On Monophysitism and Augustinianism

Fr. Georges Florovsky 1893-1979

To a certain extent, there is a similarity between Monophysitism and Augustinianism — the human is pushed into the background and, as it were, suppressed by the Divine. What St. Augustine said about the boundless activity of grace refers in Monophysite doctrine to the God-Man “synthesis.” In this regard one could speak of the “potential assimilation” of humanity by the Divinity of the Logos even in Severus’ system. In Severus’ thought this is proclaimed in his muddled and forced doctrine of “unified God-Man activity” — this expression is taken from Dionysius the Areopagite. The actor is always unified — the Logos. Therefore, the activity — “energy” — is unified too. But together with this, it is complex as well, complex in its manifestations — τα αποτελέσματα, in conformity with the complexity of the acting nature or subject. A single action is manifested dually and the same is true for will or volition. In other words, Divine activity is refracted and, as it were, takes refuge in the “natural qualities” of the humanity received by the Logos. We must remember that Severus here touched upon a difficulty which was not resolved in the Orthodox theology of his time. Even with Orthodox theologians the concept of divinization or theosis sometimes suggested the boundless influence of Divinity. However, for Severus the difficulty proved insurmountable, especially because of the clumsiness and inflexibility of the “Monophysite” language and also because in his reflections he always started from the Divinity of the Logos and not from the Person of the God-Man. Formally speaking, this was the path trod by St. Cyril but in essence this led to the idea of human passivity — one could even say the non-freedom of the God-Man. These biases of thought proclaim the indistinctness of Christological vision. To these conservative Monophysites the human in Christ seemed still too transfigured — not qualitatively, of course, not physically, but potentially or virtually. In any event, it did not seem to be acting freely and the Divine does not manifest itself in the freedom of the human. What is taking place here is partly simple unspokenness, and in Severus’ time Orthodox theologians had also not yet revealed the doctrine of Christ’s human freedom — more accurately, the freedom of the “human” in Christ — with sufficient clarity and fullness. However, Severus simply did not pose the question of freedom and this, of course, was no accident. Given his premises, the very question had to have seemed “Nestorian” — concealed by the assumption of the “second subject.”

The orthodox answer, as given by St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662), presupposes distinguishing between “nature” and “hypostasis” — not only is “man” (“hypostasis”) free but also the “human” as such — the very “nature” — in all its “natural qualities,” in all and in each. An acknowledgement of this sort can in no way be fit into the framework of the Monophysite — much less the “diplophysite” — doctrine. Severus’ system was the theology of the “Monophysite” majority. It could be called conservative Monophysitism. But the history of Monophysitism is a history of constant dissension and division. It is not so important that from time to time we meet under the title “Monophysite” individual groups comprised of people who were not quite followers of Eutyches, not quite new Docetists who spoke of the “transformation” or the “fusion of natures,” who denied the consubstantiality of humanity in Christ, or who talked about the “heavenly” origin and nature of Christ’s body. These individual heretical outbursts are evidence only of the general intellectual ferment and agitation. Much more important are those divisions and disputes which arise in the basic course of the Monophysite movement. These reveal its internal logic, its driving motives, especially Severus’ dispute with Julian of Halicarnassus.

It is necessary to mention again that for orthodox theology also this was an unanswered question. For the Monophysites, however, it was also unanswerable. In other words, within the limits of Monophysite premises it was answerable only by admitting the passive assimilation of the human by the Divine. All these disputes reveal the indistinctness and vagueness of a religious vision damaged by anthropological quietism. There is an inner duality in the Monophysite movement, a bifurcation of emotion and thought. One could say that Monophysite theology was more orthodox than their ideals or, to put it differently, that the theologians in Monophysitism were more orthodox than most of the believers but that the theologians were prevented from attaining final clarity by the unfortunate “Monophysite” language. Therefore, Monophysitism becomes “more orthodox” in a strange and unexpected way precisely when the religious wave has receded and theology is cooling down to scholasticism. It is at this time that Monophysite closeness to St. Cyril seems so obvious, for this is closeness in word, not in spirit. The source of Monophysitism is not to be found in dogmatic formulas but in religious passion. All the pathos of Monophysitism lies in the self-basement of man, in an acute need to overcome the human as such and hence the instinctive striving to distinguish the God-Man from man more sharply even in his humanity. This striving can be claimed in various forms and with varying force, depending on how lucid and how restrained is this burning thirst for human self-basement which erupts from the dark depths of the subconscious. It is not accidental that Monophysitism was so closely connected with ascetic fanaticism, with ascetic self-torture and emotional violence. Nor is it an accident that Origenistic motifs of a universal apokatastasis were once again revived in Monophysite circles. In this regard the lone image of the Syrian mystic Stephen Bar-Sudhaile and his doctrine about universal restoration and a final “consubstantiality” of all creatures with God is particularly significant. Neoplatonic mysticism is paradoxically crossed with eastern fatalism. An apotheosis of self-abasement — such is the paradox of Monophysitism, and only through these psychological predispositions can one understand the tragic history of Monophysitism. The belated epilogue to the Monophysite movement will be the tragic Monothelite controversy. (The Byzantine Fathers of the Sixth to Eighth Century, Chap. 2: The Spirit of Monophysitism)

also see “On Nestorianism and Pelagianism”


  1. darn right!

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