A note about Monophysites

I was surprised to find David Talbot Rice having written the following in Art of the Byzantine Era:

The Egyptian Christians had broken away from the Orthodox persuasion of Constantinople after the Council of 451, as a result of disputes as the true nature of Christ, and Alexandria had become the centre of a heresy known as the Monophysite. According to this, Christ had but one nature, the divine, and the Virgin was in consequence always designated as Hagia Maria, ‘Saint Mary’, for it was not accepted that she could be ‘Mother of God’, or ‘Theotokos’, as she was called in the Byzantine world properly speaking. (28)

You may wish to absolve Prof. Talbot Rice by observing that 1963 was well before the invigorating work of, say, Sebastian Brock on Syriac Christianity or Alois Grillmeier on Christology, but, in fact, there was already solid work on what these people actually believed, and even translations of their own works into modern European languages such that even in 1963 there is no reason why an academic who spent his career studying Eastern Europe and the Middle East should get the Monophysites so wrong as in the above quotation.

I also wish to be on the record that I greatly appreciate and admire the work of David Talbot Rice. He was probably better at what he did than I am what I do, and I have read with profit his little book Russian Icons, and I am already learning a lot about art and art history from Art of the Byzantine Era.

Nevertheless…

What is wrong in the above?

Almost everything, in fact. We must move backwards, for the last is perhaps the worst error to make, at least in terms of simple ignorance. The movement called ‘Monophysite’ was and is a conservative Cyrillian reading of Christology; that is, deeply indebted to St Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444). Their rallying cry was, ‘One incarnate nature of God the Word!’ — a phrase from St Cyril. The term Theotokos is eminently Cyrillian — this is the word that the Council of Ephesus in 431 was fought over. The entire purpose of the title Theotokos is to secure the full Godhead of Jesus. The infant carried in St Mary’s womb was fully God. God the Word was in Mary from the moment of conception when the Spirit of God overshadowed her.

Second, and this is an understandable error (I guess), the mainstream of this movement does not, in fact, believe that Jesus Christ has one nature that is only divine. Certainly, that is a way of reading the term ‘Monophysite’, and it would certainly rank as a heresy. Moreover, it is the very thing that Eutyches may have believed (I am still fuzzy as to what exactly he thought he was saying), that led to his condemnation at Chalcedon in 451. But, although the Coptic Church and the rest of the Monophysites reject Chalcedon, they also reject Eutyches.

What they actually believe

Monophysites, that is, the Oriental Orthodox — Coptic, Ethiopian Tewahedo, Syrian Orthodox, and Armenian Churches — believe that Jesus is God the Word incarnate. He is also fully man, contrary to the teaching of Apollinarius of Laodicea who denied Jesus a human psyche/soul/mind. However, he has one nature, one will, and one action. This is because he is a single, fully united person — hypostasis in the Greek.

There is a union between the divine and human in Jesus according to hypostasis (kat’hypostasin). The result is that what we can say about the divine Christ we can say to the human. Christ’s divine activities are predicated of him as a man and vice versa. Accordingly, they reject any teaching that says he has more than one nature. If there are two natures, so argue people like Severus of Antioch, there is no longer a hypostatic union but, rather, two hypostases (or persons) — this is what Nestorius got condemned for in 431.

Very, very briefly, this is what the Monophysites believe.

Prof. Talbot Rice’s passage above is also why living members of these churches reject the term ‘Monophysite’. Used properly, it can certainly designate what they believe (see Lebon, Le Monophysisme Sévérien). But usually it is used improperly, of a belief that there is only one divine nature in Christ, which is completely contrary to everything their forebears fought for in the fifth and sixth centuries. They mostly use the term ‘Miaphysite’ today, although I have not used it in this piece…

More on Monophysites!

Lebon, J. Le Monophysisme Sévérien. Louvain, 1909. This is an early but still helpful examination of what Severus of Antioch and Philoxenus of Mabbug, two of the great Monophysite theologians, taught.

His Holiness Pope Shenouda III (d. 2012) wrote many little books, and his book The Nature of Christ should help clarify further the historical path of Coptic Christology.

Common Declaration of Pope Paul VI of Rome and Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria on Christology

The Christology of St Severus of Antioch details the teachings of one of the greatest Monophysite theologians of all time.

copticchurch.net is a great resource as well.

Middle Eastern Christianity is complicated

His Holiness, Pope Shenouda III (d. 2012), Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and All Egypt

I am giving a talk in a few days about the relevance of Leo the Great’s letters for the modern Middle East. The basic argument is: the Oriental Orthodox still reject Leo’s theology and the Council of Chalcedon, however nuanced their official positions may be, based upon ecumenical joint declarations about Christology. The root of the schism between the Miaphysites and the imperial church (whose descendants are Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant) is the acceptance of Leo’s Christology at Chalcedon in 451.

What I want to find are stats on the different churches of the Middle East. Naively, I imagined that it was not necessarily so bad. There are the main focus of my investigation, the Oriental Orthodox: Coptic Orthodox, Syrian/Syriac Orthodox (“Jacobites”), Armenian Apostolic, as well as the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox. They are also in communion with the Indian Orthodox Church. And I knew there was also the Church of the East, formerly misleadingly called “Nestorian”. The other main churches I knew about are the Eastern Orthodox, particularly the Antiochene Orthodox and Georgian Orthodox, although I did visit an Eastern Orthodox church in Cairo that was under their own patriarch in Alexandria.

The destabilising element, however, is the West. First: the Church of Rome. I knew there were so-called “Melkites” in communion with Rome as the result of a simultaneous union with Rome and schism within the Antiochene Orthodox Church. I also knew about the Chaldean Catholics in Iraq, themselves of a similar event in the Church of the East. And I knew that the Maronites are in communion with Rome. Plus, of course, western Rite Roman Catholics. The Church of Rome’s attempts at reunion in the 17th and 18th centuries seem to have resulted in some members of most of the historic churches of the Middle East joining them, but some not.

It gets more complicated, of course, because Anglicans have tried similar things as the Roman Catholics, seeking to enter into full communion with indigenous churches that are of apostolic origin with episcopal structure. And some of them go for Anglicanism, others don’t. So even more schism. This is not to bring in the many splinters of Protestantism familiar to any of us from the West.

I have to admit at this point that it has grown vaguer because I found it very hard keeping all of the different historic churches of the Middle East in order. Many of them have very similar names, for one thing. Others I had never heard of. But they exist, and they seek to live out the Christian life faithfully in often trying circumstances, whether we think of Daesh/ISIS in Iraq or civil war in Syria or non-government-sanctioned moments of persecution in Egypt or the memory of attempted genocide on Armenian and Assyrian Christians by the Ottomans.

What all of these faithful followers of Jesus have in common is an apostolic lineage. All of them can trace their bishops through succession back to the apostles, just like the Bishop of Rome or of Canterbury — mind you, Archbishop Welby can trace his succession back to Augustine of Canterbury, and from him to Gregory the Great of Rome. But that sort of thing is how it works for most of these churches as well — they can trace their bishops back to a missionary bishop who was connected with an older church, and the chain goes back to the apostles.

When I think about this, the apostolic succession argument, even if I were to fully embrace it, it clearly not quite strong enough to convert me out of Anglicanism. First, we tend to think that we have apostolic succession, certain denials thereof by the Church of Rome notwithstanding. Second, whose apostolic succession to choose? Roman Catholicism? Eastern Orthodoxy? Oriental Orthodoxy? The Church of the East? All of them have a tendency to say that their own form of Christianity is nothing but the pure tradition handed down by the apostles. This is actually an important point I want to consider in a later post.

Anyway, the Middle East is complicated, not only for the above but also because we Protestants are there bringing new and different approaches to the faith, from Anglicanism and Methodism to Pentecostalism. Perhaps the saddest part of this is the fact that so much of the complication arose from attempts by the Roman Catholic Church to restore Christian unity centuries ago.

How might we do better today?

A Coptic Page of Early Church Fathers (in English and Arabic)

Drifting about the internet today (like a leaf on the wind), I stumbled upon a page called ‘Early Church Fathers Collection‘. The Internet is making available to many people for free the writings of the Fathers in a variety of places. This particular place looks to me to have been put together by someone who is Coptic Orthodox. It includes (amongst others) pages called:

These pages are clear evidence to me that this was compiled by someone of the Coptic Orthodox persuasion. They and the others look interesting, especially the second one. Thankfully, it has the original Greek with Patrologia Graeca references as well as the Arabic translations.

Just in case you are interested in these, the first I list is in English; the third, as it says, is in Arabic; the fourth is in English; the fifth (Sayings of the Desert Fathers) is English; the sixth, also English; the seventh is English; and the eighth is in English.

I am pleased to see more Christians from various traditions getting into the Fathers and making them accessible!
This is a pleasant development. Sometimes I wonder if, besides immersing ourselves in Scripture, rediscovering the Fathers is not the way forward for the fractured Church of Christ.