Eutychian Monophysitism: Challenges to the Faith in Jesus Christ


After the death of St Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444), who had championed the faith of the Church in Christ by insisting on Christ’s personal unity, but also, it must be remembered, the distinction between His divinity and humanity, there came another wave of Christological debates linked with a monk by the name of Eutyches and his supporter Dioscorus (he had succeeded St Cyril to the Episcopal throne in Alexandria).[1] Whereas St Cyril had unambiguously distinguished between the two natures in Jesus Christ, underlining that “the natures remained without confusion”[2] after Christ’s Incarnation, Eutyches spoke in terms of the complete ‘merging’ of the divine nature with that of the human so that there was only one nature after Christ’s Incarnation. His often repeated motto was: “I confess that our Lord consisted of two natures before the union, but after the union I confess one nature”.[3] It would be his insistence in ‘one nature after the union’ that would lead to his condemnation not only at the Council of Chalcedon (known as the Fourth Ecumenical Council) which was convened in 451 but in earlier local councils such as the Council of Constantinople in 448. The reason for this was that Eutyches had destroyed Christ’s consubstantiality with humankind (i.e. that Christ was of one essence with us). And so the Christian Church was faced with yet another Christological controversy known as Eutychian Monophysitism (insistence on one nature in Jesus Christ), a name which it had received from its founder Eutyches.

The case of the monk Eutyches

Even though, what was at stake, with the theology of the Eutychian Monophysites, was the difference of one preposition, nonetheless the salvific consequences were vast. Eutyches was adamant that Christ was ‘from’ two natures (ejk duvo fuvsewn), which he interpreted as two natures before the Incarnation but one after the union. That is, Eutyches claimed that the Lord’s humanity was totally absorbed or swallowed up by His divinity and that Jesus Christ had therefore formed ‘one nature’. He therefore repudiated vigorously any suggestion of two natures in the incarnate Christ. However, following St Cyril of Alexandria, who had become the criterion of ‘orthodoxy’, the fathers of the Church chose ‘in’ two natures (ejn duvo fuvsesin), which did not allow for any misunderstanding as to the existence of a full humanity of Christ after the union. The position of Eutyches was extremely dangerous as it not only denied the possibility of speaking of the ‘body’ of Jesus but also suggested that Christ’s humanity was a mere appearance and therefore not real. That is, ultimately Eutyches believed that Jesus Christ had only given the impression that He had become a man, with a body and a real human nature, but that in reality this was not the case. But this could then be classified as another form of Docetism, which the New Testament Scriptures had already rejected.[1] Denying that he was a Docetist, Eutyches simply argued that he feared asserting that Christ was ‘of the same essence’ as human beings because in this he saw the danger of being led to believe that Christ’s humanity could be seen as a distinct concrete existence apart from His divinity (something which Nestorius[2] had previously done).

To make matters worse, Eutyches was restored by Patriarch Dioscorus of Alexandria who had convoked what came to be known as the so-called Robber Council of 449, with the aid of emperor Theodosius II to rehabilitate Eutyches. Meeting at Ephesus in the month of August, this council swiftly condemned not only any confession of two natures after the union but Patriarch Flavian of Constantinople and all those who spoke of two natures in the incarnate Son of God. Eutyches had also written to Pope Leo, but Flavian had already informed Pope Leo of a local council he had summoned in 448 to condemn the teachings of Eutyches. Leo replied to Flavian with his famous Dogmatic Letter or Tome[3], as it came to be known, which would be endorsed by the 4th Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon as declaring the faith of the Church in Jesus Christ. Leo also made known, in no uncertain terms his opposition to Eutyches’ ‘one nature’ Christology. It would be the Council of Chalcedon, which would meet in 451 to find an adequate formula which was not one-sided in its emphasis either on the unity of Christ at the expense of the two natures or the distinction of the two natures in Christ without equally safeguarding His unity.

The Council of Chalcedon

The significance of Chalcedon for both the Eastern Orthodox and Western Christian traditions can hardly be overestimated. The Council had to confront the matters raised by the so-called Robber Council, which had preceded it.[4]Leo sent his representatives to the Ecumenical Council in order to have his Tome accepted as a true doctrinal articulation of the faith in Jesus Christ. Leo’s legates argued that the Tome was in agreement with the theology of St Cyril of Alexandria whose theology was seen as normative for all subsequent theology. Indeed St Cyril’s Twelve Chapters were compared to Leo’s Tome and only after this comparative exercise had been undertaken, was Leo’s Tome endorsed, since it was seen to be in agreement with Cyrillian Christology. Amongst other things, the Tome of Leo affirmed four things: Firstly, that Jesus Christ was ‘in two natures’. Secondly, that His divinity was identical with the divine Word of God. In this regard he wrote: “He who became human in the form of a servant is He who in the form of God created humankind”.[1] Thirdly, the Tome emphasised that the divine and human natures co-existed in Jesus Christ without mixture or confusion. That is, in becoming man, Christ did not cease to be God, nor did His humanity diminish His divinity. Indeed if Christ were to really save the world, then salvation required that:

“one and the same mediator between God and human persons, the man Jesus Christ, should be able both to die in respect of the one [nature] and not to die in respect of the other [nature]”.[2]

In this Leo stated that the natures were to be distinguished even though they always acted together: “Each form accomplishes in concert with the other what is appropriate to it, the Word performing what belongs to the Word, and the flesh carrying out what belongs to the flesh”.[3] Lastly, it affirmed the ‘communication of the idioms [properties]’ (communicatio idiomatum) – that is, it could be affirmed that the Son of God was crucified and buried, but that the Son of Man came down from heaven.

With the death of Emperor Theodosius II in 450 and the succession of Marcian to the throne, who, together with his wife Pulcheria were sympathetic towards the ‘in’ two natures Christology, the Church was able to assemble so as to nullify the deliberations of the Robber Council which had become state law. The 4th Ecumenical Council opened on 8 October 451 in Chalcedon in the presence of more than five hundred bishops. Its mandate was to establish a single faith in the face of imperial division by endorsing the Dogmatic Letters of St Cyril and Leo’s Tome, which was in agreement with St Cyril’s Christology. The Council fathers firstly reaffirmed their adherence to the faith of Nicaea (the symbol of faith), to the Dogmatic Epistles of St Cyril and to the Tome of Leo. The Council then set out to articulate a formula (or definition) of faith to which all bishops could sign thereby showing their loyalty to the faith of the Church. In its final form, the text of the Definition was a compilation of excepts taken from St Cyril’s two letters, Leo’s Tome and Flavian’s profession of faith at the 448 Council in Constantinople.

Both a standard and binding text for Eastern Orthodox Christians in regards to the person of Jesus Christ, the Definition of Chalcedon read as follows:

“Following the holy fathers, we teach with one voice that the Son of God and our Lord Jesus Christ is to be confessed as one and the same (Person), and He is perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, true God and true man, of a rational soul and [human] body consisting, of one essence with the Father as touching His divinity, and of one essence with us as touching His humanity; made in all things like unto us, with the exception of sin only; begotten of His Father before all ages according to His divinity. But in these last days, for us and for our salvation, born [into the world] of the Virgin Mary, Theotokos, according to His humanity. This one and the same Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son [of God] must be confessed to be in two nature, without confusion, without change, without division and without separation, the difference of the natures being by no means removed because of the union, but the property of each nature being preserved and coalescing in one prosopon and one hypostasis – not parted or divided into two prosopa, but one and the same Son, only-begotten, divine Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets of old and Jesus Christ Himself have taught us about Him and the creed of our fathers has handed down”.

The above declaration of faith pronounced at least five different points which are important for Christology. It affirmed Christ to be a) perfect God and perfect man; b) of one essence with the Father in his Godhead, and of one essence with us in his manhood; c) made known in two natures without confusion, without change, without division and without separation. Furthermore it was declared that d) the two natures were in no way abolished by the union and the e) the properties of each nature were preserved intact and finally, f) that both came together to form one person (prosopon or hypostasis).

The definition of faith painstakingly wanted to assert the divinity and unity of Jesus Christ yet at the same time the reality of His humanity. Indeed Chalcedon was most concerned in its terminology to protect the faith both from Nestorian and Monophysite aberrations. One can therefore understand why in the definition there is an insistence and repetition of the phrase, ‘one and the same person’. That the unity of Christ is emphasized is also reinforced in the definition by its use of the title ‘Theotokos’ which St Cyril had insisted at the 3rd Ecumenical Council since it underscored the unity of the humanity and divinity in the person of Jesus Christ. Yet its clear assertion on the unity of Christ was not done at the expense of the humanity of Jesus Christ. So together with the unity, the definition, made it clear that the Son of God existed ‘in’ two natures, in this way leaving no room for the acceptance, by the Church of Eutychian Monophysitism.

Furthermore, there was not only a clear emphasis on the existence of the two natures but that each retained its distinctive properties and operations. The definition insisted upon the fact that the Son of God united within his person both a divine and human nature, which was done without confusing the two so that the proper characteristics of each was not lost; without transmuting one nature into another; without dividing them into two separate categories and without contrasting them according to their function. The Council of Chalcedon succeeded in finding adequate words to explain the unity of Jesus Christ in terms of ‘person’ and the distinction in terms of ‘physis’ [nature]. In this way, it was able to safeguard the Church’s conviction that Jesus Christ was perfectly divine on the one hand and perfectly human as well thereby affirming Him to be the source of salvation, yet at the saem time the locus of salvation in human history. However, Chalcedon did not explain ‘how’ the two natures were united in the person of Christ, since this was seen to be beyond all human comprehension.

Concluding Remarks

Unfortunately there were a great number of people who did not accept the Christological teaching of Chalcedon and so broke away from the communion of the Church. One of the most influential exponent of anti-Chalcedonian thought was Severus of Antioch who in identifying the terms ‘nature’ and ‘person’ believed that Chalcedon had proclaimed a Christ with two persons and therefore concluded that the council had revived Nestorianism. That is to say, in stressing that there is no nature without a hypostasis or person (oujk e[sti fuvsi” ajnupovstato”), the anti-Chalcedonians believed that two natures in Christ (namely a divine and human) implied two persons (i.e. the heresy of Nestorius and his followers). Yet Chalcedon argued that the term ‘nature’ and ‘person’ were not to be identified since a nature is simply revealed by a person. And, in the case of Christ, it was the ‘divine Son of God’ – i.e. the second Person of the Holy Trinity, who revealed the human nature of Christ.

Such Christians have survived to this day and are called ‘Monophysites’. They continue to exist today in the Coptic, Ethiopian and Armenian Orthodox Churches, usually grouped together as Oriental Orthodox Christians in contrast to the Eastern Orthodox Church. And therefore in spite of all its attempts to bring unity to the Empire, Chalcedon failed to bring a permanent peace to the Church. Yet for the Eastern Orthodox Church – and for the Roman Catholic Church for that matter – this Council remains binding since it adheres strictly not only to the theology of St Cyril of Alexandria but also the Scriptures concerning the teaching on Christ where it is stated throughout that the Son of God was perfect in His divinity and perfect in His humanity and not a compound of the two. From the perspective of Chalcedon, the Monophysites, in their emphasis on the divinity of Christ were in danger of downplaying his humanity. Chalcedon, on the other hand, stated that the very hypostasis [person] Jesus Christ was the divine Son and Word of God which also became the hypostasis of the assumed human nature and therefore Christ was truly Theanthropos, something which the Church would have to state again in stronger terms so as to safeguard its faithful from any further misinterpretation.



Philip Kariatlis


Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer


St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College


(Published in The Greek Australian VEMA, October 2005)




[1] Indeed Dioscorus was so extreme in his ‘one nature’ Christology that he held a council in 449 to condemn the ‘two nature’ Christology and to restore Eutyches. This council came to be known in history as the Robber Synod of 449.

[2] Scholia on the Incarnation of the Only-Begotten Son [Scholia de Incarnatione Unigeniti] PG 75.1381A-B.

[3] Cited in Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of the Faith (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2002), 85.

[1] For example in 2 John 1:7 we read: “Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist!”

[2] On Nestorianism, refer to the August issue of Vema (2005): 8/26-9/27.

[3] Epistle 28.

[4] Interestingly from a historical perspective, Chalcedon needed to meet and deal with Robber Council since the Emperor would endorse all doctrine and canons declared by a council, not only signing its minutes but also declaring them as state law. Therefore Chalcedon had to put aright the Christological doctrine.

[1] Ep. 28, 3 (Leo’s Tome).

[2] Ep. 28. 3 (Leo’s Tome).

[3] Ep. 28. 4 (Leo’s Tome).