Severus of Antioch was born in Sozopolis in Pisidia about 465. His family was well-to-do, and as a young man, not yet baptized, he was sent to Alexandria to study grammar and rhetoric. From Alexandria he moved to Beirut to study Roman law. Here Severus came under the influence of Christian students and began to study the works of Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus. Later he was baptized at the shrine of Leontius of Tripoli, and after his baptism became increasingly ascetic, spending much of his time in church .
Severus was an uncompromising critic of the Council of Chalcedon and the Tome of Leo. The Council adopted the formula of faith affirming that Jesus Christ was ‘one Person’ made known ‘in two natures’. 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. This group of Churches maintains that the ‘in two natures’ of Chalcedon was not the tradition of the pre-Chalcedonian Church, which proclaimed ‘from two natures’ and ‘one incarnate nature’.
As Severus criticized the Council and the Tome on the one hand and defended the ‘one incarnate nature’ on the other, scholars of the Chalcedonian and the pro-Chalcedonian theological persuasion refer to him as a ‘monophysite’ . In doing so, these scholars base their point of view on two assumptions: first, they take for granted that the Council of Chalcedon and the Tome of Leo together represent exclusively the orthodox understanding of the Person of Jesus Christ; and second, that Severus, who criticized them both, cannot possibly have taught the faith of the Church in its purity .
Was the rejection of Chalcedon by Severus the result of a Christology that ‘explained away’ the human reality of Christ? To show that Severus did not in fact dissolve the human nature of Christ, Fr. V.C. Samuel points to the heresies Severus rejected: Manichaenism, Apollinarianism and Eutychanism . He also considers the accusations made against Severus in 536 . Fr. Samuel argues that Severus was not a Monophysite with the statement: ‘Severus never objected to the dynamic continuance of the two natures in the one Christ, and the ascription of the term ‘monophysite’ to his theological position is nothing but the legacy of the polemics of a bygone age’ . Severus is rooted, he suggests, in the theology of Cyril. In the formula mia fusij tou Qeou Logou sesarkwmenh, Severus’ interpretation of ‘mia’ does not mean simply ‘one’. The reality of Christ’s divinity and humanity is indeed strongly affirmed by Severus. In his study on the Severus’ Christology, Zambolotsky tells us: ‘Severus’ human nature is not “hypostatic” but like the human nature of Leontius of Byzantium and John of Damascus ‘hypostatised’, received to the unity of the hypostasis of the Logos’ .
The Council of Chalcedon was obviously not the first ecclesiastical assembly in Christian history to claim ecumenicity. The Councils of Nicea in 325, Constantinople in 381, and Ephesus in 431 (with the reunion of 433) had formally been recognized as ecumenical, and as such authoritative, well before the Council of Chalcedon met. Even the term ‘orthodox’ had become current, referring in those times to conformity with the doctrinal standpoints of these Councils. The ground on which Severus and the section of the Church represented by him renounce the Council of Chalcedon is that it violated the doctrinal norms which the earlier Councils had established.
It is an undeniable fact that Severus occupies a significant place in the history of the Church in the East. If the key role which he played in this field has not been recognized by the Chalcedonian side, it is largely because of misunderstanding, if not prejudice.