Be not glib in speaking of the fathers

As far as Presbyterian scholarship goes, Robert Letham is probably the best.   He’s actually read (if not always understood) the Church Fathers and their leading interpreters, usually going across traditions to understand them (something unheard of in Calvindom).   His book on Eastern Orthodoxy, while deeply flawed at the basic level of argumentation, is mainly  backhanded praise for Orthodoxy (I still don’t know how the Reformed church didn’t bring him up for trial for that book; Leithart has been grilled for less).

Speaking psychologically of others is dangerous, for who can see inside another’s head?  (Incidentally, that sentence refutes all of psychology as a scientific discipline; as magical arts psychology might have some validity, but not as “science”).   That said, I think I know why Letham continues these backhands of Orthodox fathers.  First, we must consider some things Letham has said.  In his other books Letham has come very close to denying the heart of Western theology: The Filioque.  He admits most of the problems in Western theology (and offers no real solution), which seems to lean him towards Orthodoxy.  Letham sees the difficulty of his position.

Anyway, to the passage in question.   It is found in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church periodical New Horizons.  Letham is offering a list of books to read on Christology.  He mentions St Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ and has this to say of Cyril, “One of the Church’s most brilliant theologians and most vicious thugs,” p.13).  I know I should be careful in speaking of elders in the Church, but should not the elders be careful in speaking of the holy fathers?

This is wrong on so many levels.  For one, I have worked with thugs and Cyril is not one of them!  If Cyril is a thug for out-politicking Nestorius, then John Calvin is a mafia don for what he did to Servetus!*  Why is Letham calling Cyril a thug?  It seems like Cyril played unfairly with Nestorius, having called a council while Nestorius was still traveling to it.  As John McGuckin makes clear, Nestorius was already summoned by the emperor and delayed leaving; therefore, Cyril was justified in his actions.

Just because Cyril looked overly efficient in marginalizing Nestorius doesn’t mean he was a thug.  Nestorius ridiculed popular piety (and Orthodox belief), used hair-splitting distinctions, and spoke on a quasi-scholastic level that few could understand.  He was destined to lose this battle.  Cyril didn’t engage in thuggery; he simply allowed Nestorius to show himself for what he really was.

*Most Orthodox people like to rail on Calvin for what he did to Servetus and Geneva.  While I have no love for Calvin or Geneva, I’m not too bothered by the fact.  Calvin had little political power in Geneva (he wasn’t even a citizen of the city!) and was unable to do most of what he wanted in the city (he couldn’t even have communion on a weekly basis for the city authorities forbade it).   Anyway, it seems the Code of Justinian made idolatry on Servetus’ level a capital crime.


Letham, Robert. “Four Favorites:  Books on Systematic and Historical Theology.”  New Horizons April 2011: 13. Print.


14 comments on “Be not glib in speaking of the fathers

  1. Canadian says:

    I’ve heard the thuggery charge before and it stems from events in Alexandria.

    • tesla1389 says:

      Some things to keep in mind about Cyril and the Jews (or Jews and Christian culture in general):

      If you read segments of the Talmud you will see just how violent the Jews’ hatred of Christianity (and humanity in general) really is. I forgot where I read it–it could have been McGuckin, but that would have been too radically Politically Incorrect–but Cyril actually protected the Alexandrian Christian community from the Jews.

      If Talmudism were universally repudiated by the Jews today, then anti-semitism would cease worldwide tomorrow. I am not anti-Jewish. I am anti-Talmudic.

      In this case, Cyril is seen as a hero.

  2. Bobby Grow says:


    Are you, Eastern Orthodox at this point; or are you still simply “moving” that direction? For example what kind of church do you currently attend? I’m just curious.

    • tesla1389 says:

      I am currently still Presbyterian, and I attend a local Presbyterian church (which is about to fold). There are several reasons why I am not yet EO. I don’t jump lightly into decisions. There are some logistic decisions that probably can’t be worked out anytime soon. Also, there are one or two reasons in which I won’t discuss in a public forum.

      To answer your question. I am still “moving” in that direction.

    • tesla1389 says:

      Here’s another thought. I still don’t think I can fairly say I’ve looked at all sides. I mean, I feel comfortable in saying that Calvinism simultaneously reduces to both monotheletism and Nestorianism. It’s Christology is deeply flawed at best; heretical at worst. More specifically, mono-energism was condemned as a heresy.

      On the other hand, while I reject the Filioque and Absolute Divine Simplicity, I can’t really say I’ve studied Roman Catholicism as fairly as I have Orthodoxy. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ve spent the past two years reading thousands of pages by Henri de Lubac and von Balthasar (as well as listening to pop apologists like Peter Kreeft for four years). Come to think of it, I own more books published by Ignatius Press than any other publisher, so I guess I have looked into Catholicism. That said, I haven’t spent enough time studying the Catholic Catechism.

      So I am not making a decision any time soon.


      • Canadian says:

        My Calvinism fell when I was shown that what was true concerning our human nature must also apply to Christ’s human nature. If we don’t have free human will then neither does Christ because he received his from Mary and united it to himself without change. If our natural energy or human operation is overridden, overwhelmed, or replaced, then Christ’s divinity did the same to his human energy because we are consubstantial with his humanity. These views destroy the incarnation and were dealt with when the ancient Council’s condemned monenergism and monotheletism.

        As for Rome, her writings that I have read– the catechism, Vat2 documents and papal encyclicals are some of the most beautiful writing I have read. But my path toward her was diverted back toward Orthodoxy when I looked at a couple things: The way the 5th Council spanked a sitting Pope (Vigilius) for his waffling and threatened to remove his name from the dyptichs and declared that he would condemn himself if he held to his contradictory writings about the 3 Chapters. Vigilius finally agreed with the Council 6 months after it was over! The Council did not think Vigilius had “supreme, immediate, universal and absolute” authority as Rome says the pope has. Then when Rome apparently renegged on what in fact she thought was the 8th Ecumenical council!! First they considered the 8th to be the Council in 879 that acknowleged the reinstatement of Photius and which declared by papal authority that the previous Council of 869 to be null and void. The 879 Council also condemned the filioque. Then in the 11th century, Rome changes her mind and declares the 869 council to be the 8th. I know history can be messy, but these seemed too untenable and insurmountable for the Roman claims.

      • tesla1389 says:

        Bingo on the human nature part. That essentially destroys Calvinism.

      • Bobby Grow says:

        Interesting, thanks for sharing a little, Jacob.

        Do you think it possible to try and correct the Reformed tradition from within (as TFT attempted); or do you simply think it a lost cause.

        To me it seems there is more involved than christological issues, but also ecclesiological and the theory of “authority” associated with that (understanding of course that christology/ecclesiology are inseparably related realites in a broader Trinitarian theology proper).

      • tesla1389 says:

        here is a more practical problem with trying to reform the reformed. The federal vision guys got in huge trouble for simply quoting calvin on covenant and sacramental efficacy. Imagine what would happen if someone pointed out Calvin’s monoenergism (contrasted with the 6th ecumenical council) or his leanings toward Nestorianism? It just want work.

        It might work in non-Westminster camps, but for those churches that ascribe to the WCF, it is out of the question.

      • Bobby Grow says:


        I agree, you’re right! I thought about that after I posted that comment. I was thinking from my arena (more baptistic ‘free-church’), it would definitely be more possible to encourage movement in the direction I suggest within that camp; of course the problem there is to try and get “doctrine” taken seriously, to get folks from reading Ryrie to Calvin 😉 .

  3. tesla1389 says:

    No, I don’t think it is possible. Torrance and Barth are to be commended, but as you note, many of the issues–Christology, ecclesiology–are interrelated.

    I might appear to some to be very “anti-west,” but I am really not. I am “pulling” punches. I love many Western writers and thinkers: NT WRight, CS Lewis, Chesterton, Barth, Torrance.

    • Bobby Grow says:

      I mean your template doesn’t suggest anything like Eastern favoritism or anything 😉 . Playing . . .

      • tesla1389 says:

        LOL. Y’all didn’t know me on the old blog. I had nothing but Western art up there. The current picture of St Ephraim the Syrian is up there because photographically clear representations of Ephraim the Syrian are rare, and this one is actually quite good.

  4. JB says:

    My pastor at my Presbyterian church gave me his book to read. After reading it I thought that it was the last book I would give a member if I wanted them to remain Presbyterian. His chapter on icons with the exception of his poor attempt to argue against icons of Christ via the second commandment (talk about confusing person and natures of Christ) actually made me closer to Orthodoxy than before I read the book. I agree–he is praising Orthodoxy, which surprised me.

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