W.H.C. Frend’s book on Donatism was fantastic. Just like his book on Donatism, he likewise presents a pretty level-headed and in-depth treatment of monophysitism–though I disagree with his conclusions.

In short, his thesis is that monophysitism was the authentic Christology of Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt as evidenced by the Council of Ephesus. He views Nestorianism as a minority movement that only crystallized into a nationalist church movement due to its adherents being exiled from the Byzantine Empire into Persia. Dyophysitism is a minority movement whose main adherents were the Latin west who did not understand the fine details of Greek Christian theology. However, through time and inertia, dyophysitism became the dominant mode of Christology.

In short, the argument goes, the Cyrillian Christology of the Council of Ephesus was indicative of the majority of eastern Christian thought. Theodosius II, understanding this, completely gave the reigns over to Dioscorus to officiate another ecumenical council in Ephesus to deal with disciplinary issues. Dioscorus used this as an opportunity to pit east against west, and explicitly asserted that the Alexandrian church had “primacy” and even gave himself the title “ecumenical patriarch.” It should also surprise no one that the Bishop of Alexandria had for some time already assumed the title “Pope” as well. Dioscorus made the crucial error of making too many enemies at home and abroad–so that after Theodosius II died another council (Chalcedon) was convened for the purposes of vengeance against Dioscorus.

However, a somewhat unanticipated result was that by condemning Dioscorus. FFrend believes he was not explicitly condemned as a heretic by the council. I disagree, as the council fathers cited “from two natures” as being incorrect because Dioscorus said it is proof that he was understood to be a heretic. Nevertheless, according to Frend, “traditional” Greek Christology was condemned along with it, replaced by a seemingly contradictory amalgamation of Latin dyophysite and Cyrillian monophysite Christology. It paid lip service to Cyril but it in reality it was an alien western Christology–which obviously alienated traditional-minded Greek Christians, eventually leading to their schism.

Rome was happy, because their Christology won out. Constantinople was happy, because on the back of Chalcedon was the vindication of their ecclesiastical claims–especially when one reflects that under Theophilus, Cyril, and then Disocorus of Alexandria the Bishop of Constantinople was deposed three times. A victory at Chalcedon allowed for Constantinople to assert primacy over Alexandria, re-emphasizing Canon 3 of Constantinople I via Canons 9, 17, and 28 of Chalcedon. So, even though Rome resisted Canon 28, they included all of the other canons in their canon law and ultimately Constantinople viewed these Canons as regional in importance (that the Bishop of Constantinople can be a final court of appeals within the ecumene.)

Frend is not completely a friend of the monophysites. He considers at least two of Cyril of Alexandria’s anathemas as crypto-apollonarian and he admits that they were in fact the schismatics (though as an Anglican, he probably does not think it is a big deal to admit this, nor would he think schism is that big a deal.) He does not view their schism as nationalistic, but rather the result of people in their conscience not feeling “right” receiving communion from someone who seemed to be a Christological heretic. He points out that unlike the Donatists, the monophysites did not set up second altars right away and their schism was in reality a long term drifting away that was only solidified by political separation via the Persians and then the Caliphate.

This is where I would disagree with Frend’s analysis. There is something which is crypto-Donatist in the fact that the priest’s or bishop’s Christology has any consequence on sacramental grace. Additionally, the fact that not long after Chalcedon second chairs were set up is another close parallel with the Donatists, though they lacked an out-and-out catalyst to serve as an instant fissure point for their schism. Hence, the only real difference was that Rome was able to project power in the monophysite world and so bishoprics rocked back and forth between them and the Chalcedonians, while the Donatists in the hinterland were outside of effective Roman control.

Furthermore, as Frend observes, the monophysite demographic “base” tended to be in the countryside and Syriac/Armenian/Coptic speaking, while the dyophysites were Greek speaking and mostly in the cities. It is peculiar that Frend instantly recognized that the Donatists and the Catholics were split between Latin/city and Punic/countryside lines–but somehow does not draw the same sort of nationalist connection with the monophysites, when his own book mentions this point continually within its 300+ pages.

I also think Frend slightly over-emphasizes the religious role of the Emperor. He seems to take at face value a litany of glowing statements that equate the Emperor to a priest, ordained by God to rule the world in secular and religious matters, and etcetera. From this he concludes that it was unthinkable since the days of Constantine for Christians to not follow the Emperor. As proof of this, he puts forward that in the 5th and 6th centuries no Emperor was excommunicated with the exception of the Formula of Hormisdas and he also cites that Bishops would often change Christologies at the whim of an Emperor. Schismatics like Severus even refused to establish parallel bishoprics as loyal subjects of the emperor. This is how “profound” the Emperor’s religious policies were the churchmen, Frend alleges.

I find such an analysis to be naive. However, just as I do not take Dioscorus’ or Leo’s pretensions at face value, nor do I take statements about the Emperors as such. Obviously, the emperors relied upon naked force–not some sort of proto-divine right idea inherent in early Christianity. The Emperors were defied all the time by clergymen. In fact, the monophysites would have been very similar to their ancestors in this regard. Nevertheless, it seems to be a constant pitfall of historians and laymen alike to read ancient documents, take them at face value, and be oblivious to how the people who wrote those documents actually behaved. In my humble opinion, for us modern historical observers, the lens which we must understand their words must be their actions because their worldview would be so alien to us at this point.

Nevertheless, I think both Frend (may he rest in peace) and I can agree that it was the disintegration of Byzantine power which was the main reason behind the monophysite schism. Whether it led to the masses to identify a prominent religious role with the Emperor less and less, or the Emperor simply did not have the power to force people to pretend to care about what his religious policies were, the reader may choose. Either, or both, led to the monophysite schism.

My final comment on the book pertains to the author. It is obvious that Frend has read the source material, particularly the ecumenical councils–which he quotes from the Latin manuscripts (they were not translated in full into English yet.) He has an astute historical mind and one can get a sense that he is not writing everything that he knows–how can he without translating everything into English for us? This gives me a sense that I do not see in pretty much and scholar, whose personal reading appears more narrowly focused and oftentimes “cripping” from secondary literature excessively. His footnotes indicate he has actually read the entirety of what he is citing and he gives very specific references (chapters, verses, or page numbers) instead of citing whole articles or books–which is the lazy way out for someone who either has not really read the source or does not really remember specifically what is important. Frend had the benefit of going to Oxford when it was still “old school” and people were expected to be fluent in Greek and Latin. Furthermore, being drafted into the military during World War II, he had the benefit of working for intelligence in Tunis–which just so happened to be the location of the Donatist schism!


As follows are excerpts of the book I found important, insightful, or of general interest:

Chalcedon was followed by schism of hearts and minds throughout the whole east…the organization of a rival Monophysite hierarchy took a very long while (62).

When, however, the ‘rivalry of bishops’ did lead to schism it almost inevitably developed on a territorial basis, and this was recognized by contemporaries. [Footnote: For instance, the Donatist writer Tyconius defines schism in terms of localisation as well as being an internal quarrel between people belonging to the same religion: ‘In aliquibus provinciis aut in una civitate’…Augustine’s famous ‘securus iudicat orbis terrarum’ against the Donatists also presupposes a correlation between truth and geographic extent.] (69)

Shenute died in 451. Some sixty years later, in 516, the monks and people of Alexandria rioted against the emperor Anastasius’ choice of patriarch even though he and the emperor favoured the Monophysites, on the ground that the ‘rulers’ (archontes) had invited him. This incident, in which Theodosius the Augustal prefect was killed by the mob, may be perhaps the watershed in Egyptian church history…an Egyptian ‘national religion’ based on a teaching of Cyril and Cyril alone…(73)

Abba Shenute spoke as a matter of course with the Hebrew prophets, and on occasion, would, like the confessors of the past era, speak direct with the Lord [Besa, Life of Senute, chap 94-95]. Seeing visions and uttering prophecies were his by right. Whatever the depth of his theological ignornance, his prestige was enormous. (81)

This man [Barasumas], a countryman who spoke no Greek, had little use for Domnus and the Syrian episcopate, but his influence in northern and eastern Syria was enormous. ‘This is the man who has perverted all Syria in favour of Dioscorus and against the bishops,’ asserted Diogenes of Cyzicus at Chalcedon. With Shenute in Egypt, Barsaumas was probably the major individual influence in the conscious association of the one-nature Christology with a monastic Christianity that drew its strength from the adherence of the non-Greek populations of Egypt and Syria. (91)

[Barsaumas writes:] ‘If the blood of the Crucified Only Son had been of the same nature as the blood of the sons of Adam, how could it have expiated the sons of Adam’? [Citation: 81st miracle told in the Life of Barsaumas.] (140) Compare this to “[Christ] by becoming exactly* what we are, that He united the human race through Himself to God” [Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium Book 12, Chap 1; *”exactly” is in Frend’s translation, which differs from New Advent].

Peter of Iberia was also hastening back from Oxyrhynchus  and on 16 March with two bishops he consecrated Timothy as patriarch of Alexandria. Opinion rallied to him. Though he had been at Ephesus III he was no Eutychist and Eutychist movements in Alexandria were suppressed by him; he was a monk, a presbyter of Cyril’s and regarded as fully in line of succession to Cyril and Dioscorus. There is slight evidence that the new emperor Leo I was also disposed to favour him, but before anything could happen Proterius had been lynched, his body dragged through the streets and burnt in the Hippodrome on Maunday Thursday, 28 March. Timothy had been rid of his rival. (155)

Leo, moreover, had made the mistake of continually interfering in purely local concerns of matters of internal administration in the eastern patriarchates, who bishops he never seems to have accepted as more than simple metropolitans. There is a streak of arrogance to his letters, that goes beyond the needs of his office, which must have encouraged recipients to thwart him. Despite all of his efforts, canon 28 had been accepted in the east, while his interpretations of Nicea and Chalcedon were repudiated. (164)

The great landowners found ecclesiastical independence the best means of favouring the maintenance of a feudal society. Monophysitism was being accept for quite different reasons by the local aristocracy, wealthy families such as Apoion;s, and by the Copts. Communion, however, with Constantinople was not broken and the Proterian succession was not continued. (193)

[Concerning the Formula of Hormisdas] There is no mention of the condemnation of any emperor. John therefore accepted, as his predecessors had done, the ‘presbeia’ of Old Rome, and swallowed the condemnation of his four predecessors in his see, though only Acacius by name. Nothing else had been surrendered. Subsequently he writes to Hormisdas as an equal and rejoices simply in the new-found unity between Old and New Rome. (239)

Chalcedonians controlled episcopal elections and Justin’s policy after the initial purges was to await the death of an incumbent and replace him with one who could be relied upon to accept Chalcedon. At the end of the reign there were only three places where ‘believing bishops could be ordained’, namely Alexandria, Mardin in north-east Syria, and beyond the Persian frontier. (253)

As seen on a map, Makurrah (southern Egypt) was Chalcedonian to 700 AD Alwah (in Sudan) was Chalcedonian until 580 AD. (259)

The principle of an independent anti-Chalcedonian hierarchy had therefore been accepted by Severus if only as a purely temporary expedient for certain monasteries…’Every day fifty, a hundred and sometimes as many as two or three hundre men came to him for ordination.’ [Lives of the Eastern Saints, p. 518] (261)

[Concening the conference between Monophysites and Chalcedonians during the 530s]As the African Catholics in their controversies with the Donatists, the Chalcedonians had all the advantages in the discussion of the origins of the divisions. (266-267)

His successor (circa 540) [Paul the Tabennesiot] was a Palestinian monk named Zoilus, the choice of Ephraim of Antioch. The wheel had come full circle. Chalcedonian Antioch now dominated Alexandria. The Egyptian church had a foreign patriarch supported by a foreign government, but for the time being, bereft of its patriarch and most of its bishops, it submitted…Efforts continued to be made, sometimes strenuously as at the great monastic concourses which Justinian held in 558 and 563, to placate the Monophysites and meet them on any issue other than Chalcedon itself…Monophysitism had become despite itself a schismatic movement. (275)

Severus himself felt there was little hope of a settlement so long as Justinian ruled and after his return from the capital near the end of 536 he took the further step of permitting John [of Tella] and other east Syrian bishops to consecrate bishops for his supporters across the Persian frontier…No new bishops had been consecrated on the territory of the empire as yet and the hesitation to challenge the hierarchy approved by the emperor is significant. There can be no greater contrast between the traditional proneness of the westerners to schism, demonstrated by the immediate setting up of ‘altar against altar’ by the opponents of Caecilian in Africa in 312, or the actions of the Novationists in Rome in the mid third century, than the shuffling and reluctant stepms taken on purely theological ground for the salvation of ‘rational souls’ that established Severan Monophysitism as an independent church in the east after 536. (283)

The years immediately succeeding the deaths of John of Tella and Severus were therefore crisis years for the Monophysites; As Michael the Syrian wrote in retrospect, the sequence of deaths in the anti-Chalcedonian camp left the latter with an acute shortage of bishops. There was Theodosius at Constantinople and Q’urios in Persia…(284)

At her [Theodora’s] suggestion, Theodosius consecrated two monks as metropolitans, James Bar’adai, an east Syrian, born at Tella, as metropolitan of Edessa, and Theodore as metropolitan of Bostra, the capital of the Roman province of Arabia. (285)

[Note: Did these private, solitary ordinations really even occur? What are our primary sources on this? Supposedly three other bishops took part but are unnamed. One article references the possibility that they may have never occurred, though it still posits it was most likely that they did; see footnote 135. The only primary sources appear to be monophysite, but being that we do not seem to have accusations that their consecrations were invalid this lends credibility to the idea that they were.]

James’ mission occupied more than thirty-five tears from 542 to 578, and represents a slow but continuous development of the Monophysite church, especially after the Fifth General Council…It enabled James to consecrate en route bishops as well as lesser clergy. (287)

After their experiences with Justinian, the Monopysites could not be satisfied with theological agreement only. Chalcedon had to go. (323)

Apart from the continuance of sectarian squabbles the Egyptian Monophysite church was nearing extinction. As a means of securing canonical election Paul [of Antioch, ordained by James Bar’adai in 564] persuaded Longinus to return from Nubia to assist at the consecration of the new patriarch. Unfortunately, the choice fell on a Syrian archimandrite named Theodore and he was consecrated in the desert (between 25 June and 25 August 575). The reaction of the Alexandrians could have been anticipated. They had delayed making their own choice [of Patriarch] and now they would not accept Paul’s. An aged deacon named Peter who had been an associate of Theodosius [of Alexandria] was persuaded to accept consecration, and his first act was to consecrate a veritable Sanhedrin of seventy bishops which put the Monophysite church in Egypt on a firm footing once more under an Egyptian patriarch (576). (327)

[Note: The chronology on Wikipedia does not match that given by Frend.]

A council attended by twenty-one Armenian bishops from the Roman sphere met at Constantinople and accepted Chalcedon, and a Chalcedonian patriarch was established across the River Azat from Dvin, the capital of what had been Persearmenia. This formed the new frontier. The Armenian Catholicus Moses at Dvin, however, refused to be tempted. Why should be go to Constantinople in order to eat bread cooked in an oven and drink warm water–allusions to reported Byzantine liturgical practices. [Cit: Isaac of Armenia, De rebus Armeniae=PG 132, cols. 1248-9.] (333)

At Antioch…the Chalcedonian Patriarch, Anastasius II…[was] killed in the triangular struggle that wracked the city between Jews, supporters and opponents of Phocas [Byzantine emperor 602-610 AD] before its fall to the Persians in 611. There was to be no successor for thirty-eight years and even then the title was only nominal for the placeholder resided in Constantinople. It would seem that what had been largely true for a very long time had come to pass, that the monasteries and countryside of Syria I and Osrhoene had now consolidated into a region as firmly Monophysite as Egypt and Armenia…What the Persian era showed was that a foreign overlord was not necessarily a persecutor, but a Chalcedonian nearly always was. (337)

[N]o other Chalcedonian before him [John the Almsgiver, Patriarch of Alexandria] began to make an impression even in the monasteries when the Persian invasion cut his efforts short. [Cit: Leonitus claims that he was ‘regaining monasteries and villages for orthodoxy’: Supplement, ch. 32.] After his death in November 619 he came to be accepted as a saint in the Coptic Monophysite church. [Footnote: His feast is kept on 11 November.] (340)

[Note: It is ironic that John the Almsgiver is venerated by a saint, but Monophysite bishops served as Patriarch of Alexandria within their own parallel line of succession, themselves are also considered saints.]

[Concerning Heraclius’ campaigns to liberate Egypt and Syria from the Persians:]  [O]nly Patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria were Monophysite, and their bishops controlled the cities as their monks dominated the countryside. (344)

Cyrus [the Chalcedonian Patriarch of Alexandria in 631 AD] reached Alexandria in the autumn of 631. Benjamin [of Alexandria] immediately went into hiding and instructed his bishops to do likewise…Heraclius sent a letter of congratulation to Cyrus, as well he might. The year 633 marked the climax of his endeavours. For a few months it looked as though he might succeed in accomplishing the aims of Zeno, Anastasius and Justin II of uniting the east round unequivocal Cyrillian theology without explicitly denouncing Chalcedon. All imperial thinking for the previous century had been moving towards the goal, but none of Heraclius’ predecessors had come so near to fulfillment…All the phraseology dear to the Monophysites had been conceded together with the condemnation of the Three Chapters, but with explanations that could just be compatible with Chalcedon. Three factors brought all this to nought even before the Arabs destroyed hopes of settlement for ever. First, the activities of Sophronius [of Jerusalem], supported by the arguments of the more cultivated and even more illustrious Maximus the Confessor, sufficed to prevent a theology based on the affirmation of one activity and one will in Christ from becoming accepted as Orthodox…Secondly, the reunion of the rival hierarchies was beyond the statesmanship of the time. Heraclius had done his best by not appointing a Chalcedonian to Antioch while hope remained of the Syrians accepting Monergism…Thirdly and even more important in a finely balanced situation was the character of the patriarch. All sources testify to Cyrus’ ability, courage and singleness of purpose, but he was harsh in his administration and merciless towards his opponents. The Copts were right not to trust him. (349-351)