7 June 2011 • Deborah (Malacky) Belonick
Accurately chronicling bygone theological debates can be extraordinarily challenging, but our Dean, Archpriest John Behr, has proved himself worthy of the task. In May 2011, he published a landmark work, The Case Against Diodore and Theodore, which is being touted by its publisher, the prestigious Oxford University Press (OUP), as "ground-breaking" in its research. The new book is part of OUP's "Oxford Early Christian Texts" series.
Even more impressive, this is Fr. John's second book with OUP, his first being Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement, published in 2000 as part of the "Oxford Early Christian Studies" series. The publication of both titles makes Fr. John one of only two people in the world to be published in both series.
In his newly published work, Fr. John provides a complete analysis of the teachings of Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia, two key figures at the center of the Christological controversy that raged from the fourth to the sixth centuries in the Church. Most importantly, he throws down an intellectual gauntlet, deftly confronting modern scholarship with solid historical inquiry that simultaneously accords with the Orthodox Christian tradition.
Diodore and Theodore, who were posthumously condemned for their teachings at the Second Council of Constantinople (AD 553), have often been depicted by modern scholars as sympathetic characters because of their concern for the "historical Jesus" and their aversion to scriptural allegory. In his work, Fr. John presents a historical and theological analysis that completely revises modern scholarship, showing Diodore and Theodore to be outside the tradition of the Church. He does this by presenting a complete collection of the extracts of their writings—in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Armenian—some newly edited from manuscripts, and all newly translated and accompanied with an explanation of the historical context in which they were written. Although the original works of the two figures were destroyed by the Church after their condemnation, passages quoted by their supporters and opponents remain, and Fr. John uses these to state his theological case.
When asked about work involved in producing this volume, Fr. John commented that although it required great painstaking work, this meant getting involved in a level of detail that was tremendously illuminating, and that the most exciting part of it was being able to handle manuscripts that date to the very years of the controversy itself. Although this volume is intended for an academic audience, he added, the work was necessary as background preparation for the next volume of his Formation of Christian Theology series.
SVOTS Board of Trustee member Dr. Leon Lysaght, Chair of the Academic Affairs Committee and professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, lauded Fr. John's accomplishment, saying, "Once again Father John has demonstrated his pre-eminence as a patristics scholar and theologian. The writings of Diodore and Theodore have been understood to mark the fault lines that have separated Eastern Christianity. Father John’s comprehensive study provides a foundation for understanding the nature and context of the disputes arising out of scriptural interpretations that have been a source of contention within the Churches of the Orthodox East. His careful and comprehensive analysis will define the agenda for discussion among the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches for generations.
"This monumental work," he continued, "makes an important contribution to the tradition and role of St. Vladimir’s as a center for the study of Eastern Christianity. Father John’s distinctive and insightful scholarship is a remarkable demonstration and reminder of the important position that St. Vladimir’s occupies in the Orthodox Christian world. Those who support the work of St. Vladimir’s should feel enormous pride in the contribution Father John has made to Orthodox Theology and to the Seminary."
Not only is Fr. John the Dean of St. Vladimir's, but he also is Professor of Patristics at the seminary, as well as the Distinguished Lecturer in Patristics at Fordham University. His continual theological quest to answer Jesus' challenge to the Apostle Peter—"Who do men say that I am?" (Matt 16:16)—has led him to write his Formation of Christian Theology three-volume series, which catapulted him to the forefront of patristic scholarship.
Look out for his two new books coming out later this year from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: a new translation of St. Athanasius’ work On the Incarnation; and The Glory of God: A Living Human Being, a work addressed to a general audience that presents Fr. John’s insights into what it is to be a human being, supported by patristic and scriptural explorations that mark Fr. John’s research.