Review: On the Person of Christ, The Christology of Emperor Justinian

On the Person of Christ: The Christology of Emperor Justinian Against the Monophysites; Concerning the Three Chapters; On the True FaithOn the Person of Christ: The Christology of Emperor Justinian Against the Monophysites; Concerning the Three Chapters; On the True Faith by Justinian I
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is Kenneth Wesche’s translation of three treatises by the Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) on Christological topics: Justinian’s Letter to the Monks of Alexandria Against the Monophysites; A Letter on the Three Chapters; and The Edict on the True Faith. These are the three texts edited by E. Schwartz in Drei dogmatische Schriften. The notes throughout largely mirror Schwartz’s references, although I noticed that in one place, where Justinian cites Pope Leo I as having said something Leo did not say, Wesche did not include Schwartz’s note saying that Leo’s letter did not include the statement. Not to say that Wesche is deliberately fudging things, I guess, but he does have his own angle.

At the time of publication, Rev. Dr Wesche was an Orthodox priest in Minneapolis. He chose to make this translation because Justinian’s Christology is basic to the Byzantine understanding of Christ and endures in the Orthodox Church today. Moreover, although Wesche does not say this, Justinian is relatively straightforward in his presentation of Christological thought and his defence of his own position. One of the concerns some of the less famous bishops of Late Antiquity had in the aftermath of the Council of Chalcedon was that, while they agreed with the council, they did not think it had anything to offer their own congregations. Christology at this level, they said, was for bishops to stop heresy, not for catechesing the faithful.

Justinian does an admirable job of trying to make clear what is easily obscure. The same problems plague him here as everywhere in the controversy from 451 onward — the obstinacy of his opponents, the lack of clarity on terminology, etc. Nevertheless, I can easily see even a bishop looking at the long citations from the Fathers with commentary and tiring of what lies before him. That may be no fault of Justinian, but rather of human frailty.

The two targets here are ‘Monophysites’ (aka Miaphysites aka anti-Chalcedonian Cyrillians aka conservative Cyrillians), in particular the acephaloi, and supporters of the ‘Three Chapters’. Concerning ‘Monophysites’, it can be difficult to keep them straight in our minds. Justinian’s focus is not the orthodox (or nearly orthodox) forms of belief espoused by Severus of Antioch and Philoxenus of Mabbug, but the radical, intransigent arguments of Timothy Aelurus and the acephaloi of Egypt, a group who rejected the Archbishop of Alexandria through a radical commitment to mia physis — ‘one nature’ — Christology. If his quotations are accurate, Timothy Aelurus looks truly heretical to me. The main point Justinian argues against the ‘Monophysites’ is that Cyril’s ‘one nature’ formula is perfectly compatible with ‘two natures’ when Chalcedon is interpreted properly.

The ‘Three Chapters’ are: the person and writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia; the letter of Ibas of Edessa to Mari the Persian; and writings by Theodoret of Cyrrhus against Cyril of Alexandria. These three items were condemned by Justinian through various approaches as part of his attempt to reconcile ‘Monophysites’ like Severus of Antioch with the imperial church. The supporters of these ‘Three Chapters’ were mostly (but not entirely) Latin-speakers for whom anything that abrogated or seemed to threaten the authority of the Council of Chalcedon was anathema. They argued that condemning Ibas’s letter and the writings of Theodoret went against the council that welcomed both bishops into communion and rehabilitated them after they had been expelled from their bishoprics by the Second Council of Ephesus (449). They also objected to posthumous denunciations of people who died in the faith and peace of the Church like Theodore of Mopsuestia.

Justinian’s strongest argument was that neither Ibas nor Theodoret himself was condemned. Rather, particular writings that were not in accordance with the faith were condemned. Moreover, Theodore of Mopsuestia stands condemned for heresy by his own hand already, regardless of his position in the church at his death. Theodore was a particular target, for in the later stages of the Nestorian Controversy, after the Council of Ephesus (430), Cyril of Alexandria and his allies realised that the theology of Nestorius that they so detested and found so dangerous would still persist as long as Theodore’s teaching was allowed to be spread, since Theodore was the intellectual master of Nestorius. Therefore, through these condemnations, Justinian sought to heal the wounds of the eastern church.

Obviously, he failed. Indeed, his attempts at reconciling the East failed anyway, and they also brought about a schism in the West.

My one final concern about this book is Wesche’s assertion in the introduction to the ‘Edict on the True Faith’ that western and eastern approaches to Christology are very different, and the edict shows that. Perhaps I am simply a poor theologian, or I’ve spent too much of my own theological training reading patristic and eastern books, but I do not see anything in Justinian’s approach in this text that is counter to how I would think we do Christology.

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Christianisation Under Justinian: 1

Inspired by some reading I did after this post.

As mentioned in passing previously, the later Patristic age saw a new development in Christianity as large quantities of people converted for social, political, or legal reasons. Over this period, with a succession of Christian Emperors, measures were often taken by the secular government to impose spiritual uniformity in the Empire — this was done as a means of ensuring the continued success of the Pax Romana (thus, the same reason the old pagan Emperors persecuted the Christians) as well as of helping along the spread of orthodoxy.

In response to the Emperor Justinian’s anti-Samaritan measures in this direction — measures that included the closure of Samaritan synagogues and the removal of the right to bequeath property to anyone other than orthodox Christians — the Samaritans of Palestine revolted in 529. The revolt was duly suppressed, and distressed monks sent petitions to the Emperor concerning the destruction of property of Christians. This year is the same year he is alleged to have closed or suppressed the Academy in Athens. (I need a better reference for this to confirm whether it’s true or not.)

Throughout his reign, Justinian also sought to Christianise the Empire through the dual methods of conversion and force, both of which we see in the career of John of Ephesus. John was sent by the Emperor to Asia to convert the pagans there to Christianity. He was also sent around Constantinople at a later date to round up people who were still practising “idolatry” and force them to repent, be properly catechised, and then baptised. This  latter action involved rounding up a large number of upper-class Romans in a church and forcing them to stay inside until they recanted.

In light of these actions geared towards the suppression of non-Christian religions in the Eastern Roman Empire in Justinian’s reign, in the years following 529 a lot of people converted to the Emperor’s religion. This produces interesting problems for the clergy, as we see in some of the letters sent and received by the monastic elders Barsanuphius and John of Gaza:

Letter 821:Question: A decree was promulgated by the Emperor that commands that the Greeks* [sc. Pagans] are not to make use of their customs, and similarly the aposchists [sc. ‘Monophysites‘]. Indeed, certain of them came after holy Pascha, some  to be baptised, others to enter into communion. Ought they to be received? And when ought it to be appropriate for the baptism and the holy communion?

Answer: It is necessary that those wishing to be enlightened are received, and to give them holy baptism in the holy Forty Days or on the Ascension of the Saviour, and they have the week as a festival. But if any of them is considered to do this through custom or simply through fear of the decree, say to him, “If you come because of the decree, this is a sin, but if with fear of God because of your life, it becomes two goods for you, the advantage of your life [sc. spiritual life] and of your body.” It is necessary for the same thing to be spoken by those who wish to enter communion with the Church. And if they say, “Because of God we have come,” receive them forthwith, for they are Christians. (SC 468, pp. 290-292, my trans.)

The next letter is also interesting. The question runs, “Since one of the Gentiles [sc. Pagans] was being arrogant in the midst of the faithful, many say that he ought to be killed or burned: is this good or not?” The answer is, of course, NO, that such action is not Christian. Instead, he is to be handed over to someone for catechesis so that his soul may be saved and he be baptised, entering the ranks of the church.

These two instances show us how … um … evangelism(??) works in an increasingly Christian Empire. Justinian decrees against pagans and non-Orthodox (not just Monophysites but also Nestorians and Arians — the former being driven out of the Empire), and as a result there is a very large number of baptisms and reconciliations to be made. The clergyman of Letter 821 wants to do the right thing, so inquires of the Two Old Men, who give him wise advice. No doubt many were dunked without such care.

Letter 822 reminds us that when the Church becomes an institutional power, we become confused as to what a Christian ought to do. Someone was acting hubristically towards the Christians (κρατέω is the verb used of his action; he acted like he ruled over them) — let’s kill him … no, better yet, let’s burn him! Response: “οὐκ ἔστι γὰρ τοῦτο χριστιανῶν” — This is not of the Christians!

Monasticism helps preserve the way of peace and love, the way of costly grace (cf. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship ch. 1), in the face of an institutionalised Church that is becoming a cultural, social creature.

*Byzantines thought of themselves as Romans.