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A.D. 429 - Monophysite - Chaldean (East-Syrian)

Coptic ChristianEgypt
Jacobites Syria
Armenian ChurchArmenia
Abyssinian ChurchEthiopia
Syro-Malabar ChurchIndia
While the point at issue in the dogmatic controversies of the fourth century was the relation of God to the Son and the Holy Spirit, the burning question of the fifth and sixth centuries was the nature of Christ. And, like the former, the latter dispute arose in the East, having its origin in the divergent views of the theological schools of Antioch and Alexandria. The former laid stress upon the two natures in Christ - the divine and the human; the latter emphasized his divinity to the exclusion of his humanity, and hence its adherents received the name of monophysites. The Antiochene position was the orthodox or traditional view of the church, and was held universally in the West, where the duality of Christ was accepted without any attempt to determine the relationship of his divine and human qualities.

Beneath the doctrinal controversy lay the rivalry between the patriarchates of Alexandria and Constantinople, and the awakening national antagonism of the native Egyptian and Syrian peoples towards the Greeks. The conflict began in 429 with an attack of Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria, upon the teachings of Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople. Cyril, taking the view that the nature of Christ was human made fully divine, justified the use of the word Theotokos (Mother of God), which was coming to be applied generally to the Virgin Mary. Nestorius criticized its use, and argued in favor of the term Mother of Christ. In the controversy which ensued, Cyril won the support of the bishop of Rome, who desired to weaken the authority of the see of Constantinople, and Nestorius was condemned at the council of Ephesus in 431.

The next phase of the struggle opened in 448, when Dioscorus, the occupant of the Alexandrine see, assailed Flavian, the patriarch of the capital, for having deposed Eutyches, a monophysite abbot of Constantinople. At the so-called "Robber Council" of Ephesus (449 A.D.) Dioscorus succeeded in having Flavian deprived of his see. But the pope, Leo I, pronounced in favor of the doctrine of the duality of Christ, and in 451 the new emperor Marcian called an ecumenical council at Chalcedon which definitely reasserted the primacy of the see of Constantinople in the East, approved the use of Theotokos, and declared that Christ is of two natures.

There was no lack of monophysite bishops in Constantinople, but being in prison they were not available. The attempt to enforce the decisions of this council provoked disturbances in Egypt, Palestine and the more easterly countries. In Palestine it required the use of armed force to suppress a usurping monophysite bishop. In Egypt the enforcement led to a split between the orthodox Greek and the monophysite Coptic churches.

As the opposition to the decree of Chalcedon still disturbed the peace of the church, the emperor Zeno in 482, at the instigation of the patriarchs Acacius of Constantinople and Peter of Alexandria, sought to settle the dispute by exercise of the imperial authority. He issued a letter to the church of Egypt called the Henoticon, which, while acknowledging the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, condemned that of Chalcedon, and declared that "Christ is one and not two." This doctrine was at once condemned by the Pope Silvanus. The rupture with Rome lasted until 519, when a reconciliation was effected at the price of complete submission by the East and the rehabilitation of the council of Chalcedon. This in turn antagonized the monophysites of Syria and Egypt and caused Justinian to embark upon his hopeless task of reestablishing complete religious unity within the empire by holding the western and winning back the eastern church.

There is another general issue to be considered in the later Monophysite quarrels. Was the heresy their real motive at all ? It is difficult to believe that the reason which drove crowds of Egyptian peasants and Syrian monks to wild acts of violence, to rebellion, fighting, burning soldiers alive, was an abstruse question about our Lord's nature. So most historians see in all this story really a political motive, working under guise of a theological dispute. Egypt and Syria were just the two provinces in the East which had never been really loyal to the empire. They had never been thoroughly Hellenized. Both kept their own languages, both had ancient civilizations of their own, totally different from that of the Greek court of the Roman Emperor at Constantinople. To Syria and Egypt he was a foreign conqueror. The governors and soldiers whom he sent to keep order in these provinces were foreigners, holding down unwilling natives by force. So these countries were always ready for revolt, always gave trouble to the Government. We see how loose was the bond which held them to the empire by the ease with which they fell a prey to the Arabs in the 7th century. In Syria and Egypt the natives welcomed, instead of resisting, these enemies of the empire. It was no doubt this same feeling of local patriotism, of anti-imperialism, which made the natives of these countries Monophysites.

Opposed, bitterly opposed, to the Melkites, to the Emperor's Patriarch Proterius, was the great mass of the native Egyptian population. Especially now we see how much politics had to do with this heresy. The native Egyptians, who kept their own language, hating the empire and the Imperial functionaries and soldiers, were ardent Monophysites, loathed Proterius and clung to Dioscor, their national hero. Since the Egyptian language is already Coptic, we may now call these Egyptian Monophysites Copts, who become the national Church of Egypt. The Emperor sent an additional garrison of 2000 soldiers to Alexandria to keep down the Monophysites and enforce Proterius's authority. Proterius did enforce his authority ; he oppressed the natives cruelly. Then came the news of Dioscor's death in 454-3 This should have helped to bring about order by removing Proterius's rival. Instead, it inflamed his adherents with the memory of his sufferings. The Copts, the great crowd of Egyptian monks, who had never recognized Proterius, clamoured for a successor to Dioscor. Naturally Proterius, the garrison and the Melkites would not admit that Dioscor needed a successor. Just then the Emperor Marcian died (February i, 457). He was succeeded by Leo I (457174). The Copts took advantage of the inevitable disturbance it a change of reign to break into open revolt.

About the middle of the sixth century, just as the Byzantine emperors thought they had overcome this difficulty, a powerful advocate of Monophysitism arose in the person of that indefatigable monk and bishop, Jacob el Baradai, who elevated Monophysitism to an actually dominant position among the creeds of the eastern portion of the Byzantine Empire. Fleet of foot as Asahel, temperate, and shunning no hardship, for well-nigh forty years he hurried, clad as a beggar, through all Asia Minor and Egypt as far as Byzantium and the islands of the Mediterranean Sea, collecting and encouraging his followers, organizing congregations, consecrating bishops, and ordaining priests and deacons. Doing this work in the daytime, and travelling on some thirty, forty or more miles in the night, he was fortunate enough to escape all persecution ; and, while at the time when he began his work Monophysitism was in a moribund condition, Jacob - as Bishop John of Ephesus tells us - consecrated two patriarchs, twenty-seven (eighty-seven according to another reading) bishops, and ordained probably 100,000 priests and deacons.

Justinian hoped to reconcile the monophysites by an interpretation of the discussions of the council of Chalcedon which would be acceptable to them. This led him, in 544, to condemn the so-called Three Chapters, which were the doctrines of the opponents of the monophysites. And although this step implied a condemnation of the council of Chalcedon itself, and was consequently opposed in the West, he forced the fifth ecumenical council of Constantinople in 553 to sanction it. However, neither this concession nor the still greater one of the edict of 565 availed to win back the extreme monophysites of Egypt and Syria, where opposition to the religious jurisdiction of Constantinople had taken a national form, and the religious disunion in the East continued until these lands were lost to the empire.

National Churches such as the Armenian and Egyptian, adopted the Monophysitic creed, which also became dominant in. Syria and Mesopotamia. In West Syria the Jacobites are to-day the sole remnant of the Monophysitic Syrian Church. They number no more than about 80,000 members. Their ecclesiastical head, the Patriarch of Antioch, resides in the monastery of Es Safaran near Mardin. Besides Mardin Diarbekr and Mosul, there were considerable congregations in the village of Sadad, on the road from Damascus to Palmyra, and in other villages of this neighbourhood.

Even more serious than the loss of the Church of Western Syria through this Monophysitic schism was the fact that, in consequence of these conflicts, separatistic tendencies gained a hold in the incoherent provinces of the East Roman Empire. Byzantium with its Greek ecclesiastical culture was unpopular with nations having a language and ancient civilization of their own. Difference of opinion in ecclesiastical matters lent impetus to centrifugal tendencies. It was under the aegis of Monophysitic activities that Egypt, Syria, and Armenia broke away from the Catholic Church. By this separation they preserved the distinctive character of their national culture, their native language, and, in part, their original ecclesiastical customs. But they had to pay for this with their separation from the great stream of church life, and with the consequent ecclesiastical and dogmatic impoverishment.

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Page last modified: 26-10-2011 18:37:03 ZULU