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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Favourite passages of Leo’s Tome

Christ_Pantocrator_mosaic_from_Hagia_Sophia_2744_x_2900_pixels_3.1_MBA few weeks ago, I misplaced my photocopy of Eduard Schwartz’s critical edition of Leo’s Tome. I assumed that I had tossed it out by accident since I had been clearing out a lot of old papers and things from my flat. Then, a week later, I found it — in my wardrobe, next to my Yellow Submarine T-shirt. My world makes little sense, it would seem. When I proclaimed this victorious discovery on Facebook, a friend asked what my favourite passages of the Tome were.

I’m not sure, actually. Nonetheless, based on my scribbled marginalia and interlinear notes, here are some passages that have caught my eye over the years.

One that stood out the very first time I read the Tome is a quick turn of phrase:

singulariter mirabilis et mirabiliter singularis

In context (in English) this is:

But that birth, singularly wondrous and wondrously singular, is not to be understood in such a way that through the newness of the creation the property of its type was removed.

This is a nice, little chiasmus, rhetorically balanced and pleasant to the ear. A few pages later, Leo writes:

infantia paruuli ostenditur humilitate cunarum, magnitudo altissimi declaratur uocibus angelorum.

the infancy of the boy is revealed by the lowliness of the cradle, the greatness of the most high is declared by the voices of angels

My marginale says, ‘Very good isocolon.’ Isocolon is a rhetorical device where parallel phrases (or cola) have equal length. Here we have two cola of five words in the order subject + genitive singular + passive verb + ablative of agent + genitive plural. They do not have equal numbers of syllables, though. Nonetheless, this is a nice example of isocolon and Leo’s use of balanced and parallelled passages throughout the Tome.

In fact, this is what makes the Tome such a pleasant read — Leo’s use of rhetorical balance in this way. The theology Leo is presenting in the Tome is two-nature Christology, so balance in argument and retoric makes a lot of sense. Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum, ‘The medium is the message,’ comes to mind.

Looking at my notes, I see many other instances of isocolon.

Leo is making the point about the duality of what is going on in the Incarnate Christ throughout the Tome, and one of the passages I like is:

esurire sitire lassescere atque dormire euidenter humanum est, sed quinque panibus quinque milia hominum satiare et largiri Samaritanae aquam uiuam, cuius haustus bibenti praestet ne ultra iam sitiat, supra dorsum maris plantis non desidentibus ambulare et elationes fluctuum increpata tempestate consternere sine ambiguitate diuinum est.

To hunger, to thirst, to tire, and to sleep are evidently human, but to satisfy five thousand people with five loaves and to bestow living water to the Samaritan woman, the drinking of which would maintain the one drinking so as not to thirst anymore, to walk upon the back of the sea with unsinking steps and to subdue the rising of the waves with the increased storm without doubt is divine.

Here Leo is emphasising that Christ maintains all the properties of humanity as well as of divinity. He gives four examples. For humanity, he gives us a nice example of brevitas, giving only one conjunction (atque), but for the divinity, he extends the examples into a periodic structure with subordinate clauses. The punchiness of the human examples is pleasant to my ear, and the way he makes the divine bigger and grander is pleasant theology.

I don’t think Leo makes the unity of Christ’s person as clear as he could in the Tome — this is because the error he has in mind is the over-unification of the natures, the reduction of the humanity of Christ to a nothingness liable to absorption in the divinity. He does say, however:

For although in the Lord Jesus Christ there is one person of God and man, nevertheless it is from one whence the insult is common in each, from the other whence the glory is common. For from ours it happens that the humanity is less than the Father, from the Father it happens that the divinity is equal to the Father. Therefore, because of this unity of person that is to be understood in each nature both the son of man is observed to have descended from heaven, when the son of God assumed flesh from the virgin from whom he was born, and again the son of God is said to have been crucified and died …

Severus of Antioch took issue in the 500s with Leo claiming Christ to have one person and maintained that Leo actually believed that Christ had two persons and was thus a heretic. Severus’s argument is that Leo spends too much time discussing how different actions and words of Christ pertain to divinity or humanity, not enough time stressing what is communis.

Most especially at issue is another passage that is rhetorically pungent but perhaps not Leo’s theological best:

agit enim utraque forma cum alterius communione quod proprium est, uerbo scilicet operante quod uerbi est, et carne exequente quod carnis est.

For each form operates in communion with the other what is its own, with the Word, that is, performing that which is of the Word, and the flesh acting that which is of the flesh.

Leo goes on, saying, ‘One of these glistens with miracles, the other succumbs to injuries. And just as the Word does not recede from the equality of the Father’s glory, so the flesh does not set aside the nature of our species…’

For the Syrian Orthodox, the Coptic, Ethiopian, and Eritrean Orthodox, and the Armenian Apostolic believers, this is grave heresy. For we western Christians, it is non-controversial dogma. Either way, I do think it’s pretty good rhetoric.

Philology and theology — just the way I like it.

If you find yourself suddenly thirsty for more Leo, the Tome is in English here.

Development of ‘Fathers’ of the Church 2: The Role of Christological Controversy

If, as posited in the last post on this theme, the fifth and sixth centuries are the era of the development of the concept of ‘Fathers’ of the Church, it is worth noting that this also the era of the unsolved Christological crises, beginning with the accession of Nestorius to the See of Constantinople in 428.

Normally, we imagine that the ‘Nestorian problem’ was dealt with in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, but the history of Byzantine Christianity demonstrates how far wrong we are in such an assessment. Not only was there an uprising in Palestine against Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, there was also a general uprising throughout Egypt in favour of Dioscorus, the ‘Miaphysite’ (Monophysite — highly conservative Cyrillian) Patriarch who opposed Chalcedon’s Latin, Leonine settlement.

Theologians throughout the eastern Mediterranean were opposed to Chalcedon, and their opposition did not die down with time. As one generation of Mia/Monophysites died, a new generation rose up to take its place. Thus we move from the generation of Dioscorus to that of the brilliant representatives of that movement, Philoxenus of Mabbûg and Severus of Antioch. They would in turn be succeeded by the likes of John of Ephesus and Jacob Baradaeus (two of the founders of the Syrian or ‘Jacobite’ Orthodox Church). Dioscorus’ most recent successor, who was part of a line from him through the likes of Timothy Aelurus (‘the Weasel’), Pope Shenouda III, recently died.

On the other hand, despite the accusations of ‘Nestorianism’ hurled at Leo and Chalcedon by Severus of Antioch and his fellow Miaphysites, those Christians who saw themselves as in line with Nestorius found themselves forcibly excluded from the Roman Empire under Justinian in the early sixth century; they accordingly went to Persia and beyond, forming the ‘Church of the East’, and have had the misnomer ‘Assyrian Orthodox’ applied to them in the past. In Diarmaid McCulloch’s A History of Christianity, you can see a photo of a Chinese monastery founded by the Church of the East in the Middle Ages as well as a stele with both Chinese and Syriac on it, showing a Christian thoughtworld sensitive to local Taoism. Modern scholarship seems to have taken to calling the Church of the East and its historical forebears ‘Dyophysite’, a term that I feel muddies the waters, because it could be applied to Latin and Chalcedonian theology just as easily.

The years following 451, in other words, were not a time of Christological ease and theological straightforwardness. Everyone was vying for position as the accepted orthodoxy of the imperial church, especially the Chalcedonians and the conservative Cyrillian Monophysites.

As they fought and argued and sought to prove that they were the true successors of the Apostles and the Holy Fathers of Nicaea, both sides were busily pushing forth the same theologians as evidence for their orthodoxy. In a world already relatively traditionalist, the traditionalism of the succeeding generations of Christologians was sealed. To prove they were truly orthodox and in line with tradition, out would come Sts. Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus and Cyril of Alexandria. Both sides would distance themselves from Nestorius and Eutyches.

A major result of this traditional, patristic approach to doing theology is that both sides pretty much have the same Church Fathers for the period before 451. The possible exceptions are Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Ibas of Edessa, who had particular teachings condemned at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 during the Three Chapters Controversy, much to the chagrin of many western bishops — the eastern bishops, who felt these men and their positions too ‘Nestorian’, were willing to grant this concession to their Miaphysite opponents.

After 451, the traditions mostly diverge, although Abba Isaiah of Scetis, from an anti-Chalcedonian monastery in Gaza, is among those ascetics revered by both sides of the conflict surrounding Chalcedon. Thus, Leo the Great and Maximus the Confessor are Church Fathers to the Chalcedonians, while Severus of Antioch and Philoxenus of Mabbûg are Fathers to the anti-Chalcedonians, and Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius are Church Fathers of the ‘Nestorians’.

What this also shows us is that a Church Father is not simply any ancient Christian writer. Not for the people who were alive in the fifth and sixth centuries — let alone the rest of the Byzantine and Mediaeval worlds — at any rate. It may be healthy for us to have Severus of Antioch in the Routledge Early Church Fathers Series alongside Leo the Great. It is probably not so bad to read the exegesis of Julian Eclanum beside Augustine of Hippo, or Theodore of Mopsuestia with Cyril of Alexandria. But for many Christians of much of the history of Christianity, these pairs of authors are not pairs of Fathers, but of a Father and an opponent, a heretic even.

The Venerable Bede a Church Father?

You may have noticed that when St. Bede the Venerable was Saint of the Week on Wednesay that I mentioned his commentaries on Scripture being used in IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. This may seem more than a little odd, given that the Venerable Bede is, well, mediaeval.

Indeed, Bede is thoroughly and indisputably mediaeval. He was born in the 600’s and died in 735. The fiction of a Roman Empire existed in the West as Italy was nominally under the Emperor in Constantinople, but in reality the Roman Empire in the West was long gone, with no Emperor in Italy since 476. Justinian, the great codifier of Roman law and sponsor of the last flourishing of Classical art as well as the first flourishing of Byzantine art had died in 566. Barbarians had divided the West into a variety of kingdoms — Frankish, Anglo-Saxon, Visigothic, and so forth.

Bede is not ancient.

So why include him in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture?

Those, such as Thomas C. Oden, who are calling for mainline and evangelical Christians alike to rediscover the Church Fathers and “paleo-orthodoxy” usually call us to the first five centuries of consensual Christian thought. Yet even Oden, general editor of IVP’s ACCS, knows that that isn’t really enough.

AD 500 is an acceptable cut-off point for the Classical world, although I’m willing to stretch it to Justinian’s death because of how monumental his reign was and how decidedly different the map of the world was — legally, artistically, politically — be the end of his reign. Yet if we cut of the age of the Church Fathers at 500, we’re missing Second Constantinople and its very important recasting of Chalcedonian doctrine into terms a Monophysite could hopefully reconcile with.

By cutting off the Age of the Fathers at 500, in the East, we’re missing Severus of Antioch and his brilliant statements of Cyrilline Christology in the 500’s. We’re missing St. Maximus the Confessor and St. John Climacus (saint of the week here) in the 600’s — one very important for Christology, the other for mysticism East and West — and St. John of Damascus (saint of the week here) in the 700’s — very important for his defence of icons and consolidation of orthodox doctrine.

In the West, we miss St. Benedict of Nursia and St. Gregory the Great in the 500’s — one vital for the development of monasticism and spirituality in the West, the other for biblical interpretation, conversion of the Germanic peoples, and pastoral concern — as well, of course, as Boethius and Cassiodorus, also very important and very popular Christian writers of the 500’s. We have to leave out Isidore of Seville from the 600’s — important for pretty much every idea under the sun (and beyond) throughout the Middle Ages.

Perhaps a temporal designation for “Church Father” does not quite work. The Eastern Orthodox do not do this, but instead consider the Fathers as a conceptual designation, thus including St. Simeon the New Theologian (1100’s) and St. Gregory Palamas (1300’s) as Church Fathers although they stand outside the Age of the Fathers.

Nonetheless, the idea of a Church Father tends towards the early, not the late, towards the ancient, not the mediaeval.

The Church Fathers are those who men* who have left behind a written legacy that is orthodox, who had a certain holiness of life, and who were part of the formation of Christian orthodoxy. So men like the Cappadocians or St. Augustine of Hippo who have laid foundations of theology that are so important that even today’s heterodox read them to gain insight, or those like St. Benedict and the Desert Fathers and Mothers who laid the foundations for monasticism and spirituality that are so important that our vision of monasticism would have been wildly different without them are easy choices for Church Fathers.

However, there is no ancient consensus, just as there was no mediaeval consensus, no Reformation consensus, and there is no contemporary consensus. What the early mediaeval and Byzantine theologians and spiritual writers provide us is a consolidation and synthesis of the patristic legacy.

Thus we get settlements over the date of Easter, the spread of Benedictine monasticism and Augustinianism in the West as well as a certain level of liturgical systemisation. By 735, the western church was inescapably mediaeval, but without the early mediaeval synthesists, the shape of the mediaeval church and beyond would have been very different.

In the East we have a similar story with Christology, icons, hesychastic monasticism and so forth in the early Byzantine world. By 749, with the death of John of Damascus, we have a thoroughly Byzantine church in the East.

Back to the Venerable Bede. What Bede provides us is the same thing any of the other Fathers provides us. He gives us a different perspective from today’s. He provides us an insight into an older form of orthodoxy and an older way of reading Scripture. He also gives us insight into the holiness of the people who lived in the age that forged our own orthodoxy and our reading of Scripture.

So, no, Bede isn’t ancient. But I believe that Bede is a Church Father and well worth reading, especially since he is the only Englishman whom the Church of Rome recognises as a Doctor of the Church!

*The “Church Mothers”, sadly, do not exist because most women in antiquity and the Early Middle Ages did not write. Our ancient Christian female writers are Perpetua (possibly), a few of the Desert Mothers (who are not so much writers as part of an oral tradition), and Egeria who left us a travelogue of her trip to the Holy Land in the fourth century. Sadly, the other holy women of this period did not leave us a written record, despite the high level of literacy amongst many of them.

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! 😉