Justinian’s Christology and Theosis

Re-reading Justinian’s Edict ‘On the Orthodox Faith’ in the translation by Richard Price,* I am struck by a passage that relates directly to the question of Nestorianism and monasticism. As you will recall, I have hypothesised that the reason a selection of ascetic writers oppose Nestorianism is because Nestorianism undermines the goal of ascetic and mystical practice, which is theosis.

The positive affirmation of how Chalcedonian/Neo-Chalcedonian or, indeed, Miaphysite, Christology contributes to theosis is found in this edict. I give a long-ish extract with the most pertinent part in bold:

For the Word was born from above from the Father ineffably, indescribably, incomprehensibly and eternally, and the same is born in time from below from the Virgin Mary, so that those once born from below may be born a second time from above, that is, from God. Therefore he has a mother only on earth, while we have a Father only in heaven. For taking the mortal father of mankind, Adam, he gave to mankind his own immortal Father, according to the saying, ‘He gave them power to become children of God.’ (Jn 1:12) Accordingly the Son of God tasted death in the flesh because of his fleshly father, so that the sons of man might receive a share in his life because of God their spiritual Father. So he is the Son of God by nature, while we are so by grace. And again according to the dispensation and for our sake he became a son of Adam, while we are sons of Adam by nature. For God is his Father by nature but ours by grace; and he became his God according to the dispensation because he [the Son] became man, while by nature he is God our master. And therefore the Word, who is the Son of the Father, was united to the flesh and became flesh, so that men united to the Spirit might become one Spirit. Therefore the true Son of God himself puts on us all so that we may all put on the one God. Even after becoming man he is one of the holy Trinity, the only-begotten Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, composite from both natures; that Christ is composite we profess, following the teaching of the holy fathers. (trans. Price, p. 133)

Justinian goes on to affirm the full unity of Christ as a single hypostasis. It is this union, the hypostatic union, as explained by Neo-Chalcedonian theology that makes theosis possible, whereas the division implied by what is called ‘Nestorianism’ makes theosis unattainable.

God became man so that man might become God, as the famous Athanasian saying goes. This is only possible if one and the same Christ is fully God and fully man without division.

A quick note, of course: All talk of ‘Nestorianism’ has nothing really to do with the Church of the East, given that Isaac the Syrian certainly affirms theosis.

*In vol. 1 of The Acts of the Council of Constantinople of 553; I’ve reviewed the translation by Kenneth P. Wesche in On the Person of Christ already.


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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Beyond florilegia – Justinian Against the Monophysites

As I work through Justinian’s Against the Monophysites (trans. K. P. Wesche), I am interested in his approach to texts. Justinian lived in the age of the florilegium, the catena, the anthology. If you wanted to prove that tradition and historic theology were on your side, you furnished a chain of texts from authorities accepted by your own side and by your opponents to demonstrate the rightness of your position. This is something Leo the Great did in Ep. 165 to Emperor Leo, to which he appended a florilegium of patristic texts that he believed supported the argument for two-nature Christology.

Justinian seems to be aware that this tactic does not work anymore. In particular, it cannot work in debate with ‘Monophysites’, or, to be PC, ‘Miaphysites’.* Up to Leo, they and the Chalcedonians acknowledge the same body of ‘Fathers’ for interpreting Scripture and reasoning out theology. Both groups accept the ‘ecumenical’ councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Ephesus. Both groups accept Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, and Cyril of Alexandria as touchstones of historic orthodoxy in matters of the Trinity and Christology. They reject ‘Arianism’ (in all its pluriform realities), Apollinaris, Nestorius, and, in fact, Eutyches.

Each group, then, can wield its own set of quotations from the Fathers to prove its own case. It is not difficult to find Miaphysite quotations of Cyril, and two-nature quotations from the Cappadocians can be adduced on the other side.

Therefore, in this treatise, besides seeking to argue his case using logic and Scripture — both of which, like the Fathers, the Miaphysites use — Justinian devotes most of his time to exegeting the texts of the Fathers held in common by both sides. He does not simply say, ‘Look, this text from Cyril teaches two natures,’ but, rather, explains how it does so.

I do not know if it convinced his recipients. Certainly, the intensive activity of so-called ‘Neo-Chalcedonians’ during his reign, including the long disputation that ended in 536 and the condemnation of the ‘Three Chapters’, as well as various individual theologians, failed to reconcile the Miaphysites at large, who set up their own parallel hierarchy to that of the imperially-sponsored church that accepted Chalcedon.

Nonetheless, the tactics seem to have changed somewhat in the century since Leo the Great. It is noteworthy, I think.

*The word miaphysite makes no sense, since it is etymologically impossible and denotatively means the same thing as monophysiteMia is the feminine form of the Greek word for one, and not a prefix. Mono- is the Greek prefix derived from the word for one. However, since there are people of this belief system still alive, and they prefer miaphysite, I use it but in protest against Sebastian Brock (a dangerous thing to do; I promise never to argue with him about Syriac ;)).

The disparate nature of tradition

Council of Chalcedon

I am at present reading Justinian’s Letter to the Monks of Alexandria Against the Monophysites. As I read, many questions arise: Did Justinian himself write this? When did he have time? Did he ever sleep? If he didn’t, who did? How was this text received? How would Leo the Great have felt about this text? What about Cyril of Alexandria?

Leo the Great (d. 461) would probably have been fine with this work. I am not sure Cyril (d. 444) would have been, however. This is an interesting reality of our theological tradition. Many people, even within the church, have an idea that theological orthodoxy is monolithic. It is not. Leo the Great did what he could with what of Cyril he had in Latin — not all of Cyril, and Latin is not Greek. So Leo’s Christology is not the same as Cyril’s.

For example, I do not think Leo’s Tome and Cyril’s On the Unity of Christ are actually perfectly compatible.

Yet Leo’s Tome was acclaimed and accepted at the Council of Chalcedon (that he helped engineer) in 451 on the grounds that it said what Cyril says. Which, if we consider the Cyril of the letter of reconciliation with John of Antioch Laetentur Caeli, I suppose it is. Both of these fifth-century bishops are accepted as authoritative by the imperial church and are regarded as Fathers of the Church by modern Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodoxy, and non-heretical Protestant churches.

But their entire corpora are not entirely compatible, despite what Justinian tries in his reading of Cyril as a supporter of two-nature Christology.

Moving forward a couple of centuries, what about Maximus the Confessor (d. 662)? Again, I am not sure that the Cyril of On the Unity of Christ and some of Maximus’s arguments about the operation of Christ’s two wills in the Garden of Gethsemane are perfectly compatible.

Moving beyond christology, Augustine (d. 430), who is actually considered a saint by the eastern churches, teaches a dual procession of the Holy Spirit, that even Maximus agreed to in a way, although its offspring, the filioque in the creed, is a major point of division between the eastern and western churches. Yet here they stand, part of orthodox (note the lower-case O) tradition.

Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394) taught the Apocatastasis, the idea that all will be saved (patristic universalism). He is considered a Father in both East and West, although many reject this teaching. The ecumenically popular Isaac the Syrian (seventh century) also taught this.

Western accounts of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity tend to start with the doctrine of God and His unity; in the East, they tend to start with the persons and the threeness. This is a generalisation, but it does tend towards a different feel and different emphases in our presentations of dogma. Yet these presentations, whether by Augustine or Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390), are all orthodox though they differ.

Or consider the fact that our tradition includes alleged ‘Semi-Pelagians’ as saints (Faustus of Riez) alongside Augustinians like Prosper of Aquitaine.

Theological orthodoxy is not monolithic. Many other very specific cases could be found, but these will do. It is worth keeping these realities in mind as we ponder the great richness of the tradition that has brought us to where we stand today.

Introducing the Rule of St Benedict: Contexts

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

The rabbit hole that led from Atheist Delusions to The Benedict Option has now, unsurprisingly, led me to the Rule of St Benedict itself. I’ve decided to write a series of posts looking at the Rule, its meaning, and perhaps what it means today. Mostly it will be my own musings, and not scholarly work on sixth-century Latin monasticism. Out of laziness, I shall sometimes use the abbreviation RB to refer to it.

RB was written around the year 540 in south-central Italy by Benedict of Nursia, abbot of the monastery of Montecassino. All that we know about St Benedict’s life we get from St Gregory the Great (saint of the week here) several decades later in Dialogues, Book 2. This is not to say that Gregory is not accurate. It is just a fact worth establishing.

As I’ve said on this blog ad nauseam, Benedict’s Rule was not an immediate best-seller or ‘success’. A good example of that is the fact that, as R. A. Markus argues in Gregory the Great and His World, St Augustine of Canterbury and his fellow monk-missionaries of the 590s were not Benedictine, even though Gregory was a big fan of St Benedict. So let’s start with some foundations in ecclesiastical history, ca. 500-604.

Ecclesiastical and Monastic History in the Sixth Century

The monastic and ecclesiastical world into which the Rule was born was not centralised. There were no monastic orders to organise the various monasteries. You did not need authorisation from the local bishop to become a monk or a hermit. There was certainly a monastic and ascetic tradition in Latin Christianity, of course. Benedict draws on that, especially The Rule of the Master and (St) John Cassian (variously on this blog; start here). But monasticism was looser, simply a group of likeminded persons and institutions with no formal relationship, whether following the Rule of St Caesarius of Arles (who died in 542, around the time Benedict wrote the Rule) or, later on at Luxeuil and Bobbio, St Columbanus (who died in 614).

Although most people did see the Bishop of Rome as head honcho number one, this did not mean he actually had any active jurisdictional powers outside of his own Metropolitan area of Suburbicarian Italy. Thus Kathleen G. Cushing, Reform and the Papacy in the Eleventh Century sums up what I have also observed about Gregory:

Gregory clearly was convinced that the pope was the jurisdictional as well as the spiritual head of the Church; yet it is evident from the letters in his Register that he understood this chiefly in terms of the Roman Church being the final court of appeal rather than as an executive authority. More important for Gregory was the pontiff’s pastoral role, which obliged him to have cura animarum (care of souls) for all the churches under his headship. This was not, as has often been argued, a claim for ‘absolute’ authority. Rather, Gregory understood papal primacy in terms of defending and extending the faith, along with securing ultimate appellate jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters. (58)

This is important to establish. Simply because the bishop of Rome was not yet the high medieval papacy that developed in the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries does not mean that the Late Antique and Early Medieval Christian West was disunited. Monks, priests, bishops, kings, saw themselves as part of one big, happy Christian Church, united with Rome and with each other, even if they disagreed about things like the date of Easter or the role of the Bishop of Rome, or if they differed from place to place in matters of liturgical or monastic observance.

That is, I reject the retrojection of 16th-century Gallicanism into 6th-century Gaul.  I also reject the idea that Insular (aka ‘Celtic’) Christianity was in opposition to its continental brethren. Things were looser back then, and even the pope knew it. Gregory was willing for his missionary-monks to keep local Christian observances where they found any and not seek to completely Romanise all the customs. Some centralising tendencies did exist amongst the Roman missionaries, it is true. Ecclesiastical history is rarely black and white.

Other tendencies in the sixth century include some of the first large canon law collections that survive for us. This is part of a wider cultural phenomenon of synthesis, encyclopedism, codification, and establishing a tradition to pass along, and we see it in Boethius as translator and commentator on Aristotle as well as philosopher in his own right, Cassiodorus’ Institutions, the Justinianic  legal corpus, and, in a century, the works of St Isidore of Seville.

Anyway, Benedict wrote his Rule for his own monastery at Montecassino, and he did so as part of a wider cultural world of Latin monasticism, whether in Ireland, Gaul, Spain, or Italy. He sought to make something that would be easily followed and not especially burdensome compared to some other rules. He drew on the wider ascetic tradition, as already noted above. And, like most early Christian monastics, he established a rule of prayer for his monks centred on the Psalter, something in common with the fourth-century Egyptians and contemporary Irish.

Sixth-Century Italy

540, the approximate date of RB, was five years after Belisarius invaded Italy to ‘reconquer’ it from the Goths on behalf of Justinian. There is so much that could be said about Italy in this century, as well as about Justinian, as well as about the papacy and the Goths, the papacy and Gaul, Gaul and Constantinople, etc, etc. If such things float your boat, I’ve written on sixth-century history on my other blog. Start with The Sixth-Century West, which links to the others.

What I think we should note is that the Byzantine-Gothic war lasted for decades and ruptured the cultural and economic fabric of Italy. It is thus important for Italy’s transition from ‘late Roman’ to ‘medieval’. Campania, where Benedict lived, was one of the areas of campaign. Perhaps, in a small way, he was trying to do what Rod Dreher and others say, and provide an anchor in a stormy sea. He never notes it explicitly, though; his Rule could just as easily have been written a century before or a century after (NB: some say it’s actually seventh-century Anglo-Saxon, but we’ll avoid that discussion here — see the relevant portions of Gert Melville, The World of Medieval Monasticism for a refutation).

Before the coming of Belisarius, Italy had been stable. The Goths ruled pretty much as the late Romans had. Maybe better? Hard to judge. After Justinian’s victory and the Pragmatic Sanction of 554, there was only a brief interval before the coming of the Lombards who started taking over so much that Justinian had gained. The sixth century was not Italy’s best.

But it gave us Benedict, Boethius, Cassiodorus, Arator of Liguria, Ennodius, Venantius Fortunatus, Columbanus, and Gregory the Great. It also gave us some spectacular mosaics in Rome, Ravenna, and elsewhere. Political instability and economic decline do not always equal cultural stagnation.

In a very short space, this is the world of Benedict. A united but diverse world, where things have been going well but are starting to go poorly.

In the series that follows, my thoughts on RB will start with the Prologue and draw in various strands of thought. There are no guarantees where I’ll draw from, but it seems that it may be best to ponder how the Rule might be adapted for us today, and then reflecting with my own thoughts and connections to Late Antique/Early Medieval monkery and to later forms of Benedictine monachism (which will include not just the Order of St Benedict but Cluny and the Cistercians as well; other orders that use RB are the Tironensians and Camaldolese, while Trappists are technically the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, so also use RB).

The Benedict Option: More history

I’m blogging through The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. In my first post, I set out my reasons and credentials and then considered some of my problems with Dreher’s broad-stroke history of fifth-century Rome. Then I continued the discussion of history, talking about why it matters for a book like this and then moving into monastic history. Today, I look at two more historical issues raised for me in Chapter 1: post-Roman powers, and ‘barbarism’ — both are related.

Post-Roman Powers

Throughout this brief contextualisation of the Rule of St Benedict, Dreher uses the word ‘barbarian’ and the designation ‘barbarian tribes’ to describe the Roman empire’s conquerors. Rome left in her wake:

countless local wars as barbarian tribes fought for dominance. (15)

I think the designation of late Roman, irregular military forces that coalesced as nations while they conquered Roman territory as ‘barbarian tribes’ is taking things too far. Theoderic and the Ostrogoths who oust Odoacer are not ‘tribes’. They are a late Roman military force whose leader never received a lasting military command from the Emperor Zeno, and who took control of an unstable situation. Yes, there was local war as a result, but then these barbarians brought stability.

In fact, it is argued that Theoderic, before the accession of Justin in 518, was setting himself up as an emperor. Everything he does in Rome and Ravenna is basically the same as what an emperor would do. Whether he would ever claim the title is, perhaps, immaterial. What matters is that he ruled like an emperor.

Or to take the notorious Vandals. Once they were done torturing and executing a large proportion of the catholic clergy of North Africa, they decided to settle down, enjoy their new villas, and write poetry. In fact, the Vandal kingdom of North Africa, although weak when destroyed by Belisarius in the 530s, was relatively stable. So was the Visigothic kingdom of Spain by 589.

For Gaul and Italy, before the Byzantine-Gothic wars of Justinian, the ‘countless local wars’ were, from what I can tell, largely confined to the border areas, to places like Septimania on the modern France-Spain border. The rulers of these new polities established themselves and fought their enemies, but it was not all war all the time.

That said, they did behave badly a lot of the time, especially if a civil war erupted amongst the Franks. Gregory of Tours (d. 595) was particularly appalled by the behaviour of Frankish Christian soldiers and their treatment of monks, nuns, and church property.

But the problem with Dreher’s picture of post-Roman Europe is that it buys into


On page 17 we read:

When we think of barbarians, we imagine wild, rapacious tribesmen rampaging through cities, heedlessly destroying the structures and institutions of civilization simply because they can. Barbarians are governed only by their will to power, and neither know nor care a thing about what they are annihilating. (17)

This paragraph is a zinger. He is using the image of the barbarian to describe modern liberals: ‘we … are living under barbarism, though we do not recognize it.’ (17) In fact, if one accepts Dreher’s view of things today, I’d much rather be ruled by Late Roman barbarian kings, thank you very much.

For example, they were not actually all that into wanton destruction. The text Anonymus Valesianus II includes a long description of things at Rome that Theoderic maintained. We have a mosaic of him from Ravenna, pictured at the right. Not only that, but his son held the consulship. His court helped foster the arts and culture of Cassiodorus and Boethius (the latter of whom he killed on suspicion of treason — perfectly Roman of him).

When the Franks emerge as military force, they imagine themselves holding various ranks within the now deceased Roman bureaucratic infrastructure. They, too, build things. Or, if not they themselves, then the Gallo-Romans under their rule.

As far as pillaging goes, this is, sadly, not a feature solely of barbarians. Soldiers have a long history of looting and destruction, whether they are Romans, Greeks, or barbarians in antiquity, or the medieval English in the Hundred Years’ War, or (sadly) even Allies in WWII. Soldiers are human; I do not wish to imply either that looting is not a big deal, nor that soldiers = barbarians. Just giving context.

Final thoughts on this strand

My final thoughts on what was meant to be a single post but is now three are as follows.

The fall of the western Roman Empire, which was a protracted process over decades, led to a power vacuum in some places and some chaos in others. It resulted in the breakdown of much long-distance trade and the reduction of classical urbanism. In Britain, in fact, Romano-British culture was completely subsumed by the newcoming Anglo-Saxon powers. Materially, many people suffered and were very, very poor.

Of these very poor, those who could sometimes joined monasteries. There were, however, legal restrictions on the movement of those we might call ‘peasants’, so many of the very poor did not join monasteries because of being legally bound to the land that they farmed. Nonetheless, for these people and for some of the ‘middle’ class and aristocrats, monasteries became places of refuge in the relative uncertainty of the new regimes. Sure.

That said, everything in Italy, where Benedict lived, happens a few decades later than elsewhere (setting aside the possible exception of northern Italy, where first Attila in 450-2 then Theoderic vs Odoacer in the 490s, as well as some civil wars, made life difficult). Benedict is part of an international moment of monasticism that helps preserve writing as the classical culture of villa-based aristocratic living dissolves and is replaced by a largely illiterate military aristocracy who prefer hunting to poetry.

Things are often very bad in the post-Roman world, and the new rulers and their armies often do terrible deeds. But they are not always so bad as people like Dreher make it sound, and all of them were committed to preserving Roman law, Roman taxation, long-distance trade, and Roman buildings as much as was within their power, with greater or lesser success.

Here is one success, again of Theoderic’s. The Arian baptistery at Ravenna.

Some thoughts on church councils

Folio 148v, Paris, lat. 11611 of Rusticus' Acts of Chalcedon, including a version of the Creed
Folio 148v, Paris, lat. 11611 of Rusticus’ Acts of Chalcedon, including a version of the Creed

I was going crazy hunting through a pdf of this manuscript today, looking for a few of Leo the Great’s letters (found them on 134v-137r). The manuscript is a copy of a Latin translation of the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon (451) made by a fellow named Rusticus in the mid-500s. Rusticus was the nephew of Pope Vigilius (pope, 537-555), so you’d think he’d have things pretty easy in the world of geo-ecclesiology.

However, at the time Rusticus put together his Latin version of the Chalcedonian Acts, he was hiding out in a monastery in Constantinople with some monks called the Sleepless Ones (‘Acoemetae’/’Akoimetai’) — as one does. Rusticus was hiding out for the same reason he put together this collection of Chalcedonian documents. He was opposed to the Emperor Justinian’s activities against the so-called ‘Three Chapters’. As I have written before (with more context on the issue), opposition of the Three Chapters need not mean abrogation of the Chalcedonian doctrinal settlement.

Be that as it may, people like Rusticus* felt that anything that sounded as thought it undid any of the things that Chalcedon did (whether doctrinal or canonical) undid the whole council. And the Council of Chalcedon, because of its espousing of the western Christology of Pope Leo the Great (pope, 440-461), was seen as essential to the western church — especially essential to East-West unity.

Putting together his own translation of the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon and gathering together some of the relevant documents, then, was not just Rusticus’ way of killing time with the Sleepless Monks. It had a polemical purpose — to provide accurate ammunition to the western cause of support for the Three Chapters.

In the end, Rusticus’ cause lost. Despite the fact that ‘Origenism’ (whatever that is) gets most of the airtime these days, the ‘Fifth Ecumenical Council’ of 553 was not about Origenism but about Christology. Obviously, the question of universalism is more of a hot topic today than the natures of Christ, but back then, this is what mattered to church unity and concord. As part of his attempts to restore unity in the eastern church whilst maintaining it with the western church, Justinian guided the Council of Constantinople of 553 to what he hoped was a compromise position, and the Three Chapters were condemned. Ultimately this plan failed, but there we have it.

Thinking on Rusticus, Chalcedon, and the Three Chapters/Council of 553 reminded me that ecclesiastical history is not, was not, set in stone. Sometimes we read the history of the church, and especially the ‘Seven Ecumenical Councils’ teleologically. We assume that of course the bishops gathered at Ecumenical Council X would approve Doctrinal Position Y. We act as though the doctrinal statements of the councils are the only logically inevitable results of a reasoned reading of Scripture.

First, even if I accept that the seven councils termed ‘ecumenical’ are, in fact, true, even if I believe that they are the most biblically faithful and philosophically coherent options out there (I do), this doesn’t mean that, from the perspective of history and of the people living through them, these settlements were foregone conclusions.

Take Nicaea, for instance. Nicene orthodoxy had a long, uphill battle for its establishment as the official doctrine of the church within the Roman Empire, and of the Germanic Christians outside imperial control, the only ones who really converted before being totally assimilated by their neighbours were the Visigoths in the 580s. If we set aside convictions that the truth will always prevail, it is certainly not a foregone conclusion that Nicene Christianity would survive and thrive as it has.

Second, part of what makes orthodoxy ‘so perilous’ and ‘so exciting’ (quoting Chesterton) is the fighting. I have a friend who says that one reason she became Anglican is that, ‘God is in the fighting.’ Not just the fighting, of course — much of that is petty, ungodly, un-Jesus-y. But the uncertainty of it all — fighting for or against the Three Chapters. Believing that Chalcedon is the one hope for orthodoxy. Gathering together all the evidence you can find, just as Rusticus and Facundus did in the sixth century. God is with us in the struggle to learn and defend the Truth.

We do not know for certain what the exact shape of orthodoxy’s road will be. Often, it is ratified after the fact. Indeed, it wasn’t until Chalcedon in 451 that the ‘Second’ Ecumenical Council of 381 was really and truly upheld as a universal council — and what makes it so different from the unratified, non-ecumenical Council of Sardica of 344? Outside of strong papal disapproval of Second Ephesus (448) (Leo calls it a ‘den of robbers’, latrocinium), is it so different from the First Council of Ephesus (now the ‘Third’ Ecumenical Council) in 431?

We are the heirs of these councils — by faith in the Holy Spirit, we can believe that what the council fathers approved was orthodoxy. But to the people who lived through it — nothing was written. Not yet.

Who knows what the future will mean for our days?

*And a significant swathe of western/Latin ecclesiastics, including the whole diocese of Aquileia and a certain Facundus of Hermiana who wrote a book In Defense of the Three Chapters and Victor of Tonnena, who wrote a chronicle. And loads more.