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

Posted By Adminstrator On June 23, 2009 @ 12:43 am In Articles,We Believe | 4 Comments

council-of-chalcedon1. Introduction

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 [5]. 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.

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.

The phrase ‘one incarnate nature of God the Word’, therefore, emphasizes three ideas:

(1) It was God the Word Himself who became incarnate, without undergoing any change.
(2) In becoming incarnate, He was not assuming a manhood which had already been formed in the womb of the Virgin. The manhood was formed only in the union.
(3) The incarnate Word is one Person. He who is eternally ‘simple’ took unto Himself concrete manhood and thus became ‘composite’.

Godhead creates and is not created, but manhood is created. In Jesus Christ the two have been converged into a unity, wherefore things divine and things human are present in Him in their respective reality and perfection. In fact, in our contemplation of the one Christ, we can discern them. But from this we should not proceed to assign to each nature a status independent of the other, for that would not enable us to affirm a genuine incarnation, in which manhood did not come into concrete existence by itself. The phrase ‘one nature’ then is not to be used with reference to Christ without the word ‘incarnate’. The ‘one’ in the phrase is not a simple one, or the ‘one single’ as John Meyendorff renders it; it is the one which includes the fullness of Godhead and manhood. Jesus Christ is not ‘single-natured’, but He is one ‘composite’ nature. This idea is stated in unmistakable terms in another passage:

It is not merely with reference to those that are simple by nature that the word ‘one’ is employed, but it is used also with reference to those that have come into being in composition, for which man is a good example.

The term ‘one’ in the phrase ‘one incarnate nature of God the Word’ cannot legitimately be rendered as the monoj of the monofusithj (monophysite). 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 not accurate in this sense.

3.a. Objections to Chalcedon in the Light of Tradition.

Severus admits that it is possible to find evidence in the works of the earlier Fathers for the use of the ‘two natures’ formula adopted by the Council of Chalcedon, but he argues that those Fathers employed it before the outbreak of the Nestorian controversy. Since then the situation had changed, and the imprecise expressions of the past had been given up in favour of a theological tradition based on the Nicene Creed as confirmed by the Councils of Constantinople and Ephesus. In this context, Leo of Rome, without paying attention to the tradition established in the Church, insisted on the ‘in two natures’ in his Tome, and on this basis the Council of Chalcedon adopted it. This was, for Severus, a violation of the established tradition of the Church. He points out that Church Fathers, from Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons to Cyril of Alexandria, all teach Christ is a unity. He is one Person, God the Word incarnate. The idea behind the phrase ‘two natures after the union’ or the ‘in two natures’ of Chalcedon, argues Severus, is opposed to the teachings of these Fathers. The real question at issue concerning Christ’s unity is for Severus the subject of the words and deeds recorded about Him in the Gospels. The Fathers, he insists, have ascribed them to one Person, and he writes:

To walk bodily on earth and to move from place to place is indeed human. But to enable those who are lame and cannot use their feet to walk […] is God-befitting. However, it is the same God the Word incarnate who works in both.

It is this principle embedded in the tradition set up by the Fathers, which is being violated by the ‘two natures after the union’ or the ‘in two natures’. What, then, can be made of the reunion formula of 433 between Cyril of Alexandria and John of Antioch, which contained the expression ‘two natures’? The Formula of Reunion, contends Severus, had been drawn up against the background of a split in the Church, which itself was the result of an inability on the part of the Antiochene tradition to understand the faith in a proper way. Cyril agreed to it only after seeing that all basic principles of the faith had been preserved. In other words, the Formula of Reunion can be cited as authority only after taking into account the terms of agreement which went with it. It is in this context that one should look into the meaning of the statement in which the phrase occurs. This statement reads:

And with regard to the evangelistic and apostolic sayings concerning the Lord, know that theologians make some common, as relating to one Person—prosopon—and distinguish others, as relating to two natures, interpreting the God-befitting ones to the Godhead of Christ, and the lowly ones of His humanity.

This statement affirms that theologians take some of the words and deeds of our Lord as referring to the one Person, and the others they divide between the two natures. The intention is not to divide the words and deeds ‘between the natures in such a way that some are ascribed to the divine nature alone, and some to the human nature exclusively; they are of the one incarnate nature of God the Word. We recognize the difference in the words and the deeds; some are God befitting, some are man befitting, and some befit Godhead and manhood together’. The fact about this statement is that it did not contradict the Cyrilline principle of seeing the difference between Godhead and manhood in the one Christ in contemplation. But the Council of Chalcedon, argues Severus, went beyond the Formula of Reunion in sanctioning the ‘two natures after the union’, which the fathers had excluded.

3.b. Objection to Chalcedon in the Light of Theological Principles.

The ‘two natures after the union’ or the ‘in two natures’ implies, argues Severus again and again, that the human child was formed in the womb by himself first, and that God the Word assumed him later. According to this view, the man remained man and God the Son remained God the Son in a state of conjoint existence, without being united in any real sense. Such a view, insists Severus, is precisely what the Nestorian school had affirmed and the Council of Ephesus had declared heretical. The Antiochene concern behind a union of two hypostases and the prosopon of Christ being the prosopon formed of a union of two hypostatic realities is conserved by Severus, without dividing the natures one from the other. Thus, for Severus, three things are seen to have happened together:

(1) God the Word formed the manhood in the womb of the Virgin through the Holy Spirit, without male cooperation;
(2) the union of the Godhead of the Word with the manhood at the very moment of its formation;
(3) the individuation of the manhood in union with Godhead, whereby the manhood became hypostatic.

The objection which Severus has toward the Antiochene position is twofold. In the first place, it conceives of the manhood as having been formed in the Virgin’s womb prior to the union; or, more directly to the point, that manhood had become an hypostasis even before the union. Secondly it divides things divine from things human. Severus concludes that the proponents of the Antiochene tradition did not affirm a real union of the natures; they maintained only the conjoint existence in Christ of God the Son and the man. It was in order to assert this position that they had insisted on ‘two natures after the union’. Therefore, in such a context, the Council of Chalcedon cannot have intended anything other than this Antiochene emphasis by the phrase ‘in two natures’.

At best, argues Severus, the ‘in two natures’ of the Council of Chalcedon could mean ‘two united natures after the union’. Nestorius and his supporters had admitted even this emphasis. Therefore the Council of 451, which claimed to have excluded Nestorianism, cannot vindicate itself regarding its adoption of the ‘in two natures’. However, Chalcedon does affirm the ‘hypostatic union’ and the ‘one hypostasis’, which Nestorianism had rejected. Severus insists that ‘hypostatic union’ and ‘one hypostasis’ do not agree with the ‘in two natures’ or the ‘two natures after the union’. Therefore, in endorsing these expressions, the Council cannot have preserved the meaning that the earlier Fathers intended.

From this point of view, the Tome of Leo creates more problems than can be solved. ‘The Tome of Leo refers to union three times’, observes Severus, ‘but in none of them the document conserves the sense of the divine and the human natures converging into a unity, or of the hypostatic union. The Tome recognizes only the union in prosopon’. Therefore, he concludes, the Tome contradicts the doctrinal tradition of the Church. The Council of Chalcedon commits the same error. Severus’ objection to Chalcedon is not derived from a ‘monophysite’ point of view: it comes from a genuine fear that the Council did not affirm the unity of Christ adequately, and that it therefore violated the faith of the Church.

4. Conclusion

The epithet ‘monophysite’ is applied to the non-Chalcedonian side of the Christological debate due to its affirmation of the one Person or hypostasis of Christ, without admitting the phrase ‘in two natures’ or ‘two natures after the union’. However, with respect to Severus, this criticism does not hold in its strictest sense, as he believes that God the Son united to Himself perfect manhood, which became hypostatic in the union, wherefore the manhood of Christ was not merely manhood in the abstract made concrete and particular in a body endowed with the rational soul, but was also hypostatic. As such, the manhood was endowed with the human activating principle, or the personal element. ‘Monophysitism’ as a theological position taken in the usual sense, cannot be found in the Christology of Severus of Antioch.

Although the confession of the Church in the Person of Jesus Christ as God the Son incarnate is central to the Christian faith, the issues that have caused the division of the one Church into different ecclesiastical traditions is not by any means insoluble. To find a solution to the problem, a sustained and determined effort is necessary on the part of theologians and Church leaders of the present time. If they are able to reach an agreed basis, which would be considered honourable by every tradition, they will realize that they have all along been holding to that one faith of the Church through the centuries.


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