Sunday, December 23, 2012

Monophysitism and the Council of Chalcedon - Fr. Matthais Wahba

The following is taken from a speech by Fr. Matthais Wahba given at the 12th International Conference of Patristic Studies Oxford, England on August 25, 1995.


The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, in which I am a priest, is one of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. These churches are the Coptic, Armenian, Syrian, Ethiopian, and the Malankara Indian Churches. The common element among them is their non-acceptance of the Council of Chalcedon of AD 451(1). Accordingly they prefer to be called "Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches". The Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches are mainly the Greek and Russian sees.

The Council of Chalcedon caused a big schism within the church which has lasted until the present time. In addition, after the Arab invasion in the seventh century, the churches lost communication with each other. Through this long period, the non-Chalcedonians were accused of Eutychianism(2), and called "Monophysites"(3), meaning that they believe in one single nature of our Lord Jesus Christ. They never accepted this idea, considering it a heresy.(4) The purpose of this paper is to reconsider the issue.

Several publications reflect such an attitude. In The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, for instance, Alexander Kazhdan shows monophysitism as a "religious movement that originated in the first half of the 5th century as a reaction against the emphasis of Nestorianism on the human nature of the incarnate Christ."(5) The Encyclopedia of the Early Church carries an entry on monophysitism where Manilo Simonettie writes, "The term monophysites indicates those who admittied a single nature in Christ, rather than two, human and divine, as the Council of Chalcedon (451) sanctioned." Then he gives examples of Apollinarius(6) and Eutyches, and goes on to mention St. Cyril the Great(7) as having a "Monophysite Christology."(8) Furthermore, in The Coptic Encyclopedia, W.H.C. Frend defines monophysitism as a doctrine opposed to the orthodox doctrine that He (Christ) is one person and has two natures. The monophysites hold that the two natures of Christ were united at the Incarnation in such a way that the one Christ was essentially divine, although He assumed from the Virgin Theotokos the flesh and attributes of man.(9)

Now, what is the actual belief of the Church of Alexandria and the other non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches on the nature of the Lord Jesus Christ?

Common Declaration
In may 1973, H.H. Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria visited Pope John Paul VI of Rome.(10) Their common declaration says:

"We confess that our Lord God and Savior and King of us all, Jesus Christ, Is perfect God with respect to His divinity, perfect man with respect to His humanity. In Him His divinity is united with His humanity in a real, perfect union without mingling, without confusion, without alteration, without division, without separation."(11)

After fifteen centuries, the two prelates declare a common faith in the nature of Christ, the issue which caused the schism of the church in the Council of Chalcedon. This will lead us to shed some light on that council.

Monophysitism and the Council of Chalcedon

1- According to some scholars, there was no need for the Council of Chalcedon, but politics played a big role. "It was only under constant pressure from the Emperor Marcian(12) that the Fathers of Chalcedon agreed to draw a new formula of belief.(13)

2- The different expressions of the on faith are due in large part to non-theological issues, such as "unfortunate circumstances, cultural differences, and the difficulty in translating terms."(14) It is debated whether the opposition to Chalcedon was out of a Christological issue or an attempt to assert Coptic and Syrian identity against Byzantine.(15)

3- Ecclesiastical politics had been very confused ever since the legislation, in the Council of 381,(16) of a primacy of honor for Constantinople, the "new Rome," second only to that of the old Rome. It seems that both Rome and the emperors used the Council of Chalcedon to carry out their respective plans: Rome for asserting its claim for primacy over the Church and the emperors for trying to bring the entire church in the east under the jurisdiction of the see of constantinople.(17)

4- No one can deny the disadvantages of the imperial interventions in the dispute. Most probably, Chalcedon's decisions and terms would have been different if the emperor Marcian and his wife Pulcheria had not intervened. Since 450, they were gathering signatures for the Tome of Leo,(18) the bishop of Rome. Many bishops of Chalcedon approved it only as a concession to the bishop whom the imperial authority supported.(19)

5- The definitions of the Tome were composed in a way that it could be interpreted by different persons, each in his own way. It is known that Nestorious, who was still alive in 451, accepted the Tome of Leo,(20) while the Alexandrines rejected it.

6- The Council of Chalcedon, which is believed to have condemned Eutyches, did not deal with him but with St. Dioscorous, Patriarch of Alexandria.(21) Eutyches himself was not present at the council. Scholars states that St. Dioscorous was deprived of office on procedural grounds and not on account of erroneous belief.(22) At Chalcedon St. Dioscorous strongly declared, "If Eutyches holds notions disallowed by the doctrines of the church, he deserves not only punishment but even the fire. But my concern is for the catholic (universal) and apostolic faith, not for any man whomsoever."(23) The evidence is sufficient for us to look for other reasons for his condemnation. Rome was annoyed by the extraordinary vitality and activity of the Church of Alexandria and its patriarch.(24)

7- As soon as the members of the council had assembled, the legates of Rome demanded that St. Dioscorous be banished on account of the order of the bishop of Rome, whom they called, "the head of all churches."(25) When the imperial authorities asked for a charge to justify the demand, one of the legates said that he "dared to conduct a council without the authorization of the apostolic see, a thing which has never happened and ought not to happen."(26) As a matter of fact, the Ecumenical Council of 381 had been held without the participation, not to say authorization, of the bishop of Rome, and the council of 553(27) against his wishes. It is evident that the delegates intended by the words, "the head of all churches," to assert the claim of Rome of having ecumenical supremacy over the church.(28)

8- Chalcedon rejected the Council of 449,(29) and Leo of Rome considered it latrocinium, a council of robbers, a title which "has stuck for all time."(30) This may uncover the intention behind such an attitude. A council which ignored Rome's authority, robbing its claim of supremacy, was not for Leo a church council but a meeting of robbers! The Council of Chalcedon, without even examining the issue, denounced the Council of 449, putting the entire responsibility for its decrees exclusively on St. Dioscorous. Only one hundred and four years later, the decision, not of Chalcedon, but of the so called latrocinium was justified. The Council of Constantinople in 553 anathemized Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus, and Ibas of Edessa, as condemned their three chapters.(31) It is remarkable that the desire of the Emperor Justinian to reconcile the non-Chalcedonian churches was behind the decree.(32)

Two Different Traditions
St. Dioscorous, then, was not a heretic. The majority of the bishops who attended the Council of Chalcedon, as scholars indicate, believed that the traditional formula of faith received from St. Athanasius(33) was the "one nature of the Word of God."(34) This belief is totally different from the Eutychian concept of the single nature (i.e. Monophysite). The Alexandrian theology, as scholars confirm, was by no means docetic,(35) neither Apollinarian, as stated clearly.(36) It seems that the main problem of the Christological formula was the divergent interpretation of the issue between the Alexandrian and the Antiochian theology. While Antioch formulated its Christology against Apollinarius and Eutyches, Alexandria did so against Arius and Nestorius. At Chalcedon, St. Dioscorous refused to affirm the "in two natures"(37) and insisted on the "from two natures." Evidently the two conflicting traditions had not discovered an agreed theological standpoint between them.(38)

Mia Physis
The Church of Alexandria considered as central the Christological mia physis formula of St. Cyril: "one nature of God the Word the Incarnate."(39) The Cyrillian formula was accepted by the Council of Ephesus in 431.(40) It was neither nullified by the Reunion of 433,(41) nor condemned at Chalcedon. On the contrary, it continued to be considered an Orthodox formula.(42) Now, what do the non-Chalcedonians mean by mia physis, the "one incarnate nature?" They mean by mia, one, but not "single one" or "simple numerical one," as some scholars believe.(43) There is a slight difference between mono and mia. While the former suggests one single (divine) nature, the latter refers to one composite and united nature, as reflected by the Cyrillian formula.(44) St. Cyril maintained that the relationship between the divine and the human in Christ, as Meyendorff puts it, "does not consist of a simple cooperation, or even interpenetration, but of a union; the incarnate Word is one, and there could be no duplication of the personality of the one redeemer God and man.(45)

Mia Physis and Soteriology
"The Alexandrian Christology," writes Frances Young, "is a remarkably clear and consistent construction, especially when viewed within its soteriological context."(46) Mia physis, for the Alexandrians, is essential for salvation. The Lord is crucified, even though His divinity did not suffer but His humanity did. The sacrifice of the cross is attributed to the Incarnate Son of God, and thus has the power of salvation.(47)

Common Faith
It is evident that both the Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians agree on the following points:

1. They all condemn and anathemize Nestorius, Apollinarius and Eutyches.

2. The unity of the divinity and humanity of Christ was realized from the moment of His conception, without separation or division and also without confusion or change.

3. The manhood of Christ was real, perfect and had a dynamic presence.

4. Jesus Christ is one Prosopon and one Hypostasis in real oneness and not mere conjunction of natures, He is the Incarnate Logos of God.

5. They all accept the communicatio idiomantum (the communication of idioms), attributing all the deeds and words of Christ to the one hypostasis, the Incarnate Son of God.

Recent Efforts for Unity(48)
In recent times, members of the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches have met together, coming to a clear understanding that both families have always loyally maintained the same authentic Orthodox Christological faith.

In 1964 a fresh dialogue began at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. This was followed by meetings at Bristol in 1967, Geneva in 1970 and Addis Ababa in 1971. These were a series of non-official consultations which served as steps towards mutual understanding.

The official consultations in which concrete steps were taken began in 1985 at Chembesy in Geneva. The second official consultation was held at the monastery of St Bishoy in Wadi-El Natroun, in Egypt in June 1989. The outcome of this latter meeting was of historical dimensions, since in this meeting the two families of Orthodoxy were able to agree on a Christological formula, thus ending the controversy regarding Christology which has lasted for more than fifteen centuries.

In September 1990, the two families of Orthodoxy signed an agreement on Christology, and recommendations were presented to the different Orthodox Churches, to lift the anathemas and enmity of the past, after revising the results of the dialogues. If both agreements are accepted by the various Orthodox Churches, the restoration of communion will be very easy at all levels, even as far as sharing one table in the Eucharist.

As for its part, the Coptic Orthodox Church Synod, presided by H.H. Pope Shenouda III who contributed enormously to the push for unity, has agreed to lift the anathemas, but this will not take place unless this is performed bilaterally, possibly by holding a joint ceremony.(49)

I conclude that the term "monophysitism" does not reflect the real belief of the non-Chalcedonians. They prefer not to be called "monophysites," because the term may be misunderstood. They believe in "one nature out of two," "one united nature," "one composite nature,"or "one incarnate nature," and not a "single nature."There is no evidence that the term was used during the fifth century. Most likely it was introduced later in a polemic way on behalf of the Chalcedonian Churches.

However, considering the past, the non- Chalcedonians are better to be called "miaphysites" than "monphysites." Recently, in so far as they are coming to be understood correctly, they are to be called simply orthodox, sharing the same belief with their brothers of the Chalcedonian orthodox churches. This could be an imminent fruit of the unity of all orthodox churches.

Heg. Fr. Matthais Wahba

Fr. Matthias was born on May 15, 1939 in Qalandool, in the province of Minia. In 1958, he earned a B.A. in Theological Studies from the Coptic Seminary in Cairo. After serving as a youth leader and teacher, the congregation of Saint Mary Coptic Orthodox Church in Fagala, Cairo selected him as their new priest and pastor. He was ordained on December 14, 1962 by the late Bishop Isaac.

Father Matthias earned his MA in Theological Studies from the University of Ottawa, Canada in 1985 and published his thesis on the Doctrine of Sanctification according to Saint Athanasius. He earned his Ph.D. from the same university in 1993 with his dissertation on Honorable Marriage according to Saint Athanasius. Fr. Matthias has been serving at Saint Antonius Coptic Orthodox Church since September 1989.


1- The Council was held in the city of Chalcedon in Asia Minor. It was summoned by the Emperor Marcian to deal with the heresy of Eutyches; The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1984, p. 262.
2- Eutychianism is the heresy of Eutyches (c. 378-454) who was archimandrite of a large monastery at Constantinople. His keen opposition to Nestorianism led him to the heresy of confounding the two natures in Christ. Eutyches denied that the humanity of Christ was like ours, claiming that it melted in His divinity; a view which renders our redemption in Him impossible.The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1984, p. 484.
3- Greek: monos=only one; physis=nature
4- The formal denial or doubt of any defined doctrine of the orthodox faith.
5- The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, New York, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991 vol.2, p. 1398.
6- Apollinarius (310-c. 390) a vigorous advocate of Orthodoxy against the arians. He became bishop of Laodicia c. 360. He denied the human spirit of Christ, as replaced by Divine Logis.
7- St Cyril the Great, called: The Pillar of Faith (d.444) is the 24th Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria. He chaired the third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431.
8- Encyclopedia of the Early Church, New York, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992, vol. 2 p. 569
9- The Coptic Encyclopedia, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991, vol.5, p. 1669
10- Commemorating 16 century of the departure of St. Athanasius the Apostolic. In this occasion, Pope Paul VI gave Pope Shenouda III the relics of St. Athanasius.
11- Acta Apostolicae Sedis 65 (1973) p. 300. Cf. also Pope Shenouda III, The Nature of Christ, Cairo, 1985.
12- Marcian (396-457) is the soldier who, by his marriage with Pulcharia, the sister of the Emperor Theodosius II, became the Eastern Emperor in 450.
13- A.A. Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition; Volume One: From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon, second, revised edition, London & Oxford, Mowbrays, 1975, first published in 1965, p. 543.
14- Pope Paul VI in his speech to the Armenian Catholicos Vasken I, in Information Service 11 (1970/III), pp. 5-6.
15- Cf., W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of the Monophysite Movement, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1972; A.H.M. Jones "Were Ancient Heresies National or Social Movements in Disguise?" in Journal of Theological Studies, new series 10 (1959), pp. 280-298.
16- It was summoned in Constantinople by the Emperor Theodosius I. 150 Orthodox bishops took part and accepted the full divinity of the Holy Spirit against Macedonius, Patriarch of Constantinople. The Council united the Church at the end of the lengthy Arian controversy on the basis of the faith of the Council of Nicaea in 325. The Niceno-Constantinoplitan Creed, used now in all churches, is traditionally ascribed to it. Although Western bishops were not present, it is regarded as the Second Ecumenical Council.
17- V.C. Samuel, The Council of Chalcedon Re-Examined, The Diocesan Press, Madras, India, 1977, p. 87.
18- Leo I (d. 461) was the Pope of Rome from 440. His Tome, a letter send to Flavian, Patriarch of Constantinople in 449, was given formal authority by the Council of Chalcedon. It was rejected by Alexandria and Antioch as semi Nestorian. The Tome caused the maryrdom of thousands of martyrs, especially in Egypt, when Marcian resorted to arms to enforce it.
19- Fr. T.Y. Malaty, Christology according to the Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches, St. George Coptic Church, Sporting, Alexandria, Egypt, 1986, p. 3; Samuel, ibid., p.71.
20- J. Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, Corpus Books, Washington & Cleveland, 1969, p.20. In the Bazaar of Heraclides, Nestorious expressed his accpetance of what was defined in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon about the union of the two natures of Christ;cf., Livre d'Heraclide de Damas, edited by F. Nau, Paris, 1910, p.327.
21- St. Dioscorous (died 454) was the 25th Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria. During the patriarchate of St. Cyril he became archdeacon of Alexandria, and on his death in 444 he succeeded to the see. At the Council of Chalcedon in 451 he was unjustly deposed, and banished by the civil authorities to Gangra in Paphlagonia where he died.
22- R.V. Sellers, The Council of Chalcedon: A Historical and Doctrinal Survey, S.P.C.K., London, 1953, p.30.
23- Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum (A.C.O.), edited by E. Schwartz, Strassburg, Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1933, Tom. II, vol. I, p.62.
24- Metropolitan Methodios of Aksum, "Inter-Orthodox Theological Commission for the Dialogue with the Non-Chalcedonian Churches" in Theological and Historical Studies: A Collection of Minor Works, edited by Methodius Fouyas, Athens, 1985, p.15; Fr. T.Y. Malaty, Christology, p.10.
25- A.C.O., op. cit., p. 95
26- ibid.
27- It was summoned by the emperor Justinian, and considered only by the Chalcedonians as the 5th ecumenical council. The Three Chapters and their authors, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus, and Ibas of Edessa were condemned as tainted by Nestorianism.
28- Samuel, op. cit., p. 45
29- The Second Council of Ephesus was summoned by Theodosius II, to deal with Eutyches after he was condemned by Flavian of Constantinople in 448. The Council was presided by St. Dioscorous, Patriarch of Alexandria and Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem. Eutyches who wrote down and signed an Orthodox faith was acquitted of heresy, while Flavian, Theodoret, and Ibas were condemned.
30- The name was derived from Leo's epistle (95) to the Empress Pulcheria; cf. A.C.O., op. cit., pp. 68-101; Frend, op cit., p. 44.
31- See note no. 27
32- Samuel, op cit., p. xx, 38.
33- Named "the apostolic", the 20th Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria from 328-373. Though he was but a deacon, he was the hero of the 1st Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325. He struggled all his life defending the orthodox faith against Arius, the Alexandrian priest who claimed that the Son is not of one essence with the Father.
34- Sellers, op. cit., p. 213; Frances M. Young, "A Reconsideration of Alexandrian Christology," Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 22:2 (April 1971), p. 103. Cf. Also J. Liebaert, La Doctrine Christologique de S. Cyrille d'Alexandrie avant la querelle Nestorienne, Lille, 1951.
35- Greek dokeo = I seem; a tendency which considered the humanity and sufferings of Christ as apparent, rather than real.
36- Young "A Reconsideration", p. 106, 114; "Christological Ideas in the Greek Commentaries on the Epistle to the Hebrews," Journal of Theological Studies, new series 20 (1969), p. 153.
37- It may be understood as two separate natures after the incarnation.
38- Samuel, op. cit., pp.55,79. Cf. also Young, "Christological Ideas", pp. 150-163.
39- For the dependence of the non-Chalcedonians on St. Cyril, see J. Lebon, La Monophysisme Severien, Louvain, 1909.
40- It is the third Ecumenical Council, summoned by Theodosius II. St. Cyril the Great of Alexandria presided over the Council and Nestorious was condemned. In the Council, St. Cyril stressed the unity of the divinity and humanity of Christ without mingling or change. He also stressed the title "Theotokos," i.e. the Mother of God, for St. Mary, in order to clarify that Christ, Who was born from her, is truly God the Incarnate Word.
41- In 431 John, bishop of Antioch, failed to arrive at the Council of Ephesus in time. Reaching Ephesus a few days later, he held a counter- council which condemned St. Cyril and vindicated Nestorious. In 433 he became reconciled with St. Cyril with the basis of a common theological formula.
42- Samuel, op. cit., p. 10
43- Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, p.17
44- Malaty, Christology, p.6
45-Ibid. p.7
46- Young, "A Reconsideration", p.103
47- Fr. T.Y. Malaty, The Terms Physis & Hypostasis in the Early Church, St. George Coptic Church, Sporting, Alexandria, Egypt, 1987, pp.24-25
48- From the archives of the Coptic Network
49- H.E. Metropolitan Bishoy, Metropolitan of Damiette and Secretary of the Holy Synod, Coptic Orthodox Church, and Co-Chairman of the Joint Commission of the Official Dialogue, El-Kerasa English Magazine, May 1992, vol. 1, no. 1, p.8.

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