HOME | contents | origin | Teaching of: St Cyril | Eutyches | the robber council | tome of Leo | Council of Chalcedon | its success | failure of its policy | 2 other results | papal supremacy | later history | the 6 councils | monophysite churches today | consequences
The fourth great heresy was Monophysitism the belief that our Lord has but
one Nature, the Divine one.
As Apollinarianism was a reaction against Arianism,
and Nestorianism a reaction against Apollinarianism,
so Monophysitism was a reaction against Nestorianism.
Nestorianism was the exaggeration characteristic of Antioch;
Monophysitism the exaggeration characteristic of Alexandria.
The rationalist critic is tempted to Nestorianism,
the mystic and the monk to Monophysitism.
We find Monophysite tendencies in those who dislike thinking of our Lord as truly Man with human limitations such as ignorance or hunger and thirst, and who prefer to think of Him only as enthroned in Heaven or as He appears in the Revelation of St. John, and not as He appears in the Gospels a Man among men.
Monophysitism is not so dangerous a heresy as Nestorianism,
at any rate for modern people.
It is worse to neglect and undervalue the Godhead of our Lord than to neglect and undervalue His Manhood.
The School of Alexandria, which became the strongest centre of Monophysitism, interpreted Scripture in a very different way from the theologians of Antioch such as St. John Chrysostom or Theodore of Mopsuestia.
The theologians of Antioch interpreted the Bible in the same way as modern
They tried to find out the exact sense intended by the author
and studied the historical situation at the time when each book was written.
The theologians of Alexandria, on the other hand,
regarded every incident, every person, even every number in the Bible
as representing or typifying something in Christian teaching.
This method has its value for devotional purposes,
but it can easily be misused,
and at Alexandria it was carried to extravagant lengths.
It is true that it was used by the Apostles, as when St. Peter applied
His office let another take,
to the substitution of St. Matthias for Judas Iscariot (Acts 1.20),
and when St. Paul interpreted
Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn:,
as referring to the duty of faithful Christians to provide for their clergy
(I Cor.9.9; I Tim.5.18).
Many instances of this method will be found in the chapter headings in the Authorized Version of the Bible, especially in the prophets, and also in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.
The mystical tendency of the Alexandrian mind was strengthened by the immense influence of the monks.
The Egyptian monk was very different from the medieval Benedictine monk.
He was usually a layman, often quite uneducated.
He had fled from the world and from all that most men value in life to live alone with God in the desert and to spend his time in contemplation.
The best of the Egyptian monks were some of the wisest and shrewdest men that the Church has ever produced;
but the less spiritual monks easily became fanatics.
When the monks of Nitria appeared in great multitudes armed with wooden clubs to defend what they believed to be the true faith or to destroy what they regarded as heresy, they were a force before which even the Roman legions trembled, for they had nothing to lose and no fear of death.
It was these monks who were from first to last the main support of the Monophysite party.
Cyril of Alexandria, who died in 444, had used the expression "one
nature of the Word, though this nature had assumed flesh".
But he had explained it in his letters to John of Antioch as practically equivalent to "one Person".
Nevertheless, this phrase became the slogan of the ultra-Alexandrian party who were bent on crushing even the moderate supporters of the school of Antioch.
Controversy was still raging about the precise position of Ibas,
bishop of Edessa on the Euphrates,
one of the leaders of the Antiochene party.
Eutyches, an abbot at Constantinople, an old man of seventy, denounced him.
Eutyches was no theologian, but he was an eager partisan.
He had a great reputation for having all his life practiced all the monastic virtues, and he was now said to teach that the Manhood of Christ was swallowed up in His Godhead like a drop of vinegar in the ocean.
Eutyches was brought before a local council at Constantinople under the
presidency of Flavian, then archbishop, in 448, and was condemned.
He appealed to the Emperor Theodosius.
Dioscoros, the successor of Cyril of Alexandria, supported him and a council,
which was intended to be general, was summoned to Ephesus in 449.
This council, notorious not only for its theological blunders but also for the extreme violence of its proceedings is known as the "Latrocinium", or Robber Council.
He was supported by the troops of the Government and by a large body of fierce "parabolani" (district visitors) whom he had brought from Alexandria.
Eutyches declared that he believed "two natures before the Incarnation,
but one nature after it" (an absurd statement, for clearly there could be no Manhood of Christ at all before the Incarnation).
Dioscoros, amid shouts of "Away with Eusebius!" (the accuser of Eutyches, bishop of Dorylaeum in Phrigia), "burn him alive! tear him in two! as he divides, let him be divided!", declared that Eutyches was orthodox.
Flavian of Constantinople was condemned, deprived of his See, and so maltreated that he died soon afterwards.
Domnus of Antioch, though he had weakly consented to the deposition of Flavian, was himself deposed and retired to a monastery.
At this time St. Leo,
one of the few Popes who have been great theologians as well as great statesmen,
occupied the see of Rome.
He had at once seen the error of Eutyches
and had written a declaration on the subject,
the famous "Tome of Leo".
This was taken to the Robber Council by his legate, Julius of Puteoli;
but he was given no chance of reading it,
and he managed to escape without having signed the condemnation of Flavian
which most of the bishops present were compelled to sign.
Leo, as soon as he heard the news,
repudiated both the Robber Council and the deposition of Flavian,
and wrote to the Emperor Theodosius II demanding a fresh Council.
He did not get much sympathy from the Emperor.
But on July 28, 450, Theodosius was killed by a fall from his horse.
His sister Pulcheria succeeded, and married an elderly senator named Marcian.
The first act of her reign was the execution of Chrysaphius,
the godson and patron of Eutyches.
The policy of the Court immediately changed.
Marcian wrote to Leo proposing a new Council.
This Council, the last of the four great Councils, met on October 8, 451,
at Chalcedon on the Asiatic shore of the Bosporus opposite Constantinople.
It was larger than any of its predecessors for 600 bishops were present either in person or by proxies.
At Nicea there had been 318, at Constantinople 150, at Ephesus 158.
The legates of Leo took a prominent part in the Council, though the duties of the chairman appear to have been exercised by the commissioners of the emperor Marcian who suppressed disorder with a firm hand.
The Council of Chalcedon rejected all that had been done at the Robber Council,
and condemned both Nestorianism and Eutychianism.
It accepted the Tome of Leo as orthodox, but issued its own definition of faith.
It declared that Jesus Christ is one Person in two Natures
(not, as the Monophysites demanded, from two Natures)
without confusion, change, division, or severance:
the difference of the Natures being in no way abolished because of the union,
but rather the perfection of each being preserved,
and both concurring into one Person and one Hypostasis.
Thus the doctrine of one Person in two Natures became the middle way along
which the Church was in future to walk.
This definition has been criticized by modern writers on the ground that
it leaves the mystery of the Incarnation unsolved.
It is not a fair criticism.
The mystery of the Incarnation cannot be solved.
What the Council of Chalcedon did was
to condemn the theory of Eutyches,
while confirming the condemnation by the Council of Ephesus
of the theory ascribed to Nestorius.
It thus preserved the balance of the two Natures, the Godhead and the Manhood.
But though it was successful in its theology,
it was far from being successful in its policy.
We may think that Dioscorus, after his behaviour at the Robber Council, did not deserve much sympathy, but the condemnation and deposition of the Patriarch of Alexandria by a Greek Council raised the national feeling of the Egyptians to fever pitch, and a schism took place which has not yet been healed and which had the most disastrous consequences, for it prepared the way for the Moslem conquest two centuries later.
The Council of Chalcedon broke up the alliance between Rome and Alexandria,
now more than a century old.
Rome was completely committed to Chalcedon.
Leo and his successors,
laying emphasis on the growing papal claims, would make no concession.
On the other hand, Alexandria, supported by almost all Egypt and by the Monophysite party which was dominant in Syria and Palestine, would never accept Chalcedon.
The imperial Government at Constantinople was more interested in political expediency than in theological truth.
When Rome fell into the hands of the barbarians,
Constantinople became Monophysite in order to hold Egypt.
When there was a prospect of recovering Rome from the Goths,
the Government returned to orthodoxy and tried to reconcile the Monophysites,
and when that failed, to suppress them.
Besides condemning Eutyches,
the Council of Chalcedon had two other important results.
It was this council which finally issued our Nicene Creed exactly as we have it now, except the words "and the Son" (and including the word "Holy", applied to the Church, which has been accidentally omitted but restored in the Revised Prayer Book of 1928).
It was this Council, which divided the Church in the Roman Empire into five
Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.
Constantinople was given the second place, "because it is New Rome", by the 28th canon of the Council, which Rome would never accept.
The five patriarchates did not include countries outside the Roman Empire such as the British Isles.
The Church in the Persian kingdom had its own Patriarch independent of all the others, and this "Church of the East", though not represented at Chalcedon, accepted both the Chalcedonian definition and the Tome of Leo (before 540).
Although St. Leo was the leading personality behind the Council of Chalcedon,
although the speeches of his legates were greeted with shouts of "Peter
has spoken by Leo", the Council did not recognize the papal supremacy.
It is true that Leo magnified the rights of his See in every possible way, but the Council did not simply accept his decision as that of a master.
The bishops, while recognizing the Tome of Leo as orthodox, produced their own definition.
At that time it had come to be generally believed that St. Peter had been Bishop of Rome and that Leo was his successor -
a tradition that we now know to have been mistaken.
But even if the Council had recognized the papal supremacy, our rejection
of that supremacy would not be affected.
We do not believe that the Council could not err, but that it did not err.
We accept its doctrinal decrees as being in accordance with Holy Scripture and as having been accepted by the universal Church (except the Monophysite churches whose rejection of them, as will be seen, was due to partisanship and politics);
but we do not hold that everything it said and did was necessarily right, and we should still reject the papal supremacy as contrary to Scripture and to history, even if the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon had recognized it, as they clearly did not.
The later history of the Monophysite controversy must be sketched briefly.
The Council of Chalcedon was held in 451.
In 476 the last Roman Emperor in the West abdicated,
and Italy fell into the hands of the barbarians.
It became politically necessary for the Government at Constantinople to come to terms with the Monophysites of Egypt and Syria.
Rome was now regarded as lost.
Accordingly, the Emperor Zeno in 482 issued a confession of faith called
the Henoticon (formula of unity), which was imposed on all bishops throughout
In this document the Councils of Nicea, Constantinople, and Ephesus were recognized, but Chalcedon was neither recognized nor rejected.
Nestorius and Eutyches were both condemned.
Its positive statement ran as follows:
We confess that the only-begotten Son of God,
Himself God, who assumed manhood,
being of one substance with the Father as touching His Godhead,
and of one substance with ourselves as touching his manhood,
who descended and was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, the God-bearer,
is one and not two,
for we affirm that both His miracles and the sufferings
that He voluntarily endured belong to one Person.
We anathematize all who hold, or have held, any different belief,
whether in Chalcedon or any other synod.
This formula of compromise was rejected by Rome on the ground that it implied
the condemnation of Chalcedon and that the catchword of the Council, "in
two natures", was not to be found in it; and by extreme Monophysites
because it condemned Eutyches.
But Acacius of Constantinople and all the bishops in what was left of the Roman Empire accepted it, and a schism between Rome and Constantinople followed which lasted thirty years.
During this period, in 489, the theological school of Edessa, which was the link between the Church in the Empire and the Church in the kingdom of Persia, was closed because of its rejection of the Henoticon.
The Patriarchate of the East ceased to be in full communion with Constantinople, and the breach was never properly healed, even when Constantinople returned to Chalcedonian orthodoxy.
The second stage of the controversy began when Justinian succeeded to the
[The actual return to orthodoxy took place at the accession of Justin, Justinian's uncle and predecessor, in 518.]
He decided to be reconciled with the see of Rome and to recognize Chalcedon,
and his great general, Belisarius, reconquered Italy.
He tried to satisfy the Monophysites by summoning a Council at Constantinople, reckoned as the Fifth Ecumenical Council, in 553, in which the works of three leaders of the opposite party, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret, and Ibas, all long since dead, were condemned as heretical though they had been acquitted at Chalcedon.
It was all in vain.
The Monophysites would not accept Chalcedon or the phrase "in two natures".
The only result was a schism at Aquileia at the head of the Adriatic Sea.
This city became the seat of an independent patriarchate which refused to condemn the "Three Chapters", as they were called, and was out of communion with Rome for two centuries.
A survival of this independent patriarchate remains to this day in the title "Patriarch of Venice".
Justinian then began to persecute the Monophysites and imprisoned all their
But a monk called Jacobus Baradaeus obtained access to the imprisoned patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch, who consecrated him bishop and gave him full power to act for them.
He then went about all over the East consecrating bishops and ordaining priests.
From him the Monophysite communion in Syria is known as "Jacobite" to this day (it has nothing to do with the followers of the Stewarts!).
A last attempt to reconcile the Monophysites was made by the Emperor Heraclius
at the time of the Moslem invasion.
He issued a formula known as the Ecthesis (638) which proclaimed "one operation", afterwards improved into "one will".
[A later imperial edict, the "Type" (648), occupied the same place in this controversy as the Henoticon in the earlier one.]
Those who accepted this doctrine were known as Monothelites.
They were condemned by the Sixth Ecumenical Council in 681.
As an attempt to reconcile the Monophysites, the Monothelite formula was
But its proclamation had two interesting results.
Honorius of Rome was induced formally to accept Monothelitism.
He was condemned as a heretic for this, both by the Sixth Ecumenical Council and by a long series of his successors.
Honorius is the most famous instance of a heretical Pope.
Various attempts have naturally been made to square the condemnation of Honorius with the later theory of papal infallibility.
His case is important because it shows at that period the theory of papal infallibility was unknown.
Rome, being one patriarchal see in Latin Christendom, was outside the controversies of the Greeks, and its patriarch, unlike his colleague of Constantinople, was far enough away to be able usually to resist the Government and to support the cause which was ultimately successful.
But the Roman patriarchs, though usually right, were not incapable of error,
and at that period no one supposed that they were.
The other result of the Monothelite controversy was that a small people
in the Lebanon took advantage of it to set up a nation of their own.
They refused to accept either Chalcedonian orthodoxy or Monophysitism
and took up an independent position. They are known as the Maronites.
Six hundred years later during the Crusades, they submitted to Rome,
giving up their Monothelite doctrine.
They are now the one instance of an Eastern Church that is entirely subject to Rome and has no independent section.
Their story shows how theological heresy was sometimes at that period little more than a cloak for national ambition.
The six Ecumenical Councils mentioned have always been accepted by the Church
of England, both before and since the Reformation, not on the ground that
an Ecumenical Council cannot err, but on the ground that these councils did
not err in their doctrinal teaching which has been universally accepted as
necessary to the right interpretation of Holy Scripture.
["Whosoever admitteth not [the Councils] lieth beside the foundation, and out of the building.
Of this sort there are only six." (Richard Field, Of the Church, v. 51 (1610), ap. More and Cross, Anglicanism, p. 152.) See W. Palmer, Treatise of the Church, iv. 9, for other authorities.]
The Coptic, Abyssinian, Jacobite (sometimes called Syrian Orthodox), and
Armenian churches form a separate Monophysite communion.
They accept the first three Councils, but not the Chalcedon.
They are in full communion with each other, though they represent three different cultural traditions (Aryan, Semitic, and Hamitic), and have no common organ of government.
They reject Eutyches, doctrine, and support the moderate Monophysitism of the Henoticon. Whether they differ from the Orthodox churches really, or only verbally, is a disputed point.
Some theologians hold that they mean by "one Nature" what the Greeks mean by "one Person".
The Monophysite controversy was one of the most disastrous that has ever
afflicted the Church, for it broke up Eastern Christendom permanently and
led straight to the Moslem conquest which was for several centuries confined
to the countries where the prevailing religion had been Monophysite.
But though Monophysitism was an Eastern doctrine,
it had considerable influence in the West also.
A Monophysite writer of the sixth century was commonly identified in the Middle Ages with Dionysius of Athens (Acts 17.34), the disciple of St. Paul.
His work was translated into Latin and revered as next only to the New Testament.
For this reason, early Medieval Latin theology had a strong Monophysite tendency.
[From the twelfth century onwards the Manhood of our Lord was again emphasized.]
An instance of this tendency, according to Bishop Gore,
is the theory of transubstantiation.
For as the Monophysite, at least if he followed Eutyches,
believed that the Manhood of our Lord was swallowed up in His Godhead,
so the believer in transubstantiation believes
that the consecrated bread and wine in the Eucharist
are no longer bread and wine in any real sense,
but are entirely changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. (See p. 364.)