Monophysitism mənŏfˈĭsĭtˌĭzəm [key] [Gr.,=belief in a single nature], a heresy of the 5th and 6th cent., which grew out of a reaction against Nestorianism. It was anticipated by Apollinarianism and was continuous with the principles of Eutyches, whose doctrine had been rejected in 451 at Chalcedon (see Chalcedon, Council of); modern Monophysite churches are also known as Non-Chalcedonian or Oriental Orthodox churches. Monophysitism challenged the orthodox definition of faith of Chalcedon and taught that in Jesus there were not two natures (divine and human) but one (divine). Discussion of this belief was clouded by misunderstandings of terms and by the lack of knowledge of Greek in the West; the Non-Chalcedonian churches have argued that they believe that Christ has one nature that is equally divine and human, and prefer the term Miaphysitism [Gr.,=belief in a unified nature].

In the East the Council of Chalcedon was declared (c.476) invalid by Basiliscus, the imperial usurper. Later, Emperor Zeno, restored to his throne, issued the Henoticon (482), based on the doctrines of St. Cyril of Alexandria, in an attempt to settle the dispute. It recommended a formula that, ostensibly orthodox, left a loophole for the Non-Chalcedonians. Neither side was satisfied; the extreme Monophysites refused to accept the intended compromise, and the pope excommunicated the East for abrogating the Council of Chalcedon.

The schism ended in 519 when Emperor Justin I enforced the definition of faith of Chalcedon. Later, Justinian, although strongly Catholic, was tolerant toward the Monophysites, who were becoming more intransigent. The quarrel was further embittered when Justinian in 544 condemned the so-called Three Chapters. These were the person and writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, the writings of Theodoret against St. Cyril of Alexandria, and the letter of Ibas of Edessa to Maris the Persian. The condemnation was based on the assertion that these writings were tainted with Nestorianism. Since parts of the Three Chapters were considered orthodox by the majority of Catholics, the edict was confusing.

The Second Council of Constantinople (553; see Constantinople, Second Council of), summoned by Justinian and attended by Pope Vigilius, again condemned the Three Chapters, while maintaining the authority of the canons of Chalcedon. The Monophysites remained aloof, and the West was virtually alienated. Justinian's successors alternately favored and suppressed Monophysitism, but by 600 the lines of schism had hardened; the Coptic Church (see under Copts), the Jacobite Church of Syria, and the Armenian Church, all Non-Chalcedonian, were established. Modern Non-Chalcedonian churches also include the Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo churches and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church of India. Monotheletism was a 7th-century attempt to reconcile orthodoxy with Monophysitism.

See W. H. Frend, The Rise of the Monophysite Movement (1972); J. Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (1971) and The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (1974).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Christianity: General