Some reflections on Theodore Abu Qurrah’s writings (Part 2): “On Salvation in Christ”

Saint Theodore the Sabbaite, Bishop of Edessa

In my previous post I went through some of St Theodore’s arguments for finding the true religion through one’s intellect. Here we will cover his second Arabic treatise, On Salvation in Christ while adding some comments. As before the reader is requested to consult the original work for fuller argumentation.

Law in Moses

St Theodore begins by discussing the “heart” of the Law.

“On Mount Sinai the God sent down the Law to Moses. In it he laid obligations for mankind and set punishments for those who transgress the limits. Among the commandments is the demand to love God fully with one’s entire mind, and with one’s entire soul, and with one’s entire will. In this, God demonstrated that He did not allow man to leave off anything which He had given them the ability to do. He would also not be pleased with them if they abandoned anything from the Law – small or great – or did not do so in love towards Him. Because God demanded that man, in serving Him, should be obedient according to all his capability, and that man should strive towards Him with all his strength. those who have been internally developed must confess that if anyone, even for the blink of an eye, falls short of obedience to God, cannot in any way fix it.”

The argument is simple, man was called to fulfill the Law (especially its core, love of God) in perfection. Of course, man failed. However, as St Theodore points, hypothetically, man could have fulfilled the commandments.

What about repentance?

St Theodore anticipates an objection and replies it:

“Perhaps one will say: “I can escape the punishment of my disobedience through repentance (tawbah).” Tell me: in your time of repentance are you able to surpass your capabilities in love and obedience to God? Undoubtedly they’ll say “no”. So we tell him: “So you are not able to surpass your strength in obedience to God even in your state of repentance. Yet the Law requires you to be at the edge of your capability and to keep it at good condition at all times. Because of this, even during repentance, you’re not able to do what is requested of you [TN: in the Law, before repentance]. Even if you reached the height of obedience – although the habit of sin has rooted itself in you as you voluntarily subjected yourself to its temptation, that this is extremely difficult nor do I believe it to be possible – and even if you were perfectly obedient, even then could not rid yourself even of the smallest stain of your earlier sins [TN: possibly original sin?]. Nor is there any doubt that you’ll face punishment for your earlier sins as well. You cannot remove the punishment by any means.”

Such a strict view might surprise some. However, St Theodore goes on to offer justifications.

“Someone has said – he ought not to be be counted among the wise – that God does not require anyone to strive in full capability of our strength in obedience to God. This is hard to understand. If it was so, he should say that God is pleased with humans in them spending some of their capability to serve the Devil and obedience to their own corrupted lusts and desires. Far is this from God, that He would ever be pleased with this for His creation! If God was pleased with such, He should condemn His creation to damnation and allow the Devil to be a part of the worship that is offered by His creation. Nothing like this comes from God, may He be blessed and glorified. So sin remains and the punishment is unavoidable.”

In short, if God was to overlook our disobedience, it would mean He accepts us spending our capability in worship of Satan and our desires.

“All in all, us humans can await from God one of two things: either God forgives our sin freely without any consequences and cancels the consequence of the sin by His mercy, or He justly demands us for a payment, so we end up in eternal perdition. “

He then goes on to say that both of these explanations have shortcomings.

“What if one says God will nullify the consequences of the Law mercifully, but He does this without any just cause? The one claiming this makes the Law of God meaningless and makes God into a loafer, Who sets a Law but does not require any consequences for its breaking. Far is from God that He would ever do things needlessly or set things without a reason! Man has no way to escape sin but there being a just cause, in which the Law is upheld. In addition one claiming this must conclude that no one would be left without forgiveness from Him…we could all meaninglessly follow our desires wildly and to enjoy the world and its uselessness with our friends. Far is from God that He would abandon His servants into such carelessness and to lead them into such a station. This would be the worst possible condition and far as possible from being pleasing to Him. It is unavoidable that man reaches the pleasure of God and forgiveness of crimes and their consequences through a just cause….those who trust in repentance will be ashamed because of their past sins and because they were imperfect in obedience to God and in loving Him, which united to them (as commands) in the giving of the Law…”

In summary, the Law demanded following and loving God in perfection, which is extremely difficult (it seems St Theodore doesn’t consider it utterly impossible but “doubtful”. Still, this clearly leaves man in a conundrum, which St Theodore goes on to answer in the rest of the treatise. The overall argument brings to mind some of the theories of atonement envisioned by later Protestants (although the Orthodox tradition doesn’t completely discount it, which I may cover in a future post)

Salvation in the Son

“We say [as a solution]: the Eternal Son, Who is begotten from God before all time, being of His essence (jawhar) and equal to Him. In His mercy He descended among the descendants of Adam…He took a body from Mary, which He molded for Himself, and an intellect (‘aql), and a soul (nafs). He became incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. He came into the world to condescend, to face the punishment which each of us had deserved because of our sins: strikes, humiliation, the cross and death. If He had not become incarnate, He would not have had a way to experience pain, as in His divine nature He was invisible, incorporeal and untouchable and couldn’t be touched by pain, suffering and agony. In the incarnation He opened Himself to the opportunity to undergo such agonies by subjecting His body to face them. He gave His back to scourging, His head to be struck, His face to be spat upon, His hands and feet to be nailed, His side to be pierced by a lance. In His body He suffered these agonies truly, but it did not harm His divine nature. Thus He accomplished our salvation. As the prophet Isaiah said in Christ speaking through him: “I was obedient, I did not hesitate, I offered My back for scourging and My cheeks for blows, I did not hide My face from the shame of spitting”. (Isaiah 50:5-6)…[quoting Isaiah 53]…Thus Isaiah spoke seeing Him take flesh and hiding the glory of His divinity, so that Satan would be emboldened against Him and the Jews, as a nation which obeyed Satan, would crucify Him”

St Theodore goes on to quote other Old Testament witnesses (Psalm 23 (22 LXX), Zechariah 12:10) and then says:

“Through Him alone we receive forgiveness of sin. Through His suffering alone we are released from the punishment we deserve for our sins…”

One might speculate why St Theodore is adopting such a view of atonement in contrast to the pre-Islamic Greek patristic tradition which frequently stressed the incarnation as healing human nature and its focus towards deification (although it seems St Theodore considered theosis a major part of salvation as shown in in the previous treatise). My personal opinion is that this is a rhetorical move to counter Islamic apologetics towards mere repentance (keeping in mind St Theodore does not mention Islam directly very often in his Arabic writings, yet is clearly interacting with Muslim claims). The incarnation is necessary because only in Christ perfect obedience to the Law can be found according to St Theodore.

Dialogue in Heaven

St Theodore then gives a lengthy, imaginative, monologue from the Father towards the Son before the incarnation:

I see Adam, who is in Our image and in Our likeness, having moved to the subjection of sin with his descendants…the sin which is forceful upon them has removed the state of blessedness for which they were created….the Law cannot be made null….come, take a Body for Yourself, show Yourself in the world, and subject Yourself to those punishments which humans have deserved with their sins. May they come upon You, so that in You purification and forgiveness of sin comes upon those who offer Your sufferings to Me against their sin. They will receive release from every punishment which they deserve according to My Law…thus You have filled the requirement of the Law without the Law being made useless and void…You have prepared…healing of their natures…offering them such forgiveness which they may receive without difficulty through faith in You…for You, My Son, are My equal and of My essence….nothing can approach the glory of Your divinity. So when once and for all You have faced the sufferings which each of them deserves countless times, You have fulfilled the requirements of the Law on their part and even far more.”

It’s interesting that St Theodore uses words “without difficulty”, which seems to be an implicit reference to his perceived lacking in grace and the the difficulty of the Islamic concept of repentance and the superiority of the sacrificial offering of Christ.

The Offering

After this, St Theodore presents an Old Testament case for the above:

The Law of Moses also says: “sins are forgiven through an offering” (cf. Leviticus 4:20, 31, 36). This refers to the offering of this true Lamb and not merely the animal sacrifices, which were only a prefiguration. Thus, when the blood of animals were shed in the Temple for the sake of human sins, the mystical celebration was not complete until the priest had followed the commandment to make sign of a cross with their blood above the altar of the Lord God, before the animal was offered for their sins. This was a prefiguration of the Cross of Christ, by which alone they receive forgiveness of sin…that Son was on the contrary offered for the sin of the entire world, as He is incomparably more precious as the world and everything in it…this was to fulfill the requirement of the Law…and thus the Apostle Peter speaks out in the Acts of the Apostles concerning Jesus Christ: “there is salvation in no-one else, for there is no other name given to humans under heaven by which they may have life.” (cf. 4:12)…If you hear in the divine books of the Old (Testament) or the New concerning forgiveness, mercy and or repentance, then know that this does not occur except through the Cross of Christ and the shedding of His Blood….for this reason He descended to Hades to announce to those who had died before His crucifixion, announced that He had shed His Blood on their behalf, and that those who among them believed in Him would have forgiveness of sin just as those who are living….

The reference to the sign of the cross is interesting. It refers to the motion that the priest would do upon the altar when he would apply the blood upon the horns of the altar (cf. Leviticus 4). It’s clear St Theodore follows the long patristic interpretation (going back at least as far as St Melito of Sardis who wrote a homily on Passover) that the entire Old Testament prefigured the true sacrifice of the Son of God.

What about non-Christians?

St Theodore, near the end of the treatise, offers a sobering perspective on the faith of the non-Christians:

As we now – being community of Christians – offer the sufferings of that Son, we are guaranteed forgiveness for our sin, and we are protected from the punishment….as for those who aren’t Christians, those who do not offer the sufferings of Christ for their sin, shall die in their sin. Christ said to the Jews: “Truly, I tell you, unless you believe, you will die in your sin”. (cf. John 8:24)…All this Christ has done for us, having undergone crucifixion and sufferings for our sake in His Body, which He took from the Most-Pure Mary. This is why His proclamation is called “the Gospel” (Injil), that is, good news (bashara): it proclaims to humans that Christ has saved them from that which no one was able to save themselves.

Conclusion

In summary, we can see that St Theodore’s argument focuses heavily on how the offering of the Divine Son is a superior way of forgiveness to mere repentance (the term tawbah very strongly points to him speaking against Islam). It seems to me this move towards a substitutionary offering contra the normative Eastern exegesis – which stressed the healing of humanity in the Person of Christ – was specifically to counter Muslim claims. It also helps illustrate for Eastern Christians that “penal substitutionary atonement” isn’t wholly rejected in Orthodox exegesis, rather its wrong application or a sole focus on it, rather, deification is the ultimate goal of humanity. In the next part of the series, we shall cover the treatise On the Incarnation of God.

I leave you with these beautiful words by St Theodore at his conclusion to the present treatise.

“We beg Christ to purify our intention, so that our love for Him will be perfected in truth, and that we keep [the union] between us as it was during baptism, and we do not exchange for sin that which we received through His sufferings, or unworthily eat His Flesh or drink His Blood…we beg Him not to turn away from us as He promised us in the Gospel (Matthew 28:20). May He beautify our lives with His principles, which give life to our souls, so that we may share in His Kingdom as He allows us to share in His sufferings… We pray that He allows us not to give in to our desires and lusts…in His Providence may He guide us to achieve bliss and rest, rejoicing in Him. To Him be glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit unto eternity. Amen”

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Some reflections on Theodore Abu Qurrah’s writings (Part 2): “On Salvation in Christ”

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