Early Christian History

Heresies: Monophysitism

Monophysitism was perhaps the most contentious of the eastern christological heresies (the other chief ones being Arianism and Nestorianism). It became a political conflict in addition to a theological one, even moreso than Nestorianism had been (political ramifications of that controversy ended when the Byzantine Emperor repudiated Nestorius).


Monophysitism began as the antithesis of Nestorianism. Whereas Nestorius had been accused of teaching a dual Christ, Eutyches, an archimandrite from Constantinople, offered a radically anti-Nestorian view, at the Council of Ephesus (431).

Eutyches asserted that Christ had only a sole nature; μονος φυσις (monos physis, “one substance”). He could not be understood as being solely divine, solely human, or as a blend of both. This, while it utterly refuted Nestorianism, still flew in the face of the then-young Trinitarian doctrine. While at first, Eutyches and his sole-substance concept had been tolerated — it helped to fend off the dual-Christ teaching of Nestorianism — eventually, the Alexandrine school found it unacceptable.

Eutyches was deposed in 449 after having been given a chance to explain his doctrine sufficiently. A number of plenary synods met and alternately deposed and reinstated Eutyches or his opponents.

Chalcedon and Attempted Re-Unification

The Council of Chalcedon (451) addressed this issue, among others. An Alexandrine doctrine was adopted, however, its language satisfied many of the Monophysites. Eutyches and his most vehement followers held out, though, and he died in exile.

Although Monophysitism had been greatly reduced, it was not eliminated by the “compromise” at Chalcedon. Initially, however, it was not problematic. It only emerged again over the next few decades.

The Henotikon

In 482, after the Monophysite heresy had begun to re-emerge, and was fast becoming the majority view in Syria, the Levant, and parts of Egypt, Peter III was elevated to Patriarch of Alexandria. Despite the rigid orthodoxy which had been Alexandrian tradition, he was a Monophysite and ignored the canons of Chalcedon.

Emperor Zeno thus faced a prominent Monophysite hierarch, in addition to whole provinces being primarily Monophysite, and was forced to act. He and Patriarch Acacius of Alexandria devised another compromise formula, called the Henotikon, to reunite the Monophysites and orthodox Christians.

Once again this compromise failed to satisfy; moreover, many clergy were offended by Zeno’s imposition of the Henotikon, without having called at least a local synod to debate it first. The next Emperor, Anastasius I, favored Monophysites although he honored the Henotikon.

Later Monophysitism and the “Three Chapters” Affair

By the time Anastasius came to the throne, some Monophysites agitated to create their own clergy and hierarchy in opposition. That Anastasius had been (they thought, and possibly he was) a fellow Monophysite, fuelled this ambition. This, of course, had ecclesiastical and political ramifications. Significantly, it threatened to pull part of the Church out from under Imperial control.

Emperor Justin I reaffirmed the canons of Chalcedon in 519. Those attempting to build a separate Monophysite church found themselves unable to do so, as patronage for their efforts dried up.

Emperor Justinian I, Justin’s son, while he backed up his father’s dictates officially, was more tolerant of Monophysitism and initially, at least, unwilling to crack down on them as hard. Moreoever, his wife, Empress Theodora, was sympathetic to Monophysites, and supported some Monophysite clergy.

Eventually, however, ecclesiastical pressure — and the political reality that Monophysitism could undermine his regime — forced Justinian to deal with the issue. While he began suppressing Monophysites, however, he simultaneously extended what he considered an olive branch of sorts, by condemning the “Three Chapters.”

These were: 1) the collected writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia; 2) the letter of Ibas of Edessa to Maris of Persia; and 3) the letters of Theodoret opposing Cyril. Justinian’s pretext for this was that the Three Chapters all had a Nestorian flavor. In this way, he hoped to appeal to Monophysites (who were fervently anti-Nestorian). But this turned out to have been a blunder; the Three Chapters also contained orthodox ideas and some had even been called upon as the basis of canons at both the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon.

Justinian’s attempt, then, at bringing the whole Church under his banner, the banner of orthodoxy, failed (just as all prior such attempts had). He was forced to convene the Second Council of Constaninople in 553. While intended to reunite Christianity within the Imperium, this Council’s results were mixed. II Constantinople confirmed all the canons of Chalcedon, but also condemned the Three Chapters.

Going Their Own Ways

By the 7th century Monophysitism had died out within most of the Byzantine Empire. It lingered, however, in those “pockets” where it had always had a good deal of loyalty: Syria, Egypt, and Armenia. It became official doctrine of the Jacobite (Syria), Coptic (Egypt), and Armenian churches. Since the 7th century, however, their christologies have been altered and are no longer Monophysite in nature; the term for their current christologies is miaphysite.

Roman Christianity and the Monophysite Heresy

At a couple of points, Rome meddled in this affair, although western Christendom was largely untouched by it. As the conflict heated up again in the east, after Chalcedon, the pope excommunicated the entire east (on the grounds that both sides there had departed from the Chalcedonian compromise). This was resolved when Emperor Justin reaffirmed Chalcedon.

Pope Virgilius attended II Constantinople and contributed to its resolution, mainly to ensure it upheld Chalcedon. Some western bishops, however, especially several in northern Italy (under Lombard tutelage and outside papal influence) refused to condemn the Three Chapters (since they read them as supporting orthodoxy). Their refusal to accept condemnation of the Three Chapters meant that they refused to accept the canons of II Constantinople — placing them, officially, outside of western orthodoxy. These northern Italian dioceses held out for some time, but by the end of the 7th century came back around, when the Lombards officially embraced Roman Catholicism.

For western Christianity then, the conflict was more about acceptance or rejection of the Three Chapters, than about Monophysitism. Western Christianity largely neither understood this heresy nor cared much about it. The papal excommunication of the entire east, at the end of the 5th century, was a rash and irrational act, based upon the pope’s failure to understand the heresy (very likely due to ignorance of the Greek language, in which the Nestorian and Monophysite heresies had been discussed in writing).

Pope Virgilius had entered the affair knowing that the east was divided and hoping, at the general council of II Constantinople, to emerge as a peacemaker and uniter; but it didn’t turn out this way. Had he understood the depth of the conflict — it’s clear he didn’t — he might not have bothered, or else, might have made more extensive, diplomatic efforts to do so.

Thus, Monophysitism was an eastern heresy, which as usual, western Christianity did not understand, and did not contribute to resolving, in any significant way.

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