiety…we may conclude that the core of all such desires is God – may He be exalted and glorified…He gives Himself to us, so that we will live with Him and touch Him. We partake of His joy and blessedness through our longing (to be with Him). This is the desire of our soul, the completion of all happiness and fulfillment of our longing.”

This is also the basis for the blessedness of those in Paradise, according to St Theodore our inner desire is eternal life, free of corruption, which points that our soul has a natural desire to move towards God, Who is Incorruptible Life. He moves from this to theosis but I won’t cover it here.

Putting theory to practice

From here, St Theodore puts the theory to use and – unsurprisingly – concludes only the Gospel confirms these points at a fundamental level.

“These [other religions] describe their gods in earthly manners, not from God. The Gospel alone is from God. We know this from it offering us what our own nature has taught us in it being in the likeness of God….Christ taught His disciples to do what is allowed, leave what is forbidden, and being perfect in goodness…if someone has perfected love towards those who hate them, doesn’t allow himself to take revenge on those who wrong them and forgives, repays evil with good, loves his enemy and imitates God, the peak of all goodness and virtue, he becomes His child and is the noblest of all people. Such a one has removed sickness from his nature and has made it completely healthy, which is according to our natural teaching…other religions have allowed their adherents to take hold of the world and its amusements, they have corrupted their nature thoroughly by forbidding it from loving its Creator and one another…they did not do anything virtuous, but only revenge and requiring recompense, like wild beasts….they treat others badly, but cannot handle bad treatment. If they are struck, they kill. Nor are they satisfied with this but take their swords and go to those who have done no harm against them, and kill them and take them as their bounty. “

St Theodore goes on to quote a florilegium of Biblical texts to demonstrate each of these virtues and points (perfection, loving our enemy, union with God, God as Trinity etc) from the Gospels.

A potential Old Testament objection

Interestingly, St Theodore raises an objection: “In your description of such virtues as confirmed by the Gospel alone, you’ve denied Moses as a messenger, as he brought something which was sinful and lacking.” Theodore’s reply is simple: “we believe in Moses because the Gospel confirms him” (interestingly an admission that the religion of Moses wasn’t perfected in itself, but this hardly proves to be an issue in light of Christian view of development which can also say that the Mosaic law was understood more in depth as time went on and its understanding was perfected in the incarnation as was always the plan). He also goes on to say that no religion could be accepted on mere intellect alone apart from Christianity on the basis of the “natural teaching” embedded in human nature.

“We can also discover in the Gospel why Moses was sent with such a lacking religion….the reason was the weakness of man”. (cf. Matthew 19:8?)


From above we can see that St Theodore’s apologetic argument is heavily focused on human nature itself. There are obviously theological questions left unanswered, for example, the effect of the Fall (he doesn’t address whether the properties of Adam as is relate to the Fall or not). But to me it seems largely valid in light of man being in the image and likeness of God (both Islam and Christianity affirm man is in the image of God). The incisive question is: if man is truly in the divine image, isn’t the proper conclusion to say man also possesses those properties which God has (by analogy)? One can also see how he values certain virtues (there is of course a degree of subjectivity here but it seems both sides affirmed the goodness of God and the innate human desire to do good to others), which for St Theodore reflects the selflessness of God, so that God even goes so far as to unite humanity with Himself.

In the next part of this series we will consider St Theodore’s argument in On Salvation in Christ.

Some reflections on Theodore Abu Qurrah’s writings (Part 1): “Finding the true religion through intellect”

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