1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Monophysites

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24037821911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 18 — Monophysites

MONOPHYSITES (Gr. μονοφυσῖται), the name given to those who hold the doctrine that Christ had but one (μόνος) composite nature (φύσις), and especially to those who maintained this position in the great controversies of the 5th and 6th centuries. The synod of Chalcedon (q.v.) in 451, following the lines of Pope Leo I.’s famous letter, endeavoured to steer a middle course between the so-called Nestorian and Eutychian positions. But the followers of Cyril of Alexandria, and with them those of Eutyches, saw in the Chalcedon decree of two natures only another form of the “Nestorian” duality of persons in Christ, and rose everywhere in opposition. For a century they were a menace not only to the peace of the Church but to that of the empire.

The first stage of the controversy covers the seventy-five years between the council of Chalcedon and the accession of Justinian in 527. In Palestine the fanatical monks led by Theodosius captured Jerusalem and expelled the bishop, Juvenal. When he was restored, after an exile of twenty months, Theodosius fled to Sinai and continued his agitation among the monks, there. In Alexandria an insurrection broke out over the supersession of the patriarch Dioscurus by the orthodox Proterius, who was killed during the struggle. Timothy Aelurus was, chosen bishop, and a synod which he called was so powerful as to impress even the emperor Leo I. at Constantinople, who, however, deposed him as well as Peter Fullo, who at Antioch had usurped the see of the orthodox bishop Martyrius. The short reign of Basiliscus (474–476) favoured the Monophysites, but the restoration of the rightful emperor Zeno marked an attempt at conciliation. On the advice of Acacius, the energetic patriarch of Constantinople, Zeno issued the Henotikon edict (482), in which Nestorius and Eutyches were condemned, the twelve chapters of Cyril accepted, and the Chalcedon Definition ignored. This effort to shelve the dispute was quite in vain. Pope Felix III. saw the prestige of his see involved in this slighting of Chalcedon and his predecessor Leo’s epistle. He condemned and deposed Acacius, a proceeding which the latter regarded with contempt, but which involved a breach between the two sees that lasted after Acacius’s death (489), through the long and troubled reign of Anastasius, and was only healed by Justin I. in 519. The monophysite cause reached its crowning point in the East when Severus was made bishop of Antioch in 513. This man was the stormy petrel of the period. A law student who had been converted from paganism, he became a monophysite monk at Alexandria. Expelled from that city in 513, he went with his followers to stir up strife in Constantinople, and succeeded in bringing about the deposition of the orthodox bishop, Macedonius, and of Flavian, bishop, of Antioch. But Severus himself was deprived in 518: he went back to Alexandria, and became leader of the Phthartolatrai (see below), a subsection of the Monophysites.

Justin I. was only a tool in the hands of his nephew Justinian, who sided with the orthodox and brought about the reconciliation between Rome and Constantinople. In Jerusalem, Tyre, and other centres also, orthodoxy was re-established, In Egypt, however, monophysitism was as strong as ever, and soon at Constantinople the arrogance of Rome caused a reaction, led by Theodora, the wife of the new emperor Justinian (527–565). Justinian himself, with the aid of Leontius of Byzantium (c. 485–543), a monk with a decided turn for Aristotelian logic and metaphysics, had tried to reconcile the Cyrillian and Chalcedonian positions, but he inclined more and more towards the monophysite view, and even went so far as to condemn by edict three teachers (Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret, the opponent of Cyril, and Ibas of Edessa) who were offensive to the monophysites. The Eastern bishops subscribed these edicts, and even Pope Vigilius yielded, in spite of the protests of the Western bishops, and at the 5th General Council (Constantinople, 553) agreed to the condemnation of the “three chapters”[1] and the anathematizing of any who should defend them by an appeal to the Definitions of Chalcedon. In the last years of his life (565) the emperor adopted the extreme Aphthartodocetae position, and only his sudden death prevented this being forced on the Church. His successor, Justin II. took no action either way for six or seven years, and then instituted a quiet but thorough system of suppression, closing monophysite churches and imprisoning their bishops and priests.

Meanwhile monophysitism had split into several factions. Of these that represented by Severus stood nearest to the Christology of Cyril. Their objection to Chalcedon was that it was an innovation, and they fully acknowledged the distinctness of the two natures in Christ, insisting only that they became indissolubly united so that there was only one energy (μία καινὴ θεανδρικὴ ἐνέργεια) of Christ’s will. Thus, as Harnack points out, “there is no trace of a theological difference between Severus and Leontius,” only a difference of terminology and of degree of willingness to assent to the formula of Chalcedon. Severus laid such stress on the human infirmities of Christ as proving that His body was like ours, created and corruptible (φθαρτόν) that his opponents dubbed him and his followers Phthartolatrae—worshippers of the corruptible.[2] The school of Themistius of Alexandria extended the argument to Christ’s human soul, which they said was, like ours, limited in knowledge. Hence their name Agnoetae and their excommunication.

An opposite tendency was that of the Aphthartodocetae or Phantasiastae, represented by Julian, bishop of Halicarnassus, and, in his closing days, by Justinian. They held that Christ’s body was so inseparably united with the Logos as not to be consubstantial with humanity; its natural attributes were so heightened as to make it sinless and incorruptible. An extreme school, the Aktistetae or Gaianists (Gaianus was bishop of Alexandria c. 550) even held that from the moment the Logos assumed the body the latter was uncreated, the human being transmuted into the divine nature; and the Adiaphorites went still further, denying, like Stephen Barsudaili, an Edessan abbot, all distinction of essence not even between the manhood and the Godhead in Christ, but between the divine and the human, and asserting that “all creatures are of the same essence with the Creator.”

A third variety of monophysitism was that known as Theopaschitism, a name given to those who accepted the formula that in the death of Christ “God had suffered and been crucified.” Peter Fullo introduced these words into the Trishagion, and after much controversy the council of Constantinople (555), while disallowing this, gave its sanction to the similar statement—unum crucifixum esse ex sancta et consubstantiali Trinitate. The development of this line of thought led in some thinkers like John Philoponus to a kind of tritheism.

There is no doubt that the disintegration caused by monophysitism largely facilitated the rapid and easy victory of Islam in Syria and Egypt. The “ethical complement” of monophysitism is monothelitism (see Monothelites).

See the Histories of Dogma by A. Harnack, F. Loofs and R. Seeberg; also R. L. Ottley, The Doctrine of the Incarnation.

  1. I.e. (1) The person and writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, (2) the writings of Theodoret in defence of Nestorius, (3) the letter written by Ibas to the Persian Maris.
  2. φθαρτός, corruptible, from φθείρεν, destroy.