The Reciprocal Relation between doctrinal and historical factors in the Separation of the Oriental Churches from the Ancient Catholic Church
Gerasimos Konidaris, The Greek Orthodox Theological Review,
Winter 1964-5, n. 2., p. 54- 60
The consideration of the historical circumstances of the separation of the Oriental churches from the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church in the 5th century is the best possible starting-point for the conversations between our separate churches and theologies which have been taken up within the realm of the ecumenical movement. For the knowledge of the historical background of the separation forms the indispensable presupposition for our studies.
With this I would like to express my agreement with the suggestion of the preparatory committee for an unofficial theological consultation between the Oriental churches and the Catholic-Orthodox Church. The view that many theological questions appear in another light when they are put in the proper historical context, should be modified in the sense that the separation can only be clarified and interpreted through historical investigation. Also the discussion of the theme, "how the statement of Cyril of Alexandria on the doctrine of the two natures of Christ must be interpreted today, mia physis tou Theou Logou sesarkomene," is basically a debate about a theme of the history of doctrine. Also the scientific, dogmatic presuppositions of our question are historical questions, for they are valid for the clarification not only of the historical situation, but also of the christology of the ancient church from the earliest times until the 4th Ecumenical Council (451).
The best method in my opinion is to follow the observation of the eminent Byzantinist Vasiliev which leads back to the historical background. He was of the opinion that the dogmatic decisions of the 4th Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon had a great political importance for Byzantine history. He was, however, also of the opinion that the government of Byzantium, in its official reaction against the Monophysitism of the 5th century, led to its estrangement from the Eastern provinces of Syria, Palestine and Egypt, where the majority of the inhabitants were Monophysites. The Monophysites held fast to their dogmatic convictions, even after the condemnation by the 4th Ecumenical Council and would accept no compromise (451). The church of Egypt, by which he evidently means the indigenous congregations, had done away with the Greek liturgy and introduced the Coptic in its place. The religious anomaly in Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch, called into being by the forcible execution of the decisions of Chalcedon, developed in the form of national revolutions which were overcome and suppressed only after bloody battles.
The overcoming of the revolutionary crisis did not, however, solve the basic question of the time. For behind the religious differences, which increased in intensity with time, appeared intensive racial and cultural differences, mainly in Syria and Egypt. The non-Greek inhabitants of Egypt and Syria gradually came to the conviction that they must separate themselves from the Byzantine Empire. Vasiliev is of the opinion (S. 138) that religious disturbances in the Eastern provinces, which were strengthened by the structures of the population of these areas, created the situations and conditions in the 7th century which led to the surrender of the rich and cultivated provinces of the Orient into the hands, first of the Persians and then of the Arabs. The question whether this last view can be substantiated from the sources is one which we cannot, and do not wish to investigate here. The important thing is, however, that Nestorianism attained greater influence in the Orient, above all in Persia, and that according to Ostrogorsky's view "the opposition between the Byzantine Church with its doctrine of the two natures, and the Monophysite church of the Christian Orient became, from then on, the most urgent problem of ecclesiastical and national politics in the early Byzantine Empire." Monophysitism served as an expression also of the political as well as the religious separation of Egypt and Syria. It became the watchword (or slogan) of Coptic and Syrian separatism in the struggle against Byzantine domination (S. 50). The Monophysitism condemned by Chalcedon won ever greater power in the Eastern world; in consequence, the dissension between the heart-lands of the Empire and its Eastern provinces became even sharper.
The political importance of the ecclesiastical question for the unity, economy and peace of the Empire and above all, of the Eastern border provinces and the military measures which the Empire had to adopt in order to strengthen and maintain the orthodox faith, led, for example, to new military measures in Alexandria with a view to the excommunication of the Monophysite, Timotheos Aeluros. Bloody battles were the result. The native population and the monks were Monophysites who removed Proterios, the Orthodox patriarch and pope of Alexandria who had been elected by the 4th Ecumenical Council from his throne. Chrysostomos Papadopoulos has said that the 28th of March, 475, was the saddest day in the history of the church of Alexandria. For on that day the Monophysite rabble stormed the palace Kaissarion and killed Proterios, although he had taken refuge in the baptistery of the church. His body was brought in triumph by the masses into the arena and burned (Theod. Anagn. P.G. 86, 169, Theoph. S. 110-111). The churches of the Orient also were indignant with the Monophysites, and the question of re-establishment of the peace and unity of the Empire in the border regions became ever acuter. The emperor entered the lists in favour of carrying out the dogmatic decisions of Chalcedon. He was orthodox. Marcian was under no illusions as to the danger that the border regions of Syria and Palestine could be lost. In the long run they could not be held. Perhaps only through a formula of compromise could the three areas be saved from the hands of the native revolutionary populace. This, then, had to be the aim also of the policies of the Empire. The compromise between Orthodoxy and Monophysitism was, however, possible only politically and not theologically. The policy was worked out in terms of expediency and advantage, and recognized no obligation to theological principle; in consequence, it could find the most suitable formulas and carry them into effect by means of the heavy hand of the state. The church, however, was bound to Scripture, to tradition and to the dogmas accepted by the three first ecumenical councils in their essential consistency. Therefore a policy which did not take seriously the question of truth in relation to the dogmas, i.e. to orthodoxy, or in some way disputed it, was impossible for the catholic church. The depreciation of the validity and ecumenicity of the 4th Ecumenical Council could not be maintained in the long run.
The Emperor Leo (457) asked the bishops, through a circular letter, whether they would acknowledge the 4th Ecumenical Council, and what view they took of Timotheos Aeluros, who was active as the first patriarch of the Coptic Church of Alexandria (457-477, cf. list by Papadopoulos, S. 911). The answer of the bishops was that they were ready to accept the Council, and that they regarded Timotheos Aeluros not only as a murderer and an unworthy bishop, but also as unworthy even of the name of Christian (Nik. Kallistos 15, 16, Mansi vn, 530). Timotheos Aeluros (supported by the minister Aspar, who was a friend of the Monophysites) remained in Alexandria until the year 460 and then was banished to Gangra and the Chersonese. Leo of Rome was opposed to Timotheos Aeluros.
After this, Basiliskos became ruler of the Byzantine Empire. Without delay Basiliskos accepted Monophysitism and by his own uncircumscribed authority condemned, in an imperial circular letter, the decrees of Chalcedon and also the Tome of Leo (Euagrios 6, 101-104, 107). But this measure, which called forth the greatest indignation in Orthodox circles in Byzantium, hastened his fall. It is very characteristic that Timotheos was not an outspoken Eutychian, but maintained a theology of his own. The humanity of Jesus was neither essence (ousia) nor nature (physys), but "a law of the economy," which was not natural, but supranatural, "one nature (physis), one single divinity, although it was immutable." However, after Timotheos Aeluros had been restored to the throne of Alexandria by Basiliskos and had shortly thereafter died (477), the Orthodox patriarch was overthrown by military measures, and Petrus Mogos was elected as successor to Aeluros.
The Unifying Policies of the Emperors from the Henotikon of Zeno (482) until the 6th Ecumenical Council
The unifying policy of the emperors was the result of a necessity of the Empire. For while the Duophysitism of the Nestorians was not so intelligible to the broad masses and therefore found no more than a national diffusion in Persia, Monophysitism proved more and more intelligible to the populace of the Oriental provinces. This can be well understood, since it emphasized the divinity of Jesus and the unity of His divine personality. It was this fact that led to the unifying policy of the Byzantine Empire. The responsibility of the emperors not only for the recovery of the provinces most important for the defense of the Eastern border of the Empire, but also for the economy of the European part of the state, and the awareness of the emperor that the unity and integrity of the territory of the Empire must at all costs be preserved, led to a policy which, as a policy of compromise, called forth confusion in theological and ecclesiastical questions.
This policy which, after the Henotikon of Zeno (482), may be termed the Henotike policy (policy of unity), lasted, apart from periodic interruptions, for approximately 200 years (482-680). The unifying policy of the emperors, from the time of Zeno onwards, attempted to win the Orthodox and Monophysites for the Empire through theological and political compromise. The enforcement of the dogmatic decisions (horoi) of Chalcedon, as this was attempted in the years 451-457, resulted in a sharpening of the peril to the unity and integrity of the Empire since a considerable majority of the native population had gone over to the Monophysites. The collapse of the Empire would have come much earlier, if the emperors had not introduced this policy of union. The population of the large provinces of Syria, Palestine and Egypt, in their national resistance against the centre of the Empire, were not willing to accept the 4th Ecumenical Council.
The task of the emperors was to meet the desires of this population; but at the same time they were forced to satisfy the majority of the Orthodox who demanded the official acceptance of the Council by the Empire. In order to do justice to this double task so valuable to the Empire, but also so difficult of accomplishment they sought a compromise formula which could serve their political purposes. The unity of the Empire based on the spiritual and ethical unity of the catholic church, was in danger as long as the unity of the church was not a reality.
It is not possible to go into the details of this policy of the emperors Zeno (after 482), Anastasius I, Justinian, Heraklios, Constantine II, for that would lead too far afield. But it is necessary to say that the compromise formula served the purpose of moving the Orthodox and the Monophysites of the Eastern provinces to unity. This was an impossibility from a spiritual and theological, i.e. ecclesiastical viewpoint, for it led necessarily either to the rejection or to an indirect denial of the 4th Ecumenical Council. The temporary success of the policy of union in some regions, for example in Palestine under the patriarch Martyrius, or the approval of this policy on the part of some patriarchs under Justinian I and Heraklios, could not in the long run be maintained.
For the decisions of Chalcedon were the logical extension of the decisions of the earlier ecumenical councils.
It is possible and perhaps right to say that the policy of insuring the integrity and the peace of the Empire through the union of Christians, theologically and ecclesiastically indefensible, required as its basis a political theology, namely the theology of the emperors. Justinian himself, and later Constantine V, had each his own theology, while the theological grounding of the politics of the other emperors is to be sought in the circle of their counselors.
It is easy to understand why the theocratic state of the early Byzantine period was, in its church policies, concerned for the true faith of its subordinates, with a view to the fulfillment of its own interests. Orthodoxy was a public question and therefore the intervention of the emperor in theological questions is understandable. The decisions of the Ecumenical Councils always had political importance in relation to the peace and prosperity of the Empire. The intervention of the state in theological questions could, however, bring confusion with it. And the compromise formula of the imperial ordinances really did contribute to obscurities.
Thus the historical factors are of great importance in the separation of the Eastern churches. The compromise policy of the emperors proved impossible to maintain. The provinces were lost to the Empire almost for ever. One can finally maintain that the unifying policy suffered a double failure:
Politically: the provinces are lost; whether, and to what extent the population of these provinces can be made responsible is a question which is still open to debate.
Ecclesiastically: the ratification of the decisions of the 6th Ecumenical Council (680/1) by the emperors implied a clear admission on the part of the state that the "political theology" was incorrect, for the decisions of this council are the direct confirmation of the decisions of the 4th Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon.
It can be said that the solution of the christological problem as it was undertaken by the Ecumenical Councils until the 6th Council shows an inner logical consistency. It is based on Holy Scripture and tradition and on a free and eclectic, and therefore correct, application of philosophical concepts.
The politics of the Empire finally recognized the solution of the christological question which the theology of the catholic church had prepared and formulated.
This contribution is to be understood as a preliminary sketch. Later on it will be worked out in detail.