Eutyches (380-456) was a priest in Constantinople when last week’s heretic, Nestorius, became his archbishop. In response to his superior’s heresy that there were two persons in Christ (and that Mary, therefore, is not the Mother of God), Eutyches became quite militant – going so far as to say that the human and Divine had fused so completely in Christ that He had only one nature. This is what is called Monophysitism, and its simplicity gave it great appeal.
Nevertheless, orthodox believers in both East and West held that Christ is one person with two separate and complete natures – which view was expressed by Pope St Leo the Great and defined at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Eutyches went into a monastery and faded from history’s view.
But here is where politics and history interact. Armenia and Ethiopia (which then also included coastal Sudan, Eritrea and the facing parts of Arabia) had become Christian before the Roman Empire had, and were intent on maintaining their political independence: many Copts and Syrians resented imperial power in their countries, which were provinces of the empire. Their refusal to accept the Council of Chalcedon led to their secession from the Church and the creation of the Armenian, Ethiopian, Syriac and Coptic Orthodox Churches.
Successive attempts by various emperors to achieve some sort of compromise with them failed, but not before sowing suspicion of the empire and Eastern Catholicism in general among Latins. In return, the Syriac Orthodox dubbed the holders of the imperial religion Melkites – “Emperor’s Men” or royalists. This division in turn weakened the Christian Near East just in time for the Muslim conquest. Ironically, the so-called “Monophysite churches” themselves rejected Eutyches’s teaching, as a series of joint Christological definitions between Ss Paul VI and John Paul II make clear. Thus, the proper term used for these groups today is “Oriental Orthodox Churches”.
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