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Monophysitism And Neo-platonism


When we compare monophysitism with the system of Plotinus, several
points of resemblance appear. There is first the impersonal character
of the deity. Monophysitism was not a Trinitarian heresy, and the
Catholic doctrine of the three persons in the godhead was the official
creed of the heretical church. But their theologians refrained from
laying emphasis upon the distinct personalities of Father, Son and Holy
Ghost. Their sympathies were Sabellian to the core, and Sabellian
heresies were constantly recurring within their communion. The
impersonal Trinity, such as Plotinus taught, was thoroughly in keeping
with their Christology. They lacked a clear conception of personality
in the second Person of the Trinity. It was inevitable that they
should overlook the same element in the incarnate Christ.

The Neo-Platonic view of matter finds its counterpart in monophysite
theory. The monophysites, without formally denying its real existence,
nursed a Manichean suspicion of it. It was, to them, the seat of
illusion; it was an obstacle to spirit, the enemy of spiritual
development. If not unreal, it was at any rate unworthy. The
association of Christ with matter through His body and through His
human nature was, in their eyes, a degradation of deity. That Christ
took matter up into His being as a permanent element, that He dignified
the body and glorified human faculties, these facts seemed to the
monophysite mind improbable, and, if true, devoid of religious
significance. It came natural to him to explain Christ's body as a
phantom. He was prepared to regard the human nature as unsubstantial.
The mystic's view of matter, of sense and human existence characterises
the whole monophysite outlook.

In the spirit of Plotinus the monophysites conceived the incarnation as
the supreme example of the unio mystica. The unio mystica was a
state of rapture, abnormal and temporary in earthly experience, in
which the identity of the mystic was actually merged in the cosmic
reason. The lower nature disappeared completely into the higher. It
was absorption. This word "absorption" was in common use among the
heretics. It was a trite saying among the first generation of the
monophysites that "the human nature of Christ was absorbed in the
divine, as a drop of honey in the ocean." They conceived His thought
as lost in the universal reason, His will as surrendered to the will of
God, His human affections as fused in the fire of divine feeling, His
body as a phantom. They could not admit that He lived the real life of
a real man. They could not see the value of such a life.
Neo-Platonism had paralysed their optic nerve. Thinkers such as the
Christologians of Alexandria, imbued with the spirit of Neo-Platonism,
had no motive for preserving the distinct subsistence of Christ's human
nature. It was their boast that their Ideal had faced and overcome and
trampled on the lower elements of His being. He was a proof from fact
that body and sense and all that is distinctively human could be
sublimated into the universal substance, which is the primary effluence
of the Plotinian One. In a word, the incarnate Christ was, to them,
the personification of the Neo-Platonist unio mystica.

We may conclude this comparison of monophysitism with Neo-Platonism by
pointing out that the two systems had a similar bearing on the conduct
of life. Neo-Platonism was a religion. Its speculative aspect was
subordinate to its practical. A knowledge of the soul's position in
creation and of its destiny laid the philosopher under strict
obligation. Fasting and self-denial were essential preliminaries to
the higher mystic practices. Ecstasy could not be reached until body
and sense had been starved into complete submission. Monophysitism
adopted this tradition, and made ascesis the central duty of the
Christian life. The monophysite church became celebrated for the
length and rigidity of its fasts. The monastic element dominated its
communion. Indeed, it is hardly too much to say that the monophysite
movement, on its external side, was an attempt to capture the Church
for monastic principles. The heresy drew its inspiration from the
cloister. The Christ of the monophysites had withdrawn from the market
to the wilderness; so His followers must needs go out of the world to
follow in His steps.


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