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.

Vincent and Christology

As I said last time, it was Vincent and Christology that really got me when reading the Commonitorium. From my angle, this is because I study Leo the Great and the transmission of his letters. Leo was himself a writer on Christology, and it was Christological controversy that both gave him the appellation ‘the Great’ and ensured the survival of so many of his letters.

For Vincent, Christology is important because it’s what’s just been being discussed at the Council of Ephesus in 431, where Nestorius was anathematised as a heretic by Cyril of Alexandria’s council, and John of Antioch’s council went without recognition or approval of the emperor. All sorts of politicking went on to gain approval, but from the monk’s eye view, what mattered was what was true.

That, essentially, is the point of the Commonitorium. Figure out the truth.

While truth-seeking method is Vincent’s main aim, he does provide some of this truth himself.

Vincent is opposed to Nestorianism, which he takes to be the belief that Christ was two persons, even if Nestorius denies believing that:

But if any one supposes that in his writings he speaks of one Christ, and preaches one Person of Christ, let him not lightly credit it. For either this is a crafty device, that by means of good he may the more easily persuade evil, according to that of the apostle, That which is good was made death to me, (Romans 7:13) — either, I say, he craftily affects in some places in his writings to believe one Christ and one Person of Christ, or else he says that after the Virgin had brought forth, the two Persons were united into one Christ, though at the time of her conception or parturition, and for some short time afterwards, there were two Christs; so that forsooth, though Christ was born at first an ordinary man and nothing more, and not as yet associated in unity of Person with the Word of God, yet afterwards the Person of the Word assuming descended upon Him; and though now the Person assumed remains in the glory of God, yet once there would seem to have been no difference between Him and all other men. (ch. 35)

Vincent proceeds to describe what the catholic faith in the Trinity and incarnation is. He does this in a way that, to me, is wholly consistent with the Latin tradition, arguing that, ‘In God there is one substance, but three Persons; in Christ two substances, but one Person.’ (ch. 37) He is using substantia here not unlike the way natura will be used as terms become more precise. By and large, he is on the trajectory that ends up at Leo (whether we read the history of theology teologically or not, that is where Latin theology goes):

Thus, then, in one and the same Christ there are two substances, one divine, the other human; one of (ex) God the Father, the other of (ex) the Virgin Mother; one co-eternal with and co-equal with the Father, the other temporal and inferior to the Father; one consubstantial with his Father, the other, consubstantial with his Mother, but one and the same Christ in both substances. There is not, therefore, one Christ God, the other man, not one uncreated, the other created; not one impassible, the other passible; not one equal to the Father, the other inferior to the Father; not one of his Father (ex), the other of his Mother (ex), but one and the same Christ, God and man, the same uncreated and created, the same unchangeable and incapable of suffering, the same acquainted by experience with both change and suffering, the same equal to the Father and inferior to the Father, the same begotten of the Father before time, (before the world), the same born of his mother in time (in the world), perfect God, perfect Man. In God supreme divinity, in man perfect humanity. Perfect humanity, I say, forasmuch as it has both soul and flesh; the flesh, very flesh; our flesh, his mother’s flesh; the soul, intellectual, endowed with mind and reason. (ch. 37)

This is, if you ask me, the thoughtworld of Leo’s Tome, even if expressed differently.

Moreover, I would argue that Vincent is also on the trajectory of the hypostatic union *edit AND communicatio idiomatum* — again, not that that’s a necessary end-point of thought, but he does seem to be leading there in chh. 39 and 40. He writes:

In consequence of which unity of Person, boththose attributes which are proper to God are ascribed to man, and those which are proper to the flesh to God, indifferently and promiscuously. (ch. 40)

He also writes:

Blessed, I say, be the Church, which declares this unity of Person to be so real and effectual, that because of it, in a marvellous and ineffable mystery, she ascribes divine attributes to man, and human to God; because of it, on the one hand, she does not deny that Man, as God, came down from heaven, on the other, she believes that God, as Man, was created, suffered, and was crucified on earth; because of it, finally, she confesses Man the Son of God, and God the Son of the Virgin. (ch. 41)

All of this is interesting to see going on in Southern Gaul in the 430s. Eastern debates are live, and the West has its way of articulating theology that will gain in nuance but, at least in these two questions, little in substance as the years go on. Of course, easterners as a result criticise us for allegedly just parrotting Augustine and Leo for 1500 years. And maybe that’s why we all need each other.

‘We ought to understand Jesus within context first’ – some thoughts on doing theology

A friend of mine likes to occasionally post religious questions on Facebook to inspire conversation. Today, I saw:

Before his Resurrection, did Jesus know that the Earth orbits the Sun?

My short answer, ‘Yes.’ I don’t actually know if it’s right, mind you.

One other answer troubles me not by its conclusion (‘No.’) but by the premisses the commenter alluded to:

I would say that he didn’t know. To provide an adequate rationale to my postulation will take me far too long. I think a start is to unpack how much western thought about God and systematics we have unappropriately projected onto Jesus while he was on earth. (Not that I am against western thought or systematics but we ought to understand Jesus within context first)

I am not entirely sure where this author is going, frankly. But it hints at things that concern me. Somehow, this person believes that understanding Jesus within context will cause us to reject an understanding of Jesus that would allow him to maintain divine knowledge whilst incarnate on earth.

First, I imagine (perhaps falsely) this person holds a dichotomous position between ‘Hebraic’ and ‘Greek’ thought. This is the sort of position that sometimes leads people to reject theological concepts about God such as His eternity (as classically understood), His Trinitarian ousia, his omniscience (as classically understood), impassibility as well as the creatio ex nihilo.

These ideas and others are often thought to be ‘Hellenistic’ importations, falsely grafted onto the pure ‘Hebraic’ gospel. This is not true. They are, in fact, Christian doctrines developed through prayerful reading of Scripture and resistance to ‘Hellenistic’ philosophy. For example, it is in resisting Plato in their reading of Scripture that Christians posit creatio ex nihilo and divine eternity as classically understood.

Let’s talk, then, about the hypostatic union, since that’s really what’s in question.

The hypostatic union is the theologically incomprehensible complete union of the divine and human in the single person (hypostasis) of Jesus Christ such that he is 100% God and 100% human. He has the properties of divinity and of humanity. But he is not two persons. He is one person. Some of us articulate this as Jesus existing in two natures, some think that divides him too far and makes him into a pantomime horse.

This immediately grabs you as a fine piece of Hellenistic philosophy, doesn’t it?

Except, of course, that no one knows how it works, and most people who try to explain it realise they can’t and choose, instead, to stand in awe before the mystery of God.

And, really, what resemblence does this owe to Jesus ‘within context’?

First, what is Jesus’ context? Hellenistic Judaism in the Greco-Roman world? The apostles composed their works in Greek and cited a Hellenistic Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. St Paul even quoted a Greek poet. John’s Gospel begins with its beautiful prologue on the divine Word.

Furthermore, throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus performs many miracles with no divine aid, no magic spells, and no invocation of any god. This sets him apart his contemporary miracle men, the Hebrew prophets, and the Apostles. He also rises from the dead in an unprecedented manner — no prophet or holy man is used as God’s instrument in the Resurrection, unlike when the prophets and Apostles do it. Jesus also seems to think he can forgive people’s sins. And when his earthly ministry is over, he ascends into heaven.

And that’s just from the Gospels, without turning to the earlier Christian writings of St Paul, who says some pretty heavy stuff about Jesus that points to him being God.

Jesus is God. He is also fully man.

How it works, of course, we cannot fully say. Hypostatic union.

But if we realise that Jesus is, in fact, fully man and fully God, how we determine divine knowledge during the incarnation is not merely some sort of question of Greek vs Hebrew, which is a false dichotomy.

But, frankly, no one reads or even tries to comprehend the Fathers anymore. If we understood them in their context, besides Jesus in his, we might find out that they are speaking the same theological language.

One Parthian shot. If ‘western’ is the problem, I present you with Ephrem the Syrian, one of the last exponents of Semitic, Syriac Christianity before it was ‘hellenised’. From his Hymns on the Incarnation:

From Hymn 8

Blessed is the Messenger who came bearing
a great peace.  By the mercy of His Father,
He lowered Himself to us.  Our own debts
He did not take up to Him.  He reconciled
[His] Lordship with His chattels.

Refrain: Glory to Your Dawn, divine and human.

Glorious is the Wise One Who allied and joined
Divinity with humanity,
one from the height and the other from the depth.
He mingled the natures like pigments
and an image came into being: the God-man.
O Zealous One who saw Adam
who became dust and the accursed serpent
eating him.  Reality dwelt
in what had lost its flavor.  He made him salt
by which the cursed serpent would be blinded.
Blessed is the Compassionate One Who saw, next to paradise,
the lance that barred the way
to the Tree of Life.  He came to take up
the body that would be struck so that by the opening in His side
He might break through the way into paradise.

From Hymn 12

Who indeed has seen the Babe Who is more ancient
than His bearer?  The Ancient One entered
and became young in her.  He emerged an infant
and grew by her milk.  He entered and became small in her;
He emerged and grew through her—a great wonder!

Good Christology matters for Good Friday

My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence
My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence

In a little under two weeks, it will be Good Friday as we make the final push to the chief feast of the Christian year. Some preachers seem to dread Good Friday — they are uncertain what more could ever be said, or they feel that Protestant Christianity makes too much of the Cross and too little of the Risen Saviour, or they are awkward about how bloody the whole thing is, or they’ve decided to wash their hands of any theory of atonement or … or …

Well.

I can see their preaching predicament.

Good thing I’m not a preacher. 😉

One thing that will undoubtedly pass through the minds of many is that old, wretched ‘Divine Child Abuse’ line, or similar awkward thoughts about God unjustly lashing out against an innocent man to divert his wrath from ‘deserving’ sinners. That sort of thing.

I generally wonder what sort of Christology lies at the heart of their preaching when they question theories of atonement (how Christ’s death-and-resurrection make us one with God) from such angles.

If Nicaea I through Nicaea II have taught us anything about how to do theology that is at once (somewhat) philosophically coherent and biblically faithful, it is that God is Jesus. This is the meaning of all that high-flying ‘Hellenistic’ ‘philosophical’ jargon that gets thrown around in the patristic period and disparaged in the modern

(you know —

homoousios/consubstantial

hypostatic union

dyothelitism —

that sort of thing)

Consubstantial means that Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Word Incarnate of John 1 — the subject of our Faith and the author of our salvation — has the same substance or essence as God the Father, as the Person we tend to think of as ‘God’.

Hypostatic union means that the person (hypostasis) of Jesus is a single unity of both human and divine. Divinity does not swallow up humanity, nor does humanity deprive divinity of its reality. Jesus — who is fully God as articulated by consubstantial — is also fully human, a complete man with body and soul — to the point of (in later theology) somehow, inexplicably (as far as I’m concerned, though I know that Maximus has explanations) having two wills (dyothelitism).

So, what does this have to do with Good Friday?

I think the most powerful impact it has on many of the common objections to traditional atonement theories is that God is absolved from injustice and child abuse. Why? Because God is Jesus.

God chose to become a man and all that means.

God chose to be scourged, bloodied, and die an unjust death he did not deserve.

The result is not simply a quick and easy transaction whereby we get into heaven free. The result is that God has taken a human person into himself in some way. God is not distant. He has suffered all that ordinary humans suffer. He has tasted death and returned victorious.

And he did this because he loves us. We, through our rejection of the only true and right way to live, were heading — are heading — for destruction. We had incurred a debt greater than we could pay. God chose the path of love to remove that debt, he chose the hard path, the path that would lead him into the fullest depths of the human experience, thereby transfiguring human life and taking it into himself, and showing us that He knows us and loves and can relate to us.

And so, Good Friday.

While we were yet His enemies, God the Son, the Incarnate Word, died.

One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.

Next week, I’ll be posting some medieval poetry and art about this. I hope that you can be drawn into the mystery of Jesus and love Him more as a result…

Wait — Monophysites??

You were probably quite thrilled to see the saints return this week. And then you probably cocked your head to one side and said, “Monophysites? Aren’t they heretics?”

Well. No. Not really.

Or, if they are heretics, it is for being schismatics, as under Jacob Baradaeus who consecrated John of Ephesus Bp of Ephesus which already had its own bishop. That must have been awkward. John claims Jacob maintained the canons of Nicaea, but this does not sit with the fact that he created bishops for places that already had bishops.

But Monophysites are not the heretics you think they are.

Chances are, if you’ve heard of the Monophysites, you thought of them as people who believed that Jesus had one nature, and that nature was divine. Or that in Jesus’ single nature the divine was so powerful it completely subsumed his human nature, rendering it useless. Or that Jesus’ divine and human natures were confused with each other. Or that Jesus had a glorified body through his whole life on earth and, as a result, never suffered.

Each of those statements is a heresy, and each of them is a Monophysite heresy. But none of them is mainstream Monophysism as represented by Severus of Antioch, Philoxenus of Mabbug, Empress Theodora, John of Ephesus, et al.

Mainstream Monophysism is a highly conservative reading of Cyril of Alexandria that refuses to affirm the Council of Chalcedon on the grounds that its Christological formula “in two natures” divides the person of Christ and you effectively have two sons and two Christs, which is Nestorianism.

The rallying cry of the Monophysites is the statement of Cyril: mia physis tou theou logou sesarkmomene — one incarnate nature of God the Word. Since Chalcedon affirmed two natures, it was a posthumous betrayal of St. Cyril, according to the Monophysites.

If someone came along trying to interpret Chalcedon so that it could jive with the Cyrilline rallying cry, the Monophysites would pull out more Cyril, and say, “Nature = person = hypostasis. If Christ has two natures, he has two hypostaseis/persons.”

Monophysites such as Severus of Antioch believed that Christ was fully God and fully man, possessing all of the attributes of Godhead and manhood within the single theandric (God-mannish) union. This union was a complete union within his person, or hypostasis — thus, hypostatic union.

Now, people don’t fight about nothing. Well, sometimes they do, but usually they don’t. There was a real, substantial difference between them and the original Chalcedonians. The sad reality for the Monophysites, though, is that by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553, called by Emperor Justinian, the Chalcedonians had so interpreted and reinterpreted Chalcedon such that it could by understood by a highly Cyrillian thinker — so-called “Neo-Chalcedonianism”.

But it was too late. The seeds of schism were sown. And to this day, the “Syrian” Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox are out of communion with us, despite joint statements on Christology. This is a sad reality, and one that should be remedied. Would that we had the grace to sit down together and work out the centuries of trouble!

If any of this makes no sense, let me know and I’ll try to de-jargonise it! 😉