Severus: The celebrated Patriarch
Without least hesitation, St. Severus, the Patriarch of Antioch (512-518), can be qualified as the theologian of Anti-Chalcedonian tradition and he enjoys there the greatest of all qualifications given to any Church Father. The Syrian Church extols him as the crown of Syrians, the eloquent mouth, the pillar and the doctor of the Holy Church of God as a whole, the meadow abounding in blossom, who preached all the times that Mary was undoubtedly the God bearer . When we consider the enormous literary corpus alone that the Patriarch has produced, this qualification seems permissible .
Life of St. Severus
Severus was born in 465 in a rich and distinguished family in the Pisidian city Sozopolis in Asia Minor as grandson of Bishop Severus of the very same city. Severus studied grammar, rhetoric, Greek, Latin and natural sciences at Alexandria and then continued his studies at Beirut on Roman law to become an Advocate. During his stay at Beirut, he became a convinced Christian and got baptised. He thereafter decided himself to become a monk and joined the monastery of Peter the Iberian. It was here that Severus learned the Bible and writings of the Fathers. He moved thereafter to the monastery in Eleutheropolis in the desert for more monastic discipline. Heavy ascetic discipline made Severus ill and he was brought to the monastery of Romanos, where he regained his health. Rejuvenated Severus sold all his ancestral properties to found a new monastery and gradually he became a very famous monk in Palestine. Bishop Epiphanius the Confessor ordained him to priesthood during this time. The council of Sidon in Phoenicia, met in 512, condemned Flavian, the then Patriarch of Antioch and the fathers could not find a better match than Severus to the vacant post of the Patriarch of Antioch. Severus was consecrated as Patriarch of Antioch on 16th November 512 and he served the Church of Antioch majestically. Changed political conditions followed by the death of Emperor Anastasius and enthronement of Justin I were heavily adverse for the Anti-Chalcedonian party and especially for Severus. Consequently, he was exiled to Alexandria and later to the deserts of Egypt. He died on 8th February 538 and the Oriental Orthodox Churches celebrate his remembrance very fondly even today.
Aims of Incarnation
In the modern times, as scholars started to work on patrology and in particular on the conflicts that the Fathers were engaged in, they mainly emphasized their interest in the ‘how aspect of Incarnation’, namely, how did the second person of the Holy Trinity become a human being or how did the union between the divine and the human take place or what was the modus operandi of the union between God and human in Jesus Christ. There was, however, a more serious interest among the Fathers to theologically fight with each other. They thought that if one does not understand the modus operandi of Incarnation correctly, the salvation that the Lord Jesus had accomplished and effected though Incarnation would fail to be communicated to humans. To put in other words, it was to emphasise the ‘why aspect of Incarnation’ or the aim of Incarnation that the fathers fought for the ‘how aspect of Incarnation’! There existed neither a single Orthodox Father, who did not want to lay his emphasis on this soteriological aspect, nor any heretic! Patrology is now understanding this reality, at a slower pace though, and this soteriological interest is heavily noticeable in the writings of Severus of Antioch as well.
It was I.R. Torrance, an English theologian, who for the first time emphasized the aim of Incarnation in the writings of Severus of Antioch. He writes: “The henosis (union) of which Severus tells us, and which Lebon describes for us, was not simply a union, but a union, an act of God the Word, for a purpose, far from being exterior to the union, is part of what makes the union what it is. To see the goal of the union as a determinative part of the nature of the union is to inject a new dimension into study of Severus.” That one shall infer here is the reality that Christ did not become a human to remain subject to the rule of suffering and death, but to overcome it, ennobling and restoring the distorted human nature through sin. To put things into a simpler way, the reason and need of incarnation was the redemption of humanity . To quote Torrance again: “If the Word renounced His wish to become man, the redemptive aspect of the incarnation falls away and the union which we have called purposive and active would become static” . For the Nestorian and Chalcedonian phraseologies like adhesion between the divine and human natures of Christ, prosopic union, in two natures etc. can not do justice to the aim of the Incarnation, and therefore, they have to be condemned, was the Severian paradigm.
Severus defines Incarnation as the One “who did not become has become. For when he was the Word, he has become flesh without change from what He was, namely the Word, and He has assumed further more (a human flesh) to become human” . At another occasion the Patriarch preached to his hearers: “Now, He has come and has descended toward us, not by passing from one place to another – how then (could He do this), the One, who is present everywhere, who fills the universe and who can not be contained by something – rather He who contains everything – but He is completely God and in the Father, He is entirely and completely in the womb of the Virgin, and He has consented to be contained, though by His nature, He remains uncontainable” . The One who was born from the Father before ages took birth from the Virgin according to flesh in an inexplicable way and He appeared to the humans.
Severus is also interested to answer the how aspect of Incarnation, for he knew that the incarnation was a mystery and the Word alone knows the answer of a clear how . The maximum the Patriarch can say is, “He, who has in the beginning formed the human from earth, has formed Himself as a small infant to go forth from the Virgin, in taking flesh from the Holy Spirit and from the Virgin. This flesh is consubstantial to our nature, which is animated by a soul gifted with reason” . This great act was, however, to gift humanity something, which it was not at all possible for the humans to achieve themselves otherwise. Humans had submitted themselves to the net and trap of death, says Severus and humans have started to serve the creature instead of the creator, as St. Paul said (Rom 1:25) . This irregularity deprived all humans the virility and vigour to fight for restitution. On one hand, no one else could save the humanity from the clutches of sin and death and the Word of God willed to save humanity and the whole creation . On the other hand, the Word has, therefore, effected through incarnation the possibility for humans to recognise and worship God . Yet, salvation of humanity has not been an achievement of the Word of God alone. It was accomplished through the active participation of humanity as well. In other words, it was a joint venture, yet humanity could come to do it only then, when it got perfectly united with the divinity. Further ahead, humanity was serving a sentence from God and God alone could revoke the sentence. Ergo, God came to lend a hand to the humanity (cf. Gen 3). Consequently, the incarnation was aimed at three main things:
- To gift the humanity a new beginning through liberation from sin;
- To kill death through death; and
- To make humans, therefore, children of God.
In order to give eternal life to the humans, the Word did correct what went wrong through sin and fall of humanity, although He knew no sin (I Pet 2:22). Why did the Word do so? In the beginning Adam was created by God. He was not born of a woman and no human semen was mixed for his creation and therefore, no losing of virginity as well has happened. However, after the fall procreation of humans marked two things; the losing of virginity and mixing of human semen. When the Word was born, there was no human semen to be mixed with and no virginity was, therefore, lost. Thus, the human birth of the Word untied the sentence of God upon humanity. In other words, humanity was given a new beginning through liberation from sin and effects of sin through the birth of the Word, the second Adam, from the Virgin! This has reinstated the lost communication between heaven and earth for a new beginning , affirms the Patriarch.
“Because of the mischief, we have descended to corruption and have been condemned to death” , says the Bishop of Antioch. This death reigned over the humankind . In order to revoke this curse, Immanuel became a curse (Gal 3:13) . Christ Jesus, in whom there was no sin (I Pet 2:22), really tasted death after suffering in His flesh (I Pet 2:21, 4:1) and the death of Immanuel trampled and killed the death . At His death His soul separated from His body, yet His divinity remained with His body and soul. The same divinity united His body with the soul again at His resurrection. In short, death was killed by the death of Incarnate and this great act of love from the part of incarnate Word of God gave humans eternal life!
Adam sinned and with him the whole humanity and the whole creation became hostile to the will of God. This hostility cost the humans the prestigious position of being the children of God and there the need arouse to again become children of God. Severus says: “If the Word of the Father has not been in communion with us in the same essence, in taking the descent of Abraham (Heb 2:16, Gal 3:29) and has become truly a man like us, will we be called children of God (Gal 3:26)? If Emmanuel has not become our flesh, we would not have received the spirit of filiation (Rom 8:15, Gal 4:4)” . The same filiation is confirmed through the announcement of the Father at the baptism of Jesus in Jordan (Mt 3:16-17; Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21-22; Jn 1:32-34). This is the very sonship given to the whole humanity (cf. Rom 8:15; II Cor 5:17) and that makes every baptized human a member of the Kingdom of God .
If in reality the Christological fights were around the importance on the aims of Incarnation and the right communication of salvation, no one can doubt the integrity of the Patriarch Severus there in. In every breath, the Patriarch was concerned with the reality of salvation resulted through Incarnation. Everything that the Lord did and the Jews did to the Lord has revealed salvation, which was the name itself of the Lord! Had St. Thomas had doubted the resurrection of the Lord, that doubt confirmed the resurrection for us and the affirmation of St. Thomas, namely, ‘my Lord and my God’ (Jn 20:28) becomes the paradigm for Christians to affirm their faith in their saviour, who came to the world to save humans, the sinners (I Tim 1:15). That was precisely the aim of Incarnation, the Patriarch would affirm!
- Jacob Mathew, Christology of St. Severus of Antioch Mainly Basing His First Thirty One Cathedral Homilies, Doctoral Dissertation submitted to the University of Salzburg, Austria, 2001.
- Book of the order of the Holy Eucharist for the Laity, Department of Publication of the Orthodox Syrian Church of India, Devalokam, Kottayam, India, 1991.
- Briere M. et al.; Patrologia Orientalis, Turnhout-Belgium, 1976…
- Hespel R. et al.; Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, Vols. 93-94; 101-102; 111-112; 119-120; 133-134; 244-245,Paris-Louvain, 1929…
- Kelly, J.N.D.; Early Christian Doctrines, London (Vth Edition), 1977 (New Impression 1989).
- Torrance IR, Christology after Chalcedon, Severus of Antioch and Sergius the Monophysite, Norwich, 1988.