Last week as we wrapped up the climate of the Church in the West, we mainly focused on how the invasions of the Germanic barbarian peoples invaded Rome and changed nearly everything for them. This week, which is the last evening in our series looking at the first 500 years of Church history, we turn our attention to the Church in the East. And as we do we will also look at an invasion of sorts, but before we look at who invaded we come first to more theological debate with the Eastern Roman Empire, which was now no longer called the Eastern Roman Empire but the Byzantine Empire.

Theological Debate Continues…

A few evenings ago we covered the ins and outs of the council of Chalcedon, which produced the third creed of Church history, known as the Chalcedonian statement on Christ or Christology. This is a wonderful statement, orthodox in its substance, encouraging, and clarifying to read and reflect upon. But the creed, created to bring unity to a divided Church, actually did very little to bring about a strong unity. If anything, it did the opposite. Crafted in 451 AD the statement launched another 230 years of theological debate within the Byzantine Empire. During these 230 years there was much thought, much rich discussion, much indeed to be encouraged by. But there was also much political drama that led to more division not only within the East but between the East and West as well.

After the Chalcedonian council was over and the statement had been written the result was that four factions became prominent throughout the East. Two of these factions were smaller and weren’t so prominent throughout this debate. These were the Dyophysite party and those who continued to follow the teachings of the theologian Origen. The other two large groups that emerged were the Monophysites and the Cyrillian Chalcedonians. Since these two we’re the main movers and shakers of this time, I’ll take them one at a time.

The Monophysites were the largest faction in Egypt and Syria. Their one defining characteristic was that they completely and totally rejected the Chalcedonian statement. Recall the statement says Jesus Christ is to be acknowledged as having “…two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the unity, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in One Person and one subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son…” The Monophysites rejected this, and chose their name to reflect this. Mono, is Greek for ‘one’ – while physis, is Greek for ‘nature’ – therefore a Monophysite believed Jesus Christ had only one nature, not two like the Chalcedonian statement says. Their thought was that it simply wasn’t possible to make such a distinction because you can’t have two natures with only one person, so if you’re going to say Jesus has two natures that automatically requires you to say He has two persons as well, which is what the Nestorian heresy claimed to be true.

Well, as seemingly logical as the teaching of the Monophysites were we simply don’t see one nature in Christ. We see in Scripture what the Chalcedonian creed tells us – that within the One Person of Jesus Christ we see both the divine and human nature dwelling in Him without confusion. In teaching what they did, the Monophysites claimed to be upholding the teaching of the beloved theologian Cyril of Alexandria, who said quote, there is only “one incarnate nature of the Logos.” But as history will show us, what exactly Cyril meant is far from clear, and it seems the Monophysites took some liberty with Cyril’s statement. The leaders of this Monophysite movement were Severus of Antioch (a theologian and presbyter, and patriarch of Antioch), his right hand man Philoxenus of Mabbug (writer, preacher, said to have the weirdest name of Church history), Timothy the Cat or Timothy the Weasel (writer and preacher, also strangely named for how short he was), the man they called the ‘flute of the Holy Spirit’ Jacob of Sarug (famous Monophysite poet and composer), Julian of Halicarnassus (probably the most extreme and hard lined one of this group), and Peter the Fuller (who is responsible and well known for changing a historic prayer called the Trisagion into a Monophysite battle cry). Of course there is varying degrees of belief within these men, but nonetheless without these men the cause of Monophysitism would not have been as popular as it was.

The next prominent faction alongside Monophysitism was a group called the ‘Cyrillian Chalcedonians.’ But wait, didn’t I just say the Monophysites believed they were the ones continuing on in the teaching Cyril of Alexandria? I did, what then is this group? That this faction, the ‘Cyrillian Chalcedonians’ existed shows how many different directions people took Cyril’s teaching. 

(which by the way, ought to remind us of how careful and precise we ought to be when doing theology, because not only does God desire and deserve a clear witness and a compelling testimony, but people long after we’re gone may read or listen to us and bring our teaching to conclusions we never intended – what are we to do of this? We surely cannot stop people from mishandling our teaching, but we can stop much of the nonsense that may come by endeavoring to be as clear as possible with the truth!)

So, to the ‘Cyrillian Chalcedonians.’ They were the largest group in the Byzantine Empire after the Chalcedonian statement was written and as with the Monophysites, they’re name clarifies their position as well. They believed in the Chalcedon statement wholly, that Jesus did indeed have two distinct natures within His one Person, and that the Monophysites are wrong to believe two natures requires two persons. But they also believed that their beloved teacher Cyril taught the same thing, that there was no contradiction between Cyril and Chalcedon. This is why they earned a name with Cyril’s own name in it, which I’m sure you can imagine didn’t make the Monophysites very happy. The Cyrillian Chalcedonians also had their own famous teachers, teachers that were much more orthodox in their theology than the Monophysites. John Maxentius (a Scythian monk who labored to and succeeded in persuading Constantinople to adopt this view), Theodore of Raithu (a renowned presbyter, and monk who publicly debated and defeated many Monophysite teachers like Severus of Anitoch and Julian of Halicarnassus), but the most famous teacher in this group was Leontius of Jerusalem (little is known of him or what else he did but write…but even so, his work Against Nestorius single handedly put Chalcedonian doctrine in the forefront because he so carefully distinguished between Chalcedon and all the heresies surrounding it).

These differing groups were the result of the Council of Chalcedon, and their feud with one another, historians say, tore the Byzantine Empire apart, such that we can still see effects of disunity among Eastern churches today. Some of this would prove to be very political. Various Patriarch’s and Emperor’s from both the Chalcedonians and the Monophysites often used their military power try to squash their theological enemies. Which had the effect of producing a blend of theological belief and nationalistic ideologies. So by the time you approach 500 AD to be an Egyptian or to be a Syrian was to be a Monophysite theologically (this still lingers today with the Coptic and Syriac churches, they’re all Monophysite still). Many leaders came and went and depending on their theological persuasion, the majority of the Byzantine Empire followed suit. Zeno and Justin I are two examples. Zeno was a monophysite and being emperor he almost got the whole of the Byzantine Empire with him. But when Justin I arrived on the scene he reversed it and turned the majority of the Byzantine Empire back to Chalcedon. 

Into this environment came his successor Justinian the Great, who earned the nickname Justinian the sleepless for all that de did in organizing the Byzantine Empire. It is said he loved nothing more than praying, reading, and discussing theology, but he was known for his cruel nature, hot temper, jealousy, and vanity. Whatever he was, he is one of the most hard working men of history and is the most celebrated of all Byzantine emperors. But he didn’t accomplish all on his own. His wife Theodora greatly helped him and made him more courageous than he could be on his own. But she was secretly a Monophysite (!) and did whatever she could do to advance their cause behind her husband’s back. Justinian had some horrible and wonderful moments in his reign but he known most for: 

1) reconquering much of the territory previously lost.

2) creating and enforcing an entire system of law called ‘Justinian code’ – which would stand for the next 1,000 years

3) rebuilt the Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom) after it had been burned down in a riot (that he caused) years earlier. This building still stands (modern day Istanbul) and it is said to defy gravity in it’s beauty and architecture. (quote on page 371).

But amid all of Justinian’s efforts and work, (which included many more councils and attempts to unify the Byzantine Empire theologically) when he died in 565 AD there were still independent Monophysites strongholds in Egypt, Syria, Armenia, and Ethiopia who were very eager to never unify with the firm traditions/beliefs of the Byzantine Empire.

But, all of this would soon change as the Eastern Church/the Byzantine Empire would soon face a new challenge as well as gain a new enemy. What’s this new challenge/enemy? The new religion of Islam.

But, this is where we stop here because that story begins the next 500 years of Church history.

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