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Theodore of Mopsuestia on the Difference between a Commentary and a Sermon

August 12, 2010

Whether you agree with his approach to exegesis or not, Theodore of Mopsuestia was undoubtedly one of the significant biblical scholars of the early church. The Nestorian church of the East revered Theodore as the premier theologian and biblical scholar. In fact, among those in this tradition he went by the simple epithet, ‘The Interpreter.’ He composed commentaries on many biblical books, but many of these have been lost or only survive in fragments. One of his exegetical works that survives in its entirety is his Commentary on the Gospel of John. This book survived even after the suppression of his works in the sixth century because it had been translated from the original Greek into Syriac and was preserved beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. The one Syriac manuscript of the work that survives to this day was discovered in the modern period in a monastery in modern-day Iraq. A new translation of this commentary has recently been published. In the introduction Theodore describes his approach to exegesis, and points out how the task of the interpreter (i.e., writing of a commentary) is different from the task of the preacher. Here is what he has to say:

Indeed we think that the duty of the interpreter is to explain those words which are difficult to many, while the duty of the preacher is to speak about those topics which are already clear enough. Even superfluous topics can sometimes be useful to a preacher, but the interpreter must explain and say things concisely. However, when it is the case that an explanation cannot be clear unless we use many words – and this happens when we come upon verses which have been corrupted by the deceit of the heretics because of the disease of their impiety – then we will not avoid discussing them in detail, so that what is needed [in order to understand the verses] may be clearly evident. We will take special care to do this. Indeed this is also the duty of the interpreter – especially of one who expounds a text accurately – not only to discuss questions with authority but also to refute those who oppose his arguments. (pg.2)

If you’re interested in reading more about Theodore, a nice introduction to his life and theology, including extracts from several of his works, can be found in this volume recently published by Routledge in their Early Church Fathers series.

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