MONOPHYSITISM , meaning "one nature" and referring to the person of Jesus Christ, is the name given to the rift that gradually developed in Eastern Christendom after the Council of Chalcedon in 451. While the definition agreed upon at the council laid down that Christ should be acknowledged "in two natures," human and divine, the properties of each nature retaining their identity, the Monophysites held that after the incarnation the two natures became one, so that all the thoughts and acts of the Savior were those of a single unitary being, God in Christ.
The germ of Monophysitism may be found in the logos-sarx (Word-flesh) theology of the Alexandrian church. The question of how Christ's personality should be acknowledged could not be avoided, however, once the Creed of Nicaea (325) confessed that he was "of one substance with the Father." If this was so, how was Christ to be considered of one substance with man? Fifty years later, the answer was given uncompromisingly by Apollinaris, bishop of Laodicea in Syria, a friend of Athanasius and an Alexandrian-trained theologian. Scripture, he maintained, emphasized that Christ was "one." In De fide et incarnatione he wrote, "There is no distinction in Holy Scripture between the Word and His flesh; He is one energy, one person, one hypostasis [individuality], at once wholly God and wholly man." This exactly summed up what was to become the Monophysite position: Christ was "out of two natures," one.
Apollinaris's opinions aroused the opposition of the Cappadocian fathers and were condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 381, but his works circulated widely under the names of orthodox personalities, and as such they influenced profoundly the theology of Cyril of Alexandria (412–444). Cyril, however, was willing to admit at least the mystical reality of the two natures after the incarnation. His successor as patriarch of Alexandria, Dioscorus (444–451), less subtle and more impetuously ambitious for his see, made an uncompromising one-nature Christology the basis of his theology, and enunciated it in his vindication of the archimandrite Eutyches at the Second Council of Ephesus in August 449 (the "Robber Council"). The Council of Chalcedon reversed this situation, and Dioscorus himself was condemned (though for indiscipline rather than for heresy) and exiled. However, a large proportion of Eastern Christians, especially in Egypt, showed that they supported the one-nature Christology and rejected Chalcedon.
Dioscorus died in exile at Gangra in Paphlagonia in 454. Three years later his supplanter, the former archpriest Proterius, who had been consecrated by Egyptian bishops at Chalcedon, was lynched. Another former presbyter of Cyril, Timothy Ailuros (d. 477), was consecrated bishop by the anti-Chalcedonians. Although Timothy was also exiled, until 482 the Church of Alexandria was divided between an anti-Chalcedon majority and a Chalcedonian minority.
Schism, in the sense of establishing a rival church with its own hierarchy, was far from the minds of Timothy and his supporters. They were entirely loyal to the empire politically, but they aimed at persuading the emperor and his advisers to abandon the Tome of Leo and the Council of Chalcedon in favor of their one-nature interpretation of the theology of Cyril. Timothy opposed Eutyches' belief that Christ's human nature was not the same as that of ordinary man. In 475 the anti-Chalcedonians came near to success when the usurper Basiliscus, who had forced the legitimate emperor Zeno (474–491) into exile, issued an edict declaring his adherence to the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople and both councils of Ephesus, and declaring as anathema the Tome of Leo and " all that was said and done at Chalcedon in innovation of the holy symbol of Nicaea."
In 476 Basiliscus fell, largely because of the support given to Zeno by the patriarch of Constantinople, Acacius, who was determined to protect the prerogatives of his see against possible renewal of threats from Alexandria. On July 28, 482, in an attempt to reunite the church in Egypt and reconcile it to communion with Constantinople, Zeno issued a circular letter, known as the Henotikon, to the "bishops, monks, and laity of Alexandria, Egypt, and Cyrenaica." This letter, drafted on Acacius's advice, reaffirmed the creedal statements of Nicaea, Constantinople, and the first council at Ephesus (431), condemned Nestorius and Eutyches, accepted the Twelve Anathemas of Cyril (which tended toward one-nature Christology), and proclaimed that Jesus Christ, consubstantial with both God and man, and "incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and Theotokos is one and not two." Anyone who thought differently was anathema. The Henotikon avoided denouncing Chalcedon as such, which would have removed from Constantinople its legal superiority, grounded in Canon 28 of that council, over the other sees in the East; but the letter went just far enough to secure the uneasy agreement of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The popes, however, refused to accept the Henotikon and denounced the restoration of communion between Acacius and Peter Mongus, patriarch of Alexandria (482–490), as "double-dealing."
The Acacian Schism lasted from 484 to 519. During this time Monophysite opinions hardened in Egypt and Syria, while the emperor Anastasius (491–518) personally favored them. The Monophysites found a spokesman in Severus, a monk from a noble ecclesiastical family in Pisidia who in November 512 was promoted to be patriarch of Antioch. During his six years of rule he evolved a theology based almost entirely on Cyril's teachings. Severus's Christological beliefs, expressed repeatedly in tracts and a massive correspondence (of which four thousand letters and fragments have survived), might be summed up as follows: "The Fathers have taught us that God, the Word, the Unique One begotten by his Father without beginning, eternally, impassably, and incorporeally, did in the last times for our salvation take flesh of the Holy Spirit and of the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, flesh consubstantial with us, animated by an intelligent and reasoning soul." Christ was both God and man, of one single nature; the ideas of Eutyches and Dioscorus, and the Tome of Leo and the definition of Chalcedon, were alike repudiated. In the last years of Anastasius's reign, the empire was moving rapidly toward Monophysitism. Communion between the four Eastern patriarchates was maintained, at the expense of communion with Rome.
The death of Anastasius in July and the succession of the Latin-speaking and pro-Chalcedonian Justin I (518–527) brought about an immediate change. Communion between Rome and Constantinople was restored in 519. Severus was exiled, along with his chief supporter, Philoxenus, bishop of Hierapolis (Mabbug) in Mesopotamia, and some fifty-five other bishops. Gradually it became clear that if the Monophysite congregations were to survive, a hierarchy would have to be created to administer sacraments to them. Severus, in exile in Alexandria, reluctantly assented to the ordination of presbyters and deacons in 529/30. Great numbers of volunteers came forward. The schism between the Monophysites and Byzantine orthodoxy may be said to date from that moment.
During the reign of Justinian (527–565), the Monophysite movement assumed the form it was to retain through the centuries. In 532 the emperor tried to settle the controversy through a conference aimed at agreeing upon a statement of doctrine based on the Theopaschite interpretation of Christology, that is, that "one of the Trinity suffered in the flesh and was God." Although this came near to the Monophysite position, the emperor's insistence on the canonical status of Chalcedon wrecked the possibility of agreement. Between that time and the death of Theodora in 548, however, the Monophysites had a firm ally in the empress. At the end of 534, Severus was invited to the capital by the emperor, and the following year Theodora secured the election of a new Monophysite patriarch of Alexandria, Theodosius (535–566), and a pro-Monophysite patriarch of Constantinople, Anthimus, bishop of Trebizend (535–536). This was too much for the emperor, the pope, and the Chalcedonians. Anthimus was replaced, and Severus was condemned by a powerful synod held at Constantinople on June 10, 536; the condemnation was confirmed by edict on August 6.
Severus died at Alexandria in February 538. By that time, Justinian, urged on by the papacy, had restored the Chalcedonian line of patriarchs in Alexandria, a factor that more than any other associated the Monophysite patriarch with the Coptic Christians as a national representative of the Egyptians. Though their patriarch, Theodosius, was ordered to Constantinople at the end of 537, the Monophysites, thanks to Theodora, were not without means of reply. A mission under the presbyter Julian was fitted out by the empress and arrived in the kingdom of Nobatia (Nubia) to convert the royal court to Monophysite Christianity. Even more effective was the series of missions carried out by Jacob Baradai (Burd'ana), who had been consecrated bishop of Edessa by Patriarch Theodosius. Between 542 and his death in 578 he crossed and recrossed the whole area between the Bosporus and the Persian frontier, establishing congregations and a Monophysite hierarchy to govern them. The eventual tally of twenty-seven metropolitans and 100,000 clergy all over the eastern part of the Roman Empire given by Baradai's contemporary John of Ephesus (d. 585) may be exaggerated, but clearly Baradai's missions established the Monophysite church on a permanent footing. Not for nothing did the Syrian Monophysites take the name Jacobites, which they have retained to this day.
On the emperor's side, the Fifth General Council held at Constantinople during 553 may be reckoned as another effort to placate the Monophysites, through its condemnation of the Three Chapters (treatises criticizing Cyril's theology by the Antiochene theologians Theodore of Mopsuestia and Ibas of Edessa). In 573 Justin II (565–578) issued a second Henotikon, which again stressed the oneness of Christ, without, however, repudiating Chalcedon. Under Heraclius (610–641), what proved to be the final, though at first the most promising, effort to find a settlement failed. Intrinsically the Monophysites could accept the formula proposed to them by the emperor: that there was one will and one energizing activity in Christ, even if two natures were confessed. For three years following the restoration of the True Cross in Jerusalem in 630, it looked as though this compromise doctrine, known as monoenergism, was providing common ground between Monophysites and Chalcedonians. But once more, suspicion of any formulas that left a shred of authority to Chalcedon, Egyptian distrust of Cyrus "the Caucasian," the emperor's nominee as patriarch of Alexandria, and cleverly orchestrated opposition to monoenergism by Sophronius, patriarch of Jerusalem (634–638), brought the plan to nought. When, within a few years, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria were lost to the Arabs, the Monophysites saw the hand of God in their success against the Byzantines.
By this time, Monophysitism was a missionary faith that had assumed many forms. On the one hand, it rejected outright any idea that the flesh of Christ was liable to suffering—preached by the followers of Julian of Halicarnassus (fl. 520–530)—that is, acceptance of the views of Eutyches; on the other, it accepted the theology of Cyril of Alexandria combined with rejection of the Council of Chalcedon as incompatible with it—represented by the Armenian and Ethiopian churches. The Coptic church and what is known of the Nubian church followed Severus of Antioch more closely and seemed to have been more hostile to Chalcedon and the two-nature Christology enunciated in the Tome of Leo. The Syrian church looked back to its great protagonist, Jacob Baradai. Rejection of Chalcedon, on the one hand, and of the two-nature Christology held in the West and by the Nestorians, on the other, has formed the common ground between various national and regional churches known to other traditions as the Monophysite churches. Reluctantly, these have remained separate from the Eastern Orthodox churches and from the West to form one of the four main divisions of Christianity that have survived to our day.
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W. H. C. Frend (1987)
The schismatic and eventually heretical movement that sprang from the exaggerated insistence on one nature (μόνη φύσις) in Jesus Christ. The actual heretical concept of the absorption of the divine nature in the human nature or vice versa is called eutychianism, even though it is doubtful that the 5th-century Constantinopolitan archimandrite, eutyches, possessed either the knowledge or the desire to found a doctrine contrary to orthodox tradition.
Background. Theological reflection on the nature of the being of Jesus Christ, at once true God and true man, had caused considerable difficulty in the early Church and had given rise to such heresies as docetism, modalism or sabellianism, and arianism. Philosophical speculation under the impulse of both Neoplatonism and, later, Aristotelianism introduced logical considerations that tended to deny that Christ was of the same being or substance as the Father, and therefore truly divine, or that He was at the same time truly human. Soteriological considerations on the other hand played an important part in setting the theological tradition.
The Alexandrians generally, following a Platonic bent, were interested in man's divinization. They took literally the scriptural statement that man was made "in the image and likeness of God" (Gn 1.26); and they found support in Paul's quotations (Acts 17.27–29) of the pagan poets Epimenides ("for in him we live, and move, and have our being") and Aratus ("for we also are his offspring"). They stressed the fact that through Christ's divinity man would eventually be divinized.
The Antiochians, on the other hand, adopting a more literal approach to Scripture and influenced by Aristotelian logic and empiricism, stressed the humanity of Christ, again with Saint Paul insisting that it was in Christ's Resurrection that mankind was redeemed and that through participation in the Resurrection of Christ man would be fulfilled in grace and glory, since Christ restored His own and all humanity through the triumph of His Resurrection.
Cyril and the Controversy. To emphasize the human side of Christ's being, diodore of tarsus spoke of Mary as the Christotokos (Christ-bearer), instead of the traditional theotokos (God-bearer); and nestorius as patriarch of Constantinople attempted in his sermons to force the issue. In reaction, the monks and the clergy called upon cyril of alexandria for assistance. Acting on a commission from Pope celestine i, Cyril seized control of the Council of ephesus (431), condemned Nestorius and, with his twelve anathemas, attempted to root out totally the very possibility of nestorianism, the doctrine that the human nature and the divine nature in Christ were merely a mixture or indwelling of one in the other. To avoid the possibility of alleging that there are "two persons or two sons" in Christ, Cyril seized on the formula μία φύσις το[symbol omitted] θεο[symbol omitted] λόγου σεσαρκωμένη, i.e., one nature of the word God Incarnate. He attributed the phrase to his predecessor in Alexandria, Athanasius; actually the sentence was of Apollinarist origin.
The problem revolved round the meaning of the word φύσις (nature), used by Apollinaris and Nestorius and accepted by Cyril in the sense of a concrete and subsistent nature. In this meaning, it is a perfect synonym for [symbol omitted]πόστασις and πρόσωπον, or person. Used of Christ, φύσις (physis or nature) in this sense meant the one sole Person of the Word, eternally subsistent, Who had extended His proper subsistence to the concrete and complete individual human nature to which He was united by the Incarnation. This is the way Cyril used the words mia physis (one nature) and the manner in which it was employed by the followers of Cyril. When the theologians of the Council of Chalcedon and the Nestorians spoke of two natures in Christ, they were employing an earlier traditional meaning of the word physis, or nature, in which it was completely distinct from the hypostasis or prosōpon as used for the Persons in the theologia of the Trinity.
Cyril and the Monophysites changed the meaning of physis, or nature, to a complete person in dealing with Christ in the economia of salvation, and thus gave rise to the dispute that gravely disturbed the Oriental Church for 1,000 years. They had in mind the destroying of the equivocation of the extreme Nestorian position that admitted two persons in Christ, that of the Word and that of the Son of Mary. But they occasioned the danger of having the human nature of Christ considered as something automatic, deprived of truly human spontaneity and free activity. To avoid this danger, the Council of chalcedon had adopted a dyophysite, or two-nature, explanation, explicitly justifying the concepts and terminology of Cyril, but adapting the meaning of physis to the older Trinitarian terminology and speaking of Christ as "of two natures."
Monophysite Revolt. This terminology was rejected by the Monophysites, beginning with the Egyptians, and their revolt spread through the Orient. In actual fact, the rejection of the Chalcedonian doctrine was verbal or semantic rather than truly doctrinal, and in the course of the subsequent disputes, only a few groups of Monophysites held positions that were actually heretical in the sense of claiming that Christ's divinity absorbed the humanity or vice versa.
Attempts by the imperial authorities to pacify the Monophysites through compromise statements such as the henoticon of Zeno and various decrees of justiniani were of no avail: these decrees were rejected as inadequate by the Monophysites and by the orthodox as dangerous to the doctrinal definition of Chalcedon. The leaders of theological thought among the Monophysites, such as Timothy Aelurus, Peter Mongus, Peter the Fuller, Philoxenus of Mabbugh, James Baradai, and above all severus of antioch, who gave the movement its solid theological foundation and coherence, were not formal heretics. They repudiated the Eutychian explanation, and they fully maintained the integrity of the two natures in Christ after the union in the Incarnation, without mixture or confusion. J. lebon has proved this conclusively in regard to Severus; and more recent study of the writings of the other leaders confirms the testimony of contemporaries of theirs such as Vigilius of Thapsus, Timothy of Constantinople, and later john damascene. The Monophysites proved schismatical in tendency in that they refused to accept the Council of Chalcedon and the obedience demanded by the Holy See as well as by the orthodox-minded emperors. Their position was made finally untenable by the Council of constantinople ii (553), which, although apparently concerned primarily with the condemnation of the Three Chapters and the Nestorian position, so restated the teaching of Chalcedon as to canonize that Council's doctrine. In so doing, Justinian's council failed to prevent problems that would arise in the next century with monothelitism and Monergism; but it did provide the death blow for aberrations such as Theopaschitism, Aphthartodocetism, and those of sects issuing from Severian or Trinitarian Monophysitism.
See Also: christology, controversies on (patristic); three chapters; justinian i, byzantine emperor; constantinople ii, council of
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[f. x. murphy]