Notes on Monophysitism (III): “The Three Chapters”

In the spring of the year of grace 527 Justinian became emperor, having been handed the crown by his uncle Justin who was too ill to continue governing. Justin died in the fall of that year, leaving his nephew ruler. Justinian, though a staunch Chalcedonian, had married Theodora, a staunch Monophysite. This gave him pause in his dealings with the Monophysites, even though with all other heretics he was very severe. His policies toward Monophysitism were based on two principles: “to hold to the Definition of Chalcedon, but to interpret it according to the mind of Cyril of Alexandria, thus clearly disavowing any Nestorian interpretation and thereby winning over the Monophysites.”[1]

For over 20 years the emperor engaged in reconciliation efforts with the Monophysites, but all were stymied. Several new controversies flared up. One of the most important was that surrounding a document called “The Three Chapters.” This was a compilation of the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), Theodoret of Cyrus (d. 458), and Ibas of Edessa (d. 457). The first of these had been considered orthodox in his own day. Though he had not lived to see the Council of Chalcedon (451) his Christology often manifested hints of a “Chalcedon before Chalcedon.” Nevertheless, his views contained significant weaknesses that seemed to have Adoptionist tendencies. The latter two men had been proclaimed orthodox at the Council of Chalcedon, but this had always been a bone of contention for the Monophysites, who believed the two to be tacit Nestorians.

The Eastern episcopate eventually came together in opposition to the Three Chapters, but the bishop of Rome, Vigilius, led the Western refusal to do so. Vigilius’s reasoning was that the Council of Chalcedon had not condemned Theodoret and Ibas, and he did not wish to call into question the decisions of the Council.[2] Nevertheless, Vigilius was an inconstant bishop and caused a great deal of trouble on account of his ambitions. In 536 he had made a secret agreement with Empress Theodora to support Monophysitism if she would help him gain the Roman See. This arrangement did not materialize for a while, and when it did, Vigilius found that political expediency and the tremendous support for Chalcedon in the West prevented him from discharging his debt to the empress.[3]

By 547 he was wavering and indicating to Justinian that he was willing to condemn the Three Chapters provided that Chalcedon’s authority was not in any way compromised by such.[4] In April of 548, Vigilius issued his Judicatum, attempting to strike this balance. However, moved again by political expediency (and by being arrested and detained in Constantinople by the emperor) he wavered again the next year. With the emperor’s approval, he retracted the Judicatum. His reversal sparked the dramatic action of an African synod’s decision in 550 to excommunicate him–which, of course, only increased the tensions in the Christian world all the more. Both Vigilius and Justinian began to speak openly from this point of the need for a General Council to resolve the theological disputes.[5]

Justinian seems to have felt freed to wage a more forceful campaign for Chalcedon because his Monophysite empress, Theodora, had died in June of 548. He began paving the way for his own part for what would become the Fifth Ecumenical Council by trying to reconcile the Cyrillian-originated Monophysite-manifesto “one nature of the incarnate Word” with Chalcedon. He did this by arguing that the word “nature” in the slogan actually meant “person,” and this should exonerate Chalcedon of all suspicion of Nestorianism.[6] Furthermore, he made use of a concept originated by Leontius of Jerusalem which clarified Chalcedonian Christology by “identifying that hypostasis [of the union of God and man] as the pre-existent hypostasis of the Divine Word.”[7] This, it will be recalled, was a major complaint of the Monophysites against Chalcedon.

Justinian fought against Monophysites such as Severus for the recognition of the orthodoxy of the “two natures” formula of Chalcedon by arguing that “The unity of Christ is designated by the notion of hypostasis and not by that of nature…”[8] Theologians such as Severus claimed that Christ’s one nature was a “composite” nature–both God and man. On the contrary, said Justinian, this would make a third nature which was neither God nor man but a new one entirely. But if the unity of Christ (contra Nestorianism) was found in one hypostasis, and if that hypostasis is the pre-existent Logos, the Monophysite’s perceived problem with “two natures” vanishes.[9] The Cyrillian formula, “one nature of the incarnate Word” is thus orthodox, said the emperor, but the term “nature” in the phrase means “hypostasis” (or, person).

The emperor’s goal in all this was to reconcile the Monophysites to Chalcedon by establishing the full authority of their patron saint, Cyril of Alexandria, among the Chalcedonian party. But the only way to do this was “to make them recognize that the opposition between Cyril and Chalcedon was merely verbal.”[10] A citation of Justinian’s source, Leontius of Jerusalem, may help demonstrate : “Because of the organic union with God, effected in an immediate way by an intimate union on the level of hypostasis [person], the wealth of deification entered the man who was the Lord in his particular human nature; as for the rest of mankind…the Body of the Church…they only partake by way of mediation in the natural union with the man who was the Lord…the only Mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ our Lord.”[11]

Justinian issued these conclusions in 551 in his Confession of Faith, addressed to the whole Catholic Church. But in the same year, he tried to sweeten the deal for the Monophysites by re-issuing his stark condemnation of the Three Chapters. Vigilius strongly objected and tried to depose, on his own authority, all who held to the emperor’s new edict. After a series of intrigues between the emperor and Vigilius, the Fifth Ecumenical Council was convoked, again at Constantinople, in May of the year of the incarnate Word 553. Significantly, all of Vigilius’s demands concerning the new Council, though coming from the Bishop of Rome, were ignored by the emperor.


  1. Leo Donald Davis, The Seven Ecumenical Councils [325-787]: Their History and Theology [Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1983], pg. 228
  2. Davis, pg. 235
  3. (J.N.D. Kelly, Oxford Dictionary of Popes (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 2003), pg. 61)
  4. Davis, pg. 236
  5. Kelly, pg. 61
  6. Davis, pg. 238
  7. ibid., pg. 232
  8. John Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought [Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987], pg. 81
  9. ibid., pg. 82
  10. ibid., pg. 83
  11. Davis, pp. 232-233, italics mine
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