Notes on Monophysitism (II): The Acacian Schism

The Acacian Schism, so named for Acacius, Patriarch of Constantinople from 471-489, was a major negative result in the East of the Council of Chalcedon (451). As outlined in earlier, a great deal of antipathy to Chalcedon existed in the East thanks to deep suspicions that the Council had decreed a tacit form of Nestorianism. As Leo Donald Davis puts it, “at both councils [Nicea and Chalcedon] a basically Western solution to an Eastern problem had been intruded into the theological diet of the East. After both councils it took the East considerable time and effort to digest and assimilate an alien morsel.”[1]

Although initially a supporter of Chalcedon, by 482 Acacius showed signs of desiring compromise to assuage the massive sociopolitical problems brewing in the East over Christological issues. In that year, the Emperor Zeno issued a compromise document called the Henotikon, which re-condemned Eutyches and Nestorius, re-affirmed the central Christological tenets of Cyril of Alexandria, and tried to appease both East and West by avoiding all talk of the troublesome concept of “two natures” in Christ. The Definition of Chalcedon itself was not mentioned; no doubt this is part of why Chalcedonians promptly rejected the Henotikon and why two years later Pope Felix III (r. 483-492) condemned it and deposed Acacius at a synod in Rome.[2] Acacius responded by erasing the pope’s name from the diptychs, thus beginning the Acacian Schism which would last for 35 years.

In the year of the Lord’s incarnation 489, Euphemius, a Chalcedonian, became Patriarch of Constantinople and attempted to heal the breach. Unfortunately, within 3 years he would be deposed by the emperor on a charge of treason. He was replaced by Macedonius, another Chalcedonian interested in rapprochement and an end to the Schism.[3] However, controversy intensified thanks to the doctrinal fulminations of Pope Gelasius (r. 492-496), who refused all attempts at compromise with Acacius’ views and interfered with Macedonius’ relations with others. Interestingly, it was in this context of the developing Monophysite controversy that Gelasius wrote a document that has often been mentioned on this blog in connection with Medieval political theory: his epoch-making letter Duo sunt to the Emperor Anastasius. Outlining the respective authorities of bishops and secular rulers, Duo sunt was a rejection of the (Monophysite) emperor’s meddling in the doctrinal controversies. Said the pope: “It is his [the Emperor’s] business to learn what is the content of religion, not teach.”[4]

The Schism continued through the reigns of three more popes: Anastasius II (r. 496-498), Symmachus (r. 498-514), and Hormisdas (r. 514-523). Two noteworthy Monophysite theologians active during this period were Philoxenus of Mabbough and Severus. Both held staunchly to the Cyrillian formula already mentioned several times, “one incarnate nature of the Divine Word,” which rejected the “two natures” scheme of Chalcedon on the grounds that it was tacitly Nestorian and thus destroyed the unity of Christ and human salvation itself. Invoking the disputed categories of nature and person, virtually synonymous in the East though distinct in the West, Philoxenus wrote, “There is no nature without person, just as there is no person without nature. If there are two natures, there must be two persons and two sons.”[5] For his part, Severus described the Monophysite position this way: “We do not have the right because of the brilliance of the divine miracles and of the things that transcend the law of nature, to deny that His sufferings of redemption and his death occurred in accordance with the law of nature. He is the Logos incarnate without being changed. He performed the miracles as is appropriate for God, and He voluntarily permitted the laws of the flesh to operate in His parts while He bore His sufferings in a human way.”[6]

In summary, the disagreement between the Chalcedonians and the Monophysites centered on the nature of Christ after the incarnation. The Chalcedonians were intensely interested in the real humanity of Christ and how it undergirds human salvation–for them, Christ’s humanity was not just “in theory,” an abstraction serving an even more abstract “state” of the Logos after His incarnation. For the Monophysites, on the other hand, bound in their Cyrillian terminological equation of nature and person, the absolute identification of the hypostasis of union between God and man with the pre-existent Johannine Logos remained critical. Because Chalcedon had failed to state this, they believed the Definition was Nestorian and rejected it as a fundamental assault on Christ and human salvation.

The Acacian Schism at last came to an end in the year of grace 519, when, in a conjunction of authorities that continues to create apologetic difficulties for both Rome and Orthodoxy today, the Chalcedonian Justin I made Chalcedon the official faith of the empire and signed a document sent to him by the pope, “the Formula of Hormisdas,” which affirmed the perpetual purity of doctrine in the Roman See.[7] The Acacian Schism was over, but the Monophysite controversy was far from it.

Linknotes:

  1. Leo Donald Davis, The Seven Ecumenical Councils [325-787]: Their History and Theology [Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1983], pg. 207
  2. Ibid., pp. 203-204
  3. Ibid., pp. 207-210
  4. Ibid., pg. 211
  5. Cited by Davis, pg. 209.
  6. Cited ibid., pp. 213-214
  7. J.N.D. Kelly, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes [Oxford University Press, 1996], pg. 53
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