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Monophysitism And The Doctrine Of The Trinity


Monophysitism was not originally or per se a Trinitarian heresy.
Equally with catholics and Nestorians its adherents accepted the Nicene
definition. They professed to believe in one God in three co-equal
persons. This belief, firmly held in all that it involves, would have
kept them from attributing passibility to the Godhead, and ultimately
have neutralised the errors of their Christology. But their
Christology corrupted their theology. Abandoning all vital relation
between God and man in Christ, they abandoned the relation in the
Godhead. The internal and external relations of the Godhead are
mutually dependent. If there be no trinity of persons, the incarnation
is impossible. Were God a bare monad, He could not impart Himself and
remain Himself. The fact that there are related persons in the deity
is the only justification for the use of the phrases discussed in the
previous paragraph. When the catholic says, "God was born, suffered,
died," he is right, because his presupposition is right. When the
monophysite uses the same words, he is wrong, because his
presupposition is wrong. The catholic preserves in the background of
his thought the distinction between the ousia and the threefold
hypostasis, between the essential godhead and the three persons. So
he is in no danger of ascribing passion to the essence or to the
persons of Father or Holy Spirit. When he says "God was born," he is
compressing two statements into one. He means "Christ was born, and
Christ was God." Not in respect of what He has in common with the
other persons of the Trinity, but in respect of His property of sonship
did He lower Himself to the plane of suffering. The catholic holds not
a suffering God, but a suffering divine person. He maintains an
impassible God, but a passible Christ. A dead God is a contradiction
in terms; a Christ who died is the hope of humanity.

Monophysite theology became involved in further embarrassments.
Unwillingness to attribute passibility to God, coupled with the desire
to remain in some sort trinitarians, forced many of the monophysites
into the Sabellian position. Deity, they said in effect, did not
suffer in the second person of the trinity, because there is no such
person. The persons of the trinity are simply characters assumed by
the monadic essence, or aspects under which men view it. On this
showing, the Logos, who was incarnate, had no personal subsistence.
The relation between God and man ever remains impersonal. Christ,
qua divine, was only an aspect or effluence of deity. This, for the
monophysite, was the one alternative to the doctrine of a passible God.
He was faced with a desperate dilemma. If he retained his belief in a
transcendent God, he must surrender belief in a triune God. He could
choose between the two; but his Christology permitted no third choice.
For him, the only alternative to a finite God was a lone God. As a
result monophysite theology oscillated between denial of the
impassibility of God and denial of his three-fold personality. In
either case the orthodox doctrine of the godhead was abandoned.

One of the stock questions propounded by the catholics to the
monophysites was, "Was the trinity incomplete when the Son of God was
on earth?" The question is crudely expressed, as it ignores the type
of existence proper to spiritual personality; but it contains a
sufficiently sound ad hominem argument. The monophysite could not
say "yes," or he would then be driven to assert a passible God. If he
said "no," his reply was tantamount to the assertion that the whole
essence of the Godhead was incarnate. The logic of this dilemma was so
cogent that not a few monophysites succumbed to it, and adopted a
position similar to that of the earlier Patripassianists. These
seceded from the monophysite church, and founded an independent sect,
called the Theopaschites. As often happens, the sect is, doctrinally,
more representative than the parent body. The Theopaschites were the
thinkers who had the courage to push the monophysite doctrines to their
logical conclusions. Those who did not secede, unable to defend their
own doctrinal position, retaliated with the counter-charge of
tetratheism. This stroke was simply a confession of weakness. Monism
was strangling their Christianity at every turn. Instead of breaking
free from it, they pretended that their opponents were polytheists.
The catholic, however, was neither monist nor pluralist. The
incarnation was not the addition of a fourth divine being to the
trinity. The essence of the godhead remained complete, unchanged and
impassible; while the hypostatic union of God and man in Christ made
possible the assumption of a passible nature by the person of the Son
of God.

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