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The Christology of St Severus of Antioch (I)

St Severus of Antioch is one of the great Fathers of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. In the decades after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD it was he, more than any other theologian, who expressed most forcefully and clearly the Orthodox Christology of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. He grew up in the confused environment of the Church produced by Chalcedon and intermittently exacerbated by imperial persecution of those who rejected the decisions of that council. Yet despite his opposition to Chalcedon he always remained as tolerant and irenic as possible, being willing even to accept the phrase ‘in two natures’ as long as the union of Divinity and humanity in Christ was confessed. Yet the Eastern Orthodox have accused St Severus of being both a Nestorian and a Eutychian and the latter Eastern Orthodox councils have anathematised him together with St Dioscorus.

The actual teachings of St Severus have become unjustly obscure, both among the Eastern Orthodox and even the Oriental Orthodox, who should value him more. Yet his manifest reliance and dependence on the teaching of St Cyril of Alexandria, and the clarity of his thought, should make him a useful exemplar of the Christology of the Oriental Orthodox. The Christological teachings of the Eastern Orthodox are widely known and published, but in this time of ecumenical dialogue it seems that most of the Oriental Orthodox Christology that Eastern Orthodox learn is derived from second-hand and erroneous accounts that twist and distort what Oriental Orthodox have always believed. The teachings of St Severus, answering many of the same objections as are heard today, are an antidote to such misinformation and promote the dialogue between the Churches.

St Severus was born in Sozopolis in Pisidia in 465 AD. He came from a wealthy family and was sent to Alexandria to study. He continued his studies in Beirut where he came under the influence of a group of Christian students. He began to study the writings of Sts Gregory of Nazianzen and Basil and at some time in this period he was baptised.

After his baptism his outlook became increasingly ascetical and he spent much of his time in Church. Finally, after he had qualified as a lawyer, he decided to become a monk in Jerusalem. Travelling into the desert of Eleutheropolis he sought a more ascetic way of life, but illness and the persuasion of his friends led him to enter the monastery of Romanus. He shared out his property among his brothers, gave his share to the poor and devoted himself to the monastic life near the town of Maiuma.

Severus was already committed to opposing the council of Chalcedon. Maiuma had been the episcopal seat of Peter the Iberian, one of the bishops who had consecrated Timothy Aelurus, and Severus was part of this tradition of opposition. He rejected the Henoticon of Zeno, which was an imperial attempt at conciliation between the pro and anti-Chalcedonian parties, because it dealt with the stumbling block of Chalcedon by ignoring it.

His criticism of Chalcedon was never based on the acceptance in any form of the heresy of Eutyches. Indeed in his work, Philalethes, or the Lover of Truth, he explained that,

Had it confessed hypostatic union, the Council would have confessed also ?one incarnate nature of God the Word?, and would not have defined that the one Christ is ?in two natures? thereby dissolving the union.[1]

Severus was sent to Constantinople and wrote his first major work there in 508 AD. While in the capital he became known by Emperor Anastasius who had greater sympathy with the anti-Chalcedonians than with the pro-Chalcedonians led by Patriarch Macedonius. In 511 Patriarch Macedonius was replaced by Timothy, and then in 512, after a synod assembled by the Emperor in Sidon, the Patriarch Flavian was ejected because he would not anathematise Chalcedon and Severus was consecrated Patriarch in his place.

In his enthronement address Severus affirmed Nicaea, Constantinople and Ephesus. He also affirmed the Henoticon of Zeno as an Orthodox document, but he also explicity anathematised Chalcedon, the Tome of Leo, Nestorius and Eutyches, Diodore and Theodore of Tarsus. In 514 his Synod anathematised Chalcedon and the Tome while explaining the Henoticon as annulling Chalcedon.

All of this activity gives the lie to the prevalent opinion that in 451 AD the Oriental Orthodox went quietly into exile and schism. Here we see that the Church was alive with those who opposed Chalcedon, and it was those who supported it who found themselves on the defensive.

Severus continued his ascetic manner of life even as Patriarch. He sent away the many cooks from the epsicopal residence and demolished the baths that previous bishops had built. In his homilies in the cathedral he constantly warned his people against attending the races and theatres.

But in 518 AD Emperor Anastasius died and the new emperor Justin immediately ordered the arrest and punishment of Patriarch Severus. He managed to escape to Egypt with some of his bishops while other anti-Chalcedonians were sent into a difficult exile. While in Egypt, moving from monastery to monastery, avoiding his enemies, he wrote some of his most important works and corresponded widely and continuously.

In 530 AD the emperor Justinian eased the persecution which the anti-Chalcedonians had been suffering. In 532 AD he even attempted to reconcile the two parties in the Church by calling a conference in Constantinople. Finally, in 534 AD Anthimus, an anti-Chalcedonian, became Patriarch of Constantinope and Theodosius, another anti-Chalcedonian and friend of Severus, became Patriarch of Alexandria. Once more it seemed that the anti-Chalcedonian movement might gain the ascendancy in the Church. This so alarmed the pro-Chalcedonians that they exercised all of their diplomatic skills to bring the opinion of Agapetus of Rome to bear on the emperor. The Emperor Justinian was engaged in efforts to recapture Rome and the West and sacrificed Anthimus for the pro-Chalcedonian Menas. In a synod held in Constantinople in 536 AD Severus and his colleagues were condemned. He was accused of being both a Nestorian and a Eutychian, his books were ordered to be burned and he was sentenced to be banished. He managed to escape from Constantinople with the help of the Empress Theodora and he returned to Egypt. There after a light illness he fell asleep. He was 73 years old.

In the period 518-520 AD Severus engaged in a correspondence with a certain Sergius. This Sergius had been attempting to expound the Orthodox teaching about the Incarnation of Christ, but had been criticised by his local synod because he had spoken without discretion. In three letters that were sent by Severus to Sergius we can find much of the Christology of Severus presented in just such an explanatory manner as may be useful today. These letters have been recently translated and published by Dr Iain Torrance, and are well worth? study. Since they are so easily obtained they will now be used as the basis for this examination of the teaching of St Severus. This essay is only an introduction to the Christology of St Severus and deliberately restricts itself to this one work, published as Christology After Chalcedon (Iain Torrance, The Canterbury Press, Norwich, 1988). It is not too difficult to acquire and in a small space describes much of the teaching of St Severus, both against the Nestorians and the Eutychians.

Sergius’ problem was that in opposing the Nestorian position that in Christ the Divinity and humanity were naturally separate and united only in a personal manner, he strayed too far from the truth and failed to expound the Orthodox teaching. This Sergius taught that the opposite of a natural disunity was a simple unity in which there could only be one nature, which Sergius took in the sense of ousia or essence, and therefore created a new Christ nature which was neither essentially human or Divine. In most modern Christian’s eyes this is the teaching of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. We are assumed to confess in one nature a simple and confused unity which destroys the distinction between humanity and Divinity. Severus’ opposition of Sergius will clearly illustrate the fundamental difference between the ‘one nature’ of Sergius and the ‘one incarnate nature’ of Cyril and Severus.

Even a cursory glance at Severus’ letters makes it abundantly clear that Severus was dependent on the thoughts and teachings of Cyril of Alexandria. In the three relatively short letters to Sergius we find more than 60 quotations from St Cyril. Many more than any other Father. Whenever Severus wants to make a point he will quote from Cyril. What does this tell us? Firstly, that Severus considered himself to be a disciple of Cyril of Alexandria. Thus we should not read into any of his teachings an anti-Cyrilline meaning which is not justified by his complete commitment to a Cyrilline Christology. Secondly, that the writings of Severus should be read in continuity with those of Cyril and not as though they taught something different. Any obscure points in the teaching of Severus should be explained by the teaching of Cyril and not assumed to be at odds with it.

There are a number of Christological points which need to be examined in the writings of Severus. It is important to consider the accusation that he taught both Nestorianism and Eutychianism. How could this be so? If Nestorianism teaches the separation of the natures in Christ and Eutychianism the confusion, then how could Severus possibly be guilty of teaching both heresies? Such an understanding, though unjustified, may have arisen among his opponents because of the phrase ‘of two natures’ which is key to the Oriental Orthodox Christology. Among the Oriental Orthodox it describes both the continuing distinction between the Divinity and humanity of Christ, whilst confessing the real and perfect union between them. In the hands of those who sought Severus punishment and exile it was twisted to stand for a pre-existent humanity and Divinity coming together in a confused unity, therefore a perceived Nestorianism and Eutychianism. Thus we need to examine carefully the teaching of Severus about the humanity and Divinity of Christ, as well as the union between them.

Let us first consider the accusation of Eutychianism. What can be found in these letters of Severus to refute such a charge? Almost immediately as the first letter begins, Severus writes to Sergius:

Know, therefore, that professing the natural particularity of the natures from which there is the One Christ is not just recently determined by us.[2]

Here Severus indicates that Sergius’ error lay in supposing that union must mean the extinction of each natures particular existence. More than that, Severus places himself within the Orthodox tradition which had confessed the continuity of the natures in Christ. He continues this passage immediately with a substantial and important quotation from Cyril:

For even if the Only-Begotten Son of God, incarnate and inhominate, is said by us to be one, he is not confused because of this, as he seems to those people, nor has the nature of the Word passed over into the nature of the flesh, nor indeed has the nature of the flesh passed into that which is his, but while each one of them continues together in the particularity that belongs to the nature, and is thought of in accordance with the account which has just been given by us, the inexpressible and ineffable union shows us one nature of the son, but as I have said, incarnate.[3]

The quotation from Cyril explains the meaning of the sentence from Severus. This passage shows us that Severus is dependent on Cyril for his Christology and that when he speaks of the particularity of the natures in Christ he is summarising the quotation which he then provides from Cyril. This in turn teaches that the humanity of Christ continues to be humanity and the Divinity of Christ continues to be Divinity. Therefore the concept of ‘one incarnate nature’ cannot and should not, in Cyril or in Severus, be taken to stand for the extinction or confusion of either the humanity or Divinity.

Severus makes this absolutely explicit by stating:

When the Doctor has confessed one nature of God the Word, who is incarnate, he says that each of them continues together and is understood in the particularity that belongs to the nature.[4]

This makes clear that Severus teaches that the one nature of God the Word incarnate should be understood as allowing the two natures to continue to exist in the union of natures and to continue to preserve their distinctions and characteristics. There is no sense in which he teaches a Eutychian confusion of the humanity and Divinity.

Another quotation from Cyril is provided to illustrate what Severus means by the continuing distinctions of the humanity and Divinity of Christ:

Therefore let us recognise that even if the body which was born at Bethlehem is not the same, that is, as far as natural quality is concerned, as the Word which is from God and the Father, yet nevertheless it became his, and did not belong to another man beside the Son. But the Word incarnate is to be considered one Son and Christ and Lord.[5]

This is a key quotation because it expresses both Severus’ confession of the continuing distinction and difference between the humanity born at Bethlehem and the eternal and divine Word, as well as his commitment to a union which makes one Christ without a confusion of these natures. The body born at Bethlehem was never the body of a man beside the Word or with the Word. From the moment of conception this humanity was the humanity of the Word, distinct from the divinity but never separated or divided, therefore, without suffering any change the humanity and the divinity are made one in the incarnation.

Severus, in his own words, writes to Sergius that:

..particularity implies the otherness of natures of those things which have come together in union, and the difference lies in natural quality. For the one is uncreated, but the other created….Nevertheless, while this difference and the particularity of the natures, from which comes the one Christ, still remains without confusion, it is said that the Word of Life was both seen and touched.[6]

How could it be expressed any clearer that Severus did not even conceive of the humanity and Divinity of Christ being confused in any way. The ‘difference…remains without confusion’, he confesses. Exactly the same teaching as steadfastly maintained by Cyril before him, and not at all to be compared with the teaching of Eutyches, however that is described. The union is confessed with the teaching that the Divine Word was seen and touched by the Apostles, but it is clear that this union does not confuse the continuing distinction between the humanity and Divinity.

Indeed Severus is well aware of the heresy of those who confused the natures in Christ. He writes to Sergius of their madness and he refutes any sense in which his teaching of the union of the humanity and Divinity in Christ could be compared with the confusion of natures of the ‘synousiasts’. Nor does he feel the need, as they have, to ‘cure evil with evil’, that is the evil of Nestorianism with the evil of Eutychianism.

To make this absolutely clear Severus quotes again from Cyril, who writes in his reply to a critic:

There is no share in any blame that one should recognise, for example, that the flesh is one thing in its own nature, apart from the Word which sprang from God and the Father, and that the Only-Begotten is another again, with respect to his own nature. Nevertheless to recognise these things is not to divide the natures after the union.[7]

These words should be taken as though written by Severus himself. He is quoting them with complete agreement. There is no blame, he says in Cyril’s words, there is no blame associated with recognising that in Christ the humanity and Divinity are different things. The flesh is one thing, according to nature, the Divinity another, according to nature. Here is a clear expression of the Christology of the Oriental Orthodox. The recognition of the difference between the humanity and Divinity of Christ in no wise detracts from the confession of the true and perfect union of these natures. Both of these Christological facts are true. The humanity and Divinity retain their integrity, their distinctions, but the union of them drives out division. There is no room for Nestorianism or Eutychianism.

Severus proceeds to explain rather more about how he conceives of the union taking place:

Let us make an enquiry of the divinity and humanity. They are not only different in everything but they are removed from each other and distinct as well. But when the union is professed from the two of them, the difference, again, in the quality of the natures from which there is the One Christ is not supressed, but in conjunction by hypostasis division is driven out.[8]

Here is the key to understanding Oriental Orthodox Christology: the difference remains, division is driven out and the union takes place hypostatically. No-one should allow any interpretation of the Christology of the Oriental Orthodox which mutilates this clear and straight-forward definition. If someone suggests that a confusion of natures is taught, then they are mistaken. It is clear that Severus, and all of us with him, confess the continuing difference of these natures. If someone suggests that we teach that these natures have their own independent existence then they are mistaken. It is clear that Severus, and all of us with him, confess a real and perfect union in which there is no division. And if others should suggest that we teach a mixture or confusion of essences or ousia then they are again mistaken, because Severus, and all of us with him confess a hypostatic union.

But this teaching should not be understood as something new, or something that originated after Chalcedon had confused the unity of the Church. Severus indicates his continuity and agreement with Cyril by quoting immediately from him:

I too allow that there is a great difference or distinction between humanity and Divinity. For these things which were named are seen to be other, according to the mode of how they are, and they are not like each other in anything. But when the mystery which is in Christ has come for us into the middle, the principle of union does not ignore the difference but it removes the division; not because it confuses with each other or mixes the natures, but because the Word of God has shared in flesh and blood, thus again the Son too is understood and named as One.[9]

Oriental Orthodox should not be afraid to admit the real and absolute difference between humanity and Divinity. Not only is this the teaching of Severus, but it is the teaching of Cyril of Alexandria. The mystery of the incarnation is that in the union of humanity and Divinity the difference between these natures remains while division is driven out. Here in this quotation it is also clear that Severus and Cyril allow no confusion of these natures, or a mixture. The union is not like that. It is a real and perfect union that preserves the real difference between the humanity and Divinity.

So where does Severus dispute with Nestorius and those who divide Christ? It is certainly not in the recognition of the continuing difference between the humanity and Divinity. Rather, as Severus explains:

We confess the difference and the particularity and the otherness of the natures from which Christ is, for we do not quarrel about names, but we confess the particularity which lies in natural quality, and not that which will be set in parts, each one existing independently.[10]

So Severus makes clear that the argument with the supporters of Nestorius lies not in naming the natures of humanity and Divinity, nor in confessing their continuing difference and otherness. The argument lies in whether or not the union which is taught allows each nature to have its own seperate and independent existence, or whether, as Cyril of Alexandria teaches, we confess a union in which these real and different natures are united such that Christ is One, even as the Nicene Creed professes.

Posted by Fr. Moses Samaan

April 9, 2009