(The icon of the saint is an 11th-c. mosaic in Nea Moni, Chios, from Wikimedia Commons.)
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 is the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the 7th Œcumenical Council. The feast is kept each year on the Sunday falling on 11 October or next after.
The Council, which was convoked by the Empress Irene and presided over by St Tarasius, Patriarch of Constantinople, met at Nicæa in Bithynia, 24 September–13 October 787. It anathematised the impious and ignorant men who refused to honour the holy icons and accused the Church of idolatry for requiring their veneration, who had persecuted the faithful, especially the pious monks, for over seventy years under the iconoclast emperors Leo the Isaurian and Constantine V Copronymus.
At the conclusion of the Council, the Holy Fathers declared, ‘Just as representations of the holy and life-giving Cross, so should the venerable holy images, as well the image of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, as the images of our immaculate sovereign Lady the Mother of God, of the holy Angels and of all the Saints, whether represented in paint, mosaic or any other appropriate material, be placed in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and vestments, on walls and boards and in the streets … But as incense and candles are offered in honour of the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, of the holy Gospels and of the other sacred things [whose veneration the iconoclasts had permitted], so we do the same in honour of the holy icons, according to the pious custom of the elders. For the ‘honour paid to the image goes up to its prototype’ [quoting St Basil, On the Holy Spirit, cap. 18, para. 45] and whoever venerates an icon thereby venerates the hypostasis who is represented by it. By so doing, we maintain the teaching of our holy Fathers and the tradition of the Catholic Church which has proclaimed the Gospel from one end of the world to the other.’
The Synaxarion says, ‘The second Council of Nicæa is the seventh and last Ecumenical Council recognized by the Orthodox Church. This does not mean that there may not be ecumenical Councils in the future, although, in holding the seventh place, the Council of Nicæa has taken upon itself the symbol of perfection and completion represented by this number in holy Scripture [as in the seven days of Creation]. It closes the era of the great dogmatic disputes which enabled the Church to describe, in definitions excluding ambiguity, the bounds of the holy Orthodox faith. From that time, every heresy that appears can be related to one or other of the errors that the Church, assembled in universal Councils, has anathematized from the first until the second Council of Nicæa.’ (Both quotations above from Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra, The Synaxarion, Ormylia, Chalkidike: Convent of the Annunciation, 1998, I, 368–369.)
The Gospel reading for the Feast is, appropriately, Jesus’s parable of the Sower in Luke 8: 5–15: ‘A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold …
‘Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away. And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection. But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.’
The Feast of the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Œcumenical Council is commemorated on the Sunday falling on or after 11 October.
The council, which condemned the heresy of iconoclasm, was convoked by the Empress Irene and presided over by St Tarasius, Patriarch of Constantinople. It met at Nicæa in Bithynia from 24 September to 13 October 787. As it was the second œcumenical council to meet there, it is sometimes called ‘II Nicæa.’
The Emperor Leo III the Isaurian had forbidden the veneration of icons in A.D. 730 and was also opposed to monasticism. His son, the Emperor Constantine V Copronymus, summoned a council in Constantinople in 754 under the presidency of Patriarch Constantine of Constantinople that declared images of Christ to be blasphemous, as his divinity could not be represented, and all images, including those of the Mother of God and the saints, to be pagan and idolatrous. It anathematised the defenders of icons, Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople from 715 until deposed by Leo in 730, John Damascene (c. 675–c. 750) and a monk, George of Cyprus. Following this synod, the persecution of iconophiles and monks redoubled.
The Seventh Œcumenical Council confirmed the orthodox teachings of Patriarch Germanus and Saint John Damascene—to claim that the divinity of Christ cannot be iconised is to deny the two Natures in the one Person of the Incarnate Word—and anathematised Anastasius, Constantine and Nicetas, the Patriarchs of Constantinople who had supported iconoclasm.
From the Decree of the Council: ‘… we keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions handed down to us, whether in writing or verbally, one of which is the making of pictorial representations, agreeable to the history of the preaching of the Gospel, a tradition useful in many respects, but especially in this, that so the incarnation of the Word of God is shewn forth as real and not merely phantastic …
‘We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church … define with all certitude and accuracy that, just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross [the only sacred image allowed by the iconoclasts], so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people.
‘For, by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honourable reverence, not indeed that true worship of faith which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented.’ (Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, XIV, p. 550.)
Unfortunately, the council did not succeed immediately in putting an end to the iconoclast heresy. The Emperor Leo V the Armenian resumed the persecution of the iconophiles in A.D. 814 and it was not until the Empress Theodora restored the veneration of icons on the first Sunday of Lent in 843, ever after the Feast of Orthodoxy, that the heresy was finally expelled from the Church.
‘The second Council of Nicæa is the seventh and last Ecumenical Council recognized by the Orthodox Church … [I]n holding the seventh place, the Council of Nicæa has taken to itself the symbol of perfection and completeness represented by this number in holy Scripture … It closes the era of the great dogmatic disputes which enabled the Church to describe, in definitions excluding all ambiguity, the bounds of the holy Orthodox Faith. From that time, every heresy that appears can be related to one or another of the errors that the Church, assembled in universal Councils, has anathematized from the first until the second Council of Nicæa.’ (Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra, The Synaxarion (Ormylia, 1998), I, p. 369.)
Seventeenth-century icon of the Seventh Œcumenical Council. The holy fathers are assembled in the nave of the Church of Hagia Sophia in Nicæa, with the Gospel book in their midst. The iconostasis behind them bears the customary icons of Christ and the Mother of God to either side of the Royal Doors and above them the Deesis, the icon of the Mother of God and St John the Forerunner praying to Christ. Above the Deesis in turn is the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove. In the town behind the church are laypeople and monastics with icons on their walls. (Icon of the Novodevichy Convent, Moscow. Photograph from Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain.)
Today, the first Sunday in Great and Holy Lent, the Church commemorates the triumph of Orthodoxy—the restoration of the veneration of icons by the Seventh Œcumenical Council.
The feast was first kept on the first Sunday in Lent, 11 March 843, when the Empress Theodora re-proclaimed the decree of the 7th Œcumenical Council of 787 commanding the veneration of icons, which had been ignored by iconoclast emperors since 814. The restoration of the veneration of icons following the iconoclast controversy has become the type or symbol of the triumph of orthodoxy over heresy.
The iconoclasts claimed that the Mosaic prohibition, ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,’ (Exodus 20: 4) forbade icons.
St John Damascene replied, ‘Human nature was not lost in the Godhead but, just as the Word made flesh remained the Word, so flesh became the Word remaining flesh, becoming, rather, one with the Word through union. Therefore I venture to draw an image of the invisible God, not as invisible but as having become visible for our sakes through flesh and blood. I do not draw an image of the immortal Godhead—I paint the visible flesh of God …’ (First Apology for Images, 5–6)
The iconoclasts, forbidding the iconising of Christ, were denying that Christ had become at once True Man and True God, as was necessary for our salvation. They therefore repudiated the orthodox Christian faith.
Ever since, this day has been kept as the Feast of Orthodoxy. During the Vespers service, icons are carried in procession and the Synodikon of the Seventh Œcumenical Council condemning all heresies is read:
‘As the Prophets beheld, as the Apostles taught, as the Church received, as the Teachers dogmatized, as the Universe agreed, as Grace illumined, as the Truth revealed, as falsehood passed away, as Wisdom presented, as Christ awarded:
Thus we declare, thus we assert, thus we proclaim Christ our true God and honour His saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in holy icons, on the one hand, worshipping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord, and on the other hand honouring and venerating His Saints as true servants of the same Lord.
‘This is the Faith of the Apostles, this is the Faith of the Fathers, this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith which has established the Universe.’
Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Empress Regent Theodora and her infant son, the Emperor Michael III, are at the top left, St Methodius the Confessor, Patriarch of Constantinople, and monks at the top right. The Hodegetria icon (‘She Who Shows the Way’—the Holy Virgin showing us her Son, an icon believed to have been written originally by St Luke) is between them, held up by two angels. Below, bishops, monks and a nun hold up icons.
(Written c. 1400 and now in the collection of the British Museum. Image from Wikipedia in the public domain.)
Occasional comments by a convert to Orthodoxy.