Monophysitism Past and Present - A Study in Christology
by A. A. Luce
1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse





A. A. LUCE, M.C., D.D.















J. S. ASSEMANI, "Bibliotheca Orientalis," especially the Introductory Dissertation to Vol. II.

A. HARNACK, "History of Dogma," translated by Speirs and Millar.

J. C. ROBERTSON, "History of the Christian Church."

WINDELBAND, "History of Philosophy," translated by Tufts.

WRIGHT, "Short History of Syriac Literature."

H. BERGSON, "Les donnees immediates de la conscience," "Matiere et Memoire," "L'evolution creatrice."




Monophysitism was a Christological heresy of the fifth century. It was condemned by the church in the middle of that century at the council of Chalcedon. Surviving its condemnation it flourished in the East for several centuries. Its adherents formed themselves into a powerful church with orders and succession of their own. Although the monophysite church has long since lost all influence, it is still in being. The Coptic and Jacobite churches of Egypt and Mesopotamia, respectively, preserve to this day the doctrines and traditions of the primitive monophysites.

The history of the sect, however, does not concern us here. The writer's purpose is to review its doctrine. Monophysitism is a system of religious thought, and, as such, its importance is out of all proportion to the present or even the past position of the churches that professed it. Its significance lies in its universality. It is grounded in the nature of the human mind. It is found in West as well as East, to-day as well as in the early centuries of our era. Wherever men bring intellect to bear on the problem of Christ's being, the tendency to regard Him as monophysite is present.

An examination of the heresy is of practical value. Our subject-matter is not an oriental antique or a curiosity of the intellect, but a present-day problem of vital moment to the Faith. If we are concerned with a half-forgotten heresy, it is because a study of that heresy serves both as a preventive against error and as an introduction to the truth. The doctor studies disease to ascertain the conditions of health; pathological cases are often his surest guide to the normal; just so the study of heresy is the best guide to orthodox Christology. It was in conflict with monophysitism that the church of the fifth century brought to completion her dogmatic utterances about Christ; and the individual thinker to-day can gain the surest grasp of true Christology by examining the monophysite perversion.

With this practical purpose in view, we now proceed to an analysis of the heresy. Monophysitism is a body of doctrine. It is a dogmatic system, in which the individual dogmata are controlled by a principle or dominant idea. As all the particular doctrines of monophysitism depend on this principle, and, as it is not properly a theological concept, but one borrowed from philosophy, we may call it "the metaphysical basis of monophysitism." An intelligent grasp of this basic principle is necessary to an appreciation of the whole system. Accordingly, our first concern is to ascertain and exhibit this metaphysical basis. In subsequent chapters we shall analyse in detail the doctrines specifically monophysite and trace the Christological errors back to their source in metaphysic.


The following considerations prove the necessity of this procedure. Two methods of examining the being of Christ can be distinguished. According to the one method the facts of His life are reviewed as they are presented in the New Testament, and a formula is then constructed to fit them. The other method starts from the concept of a mediator between God and man. It supposes that concept actualised, and asks the question, "Of what nature must such a mediator be?" These methods may be distinguished, but they cannot be separated. No one, however scientific, can come to a study of the life of Jesus with an absolutely open mind. Presuppositions are inevitable. Similarly, as the a priori thinker develops his concept of a mediator, he compares the results of his thinking at every stage with the picture presented in the Gospel story, and that picture unavoidably modifies his deductions. Both diphysite and monophysite used a combination of these two methods. Each party took the recorded facts and interpreted them in accordance with their notion of what a mediator should be. Both parties studied the same facts; but the a priori of their thought differed, and so their conclusions differed. In the realm of Christology this a priori of thought is of paramount importance. Preconceived opinions inevitably colour our mental picture of Christ. Readers of the Gospel narrative find there the Christ they are prepared to find. On this well-recognised fact we base our contention that an examination of any Christological system must begin with the philosophy on which the system rests. That philosophy supplies the a priori, or the presupposition, or the metaphysical basis, whichever name we prefer.

We do not suggest that theologians have consciously adopted a metaphysical principle as the basis of their beliefs, and then have applied it to the special problem of Christology. That is a possible method but not the usual one. In most cases the philosophic basis remains in the background of consciousness; its existence is unrecognised and its influence undetected. If Christian thinkers took the trouble to analyse the basis of their beliefs about Christ, they would not halt, as they so often do, at the stage of monophysitism. If they laid bare to the foundations the structure of their faith, the danger of error would be reduced to a minimum. Viewed from the standpoint of timeless reason, monophysitism is based on a definite metaphysical idea. Not all monophysites have consciously adopted that basis; many, had they recognised its presence, would have rejected it. But it was present as a tendency. A tendency may be neutralised by counteracting causes; but it has its effect, and sooner or later it will produce positive results.


The same truth holds of the other Christological systems. A different metaphysical idea lies at the root of each. Nestorian, monophysite, catholic, these three were the main types of Christologian in the fifth century. Each studied Christ's life. After studying it, the Nestorian said of Him, "There are two persons here." "Not so," said the monophysite, "I see but one incarnate nature of God the Word." The catholic replied, "You are both wrong; there is one person in two natures." All three types deserve close study. The thinkers were devout and sincere, and, for the most part, able men. There is no question here of superficial uninformed thought, nor of moral obliquity. The disagreement was due not to their vision but to their view point, not to the object of their thought or the process of their thinking, but to their different presuppositions and starting points.

Presented in this way the monophysite and other Christological controversies of the fifth and sixth centuries become phases of the cosmic problem. They thus regain the dignity which is theirs by right, and which they lose in the ordinary church histories. The heat of passion they aroused becomes intelligible. It was no battle about words. The stakes were high. The controversialists championed far-reaching principles with a decisive influence on the course of thought and conduct. Unfriendly critics usually portray the Christologians as narrow-minded and audacious. So, no doubt, they were, but they were not wrong-headed. If the matters in dispute between theist, deist, and pantheist are trivialities, then and then only can we regard the enterprise of the Christologians as chimerical and their achievements as futile. The different formulae represented attitudes of mind fundamentally opposed. No peace between catholic and monophysite was possible. They had conflicting conceptions of ultimate truth.


We mentioned above the two other chief Christological systems, the Nestorian and the catholic. No analysis of monophysitism which omitted a reference to these systems would be complete. They were three nearly contemporary attempts to solve the same problem. The comparison is of special interest when, as here, fundamental principles are under examination. It demonstrates the closeness of the connection between the Christological and the cosmic problems. In each of the three cases we find that a school of philosophy corresponds to the school of theology, and that the philosopher's dominant idea about the cosmos decided the theologian's interpretation of Christ.

This connection between philosophy and Christology is of early date. From the nature of both disciplines it had to be. Even in apostolic days the meaning of the incarnation was realised. Christ was apprehended as a being of more than national or terrestrial importance. The Pauline and Johannine Christologies gave cosmic significance to His work, and so inevitably to His Person. Theologians made the tremendous surmise that Jesus of Nazareth was no other than the Logos of the Neo-Pythagoreans or the Wise One of the Stoics. That is to say, He stands not only between God and man, but between Creator and creation. He is the embodiment of the cosmic relation. From early days, then, philosophy and religion were working at the same problem; their paths met at the one goal of the Ideal Person who satisfied both head and heart. The systematic Christology of the fifth century was, therefore, a completion of the work begun in the first.


The essence of the Christological problem is the question as to the union of natures in Christ. Are there two natures divine and human in Him? Is each distinct from the other and from the person? Is the distinction conceptual or actual? The incarnation is a union. Is it a real union? If so, what did it unite? We have seen that such questions cannot be approached without presuppositions. What these presuppositions shall be is decided in the sphere of a wider problem. This wider problem is known as the cosmic problem. The solution given to it prescribes the presuppositions of any attempt to solve the specialised problem. We shall proceed to sketch the cosmic problem, and to indicate the three main types of answers given to it. It will then be evident that these three answers find their respective counterparts in the Nestorian, monophysite and the catholic solutions of the Christological problem.

As man's intellectual powers mature, two supreme generalisations force themselves on his consciousness. He conceives his experience as a whole and calls it the world; he conceives the basis of his experience as a whole and calls it God. To some minds the world, to some minds God, is the greater reality; but both concepts are present in varying proportions wherever thought becomes self-conscious. Here we have in its lowest terms the material for the ontological question, the first and the last problem of philosophy. God and the world, at first dimly conceived and scarcely differentiated, gradually separate and take shape in the mind as distinct entities. The concepts become principles, fixed by language and mental imagery. The gulf between them widens until they stand at opposite poles of thought. In their isolation they constitute a standing challenge to the mind of man. If he thinks the world in terms of time, he must postulate a creator. If he thinks the world out of time, he is forced to conceive a ground of the world's being. The world cannot be thought without God nor God without the world. The one necessitates the other. Yet when the thinker tries to define the terms, he can at first only do so by negatives. The world is what God is not, and God is what the world is not. The two primary concepts thus attract and repel each other. The mind's first task is to grasp them in their difference. It cannot rest there, but must proceed to attempt to reunite them and grasp them in their unity. Thus the main problem of philosophy is to conceive and find expression for the relation between God and the world. Christology attacks essentially the same problem. Christology is an attempt to define the relation between God and the world in terms of personality.

This relation has been conceived in three modes. According to the level of thought reached, or, as led by their disposition and education, men have made their choice between three mediating concepts. Hence derive three divergent types of thought and three outlooks on life fundamentally opposed. We shall take them in their logical sequence for convenience of treatment. The historical connection is of no importance for our present purpose, but it is noteworthy that the time order both of the schools of philosophy and of the corresponding Christological systems follows approximately the logical order.


The first attempted solution of the cosmic problem is best expressed in the concept "co-existence." God and the world co-exist. God is, and the world is; their relation is expressed by an "and." "God and the world" is the truth, all that man can and need know. This solution is verbal. It leaves the problem more or less as it finds it. The two principles remain ultimates; neither is reduced to the other. God still stands outside the world and the world outside God. Neither can explain the other. This dualism is the lowest stage of ontological thought. The thinker sees the problem, only to turn away from it. He surmises that there is some relation between the two; but he cannot define it, and it remains ineffectual. This was Plato's early standpoint. He established the idea as the truth of the thing, but he failed to find expression for the relation between idea and ideate. He took refuge in symbolical language, and spoke of the thing as a "copy" of the idea or as a "participant" in it. But as there was no causation on the one side or dependence on the other side, all that the earlier Platonic philosophy achieved was in its ideal world to duplicate the real. Plato's heaven simply co-exists with the world, and the relation between them is merely verbal.

This metaphysical idea survived Plato and Plato's system, and passed into common currency. It found and still finds expression in numerous speculative and practical systems. In religious ontology we find it in deism. According to the deist there was once at a definite point of time a relation between God and the world, the relation of creation. But, creation finished, the relation ceased. In other words, God created the world, and then withdrew into Himself, leaving the world to work out its own salvation. The deist believes in God; but his is a self-contained God, who does not interfere in the course of things or continue creating. Such a conception of God is useless for religious purposes, because it represents Him as out of all relation with the world.


The Christological counterpart of dualism and of deism is Nestorianism. The Nestorians halt at the lowest stage of Christological thought. They admit Christ to be the meeting-point of God and man, but they nullify the admission by introducing dualism into the person of Christ. They set out to find the solution of the cosmic problem in Christ; they endeavour to express the relation between God and the world in terms of His personality. They bring the two concepts together, but they do not weld them. Faith and courage fail them at the critical moment. They substitute an association for a union. They leave God and man co-existing in Christ, but not united there.

Nestorianism is a halfway house on the road from Arianism to Christianity. It is a weak compromise. The deity in Christ is admitted, but its unity with humanity denied. The divine remains external to the human nature. According to the doctrine ascribed to Nestorius two persons, the son of God and the son of Mary, at the Baptism were mysteriously associated. The union consists partly in identity of name, partly in the gradual deepening of the association. As Jesus grew in spiritual power and knowledge and obedience to the divine will, the union which at first was relative gradually deepened towards an absolute union. Divinity was not His birthright, but acquired. Thus throughout His life the two personalities remained external to one another. The divine worked miracles; the human suffered. The Nestorian could pride himself on having preserved the reality of the divine and the reality of the human; he could worship the one and imitate the other. But his system was non-Christian, because it excludes the element of mediation. A dual personality could never make atonement or redeem humanity. God and man in Christ were brought into nominal contact, but there was provided no channel by which the divine virtue might pass into the human. The Nestorian remains content with his solution, because the background of his thought is dualist. The thinker's attitude to the cosmic problem decides his attitude to the Christological problem. Content to couple God and the world by an "and," he similarly couples by an "and" the Logos and Jesus Christ. Dividing God from the world, he divides Christ. Abandoning metaphysical relation between the cosmic principles, he despairs of finding, or, rather, has no motive for seeking a personal relation between God and man in the being of Christ.


The second solution given to the cosmic problem is of special importance for our thesis. It had a direct influence on monophysitism, and may be regarded as supplying the metaphysical basis for that heresy. It represents an advance to a higher stage of thought, just as monophysitism, which depends on it, is an advance on Nestorianism, and has always been regarded as a more venial heresy.

The mind finding no satisfaction in dualism advances to monism. The spectacle of two unrelated ultimate principles impels it to seek and, if necessary, to invent some mode of reconciling them. Explain it as we may, the craving for unity, for synthesis, for mediation is radical in human thought. The mind cannot rest at anything short of it. God and the world, held asunder conceptually or only nominally united, constitute a contradiction in excelsis, and, as such, provide an irresistible motive for further and deeper thought.

As is natural, the swing of the pendulum carries the mind to the opposite extreme. Co-existence failing to supply the required solution, the key is sought in identity. God and the world are thought as identical. The terms are connected by the copula. God is the world, and the world is God. This is the truth of being, for the monist. The two principles are merged in one, and the contradiction solved by an assertion of the identity of the contradictories. Monism takes two forms. It may be either materialist or spiritual. One term must be selected as the reality, and the other written off as an illusion. If the thinker's bent of mind be scientific, he is disposed to make the material world the only objective reality, and God becomes simply a working hypothesis or a creation of the subjective mind. It would be beside our purpose to do more than mention this phase of monism. Spiritual monism, however, requires lengthier treatment; it is of vital importance to our subject. In this case the mind takes sides with God as against the world. God is the reality and the world the illusion. The world is God, in spite of appearances to the contrary. As world it has no substantive reality; it has no existence for self. It is the shadow of God, an emanation from Him, or an aspect of Him. Like dualism, monism is only a sham solution of the cosmic problem. It fails to keep prominent the idea of relation. A relation must relate. If its terms are merged, the relation falls to the ground. A relation must be such that, while the terms are unified, they are preserved as realities. It must both unify and keep distinct. To abandon either God or the world is a counsel of despair. To detract from the reality of either is treason to fact and tantamount to a shelving of the cosmic problem.


The systems that identify God and the world range from the crude materialism of Democritus to the lofty spiritualism of Plotinus. Stoic cosmology occupies an intermediate position. The Stoic was nominally a pantheist, but he seems to have oscillated between a spiritual and a materialist explanation of the universal being. The monist system that prepared the soil for monophysitism and constantly fostered its growth was Neo-Platonism. In the hands of Plotinus all the main elements of spiritual monism were worked up into a speculative philosophy with a profound bearing on practical life. The world and the human spirit, for Plotinus, were simply manifestations of God. He taught that, as light issues from the sun and proceeds forth on its way, growing gradually dimmer till it passes into darkness, so the world of thought and thing has no true being apart from God, from whom it proceeded and to whom it returns. Spiritual monism found in Alexandria a congenial home. Blending there with oriental mysticism it produced a crop of gnostic speculative systems, in all of which Acosmism or a denial of the world was the keynote. Whether the problem was conceived in terms of being or of value, the result was the same. The world has no true being. Its appearance of solidity is a sham. It has no value. Compared with God, it is negligible. It is but the shadow cast by the eternal sun.

The monophysite tenets traceable to monism will be considered in detail in later chapters. Here our concern is to show that monism supplies the metaphysical principle on which the heresy is based; that, as dualism provides the a priori of Nestorian thought, monism provides the a priori of monophysite thought.


The essential doctrine of monophysitism is the assertion of the absolute numerical unity of the person of Christ. It carries to extremes its denial of the dual personality maintained by the Nestorians. All vestiges of duality were banished from His being; there were not two persons: there were not even two natures. There was in Christ only the one nature of God the Word. The human nature at the incarnation was absorbed into the divine. It no more has substantive existence than has the world in a pantheistic system. This is monism in terms of personality. Its presuppositions are those of a mind imbued with an all-powerful feeling for unity. It is faced with the problem of reconciling God and the world in the person of Jesus Christ. It brings to that problem a prejudice against the real being and the real value of the world. Hence it is led to draw the false conclusion that humanity, which is part of the world, is not a permanent element in the highest truth; that even perfect humanity, humanity representative of all that is noblest in the race, cannot be allowed true existence in the Ideal.

Monism abandons the universal relation by abandoning one or other of the terms to be related. Monophysitism cuts a similar knot in a similar fashion. It jettisons redemption by excluding from the Redeemer all kinship with that which He came to redeem. Nominally admitting human nature into union with deity, it destroys the reality of that transaction at a stroke by making the two natures identical. So the incarnation, for the monophysite, becomes a myth; no change in the nature of the Logos took place at it, and, consequently, no change in the nature of the Man Christ Jesus.

We may trace the likeness between the cosmic and the Christological problems still further. Monism is forced to attempt to give some account of the world's apparent reality. Similarly monophysitism had to try to explain those facts of Christ's life which on the face of the Gospel narrative are human and normal. The explanation offered is essentially the same in both systems. The monist asserts that the world exists only in the mind of the thinker. It is an illusion of the senses. The duty of the philosopher is to overcome the illusion by turning away from the world of sense and fixing his mind on true being; by ascesis and contemplation he endeavours to attain the ecstatic state, in which the illusion of the world's reality disappears, and the potential identity of man with the universal spirit becomes actualised in experience. Similarly, for the monophysite, the humanity of Christ was a creation of the senses. Christ's body was a phantom, and His human mind simply an aspect of Him. They were impressions left on the minds of His contemporaries. Having no substantive existence, no reality in fact, they were to be ignored in Christological dogma. They were not to be considered as part of the true Christ; they were not to be worshipped. No spiritual value attached to them. They were hindrances rather than helps to the religion that aimed at entire abandonment of self and absorption in the divine.


We come now to the third and last solution of the cosmic problem. As we develop it, we shall endeavour to show that it supplies that metaphysical idea which forms the basis of catholic Christology. The two previous solutions failed. They do not satisfy the philosopher and they mislead the theologian. The one separates God from the world; the other merges them. Thus both, in effect, abandon the original enterprise. They destroy the relation instead of expressing it. The concepts both of co-existence and of identity have proved fruitless in the speculative problem, and in Christology have given rise to heresy. The third school of thought takes as its starting point neither God, nor the world, nor the two as co-existing, but the relation of the two. It makes that relation such that the terms related are preserved in the relation. Neither identity nor difference is the full truth, but identity in and through difference. God is not the world, nor is the world God. God is, and the world is. Each are facts. In their separateness they are not true facts. It is only as we conceive the two in their oneness, a supra-numerical oneness, that we can give their full value to each. The world is God's world; therefore it has being and value. The cosmic relation then is expressed not by an "and," nor by an "is," but by an "of." The God "of" the world is the key concept that unlocks the doors of the palace of truth.

It was in the prominence given to this concept that Aristotle's system made a great advance on that of his predecessor. Plato had established a world of ideas with the idea of the Good as its centre, but he left it unrelated to the world of experience. Aristotle insisted on relating the ideal and the real. His concept of relation was that of form and matter. The world apart from God is matter apart from form. It has only potential reality. When it becomes united to its form, it becomes actual. Its form makes it a fact—what it has in it to be. Aristotle conceives different grades of being. Unformed matter is the lowest of these grades, and God the highest. Each grade supplies the matter of which the next highest grade is the form. Ascending the scale of being at last we reach pure form. Thus the ladder of development is constructed by which the world rises to its realisation in God. Aristotle gave to humanity the conception of a God who transcends the world, and yet is immanent in it, as form is in matter. Thus Greek philosophy in Aristotle attained that spiritual monotheism which supplied the foundation for the edifice of Christian doctrine.

The effect of Aristotle's teaching was felt by all the ecclesiastical parties in the fifth century. As we shall see in a later chapter, some of the subsidiary elements of his philosophy are reflected in monophysitism. The dominant ideas, however, of the system, the conception of God and the world and the relation between them, were taken over by the catholic theologians, and incorporated into their Christology. We need not here inquire whether Aristotle's influence was direct or indirect. No doubt many of the theologians who constructed Christian doctrine had read his works. Whether that is so or not, they must have unconsciously assimilated his central doctrine. It was common property. The determination to keep God a reality and the world a reality and yet relate the two became the controlling motive of their thinking.

Aristotle in theory and application of theory has always a feeling for fact. The individual thing and the world of individual things are, for him, never negligible. Realised matter, life, the human spirit, human nature, are actualities and have their value as such. They are not all on the same level of being; they do not occupy the same rank; and it is the philosopher's business to determine their respective positions in the scale of being and value. But he cannot have his head in the clouds of contemplation, unless he have his feet on the earth of fact.


Catholic Christology has caught the spirit of Aristotle's teaching. It is not primarily speculative. It is in close touch with fact. It is the outcome of a deep-felt want. Redemption is the first demand of religious experience; so it is the motive and theme of all Christology. The soul views itself as a member of a world of souls estranged from God, and for its own peace and welfare seeks to effect a union between God and the world. Such a union, to be effective, must preserve the being and value of the world. If there were no world or only a valueless world, there would be nothing to redeem, or nothing worth redeeming. Seeking that union in personality, and in the most marvellous personality of history, the orthodox theologians by a true instinct ascribed to Him both divine and human natures. He is the cosmic unity of opposites. His person is the cosmic relation. In that person the lower term of the relation has true being and full value. Thus the Church steered a middle course between the Scylla of co-existence and the Charybdis of identity.

These a priori deductions as to the being of Christ were verified by a reference to fact. The life-story of the historic Christ comprises two distinct groups of experience. There are thoughts, deeds, and words attributed to Him that only God could have thought, done, and said. There are as well thoughts, deeds and words of His that only a man could have thought, done and said. Hence the diphysite doctrine was verified a posteriori. Again, in both groups of experience there is a never-failing connecting link. There is a unity lying deeper in His consciousness than the duality. Christ, the Agent, is the same in both parts. Whether as God or man, He is never out of character. Hence the unity of the person also was established a posteriori. Thus, to the orthodox Christologians, the expectation that the human Ideal would be a unity, comprising divinity and humanity, was justified by historical fact.

They found a further verification on applying the test of practice. Orthodox Christology satisfies the requirements of the soul. Man's chief spiritual need is access to God through "a daysman that might lay his hand upon both." An exemplar, even though perfect, is not adequate to his need. The unio mystica can only be experienced by the leisured few. Man demands a religion of redemption, a redemption that allows value to labour, to endeavour, to human thought, that recognises the reality of pain and sorrow and sin, a redemption that redeems humanity in all its phases and in the wealth of its experiences. An Agent that has not shared to the full those experiences is useless for the purpose. Redemption must be the work of One who knows God and knows man, of One who has the touch of sympathy; for to such a touch alone can humanity respond. The Christology that makes Christ Jesus consubstantial with God and with man satisfies man's deep-felt need.


We have taken a triad of ontologies and a triad of Christological systems, placed them side by side, and examined them. The result of that examination is a triple correspondence. The metaphysical principle is found in each case worked out in a corresponding Christology. The comparison is of general interest. It reveals Christology as intimately connected with the workings of intellect, as in the main stream of the current of human thought, as capable of philosophic treatment. Further than that, the comparison is vital to the main argument of this essay. It provides the clue to the heart of our subject. The scientist, who wishes to understand a botanical specimen, pays as much attention to what is in the ground as to what is above ground. The seed and roots are as full of scientific interest as are stem, leaf and flower. Similarly, to understand the monophysite heresy, to be able to detect it and expose it, we must take it in the germ. We may push the illustration further. The properties of a botanical specimen are best studied in connection with organisms of allied species. We cannot isolate unless we compare. By comparison the essential features, functions and properties of the specimen under examination are elucidated.

It is by isolating the three germinal ideas of these three Christological systems and comparing them, that a full comprehension of monophysitism in all its stages, from seed to flower, is reached. We have used this method, and have found that the roots of the heresy lie in spiritual monism. In subsequent chapters we shall analyse its origins as a historical system, its specific tenets and its practical consequences. It will then be seen that the spirit of monism pervades the whole system.



The monophysitism of the fifth century had its roots in the past as well as in the a priori. In the previous chapter we treated it as a phase of philosophic thought and reviewed the metaphysic on which the heresy rests. In the present chapter its relations as a historical system of religious thought are to be exhibited. As such, it owes much to outside influences. Much in the monophysite mode of thought and many of its specific doctrines can be traced either to other ecclesiastical heresies or to pagan philosophies. The fact of this double derivation deserves to be emphasised. It refutes the charge of inquisitorial bigotry, so frequently levelled against the theologians of the early centuries. The non-Christian affinities of the heresy account for the bitterness of the controversy to which it gave rise, and, in large measure, excuse the intolerance shown by both parties. Heresies were not domestic quarrels. Contemporaries viewed them as involving a life and death struggle between believers and unbelievers. Christianity can afford to be tolerant to-day. It has an assured position. Its tenets are defined. Christians can almost always distinguish at a glance errors that threaten the essentials of the Faith from those that do not. In the fourth and fifth centuries the case was otherwise. Christianity was then one among many conflicting systems of religion. Its intellectual bases were as yet only imperfectly thought out. Any doctrinal error seemed capable of poisoning the whole body of belief. Heresy, so the orthodox held, was of the devil. No charitable view of it was allowable. That uncompromising attitude was, to a large extent, justified because many articles of the heretical creeds were of purely pagan origin. Given similar conditions to-day, our easy tolerance of opinion would disappear. If Islam, for instance, were to-day a serious menace to the Faith, Christians would automatically stiffen their attitude towards monophysite doctrines. Toleration of the false Christology would, under those circumstances, be treason to the true. The Church of the fifth century was menaced from many sides. Monophysitism was the foe at her gates. That heresy was not a variety of Christianity. It was a semi-pagan theosophy, a product of Greek and oriental, as well as of purely Christian speculation; therefore it was anathema to the orthodox.


We propose to begin the study of the antecedents of monophysitism by examining those of a Christian or semi-Christian character. For that purpose it will be necessary to give a brief sketch of the early heresies in so far as they bear on the Christological problem.

The two primitive forms of doctrinal error, to which the Church, even in apostolic days, was exposed, were docetism and ebionitism. These are the elemental heresies. All the later Christological heresies are refinements of one or other of these two. They constitute the extremes of Christological thought: between them runs the via media of orthodoxy. Each of the two sees but one aspect of the two-fold life of Christ. Docetism lays an exclusive emphasis on His real divinity, ebionitism on His real humanity. Each mistakes a half truth for a whole truth.

The docetists denied that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh. His body, they taught, was an apparition. He ate and drank, but the physical frame received no sustenance. He appeared to suffer, but felt no pain. The reality behind the semblance was the divine spirit-being, who conjured up the illusion in order to elevate the thoughts of mankind. This docetic theory commended itself to many of the Greek Christians. They were familiar with the notion of "the gods coming down to them in the likeness of men." Greek mythology abounds in instances of docetic incarnations. The gods of the popular religion constantly assumed visible form during their temporary manifestations.

The ebionites threatened the Faith from the opposite quarter. They taught that Christ was real man and only man. According to them, the whole value of His life and work lay in His moral teaching and His noble example; there is no mystery, no contact of divine and human in Christ; what He attained, we all may attain. The ebionites were recruited from the Jewish element in the Church. The rigid monotheism of the Jews made it hard for them to conceive an intermediary between God and man; they were naturally disposed to embrace a humanistic explanation of Christ.

Docetism was elaborated by Valentinus, Manes and other gnostics and adopted into their systems, while ebionitism provided the basis for the Christologies of Paul of Samosata, of the Photinians and Adoptionists. In contact with these heresies orthodox beliefs, originally fluid, gradually hardened. The dogma "Christus deus et homo" had from the beginning been held in the Church. Its full implications were not realised and formulated until the conflict with error came. The controversies of the third and fourth centuries threw into bold relief the unity of the person and the perfection of the divinity and of the humanity.


The manner of the hypostatic union then became an urgent problem. The Church of the fifth century was called upon to attempt a solution. Any reading of the Gospels compelled the recognition of divine and human elements in Christ; but speculative theology found it difficult to reconcile that fact with the equally important fact of the unity of person.

The theologians of the previous century had bequeathed little or no guidance. The fifth-century Christologians were pioneers in an unmapped region. Athanasius' great treatises on the incarnation are hardly more than eloquent defences of the true deity and true humanity of Christ. They contain little or no constructive Christology. Their theme is, autos enenthropesen, hina hemeis theopoiethomen. He maintains the fact, but does not deal with the "how." He uses the phrase "natural union" (henosis physike), but does not attempt to define the mode of that union.


Apollinaris was, as far as we know, the first theologian to approach this subject. We may note in passing that, though he was bishop of Laodicea in Syria, Alexandria was his native place. His father was an Alexandrian, and he himself had been a friend of Athanasius. The fact of his connection with Alexandria deserves mention, because his doctrine reflects the ideas of the Alexandrian school of thought, not those of the Syrian. Apollinaris set himself to attack the heretical view that there were two "Sons"—one before all time, the divine Logos, and one after the incarnation, Jesus Christ. In doing so he felt constrained to formulate a theory of the union of natures. He started from the Platonic division of human nature into three parts, rational soul, animal soul, and body. He argued that in the statement "the Logos became flesh," "flesh" must mean animal soul and body. He urged in proof that it would be absurd to suppose the Logos conditioned by human reason; that rational soul was the seat of personality, and that if it were associated with the Logos, it would be impossible to avoid recognising "two Sons." He expressly asserted that the humanity of Christ was incomplete, contending that this very defect in the human nature made possible the unity of His person. According to Apollinaris, then, the union was a composition. The Logos superseded the human reason, and was thus united to body and animal soul.

Apollinarianism was a form of docetism. In ascribing imperfection to the human nature of Christ it eo ipso denied its reality. Apollinaris, in fact, said of Christ's reason what the early docetists said of His body. The system is more ingenious than convincing. It is highly artificial. It provides no intellectual basis for a living faith in an incarnate Christ. The theory, however, was very influential in its day, and was intimately connected with the rise of monophysitism. Eutyches, the "father of the monophysites," was condemned by a local synod at Constantinople in A.D. 448 on the ground that he was "affected by the heresy of Valentinus and Apollinaris."[1] Harnack goes so far as to say that "the whole position of the later monophysites, thought out to all its conceivable conclusions, is already to be found in Apollinaris." Apollinarianism was condemned at the second general council, and there the Church made her first declaration, a negative one, on the subject of the hypostatic union. In conflict with the heresies which arose in the next two generations, she evolved a positive statement of the truth.


Opposition to Apollinarianism gave rise to the Nestorian heresy. The original ebionitism had died away, but its spirit and central doctrine reappeared in Nestorianism. Nestorianism might be described as ebionitism conforming to the creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople. The leaders of the opposition to the Apollinarists of the fifth century were their own Syrian countrymen whose headquarters was at Antioch. The Antiochians differed from the Apollinarians in the starting-point of their Christology and in the controlling motive of their thought. While Apollinaris had constructed his Christology on the basis of the doctrine of the Trinity, the Antiochians started from the formula "perfect alike in deity and humanity." The reasonings of Apollinaris were governed by the thought of redemption. The fundamental question of religion for him was, "How can the closest union between divine and human be secured?" The tendency of the Antiochians, on the other hand, was to neglect the interests of Soteriology and to emphasize the ethical aspect of Christ's life and teaching. They put in the background the idea of the all-creating, all-sustaining Logos, who took man's nature upon Him and in His person deified humanity. Their thought centred on the historic Christ, the Christ of the evangelists. They did not revert to crude ebionitism, but they explained the Nicene creed from an ebionitic stand-point. They maintained as against the Apollinarians the completeness of Christ's human nature; with equal vigour they maintained the essential deity of the Logos. The "poverty" (ebionitism) of their doctrines consisted in their paltry view of the hypostatic union. The union, according to the Nestorians, was subsequent to the conception of Jesus. It was not a personal, but a moral union. It was a conjunction of two co-ordinate entities. They taught that the more the man Jesus acted in accordance with the divine promptings, the closer became his union with the Logos. That is to say, the union was relative not absolute. Thus the union between divine and human in Christ differed only in degree from the union of the same elements in any good man. The unity of the Son of God and the Son of Mary consisted solely in the identity of name, honour and worship.


Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, led the opposition to Nestorius. He declared that the moment of conception was the moment of the union, and that the notion of incarnation involved much more than an association of natures. He maintained that the incarnation was a hypostatic union (henosis physike). He endeavoured to guard against an Apollinarian interpretation of his teaching; but in this attempt he was not altogether successful. He asserted the perfection of Christ's humanity and the distinction between the two natures. The perfection, however, is compromised, and the distinction rendered purely ideal by his further statement that there were "two natures before, but only one after the union." He cited in proof the words of Athanasius, "one incarnate nature of God the Word."

Cyril prevailed. Nestorius was condemned and the Antiochian school discredited. Cyril's victory, however, was of doubtful value to orthodoxy. His ardent but unbalanced utterances bequeathed to the Church a legacy of strife. His writings, particularly the earlier ones, furnished the monophysites with an armoury of weapons. His teaching could not with justice be styled docetic or Apollinarian, but its mystic tone was so pronounced that it proved a propaedeutic for monophysitism. The shibboleth of orthodoxy, quoted above, "one incarnate nature of God the Word," passed rapidly into the watchword of heresy. Athanasius had used the word "nature" in a broad sense. The monophysites narrowed it down to its later technical meaning. Thus they exalted Christ into a region beyond the ken of mortal man. The incarnation became a mystery pure and simple, unintelligible, calling for blind acceptance. The monophysites, following Cyril, heightened the mystery, but, in doing so, they eliminated the reality and the human appeal of the incarnate life. They soon began to argue that, since Christ is monophysite, the properties of deity and humanity in Him are interchangeable; that therefore, while yet a Babe in the manger, He ruled the world with the omniscience and omnipresence of the Logos; that while He hanged upon the Cross, His mighty power sustained and ordered the universe. The monophysites professed great jealousy for the honour due to the Redeemer. But the ascription of such attributes to Jesus Christ detracts from His honour. If the nature that suffered on the Cross be not distinct from the nature that cannot suffer, then the Crucifixion was a sham. Monophysitism is docetism elaborated. It abandons the Christ of history. It rules out His prokope. It ignores a fact, vital to Christology, namely the kenosis or divine self-limitation. Thus it throws a veil of unreality over those facts on which the Christian Faith is built.


The foregoing sketch of the early Christological heresies exhibits monophysitism as a product of two opposite intellectual currents. A man's convictions are settled for him partly by acceptance, partly by rejection of what tradition offers or his mind evolves. The mass mind works similarly. It accepts and rejects, approves and disallows. The stabilisation of a body of mass opinions, such as a heresy, is thus determined by opposite forces. It was so with monophysitism. Its Christian antecedents comprised positive and negative currents. The positive current was docetism, the negative ebionitism. Docetism, originating in apostolic times, passed through many phases, to provide, at the end of the fourth century, in its most refined form, Apollinarianism, the immediate positive cause of monophysitism. Ebionitism, related to docetism as realism to idealism, possessed equal vitality and equal adaptability. It showed itself in various humanistic interpretations of Christ. Of these the most elaborate was Nestorianism, which exerted the most insistent and immediate negative influence on the early growth of monophysitism.


We leave here the subject of the influence of other heresies on monophysitism, and proceed to exhibit its affinities with non-Christian thought. At Alexandria, the home of the heresy, two systems of philosophy, the Aristotelian and the Neo-Platonist, were strongly represented. Both of these philosophies exercised a profound influence upon the origins and upon the later developments of monophysite doctrine. We propose to take, first, the Aristotelian, and then the Neo-Platonist philosophy, elucidating those leading ideas in each on which the monophysite thinker would naturally fasten, as lending intellectual support to his religious views.


Aristotle was held in high estimation by the monophysite leaders, particularly in the sixth and seventh centuries. His works were translated into Syriac in the Jacobite schools. The West owes much to these translations. For it was largely by this agency that his metaphysic reached the Arabs, who transmitted it to the West in the Middle Ages.

The Aristotelian logic was widely known among the monophysites. It seems to have formed part of their educational curriculum. Taken apart from the rest of the system, the logic produces a type of mind that revels in subtle argumentation. It exalts the form of thought at the expense of the matter. It had this effect on the monophysite theologians. They were trained dialecticians. They were noted for their controversial powers, for their constant appeal to definition, for the mechanical precision of their arguments. These mental qualities, excellent in themselves, do not conduce to sound theology. Formal logic effects clarity of thought often at the expense of depth. It treats thoughts as things. Procedure, that is proper in the sphere of logic, is out of place in psychology and theology. Concepts such as person and nature must be kept fluid, if they are not to mislead. If they are made into hard and fast ideas, into sharply defined abstractions, they will be taken to represent discrete psychic entities, external to one another as numbers are. The elusive, Protean character of the inter-penetrating realities behind them will be lost to view. The most signal defect of monophysite method is its unquestioning submission to the Aristotelian law of contradiction. The intellectual training that makes men acute logicians disqualifies them for dealing with the living subject. The monophysite Christologians were subtle dialecticians, but the psychology of Christ's being lay outside their competence.


Leaving the formal element in Aristotle's system, we come to its material content. Some of the prominent ideas of the Aristotelian cosmology and psychology reappear in the heresy we are studying. We shall take first the rejection of the Platonic dualism. Aristotle's repeated criticism of his master's theory of ideas is not merely destructive. It formed the starting-point for his own metaphysic. The ideas, he says, simply duplicate the world of existent things. They do not create things or move them; they do not explain genesis or process; they merely co-exist with the ideates. The participation which Plato's later theory postulated is inadequate. A more intimate relation is required. The theory of ideas confronts God with a world, and leaves the relation between them unformulated and inexplicable.

This criticism is of first importance for theology. Faith as well as reason demands a real relation between idea and ideate. The Christian student in the fifth century, familiar with Aristotle's criticism of Plato, would inevitably apply it in Christology. Any theory of redemption that ascribed duality to the Redeemer would seem to him to be open to the objections that Aristotle had urged against the theory of ideas. The Nestorian formula, in effect, juxtaposed the ideal Christ and the real Jesus, and left the two unrelated. This was Platonism in Christology. Aristotle's attack on Plato's system provided a radical criticism of Nestorianism. The monophysite theologians were blind to the difference between the Nestorian position and that of the orthodox. They saw that Aristotle had placed a powerful weapon in their hands, and they used it indifferently against both opposing parties.


We turn now to Aristotle's psychology. We must give a brief sketch of it in order to establish the fact that the Aristotelian and the monophysite science of the soul labour under the same defect. It is a radical defect, namely, the almost complete absence of the conception of personality. The principle of Aristotle's psychology, like that of his metaphysic, is the concept of form and matter. The soul of man comes under the general ontological law. All existence is divisible into grades, the lower grade being the matter whose form is constituted by the next highest grade. Thus there is a graduated scale of being, starting from pure matter and rising to pure form. The inorganic is matter for the vegetable kingdom, the vegetable kingdom for the animal kingdom; the nutritive process is material for the sensitive, and the sensitive for the cognitive. Man is an epitome of these processes. The various parts of his nature are arranged in an ascending scale; form is the only cohesive force. The animal soul is the form of the body, born with it, growing with it, dying with it; the two are one in the closest union conceivable. Besides the soul of the body, there is, says Aristotle, a soul of the soul. This is reason, essentially different from animal and sensitive soul. It is not connected with organic function. It is pure intellectual principle. It is immaterial, immortal, the divine element in man. This reason is not a bare unity. As it appears in human experience, it is not full-grown. Potentially it contains all the categories, but the potentiality must be actualised. Consequently reason subdivides into active and passive intellect. The action of the former on the latter, and the response of the latter to the former, constitute the development of the mind, the education of the truth that is potentially present from the beginning.

This hierarchy of immaterial entities contains nothing corresponding to our idea of personality. There is in it no principle that is both individual and immortal. Aristotle allows immortality only to the universal reason. The psychic elements are condemned to perish with the body. There is no hope for the parts of the soul which are most intimately connected with the individual's experience.

Monophysite Christology shares this fundamental defect. The monophysite thinker attempted to express the union of two natures within one experience. But his psychology, not containing the notion of personality, could furnish no principle of synthesis. An agent in the background of life, to combine the multiplicity of experience, is a sine qua non of a sound Christology. Personality was to the monophysites a terra incognita; and it was in large measure their devotion to Aristotle's system that made them deaf to the teaching of the catholic church.


After this sketch of the Aristotelian features recognisable in monophysitism, we turn to the other great pagan philosophy that assisted in the shaping of the heresy. Intellectualism and mysticism are closely allied; the two are complementary; they are as mutually dependent as are head and heart. It is not then surprising that monophysitism should possess the characteristics of both these schools of thought. The intellectualism of the heresy was largely due, as we have shown, to the Aristotelian logic and metaphysic; its mystic elements derive, as we proceed to indicate, from Neo-Platonism and kindred theosophies.

Alexandria had been for centuries the home of the mystics. The geographical position, as well as the political circumstances of its foundation, destined that city to be the meeting-place of West and East. There the wisdom of the Orient met and fought and fused with that of the Occident. There Philo taught, and bequeathed to the Neo-Platonists much of his Pythagorean system. There flourished for a while and died fantastic eclectic creeds, pagan theosophies masquerading as Christianity. Gnosticism was a typical product of the city. Valentinus and Basilides and the other gnostics made in that cosmopolitan atmosphere their attempts to reconcile Christianity with Greek and oriental thought. There Ammonius Saccas, after his lapse from the Christian faith, taught and laid the foundation of Neo-Platonism. Plotinus was the greatest of his disciples, and, though he taught at Rome for most of his life, it was in the spirit of Alexandria that he wrought his absolute philosophy, the full-orbed splendour of the setting sun of Greek thought. Neo-Platonism did not die with Plotinus. In the middle of the fifth century, when monophysitism was at its zenith, Proclus was fashioning an intellectual machinery to express the Plotinian system. The story of Hypatia evidences the dominant position of Neo-Platonism in Alexandrian culture. The violence of Cyril's measures against her shows what a menace to the Church that philosophy was. Cyril was not a monophysite, but much that he said and did promoted their cause. Dioscurus, his nephew and successor in the see of Alexandria, championed monophysitism at the council of Chalcedon. In later generations Alexandria always offered an asylum to exiled monophysite leaders.

These facts render it impossible to regard the connection between Alexandria and monophysitism as fortuitous. They further suggest that Neo-Platonism was the connecting link. Such in fact it was. Monophysitism, we might almost say, was Neo-Platonism in Christian dress. The ethos of the two systems is the same, and the doctrinal resemblance is marked. It was natural that the home of pagan mysticism should cradle the kindred system of heretical Christian mysticism.


The representative figure amongst the Neo-Platonists is Plotinus. His comprehensive mind gathered up the main threads of Alexandrian thought, and wove them into the fabric of a vast speculative system. The system is as much a religion as a philosophy. It is the triumph of uncompromising monism. The last traces of dualism have been eradicated. God, for Plotinus, is true being and the only being. He is all and in all. God is an impersonal Trinity, comprising the One, the cosmic reason and the cosmic soul. The One is primal, ineffable, behind and beyond all human experience. All we know of Him is that He is the source and union of reason and soul. Creation is effected by a continuous series of emanations from God. Emanation is not an arbitrary act of divine will; it is a necessary consequence of the nature of the One. God must negate Himself, and the process is creation. The further the process of negation is carried, the less reality does the created object possess. Last in the scale comes matter, which has no self-subsistence, but is the absolute self-negation of God. We referred in the last chapter to Plotinus' favourite illustration. We may be allowed, perhaps, to repeat it here. As light, he says, issues from the sun and grows gradually dimmer, until it passes by imperceptible degrees into the dark, so reason emanates from God and, passing through the phases of nature, loses its essence gradually in its procession, until finally it is derationalised and becomes its opposite.


Human souls are at an intermediate stage of this cosmic process. Like the ray of light which touches both sun and earth, they have contact with God and with matter. They stand midway in creation. They are attracted upwards and downwards. Reason draws them to God; sense chains them to earth. Their position decides their duty. (Here the philosophy becomes a religion). The duty of man is to break the sensuous chains and set the soul free to return to its home in God. This return of the soul to God is attained by the path of knowledge. The knowledge that frees is not speculative; for such enhances self-consciousness. It is immediate consciousness indistinguishable from unconsciousness. It is intuitive knowledge. It is vision in which the seer loses himself, and what sees is the same as what is seen. It is the absorption of the soul in the world reason, and so with God.

The Neo-Platonist took practical steps to attain this mystic state. He submitted to rule and discipline. By mortification of the flesh he endeavoured to weaken sensuous desire. The arts of theurgy were employed to wean the mind from sensuous knowledge, and to fix aspiration on unseen realities. Contemplation and self-hypnotism were widely practised. In ecstasy the mystic found a foretaste of that blissful loss of being, which is the goal and crown of philosophic thought.


When we compare monophysitism with the system of Plotinus, several points of resemblance appear. There is first the impersonal character of the deity. Monophysitism was not a Trinitarian heresy, and the Catholic doctrine of the three persons in the godhead was the official creed of the heretical church. But their theologians refrained from laying emphasis upon the distinct personalities of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Their sympathies were Sabellian to the core, and Sabellian heresies were constantly recurring within their communion. The impersonal Trinity, such as Plotinus taught, was thoroughly in keeping with their Christology. They lacked a clear conception of personality in the second Person of the Trinity. It was inevitable that they should overlook the same element in the incarnate Christ.

The Neo-Platonic view of matter finds its counterpart in monophysite theory. The monophysites, without formally denying its real existence, nursed a Manichean suspicion of it. It was, to them, the seat of illusion; it was an obstacle to spirit, the enemy of spiritual development. If not unreal, it was at any rate unworthy. The association of Christ with matter through His body and through His human nature was, in their eyes, a degradation of deity. That Christ took matter up into His being as a permanent element, that He dignified the body and glorified human faculties, these facts seemed to the monophysite mind improbable, and, if true, devoid of religious significance. It came natural to him to explain Christ's body as a phantom. He was prepared to regard the human nature as unsubstantial. The mystic's view of matter, of sense and human existence characterises the whole monophysite outlook.

In the spirit of Plotinus the monophysites conceived the incarnation as the supreme example of the unio mystica. The unio mystica was a state of rapture, abnormal and temporary in earthly experience, in which the identity of the mystic was actually merged in the cosmic reason. The lower nature disappeared completely into the higher. It was absorption. This word "absorption" was in common use among the heretics. It was a trite saying among the first generation of the monophysites that "the human nature of Christ was absorbed in the divine, as a drop of honey in the ocean." They conceived His thought as lost in the universal reason, His will as surrendered to the will of God, His human affections as fused in the fire of divine feeling, His body as a phantom. They could not admit that He lived the real life of a real man. They could not see the value of such a life. Neo-Platonism had paralysed their optic nerve. Thinkers such as the Christologians of Alexandria, imbued with the spirit of Neo-Platonism, had no motive for preserving the distinct subsistence of Christ's human nature. It was their boast that their Ideal had faced and overcome and trampled on the lower elements of His being. He was a proof from fact that body and sense and all that is distinctively human could be sublimated into the universal substance, which is the primary effluence of the Plotinian One. In a word, the incarnate Christ was, to them, the personification of the Neo-Platonist unio mystica.

We may conclude this comparison of monophysitism with Neo-Platonism by pointing out that the two systems had a similar bearing on the conduct of life. Neo-Platonism was a religion. Its speculative aspect was subordinate to its practical. A knowledge of the soul's position in creation and of its destiny laid the philosopher under strict obligation. Fasting and self-denial were essential preliminaries to the higher mystic practices. Ecstasy could not be reached until body and sense had been starved into complete submission. Monophysitism adopted this tradition, and made ascesis the central duty of the Christian life. The monophysite church became celebrated for the length and rigidity of its fasts. The monastic element dominated its communion. Indeed, it is hardly too much to say that the monophysite movement, on its external side, was an attempt to capture the Church for monastic principles. The heresy drew its inspiration from the cloister. The Christ of the monophysites had withdrawn from the market to the wilderness; so His followers must needs go out of the world to follow in His steps.

[1] Harnack, "History of Dogma," vol. iv. chap. ii. p. 160.



The distinctive doctrine of monophysitism, that from which the name of the heresy is taken, is the assertion that there is but one nature, the divine nature, in Christ. There existed some difference of opinion among the monophysites as to whether any degree of reality might be ascribed to the human nature. Some were prepared to allow it conceptual reality; they would grant that Christ had been diphysite momentarily, that He was "out of two natures." But that admission is quite inadequate. It amounts to no more than the paltry concession that Christ's human nature before the incarnation is conceivable as a separate entity. All monophysites united in condemning the diphysite doctrine that after the incarnation Christ was and is "in two natures." Such a Christ they would not worship. It was "the image with two faces that the Council of Chalcedon had set up."[1] They adopted the Athanasian phrase, "One incarnate nature of God the Word," as their battle-cry.

Monophysitism can make out a strong prima facie case. It is attractive at first sight. The heretical formula seems simpler and more natural than the catholic. The unity of nature appears a corollary of the unity of person. Human personality is ordinarily assumed to be monophysite; so it is natural to make the same assumption as to divine personality. The simplicity of the doctrine is, however, all on the surface. It will not bear examination. As a definition of Christian faith it is useless. It cannot account for the recorded facts of Christ's life. The facts of His body, of His mind, of His sufferings refuse to fit into it. It affords no foundation for belief in His transcendent work. No intelligible doctrine of redemption can be built upon it. It contains no germ of hope for mankind. Therefore the Church in the name of Christ and on behalf of humanity rejected it.

Although the heresy has been officially condemned, it should none the less be studied. It is improbable that any one in our time will defend the formula, or openly profess the doctrines that follow from it. But, though not recognised as such, it is an ever-present and instant menace to the Faith. Monophysite tendencies are inherent in religious thought. The metaphysical idea, on which it rests, still has a powerful hold over the human mind. Spiritually-minded men are especially liable to this form of error. It is a mistake to think that Christological questions were settled once and for all in the fifth century. Each generation has to settle them afresh. Accordingly, to exhibit the consequences of the monophysite formula, to show how wrong abstract ideas develop into wrong concrete ideas and falsify Christian practice, is a task of practical and present-day importance.


Two classes of erroneous beliefs result from a misconception of the relation between God and man in Christ. There arise, on the one hand, false opinions about the deity of Christ, and on the other, false opinions as to His manhood. We shall adopt this classification as we investigate the doctrinal consequences of the monophysite formula. It is the method followed in one of the earliest systematic criticisms of the heresy. Leo's Tome, or letter to Flavian, contains a lucid statement of the catholic doctrine of the incarnation, and an acute analysis of the system of Eutyches, the heresiarch. He summarises the errors of Eutyches under two heads; there are two main counts in his indictment of the heresy. Eutyches, he contends, makes Jesus Christ "deus passibilis et homo falsus." Eutyches and his followers compromised both deity and humanity. The deity becomes passible, the humanity unreal. All the monophysite misbeliefs can be classified under one or other of these two heads.


We shall take first those errors that compromise the nature of the deity, and shall preface our analysis by an explanation of the meaning of the term "deus impassibilis." The impassibility of God is the corner-stone of spiritual monotheism. Christianity owes it, as a philosophic doctrine, largely to Aristotle. He conceived deity as "actus purus," as the One who moves without being moved, a "causa sui." The popular gods of Greece were passible; they were possible objects of sense; they were acted on largely as man is acted on. They had a beginning, and were subject to many of the processes of time. They were swayed by human motives. They were, at times, angry, afraid, unsatisfied, ambitious, jealous. Aristotle gave to the world the conception of a transcendent God, a being who is real and yet is "without body, parts and passions," who cannot receive idolatrous worship, and is not an object of sense. Impassibility was one of the highest attributes of this being. The attribute does not involve or imply absence of feeling. Originally it had no reference to feeling, in the psychological sense of that word. It certainly excludes incidentally the lower, specifically human feelings, feelings caused by external stimuli, feelings due to want or to lack of power. It does not exclude the higher affections from the deity. Even in the noesis noeseos of Aristotle, there is room for the transcendent bliss of divine self-contemplation. Much more in the Christian God is there room for spontaneous feeling, springing from His own nature, the necessary concomitant of thought and will. Impassibility is a comprehensive attribute. Originally negative, it soon acquired a rich positive connotation. An impassible God is one who is outside space and time. The attribute connotes creative power, eternity, infinity, permanence. A passible God is corruptible, i.e. susceptible to the processes of becoming, change, and decay. If to-day theists have to be on their guard against debased conceptions of deity, in the plausible garb of an "invisible king," of a finite or suffering God, much more was such caution necessary in the early centuries of the Christian era. Christians who came daily and hourly into contact with polytheistic beliefs and practices had to be very jealous for the concept of impassibility. It represented to them all that was distinctive in the highest region of their Faith.

Monophysitism, as we proceed to show, compromised this article of the Faith. Its adherents did not, perhaps, do so intentionally. In fact, the first generation of monophysites maintained that their definition safeguarded the impassibility. It was zeal for the honour of the Son of God that induced them to deny Him all contact with humanity. Their good intentions, however, could not permanently counteract the evil inherent in their system. In later generations the evil came to the surface. Theopaschitism, the doctrine that openly denies the impassibility of the godhead, flourished in the monophysite churches.


The metaphysical basis of monophysitism made this result inevitable. Extremes meet. Extreme spirituality readily passes into its opposite. It cuts the ground from under its own feet. It soars beyond its powers, and falls into the mire of materialism. Illustrations of this fact can be found in the history of philosophy. The Stoics, for instance, contrived to be both pantheists and materialists. Coming nearer to our own time, we find Hegelianism explained in diametrically opposite ways. After Hegel's death his disciples split into opposing camps; one party maintained that the real was spirit, the other that it was matter. Each party claimed the authority of the master for their view. The divergence is easy to explain. From spiritual monism it is a short step to materialistic monism. For the monist, all is on one level of being. He may by constant effort keep that level high. But gravity will act. We are more prone to degrade God to our level, than to rise to His. The same truth can be put in abstracto. Unless the relation between God and the world be preserved as a true relation, the higher term will sooner or later fall to the level of the lower, and be lost in it. This rule holds as well in movements of religious thought. The monophysite strove for a lofty conception of deity but achieved a low one. He undermined the doctrine of impassibility by the very measures he took to secure it.

In the technical language of Christology the monophysites' debased conception of deity was a consequence of "confounding the natures." Attributes and actions, belonging properly only to Christ's humanity, were ascribed recklessly to His divinity. The test phrase "theotokos," invaluable as a protest against Nestorianism, became a precedent for all sorts of doctrinal extravagancies. The famous addition to the Trisagion, "who wast crucified for us," which for a time won recognition as sound and catholic, was first made by the monophysite Bishop of Antioch.[2] Both these phrases have scriptural authority, and they are justified by the communicatio idiomatum. But they are liable to misuse and misinterpretation. All depended on how they were said and who said them. The monophysite meant one thing by them, the catholic another. The arriere pensee of the monophysite gave them a wrong turn. He was always on the look-out for paradox in Christ's life. He emphasised such phrases as appeared to detract from the reality of His human experiences. He spoke of Christ as "ruling the universe when He lay in the manger," or as "directing the affairs of nations from the Cross." The catholic can approve these phrases; in the mouth of a monophysite they have a heretical sound. They suggest a passible God; they degrade the infinite to the level of the finite. The monophysite confounds the natures, and so he has no right to appeal to the communicatio idiomatum. Unless the idiomata are admitted as such, unless they are preserved in their distinctness, there can be no communicatio between them. If they are fused, they cannot act and react upon each other. The monophysite, by identifying the natures, forfeits the right to use the term "Theotokos" and the Trisagion addition. On his lips their inevitable implication is a finite suffering God.


Monophysitism was not originally or per se a Trinitarian heresy. Equally with catholics and Nestorians its adherents accepted the Nicene definition. They professed to believe in one God in three co-equal persons. This belief, firmly held in all that it involves, would have kept them from attributing passibility to the Godhead, and ultimately have neutralised the errors of their Christology. But their Christology corrupted their theology. Abandoning all vital relation between God and man in Christ, they abandoned the relation in the Godhead. The internal and external relations of the Godhead are mutually dependent. If there be no trinity of persons, the incarnation is impossible. Were God a bare monad, He could not impart Himself and remain Himself. The fact that there are related persons in the deity is the only justification for the use of the phrases discussed in the previous paragraph. When the catholic says, "God was born, suffered, died," he is right, because his presupposition is right. When the monophysite uses the same words, he is wrong, because his presupposition is wrong. The catholic preserves in the background of his thought the distinction between the ousia and the threefold hypostasis, between the essential godhead and the three persons. So he is in no danger of ascribing passion to the essence or to the persons of Father or Holy Spirit. When he says "God was born," he is compressing two statements into one. He means "Christ was born, and Christ was God." Not in respect of what He has in common with the other persons of the Trinity, but in respect of His property of sonship did He lower Himself to the plane of suffering. The catholic holds not a suffering God, but a suffering divine person. He maintains an impassible God, but a passible Christ. A dead God is a contradiction in terms; a Christ who died is the hope of humanity.

Monophysite theology became involved in further embarrassments. Unwillingness to attribute passibility to God, coupled with the desire to remain in some sort trinitarians, forced many of the monophysites into the Sabellian position. Deity, they said in effect, did not suffer in the second person of the trinity, because there is no such person. The persons of the trinity are simply characters assumed by the monadic essence, or aspects under which men view it. On this showing, the Logos, who was incarnate, had no personal subsistence. The relation between God and man ever remains impersonal. Christ, qua divine, was only an aspect or effluence of deity. This, for the monophysite, was the one alternative to the doctrine of a passible God. He was faced with a desperate dilemma. If he retained his belief in a transcendent God, he must surrender belief in a triune God. He could choose between the two; but his Christology permitted no third choice. For him, the only alternative to a finite God was a lone God. As a result monophysite theology oscillated between denial of the impassibility of God and denial of his three-fold personality. In either case the orthodox doctrine of the godhead was abandoned.

One of the stock questions propounded by the catholics to the monophysites was, "Was the trinity incomplete when the Son of God was on earth?" The question is crudely expressed, as it ignores the type of existence proper to spiritual personality; but it contains a sufficiently sound ad hominem argument. The monophysite could not say "yes," or he would then be driven to assert a passible God. If he said "no," his reply was tantamount to the assertion that the whole essence of the Godhead was incarnate. The logic of this dilemma was so cogent that not a few monophysites succumbed to it, and adopted a position similar to that of the earlier Patripassianists. These seceded from the monophysite church, and founded an independent sect, called the Theopaschites. As often happens, the sect is, doctrinally, more representative than the parent body. The Theopaschites were the thinkers who had the courage to push the monophysite doctrines to their logical conclusions. Those who did not secede, unable to defend their own doctrinal position, retaliated with the counter-charge of tetratheism. This stroke was simply a confession of weakness. Monism was strangling their Christianity at every turn. Instead of breaking free from it, they pretended that their opponents were polytheists. The catholic, however, was neither monist nor pluralist. The incarnation was not the addition of a fourth divine being to the trinity. The essence of the godhead remained complete, unchanged and impassible; while the hypostatic union of God and man in Christ made possible the assumption of a passible nature by the person of the Son of God.


It is in place here to point out the somewhat intimate connection that existed between monophysitism and Islam. The monophysites held the outposts of the Empire. Mahomet came into contact with them, and it was probably from them that he formed his conception of Christian doctrine. The later history of the monophysite churches shows that they often secured a large measure of toleration at the hands of the Caliphs, while the diphysites were being rigorously persecuted. Lapses to Islam were not infrequent, and in some periods apostasy on a large scale occurred. Cases are on record even of monophysite patriarchs who abjured their faith and joined the followers of the Prophet. The connection between monophysitism and Islam was not fortuitous. There was a doctrinal affinity between them. Both systems were rigidly monotheistic. Both degraded the notion of deity by a perverse attempt to exalt it. Both cut redemption and mediation out of their religion.

1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse