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 cor
upted 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.