I learn from James Kushiner’s column (The Fellowship of St James) that a new movie will be in production this year called Nicæa. It even has its own website, www.nicaeathemovie.com. I am absolutely certain that this is the first movie ever to be made about an œcumenical council.
It is being produced by a small U.S. company, Electric Avenue Radio, with only two productions to its credit so far, and directed by Jamil Dehlavi, an independent Pakistani director living in London known for films on obscure subjects. A year and a half ago in the Express Tribune (Karachi), an aspiring young Pakistani director, Jibran Khan, described his films about Pakistan as displaying an ‘erratic yet daring depiction’ of their subject.
While I don’t know what he will make of St Constantine the Great, I am not sure that the subject will respond well to ‘erratic yet daring depiction’—or that we are likely to get much theological depth from a production thinking in terms of ‘blood, grit and pageantry.’ Who would you cast as St Athanasius? Who as Arius? Will they even appear in the film?
Kushiner’s reference to the movie was in a comment on Eighth Day Books’ symposium, ‘Constantine, Christendom and Cultural Renewal,’ 16–18 January 2014 in Wichita, Kansas, where Peter Leithart, author of Defending Constantine, spoke. Leithart’s talks inspired Kushiner with the interesting and possibly disquieting thought, ‘Wouldn't you pray for the conversion of your ruler? What if your prayer was answered?’
I am looking forward to hearing more on the proceedings of this symposium, so far little reported in the blogosphere.
Today we remember one of the greatest theologians among the Fathers, St Maximus (A.D. 580–662), who not only interpreted the faith, clarifying the Church’s christological doctrine and completing the doctrinal work of the first five œcumenical councils, but professed it and suffered grievously for it. His most important contribution to Orthodoxy was the refutation of the heresy of monotheletism.
(The icon of the saint is an 11th-c. mosaic in Nea Moni, Chios, from Wikimedia Commons.)
People today find almost incomprehensible the vehemence and sometimes violence with which Church and State debated the ‘persons’ and ‘natures’ of Christ for two hundred and thirty years between the Councils of Chalcedon in 451 and III Constantinople in 680–81. But the debate is closely tied to the Orthodox understanding of Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation. To save mankind, it is necessary that the Logos be both perfect God and perfect Man, therefore able to bridge the gap between the divine and the human that Adam’s sin had opened up in the Garden of Eden. In the words of Chalcedon, it is necessary that there be ‘one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being.’
But some Christians, especially in Egypt and Syria, rejected the doctrine of Chalcedon, influenced by a misunderstanding of St Cyril of Alexandria’s formula ‘one nature [physis in Greek] incarnate of God the Word’ against the Nestorian heresy that Christ was two persons, and so insisted that Christ must be professed as having one nature (hence they were called ‘monophysites’ as opposed to the orthodox ‘dyophysites,’ ‘two natures’). The orthodox view was that St Cyril intended merely to emphasise that Christ was one person, using ‘nature’ to mean ‘subsistent nature.’
What made the debate difficult for persons at the time was an inconsistent use of the terms ‘person,’ ‘nature’ and ‘substance.’ People today find it even more confusing, since we no longer use these words in the way they were used before the modern period. In ancient and mediæval theology, their technical sense was that worked out by Aristotle in the 4th century B.C. ‘Nature’ is what makes a thing what it is, whether the thing actually exists or not. ‘Substance’ is what makes a ‘nature’ an actually existing thing, a ‘person.’ But people then as now were not always exact in their use of them.
The monophysite heresy divided the Church but it was not until the beginning of the 7th century that the division became a pressing political issue. The Persians invaded the Empire, capturing Jerusalem in 613 and Egypt in 618, and the Arabs were threatening invasion. The Persian success was due in part to the disaffection of the Empire’s monophysite subjects. The Emperor Heraclius wanted a compromise that would reconcile the monophysites and restore them to their allegiance. Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople (610–638) devised a formula for the purpose that would preserve the wording of the decree of Chalcedon while emptying it of meaning. He professed the two natures in Christ, human and divine, but asserted that Christ possessed only one divine active principle.
As a political dodge, this assertion took two successive forms. Until 638, it was that Christ possessed a single divine ‘energia,’ to use the Greek term, after that, that he possessed a single divine will (hence the term ‘monotheletism’ from the Greek monos, one, and thelô, I wish). These terms also must be understood in the Aristotelian sense they were given at the time: ‘will’ is what results in action; ‘energia’ (sometimes, and misleadingly, translated ‘energy’) is the action. The change was made for political reasons, because too much controversy had arisen around the claim of a single divine energia, but the effect was the same—to deny that Christ was fully human.
By 630, Patriarch Sergius had convinced the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch (the Patriarch of Jerusalem was in Persian captivity for most of this time) to accept the compromise, which they interpreted correctly as the abandonment of Chalcedonian dyophisitism. However, in 634, a monk from Damascus, Sophronius, a defender of the doctrine of Chalcedon, was elected to the patriarchal throne of Jerusalem and denounced the compromise. The Emperor Heraclius attempted to suppress the debate by issuing a decree, the Ecthesis (638), ordering all the subjects of the Empire to confess one will in Christ. It also forbade any further reference to the doctrine of one energia in Christ, attempting thus to end the controversy roused by that term.
Meanwhile, St Maximus, who had been a monk of the Monastery of St George in Cyzicus on the Sea of Marmara and had been driven out with the other monks by the Persian invasion and sent wandering across the empire, was in Carthage in North Africa, where he met Sophronius, who was also in flight. He rejected the Ecthesis and led the resistance to monotheletism, clarifying the theological issues definitively. He argued that our salvation depends on Christ being true Man and true God, two natures in one Person, as Chalcedon had decreed. How could he be said to be truly Man if his human nature was switched off, so to speak, by being deprived of will and action?
The Emperor Constans II, who succeeded his father Heraclius in 641, had no interest in the doctrinal issue but wanted to end the debate finally. In any case, the Arab conquest of Syria in 634 and of Egypt in 641 had rendered moot the need to reconcile the monophysites. He issued a decree known as the Typos in 648, making it illegal to discuss in any manner the topic of Christ possessing either one or two actions, or one or two wills: ‘the scheme which existed before the strife arose shall be maintained, as it would have been if no such disputation had arisen.’
Most of the patriarchs were prepared to go along with the Typos for the sake of a quiet life, but St Maximus would not accept that true doctrine could not be professed and rejected the Typos. Arrested, brought back to Constantinople and put on trial for sedition, he was asked, ‘What Church do you belong to, then? To Constantinople? To Rome? To Antioch? To Alexandria? To Jerusalem? For you see that all are united with us.’ He replied, ‘To the Catholic Church, which is the right and salutary confession of faith in the God of the universe.’
He was condemned, his right hand was cut off and his tongue cut out, and he was paraded through the streets of Constantinople covered in blood. He died not long after, on 13 August 662, but his teaching was vindicated twenty years later at the Sixth Œcumenical Council, III Constantinople.
Today we remember two great Patriarchs of Alexandria, St Athanasius, the champion of the Homoousios, and St Cyril, the champion of the Theotokos.
St Athanasius, born A.D. 275 to pious parents, was from his youth a disciple of the great ascetic St Anthony. When he was still just a deacon, he became embroiled in controversy with Arius, an older man, eminent priest and much-admired preacher, over Arius’s teaching that the Logos was Son of God only in a metaphorical sense. According to Arius, although not a creature in the same sense as the rest of creation, he nevertheless was a creature, created by God before all time, and in turn the creator of this world. St Athanasius insisted that the Logos was ‘homoousios,’ of the same essence as God the Father and coeternal with him, True God of True God.
St Athanasius as deacon accompanied his Patriarch, St Alexander, to the Council of Nicæa in 325 and there was a leader of those who defended the true Divinity of the Son.
When St Alexander died, the people of Alexandria chose St Athanasius as their Patriarch. Despite repeated exiles at the hands of Arian emperors, he spent the rest of his life until his rebirth into eternal life on 2 May 373 in the defence of the Nicene faith.
St Cyril of Alexandria lived almost a century after St Athanasius. He became bishop of Alexandria in A.D. 412 in succession to his uncle Theophilus, and was reborn into eternal life in 444.
When Nestorius became bishop of Constantinople c. 428, St Cyril rebutted his heretical teachings that Jesus was not two natures but rather two persons, and that the Virgin Mary was the mother of the human person only, so that ‘Mother of God’ was merely a figurative description. St Cyril, in his Paschal Encyclical of 429, declared that the title by which the faithful had always known the Virgin Mary, ‘Theotokos,’ ‘She who bore God,’ was a literal, not figurative, description.
The Emperor Theodosius II summoned the Council of Ephesus, which met in June and July 431 at the Church of St Mary in Ephesus, condemned Nestorius and proclaimed ‘Theotokos’ as the literal title of the Virgin. This led to the Nestorian schism, affecting especially the church in Persia.
Hence, today we remember the vindication of the one divine essence in Christ, the Homoousios, and of the two natures, human and divine, in the Incarnation by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, truly the Mother of God.
Occasional comments by a convert to Orthodoxy.