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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Does the condemnation of the ‘Three Chapters’ contradict Chalcedon?

Justinian in San Vitale, Ravenna

One of the events of import when looking into Leo the Great’s legacy is the Three Chapters Controversy of the sixth century. Many western bishops and clerics — as well as some of the East — felt that an edict of Justinian condemning ‘Three Chapters’ (544), and the Second Council of Constantinople (553) that approved this edict, undid the work of the Council of Chalcedon (451). As a result, besides writing texts In Defence of the Three Chapters, the opponents of the condemnation put together collections of texts and acts of the Council of Chalcedon to better present their opposition to Justinian (who was likely to depose and exile you if you resisted).

But what are the Three Chapters, and do they contravene the Council of Chalcedon?

The Three Chapters first emerge in an edict of Justinian’s in 544. They are part of his overtures to the Miaphysite/conservative Cyrillian contingent in the eastern Church that was at this time coalescing into its own ecclesial structure in opposition to the imperial church, especially in what will become the Syrian Orthodox Church (traditionally ‘Jacobite’ due to the tireless efforts of one of its founding bishops, Jacob Baradaeus) and the Coptic Orthodox Church.*

I have not as yet read the text of the original edict, but in one of his letters to dissenters, Justinian summarised the contents of the Three condemned Chapters:

If anyone defends Theodore [of Mopsuestia], or the letter allegedly written by Ibas [of Edessa], or the writings of Theodoret [of Cyrrhus] which set forth teachings contrary to the orthodox faith, he is numbered with the heretics and he sets himself outside the catholic faith whose head is the only-begotten Son of God, our Lord and God Jesus Christ. (A Letter on the Three Chapters, trans. K P Wesche, On the Person of Christ: The Christology of Emperor Justinian, p. 158)

How might this potentially abrogate Chalcedon? Well, the chapter against Theodore of Mopsuestia won’t. It is the chapters against Theodoret and Ibas that pose the problem for most — especially, it seems, against Ibas.

Theodoret of Cyrrhus was a tireless critic of Cyril of Alexandria, and wrote a number of dogmatic works, including refutations of Cyrils anti-Nestorian anathemas — anathemas considered essential to orthodoxy in the mid-sixth-century East, whether Miaphysite or Chalcedonian. In fact, the interpretation of Chalcedon produced by the above-quoted letter of Justinian is that Chalcedon approves of Cyril’s anathemas.

Theodoret’s anti-Cyrillian activities got him deposed at the Second Council of Ephesus in 449 — the council Leo dubbed a latrocinium, a den of robbers, in a letter to the Empress Pulcheria. At Chalcedon in 451, the actions of Second Ephesus were undone, including the condemnation of Theodoret on the condition that he give assent to the Tome of Leo as orthodoxy and condemn Nestorius. These things he did; there is a chance that he is one of the few people in antiquity who actually changed his mind.

Since Theodoret was reconciled to the Church at Chalcedon and reinstated as Bishop of Cyrrhus, it struck the supporters of the Three Chapters that a vague condemnation of his anti-Cyrillian writings was dangerously close to contravening Chalcedon.

Ibas of Edessa, on the other hand, appeared at Second Ephesus after having already been tried for heresy, allegedly having said, ‘I do not envy Christ becoming God; what he is, so can I be.’ He was also condemned for having written a letter to ‘Mari’ (which means ‘My Lord’), a Persian; Richard Price reckons that Ibas’ letter was written after 433 when the Antiochene party was reconciled to Cyril of Alexandria to help remove the sting. This letter makes quite clear that before 433, Ibas considered Cyril a heretic.

Ibas’ letter to ‘Mari’ was read out at the Council of Chalcedon as part of the acts of Second Ephesus during Ibas’ reconciliation to the church that, as with Theodoret, included the anathematisation of Nestorius and Eutyches.

Some of the sixth-century Chalcedonians had become what Richard Price in his introduction to The Acts of the Council of Constantinople of 553 calls ‘conciliar fundamentalists’ — they treated the acts of the ecumenical councils the same way a fundamentalist treats the Bible. As a result, if it’s in the official acts, they believe it is to be accepted wholly and uncritically. However, the acts of Chalcedonian are simply the minutes of what transpired, and they include the acts of Second Ephesus, which Chalcedon actively overturned, as well as statements from various bishops not meant to be taken as binding for the Church. Nonetheless, for such readers, Ibas’ letter to ‘Mari’, a Persian, was a stumbling block when Justinian passed his edict.

To others, it was the apparent acceptance of the letter as evidence of Ibas’ orthodoxy by the papal legates and Maximus of Antioch. It is true, the rest of the bishops present did not accept it as such — the most any of them would say was that ‘the documents’ proved his orthodoxy, and that would mean that acts of the synods that tried Ibas, not the letter to ‘Mari’ alone.

I do not think that condemning the letter to ‘Mari’ abrogates the Chalcedonian settlement. First, doing so does not condemn Ibas himself post-Chalcedon, for one thing, which was the major issue at the Council. Second, the opinion of most bishops was not positively in favour of this letter — does endorsement by the papal legates mean endorsement by the whole council? Not necessarily.

Third, and this is the argument put forward by Justinian, a document so anti-Cyrillian cannot be reconciled with the First Council of Ephesus (431) and the spirit of the Chalcedonian Fathers who approved of two of Cyril’s letters as official doctrine and commended Leo on the basis of his own alleged Cyrillianism.

Fourth, when you read the acts of Chalcedon, it is evident that these bishops have little or no interest in reconciling Ibas at all. When the imperial magistrates running the show first ask them if they are willing to readmit Ibas into communion, there is one of the most awkward silences in Church history. No one wanted to do it. They were forced into it by circumstance and the council’s goal of completely overturning Second Ephesus, not by their own will.

Interestingly, there is less argument about condemning the vague selection of works by Theodoret. Since his person is left unscathed, and none of those documents made their way into the acts to be adored by conciliar fundamentalists, he is less of a hot topic than Ibas, even though his memory is also more widely regarded.

In sum, I don’t think the Three Chapters abrogate Chalcedon. They are, to a degree, in the same spirit as the Chalcedonian Fathers, but adding a stronger Cyrillian emphasis to the doctrine of the church. I do, however, think Justinian was breaking the rules when he tried to enforce them by edict.

*Justinian, in writing to the opponents of his condemnation of the Three Chapters, denies that he is making overtures to Miaphysites, but argues that there is a nascent Nestorian resurgence that the edict is countering. That’s false — even non-Nestorian ‘Antiochene’ Christology had long ago entered into critical decline with the Empire years before this.