Controversies about Christ in the early church, part V: The toll of schism and a long-overdue healing

Cover of "Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs...

The latest from book-a-year wonder Philip Jenkins

This post follows from “Who do you say that I am: Controversies about Christ in the early church,” , , and

But now we have to descend from the ideal, abstract world of ideas and remember the other result of the Council of Chalcedon: The worst schism the church had ever faced. The reaction was violent. Christian citizens were robbed, there were riots, leaders were deposed, Christians killed each other. The anti-Chalcedon reaction became the religion of Egypt: monophysitism. Later: the Coptic church. In Syria, many Christians became monophysites. The story of all of this is told in a new book by the prolific and clear writer Philip Jenkins, called Jesus Wars.

Monophysitism continues to today. But today in the East, these are not taken to be heretics.

Picture Jesus Christ. What do we think of? A person sitting at the right hand of the father in heaven? Some of us do, perhaps. Or a man lugging a cross or preaching on the shores of Galilee, or being whipped by soldiers? When the Easterners meditated on Christ, they always started w/ his divinity, and THEN passed to his incarnation. They have historically begun with the second person of the Holy Trinity. And they remain there.

Why is this true of the Eastern church? There is maybe a Platonic strain that remains. It has emphasized immaterial over material things, and “original, higher forms, ideas” as the most important, and MORE real than material realities. So maybe this goes back to such a Greek mindset. Maybe too, there is some early influence of gnosticism lingering here.

But we must remember that behind every proposed solution about how to define Jesus’s being was a person like you or me trying to seek the face of God. Nestorius, Eutyches—these were devoted followers of Christ. Only by their articulating their errors did others see the truth more clearly. It is important we keep in mind the positive intent of all the people who proposed solutions to the definition of Christ. What’s really amazing is that they disputed so long without separating! Why didn’t the Arians walk off in 312 and form their own church, or the Nestorians? Even the monophysites didn’t split at first. The church still held on tenaciously to the idea of its oneness, its unity, on earth as in heaven, a sign of Christ to the world, a witness church. If Christ is divided, then we do not represent Christ to the world.

However, as I’ve said, in the 5th c. a monophysite church formed in Egypt, formally declaring their splitting with the “Chalcedon party.” And this happened, by the way, only after intense efforts by everyone to prevent schism. Today at last, I’m glad to say, these differences have finally begun to be healed, and over the last 30 years, the monophysite position has been accepted as a mere restatement of orthodox belief—for example, by Patriarch Bartholomew I of the Eastern Orthodox Church and by Pope John Paul II of the Roman Catholic Church.

And by the way, the Eastern churches will tell you that monophysitism is not the right term to use of their belief. More accurately they would be called “miaphysite,” since the one nature of Christ is not historically seen by these Eastern churches as simply divine (as it was apparently by Eutyches, for example), but rather as retaining both a divine character and a human character. (“Mia,” as I understand it, still means “one,” but in the sense more of “unified” than “sole.”) So don’t, for example, tell Dr. Lois Farag, a professor at Luther Seminary who is a Coptic nun, that she is a monophysite! For her, that is a fighting word, and an inaccurate one at that.

I’m closing with a handy cheat-sheet on the first four councils. Though this is a simplification, it can help you remember the rather dense landscape of ideas and controversies we’ve been reviewing here:

  1. Nicaea emphasized the oneness of God (Jesus Christ is homoousios with the Father)
  2. Constantinople emphasized the threeness of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit)
  3. Ephesus emphasized the oneness of Jesus Christ (Mary is theotokos)
  4. Chalcedon emphasized the twoness of Jesus Christ (two physes or ‘natures’)

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