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.