The Christological heresy of Monophysitism derives its name from the Greek μόνος (monos, “one”) and φύσις (physis, “nature”). It is the teaching that in the person of the incarnated Word, Jesus Christ, there was only one nature; the divine. Monophysitism originated as a reaction to Nestorianism. The First Council of Nicaea (325) declared that Christ was divine and consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father, and became human through the incarnation. In the fifth century a heated controversy arose between the theological schools of Antioch (led by Nestorius) and Alexandria (led by Cyril of Alexandria) about how divinity and humanity existed in Christ. The heresy of Nestorianism, which was condemned at the Council of Ephesus, tried to separate the man Jesus Christ into two persons by claiming Mary only gave birth to the human man Jesus and that the Divine Logos was only loosely united to him. A priest named Eutyches of Constantinople vehemently opposed the teachings of Nestorius at the Council of Ephesus. His condemnation of Nestorianism as heresy led him to an equally extreme, although opposite view. Eutyches taught that Jesus had only one nature, a union of the divine and human that is not an even compound, since what is divine is infinitely larger than what is human: the humanity was thus absorbed by and transmuted into the divinity, as a drop of honey, mixing with the water of the sea, vanishes. The body of Christ, being transmuted, was therefore not consubstantial (homoousios) with humankind. Those who agreed with Eutyches became known as Monophysites because of their claim that Christ had only one nature (Greek: mono = one; physis = nature).
Orthodox Catholic theologians recognized that Monophysitism was as bad as Nestorianism because it denied Christ’s full humanity. If Christ did not have a fully human nature, then he would not be fully human, and his suffering and death would be rendered meaningless for humankind. In 451, the Council of Chalcedon, after reading the Tome of Pope Lei the Great, defined that in Christ there were two natures united in one person. Those who accepted the Chalcedonian “two natures” definition were called Dyophysites. The near-immediate result of the council was a major schism known as the Chalcedonian Schism. Heated disagreements between the council and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, who felt that the verbiage of “two natures” sounded too close to Nestorianism, would lead to the separation of the Oriental Orthodox Churches from the rest of Christianity, the most significant among these being the Church of Alexandria, today known as the Coptic Orthodox Church. These churches would be labeled historically as Monophysites, however they have maintained that their theology differs from Monophysitism and that they instead hold to the Christological doctrine of Miaphysitism or “Unique Nature” which teaches that Jesus, the Incarnate Word, is fully divine and fully human, resulting in one unique ‘nature’ (physis). Through ecumenical efforts made in the 20th century, several modern declarations by both Chalcedonian and Miaphysite churches state that the difference between the two Christological formulations does not reflect any significant difference in belief about the nature of Christ (see below the Joint Commission of the Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches).
- Papandrea, James L. (2016). The Earliest Christologies: Five Images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age. InterVarsity Press.
- Hughes, Philip (1954). A Popular History of the Catholic Church. Garden City, New York: Image Books (Doubleday).
- Orlando O. Espín; James B. Nickoloff (2007). An Introductory Dictionary of Theology and Religious Studies. Liturgical Press.
- Common Christological Declaration between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East, Preamble. https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/1994/november/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19941111_dichiarazione-cristologica.html
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