Monophysites: A Contribution to the Dialogue Concerning the “Orthodoxy” of Non-Chalcedonians, Part 1
Updated: May 18
In a statement by the Monastery’s Sacred Council regarding dialogues between our One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, and Orthodox Church and the Non-Chalcedonians (often called improperly, “Eastern Orthodox”), we expressed serious disquietude about the haste shown in moving towards immediate union, without there being essential and necessary provisions for it. In that brief text, it was not possible to explain why, in our minds, the assertion contained in the Joint Statement [of the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox and Non-Chalcedonians] — that is, that all of the Non-Chalcedonians were Orthodox, remaining “always faithful to the same authentic, Orthodox Christological confession and Apostolic tradition,” and that, like them, their contemporary successors are also Orthodox — is not correct. We considered it necessary to investigate this momentous question, which we entrusted to a brother of our Holy Monastery, Hieromonk Luke. We thank Father Luke for this labor, as well as the brothers who assisted him. We do not lay claim to infallibility. Humbly, we express our perturbation and proffer occasion for further investigation of these serious questions, which merit elucidation, if union is to be established on the firm foundation of Truth.
The Abbot of the Holy Monastery of Saint Gregory, Mount Athos
Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, 1994
The Second Joint Declaration of the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox and Non-Chalcedonians came to the conclusion that both parties have always held the same authentic faith in the Person of Christ and proclaimed this conclusion as follows:
In the light of our Joint Declaration on Christology, as well as the foregoing joint statements, we now clearly understand that both of our [Orthodox ecclesiastical] families have always held faithfully to the same, authentic, Orthodox Christological confession and the uninterrupted continuity of Apostolic Tradition, although they have used Christological terms in a divergent manner. This common faith and continual fidelity to Apostolic Tradition must be the basis for our unity and communion.
Already the Council of the Sacred Community of Mount Athos, which dealt with the issue of dialogue in one of its Declarations has set forth ten points: reservations with regard to the ecclesiological presuppositions, procedural integrity, and conclusions of the union dialogues. It also pointed to certain dogmatic matters which demand clarification and clearer formulation. And finally, it addresses the danger of new schisms in the holy Body of Christ, the Church, if union is not accomplished within the Truth.
Our impression that it is not possible for the Non-Chalcedonians to have the same Christology as the Orthodox is supported by a foundational ecclesiological principle, according to which only the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, viz., the Orthodox Church, can possess the fullness of the Truth. For this reason, we proceeded to study the subject of Non-Chalcedonian Christians and to bring into focus their dogmatic divergencies from Orthodoxy. The issues set forth for study were divided into the following three categories: 1) ecclesiological presuppositions; 2) the historical witness; and 3) dogmatic differences.
Syncretistic Ecumenical "Dialogue" of the Alexandrian & Moscow Patriarchates with the Coptic Monophysites
As for the “Orthodoxy” of the ancient Non-Chalcedonians, the decisions of the Ecumenical Synods and the views of the Holy Fathers, that is, that they are heretics, leave us no room for a variant position on them. Given this stance, the present study does not examine anew whether the Non-Chalcedonians are Orthodox, but attempts to pinpoint their heresy. Since, however, the Joint Statements of the Joint Theological Commission for Theological Dialogue with the Non-Chalcedonians, signed by the representatives of the local Most Holy Orthodox Churches, consider the contemporary Non-Chalcedonians to be of an Orthodox mind, at the end of the present study we shall also express certain thoughts about the possibility of their being Orthodox. And, though we consider positive the fact that the Non-Chalcedonians have already taken some steps in that direction of Orthodoxy, with the delineation of the concerns that we have expressed in this study we have perhaps come upon an intra-Orthodox problematic, one indispensable to any mellowing of the Church’s conscience with regard to union of the Non-Chalcedonians with the Church.
I. Ecclesiological Presuppositions
A. The One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, that is, the Orthodox Church, is “the pillar and ground of the Truth” [I Timothy 3:15]. It is impossible to confess the Christian Faith truly and fully, save in the Orthodox Church alone. How, then, can we Orthodox acknowledge the truth of the Faith in places other than the Church?
B. The Church is conscious of its identity over time. In dialogues with the Non-Chalcedonians, it remains aware that it is the Church of the Holy Apostles and the Holy Fathers of the Seven Ecumenical Synods. The Church’s decisions also carry force across time; and for this reason, the decisions of the Holy Fourth Ecumenical Synod are of such binding character that the Church can make no disparate decisions without refuting itself.
In keeping with this spirit, the phrase, “we now clearly understand,” has no place among Orthodox. The classical Patristic dictum, “following the Holy Fathers,” is the only one which expresses how Orthodox understand themselves.
C. We hear it said, today, that one must not use so-called “polemical” theological nomenclature, that is, the language with which the Holy Fathers refute and controvert the heretics, but a theological language that flows forth from the Church’s struggle for the preservation of the unity of the ecclesiastical body.
We do not believe that the present theological engagement with heretics outside the Church with regard to heretics has always been, since Apostolic times, refutative: “Better, indeed, a laudable war than a peace which severs one from God” (Saint Gregory the Theologian). This stand of the Church is actually charitable, for it both protects the Flock of Christ from heresy and provides the heretics with motives and reasons for returning to the Church. Let it be noted, in passing, that the ecclesiastical body is comprised of Baptized Orthodox Christians, and of them alone. The preservation of the unity of the ecclesiastical body means, consequently, the ensuring of their Orthodoxy and their perseverance to the end within the bosom of the Church; and this precisely constitutes an important part of the Church’s pastoral concern We do not include within the ecclesiastical body, however, heretics outside the Church. The struggle and the concern of the Church reach even to them, but the intent of that struggle is their return to the Church and not the devising by contrived means of peaceful co-existence with them under some nebulous kind of ecclesiastical communion.
II. The Historical Witness
A. Union attempts in the past
When attempts at union have been made according to Orthodox criteria, the Church requested of the Non-Chalcedonians that they recognize the Fourth Ecumenical Synod and, in general, an Orthodox confession.
With regard to attempts at union with the Armenians:
[Saint] Photius “wrote to the leader of the Armenians, Asoutios, and their Patriarch, Zachariah, urging them to recognize the Fourth Ecumenical Synod. Patriarch Nicholas Mystikos wrote to the Armenian leader, Sebastios, the son of Asoutios, urging him to accept an Orthodox confession; “but a new leader, Asoutios the Younger (913-925),… put an end to relations between the two Churches. The Emperor of Constantinople, Manuel Comnenos, exchanged letters in the twelfth century with the Armenian Patriarch Nerses IV and sent delegates under the leadership of the philosopher Theorianos (1170 and 1172). “The Armenians were to abandon their aforementioned heresies, while the Armenian Patriarch was to be installed by the Byzantine Emperor.” The terms were adjudged unacceptable. On his death, Nerses was succeeded by his nephew, Gregory IV. New negotiations were held.” The terms presented by the Byzantines, this time, were restricted to dogmatic matters.” The Armenians rejected the proposed terms. It seems that the terms were rejected because they wanted union only if the Orthodox accepted the confession of Nerses IV, which, however, set aside the Fourth Ecumenical Synod.
Pertinent to this are the observations of Professor John Karmiris:
Neither the union efforts of Saint Photius and Manuel Comnenos, through Theorianos, nor efforts by the pro-Orthodox Armenian Katholikoi cited above and by many Orthodox Byzantines were adequate to wean the Armenians away, once and for all, from their ‘longstanding error’ of Monophysitism, since they were never willing, through a unanimous synodical decision, to recognize officially the Fourth Ecumenical Synod.
Attempts to bring the Jacobites in the direction of Orthodoxy also failed to produce the sought-after union:
Emperor Manuel Comnenos, “by way of Theorianos, sent a letter to their Patriarch; but he, in response, adhered to the doctrine of one nature in Christ. Theorianos went to Kessounion (1170) for dialogues with the envoy of the Patriarch and the Bishop of that city, but to no avail.
Whenever efforts at union, on account of some matter of political expediency, have been carried out in defiance of the exact teachings [akriveia] of the Church (that is, without an explicit confession of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod by the Non-Chalcedonians), the cost for the Church has been a very heavy one. Either new schisms were created in the body of the Church (e.g., the Akakian Schism), or the occasion arose for deviation into new heresies (e.g., Monotheletism). The Henoticon of Emperor Zeno (482) and Heraclios’ (633) politics of Church union are typical examples. Keeping in mind the foregoing historical data, we will essay to evaluate two recent events which took place during the dialogues with the Non-Chalcedonians and which came to our attention by way of relevant publications:
First: The adoption, by the Joint Commission, of a “more appealing” methodology, by way of minimizing or passing over dogmatic “peculiarities,” in order to achieve more easily a formula for dogmatic agreement.
Second: The request of Shenouda III, the Patriarch of the Copts, that “…there should be no explicit reference [i.e., in the Joint Declaration at Chambesy, 1990] to the Fourth Ecumenical Synod and to Saint Leo, for reasons of pastoral prudence,” and the positive response, thereto, of the Orthodox (despite the disagreements between the Armenians and the Copts over the request in question), so that the dialogues might not run aground.
We are of the humble opinion that the foregoing two points demonstrate that the enthusiasm for union brought about the adoption of a methodology and procedural order that have not proved sensitive to dogmatic divergencies.
B. The Agreements of 433 expose the Non-Chalcedonians.
At the Third Ecumenical Synod, Saint Cyril and the Fathers of the Synod condemned Nestorius, who divided the Person of Christ into two hypostases: one of God the Word and the other of the man Jesus, and they gave Synodal expression to the confession of the Church, that the very Hypostasis of God the Word became incarnate and that this Hypostasis constitutes the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. In this way, they safeguarded the Orthodox teaching concerning the unity of the Person of Christ, which is essential for the salvation of human nature by means of its actual union with the Divinity in the Hypostasis of God the Word.
Although the struggle of Saint Cyril, as an opponent of heresy, was directed against the division of the one Person, nevertheless, an actual distinction between the natures and an Orthodox understanding of their hypostatic union in one and the same Hypostasis of God the Word, and the actual exchange of attributes of the natures [communicatio idiomatum], by reason of the hypostatic union, are elements that appear clearly in the doctrine of this Ecumenical teacher of the Church, when one reads him and interprets him in an Orthodox way.
Thusly, we affirm that He both suffered and rose again, not that God the Logos suffered in His own nature, “but since that which became His own body suffered these things, again the Same is said to have suffered on our behalf” (Epistle II to Nestorius).
With the Agreements of 433, Saint Cyril explicitly accepted two natures after the [hypostatic] union, as is evident from his Epistle to John of Antioch. According to Saint Maximus the Confessor, the Antiochians were correct in accepting two natures after the union, but erred in not confessing one unique Hypostasis of Christ:
Likewise also in the case of ‘One of the Holy Trinity,’ Nestorius says that the natues are different, but does not confess the union, for he does not say that it took place hypostatically” (Patrologia Graeca, Vol. XCI, Col. 145A).
So when, with the Agreements of 433, the Antiochians condemned Nestorianism, maintaining as Orthodox the confession of the two distinct and actual natures after the union — which up to that point they had embraced — at the same time, they also confessed the unity of the Person (the Hypostasis of God the Word), admitting the teaching of Saint Cyril and the Horos [Definition] of the Third Ecumenical Synod. This was the victory of Orthodoxy!
During the Third Ecumenical Synod (431), all the Non-Nestorians (Orthodox, Eutychians, and future moderate Monophysites) had “taken shelter” under the Cyrilline vocabulary. The course of events, however, revealed that not all the Non-Nestorians were of the same mind, even though they “took shelter” under the same vocabulary of Saint Cyril. The Agreements of 433 were the “touchstone.”
Ecumenist Alexandrian Patriarch Theodore with the Coptic Monophysite Pope
Saint Cyril and all those who were Orthodox in mind saw that they could accept the Antiochian definition of “two natures after the union,” not as destroying the unity of the Person, but as indicating the actual difference of the natures. By contrast, the extreme Alexandrians, who had a Monophysite outlook, did not accept the Agreements. They thought that Saint Cyril had wavered and deviated. They did not accept the “new” terms, although Cyril himself uttered them: “The formulas used by the Holy Fathers concerning two natures united in Christ should be set aside, even if they be Cyril’s.” In reality, the Agreements unmasked the extremists.
Immediately after the Agreements, two divergent theological trends begin to take shape, one Orthodox and the other Monophysite.
— Saint Cyril replies to those who questioned the Agreements: “We have not gone so mad as to anathematize our own views; but we abide by what we have written and by our way of thinking.”
— The Permanent Synod of Constantinople (448), under Patriarch Saint Flavian, reads Epistle II to Nestorius and the Epistle to the Easterners as dogmatic texts. It condemns Eutyches as a heretic.
— The Fourth Ecumenical Synod adopts all of the teachings of Saint Cyril and condemns those who selectively accept certain teachings as Orthodox and others as heretical. It vindicates Saint Flavian, that is to say, it recognizes his Orthodoxy, it annuls the Robber Synod of Ephesus (449), anathematizes Eutyches, and deposes Dioscorus.
— The Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Ecumenical Synods successively uphold the Orthodoxy of Saint Cyril and the Fourth Ecumenical Synod.
— Eutyches accepts only the 12 Chapters of Saint Cyril and rejects Epistle II to Nestorius and the Epistle to the Easterners. That is to say, he rejects the Agreements. For this reason he is condemned by the Permanent Synod.
— Dioscorus presides over the Robber Synod and vindicates Eutyches, while at the same time he condemns Saint Flavian of Constantinople, as well as all who accepted the Agreements. This is why the Holy Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod said that “Dioscorus distorted the Faith” and that he was “of the same mind as Eutyches.”
— Timothy Ailouros (457) condemns Saint Cyril on account of the Agreements:
Cyril is the Bishop of Alexandria; for this man, having excellently articulated the wise proclamation of Orthodoxy, showed himself to be fickle and is to be censured for teaching contrary doctrine: after previously proposing that we should speak of one nature of God the Word, he destroyed the dogma that he had formulated and is caught professing two natures of Christ.
Timothy ascends the Patriarchal throne of Alexandria after his followers first murder the Orthodox Patriarch, the Hieromartyr Saint Proterios, on the Holy Table.
— Peter the Fuller (470) introduces the Theopaschite clause “…crucified for us” into the Trisagion Hymn.
— Philoxenus of Hierapolis convenes a synod in Constantinople (499), deposes and exiles Flavian, the Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, and elevates Severus in his place.
— Severus of Antioch was a disciple of Timothy Ailouros and held the same views
— Theodosius of Alexandria consecrates Jacob Baradaios, from whom the present-day Jacobites of Syria derive.
— Jacob Baradaios, in cooperation with Peter, the Monophysite Bishop of Alexandria (successor of Theodosius), organizes the Monophysites of Egypt, the Copts.
— Syrian Monophysites spread their heresy to Armenia, too. It is said that the tolerant Saint Cyril accepted the Agreements for the sake of ecclesiastical peace. We are of the opinion that the formation of the Agreements was theologically indispensable, in order to remove any suspicion that he did not confess two actual natures after the union.
The assurance of Father John Romanides on this subject is very relevant:
On the contrary the fact that Saint Cyril accepted the confession of John of Antioch as Orthodox means that Dioscorus and his successors traced out a line which is not absolutely that of Saint Cyril. If this is how things stand, and it does appear so, as is indicated by the historical theology of the Non-Chalcedonians, the studies of Father Samuel, and evidenced by the misgivings of the Mr. Karmiris on one point in the address of Patriarch Theophilos of Ethiopia, then we know that this teaching is not exactly that of Saint Cyril, the Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Ecumenical Synods.
C. The mind of the Church as it appears from the Synaxaria.
It is a fact that the great fathers and teachers of the Church fought for the purity of its Orthodox Faith. They combined a personal experience of deification with excellent secular education. They had the prerequisites for interpreting the Faith and for formulating dogmas. Saint Athanasius the Great, Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory the Theologian, Saint Cyril, and other Fathers in later ages bore the burden of the struggle against heresies.
However, for the sake of simpler people, God provided that great miracles should occur, by which means the Orthodox might be strengthened in the Faith, while well-intentioned heretics might return in repentance. The miracle of Saint Spyridon at the First Ecumenical Synod is well known, as is the miracle of Saint Irene the Great Martyr at the Fourth Ecumenical Synod. Similar miraculous events are preserved in the Synxaria. The mere fact that the Synaxaria are an integral part of the worship of the Church and that the Orthodox are nourished by them is enough to show the great importance that they have for the topic at hand: To what extent do the Non-Chalcedonians have the same faith as the [Orthodox] Church?
The Orthodox Christians of the fifth and sixth centuries and the Orthodox Christians of today, as members of the same One, Holy Church of Christ, cannot have a divergent attitude regarding the orthodoxy of the Non-Chalcedonians. The following examples are very significant. Saint Sava the Sanctified, whom God honored with special signs of His Grace, such as the incorruption and fragrance of his holy Relics even to this day, judged with lucidity that the faith of the Non-Chalcedonians constituted a heresy. In his Life, there is mention of his visit to the palace of Justinian, during which the Empress Theodora sought to receive his blessing to have a child. The Saint wished her victories over the barbarians and worldly glory, but despite her repeated entreaties, he did not consent to bless her to have a child, solely because Theodora openly favored the Monophysitism of the Non-Chalcedonians. In the Spiritual Meadow of John Moschus, written precisely in the period that we are concerned with, there are more than ten stories which refer to the relations between Orthodox and Non-Chalcedonians and which attest to the unorthodox faith of the latter. We shall briefly present certain of these stories.
Chapter 26: The monk Theophanes, a Nestorian, had difficulty rejecting the heresy of Nestorius, as he was advised to do by Abba Kyriakos. “Everyone says that salvation rests in his own confession,” protested Theophanes. But he humbly sought the prayer of Kyriakos to reveal the truth to him. After the prayer of Abba Kyriakos, he received an answer. In a vision, he saw all the heretics in a dark and foul-smelling place: Nestorius, Theodore, Eutyches, Apollinarius, Evagrius, Didymus, Dioscorus, Severus, Arius, Origen and several others. Following this vision, he returned to communion in the Mysteries of the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
Chapter 30: The monk Isidore, who passed his whole monastic life in unceasing tears, recounted the cause of his mourning. As a layman he belonged together with his wife to the heresy of Severus. One time, when he was desecrating the Holy Communion of the Orthodox by tossing it out of the window into the mud, he saw a thunderbolt fall and carry away the Divine Communion. This was the cause of his conversion.
Chapter 36: Patriarch Ephraim of Antioch besought a certain Severian stylite with many entreaties and admonitions to return to the Church. The latter asked him for a sign: that the two of them should go into the fire; the truth would be on the side of him who was preserved. With great humility, the Patriarch sought to evade the venture, but finally undertook it for the salvation of the monk. The stylite remained awestruck and refused to enter the fire. The Patriarch then threw his omophorion into the flames. After three hours, the omophorion was drawn out in one piece. The stylite anathematized Severus and communed with Patriarch Ephraim.
Chapter 46: Abba Kyriakos saw in a vision the Lady Theotokos accompanied by Saint John the Theologian and Saint John the Baptist. When he invited them to bless his cell, the Lady Theotokos replied sternly: “You have my enemy in your cell and yet you ask me to go inside?” The reason for this was he had a book in his cell, in the concluding pages of which disappeared two discourses of Nestorius. He immediately threw it away.
Chapters 48 and 49: Two official political figures, Cosmiani and Gevemer, were prevents from venerating the life-giving Tomb of Christ, the former by the Lady Theotokos and the latter by a mysterious ram. Only when, on advice of the clergy of the All-Holy Tomb, they renounced their heresy — they were followers of Severus — could they venerate it.
Chapter 79: Portions of the Divine Communion of the Orthodox were found in the house of a wealthy layman who belonged to the heresy of Severus. They had been preserved for a year in the closet of an Orthodox servant. The master of the house wanted to destroy them. However, he was completely surprised to see that the ears of grain had germinated on the portions. In repentance, he communicated the miracle to the holy Bishop Dionysios, and the whole population of the city saw the ears of grain. At that time, many people returned to the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
This is the experience of the Church. It is worth asking how it is possible that the same Church, which then lived through these miracles, can now believe that the Non-Chalcedonians “always preserved the same authentic Orthodox Christological Faith and the uninterrupted continuity of the Apostolic Tradition”!
By the Holy Monastery of Saint Gregory
(Monastery of Gregoriou)
Mount Athos, Greece
Translated from the Greek by Bishop Chrysostomos of Etna and Novice Patrick,
Saint Gregory Palamas Monastery
. Archimandrite George, "The Non-Chalcedonian Heresy A Contribution to the Dialogue Concerning the “Orthodoxy” of the Non-Chalcedonians," Orthodox Life, 46, no. 6 (November-December 1996), 35-45.