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Church History Debates: What Is Monophysitism?

It seems clear from Scripture that Jesus was both human and divine. Could it be that both natures combined to form a single, hybrid nature? That’s the logic behind a view called “monophysitism.”

Background and Summary

To understand monophysitism, it’s helpful to go back and look at the debate over whether Jesus was one or two persons. On the face of it, it would be pretty odd for Jesus to be “two persons,” but that’s what one church leader accused another church leader of teaching. Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria, had accused Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, of teaching that Jesus was more than just two natures (divine and human), but that Jesus was also two persons. Nestorianism was thus condemned as a heresy. You can read about the Nestorian controversy here.

It was the mid-400s. Cyril’s successor as patriarch of Alexandria was the ambitious Dioscurus. When an archimandrite (head abbot) in Constantinople named Eutyches began to accuse the church leaders there of being Nestorian in their Christology, Dioscurus seized the opportunity to challenge his rival, the patriarch of Constantinople.

So, what did Eutyches teach (in his zeal against Nestorianism)? Eutyches went beyond Cyril (who taught that Jesus was one person with two natures) in teaching that Christ had only a single nature following the incarnation. After condemnation at a synod in Constantinople, Eutyches appealed to the Emperor as well as Pope Leo I.

Leo, a theologian, wrote a reply, but before it could be read, a council in Ephesus was quickly convened. Before the opposition could attend, the “Robber Council” ended with a victory declared for the pro-Eutyches party. Dioscurus promptly condemned both the patriarch of Constantinople and the pope.

The church replied by convening the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which condemned Eutyches and asserted two distinct natures in Christ. Though very similar to Nestorian’s views which had been condemned in the previous council, Leo did not attempt to define the unity of the two natures as Nestorian had done. Thus, Leo was able to assert the two natures without tackling the unity of Christ, the details of which had gotten Nestorius into trouble.[1]

The Council of Chalcedon held that, Christ was “complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man,” having “two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.”[2] In defining orthodoxy between the extremes of Arianism’s neglect of Christ’s deity and Eutychian and monophysite neglect of Christ’s humanity,

“Chalcedon not only was important for its own day, in setting limits to Christological speculation, but it remains significant for us today, for if we ignore it, nothing is easier than to drift back into the errors it was intended to stop…The Creed of Chalcedon became our standard for measuring orthodoxy.”[3]

The Chalcedon “Definition” included a reaffirmation of the creeds of 325 and 381, as well as two letters of Cyrus against Nestorius, Leo’s Tome, and a new creed.[4] In fact, Chalcedon declared itself to be the final creed, which is why future ones were instead called “confessions.”[5] With all its accomplishments, however, Chalcedon did not receive acceptance by everybody. Those in opposition to Chalcedon became known as “monophysites.” Their opposition and division from the larger, catholic church left their provinces vulnerable to later Muslim takeover.[6] Monophysite communities still exist in the Coptic churches in Africa, the Middle East, and Russia.[7]

Proponent of Christ’s Two Natures

Leo I, bishop of Rome, was the first to emphasize apostolic secession by using Matthew 16:19 (“You are Peter”). He secured legal backing for the special prominence of his office from Emperor Valentinian III. His “Tome” was heavily relied upon at Chalcedon. As an able administrator, Leo increased the civil role of his position. He even succeeded in persuading Attila the Hun to turn back from Rome.[8] Pope Leo I’s “Tome” was included in the Chalcedon “Definition” which steered a course between Arianism and monophysitism.

Opponent of Christ’s Two Natures

  • Dioscurus was the over-ambitious patriarch of Alexandria who saw in Eutyches a chance to politically advance. After a hurried council, he condemned both the patriarch of Constantinople and the pope himself.[9]
  • Eutyches, archimandrite of a monastery at Constantinople, taught that Christ had a single nature following the incarnation.[10]
  • Severus, the first great monophysite, accepted two natures of Christ but believed that at the incarnation, a synthesis into one hypostasis (nature) occurred. His views were much the same as those of Cyril.[11]
  • Julian of Halicarnassus and Gaianus of Alexandra pushed the monophysite position into the realm of heresy when they taught that Christ had a glorified (i.e. indestructible) state from the moment of incarnation, not from resurrection as orthodox Christians believe.[12]

Biblical Basis of Christ’s Two Natures

Here is a passage of Scripture which indicates Jesus remains both human and divine, as both “Son of Man” and “Son of God”:

“When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” (Matthew 16:13-16, NIV)

Excerpt

From Eutyches:

“I admit that our Lord was of two natures before the union, but after the union one nature…I follow the doctrine of the blessed Cyril and the holy fathers and the holy Athanasius. They speak of two natures before the union, but after the union and incarnation they speak of one nature not two.”[13]


 [1] Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988), 179.

[2] Earle E. Cairns, Christianity through the Centuries: a History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1981), 136.

[3] Brown, 183.

[4] Wright, David F. Wright, “Councils and Creeds,” in Introduction to the History of Christianity, ed. Tim Dowley (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 183.

[5] Brown, 181.

[6] Brown, 184.

[7] Cairns, 136.

[8] Michael A. Smith, “Leo the Great,” in Introduction to the History of Christianity, ed. Tim Dowley (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 184.

[9] Brown, 179.

[10] Brown, 179.

[11] Brown, 184-185.

[12] Brown, 185.

[13] Eutyches, “The Admissions of Eutyches,” in Documents of the Christian Church, ed. Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 53.

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