Audio length: 31:37 minutes
Transcript published: May 28, 2011
Today, Dn. Michael unpacks the 5th Ecumenical Council which addressed Monophysitism and Origen.
Dn. Michael Hyatt: Well, let’s go ahead and get into Ecumenical Council number five. We’re making progress, and this is the Second Council of Constantinople held in 553. And I want to begin this morning with a verse I think I’ve shared before but it’s from Deuteronomy 29:29. And this is a verse that sometimes in our desire for knowledge or theological precision, we think, we forget. It says, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” God has revealed a lot of things to us, but he has not revealed everything to us. And so, the kind of circumference or the boundary of our theological inquiry and interest needs to be restricted to what God has revealed. And [we should] not go beyond that and not try to pry into the secret things of God because heresy is always an attempt to go beyond revelation and try to reconcile apparent contradictions. That’s really the essence of heresy. But Orthodoxy always attempts to preserve revelation, even if it results in apparent contradictions. Can you think of any apparent contradictions within Orthodoxy?
Q1: I don’t know if this is an apparent contradiction to anyone else, but the emphasis on effort to be good and salvation by grace, that whole apparent contradiction.
Dn. Michael: Yup, absolutely. You know, from an Orthodox perspective, salvation is always by grace, it’s always by faith, but it’s also by works. Western theology too often attempts to pit those things against one another, and I think that Orthodox are more comfortable with “both/and” not “either/or.” So things like: God is one in nature but three in person, Jesus is one in person but two in nature. As I said, salvation is both by faith and by works, Holy Communion is both the bread and the wine, while simultaneously the Body and the Blood. So these are just a few among many things that are among apparent contradictions.
It exists in Scripture, in the revelation in that way. You don’t have to go further than the book of Philippians. I know I’ve pointed this out before, but if you have your Bible, you can turn to Philippians 2. In verse 12, at the end of that verse where it says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” that seems to emphasize that it’s our responsibility, but verse 13 says “but it is God who works in you to will and to do for his good pleasure.” So all that working out is a result of Him working in. So these two things are, in a sense, two sides of the same coin.
But anyways, these are some of the apparent contradictions, and [if] we push much past this or we try to do too much explaining, you know, we’re liable to fall into heresy, particularly in the first few centuries of the Church when they were talking about the doctrine of the Trinity, whereas now we’re in the fifth ecumenical council, talking about the doctrine of Christ. There was just this unwillingness to accept what God had revealed because it looked logically inconsistent. They were not content with the mystery. They wanted to kind of press it out and get clarity on things that, in this life, we’re not going to get a lot of clarity on.
Well, let me give you the background, and I hope to go through this material and then open it up to questions or comments. Obviously, you can interrupt me at any point. So the council convened on May 5, 553, in the great hall attached to the patriarchal palace in Constantinople, which as we pointed out before in the First Ecumenical Council in Constantinople, [is] present-day Istanbul. Still exists. The great Church of the Hagia Sophia is still there, patriarchal palace is still there, even though I don’t know if this particular hall is still there. But Eutychius of Constantinople, who [was] the patriarch of Constantinople, presided, and there were about 151-168 bishops attending, including six to nine of them from Africa. The purpose was really to condemn what are called the “Three Chapters,” written by three famous Antiochian, as it turns out, heretical, theologians: the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, the writings of Theodoret of Cyrus, and the writings of Ibas of Edessa. And here’s what they affirmed. By the way, there are two great heresies that we’re going to talk about today. One of them is Monophysitism, one nature, and the other is the teachings of Origen. Anybody ever heard of Origen? Kind of the patron saint of heretics. Yes?
Q2: Are those hierarchs or are those monastics?
Dn. Michael: The writers of these first “Three Chapters”? I actually don’t know. Good question. The first decision that the council made—and [we] usually find in the minutes of these council meetings that this was the first decision they always made—was that they affirmed the authority of the first four councils. It was really important to them to not be operating independently or to be really trying to come up with something new. What they were trying to do was to preserve the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. They weren’t trying to concoct new theology to meet new circumstances. They were trying to clarify the theology of the Fathers as it applied in these new circumstances, but they weren’t trying to do something new. And, you know, our culture is preoccupied with the new.
One of the things in the publishing business that we’ve just continued to be amazed by is the life cycle of books. You know, they’re put into the market, and I’m telling you, if they don’t sell in about two or three weeks in the general market: boom. It’s a boomerang book. You put it out there, and it comes right back. Over 190,000 books published in this country every year. All but about [10%] sell about 500 copies each. So our country loves what’s new, what’s novel, what’s different, and things are marketed basically on the basis on whether or not it’s the latest, greatest thing. Everybody’s waiting for the next thing, which, of course, two weeks later after you get it, is the last thing. Then you’re waiting for the new next thing. It makes it hard to buy computers, doesn’t it? You think, “Well, if I buy now, they may announce one in another month that does twice as much for half the price.”
So the council was a wonderful corrective to that. It reflects a completely different paradigm, a completely different worldview, where things that were old were esteemed and venerated, and things that were new were suspect. And there’s probably a balance between those two things, but in the words of Jesus, [you have] the analogy of the old wine skins and the new wine skins. You’ve gotten certainly plenty of that, but the councils were concerned to protect what the other councils had done.
They also condemned the writings of the “Three Chapters.” You need to read the book The Seven Ecumenical Councils if you want to get the political background. It’s enormous: all the machinations that were going on, culturally, politically, and geographically and historically, but here’s an interesting sidebar in all this: The Pope had left Rome and had come to Constantinople. Rome was having all kinds of problems: being overrun by the Goths, all kinds of political intrigue. And so, he had come to Constantinople. He had previously condemned these “Three Chapters” in some letters or some encyclicals that he had written, but he refused to attend the council. Even though he was in Constantinople, and even though it was being held down the street from where he was, he refused to attend.
His name, by the way, was Vigilius. And they had the first day of the council on May 5. On the first day, they kind of say, “It’s kind of weird that the pope’s not here, I mean, he’s in town. Let’s invite him again.” So they did. He didn’t come. He never came. And the problem was, he refused to condemn the three heretics, and the problem was for him theologically—a lot of political stuff going on but theologically—was: these three heretics had died in communion with the Church. And he was opposed to condemning them after the fact. Now think about it. Just have a little bit of sympathy for his position for a minute: these guys had died in communion with the Church, and now, much later, they’re being condemned, and their teachings are being questioned. And so he refused to do that. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
The bishops, however, declared that it was legitimate to condemn heretics who had died in error, even if they had died in communion with the Church and the Church didn’t recognize the error at the time. In other words, there is no statute of limitations on heresy. So the pope is reluctant to condemn these heretics, and as you’ll seen in a minute, he ends up doing it, but Justinian, who is the emperor at the time, really, he’s not very happy about this. First of all, he’s not happy that the Pope didn’t attend this council that he called. “Who are you not to attend?” And then he wouldn’t attend and then he wouldn’t agree with the council. So Justinian orders that the Pope’s name be removed from the diptychs of Constantinople, and, indeed, the churches of the world.
Now, let me explain what that is. On the altar, we have this still to this day, we will have the names of people that we’re to pray for: the living and the dead, okay? And so when the priest prays in his preparation of the Eucharist, he prays for the person who ordained him, the bishop, the head of the diocese he’s in, maybe the head of the national church, plus all kinds of bishops and priests and people he knows and all of that. Basically what Justinian was saying is, “Take his name off the roll and don’t pray for him.” That’s essentially the force of it. So the bishops are now in a little bit of an awkward position, because they’re not quite willing to condemn Pope Vigilius, but they’re not happy with him either. So they’re kind of in a political quandary. They affirm the zeal of the emperor, you know: “Good job, we’re grateful that you love the truth, that you’re willing to persecute or condemn heretics,” but they were only willing to cut off Vigilius personally, but not the entire See of Rome.
So they saw a disconnect—probably if he had remained in Rome, it would’ve been more difficult because he would’ve been more organically linked to the whole Church, and it would have resulted in a great schism. But it didn’t. He just got cut off personally. I’m going to come back to this in a minute. Just leave that intention right now, because they end up resolving his plight a little bit later on, resolving it, not for him so much, but the problem he created. Then the council launches into a series of anathemas, and this is where the plot thickens and where it gets interesting.
First of all, they anathematize—if you don’t realize, “anathematize” is to put outside of the Church, to condemn—all who refuse to confess a consubstantial Trinity. One God had to be worshiped in three persons. So in essence, they’re reaffirming what the first few councils had said, particularly the first two, that God is consubstantial as to his nature: all three Persons of the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—share the same nature as God, but that they are three in person. And that sounds like “Duh!” to us. We accept that at face value and don’t see it sometimes for all it was, but that was a huge statement, to continue to reaffirm that in the face of heretics, some of whom were still struggling with this.
Then they set an anathema against all who refused to admit that the Word of God had two births. Now think about that: had two births. One from eternity, the Son of God, the Word of God, is eternally begotten of the Father. That’s one of those mystery things, apparent contradictions, where [for] Jesus, there was never a time when he was not. Remember Arius taught that there was a time when the Son of God was not. He came into existence. The Orthodox Fathers were affirming that he’s eternally begotten of the Father. If you don’t understand it, it’s okay. It’s a mystery. But we have to affirm both of those things because that’s what the Scripture teaches: that Jesus is eternally consubstantial with the Father, but he’s eternally begotten of the Father. So that’s the first birth.
Secondly, the other, in these last days, from Mary the Mother of God, which is the language they used: the Theotokos and the ever-virgin Mary. Interestingly enough, we saw in a third council that the fathers used the term “Theotokos,” and here in the fifth council they again use it, and what’s interesting to me is that you’ll be hard-pressed to find any Protestant that will say that he doesn’t subscribe to the seven ecumenical councils. He may not fully understand them, but this is the common heritage of classical Christianity that Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism all adhere to, or at least say they adhere to. And yet, imbedded within this council: Council Five and Council Three, is this teaching of the Mother of God, the Theotokos. So these are not things that contrary to what you may think, when you come into Orthodoxy, were a result of some medieval theologians many centuries later coming up with. This is not late theology; it’s early theology.
And, in fact, when we did the third council, I pointed out that even then they were simply validating what to them was already an old teaching. It wasn’t that the third council came up with the doctrine of the Theotokos, but that was already an established tradition within the Church. So they were merely affirming that which again had been once for all delivered to the saints and was alive in the tradition. So, the two births. And when we speak of Mary as Theotokos, we’re referring to that second birth specifically. We’re not referring to her. In no sense is she a part of the Holy Trinity. In no sense is she consubstantial with the Trinity. In every sense she’s a creature, and so she is mother of God by virtue of the second birth: the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh. Questions on that? Yes, Angela.
Angela: You could almost say that Jesus was the first one to be born again.
Dn. Michael: You could. You have to be careful about that, though, because the real sense in which he was born again was the Resurrection. In fact, he’s referred to in I Corinthians 15 as the firstborn of many brethren. When we’re converted and when we’re baptized and when we come to faith in Christ, we recapitulate that crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection. So, I think maybe you could say that on the Incarnation, but I’m not sure. I think it more has to do with the resurrection because that’s what happens to us when we’re born again. We’re resurrected anew. We’re given new life. Okay. That’s kind of all review anyway.
Here’s another thing they anathematized. Those who refuse to acknowledge both the miracles of Christ and the suffering of Christ. Now think about that. The miracles of Christ: having to do with his deity, really; and the sufferings of Christ: having to do with his humanity. Because there were those even then that wanted to deny one or other. Deny his true deity or deny his true humanity. They anathematized those who divide the natures, making them essentially two persons. They were very careful to dial this in precisely insofar as revelation allowed it, but to not over-dial it. And the problem was with Nestorius; he was so intent on preserving the teaching of the two natures that he over-dialed it and separated it into two persons. And so it was almost this kind of schizophrenia that existed in Christ: that there were these two persons inhabiting this body. So they said, “No, that’s too far. There’s one person, two natures.”
And then, flip side of the coin, they also anathematized those who combined the natures making them essentially one. Monophysitism comes from two Greek words which mean “one nature.” So what the Monophysites taught, and there were a variety of them at the time, was that either the human was absorbed into the divine so he didn’t have a true human nature, but there was one nature, only the divine and the human nature was only “apparent,” or they get combined, as I said before, into kind of a super-human kind of a mixture, but one nature. But the Fathers affirmed both.
And they also condemned, anathematized—now listen to this, this will be good for you to use if you still have Protestant friends as I do—they anathematized those who refused to acknowledge that Mary is the Mother of God. It’s not just that this is nice teaching for those who can bear or it’s a nice little secondary tradition in the history of the Church, and it’s optional whether you believe it or not. No, you’re anathematized according to the fifth council if you don’t believe it. Now why is that? To be honest, it really doesn’t have that much to do with Mary. It’s denying the humanity of Christ. It was seen, not as an issue of Mariology, which, by the way, you rarely find any Orthodox theologians use that terminology; any Mariology is really a subcategory of Christology. And that was the real issue here: preserving the truth about the doctrine of Christ existing in two natures, and preserving his humanity and his deity. This one who was born of her womb was fully man and fully God, both and the same. So, in that sense, she was the birth-giver of God. It wasn’t just a man. It wasn’t a man who became God. It wasn’t a super-hero. It was a real man who was also really God.
This is an interesting variation, but to show you how far they understood the implications of this, they anathematized those who only worshiped Christ as to his deity. You see this cropping up sometimes, even today. You know, where some Protestant theologians who want to differentiate: we’re allowed to worship Christ as to his deity but not as to his humanity. But the council prescribed worship of Christ by one adoration, God the Word made man together with his flesh. You can’t separate the natures. What is that? That’s Nestorianism. When you separate the natures too much, you get two people, you get Nestorianism, and it has implications.
The council also condemned Origen and his followers. What do we know about Origen? I meet people all the time that think he’s one of the Fathers of the Church, right? He had some odd theories. Let me just tell you about a few of them, a few of the more fun odd theories. He was essentially, philosophically, a Platonist, and as a Platonist—and if you remember back to the teachings of Plato—he believed that this material world was only a shadow of the real world which is the world of the ideal. So you know, if you’ve been in Philosophy 101, they usually cart out a chair, and they say this chair is a representation of “chairness.” This is a particular chair, but it’s not “the” chair which ideally exists as a form in the ideal world. So everything in the real world, in the material world, is simply a manifestation of that one idea that exists somewhere in the realm of ideas.
So he came out of this classical Greek training, and he really tried to convert Christianity or the Christian thoughts that he got, he tried to absorb them into those categories. Now, the Church has done exactly the opposite everywhere it’s gone. It’s gone into cultures, and it’s basically conquered those cultures by assimilating much of the thought and reinterpreting it. But this was the exact opposite. Origen tried to do the exact opposite. Here’s what he believed. He believed that the material world is at worst evil and at best a mere shadow of ultimate reality.
Now, have you ever heard that taught in a Church? All the time! You know, that this world is not your home, that there’s a real world that exists. You have to be careful here because there’s some truth to it. That’s why it was so attractive. But the world is evil. But he also taught that God had created from eternity all spiritual beings. They were all equal, but then they, through the act of their own free will, some of them fell, and they fell into matter so that even the angels are corrupted a bit, the demons are really corrupted, and we’ve been corrupted, and we participate in matter. And that’s the essence of our human problem: is that we’re material, from Origen’s point of view. So, Christ’s purpose in coming according to this view was to deliver us from the material world.
See, that sounds a little familiar, too, doesn’t it? And this is kind of much of the teachings of Eastern religions as well, that this world is an illusion, that it’s evil. And here’s what he also taught: that asceticism is the means by which we’re released from the prison of the body. That is not Orthodox. That is not why we believe in asceticism. That is not what monasticism is about. Monasticism and to the extent that we practice the ascetic struggle, it’s really designed to train the will and to bring it into conformity to God’s will. And so we see it as a means of sanctification, but it is not because the world is evil or matter is evil and we’re trying to release ourselves from the prison of this body. And here’s what the Orthodox Church teaches: that the world is good; fallen, yes, distorted, yes, but still in its essence, at its foundation, it is good. God created all things and he said what? “It is good.” Jesus became a man. He inhabited a physical nature, he had a human nature, and that was good. He became matter to redeem matter. But in its essence, it is good.
He also kind of taught, by the way, another kind of weird doctrine—but you hear this in a lot of places, including Mormonism—the pre-existence of the soul. And you hear people talk like this even on Oprah and other places with this idea—it’s not exactly reincarnation, but it’s the idea that I had a prior existence, and all that salvation is and all that God does in our lives is try to restore us to that state which we had in our prior existence. No. Before you were created, you had no existence. You didn’t exist. Yes, you existed in the mind of God. He knew what he was going to do, but you didn’t have an existence before you were created. That’s heresy, but these things are still very much present with us.
Q3: I think one of the reasons that Origen was so profound in his day and continues to be is because he was very prolific and his works were very widespread and even today, a vast majority of his works were destroyed. People continue to teach those kind of things.
Dn. Michael: I think it’s a very attractive doctrine. Part of it is this whole idea of kind of a mysticism that this world is not our own, that it’s bad, you know, if that’s true, you don’t really have to take any kind of responsibility for it. Think of the consequences of that kind of teaching. It does away with any concern for the body or for this world or for this environment. Yeah, just don’t do anything. I used to hear this all the time when I was Protestant. It was kind of like the doctrine of the second coming. If Christ is going to come any moment—and here’s what we used to say—why polish brass on a sinking ship? We’re just kind of waiting for the call to go home, so don’t waste any time here. We just want to get as many people on the life rafts as we can. But there’s more to it than that. Christ’s redemption is comprehensive. He redeems not only us, but ultimately will redeem all of creation, because it’s good.
Let me get to a conclusion here and we’ll dismiss. Let me get back to the Pope because last we left him, the emperor wasn’t happy with him. Those that were in the papal entourage who resisted the council’s decrees were exiled into the Egyptian desert, which probably wasn’t a good thing because the Church in North Africa became really the center of Monophysitism. Pelagius, who was the Pope’s deacon, not the Pelagius of Pelagiansim, but a new, different Pelagius, he was imprisoned. And Vigilius stayed in Constantinople, but, however, the Romans were begging him to come home. He hadn’t been there in almost 10 years. The emperor said, “Okay, we’ll let you go as long as you recognize the decisions of the council.” He held out for six months. He was stubborn. Then he finally agreed. And he did what all good leaders do in that situation: he claimed he had been misled by his advisers. (Laughter)
So the Pope was allowed to return home, but, unfortunately for him, he died on the journey, so he never made it back to Rome. Part of the reason he didn’t attend the council was because he believed his presence was necessary to make it legitimate. He didn’t want to legitimize it, therefore he didn’t attend. But the council says, “No, what’s authoritative in the Church is not the pope, per se. What’s authoritative in the Church is the Church.” You know, we don’t believe in the infallibility of the pope, but we do believe in the infallibility of the Church, that the Church acting in conciliar fashion in council is authoritative.
So the African bishops—it went from bad to worse. They saw the Pope as a traitor who resisted the council. The Pope’s deacon Pelagius starts writing his tracts from prison, proposing a compromise, and it was actually pretty good. So the emperor said, “Okay, this is good.” And, long story short, was he actually became the next Pope, and it didn’t really reconcile the two parties. The Orthodox saw this as a compromise by the emperor, so it’s like, you try to make both parties happy, you make neither party happy. And so, the struggle goes on.
But the important thing for us today, I think, is just to see that, on the one hand, you had on the fourth council kind of the death knell put to Nestorianism. There are people who wanted to fall off on the other side of the ditch with Monophysitism and create one nature, and the Church rejected that as well. So the truth is usually not on the edges, it’s in the middle. There’s usually a truth that exists in the middle that’s not the extreme positions, and we have to be careful about what we’re dialing it based on human reason. You’re dismissed. Next week, God willing, we’ll do the sixth council.