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Monophysitism (pron.: // or //; Greek: monos meaning "only, single" and physis meaning "nature"), is the Christological position that, after the union of the divine and the human in the historical Incarnation, Jesus Christ, as the incarnation of the eternal Son or Word (Logos) of God, had only a single "nature" which was either divine or a synthesis of divine and human. Monophysitism is contrasted to dyophysitism (or dia-, dio-, or duophysitism) which maintains that Christ maintained two natures, one divine and one human, after the Incarnation.
Historically, Monophysitism (usually capitalized in this sense) refers primarily to the position of those (especially in Egypt and to a lesser extent Syria) who rejected the Council of Chalcedon in 451 (the Fourth Ecumenical Council). The moderate members of this group, however, maintained a "Miaphysite" theology that became that of the Oriental Orthodox churches. Many Oriental Orthodox reject the label "Monophysite" even as a generic term, but it is extensively used in the historical literature.
After the Council of Chalcedon, the Monophysite controversy (together with institutional, political, and growing nationalistic factors) led to a lasting schism between the Oriental Orthodox churches, on the one hand, and the Western and the Eastern Orthodox churches on the other. The Christological conflict among monophysitism, duophysitism, and their subtle combinations and derivatives lasted from the third through the eighth centuries and left its mark on all but the first two Ecumenical Councils. The vast majority of Christians nowadays belong to the so-called "Chalcedonian" churches. i.e. the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and traditional Protestant churches (those that accept at least the first four Ecumenical Councils); these churches have always considered monophysitism to be heretical.
In the light of modern historical research and ecumenical discussions, the miaphysite and Chalcedonian positions appear to differ mainly in their usage of the key term "nature" (Greek: φύσις, phýsis, as used in the original texts of the relevant Ecumenical Councils) rather than in the underlying Christology, but other smaller differences of interpretation or emphasis may also exist. Intercommunion between the Oriental Orthodox and various Chalcedonian churches has not yet been reestablished.
Monophysitism is occasionally referred to as "monophysiticism."
Monophysitism was born in the theological "School of Alexandria," which began its Christological analysis with the (divine) eternal Son or Word of God and sought to explain how this eternal Word had become incarnate as a man--in contrast to the "School of Antioch" (birthplace of Nestorianism, the antithesis of Monophysitism), which instead began with the (human) Jesus of the Gospels and sought to explain how this man had become united with the eternal Word in the Incarnation. Both sides agreed, of course, that Christ was both human and divine, but the Alexandrians emphasized divinity (including the fact that the divine nature was itself "impassible" or immune to suffering) while the Antiochines emphasized humanity (including the limited knowledge and "growth in wisdom" of the Christ of the Gospels). Individual Monophysite and Nestorian theologians in fact rarely believed the extreme views that their respective opponents attributed to them (although some of their followers may have). Ultimately, however, the dialectic between the schools of Alexandria and Antioch produced Christologies that on all sides (notwithstanding ongoing differences between the Oriental Orthodox and Chalcedonian churches) avoided the extremes and reflect both points of view.
Monophysitism was condemned by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 (the "Fourth Ecumenical Council"), which among other things adopted the Definition of Chalcedon (often known as the "Chalcedonian Creed") stating that Christ is the eternal Son of God "made known in two natures without confusion [i.e. mixture], without change, without division, without separation, the difference of the natures being by no means removed because of the union, but the property of each nature being preserved and coalescing in one prosopon [person] and one hupostasis [subsistence]--not parted or divided into two prosopa [persons], but one and the same Son, only-begotten, divine Word, the Lord Jesus Christ."
Accepted by the sees of Rome, Constantinople, and Antioch, the Chalcedonian settlement encountered strong resistance in Alexandria (and in Egypt generally), leading ultimately to the schism between the Oriental Orthodox churches (which reject Chalcedon), on the one hand, and the so-called Chalcedonian churches on the other. The Chalcedonian churches--that is, the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches together with those Protestant churches that accept at least the first four Ecumenical Councils--have always considered monophysitism to be heretical and have generally viewed it as the (explicit or implicit) position of the Oriental Orthodox churches. The Oriental Orthodox churches, on the other hand, consider their own Christology, known as Miaphysitism and based heavily on the writings of Cyril of Alexandria (whom all sides accept as orthodox), to be distinct from monophysitism, and often object to being labelled monophysites.
Monophysitism and its antithesis, Nestorianism, were both hotly disputed and divisive competing tenets in the maturing Christian traditions during the first half of the 5th century, during the tumultuous last decades of the Western Empire. It was marked by the political shift in all things to a center of gravity then located in the Eastern Roman Empire, and particularly in Syria, the Levant, and Anatolia, where monophysitism was popular among the people.
- Eutychianism holds that the human and divine natures of Christ were fused into one new single (mono) nature: His human nature was "dissolved like a drop of honey in the sea".
- Apollinarism or Apollinarianism holds that Christ had a human body and human "living principle" but that the Divine Logos had taken the place of the nous, or "thinking principle", analogous but not identical to what might be called a mind in the present day.
After Nestorianism, taught by Nestorius, Archbishop of Constantinople, was rejected at the First Council of Ephesus, Eutyches, an archimandrite at Constantinople, emerged with diametrically opposite views. Eutyches' energy and the imprudence with which he asserted his opinions brought him the accusation of heresy in 448, leading to his excommunication. In 449, at the controversial Second Council of Ephesus Eutyches was reinstated and his chief opponents Eusebius, Domnus and Flavian, deposed. Monophysitism and Eutyches were again rejected at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
Monophysitism's theological point of view is also rejected by the Oriental Orthodox Churches, but was wrongfully believed to be widely accepted in Syria, Egypt and the Levant, leading to many tensions with the Byzantine-era Coptic Church.
Later, monothelitism – the belief that Christ was two natures in one person except that he only had a divine will and no human will – was developed as an attempt to bridge the gap between the monophysite and the Chalcedonian position, but it too was rejected by the members of the Chalcedonian synod, despite at times having the support of the Byzantine emperors and once escaping the condemnation of a Pope of Rome, Honorius I. Some are of the opinion that monothelitism was at one time held by the Maronites, but the Maronite community, for the most part, dispute this, stating that they have never been out of communion with the Catholic Church.
Davis, Leo Donald, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787) Their History and Theology, 1983 (Michael Glazier, Wilmington DE), reprinted 1990 (Liturgical Press, Collegeville MN, Theology and Life Series 21, 342 pp., ISBN 978-0-8146-5616-7), chaps. 4-6, pp. 134-257.
Kelly, J.N.D., Early Christian Doctrines, 5th edition 1977 (Continuum, London, 511 pp., ISBN 0-8264-5252-3), chaps. XI-XII, pp. 280-343.
Meyendorff, John (Jean), Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, trans. Dubois, Yves, 1969, 2d ed. 1975 (St. Vladimir's Seminary, Crestwood NY, 248 pp., ISBN 978-0-88141-867-5), chaps. 1-4, pp. 13-90.
- Martin Lembke, lecture in the course "Meetings with the World's Religions", Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, Lund University, Spring Term 2010.
- Quoted in Kelly 1977, p. 340 (bracketed language added).
- Metropolitan Bishoy of Damitte – Egypt. "Interpretation of the Christological Official Agreements between the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches". Retrieved 30 December 2011.
- After Chalcedon – Orthodoxy in the 5th/6th Centuries
Chesnut, R.C., Three Monophysite Christologies, 1976 (Oxford).
Frend, W.H.C., The Rise of the Monophysite Movement, 1972 (Cambridge).
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