According to Orthowiki, apthartodocetism “is a form of Monophysitism that argues Christ’s body was always impassible, a doctrine which Julian believed was necessary for Christ’s suffering and death to have been voluntary.” Taken at face value, this would make Orthodox Christology seem heretical, as the voluntary aspect of Christ’s suffering and death is found in a plethora of Patristic sources (Decree of Constantinople 3; Damascene, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 3, Chap 20 and 23; Lateran 649, Fifth Session) and is acknowledged by recent scholarship.

Price et al observed that seventh century writers taught in reference to blameless passions (i.e. passibility) that “the Word of God incarnate submitted to human limitations not out of necessity but when he chose to do so.” (Lateran 649, p. 192) Heidgerken, in commenting on Saint John of Damascus, observed:

John takes care to clarify that Christ’s experience of passibility was not one forced on him as it is with other human beings…Such a claim is important, for to deny Christ’s voluntary experience of human nature in its entirety would simultaneously risk the absolute freedom of the divine will and the perfect obedience of the human will in the incarnation. (The Christ and the Tempter, p. 252)

Venamin, reflecting on the Christology of Saint Gregory Palamas, puts it frankly: “Christ’s body was indeed ‘passible’ and ‘mortal,’ but only as and when He, the Son and Word of God, allowed it to be so.” (Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, p. 562) Hatzidakis wrote an entire book on the subject, Jesus Fallen?, and he does not fail to quote a plethora of recent Orthodox scholars such as Staniloae and Romanides in support of his thesis.

The Orthowiki definition of apthartodocetism is not necessarily wrong, as the assertion of Christ’s impassibility before the resurrection was indeed one of its erring tenets. However, it was not this tenet specifically that necessitated volunteerism, nor is the doctrine of “economic conversation”/”discretionary manner of living” as delineated in the Decree of Constantinople 3 a apthartodocetist error. There are underappreciated concrete differences between apthartodocetism and Orthodox Christological dogma that need to be unpacked.

Cyril of Alexandria and the Doctrine of “Economic Conversation.” In order to understand apthartodocetism, one must understand Julian of Halicarnassus. Yet, in order to understand Julian of Halicarnassus, one must understand Saint Cyril of Alexandria, as it was the latter’s Christology that he had perverted to concoct his heresy.

Cyril had a doctrine of original sin. As covered in my article Original Sin in the Byzantine Dormition Narratives, he taught that “corruptibility through [Adam’s] disobedience,” entered human experience “and therefore, the passions [i.e. concupiscence] entered in.” (Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Romans, PG 74:788-789 translated in Hatzidakis, Jesus: Fallen?, p. 61) Cyril clarified: “The curse of corruption has passed from the earthly Adam even to us, and through our corruption the law of sin entered in the members of flesh.” (McGuckin, On the Unity of Christ, p. 56) From the preceding one may surmise that it was Adam’s sin which had created the conditions of corruptibility (deterioration and death). It is not clear if passibility (the ability to feel pain, privation, tiredness, and other blameless passions) and blameworthy passions/the law of sin entered human experience at the same time, or one then the other. The latter, according to Saint Maximus, is preferable as temptations begin as natural goods:

[O]n account of the universal sin inherent in human passibility—operating through unnatural passions concealed under the guise of the natural passions. Through the unnatural passions, and by exploiting nature’s passibility, every evil power is actively at work, driving the inclination of the will by means of the natural passions into the corruption of unnatural passions. (Question of Thallasius, 21.3)

What may be a lack of precision on Cyril’s behalf (the role of the passions vis a vis corruption) would have ramifications upon the debate over apthartodocetism.

In any event, Cyril’s anthropology necessitated a Christological doctrine which explained how the sinless and “one incarnate nature” of the incorruptible, immortal Word could be “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom 8:3) exhibiting blameless passions (pain, privation, and other aspects of passibility) and corruptibility. Cyril devised a theological solution, or perhaps reiterated a solution which was at that point found only in the western Patristic tradition (particularly Saints Hippolytus, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose, and Augustine—see Footnote 15 in Truglia, Original Sin in the Dormition Narratives). Cyril asserted that Christ voluntarily assumed the results of Adam’s transgression: “He willingly underwent his other sufferings, so he bore this also of his own will” (Pusey, St Cyril of Alexandria Commentary on John. Vol. 2, p. 68) and “in an economy, allowed death to pull down his flesh.” (Letter to the Monks in Egypt quoted in McGuckin, St. Cyril of Alexandria, 260)

Otherwise, Christ’s body was prelapsarian (not fallen with sin), and thereby tentatively incorruptible and impassible. Hence, Christ experienced true corruptibility and passibility, an actual experience of the blameless passions, but via volunteerism. Cyril asserted that Christ’s humanity otherwise was not subject to the Fall. “[S]ince human nature was suffering corruption because of Adam’s transgression” and “tyrannized” by “innate impulses of the flesh,” according to Cyril, “it was necessary that the Word of God should be incarnated” and that “from the time that human flesh became the personal flesh of the Word it has ceased to be subject to corruption, and since he…knew no sin being God.” (First Letter to Succensus quoted in Ibid., p. 357) The same flesh “ceased to be sick with its desires.” (Ibid.) Cyril even gives some detail as to what this entailed: “His flesh was holy and perfectly pure…He was entirely free from the stains and emotions natural to our bodies, and from that inclination which leads us to what is not lawful.” (Sermon II on the Gospel of Luke quoted in Payne, The Gospel According to S. Luke by S. Cyril, p. 13) In other words, Christ had no experience of blameworthy passions/concupiscence. However, one may readily infer that Christ voluntarily assumed “corruption” and blameless “desires,” being that otherwise His “personal flesh” was not “subject to” these.

This doctrine became the universal teaching of the Byzantine Church. For example, it is referenced in the Henotikon: “For we say that both the miracles [θαύματα thávmata] and the sufferings [πάθη páthē], which he willingly endured in the flesh, are of one.” (Quoted in Forness, Preaching Christology in the Roman Near East: A Study of Jacob of Serugh, p. 71) In Julian’s day, the Henotikon would have been his theological gold standard along with Cyril on the question of apthartodocetism. After the Henotikon was rescinded, the rigid neo-Chalcedonian Council of Constantinople II still asserted the doctrine in its third canon: “[T]he same are the miracles and the suffering that he [Christ] voluntarily endured in the flesh.” (Price, Constantinople 553: Volume 2, p. 120)

Original Sin and “Economic Conversation” in Severus of Antioch. Severus of Antioch was already in his day the standard bearer of the Miaphysite resistance to Chalcedon and its imperial patrons. It is also his writings in opposition to Julian of Halicarnassus that have preserved what apthartodocetism was. Severus did not imagine himself an innovative theologian, but rather a traditionalist who maintained the authentic theology of Cyril. He unsurprisingly reiterated Cyril’s doctrine of original sin:

Since Adam was condemned to death after the transgression which was committed through the deceitfulness of the serpent…so with us also who are sprung from them the charges of disobedience have been confirmed, and we ourselves are dust and to dust we return, and we are condemned to the curse and are creatures born in pains: and from that time we have been in subjection, being subject to lust and to the varied pleasure of this, according to the saying of the blessed Paul. (Severus, Letter 65, To Eupraxius, Paragraph 2)

As one can see, due to original sin, mankind is subjected to concupiscence, corruption, and death. This is contrary to Adam’s original condition “of immortality.” (Severus of Antioch, Letter 27, Against the Codicils of the Alexandrine) Similar to Cyril, Severus asserted that Christ’s humanity was not subject to corruptibility due to the hypostatic union, though:

corruptible by nature, for it was from the Virgin Mary, who is consubstantial with us, nevertheless it is incorruptible and it is not in any way subservient to corruption, on account of its union with the Word, which is by nature incorruptible. (Phialethes, Chap 143 quoted in Moss, Incorruptible Bodies, p. 120)

Because the humanity of the Lord was immortal and free of the effects of Adam’s sin, Severus unsurprisingly specifies that Christ assumed these effects of the Fall voluntarily:

God united to himself those of our passions which do not fall under the description of sin, wishing in it to taste our death voluntarily, destroy its dominion over us, and by means of the Resurrection to set us free in incorruptibility. (Severus, Letter 35, To the Monks of the East, Paragraph 4)

This is why, according to Severus:

He hungered and thirsted, and slept, and grew weary after a journey, and wept, and feared, these things did not happen to Him just as they do to us in accordance with compulsory ordinances of nature, but He himself voluntarily permitted His flesh to walk according to the laws of nature. (Severus of Antioch, Letter I, To Oecuminus)

Severus’ Christology dictates that Christ was not subject to the law of nature for reasons outside of His control, but rather He permitted it to act upon Himself. Elsewhere, Severus succinctly states that “the body of God who became incarnate without variation for our sakes…voluntarily suffered and rose.” (Letter 30, To Victor)

Was Julian Orthodox All Along? So far, one is very hard-pressed to see how either Orthodox doctrine or Julian’s chief opponent, Severus, differed on the doctrine of apthartodocetism according to how it seems to be defined by Orthowiki. But, the devil is in the details.

The Orthodox Church has some notion of what apthartodocetism is. The Damascene contrasts what he portrays as Julian’s doctrine in contrast to Orthodox doctrine:

[A]ll the human sufferings, such as hunger, thirst, weariness, the piercing with nails, death, that is, the separation of soul and body, and so forth. In this sense we say that our Lord’s body was subject to corruption. For He voluntarily accepted all these things…Wherefore to say, with that foolish Julianus [of Halicarnassus] and Gaïanus, that our Lord’s body was incorruptible, in the first sense of the word, before His resurrection is impious. For if it were incorruptible it was not really, but only apparently, of the same essence as ours, and what the Gospel tells us happened, viz. the hunger, the thirst, the nails, the wound in His side, the death, did not actually occur. But if they only apparently happened, then the mystery of the dispensation is an imposture and a sham, and He became man only in appearance, and not in actual fact, and we are saved only in appearance, and not in actual fact. (Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 3, Chap 28)

In short, Julian is portrayed as denying that Christ experienced authentic, natural/essential/substantial passibility via volunteerism. This was because he was expounding the view that Christ only had the illusion of passibility, in fact being impervious to suffering and corruption—in other words, impassible according to his human nature/essence/substance, because He operated according to different natural laws. This would make Christ’s humanity in effect a different nature/essence/substance thereby making His assumption of pseudo-humanity inconsequential to the salvation of humankind. Is this the real view of Julian?

Yonatan Moss, perhaps the chief living scholar on the topic, denies this. In Incorruptible Bodies it is claimed that Julian:

acknowledged Christ’s full humanity and the reality of his sufferings. Thus Julian could not fairly be called a Docetist…Julian’s solution was to say that Christ voluntarily accepted upon himself the conditions of bodily passibility and mortality. His body truly did suffer hunger, thirst, and fatigue, but this did not happen out of natural necessity. It happened by will. (p. 34)

Is this really the case? Was Julian Orthodox all along? Moss quotes Julian from the Syriac seemingly teaching exactly that:

Let us not state that the body of our Lord was passible and mortal due to compulsion, and, in this manner, corruptible and subservient to natural necessities. Rather, let us confess that it was voluntarily (ܢܐܝܬ ܨܒܝ) (as in truth!) that he endured the redemptive sufferings for us and [his] vivifying death. (Incorruptible Bodies, p. 173)

There is a subtle, but profound difference between Severus and Julian. Neither were stupid people—however their differences appear lost in translation to moderns. Let’s fix that.

The Differences Between Severus and Julian. Moss recognizes that the difference between Severus and Julian, and thereby Orthodox Christology and apthartodocetism, is precisely how Christ was passible and thereby subject (in some sense) to death:

Julian did not disagree with Severus about the “fact” of Jesus’s sufferings. His disagreement was about the explanation of this fact. (Ibid., p. 34)

However, Moss speculates that according to Severus “Jesus’s body suffered by the physical necessity of its being a body, [while] Julian believed that Jesus’s body did not suffer by necessity.” (Ibid.) This is not entirely true as Severus above is quoted saying that Christ’s suffering and death was not “in accordance with compulsory ordinances of nature.” So, what is the real difference?

Julian had two chief errors. First, he taught that corruptibility was physically impossible before the Fall. He wrote in his Tome: “If the body were naturally corruptible ( ܡܬܚܒܠܢܐ ), it would have been corrupted ( ܡܬܚܒܠ ) also before the transgression [of Adam and Eve].” (Quoted in Moss, Incorruptible Bodies, p. 170). In effect, Julian presumed human essence/substance/nature was naturally impervious to corruption and the Fall fundamentally changed human essence/substance/nature–which logically speaking would turn into a similar, but different essence. Prelapsarian humanity therefore was a distinctly a different nature/essence/substance than postlapsarian humanity, which obviously experiences corruption and possibility/blameless passions. This seemed compelling in its day because according to the ascetic assertions, the attainment of spiritual perfection undid the Fall, restoring man to an incorruptible state. After all, many martyrs and ascetics according to hagiographies only voluntarily died.

Yet, Julian’s logic ignored the teaching of the earliest saints, such as Irenaeus, Theophilus of Antioch, Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nyssa who all taught that Adam was only tentatively immortal. Adam’s incorruptibility was not a default of nature. Rather, it was a condition man enjoyed by grace which was forfeited due to sin. Corruptibility was always existent in potential. This led to later Saints, like Maximus, to expound upon how what was altered by the original sin was not nature/essence/substance (which was always corruptible) but the human tropos, whose change permitted the onset of latent corruptibility. This, as it will be shown, led to Julian’s second chief error: that Christ never really had blameless passions, but rather exhibited them without authentically experiencing them. The preceding is emboldened, because it is the true definition of apthartodocetism—one that appears to elude modern scholars.

Severus, more faithful to the saints than Julian, adeptly avoided this error. In fact, Severus in detail correctly delineates precisely how the Fall occurs and by so doing, denounces both of Julian’s errors:

For, by its nature the body was mortal and corruptible and it was innately prone to dissolve back into the elements out of which it was composed. The body was not susceptible, however, to the operation of death, for man was not initially made to be subjected to death’s snares, [i.e. tentatively immortal] nor was he made to be elevated above nature—to be immortal. Rather he was to be preserved immortal, for everlasting life, by the divine grace and will. For the natural state of things which demands that composites become decomposed cannot withstand the will of God. [cf Wis 1:13] By the will and grace of God, this evil was not to have any effect on humans. Rather, mortality was to be swallowed up by life. For the divine grace was to draw up nature. Sin and transgression initiated the mortality of the body and the realization of its corruption, for indeed death—that which dissolves composite things in actual reality, began; while the soul, due to the transgression, necessarily suffered separation from God. And the disturbing commotion of the passions—by which the body is known and on account of which it is called ‘corruptible’—consumed the soul as well. They come into being and grow by means of the passions of nature. It is thus clear that it was the transgression that first initiated the condemnation to corruption and death; and it was not the fact that Adam’s body had been composite (which made it innately prone to dissolve back into the elements out of which it was composed). For it is not difficult for God, the maker of all, to remove corruption from the life of one who is overcome by corruption—and to preserve him for everlasting life, just as he [God] elevates the things of his own nature above corruption. (Fragment 10 from Against Felicissimus quoted in Moss, Incorruptible Bodies, p. 170)

Due to the preceding being so lengthy and dense, it will be summarized as follows:

  • Prelapsarian human nature was “mortal and corruptible,” not due it actually corrupting and dying, but rather “it was innately prone” to mortality and death.
    • In other words, prelapsarian humanity was tentatively immortal as long as it was sinless, as the earlier saints taught.
  • “The body was not susceptible to death” because it “was to be preserved immortal…by the divine grace” contingent upon obedience and sinlessness.
  • “Sin and transgression initiated the mortality of the body,” thereby ending tentative immortality.
  • What literally causes death is “separation from God” which as a default allows the “commotion of the passions,” these passions rightly making the body both physically and spiritually “corruptible.”
    • Severus astutely predates Maximus in delineating that “passions of nature” (i.e. the blameless/natural passions) precede the blameworthy ones, thereby offering the correct clarification of Cyril’s thought.
  • God’s grace (this is likely connected to the atonement) corrects this condition.

How the preceding specifically contrasts with Julian may be surmised by correspondence Severus reports to have had with him:

This foolish man, who confesses the passions with his lips only, hiding his impiety, wrote thus: ‘Incorruptibility was always attached to the body of our Lord, which was passible of His own will for the sake of others.’ And in brotherly love I wrote and asked him: ‘What do you mean by “incorruptible,” and “suffered of His own will for the sake of others,” and “was attached to the body of our Lord,” if without any falsehood you confess it to be by nature passible? For, if by the incorruptibility possessed by it you mean holiness without sin, we all confess this with you…But, if you call impassibility and immortality incorruptibility, and say that the body which suffered in the flesh on our behalf was not one that was capable of suffering with voluntary passions and dying in the flesh, you reduce the saving passions on our behalf to a phantasy; for a thing which does not suffer also does not die, and it is a thing incapable of suffering.’ And upon receiving such remarks as these from me he openly refused to call the holy body of Emmanuel passible in respect of voluntary passions; and therefore he did not hesitate to write thus, without shame and openly: ‘We do not call Him of our nature in respect of passions, but in respect of essence. Therefore, even if He is impassible, and even if He is incorruptible, yet He is of our nature in respect of nature.’ (Zachariah of Mitylene, Syriac Chronicle, Book 9, Chap 16)

In short, Severus asserts that Christ was sinless, but due to assuming humanity He had the natural/essential/substantial capacity to assume “voluntary [i.e. the blameless] passions,” suffering, and death. All of these things were real, because they were the natural/essential/substantial consequences of Christ assuming humanity with (voluntarily accepted) blameless passions. Julian’s response was a flat denial that Christ voluntarily assumed the passions. This was Julian’s second chief error, delineated above.

If one were to attempt vindicating Julian, perhaps this was due to him inferring this included the blameworthy passions. However, he reiterated his first chief error, that Christ (being prelapsarian) was naturally/essentially/substantially impervious to impassibility and incorruptibility. The assumption of passibility, but not the passions, is a categorization that Julian evidently makes because his anthropology renders the passions as impossible in Christ—and so what Christ in effect did was suspend the laws of nature and allowed the appearance of passibility, but not its essential cause—the blameless passions. It is very unlikely that Julian misunderstood Severus as speaking of the blameworthy instead of the blameless passions, not only because Severus’ explicitly wrote elsewhere that he had blameless passions in mind, but also because he never accused Severus of doing so. Further, Julian identifies passibility as an occurrence which existed “in respect of essence” with Christ implying a radical change of nature, instead of a manifestation of something that was already latent in that essence (the blameless passions).

The anthropological difference as it surrounds the blameless passions is a nuanced, but concrete difference that is underappreciated. Severus asserts that human glorification is the permanent abiding in grace, the permanence of this condition creating eternal impassibility and incorruptibility. A sinful volition of the soul by necessity engages the passions, corruptibility, and death. Hence, it is never human nature/essence/substance that changes but human volition (this is conceptually identical to Maximus’ treatment of the human tropos—though perhaps both of these men found the concept in Nemesius of Emesa). Yet, for Julian, Christ voluntarily assumes passibility and corruptibility, but not its cause (the passions). To posit this requires that Christ had a fundamentally different humanity, as the only reason all other humans experience passibility and corruptibility is because they experience the passions—the three being a complete package.

It is worth reiterating that definitionally passibility and blameless passions (the capacity to suffer privation, pain, hunger, tiredness, etcetera) are the same thing. For Julian to affirm the former, but not the latter is to essentially say he affirmed the appearance or illusion of the former. Just think of it: what is passibility without…passibility (i.e. the blameless passions). The appearance of such! Apthartodocetism is a fitting name for such a heresy.

In light of this, the accusation made against Julian is completely justified. He confessed Christ experienced passibility and corruption without the passions. As Severus pointed out to Theodosios of Alexandria upon receipt of the latter’s enthronement encyclical, Julian made “the sufferings” of Christ “false” because “an impassible and immortal body does not admit of sufferings and death, but is considered to have suffered and died only in surmise, and as it were in an illusion of sleep.” (Quoted in Allen and Hayward, Severus of Antioch, p. 162)

It is with the preceding in mind that one can understand Saint Justinian’s edict on apthartodocetism (which was written before his repentance, according to hagiographies). According to Moss:

Evagrius’s account of Justinian’s senescent [apthartodocetist] edict compelling assent to the notion that the body of Christ was “incorruptible and not susceptible to the natural and blameless passions” (Evagrius, HE4.39; Bidez and Parmentier, eds., 190; Whitby, trans., 250) [Quoted in Incorruptible Bodies, p. 172]

Evagrius either truthfully reported, or correctly surmised, the substance of apthartodocetism. The point at issue was never whether Christ voluntarily assumed the experience of passibility and corruptibility. All sides accepted this. The point at issue was whether in so doing Christ voluntarily assumed the blameless passions as an ancillary. The Orthodox (and Severian) answer is an emphatic yes. The apthartodocetist answer is no.

Conclusion. Having correctly distilled the substance of the apthartodocetist heresy to be 1. the denial of immortality being only tentative before the Fall and 2. the rejection of Christ’s voluntary assumption of blameless passions, the question then becomes how is this something that is not widely understood today? The reality is that some Oriental Orthodox do not appreciate the Henotikon as they ought and the Eastern Orthodox likewise do not appreciate an ecumenical decree and canon on the same subject. The loss of appreciation, or even understanding, of the doctrine of “economic conversation”/”discretionary manner of living” is most regrettable. An apthartodocetist position cuts at the core of the doctrine because it denies precisely what Christ had specifically voluntarily assumed—true humanity and true effects of the Fall necessitated by human sin. Christ atoned for sin by voluntarily assuming its effects (passibility/blameless passions and death), but not its cause—sin.

“Economic conversation” may be “the most important dogma you never heard of.” Sadly, due to time and travel constraints, I missed by opportunity to present this in the IOTA Conference. For now, this article will have to do.