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Q&A

What are the major problems that Chalcedonians have with Miaphysite Christology?

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The Council of Chalcedon of 451 gave a clear definition of the Hypostatic Union, the doctrine that in the incarnation, the Son of God took on a full human nature, so that in this one person are united two natures, divine and human. Hypostasis refers to one of the three persons of God, so the Hypostatic Union means that the union between divine and human takes place in the person of God the Son.

Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us One and the same Son, the Self-same Perfect in Godhead, the Self-same Perfect in Manhood; truly God and truly Man; the Self-same of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same co-essential with us according to the Manhood; like us in all things, sin apart; before the ages begotten of the Father as to the Godhead, but in the last days, the Self-same, for us and for our salvation (born) of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to the Manhood; One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten; acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He was parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as from the beginning the prophets have taught concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself hath taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers hath handed down to us.

The Chalcedonian Definition was written to refute several positions considered heretical: that Christ is not of the same nature as the Father (Arianism), that he does not have a full human nature (Apollinarism), that Christ was a fusion of divine and human (Eutyches), that the two natures of Christ were not joined in one person (Nestorianism).

This Chalcedonian theology was not accepted by all churches who attended the council, and to this day is rejected by the Oriental Orthodox churches. The Oriental Orthodox churches too say that they reject the four positions above, but rather than saying that Christ has two natures, they teach Miaphysitism, that

in the one person of Jesus Christ, Divinity and Humanity are united in one "nature" ("physis"), the two being united without separation, without confusion, and without alteration. (orthodoxwiki.org)

This sounds on the surface quite similar to the position of Eutyches, but the Oriental Orthodox are adamant that they too reject his teaching.

While there have been some moves towards declaring the dispute between Miaphysitism and Chalcedonian a difference purely of terminology and not of substance, support for this has been limited on both sides, with many strongly opposed to saying that the dispute has been resolved.

So for those Chalcedonian theologians who do reject that Miaphysitism is compatible with the Christology taught in the Chalcedonian Definition, what are the major problems they see with Miaphysitism?

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It's important to note that:

  • Monophysitism was not only condemned at the Council of Chalcedon, but also at subsequent councils.
  • Much ecumenical dialogue has attempted to distinguish monophysitism proper from miaphysitism by associating the former with Eutyches (who was condemned in the Council of Chalcedon) and the latter with Severus of Antioch, who is portrayed as having a more moderate monophysite view.
    • The distinction between the views of Eutyches and Severus of Antioch was noted/known even by early Church Fathers. See, e.g., Joseph Lebon’s monograph Le Monophysisme sévérien.
    • One disagreement impacting reconciliation is whether the differences are merely semantic or theologically substantive.
    • There are other reasons impacting reconciliation that have to do with the way in which the ecumenical dialogues took place.[1]

For those who believe the differences are theologically substantive, the primary theological issues with miaphysitism include the following:

  • The non-Chalcedonians have refused to acknowledge and accept Ecumenical Councils 4–7, and instead wish to "agree to disagree" and sweep differences under the rug as semantic. This would imply that they are not heterodox, but merely in schism (i.e., that the church "split" rather than there being an unbroken Orthodoxy with the non-Chalcedonians departing from this Orthodoxy as heretics).

  • Appealing to Severus of Antioch in distinction to Eutyches doesn't escape heterodoxy. Church Fathers also considered Severus of Antioch a heretic as well as his followers (referred to as Severians). St. John of Damascus wrote:

    ... Severus, the seducer from Antioch, and John the Tritheite ... denied the mystery of salvation. They wrote many things against the inspired council of the 630 Fathers of Chalcedon, and they set many snares, so to speak, and ‘laid stumbling blocks by the wayside’ for those who are lost in their pernicious heresy. Although they hold individual substances, they destroy the mystery of the Incarnation.[2]

  • This attempt to sweep Chalcedonian Christology under the rug is nothing new historically: read about the Henoticon (which was supported by Severus).

  • I don't have time (nor the expertise) to attempt to summarize the technical arguments from various Fathers, but will cite Fr. Georges Florovsky:

    The followers of Severus could not speak of Christ’s humanity as a “nature.” It broke down into a system of traits, for the doctrine of the Logos “taking” humanity was still not developed fully by Monophysitism into the idea of “inter-hypostasis-ness.” The Monophysites usually spoke of the Logos’ humanity as οἰκονομία. It is not without foundation that the fathers of the Council of Chalcedon detected here a subtle taste of original Docetism. Certainly this is not the Docetism of the ancient Gnostics at all, nor is it Apollinarianism. However, to the followers of Severus the “human” in Christ was not entirely human, for it was not active, was not “self-motivated.” In this contemplation of the Monophysites, the human in Christ was like a passive object of Divine influence. Divinization, or theosis, seems to be a unilateral act of Divinity without sufficiently taking into account the synergism of human freedom, the assumption of which in no way supposes a “second subject.”[3]


  1. Many Orthodox Christians have other issues that with the specific way that previous ecumenical dialogues with non-Chalcedonians have taken place that have as much to do with theological disagreement with ecumenism's implied "branch theory" as with actual theological issues surrounding non-Chalcedonian Christology (miaphysitism). For an example of the traditional Orthodox approach to ecumenical relations, see the Oberlin statement and this memorandum from various monks at Mt. Athos who opposed the ecumenical dialogue with the non-Chalcedonians for related reasons. However, there are dissenting opinions (see, for example, this letter from a bishop who was tonsured on Mt. Athos). ↩︎

  2. John of Damascus, On Heresies, ch. 83 "The Egyptians, or Schematics, or Monophysites." Quoted from John Damascene, Writings, ed. Hermigild Dressler, trans. Frederic H. Chase Jr., vol. 37, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1958), 138–148. This passage is sometimes misquoted (or not fully quoted) to imply that non-Chalcedonians are "Orthodox in all things." Other documents against Severus include the petitions from bishops of Syria Secunda and Palestinian monasteries. See this article for further details. ↩︎

  3. Georges Florovsky, The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century, Collected Works, vol. 8 (Liechtenstein: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987), page number unknown. Quoted from Nicholas Marinides, "Chalcedonian Orthodoxy and Non-Chalcedonian Heterodoxy," Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy blog, https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/orthodoxyandheterodoxy/2016/04/12/chalcedonian-orthodoxy-non-chalcedonian-heterodoxy/ ↩︎

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