Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 22: Monophysites and Dyophysites


Two currents stood out from the tormented landscape of ecclesiastical rivalries, the quarrels of the Churches struggling for the recognition of their authority and preeminence. They corresponded to the two poles of imperial power: Rome and Byzantium, on the one hand, and Alexandria, the cradle of Hellenized Christianity, on the other.

Monophysism was more a schism than a heresy. Born in Alexandria, this doctrine was not innovative but used old speculations on the nature of the Messiah to differentiate itself from [the doctrines promulgated in] Rome. After the Council of Chalcedon, held in 451, the Eastern Churches seized hold of the Jacobites of Syria and the Armenian churches in order to constitute their dogma, which is still honored by the Copts of Egypt. But one must also take account of the ceaseless animosity between Alexandria and Antioch, the city in which – ever since the end of the First Century – the communities devoted to James and Simon-Peter had been established. The judgment of Tertullian, “episcopatus aemulatio schismatum mater est,”[1] was verified once again.

By rejecting Arius, the Church of Rome had defined, through the credo of Nicaea, the rudiments of Catholic dogma: the Christ was God; he formed a single substance with the Father; although he was created for all eternity by the Father, he was incarnated by descending to earth and thus became a man entirely apart [from other men]. This was the position of Tertullian and, for Rome, it was the one that most advantageously defined the role of the Church: a spiritual and temporal power; the union of the celestial and temporal kingdoms. The Church had been founded by God and by “Jesus, put to death under Pontius Pilate,” and its two principal apostles, Peter and Paul, were martyred in Rome, which was thereby designated the legitimate place for the “Holy See.”

Arianism, issued from Alexandria, established a subordinate relationship between God, the creator of all things, and the Son, created as any man was, but invested by the divine Logos. “Did you have a son before he was born?” Arius asked of mothers, and his question, ironically aimed at the Mother Church, attacked the pretension of ecclesiastic Rome [“the eternal city”] to divine permanence.

It was in Alexandria that Cyril, a disciple of Athanasius (Arius’ enemy), led a revolt against Rome. This revolt was grafted upon one of the specious quarrels in which Alexandria and Antioch had been engaged for centuries.

There was a single substance common to the Father, the Son and the Logos (or the Spirit). But what was the nature, the physis, of the Jesus who was both a man entirely apart and the God of all eternity?

For the party of Antioch, there were two natures in the Messiah: one divine and one human. Such was the opinion of Theodore of Mopsuestia (350-428), Theodoret of Cyprus, and Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople. That’s wrong, retorted the party of Alexandria. To admit two natures was to recognize two Messiahs, two people: one the eternal Logos; the other a historical individual. Monophysites, or the supporters of a single nature, thenceforth entered into the ranks of those who combated the Antiochians or Dyophysites, who distinguished two natures.

Paradoxically, Monophysism derived from the hostility manifested towards Arius by Athanasius of Alexandria, who insisted on the single nature of the God Logos incarnate. Around 370, Apollinaire of Laodicea (Latakia, in Syria), desiring to pursue the struggle against Arianism, insisted on Athanasius’ thesis and thus provoked the animosity of Epiphanius of Salamis, the hunter of heretics and the sworn enemy of Origen.

In 374, Epiphanius denounced Apollinaire to Damasus, the Bishop of Rome: Apollinaire was condemned by a synod.

In 381, while the ecumenical council of Constantinople anathematized Arianism and Apollinaire’s theses, an adversary of Apollinaire named Diodorus of Tarsus (an Antiochian) took a position that was opposed to the incriminated doctrine. Diodorus decreed that the most important things about the Christ were his human nature, his suffering, and his exemplary sacrifice. He counted two natures in this Messiah who, used a pretext, was tossed from one camp to the other on the waves of a theology of power: the Word or Logos, the Son of God, and Jesus the man, the son of Mary. Theodore of Mopsuestia then developed Diodorus’ theory.

The difficulty faced by the clerics who tried to legitimate their authority by fortifying it with “divine truths” precisely concerned the way that they transformed into concrete realities the purely speculative reasons that Judeo-Christian Gnosticism had maintained at the very limits of coherence: God drew from his eternal essence a Logos (or image) whose the spark (or reflection) preserved its imprint in human matter. From this Divine Wisdom – Sophia or Mary, the feminine Spirit – was born a Messiah, a savior, a redeemer, who (though still of the same virginal essence as his mother) assumed the body of a man, knew the miserable lot of mortals and, through, his exemplary sacrifice, ascended towards his Father by showing mankind the path to salvation and the upward route of the divine that was inside it. What spoiled and complicated the metaphysical purity of such a construction was the will or the necessity to introduce into it a temporal power, a legal authority.

The apologue of Sophia, the virgin, and Prunikos, the prostitute, contented itself with allegorically expressing the descent of the Spirit into matter and the deplorable fate that was imposed upon it by the “malediction of the flesh.” But parthenogenesis by a young Jewish bride who gave birth to God after having welcomed a dove?!

In 423, when Theodosius II named the Antiochian Nestorius to be the patriarch of Constantinople, popular Greek Christianity adopted the custom of celebrating Mary as the mother of God, thereby dressing up in fashionable clothes one of the commonly invoked ancient Goddesses. She was called Theotokos. (Note that, in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries, the custom of offering cakes to Ceres became Christianized. The new Christians who dedicated to Mary the offerings that were reserved for her archetype were called “Collyridians,” a word derived from the Greek collyres, “little cakes.” Epiphanius unleashed his fury against them, no doubt due to his misogyny, but also because he suspected that, under the Christian facade, the old fertility rites remained intact.)

Nestorius (381-451), the Bishop of Byzantium from 428-431, claimed for himself the Dyophysite school of Antioch. His disciples held him, Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodorus of Tarsus to be the “three great lights of the Church.” His political realism persuaded him to vehemently persecute the “heretics,” particularly the Messalians, and to follow the Antiochian tradition of historical exegesis rather than the allegorical tradition of Alexandria. Nevertheless, he clashed with the general sentiment of the Greek Catholics by rejecting the expression “mother of God” (Theotokos) and choosing instead Anthropotokos or Christotokos (“mother of Man” or “mother of the Christ”).

Cyril of Alexandria, adversary of Nestorius and partisan of Apollinaire of Laodicea, quickly counter-attacked: “If the Christ is God, and Mary is his mother, how could she not be the mother of God?”

In 431, the emperor convened a council at Ephesus. Through a maneuver that revealed the political obedience of theological argumentation, the partisans of Cyril, arriving first, obtained the condemnation of Nestorius. Mary triumphed as the Theotokos, the mother of God, and Nestorius was deposed. Although the Nestorians replied at counter-council in 436 by deposing Cyril, the patriarch of Byzantium was banished to Petra, then in Upper Egypt, where he died. By imperial order, the ensemble of his works was burned. Nevertheless, a copy of his Bazaar of Heracleides escaped destruction. In it, he proclaimed that God could not have been born from a woman, nor could he die on the cross. This was a thesis that was commonly accepted by the Christian Gnostics of the Second Century and that the Church later condemned under the name “Docetism.”

Nestorius’ fall caused the ruination of the Dyophysites Diodorus of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia, who – held as orthodox in their era – were posthumously placed among the camp of the heretics. Nevertheless, Diodorus deployed great ingenuity by explaining that, in Mary’s uterus, the Logos had built a temple for itself. This temple was Jesus the man, headed for birth and suffering, whereas the divine Logos, for its part, escaped the influence of a human destiny.

Likewise, Theodore insisted on the conjoining, in a single person, of a man, completely human, with the Logos-Son, perfect in its divinity and consubstantial with the Father.

In 489, the school of Edessa, in which Nestorianism enjoyed a great popularity, fell under the prohibitions of Emperor Zenon. The persecution chased away the Nestorians, whose Churches spread everywhere in the East, from Samarkand and Tartary to India and even China. They have continued to exist to the present day; they conserve the idea that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and not from the Son, which is what the Byzantine Church affirmed. The West has only kept traces of these doctrines, which were condemned under the name “Adoptianism” and associated with Felix of Urgell and Elipand, the Bishop of Toledo, who was excommunicated by the Council of Frankfurt in the Eighth Century for maintaining that God had adopted Jesus the man in order to deposit his Logos in him.


In its will to maintain the unity of a Church of which it remained the true master, imperial power sought to reconcile the partisans of Cyril and Nestorius in the first half of the Fifth Century.

Did not Eutyches, the Archimandrite of a monastery in Constantinople, try to unite these points of view in the following formula? – in Jesus there were two natures that only formed a single one once the union with the Logos was accomplished.[2]

In 451, Emperor Marcian convened a new council in Chalcedon, not far from Byzantium. The decision was [that the Christ had been] one person with two natures. The Monophysites, hurt by the attribution of two natures, were dismayed; the Dyphysites, for whom “one person” was unacceptable, were dissatisfied. The Council also excluded Eutyches. The Egyptians felt betrayed. They declared: “We would be killed if we counter-signed the text of Leon” (the Bishop of Rome who seemed to have envisioned two natures in his Tome). “We would prefer to die at the hands of the emperor and the Council, than at those of our followers.”[3] Their prudence with respect to confronting their faithful was only too justified. The Council had scarcely deposed Dioscorus, the Monophysite bishop of Alexandria, when his successor, Proterius, mandated by the Council, was lynched by a mob.

The Monophysite schism affected Egypt, half of Palestine, Syria, Ethiopia, the South of Arabia, and Georgia; [thus] it outlined an anti-Chalcedonian front of Churches. The Churches of Armenia, which were not represented at the Council, became Monophysite in the Sixth Century.

In the East, there subsisted a [pro-]Chalcedonian party: the Melchites, who professed opinions hostile to Monophysism; Emperor Justinian tried to reconcile them with the Monophysites. After having Vigilius, the Bishop of Rome (a “Pope,” as some have called him since then), kidnapped, Justinian kept him prisoner for seven years, until he signed a Monophysite “capitulation.”

The Syrian monk Jacob Baradaeus (500-578) founded new Monophysite Churches all through the East. The Churches in Syria kept his memory by calling themselves Jacobites. These were orthodox Churches that hunted down heretics, as everywhere else, with the help of their thinkers: Severus of Antioch, Jacob of Serugh, Philoxenus of Mabbug, John of Tella, and Theodore of Arabia.


In the wake of Monophysism was situated the sect of the agnoetes (the “ignorant”), which was founded by Themistios, the Deacon of Alexandria, who, preoccupied with the intellect of Jesus, established a distinction between the omniscience of God (which was in Jesus, but in an unconscious state) and his comprehension, which hardly surpassed the understanding shared by other men. Carried along by rival powers, speculation gave something piquant to the decision of the Council of Chalcedon: two natures, but only one person in Jesus. But Themistios did not occupy a position in the Church worthy of the interest that was satisfied by the Monophysism of the Coptic Churches, which were thenceforth independent of the Archbishopric of Rome (which became the papacy) and thus, on the Byzantine side of things, assured of a relative peace.

Eulogius, the [Greek Orthodox] Patriarch of Alexandria (580-607), and Pope Gregory I [590-604] both condemned Themistios.

The quarrel over the nature(s) of the Christ suggested to Julian, the Bishop of Halicarnassus, the opinion that – because Jesus was not entirely human – his body remained incorruptible and inaccessible to suffering. Combated by the Monophysite Severus of Antioch, chased from his Episcopal See, and condemned, along with his partisans, under the barbaric label Aphthartodocetes, Julian took refuge in Alexandria in 518.[4]

A sectarian of Julian of Halicarnassus, Gaianus – enthroned in place of Theodosius (a supporter of Severus) in 535 – united his partisans, or “Gaianites,” in a faction that perpetuated the spirit of Paul of Samosata. Communion was given in his name; and the women baptized their own children in the sea by invoking the name of Gaianus, who did not disdain from passing himself off as the “second Christ” and receiving Mass in person.[5]


[1] Translator: previously mentioned in Chapter 19, this Latin maxim, which appears in Tertullian’s De Baptismo, can be translated as, “Envy of the episcopate is the mother of all schisms.” Note that, in Vaneigem’s text, the maxim is (incorrectly) recalled as episcopatus aemulatio mater schismatum est, when in fact it is episcopatus aemulatio schismatum mater est.

[2] Translator: yes, he did, and, as a result, he was condemned as a heretic by the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

[3] J. D. Mansi, De sacrorum conciliorum novo collectio, 1759, 7, 58-60.

[4] W. H. C. Frend, The Rise of the Monophysite Movement, Cambridge, 1972.

[5] J. Jarry, Hérésies et factions dans l’Empire byzantin du IV au VII siècle, op. cit., p. 82.


(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)

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