Severus of Antioch’s Objection To The Council Of Chalcedon : A Re-Assessment

Written By: on Jun 23rd, 2009 and filed under Articles, We Believe.

2. The Meaning of Crucial Terms

There was a great deal of obscurity raised by the technical terms employed in the Christological controversy. The main terms used may be listed in brief:

ousia – ousia
hypostasis – upostasij
physis – fusij
hyparxis – uparcij
prosopon – proswpon

In his letter to Eusebius the Scholastic, Severus defines the terms ousia and hypostasis briefly. ‘Ousia’, he writes, ‘signifies that which is common, and hypostasis that which is particular’ . The name God, for instance, is common to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. ‘The Father is God; He is beyond time and eternal. So is the Son; and so is also the Holy Spirit’ . Although there is no difference between any two of these from the point of view of ousia, with reference to hypostasis the Father is one, the Son is another, and the Holy Spirit is yet another. The distinctness of each of these consists in the specific property which He has. The Father is unbegotten; the Son is begotten; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. In this way each of them, while being fully God, is different from the other two. Ousia is the reality which, when individuated, gives rise to particular objects or hypostases.

With the term ousia, Severus combines two ideas. He takes the word as an abstract but dynamic reality, and he sees the word as only the meaning of the common name for all members of a class. Severus evidently did not have an adequate grounding in Greek philosophy . The terms hyparxis and physis go together in his thought. The first may be rendered in English as existence, and the second as nature. Accordingly both terms can be employed either in the sense of ‘the common’ or in that of ‘the particular’. Ousia has its hyparxis and physis. Of these two words, physis would become most controversial in the Christological dispute.

In more than one of his writings Severus deals with the meaning of physis or ‘nature’. Everywhere he maintains that it means at times ousia and at others hypostasis . The expression ‘human nature’, for example, is employed some times as a term referring inclusively to all mankind; but at others it is employed to signify one individual human being. Severus cites the authority of Cyril of Alexandria. In the fourth Tome of his book against Nestorius, Cyril writes that the ‘nature of Godhead is one, which is individuated as the Father, also as the Son, and in the same way as the Holy Spirit’. Again, ‘The one nature of Godhead is made known in the holy and consubstantial Trinity’. Here the term is used in the sense of ousia. But in another letter, Cyril employs it as a synonym for hypostasis. ‘We affirm’, he writes there, ‘that the Word, the creator of the worlds, in whom and by whom everything exists, the true light, the Nature that gives life to all, who is Only Son, was begotten indescribably from the ousia of the Father’.

The difference in meaning between hypostasis and prosopon is very subtle. ‘The doctors of the Church have characterized hypostasis as prosopon’, writes Severus . There is, however, a difference in emphasis between them. ‘When it comes into specific concreteness of existence, whether simple or composite, a hypostasis signifies a distinct prosopon’. The point of the last sentence will become clear if we bring out the distinction between a ‘simple’ and a ‘composite’ hypostasis. As an illustration of the first, Severus refers to the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, each is a simple hypostasis. But man is a composite hypostasis, because he is composed of a body and a soul . In man, the ousia of the body and the ousia of the soul, taken as abstract but dynamic realities, are individuated together in a union of both, each remaining in man in its perfection according to its principle. The two ousiai converge, as it were, in the formation of man. Therefore, man is a composite hypostasis, since hypostasis is the concrete being resulting from the individuation of the ousia. In the individuation, the ousia in its perfection comes into concrete existence, and when this happens the hypostasis receives its prosopon. We may say, therefore, that as the individuated ousia, the hypostasis represents the internal reality of an object, and prosopon its external aspects.

Composite hypostasis is for Severus the same as composite nature. Made up of body and soul, man may be said to be ‘from two natures’ or ‘from two hypostases’, because it is not as ousiai that body and soul exist in man, but as hypostases. The ousiai become individuated together in union, so that man does not exist in two natures. The body and soul in man, understood as dynamic realities, converge into the formation of a composite hypostasis. Severus’ view of prosopon may be brought out more fully by referring to the answer he offers to the question of why we cannot affirm that Christ is ‘from two prosopa’. He writes:

When hypostases have assumed their specific existence concretely, and are separate one from the other, each one of them has its own prosopon. But when two hypostases converge into a natural union and are completed into a natural union and are completed into a union of natures and hypostases free from confusion, as it is seen in man, those out of which the union has come about are not to be conceived as distinct concretions or to be regarded as two prosopa, but should be taken as one.

In applying this principle to Christ, Severus explains himself in this way: when God the Word, who is before the worlds, united manhood to Himself unchangeably, it could not be possible that a specific prosopon was therefore predicated either of the Godhead of the Only-begotten, or of the manhood which is united to Him; for these are perceived as in composition, and not as having come into concrete existence separately. By the coming together of the Godhead and the manhood, one hypostasis has been completed from both, and with it the incarnate Word has received His prosopon. Godhead and manhood, of which Emmanuel has been composed, continue in the one hypostasis without change.

The foregoing brief treatment will show that the lack of clarity regarding the meaning of crucial terms was among the issues of debate in the Christological controversy. The definitions are not entirely clear at several points. Severus himself combines two ideas in his explanation of the meaning of ousia; however, in many places his use of the word makes sense only if it is taken as an abstract reality. There is an equal lack of clarity with regard to the meaning of the term physis or nature. Bearing these problems in mind, we may suggest the following clarification. The term ousia signifies, for Severus, the dynamic reality underlying both the universal and the particular. In this sense ousia includes ‘being’ or existence on the one hand, and the ‘properties’ which give the ousia its character and identity on the other. These two represent hyparxis and physis respectively, and are able to be taken either as ‘the common’, in the abstract sense, or as ‘the particular’ in the concrete sense. Hypostasis is the individual person, the subject of actions, in whom the ousia with its hyparxis and physis has come into concrete existence. When the ousia is individuated, bringing a hypostasis into being, it receives its distinguishing mark, whereby an individual member of a class is differentiated from another member of the same class. This is prosopon.

As already mentioned above, Severus was consistently opposed to the Council of Chalcedon. While examining the reason why he adopted this standpoint, it is necessary to see whether he criticized the Council from a truly ‘monophysite’ point of view. ‘Monophysitism’, therefore, requires a few words of clarification. A compound of the Greek monoj and fusij used adjectively in English, the term ‘monophysite’ means ‘one-natured’ or ‘single-natured’. Walter F. Adeney explains it in these words: ‘The Monophysites had contended that there was only one nature in Christ, the human and the Divine being fused together, because the two did not meet on equal terms, and the overwhelming of the Finite left for our contemplation only the Infinite’ . This understanding of monophysitism is still propagated by reputable scholarship in the Western world.

One of the bases on which the term ‘monophysites’ is used with reference to the non-Chalcedonian side of the debate, is its defence of the phrase ‘one incarnate nature of God the Word’. It is interesting to note that John Meyendorff renders the original of the phrase as ‘one single nature…’ . Severus had forestalled the possibility of a rendering of the Greek original of the phrase in the way Father Meyendorff translates it. Severus discusses what precisely he meant by the ‘one nature’ in his Philalethes. When the fathers spoke of ‘one incarnate nature of God the Word’, he writes, ‘they made it clear that the Word did not abandon His nature’. Neither did He undergo any ‘loss or diminution in His hypostasis’. When they affirmed that ‘He became incarnate’, they made it clear that ‘the flesh was nothing but flesh, but that it had not come into being by itself, apart from the union with the Word’. It is right to say, therefore, that ‘before the ages the Word was simple, not composite’. However, when He willed to assume our likeness without sin, the flesh was brought into being but not separately. The words ‘became incarnate’ refer to the Word’s assumption of the flesh from the Virgin, an assumption whereby ‘from two natures, namely Godhead and manhood, one Christ came forth from Mary’. He is at once God and man, the same being consubstantial with the Father as to Godhead and consubstantial with us as to manhood.

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5 Responses for “Severus of Antioch’s Objection To The Council Of Chalcedon : A Re-Assessment”

  1. O'Neill says:

    It is interesting that people set such store by the thoughts of other humans, forgetting that said thoughts have no validity in fact, but are simply someone’s idea of what might or might not be.
    I would think that if a God existed it would have made its existence known without any ambiguity. And why would it have waited for billions of years until the pathetic specimens that are human to declare itself, makes no sense to me.
    And furthermore why would this God create a system of predation, it works beautifully, but it’s cruelty it beyond belief, a bit like the enforcing of religious belief, down the centuries.
    One only has to look at the evolutionary process to dismiss any idea of a God, and I am thankful for the knowledge that modern science has brought to us.

  2. Daniel Remy says:

    **********Corrected posting:**********
    I have only my faith in an indivisible and infinite spirit we call God and I love him for giving me life within his creation. I am content with that alone as the Great Gift of God –Life. I also believe that Jesus brought the Word of God (not the Word IS God which is a simple euphemism in Genesis with Word being the Will of God).

    Whether he was born Human or born both God and Man is question Jesus answered — He was both at the time of his birth (not adopted later at baptism which is logically inconsistent). However the Human body was created using Mary to be a Host Earth Vessel to exist on this planet and communicate with men. For eternity, Jesus’ divine nature exists. His body is no longer needed and the ascension was necessary only for men to see and believe. After that moment, a human body is no longer needed in the Intangible God-Spirit of the Universe.

    The body will reappear at the second coming and the time Christ is on earth to appear like us and indeed God created us in his image in our Spiritual souls–the body is for this earth only and not eternal spiritual life with God.

    The Holy Spirit — what can one say that Christ and John the Baptist hasn’t already stated. It is God’s Grace “touching men’s souls” and infusing the divine. A Spiritual Being from God, indivisible and the Alpha and the Omega of Creation and the First Cause without a Cause.

    This is my creed as a Jewish Christian and a Physicist. The complexities of Trinity and words (imperfect language unlike mathematics) is a human limitation of communication and of understanding the divine with Humility. We do not know anything — no one knows anything as certainty. I, you, we, they BELIEVE only.

    Three certain Beliefs I have are that God is the First Cause and Creator of all, that Jesus told us Truth, and that the Holy Spirit appeared to us from God.

    The idea of One Woman, Mary, being the Mother of God is logically and metaphysically impossible. Her womb could not bring forth what has been here forever.

    Believing in One God is difficult enough, so why complicate a simple Beautiful Truth with Mystery of the Trinity and all of the other variations of imperfect human understanding. Is Human Hubris so audacious and foolish? Careful, Ra will melt your wax wings!
    Love God and be Grateful for your life. Follow the Word of Jesus and you may see God forever. Put human pride and clergy councils aside. They are human.

    Praise God and Live Life with the Word of Jesus Christ. God does not complicate.

  3. I’m no longer sure where you’re getting your information, however great topic. I needs to spend some time studying more or understanding more. Thanks for wonderful info I used to be looking for this information for my mission.

  4. I am a member of an independent, Charismatic, Protestant church in the Chicago area. This article is a very lucid explanation of a difficult topic. Not only does it shed light on Severus and his views, but it does so from a viewpoint that is both sympathetic and orthodox. Thank you, Mr. Thomas.

  5. John Mathew, Toronto says:

    “The Council and the Tome were rejected by a large part of the Christian East, which has maintained since that time an organized existence in communities in Egypt, Syria, Ethiopia, Armenia and India, which are commonly referred to as the Oriental Orthodox Churches.”

    Nice article, but let’s be a little more correct in a historical sense — that is, India needs to be chopped from that list.

    India at that time was likely not at all connected to the “Oriental Orthodox Churches”. Back then we were, according to the evidence we do have, connected to the so-called “Nestorians” — who separated from the rest of Christianity before Chalcedon.

    “Our” (i.e., the Malankara Orthodox/Jacobites) entry into the Oriental Orthodox fraternity started, at the earliest, in the 17th century. Prior to that the Indians were Catholics (Eastern Rite Chaldeans after the 16th century schism in the Middle East within the “Nestorian Church”, and Latin-rite Catholics via Portuguese influence) and Nestorians (from the 16th century down to the historically-defensible beginning of Christianity in India in the 5th century).

    So back when Mor Severios was around, the Indians were likely a heretical community (in his eyes — assuming he knew of us, being based too far to the West for him to really know or care about us).

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