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.


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! 😉