The Byzantine Fathers Of the Sixth to Eighth Century icon

The Byzantine Fathers Of the Sixth to Eighth Century

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The Imperial Edict Compelling Acceptance
of Chalcedon and the Arrest Order for Severus.

An imperial edict was drawn up which specifically omitted Egypt. In this edict to the “orient” it was decreed that all bishops must accept Chalcedon or give up their sees. The imperial authorities obviously realized what Severus’ character was like, for it issued an order for his arrest — he was obviously not the type of person to change his theological positions at imperial command. The arrest order was entrusted to Vitalian, the former leader of the revolts against Anastasius and now the comes orientis. The Chronicon Edessenum speaks of a “purge” in Antioch in 518-519, a “purge” against the anti-Chalcedonians. Because of Vitalian’s special relationship with Flavian, Vitalian harbored hatred for Severus. Vitalian, however, was murdered before he could execute his order. Severus fled to Egypt along with his friend Julian of Halicarnassus. Philoxenus was caught and sentenced to exile in Gangra.

The see of Antioch was considered vacant. All churches were “confiscated” or appropriated for the use of those who accepted Chalcedon. Paul, a “presbyter” of Constantinople and known historically as Paul the Jew, was elevated to the patriarchal see of Antioch. Constantinople attempted to consecrate Paul in the imperial city but the papal legates opposed it, urging that he should be consecrated in Antioch itself “in accordance with ancient tradition” and to avoid a repeat of the result of a former consecration in Constantinople of a bishop for the Antiochene see. The sources claim that his cruelty to the Monophysites in Edessa made him infamous — monks were put to death if they refused to conform. Philoxenus in one of his letters claims that Paul was resisted strongly and that the “people” cried out for his martyrdom. Accusations of a moral nature were made against Paul, forcing either his resignation or deposition. He was followed by Euphrasius, who was, according to Monophysite sources, a “mild” and “generous” man — pro-Chalcedonian sources refer to him as a “weakling.” He held the bishopric for five years during which peace returned to the area. It is reported in the sources that he and “the wicked Aesculapius” perished in the earthquake of 526. Euphrasius’ successor, Ephraem of Amida, had been the comes orientis previous to his consecration. He distinguished himself in the position of civil service with relief work after the earthquake. It is claimed that his consecration was the reward for his diligent work as a civil servant. Justinian had decided to apply more force against these anti-Chalcedonian monks and the reliable Ephraem was quite willing to help — he renewed the policy of Paul.

The claim by Michael the Syrian in his Chronicle (9, 13) that the entire reign of Justin was one of persecution is not such an exaggeration. The persecution was primarily directed against the anti-Chalcedonian monks and their communities — especially in Syria in the areas where Syriac was the language of the Church. Philoxenus realized that the final separation had come. Any attempt to reinterpret the Henotikon in Chalcedonian terms was nothing more than an attempt to restore the “impure doctrine of Nestorius.” Any question of intercommunion with the Chalcedonians was out of the question. In his Confession of Faith, written before he died in 523, Philoxenus wrote that “a curse was upon that council and on all who agreed with it” — an eternal curse.

At the end of the reign of Justin I it is claimed that the edict proclaiming adherence to the Council of Chalcedon was obeyed — exclusive of Egypt, of course, where no serious attempt was made. Approximately fifty-five bishops refused and these were either deposed or exiled. The anti-Chalcedonian monks either fled to Egypt or endured persecution. The laity was a different matter. There is an interesting revelation in the Vita of John Tella. The majority in his congregation believed in obedience to imperial law, yet they did not accept Chalcedon — for the time being Chalcedon must be accepted. Hence, Justin and Justinian may have been able to have imposed an external order of Chalcedonian support but it could not truly evaluate the sentiments of the populace, a populace intimidated by the possibility of persecution if they acted.


John of Tella.

Opposition was, however, still alive in the work of John of Tella, a monk and Monophysite zealot. He had been a monk from a very early age — to the chagrin of his mother. He remained in a cell with no interest in accepting any clerical position — several were offered to him. His biographer relates that John was warned in a vision that the day would come when the Church would need bishops “who will suffer and who will not be moved by either threat or bribe.” After this vision John accepted ordination. His biographer also stresses his excessive gift of tears. When Severus fled to Egypt, he appointed John of Tella as his representative. John did not disappoint Severus, for he travelled around the provinces in rags organizing the non-Chalcedonians. At one point he had as many as eight co-workers. Gradually, however, they were all captured — but not John, who had gained the sympathy of both the country people and the officials. Those bishops who had accepted Chalcedon at the order of the imperial edict and who were not at heart Chalcedonians welcomed the arrival of John of Tella. These bishops refused to ordain anyone in a non-Chalcedonian faith, but they allowed John of Tella to ordain whomever he pleased.

From the imperial perspective the external order revealed that the only Monophysite bishops were in Egypt, in Persia, or hidden away in some of the far eastern monasteries. It appeared as though the imperial edict had stopped the proliferation of Monophysite ordinations. But that was not the true reflection of reality, for there were Monophysite priests in most places and numerous men who desired that ordination which had been prohibited by imperial law. An “underground” Church had come into existence and was to increase surreptitiously. The activity of John of Tella finally became known to the imperial authorities. John was able to negotiate a “safe conduct” assurance from the emperor and, under that condition, he appeared in Constantinople for an audience with the emperor. He was requested to cease and desist from his activity, to which request John flatly refused — his obedience, he exclaimed, was to God, not to the emperor.


Persecution of non-Chalcedonians in Edessa.

The general imperial policy was to wait until a bishopric became vacant and then fill that spot with a pro-Chalcedonian. Edessa was an example. It is claimed that the bishop died out of shame for accepting Chalcedon. A pro-Chalcedonian, Aesculapius, was quickly nominated and immediately unleashed a severe persecution on the anti-Chalcedonians, forcing “stylites” down from their pillars and expelling monks by calling on the force of the imperial military. The monks of approximately ten neighboring monasteries refused to commune with the bishop or to attend his services during the Christmas Lent. By Christmas only one monastery still had monks — and that one had only ten monks remaining. The monks, the sources relate, fled into the desert, there supporting themselves for six years until Theodora returned them to their monasteries.

In 537 Ephraem, the bishop of Edessa, was successful in catching John Telia — with the help of the Persians who were to receive a reward. The Persians were able to track John down, found him in a hermit’s cave, and brought him to Nisibis. The reward offered by Ephraem was slow in coming and during the wait John and his Persian guards became friendly. Indeed, the Persians were surprised that the man they had expended so much energy to track down was no more than a religious monk. The Persians could understand John’s lament that he was persecuted only because he had refused to change his religion at the command of die emperor. Moreover, the Persians offered to release him for a fee — but for much less than what Ephraem had offered. John had no access to money. When the reward finally came from Ephraem, the Persians felt it their duty to surrender John in accordance with the agreement. John was taken across the border to Dara where John and Ephraem entered theological discussions which resolved nothing. John was later brought to Antioch and confined in a monastery there — with four other monks in his cell, a situation which was not all that ominous. However, two of the monks were hand picked Chalcedonians, one of whom was a known persecutor. Theologically John held that “Christ was completely with the Father, as God, and completely with his mother, as man,” that there was a union of the natures, a union that was neither “confused” nor “changed.” He’rejected Eutyches totally. The Lord was “of one nature which became Incarnate without change” and the Lord was like us “in all things except sin.” When he professed that the there is “an ineffable and incomprehensible union of two” natures, that the Lord is perfect God and perfect Man, his opponents thought he had recanted. “He has joined us. He has renounced his heresy,” his opponents declared. On hearing this, the sources claim that John became indignant, declaring: “God forbid that I should abandon St. Cyril and … bring shame upon the Church!” Yet the rumor was quickly spread that John had recanted. Ephraem came in person to receive him back in the faith, only to be stunned when he encountered John, who declared: “If Severus, my patriarch, were to confess two natures after the union, I would anathematize him.” This entire episode is a mirrored image of the entire controversy and imprecision of the language used by both sides. This tragedy led to nothing but struggle, controversy, and suffering for the next centuries. John died in 538, “praying for the peace of the Church and for those who had persecuted him.”

Persecution was real, yet it was limited and sporadic. The very policy of Ephraem gives an insight into the actual state of affairs. His imperial orders were to bring about conformity to Chalcedon, and for this purpose the power of the empire was placed at his disposal. He had the power and authority to break up monasteries, to depose bishops, to exile recalcitrants, and to replace anti-Chalcedonian civil servants. But there was, it appears, a certain boundary beyond which he was not to tread — there was no official policy of a deliberate infliction of death, despite the aberrations that took place. Moreover, two places of refuge existed — Egypt and Constantinople itself, even the special monastic arrangement in the imperial palace itself, an arrangement provided by Theodora. Exile in Egypt was in a real sense a “coming home,” a place where a Monophysite could live, breathe, and work.


Severus’ Activity in Exile.

In exile in Egypt Severus was extremely active. Initially Severus’ perspective was depressed, bleak. But his mood changed. A “Standing Council of Bishops” was established in Alexandria, a council which kept abreast of all that was taking place elsewhere in the empire, a council that continued to exhort and encourage the anti-Chalcedonians to remain firm. Severus continued to give instructions for his diocese from Alexandria, instructions which concerned not only general exhortations or general policy but also detailed specifics on individual cases brought to his attention. His letters are filled with his response to the life of the Church. He expressed himself quite frankly when he heard that Rome had rejected the Theopaschite Formula, for Severus’ theological thought was more sophisticated than that at Rome and Severus knew that Rome would never understand the difference between Divine essence and the Divine hypostases. Severus was not anti-Roman. His objection to the Council of Chalcedon was theological, not ecclesiastical nor political. Indeed, he often quotes Pope Julius and refers to him as the “spiritual and unshakable tower of the Church of the Romans.” His concern was that the definition of faith at the Council of Chalcedon nowhere mentioned “the One Incarnate Nature of the Divine Logos,” nowhere mentioned the “hypostatic union.” Rather, Chalcedon, in his view, had taken its doctrine of “in two natures, perfect, undivided and unconfused” directly from Nestorius. For Severus, after the Incarnation there was “one nature out of two” and the very fact that Chalcedon did not include this doctrine rendered it and Pope Leo’s Tome blasphemous. How could Leo believe that the Incarnate Logos could die “in two natures?” Which nature had been nailed to the cross? The doctrine of “two natures” after the Incarnation was what made Leo a “blasphemer” and a “pillar of heterodoxy.” Severus considered Leo’s Tome “Jewish.” One of his most penetrating attacks on Leo’s Tome is in his Letter to Count Oecumenius. Severus was no instigator against the empire for the sake of regional ethnicism. His letters portray him as one who had respect for the emperor and loyalty to the empire. He was a sophisticated cosmopolitan. He was not antagonistic towards Rome or its primacy. He was theologically opposed to Pope Leo’s Tome and the Council of Chalcedon because he believed they were the vehicles of heresy. Severus nourished himself on the works of St. Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and St. Cyril of Alexandria.


The Controversy Between Severus
and Julian of Halicarnassus.

Severus’ friend, Julian of Halicarnassus, fled with him to Egypt. In Alexandria their speculation on the the nature of the flesh of the Logos, an argument among the anti-Chalcedonians from the beginning, brought the two friends into a controversy, a controversy which was to prove divisive among the Monophysites. Their theological dispute began in their initial letters in a friendly vein, only to become increasingly more heated as the controversy became more serious, the result of which was a breach of friendship between Severus and Julian.

Julian claimed that the flesh of Christ was incorruptible from the moment of conception. Julian was opposed to Eutyches but his line of thought led him in a similar direction — indeed, similar to Apollinarius Julian viewed the controversy in terms of Christ’s susceptibility to human sin. In maintaining that Christ’s flesh was incorruptible — άφθαρτος — Julian became the principal spokesman of aphthartodocetism — Christ’s passion and death were real but were the result of a free and completely volition act of his will — κατ ‘ οίκονομίαν or κατά χάριν, a freedom of action which allowed Christ to confer passivity on his naturally incorruptible flesh. In addition to his letters to Severus on this subject, Julian wrote four works against the position of Severus, numerous fragments of which have survived in Syriac and Greek. Julian’s vision is based on his doctrine of original sin, a doctrine not completely different in nature from that of St. Augustine. For Julian the sexual act was the vehicle through which sin and corruption, the complete corruption of the human body and flesh, were transmitted from generation to generation. Severus’s view was different. He argued that the flesh is not the source of sin (Homily123; Homily 75; Homily 68). Although he maintained that virginity was better, Severus spoke out strongly for the blessed nature of marriage. In Homily 121 Severus writes that there is nothing more loved by God than “the union of flesh in marriage, from which union likewise comes the love for children.” This is in reference to his comparison of the union of the soul and Christ. He even claims that if a better analogy had been possible, then the Gospels would have used it. Severus refuses to equate the original sin with sex (Homily 119), even claiming that the flesh or body participates in the joy and pleasure of the soul’s contemplation — theoria — to the extent that even “the bones of man” are penetrated by it. Even prior to his controversy with Julian Severus had argued against Eutyches in Homily 63 that the flesh is not defiled by nature but by sin and sin comes forth from the soul or mind of man, not from die body. Hence, in his Incarnation God the Logos was in no way defiled, soiled, or touched by sin. The belief of the indestructibleness and incorruptibility of the flesh became the central focus of the Julianists, who were given the name of Aphthartodocetists and Fantasiasts by their opponents. The followers of Julian applied the word Phthartolartians to the followers of Severus. For Julian redemption was uncertain if God the Logos assumed a body that was subject to corruption — φθορά. Harnack saw in the thought of Julian of Halicarnassus the logical development of the Greek patristic doctrine of redemption, a conclusion which does not necessarily follow from the thought of the Greek fathers. “We cannot therefore avoid seeing in Aphthartodoketism,” writes Harnack, “the logical development of the Greek doctrine of salvation, and we are all the more forced so to regard it that Julian expressly and ex necessitate fidei acknowledged the homoousia of the body of Christ with our body at the moment when the Logos assumed it, and rejected everything of the nature of a heavenly body so far as its origin was concerned.” Harnack’s evaluation of Severus and his followers is more accurate. “In opposition to this view the Severians laid so much stress on the relation of the sufferings of Christ to the human side of Christ’s nature in order to rid them of anything doketic, that no Western could have more effectively attacked doketism than they did.”

From this controversy between Severus and Julian the divisiveness within the anti-Chalcedonian movement was laid bare and the foundation of further factions was established. Severus realized quite well the damage to the cause. The result was mutual anathemas. The monks and the Eutychians in Alexandria supported Julian strenuously. In his Chronicle (9, 21) Michael the Syrian relates that Gaianus, the disciple of Julian, had the support of the wealthy and was in contention for the position of patriarch of Alexandria.

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