Eutychian Heresy

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Eutyches, (born c. 375—died 454), revered archimandrite, or monastic superior, in the Eastern Church, at Constantinople, who is regarded as the founder of Eutychianism, an extreme form of the Monophysite heresy that emphasizes the exclusive prevalence of the divinity in Christ.

Reared in the Christological doctrine of the Alexandrian school under the influence of Patriarch St. Cyril (died 444), Eutyches, in professing one nature in Christ, reflected the Eastern monastic view of Christ and staunchly opposed the rival Antioch school, which espoused the heterodox doctrine of Nestorius, who was named patriarch in Constantinople in 428. The Nestorian doctrine maintained that Christ had two natures: as the son of God, divine; as the son of Mary, human. Thus, it also held that the Virgin was not the mother of God.

Eutyches’ opposition to the Nestorians led Bishop Eusebius of Dorylaeum in Asia Minor to proclaim his doctrine heretical (448). Eutyches then was summoned by Flavian, who had become patriarch of Constantinople and who was an opponent of Monophysitism, to a meeting of the standing synod of Constantinople in November 448. There, refusing to discuss Christ’s natures, Eutyches declared that his was the faith of the Fathers at the Council of Nicaea (325), which focussed primarily, however, on Christ’s divinity and equality in the Trinity, rather than on Christ’s nature. Eutyches’ repeated affirmation, “two natures before, one after the incarnation,” was his own formula and was a specific expression of the Monophysitic doctrine that, in the incarnation, Christ’s human nature was deified and subsumed into a single essence. Hence, he concluded that Christ’s humanity was distinct from that of other men, which some scholars propose was the real formulation of Monophysitism. Eutyches’ position was considered to be theologically unsophisticated, and the synod deposed and excommunicated him.

Flavian then reported Eutyches’ heresy to Pope St. Leo I the Great, who on June 13, 449, issued his celebrated Tome condemning Eutychianism. Eutyches appealed to Patriarch Dioscorus of Alexandria, who supported his Christological doctrines and persuaded the Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II to summon a general council to meet at Ephesus the following August. The council, later called the Robber Synod and never recognized by Eastern Orthodox and Western churchmen, reinstated Eutyches and deposed Flavian, Eusebius, and other defenders of the two-nature doctrine.

In 450, Emperor Theodosius II was succeeded by Marcian, who convened the Council of Chalcedon in 451; it banished Eutyches, condemned his heresy, and established a centrist doctrine that came to serve as the touchstone of Christian orthodoxy in East and West. The Council held that Christ had two perfect and indivisible, but distinct, natures: one human and one divine. Thereafter, Eutyches disappeared, but his influence nevertheless grew as Monophysitism spread throughout the East. The subsequent history of Monophysite doctrine in the Eastern Church is the history of national and independent churches (e.g., the Syrian Jacobites) that, either for reasons of reverence for some religious leader or as a reaction against the dominance of the Byzantine or Roman churches, retained a separate existence.

The text of Eutyches’ trial and related correspondence appear in E. Schwartz’s monograph Der Prozess des Eutyches (1929; “The Trial of Eutyches”). Reference to his trial is in R.V. Sellers’ The Council of Chalcedon (1953).

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