Monophysitism: Reconsidered

By Fr. Matthias F. Wahba – Parish Priest from St. Antonius Coptic Orthodox, California, USA.

The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, in which I am a priest, is one of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. These churches are the Coptic, Armenian, Syrian, Ethiopian, and the Malankara Indian Churches. The common element among them is their non-acceptance of the Council of Chalcedon of AD 451. Accordingly they prefer to be called “Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches.”

The Council of Chalcedon caused a big schism within the church which lasted until the present. In addition, after the Arab invasion in the seventh century, the churches lost communication with each other. Through this long period, the non-Chalcedonians were accused of Eutychianism, and called “Monophysites”, meaning that they believe in one single nature of our Lord Jesus Christ. They never accepted this idea considering it a heresy. The purpose of this paper is to reconsider the issue.


Several publications reflect such an attitude. In The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, for instance, Alexander Kazhdan shows monophysitism as a “religious movement that originated in the first half of the 5th C. as a reaction against the emphasis of Nestorianism on the human nature of the incarnate Christ.” The Encyclopedia of the Early Church caries an entry on “monophysitism” where Manlio Simonetti writes, “The term monophysites indicates those who admitted a single nature in Christ, rather than two, human and divine, as the Council of Chalcedon (451) sanctioned.” Then he gives examples of Apollinarius and Eutyches, and goes on to mention St. Cyril the Great as having a “Monophysite Christology”. Furthermore, in the Coptic Encyclopedia, W.H.C. Frend defines monophystism as a doctrine:

Opposed to the orthodox doctrine that He (Christ) is one person and has two natures….. The monophysites hold…. that the two natures of Christ were united at the Incarnation in such a way that the one Christ was essentially divine although He assumed from the Virgin Theotokos the flesh and attributes of man.

Now, what is the actual belief of the Church of Alexandria and the other non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches on the nature of the Lord Jesus Christ?

Common Declaration

In May 1973 H.H. Pope-Shenouda III of Alexandria visited H.H. Pope Paul VI of Rome. Their Common Declaration says:

We confess that our Lord and God and Savior and King of us all, Jesus Christ, is perfect God with respect to His divinity, perfect man with respect to His humanity. In Him His divinity is united with His humanity in a real, perfect union without mingling, without commixtion, without confusion, without alteration, without division, without separation.

After fifteen centuries, the two prelates declare a common faith in the nature of Christ, the issue which caused the schism of the church in the Council of Chalcedon. This will lead us to throw some light on that council.

Monophysitism and the Council of Chalcedon
  • According to some, there was no need for it, but politics played a big role. “It was only under constant pressure from the Emperor Marcian that the Fathers of Chalcedon agreed to draw a new formula of belief.”
  • The different expressions of the one faith are due in large part to non-theological issues, such as “unfortunate circumstances, cultural differences and the difficulty of translating terms.” It is debated whether the opposition to Chalcedon was out of a Christological issue or an attempt to assert Coptic and Syrian identity against the Byzantine.
  • Ecclesiastical politics had been very confused ever since the legislation, in the Council of 381, of a primacy of honor for Constantinople, the New Rome,” second only to that of the old Rome. It seems that both Rome and the Emperors used the Council of Chalcedon to carry out their respective plans: Rome for asserting its claim for primacy over the Church and the Emperors for trying to bring the entire Church in the East under the jurisdiction of the See of Constantinople.
  • No one can deny the disadvantages of the imperial interventions in the dispute. Most probably, Chalcedon’s decisions and terms would have been different if the Emperor Marcian and his wife Pulcheria had not intervened. Since 450, they were gathering signatures for the Tome of Leo, the bishop of Rome. Many bishops of Chalcedon approved it only as a concession to the bishop whom the imperial authority supported.
  • The definitions of the Tome were composed in a way that it could be interpreted by different persons, each in his own way. It is known that Nestorius, who was still alive in 451, accepted the Tome of Leo, while the Alexandrines rejected it.
  • The Council of Chalcedon, which is believed to have condemned Eutyches, did not deal with him but with Dioscorus, Patriarch of Alexandria. Eutyches himself was not present at the council. Scholars state that Dioscorus was deprived of office on procedural grounds and not on account of erroneous belief. At Chalcedon Dioscorus strongly declared, “If Eutyches holds notions disallowed by the doctrines of the Church, he deserves not only punishment but even the fire. But my concern is for the catholic and apostolic faith, not for any man whomsoever.” The evidence is sufficient for us to look for other reasons for his condemnation. Rome was annoyed by the extraordinary vitality and activity of the Church of Alexandria and its patriarch.
  • As soon as the members of the council had assembled, the legates of Rome demanded that Dioscorus be banished on account of the order of the bishop of Rome whom they called, “the head of all churches”. When the imperial authorities asked for a charge to justify the demand, one of the legates said that he “dared to conduct a council without the authorization of the apostolic see, a thing which has never happened and which ought not to happen.” As a matter of fact, the Council of 381 had been held without the participation, not to say the authorization, of the bishop of Rome, and the Council of 553 against his wishes. It is evident that the delegates intended by the words, “the head of all churches” to assert the claim of Rome of ecumenical supremacy over the church.
  • Chalcedon rejected the Council of 449, and Leo of Rome considered it as latrocinium, a council of robbers, a title which “has stuck for all time.” This may uncover the intention behind such an attitude. A council which ignored Rome’s authority, robbing its claim of supremacy, was not for Leo a church council but a meeting of robbers. The Council of Chalcedon, without even examining the issue, denounced the Council of 449, putting the entire responsibility for its decrees exclusively on Dioscorus. Only one hundred and four years later, the decision, not of Chalcedon, but of the so called latrocinium was justified. The Council of Constantinople in 553 anathematized Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus, and Ibas of Edessa, and condemned their Three Chapters. It is remarkable that the desire of the Emperor Justinian to reconcile the non-Chalcedonian churches was behind the decree.
Two Different Traditions

Dioscorus, then, was not a heretic. The majority of the bishops who attended the Council of Chalcedon, as scholars indicate, believed that the traditional formula of faith received from St. Athanasius was the “one nature of the Word of God.” This belief is totally different from the Eutychian concept of the single nature (i.e. Monophysite). The Alexandrian theology was by no means docetic. Neither was it Apollinarian, as stated clearly. It seems that the main problem of the Christological formula was the divergent interpretation of the issue between the Alexandrian and the Antiochian theology. While Antioch formulated its Christology against Apollinarius and Eutyches, Alexandria did against Arius and Nestorius. At Chalcedon, Dioscorus refused to affirm the “in two natures” and insisted on the “from two natures.” Evidently the two conflicting traditions had not discovered an agreed theological standpoint between them.

Mia Physis

The Church of Alexandria considered as central the Christological mia physis formula of St. Cyril one incarnate nature of God the Word”. The Cyrillian formula was accepted by the Council of Ephesus in 431. It was neither nullified by the Reunion of 433, nor condemned at Chalcedon. On the contrary, it continued to be considered an orthodox formula. Now what do the non-Chalcedonians mean by the mia physis, the “one incarnate nature?”.

They mean by mia one, but not “single one” or “simple numerical one,” as some scholars believe. There is a slight difference between mono and mia. While the former suggests one single (divine) nature, the latter refers to one composite and united nature, as reflected by the Cyrillian formula. St. Cyril maintained that the relationship between the divine and the human in Christ, as Meyendorff puts it, “does not consist of a simple cooperation, or even interpenetration, but of a union; the incarnate Word is one, and there could be no duplication of the personality of the one redeemer God and man.”

Mia Physis and Soteriology

“The Alexandrian Christology”, writes Frances Young, “is a remarkably clear and consistent construction, especially when viewed within its soteriological context. Mia physis, for the Alexandrians, is. essential for salvation. The Lord is crucified, even though His divinity did not suffer but His humanity did. The sacrifice of the Cross is attributed to the Incarnate Son of God, and thus has the power of salvation.

Common Faith

It is evident that both the Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians agree on the following points:

  • They all condemn and anathematize Nestorius, Apollinarius and Eutyches.
  • The unity of the divinity and humanity of Christ was realized from the moment of His conception, without separation or division and also without confusing or changing.
  • The manhood of Christ was real, perfect and had a dynamic presence.
  • Jesus Christ is one Prosopon and one Hypostasis in real oneness and not mere conjunction of natures; He is the Incarnate Logos of God.
  • They all accept the communicatio idiomatum (the communication of idioms), attributing all the deeds and words of Christ to the one hypostasis, the Incarnate Son of God.
Recent Efforts for Unity

In recent times, members of the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches have met together coming to a clear understanding that both families have always loyally maintained the same authentic Orthodox Christological faith.

In 1964 a fresh dialogue began at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. This was followed by meetings at Bristol in 1967, Geneva in 1970 and Addis Ababa in 1971. These were a series of non-official consultations which served as steps towards mutual understanding.

The official consultations in which concrete steps were taken began in 1985 at Chambesy in Geneva. The second official consultation was held at the monastery of Saint Bishoy in Wadi-El-Natroun, in Egypt in June 1989. The outcome of this latter meeting was of historical dimensions, since in this meeting the two families of Orthodoxy were able to agree on a Christological formula, thus ending the controversy regarding Christology which has lasted for more than fifteen centuries.

In September 1990 the two families of Orthodoxy signed an agreement on Christology, and recommendations were presented to the different Orthodox Churches, to lift the anathemas and enmity of the past, after revising the results of the dialogues. If both agreements are accepted by the various Orthodox Churches, the restoration of communion will be very easy at all levels, even as far as sharing one table in the Eucharist.

As for its part, the Coptic Orthodox Church Synod, presided by HH Pope Shenouda III, has agreed to lift the anathemas, but this will not take place unless this is performed bilaterally, possibly by holding a joint ceremony.


I conclude that the term “monophysitism” does not reflect the real belief of the non-Chalcedonians. They prefer not to be called “monophysites,” as far as the term may be misunderstood. They believe in one nature “out of two”, “one united nature”, a “composite nature” or “one incarnate nature and not a “single nature”. There is no evidence that the term was used during the fifth century. Most probably it. was introduced later in a polemic way on behalf of the Chalcedonian Churches. However, considering the past, the non-Chalcedonians are better to be called “mia-physites” than “monophysites.” Recently, in so far as they are coming to be understood correctly, they are to be called simply “orthodox”, the same belief with their brothers the Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches. This could be an imminent fruit of the unity of all Orthodox Churches.

Credit and Attribution

This article was first published in the CoptNet Archives.


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