St Severus of Antioch and the Julianist Heresy

by Mina Soliman

It is my honor and privilege to be writing two essays for Fr. Aidan Kimel’s excellent blog (I am a big fan), which I hope to be able to read it all, even those entries way over my head regarding the various ideas of classical theism as explained by Western theologians. A little bit about myself: As Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory would say, “I’m not a scholar; I’m just an amateur and a lover of theology and scholarship, but not one.”1 My background is more in medicine. This essay may be a bit detail oriented, so color me a Lucan physician.

I have grown very attached to Church history and theology, especially around the issue of Chalcedon. Being a Copt in the United States and exposed to other churches that call themselves “Orthodox” as my own, my curiosity peaked to a point that I was fully immersed in this particular subject that separates the “two families of Orthodoxy”. I have for quite some time not only realized what those historical differences are between the Chalcedonian and the Oriental Orthodox, but also the nuances in Christology seem to make more sense to me over the years.


It is has been often understood that history has been written by the victor. In this case, the Chalcedonians were the victors of Western scholarship. We take for granted this bias we have in our theology and history books that at times we feel like we need to completely throw away everything we think we know about other historical and ancient churches and start over. I admit that while I may have a strong anti-Nestorian tradition that puts an emphasis on being at odds with the present-day Assyrian Church, I should be ready to disavow these biases that I may have, just as much as I expect Chalcedonians to comprehend with open minds an anti-Chalcedonian perspective. Admittedly, I do not think I am ready to do that, given the more reading I have done in this regard though. So I believe I have good reason to continue being anti-Nestorian.2

For the moment, it is my pleasure to discuss a Christological perspective of St. Severus of Antioch, who is considered a pillar of faith in the Coptic and Syriac churches (and by extension the Malankara and Ethiopian traditions). The Armenian Church is a unique situation that still requires more research, which I will explain why in a bit. Until then, it is undisputed that for us as Copts, St. Severus is equally an authority of theological importance as St. Athanasius and St. Cyril of Alexandria. In fact, Severus is so important for the Coptic Church that even though he was never one of the bishops of Alexandria, we still list him as if he was one of the bishops of Alexandria in our hymnographical tradition. The Coptic popes between Pope St. Peter III (“Mongus”) and Pope St. Theodosius were little known, and as far as Copts were concerned, Severus was their patriarch. Before we discuss the Julianist controversy, I would like to give a brief historical background to give a taste of the personality and intelligence of Severus.

Severus’ origins, like that of St. Athanasius, is somewhat of a mystery because of conflicting details. His close friend and colleague in rhetoric and biographer Zacharias, bishop of Mytilene, writes that his grandfather was a bishop, also named Severus, who was present in the third ecumenical council at Ephesus. However, Pauline Allen also mentions an autobiographical detail from one of Severus’ homilies recorded in Coptic where he mentions his own pagan family and past. Allen believes that Zacharias is trying to defend Severus from any polemical accusation of paganism in the face of the theological disputes at the time. Severus went through a life-changing intellectual experience after going to school in Alexandria, being convinced of the Christian faith through the writings of two Cappadocian fathers Saints Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian, rather than through the writings of Greek pagan philosophy. “He believed that they (Basil and Gregory) would be his judges at the Last Judgement”.3 He then went on to study law in Berytus for five years, during which he would receive catechesis from an anti-Chalcedonian monk.

Severus eventually was baptized after his studies. Not long after that, he decided to join a monastery under St. Peter the Iberian, and engaged in a strong asceticism that would continue well into his patriarchate as evident in his letters, who advocated a humble and minimalist life as a patriarch. As Allen records from ancient chronicler John of Beith-Aphthonia, “He sent away the scullions and cooks from the bishop’s palace, with all the edibles they had prepared. He overturned the baths which were there, like the God-loving kings Hezechiah and Josiah when they tipped over the statues of Baal. He continued the hard life he had taken as a monk, in sleeping on the earth, in no baths, in the long service of song, and in a diet of vegetables like the youths of Babylon, and buying rough and common bread from the marketplace, such as bakers customarily make for the poor.”4

Being convinced of the anti-Chalcedonian tradition, he got to the point where he would join the extreme group of the Acephali, who felt that their anti-Chalcedonian bishops5 were too lax with the faith when accepting the emperor Zeno’s Henotikon. Eventually, Zeno’s successor Anastasius would entrust Severus with the help of St. Philoxenus, bishop of Mabbug, in penning a document that would give the Henotikon an uncompromisingly anti-Chalcedonian interpretation. As Philoxenus and his disciples grew powerful (among whom very importantly to remember was Bishop Julian of Halicarnassus), they were able to depose the Chalcedonian patriarch of Antioch and consecrate Severus in his place in November 512 A.D., despite Severus’ desire to return to the monastery. Severus’ patriarchal style and homilies would be comparable to St. John Chrysostom, as Severus himself would also draw influence from him.

Severus with his vast knowledge of the Church fathers (this is an understatement) and his law and Greek philosophy background was not afraid to jump head-on into the argumentative arena on theological issues regarding Christology. He has quite the resume and experience to deal with difficult questions of theology, and his brain was a fascinating textbook of knowledge. While he is well-known to combat Chalcedonians like Nephalius (an Alexandrian monk who converted into the Chalcedonian side) and John the Grammarian, and had debates with Chalcedonian bishops in the presence of emperors Anastasius and Justinian, he was also well known to write some Church hymns for the Syriac tradition,6 liturgical anaphora, and many homilies and letters for various other spiritual themes and administrative duties. He is also well-known in fighting other heresies, some of which are pro-Nestorian in the Syriac lands, and other heresies can be collectively considered as different shades of doceticism, or “real Monophysitism”, like those who followed Eutyches, an odd grammarian named Sergius, and one of his best friends and co-sufferer turned severe enemy, Julian, bishop of Halicarnassus. It is this post-exilic fight with Julian that is the subject of this essay.

The Context of the Julian Debate

This is a particularly confusing fight. Scholars today are split as to where the real differences may be. This fight has caused an inner schism in the Egyptian anti-Chalcedonian Church. After the death of the anti-Chalcedonian Pope St. Timothy III of Alexandria, two successors were ordained in the anti-Chalcedonian side, a pro-Julian by the name of Gaianus (Egyptian followers of the Julian heresy were thus called Gaianites) and a pro-Severan patriarch, Pope St. Theodosius.7 While the Gaianite succession continued well into the ninth century,8 they were effectively insignificant by the end of the sixth century. More importantly there was another inner anti-Chalcedonian schism with the Armenian Church, which would not be healed until the eighth century at the joint Armenian-Syriac council of Manazkert (or Manzikert), but this healing still leaves ambiguous questions concerning veneration and Christology in the Armenian Church today.

The theological question is regarding whether Christ’s humanity would be considered “corruptible” or “incorruptible”, especially before Christ’s resurrection. What is more eye opening is that this theological fight spread into Chalcedonian circles that lead to equally vociferous theological fights. One needs to pause and wonder if there were really any essential differences between Chalcedonian and Oriental Orthodox Christologies, how did would Chalcedonians struggle with the same question?9

In exile, Julian began writing a speech called “About the Confession of Faith” and sent it to Severus for approval. In this speech, Julian actually drew from Severus’ work Philalethes (a work that drew from the writings of St. Cyril against Cyrillian Chalcedonians) to support his doctrine on the innate incorruptibility of Christ’s humanity. However, he was also struggling with some passages from St. Cyril that contradicted his own ideas, which he thought was inconsistent with Cyril and could be writing errors.10 Severus upon reading it was troubled and had to take some time in order to respond to it (he was also reluctant to respond), especially responding to a friend and fellow exile (as well as an elderly and well-respected bishop, ever since Severus was still a monk). When he did, Julian was not satisfied with the response, and published his work anyway.11 Thus began the contentious relationship between Severus and Julian that would occupy Severus for the rest of his life.12 Among all the heresies Severus wrote against, this was one controversy with the most invective. As Allen wondered, “It needs to be asked why the doctrines of Julian irritated and alarmed Severus so much.”13

Julian’s Beliefs

We will start with Julian’s theological anthropology and the fall of man to make sense of his Christology. In Julian’s theological system, Adam was created incorruptible. This meant his human nature was “by essence”14 incorruptible and immortal, a created form of incorruptibility and immortality. When Adam disobeyed God’s command, his humanity “changed” into corruptibility and mortality, or Adam “lost” the created “human property” of incorruption and immortality. As a result, Christ took on Adam’s nature “before the Fall” (a “complete” nature) in order to save us fallen people, who have “incomplete” natures. The proof of this is Christ being born of a Virgin without a man. The “purity” of the birth proves the purity of Christ’s humanity as incorruptible and immortal. Christ did die and suffer, but these experiences were “voluntary” in the sense that He allowed His immortal and incorruptible humanity to experience them, but in a different way than other humans experience them, which are by necessity of their nature. I recommend you read this paragraph slowly one or two more times before moving on to Severus’ refutation. Understandably, with loose interpretation of the semantics, one might ask, “What is the problem here?”

Julian put Severus between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, Julian is well-respected, having been a bishop for a long time and already has many supporters who adopted his theology. On the other hand, Julian even quotes from the works of Severus to show that even Severus was theologically in agreement. As Allen noted, “The former bishop of Halicarnassus could even point to Severus’s Homily LXVII on the Theotokos and virgin Mary, delivered on 2 February 515, where the patrarich stated that ‘the whole pure body of Christ had no share in sin and the corruptedness resulting from it’.”15

1. What is Phthartos and what is its relation to the Fall? (Answer: Absolutely Nothing)

Severus responded first by discussing the semantics. He begins by saying there are many ways to define “corruption” and “incorruption”. If the word “incorruption” meant “sinlessness”, he would be in agreement with Julian. However, if “corruption” meant a state in which “natural bodies are subject to change”,16 then to say that Christ’s humanity is incorruptible is to say that Christ’s humanity was NOT by nature prone to natural human change. Taking a page from St. Athanasius, Severus would teach that all creation was brought into existence ex nihilo. All ex nihilo creation is by nature prone to nihilo, and therefore corruptible and mortal. As noted in the Joint Commissions discussion in Aarhus 1964, Fr. John Romanides would say that even angels are by nature mortal.17 So perhaps a better word that would describe the Severan concept of phthartos (corruption) would be “malleable”. Christ’s “corruptible” humanity is “malleable” humanity. In His humanity, He grew in wisdom, He hungered, He wept, He suffered pain, He even suffered inner agony and reluctance in approaching death, and He died. To say that Christ’s humanity is “by essence” incorruptible (unable to be malleable or to undergo changes) is to say He faked those natural human experiences.

It is true however that in many instances before this controversy that Severus confessed Christ’s humanity as incorruptible.18 To answer this, Severus would defend there is a difference between confessing Christ’s sinlessness in humanity (which is also imbued with divine power because of the hypostatic union) and confessing that Christ’s humanity is by nature incorruptible. When created, Adam was not given an incorruptible nature. He was given the promise of the grace of incorruption by communion with God, who ALONE is incorruptible and immortal by nature. Incorruptibility and immortality were uncreated. Adam’s disobedience with God removed this promise, which meant removal of this grace of incorruption and led him to experience what naturally belongs to his nature, which is death and corruption. Adam was given a promise of immortality and incorruptibility if he maintained his divine vision, but he blew it.19

In Christ, while He is incorruptible and immortal in His divinity, He became a real man with a rational soul, a malleable humanity. Even though this same humanity is filled or “vibrating” with divine power,20 He also allowed Himself to experience the blameless passions and corruptions that come along with it by nature, as a true warrior representative of all fallen humanity to destroy corruption and death successfully, freely, obediently, and necessarily humanly without sin, while having in it the fullness of divine power, even under “corruptible” and “mortal” circumstances. I will repeat this again later with more clarity.

To contrast Julian’s anthropology, pre-fall and post-fall makes no difference in created human nature. The difference is the grace, not the nature. If (and this is a big IF) pre-fall human nature is different from post-fall human nature, then Julian’s Christ is not consubstantial with us. Severus did not appreciate using specific terminology as in “pre-fall” and “post-fall”. He refuted any notion that we should make a distinction in humanity in general, let alone Christ’s humanity. The only distinction he did teach is after the resurrection, a change occurred in Christ’s humanity. It is this that Severus calls “incorruptible”, or that Christ’s humanity “gained incorruptibility”, but that is not to say Christ is no longer human, but fully endowed with the destiny of human potential, or to put it another way, reached the zenith of deification. This is what we will be as well. And while after the resurrection, one may correlate it with pre-fall humanity, to Severus it is much more than this, because of the full indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our lives, whereas Adam only received a promise or a potential.

2. The Virgin Birth: A Cause of Corruption? (Severus vs. Augustine of Hippo)

Furthermore, Severus also refutes the notion of the virgin birth as the prerequisite for a sinless and incorruptible humanity. One needs to pause for a second and think of the fathers Severus read. Severus has quoted admirably from Ignatius, Irenaeus, pseudo-Dionysius, Gregory Thaumaturgus, Athanasius, the Cappadocian fathers, John Chrysostom, Timothy II (Aelurus) and of course Cyril of Alexandria. One should read Iain Torrance’s work Christology After Chalcedon, where Torrance translates Severus’ correspondence with Sergius the Grammarian. Severus seems to have spearheaded the approach of filling his defenses with voluminous quotes from the fathers, not just his own words. He does this throughout many of his polemical writings, whether against Chalcedonians or anti-Chalcedonian deviants. The sixth century was replete with a debate on patristic florilegia and their interpretations, and Julian was not the least exempt from this fascinating intellectual development. As far as I have read, Severus seems to have never been familiar with Augustine and the controversy regarding Pelagianism and Original Sin. The Latin West is completely absent in his reading and knowledge, except either positively via Cyril’s contemporary Pope Celestine or negatively via Pope Leo.

Severus not only rejects Julian’s concept of pre-fall and post-fall humanity in terms of different human properties, but also rejects that sinlessness is connected with the virgin birth. This may be perhaps one of the earliest indirect refutations of Augustinian anthropology and Christology, but through Julian.21 In Aarhus, Fr. V.C. Samuel does note that scholars like R.V. Sellers do not see a theological difference between Julian and Severus, and he stresses his strong disagreement with this interpretation. This may be due to the Augustinian influence in theological thinking of these scholars. For St. Augustine, it is well-known the virgin birth was necessary for Christ not to inherit Original Sin. Later on, the West would even adopt a further stance that the Virgin Theotokos herself was conceived without Original Sin, as a necessary prerequisite for Christ’s humanity. For St. Severus, rejecting a distinction of human properties between a pre-fall and post-fall humanity would lead to rejecting a correlation of sinlessness with the virgin birth. If Christ’s humanity is differentiated between pre-fall and post-fall in any way as if there were changes in the human ousia, whether it be by reason of virgin birth or the Immaculate Conception, it would mean that Christ is not consubstantial with us, and neither are his human experiences the same as us.

Severus also rejected Julian’s beliefs regarding the virgin birth for a second important reason, which will prove how inadvertently anti-Augustinian Severus is. Julian’s idea makes human intercourse and the marriage bed inherently sinful. Adam, Eve, and Christ were created without the “moral corruption” of sex, thought Julian.22 Keep in mind, Severus was no ordinary monk. During his monasticism, he decided to live as a hermit in the harsh desert to intensify his spiritual life. He got extremely sick and was on the brink of death. Nearby monks has to pick him up and nurse him back to health.23 It is known that some monks have taken such an extreme thought about virginity and monasticism as the “better” road, implying human weakness among married people. But St. Severus refuted this theologically. If the marriage bed is undefiled, then it is wrong to believe that Christ’s “sinless humanity” is connected to the Virgin birth.24 One wonders how he would have reacted to the Latin writings of St. Augustine.25

3. The word “Voluntary” and the Theandric Will of Christ (Severus’ Legacy Misunderstood)

One final aspect in refuting Julian is the Julian concept of “voluntary” human experiences. The use of “voluntary” is also confusing. Severus does not disagree with its use in Christology. Christ did voluntarily experience human actions, but they were real actions, with actual corruptible blameless passions, susceptible to its own nature like any other human being. As Samuel quotes St. Severus:

It is not because God the Word was incapable of making the flesh immortal and impassible from the moment of its union with himself that he left it to remain passible and mortal, but because he wished to take on himself our battle.26

For Julian, Christ voluntarily takes on what is NOT natural to His humanity. For Severus, Christ voluntarily takes on what IS natural to His humanity. “Although the suffering and death of God our Saviour were voluntary and aimed at curing our diseases, yet they belonged by nature to the flesh which was passible and which indeed suffered.”27 For Julian, the voluntary aspect means Christ experiences suffering and death differently than we do. Severus responds to this by arguing that this makes the Cross moot and pointless. If death and suffering is not natural to it, then Christ is faking them. It is not enough that Christ takes on flesh, but that He also had to take on its real suffering and death in the same exact way we experience them, so that He may undergo the resurrection. Suffering, death, and resurrection, are all equally important for our salvation.

But that is not all there is for our salvation. He continues to take the issue of “voluntary” a step further that would have profound implications on the natural free will of Christ’s humanity:

For it is not because he [God the Word] is incapable of making it [the body] all of a sudden immortal and impassible that he left it to remain passible and mortal but because he willed that he should not triumph over death by a forcible exercise of power that befits God. [He willed] to accept on himself our battle in [the body] which by nature is passible. And this he did by mixing power and wisdom, whereby we may secure this triumph by a real death and resurrection. In this way, the first Adam who had fallen was restored by the victory of the second Adam.28

Fr. V.C. Samuel explains this Syriac passage he translated by showing that Christ used human free will, the same free will Adam misused, for our salvation. Christ’s divine power did not overpower His humanity, but He voluntarily united His divine power and action with human freedom and obedience to take upon Himself our own battle, that in Him, we may also freely win the battle Adam lost. So it is not only suffering, death, and resurrection necessary for our salvation, but also a freely humanly obedient Logos. Human free will is still assumed by the Logos who is hypostatically united to it. That does not mean the free human actions are separated from the divine actions. He still maintains that this is a theandric work, one will and one energy, even if one can contemplate the human work with the divine. It is still the Logos who is in charge of human free will and voluntarily undergoes it. This is the extent of Christ’s voluntary condescension, even to the point of human free will and obedience, that He would take Adam’s battle upon Himself. This anticipates the future theology of Maximus the Confessor. Before Maximus elucidated in detail on the free will of Christ, Severus already taught it as a result of his fight with Julian.29

This last point is important in the refutation of Julian, especially if one wants to accurately know Oriental Orthodox Christology in its fullness. Julian does not accept a contemplation of the difference of the properties of energies and wills in Christ. Julian may be considered a true Monothelete, if one can use the term accurately. Severus would ridicule Julian for his silly notion of the “undifferentiated difference” (diaphora adiophorus) in Christ’s properties.30 Grillmeier quotes a passage by Julian who tries to justify this phrase with an analogy of the human body filled with the differences of five senses, but directed by the non-difference of one human nature. But Severus would have none of it and saw that Julian had no real concept of a communicato idiomatum like Cyril. Severus argued that Julian’s problem is that he shows as if there is no difference in the properties of humanity and divinity, and thus there is no interchange of these properties, but merely a passive humanity with essentially uncreated properties from within its own nature.31 Grillmeier sought to show that Severus’ criticism of Julian was unfair.32

Fr. V.C. Samuel disagrees, and finds in Julian a human nature that has no real natural human energeia in itself. Severus believed that the humanity of Christ is filled with divine energy, but that does not ignore the human energy. “The voluntary passions permitted by the Word were not without any operation.”33 It is also the human energy that is filled with divine energy, and this results in the one theandric energy of Christ, in the same way as we would confess one incarnate nature of God the Logos. “The same is true of every one of the passions of the flesh. If he did not fear, nature would not have been freed from fear.”34 For Julian, Christ’s energy was solely divine. For Severus, Christ’s energy was divine HUMANLY. Even the Transfiguration at Mount Tabor is not merely divine, but was also involving human shape, a limited revelation of the divine light.35 Julian in his “undifferentiated difference” may see that there is human shape, but this is not human energeia, but solely uncreated. To be fair, Julian did believe in physical humanity, but only as a pre-fall humanity with a complete abolition of human activity, calling it “divine energeia”. Julian’s Christological humanity was not unreal, but it was a static humanity with no energia of its own. For Severus, whenever he or Cyril calls Christ’s humanity or His human actions “divine”, it is not that they are uncreated in themselves, but that they are deified or filled with the divinity, while maintaining a dynamic humanity in Christ. “The Logos does not act through an extrinsically (united) God-bearing human being, as the ravings of Nestorius would have it, nor in the way in which an artisan uses a tool and thus completes the work and (not) like the way a cithara player strikes the cithara.”36 For Julian, Christ “voluntarily” uses humanity like a flutist using his flute. For Severus, Christ “voluntarily” uses humanity to its fullness, even engaging in its own natural free choice.37 Julian would criticize Severus that he becomes no different from Pope Leo of Rome and the Chalcedonians, but Severus would retort that the subject of the willing and acting is the Logos, which he would contest Pope Leo did not confess.

Grillmeier nevertheless continues to go along with the theme that there is no difference between Julian and Severus theologically. This lead scholars like Fr. Cyril Hovorun to conclude that Severus and Julian were of one ilk as Monotheletes. Fr. V.C. Samuel, although he disagrees with that assessment, at Aarhus continues his discussion on Julianism this way by hypothetically accepting this idea of no difference: “Even granting this reading is correct, would the Chalcedonian side maintain a position more adequate than the one held by Severus?”38 Indeed, without Julian, Severus would not have gone further into areas of theological clarification. These anti-Julianist writings were probably not made available to famous Chalcedonian theologians like Maximus the Confessor, who made a caricature of the beliefs of Severus’ theology of the one incarnate energy and will in the same exact way as Julian did. Other Chalcedonian fathers did not truly appreciate the wide net of differences between Severus and Julian.39

However, without these anti-Julianist writings, Chalcedonians were able to continue the Monophysite accusation against Severus. As Grillmeier noted, “Severus recognized now that not only the words of Cyril but also his own were capable of excessive interpretation.”40 In the anti-Chalcedonian polemics, you find what you will expect from any father who writes against Chalcedon, and these were made readily available for Chalcedonians. But in the anti-Julianist writings made readily available only within anti-Chalcedonian circles, you find one of the most refined Christologies that would put to shame anyone who thinks Severus is in some way a “Monophysite”, or even a “Monothelete”. Julian’s followers would actually ridicule Severus and his followers as akin to Paul of Samosata and Nestorius, as if they are worshipping a corruptible man who “needed” salvation. But even if Julian himself was intelligent enough and hard to pin down as heretical, many of his successors in Egypt via the Gaianites have taken his theology to silliness. For instance, Severus had to respond to a letter regarding the question of some pro-Julian monks who believed Christ’s incorruptible humanity was not really circumcised! This proved how short-lived the power of the schism was in Coptic and Syriac circles, while taking a more subtle shape in the Armenian Church that seemed to have not led it astray theologically, even if using Julian terminology. This is why the council of Manazkert in 726 was successful. It did not result in condemning or venerating either Julian or Severus, but it dod bring theological unity between the Syriac and Armenian churches.


In regards to terminology, when Severus was cornered by Julian, Severus had to purify his terminology even further. He was in the habit of being strict about terminology with respect to responding heresies. Against the Chalcedonians, the language of mia physis was necessary not because of a blind adherence of Cyrillian tradition or some sort of metaphysical consistency in language,41 but because it was a response to perceived heresy in Chalcedon. The term “two natures” is not in itself heretical (Severus would admit this). It is what is associated with it that makes this term rejectable. In the same way, because of Julian, Severus was forced to purify his terminology by saying Christ assumed corruptible humanity. It is not merely the idea that one says Christ’s humanity is incorruptible that is wrong. It must come with qualifications, and Julian’s qualifications lead Severus to irately reject Julian’s terminology. So now the question might also be, if cornered yet again, does that mean Severus believed Christ assumed “fallen” humanity? Fr. John Romanides summarizes Fr. V.C. Samuel’s “impressively Orthodox”42 paper at Aarhus 1964 with regards to Julianism this way:

The teaching of Julian of Halicarnassus that the Logos united to Himself manhood as it was before the fall is not in itself wrong and is accepted by all Fathers. What is wrong with Julian’s position, as pointed out by Father Samuel, is that the human nature of Christ was considered incorruptible before the resurrection. I would add that most Fathers would rather say that the human nature of Christ was by nature mortal but not by nature under the power or sentence of death and corruption which are the wages of sin. In this sense even the angels are by nature mortal. Only God is by nature immortal. It is for this reason that the death of the Lord of Glory in the flesh was voluntary and not the wages of personal or inherited sin.43

I think the debate over whether Christ had a fallen or unfallen human nature misses the point. While Romanides might be overall correct in his assessment, once again, one has to qualify the meaning of the term “fall”. For Julian, it was clear it meant a change in human nature to the point of a change in human consubstantiality with us. If cornered, would Severus have said, “well, Christ took fallen humanity”? I do not have confidence that is what Severus’ intentions were. Human nature was corruptible whether it was pre-fall or post-fall. At the same time, Christ from the moment of conception was hypostatically united to the divinity. That means the human nature is filled with divine power. You might have some pre-fall and post-fall aspects. So I contend that the question should be phrased differently, even if we find Church fathers would imply “pre-lapsarian”, one has to qualify the meaning of this term. Perhaps, in explaining the Oriental Orthodox conception of deification, this may help clarify the soteriological basis of Severus’ Christology. …

Mina Soliman is a Lector of the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of North America



[1] Worship in Spirit and Truth:
[2] I will explain this in the next essay
[3] Pauline Allen and C.T.R.Hayward, Severus of Antioch, Routledge 2004 (Allen), p. 6
[4] ibid p. 18
[5] Among them our own Coptic Pope St. Peter III, known as “Mongus”. After Severus of Antioch became patriarch however, despite his strong anti-Chalcedonian views, he became less stringent and refused to see Chalcedonians as a separate Church, but still part of the mystical body of Christ. Yonatan Moss dedicates a whole chapter of his book (Yonatan Moss, Incorruptible Bodies, University of California Press 2016, Chapter 2 “Body Politics: Rethinking the Body of Christ”) to the subject of Severus’ anti-Julian theology and its correlation with his ecclesiology.
[6] Among the most notable, it is believed he composed the “Ho Monogenes”, the same hymn Chalcedonian scholars attribute to Justinian the emperor.
[7] In one particular Coptic hymn tradition, we also call him “Chrysostom”: “Come and hear the wise, the golden tongued Theodosius, speaking of the honor of the baptizer, John the Baptist.” Source:
[8] Aloys Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition, Volume 2 – Part 4, Westminster John Knox Press 1996, pp. 49-52
[9] Later there was also another Christological dispute that came from anti-Chalcedonians that spread into Chalcedonians, namely the Agnoetae controversy. One might be tempted to say that the Agnoetae controversy continues today among ALL Christians, and I think it is a subject worth exploring.
[10] Father V.C. Samuel, The Council of Chalcedon Re-Examined, British Orthodox Press 2001, pp. 166-7.
[11] Yonatan Moss actually dates the beginning of the controversy back to 511, when they were debating and removing the Chalcedonian bishops lead by Macedonius of Constantinople (Moss p. 22). Moss believes that Julian brought up the controversy again during exile for ecclesiological reasons (Moss p. 42).
[12] About twenty years; he spent more time and effort on this issue than the Chalcedonian controversy. See Moss p. 21
[13] Allen p. 47. I would venture to educationally guess a few reasons, at least three. First, Julian was a friend. It probably hurts when a close friend is unable to see eye-to-eye with you theologically, especially after fighting against Chalcedonians together, albeit for different reasons dogmatically this whole time. Second, Julian used Severus’ writings as a support with different interpretations. It is irritating enough to hear from Chalcedonians attacking Severus as one with Apollinarius and Eutyches. It is quite another to find your very own side actually interpret your own writings in an Apollinarian way. Thirdly, but perhaps not lastly, Severus is in exile, always on the run. He does not have the dossier of writings readily available to make a good refutation as in his previous writings (Allen p. 26). Furthermore, the conditions of exile in and of itself is frustrating when you are worried about your pastoral work back in Antioch while you are in the desert hiding from monastery to monastery. If you put all these together, I can imagine Severus just snapping and aggressively going at it in his writing. If we had original manuscripts of his writings, one could perhaps study how hurried his anti-Julian writings may look compared to his earlier pre-exilic non-anti-Julian works. It seems some scholars realize this “hurried” approach in the behavior evident through the writings we have today. While Severus’ strict monasticism prepared him physically for his exile in the harsh Egyptian deserts, he was not prepared emotionally for the surprise heresy beside him, especially in the condition he was in. But for what it is worth, these writings are important for us today as a testimony to the Orthodoxy of the anti-Chalcedonian churches.
[14] I put this in quotes for a purpose, not to quote anyone, but to make a point of concentrating on this phrase.
[15] Patrologia Orientalis (PO) 8/2:358. 7–9, Allen p. 47. See also Aloys Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition, Volume 2 – Part 2, Westminster John Knox Press 1995 (Grillmeier 2.2), pp. 87-88.
[16] Definition of Aristotle as quoted by Moss p. 29
[17] Greek Orthodox Theological Review Volume X Number 2, Winter 1964-1965 (GOTR X.2), p. 52
[18] Not only Severus, but also various patristic witnesses. Julian and Severus would do battle using respective Patristic sources to support their beliefs while trying to make sense of those same witnesses that seem on the outset to contradict their beliefs. As Moss noted, “In claiming that Adam and Eve had corruptible bodies, Severus had to reckon with testimonies from Athanasius, Cyril, and others indicating their bodies were incorruptible. Conversely, in claiming that Jesus’s body was incorruptible, Julian had to cope with biblical passages and patristic testimonies indicating that Jesus suffered. As a result both men came up with a series of casuistic distinctions” (Moss p. 36).
[19] “Thus it quickly became clear that the argument [between Severus and Julian] was protological (related to humanity’s original state) as much as it was Christological” (Moss p. 32).
[20] Grillmeier 2.2, p. 84
[21] In all fairness, Moss felt obliged to point out against other scholars’ tendencies to “Augustinianize” Julian (such as Fr. Georges Florovsky in his book “The Byzantine Fathers”) that Julian had an “utterly non-Augustinian approach to sin and corruption” (Moss p. 33). Moss demonstrates how while like Augustine in other areas, in terms of the human will was actually quite optimistic through monastic asceticism. “Unlike Augustine, who believed that humanity was morally impotent, Julian was confident in people’s ability to restore their prelapsarian state” (Moss p. 40). Nevertheless, it should be noted that the accusations of heresies hurled between Julian and Severus does echo those of Augustine and Julian of Eclanum respectively (Moss pp. 33, 37). The similarities are uncanny, and do not create as huge a gulf I feel as Moss suggests.
[22] Moss p. 32
[23] Allen p. 7
[24] In fact, to take matters much further than any other Church father I could find, Moss writes that according to Severus, “Procreation through sex, however, did not come about as a result of primordial sin. Sexuality was already part of the original human condition” (Polémique 2.1:38-40/31-33, Moss p. 33).
[25] Why then was the virgin birth necessary? I will answer this question in my next essay.
[26] La Polemique I, p. 235, quoted by Samuel p. 470, footnote 722
[27] La Polemique I, p. 233, quoted by Samuel p. 471, footnote 724
[28] British Museum MS, op. cit., p. 26, quoted by Samuel p. 272
[29] And also taught it against the Chalcedonian John the Grammarian (Contra impium Grammaticum III. 33; CSCO 102:136.7–20, Allen p. 46)
[30] Allen p. 48
[31] Severus engages in a reductio ad absurdum with Julian throughout his refutations.
[32] See Grillmeier 2.2 pp. 95-8
[33] La Polemique II B, p. 193, quoted by Samuel p. 341
[34] La Polemique I, p. 134, quoted by Samuel p. 341
[35] Grillmeier 2.2 p. 86
[36] Severus of Antioch’s Homily LXXXIII, quoted by Cyril Hovorun, Will, Freedom, and Action, Brill 2008, p. 28
[37] Another good quote: “The words ‘he scorned’, and ‘he did not obey’, and this other, ‘he chose’, show us that the Word of God is united hypostatically not only to flesh, but still to a soul endowed with will and reason, for the purpose of making our souls, bent towards sinfulness, incline toward the choice of good and the aversion to evil.” (Homily LXXXIII, Roberta C. Chesnut, Three Monophysite Christologies, Oxford University Press 1976, p. 26)
[38] GOTR X.2 p. 46
[39] Unimpressively, later Chalcedonians like John of Damascus would describe the differences as merely whether Christ’s humanity is corruptible or incorruptible before the Resurrection, but there are no discussions regarding theological anthropology or the Virgin birth. See Samuel p. 342.
[40] Grillmeier 2.2 p. 85
[41] This latter approach was the method of pro-Chalcedonian polemics of his time.
[42] As he called it.
[43] GOTR X.2 p. 52


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25 Responses to St Severus of Antioch and the Julianist Heresy

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Mina, thank you for this article. This is great stuff. I was wondering if you might elaborate for us how Severus understood the the prelapsarian role of sex. Did he see sexual union as belonging to God’s original intent for humanity, or was it plan B, as St Gregory of Nyssa appears to have believed?


    • elijahmaria says:

      May I please chime in and welcome Mina! It’s been a longish interval since I have seen Mina’s name appear on my screen and it is a very welcome sight and a wonderful article….M.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Mina says:

      I admit I am taking Yonatan Moss’ words for it, and he gave a reference: Hespel, “Polemique” 2.1:41/34-35, french translation of Severus’ anti-Julianist writings:

      I think, from what I read about St. Gregory, Severus would contradict him. St. Gregory believed pre-lapsarian humans would reproduce the same way as angels, and sex was introduced post-lapsarian. Whereas, Severus, contra Julian, believed sex was part of human nature and therefore not inherently sinful in itself. In fact, Severus believe sin was caused by the movement of the human will, but denied there is a “sin nature” in humanity.

      If someone has connections to Dr. Moss, I would be interested to hear what he says about this.


  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    If the only difference between Severus and Julian is whether human nature was originally created mortal or immortal, corruptible or incorruptible, then the dispute hardly seems to reach the level of heresy, as long as both parties agree that the historical Jesus voluntarily subjected himself to sufferings and death, which apparently they did. Yet apparently both individuals believed that something serious and vital was at stake. Any further thoughts on this, Mina?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      After reading the Samuel article that you cite, I think I see things a bit clearer. As you state in your article, the critical issue between Severus and Julian is whether the Word assumed our nature. If prelapsarian human nature was essentially immortal and incorruptible, and then ceased to be with Adam’s disobedience, then Adam actually became a different kind of being, and it is this different-kind-of-being nature that we have inherited. So if Jesus assumed pre-lapsarian human nature, then his Incarnation has nothing to do with us.

      Does that sound right, Mina?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mina says:

        Another way of looking at it is this:

        Julian believed incorruptibility was a created characteristic of complete human nature. Julian believed we can become incorruptible by asceticism. (this might be the only part where Julian is in common with Pelagius)

        Severus believed incorruptibility was an uncreated characteristic that is part of understanding deified human nature. Severus believed we can become incorruptible by grace.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      The money passage from Samuel:

      The teaching of Julian may be summarized in this way. God created man in the beginning essentially immortal and incorruptible. But by the sin of Adam and the consequent fall, he lost this essential property. In order to save man from this fallen state, God the Son became incarnate by uniting to Himself real and perfect manhood. But the manhood which He thus assumed was so sinless that it was the manhood of Adam before the fall, and so it was essentially impassible, immortal and incorruptible. Julian, however, maintained that Christ suffered passions and died on the cross voluntarily for us. At the same time, he insisted that the body of our Lord was from the moment of its formation in the womb of the Virgin incorruptible.

      Of the many ideas which Julian emphasized, some are orthodox while others are heretical. Thus the following orthodox ideas in the teaching of Julian may be noted: (a) God the Son became incarnate by uniting to Himself real and perfect manhood, (b) As man, Christ was absolutely sinless, (c) The suffering and death which Christ endured were indispensable for our salvation, and God the Son Himself assumed them as His own.

      But the following ideas of Julian seem heretical: (a) When God the Son became incarnate, He united to Himself the manhood of Adam before the fall. So it was essentially impassible and immortal, (b) The body of our Lord was incorruptible, not merely after the resurrection, but from the moment of its conception in the womb of the Virgin, (c) As man, Christ was of the same substance with us, not in the sense that His manhood was our manhood, but only in the sense that it was the essential manhood of Adam before the fall. In other words,according to Julian, the manhood was not only sinless, but it had no involvement in the fallen state of the human race.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Mina says:

      As Dr. Yonatan Moss said in his book, this was not merely a Christological debate, but a protological one. That is, both Severus and Julian believed completely different ideas about the Fall of Adam. For Julian, the Fall meant a change in nature, which means pre-Fall Adam is not consubstantial with post-Fall Adam. For St. Severus, the Fall meant a change in the state of communion with God. Pre-Fall Adam was in communion with God, while post-Fall Adam lost the grace of God, but Adam was always corruptible by nature, whether pre-Fall or post-Fall.

      For Julian, there is a difference in human nature between pre-Fall and post-Fall, but for St. Severus, there is no difference in human nature. These “protological” ideas carried on into Christology.

      They apparently had different views of sexuality and inheritance of sin. For Julian, there are only three people who had a pre-lapsarian humanity: Adam, Eve, and Jesus. This is because they were not a product of the “moral corruption” of sexual reproduction. For Severus, not only did he reject any idea of inheritance of sin, but he also rejected that sexual reproduction was a “moral corruption” and took it further into stating that it was a pre-lapsarian condition as much as it is a post-lapsarian one.

      Therefore, the premises of Julian’s Christology were the heretical components that lead to the wide rift between him and St. Severus, not just Christology alone.


  3. Robert Fortuin says:

    the Tome of Leo went beyond this sound principle, and in declaring it a document of the faith the Council of Chalcedon also committed a great error. According to the Tome, “Each nature performs what is proper to it in communion with the other; the Word, for instance, performing what is proper to the Word,and the flesh carrying out what is proper to the flesh.” A teaching of this kind does not affirm Christ’s personal unity, but regards the natures as two persons. The phrase “in two natures” defined by the Council of Chalcedon must have meant the same teaching as that of Bishop Leo.

    Seriously? I am surprised this wasn’t a point of discussion in the postscript comments.


    • Mina says:

      We all have our biases, no? Fr. VC Samuel is a die-hard Severian theologian. Even Romanides and Florovsky recognized that Pope Leo is not the theologian par excellence history venerates him to be. He seemed to at best not be aware of the theological nuances of St. Cyril in this debate.

      There is a book that explores the theology of Pope Leo in depth called “The Soteriology of Leo the Great”. Unfortunately, it’s very expensive.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      We were all waiting for you to enter the arena, Robert. 🙂


  4. Robert Fortuin says:

    Hi Mina,

    A bias and lapse of sound scholarship which makes it impossible to take Fr Samuel’s read on the Tome seriously, when he claims that the Tome and Chalcedon regard, ‘the natures as two persons.’ Wow.

    I realize the Tome and Chalcedon is not to be central to the thrust of your article, for which I apologize. I was enjoying Samuel’s thorough and nuanced analysis of Julian when my beard dropped into my salad bowl.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mina says:

      Is there any scholar without bias? On that sense, all scholars lapse in being sound! I think we need to be a bit more sensitive to the issues surrounding Chalcedon, because you will get a lot of diverse ideas about it, and especially about the Tome of Leo. Just because you understand something one way all your life does not mean others read into it the same way. I think Fr. Samuel’s read needs to be taken seriously because this is the OO reading of the Tome until today. And this is part of what I will explain in the next essay as well, as to how the rejection of Chalcedon (which in essence is the rejection of the Tome of Leo) is connected to St. Severus’ soteriology.


      • Robert Fortuin says:


        It is a sophomoric misunderstanding of Chalcedon to take it to denote ‘natures as two persons,’ this moves leaps beyond bias or opinion. One will have to deliberately misrepresent and set aside what has been clearly expounded and explicated. Frs Meyendorff and Romanides succinctly explain the reason for Fr Samuel faulty gloss. Misrepresentation is not likely to gain a symphatetic audience.


        • Mina says:

          I sympathize, and I think the research we have in Leo’s theology will help OOs understand him better. I simply wanted to open the idea that Fr. Samuel was a man of his time. Given the openness of Western scholarship to Nestorius’ alleged Orthodoxy, as well as some poor wording choices, it gave OOs a particular impression that resurrects ancient feelings. I do not think we should call what Fr. Samuel did as “sophomoric”. To be easily dismissive in such a manner is underestimating the grievances OOs had in the past.


    • Mina says:

      Another writing that is popular on the subject of Pope Leo:

      “The Shifting Tones of Pope Leo the Great’s Christological Vocabulary”, by Philip L. Barclift

      This isn’t a book, but an article that I have yet to get, but comes highly recommended


      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Yes that is a good article and will, for one, disabuse the notion that Leo had a deficient understanding of Cyrilian theology.


  5. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    It’s probably been over two decades since I last worried myself about the Tome of St Leo. The contentious sentence in the Tome is the following: “The activity of each form is what is proper to it in communion with the other: that is, the Word performs what belongs to the Word, and the flesh accomplishes what belongs to the flesh” (or as Robert Jenson semi-amusingly translates: “Each nature does its own thing, in cooperation with the other”).

    It’s easy to see why the followers of St Cyril at the Council of Chalcedon found the Tome controversial. The contentious sentence can certainly be read as affirming a dualistic christology, with the divine Son doing divine things and the human Jesus doing human things. In his book The Unity of Christ, Christopher Beeley also notes the ambiguities and inconsistencies in the Tome.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Yes, a dualistic christology can be had by reading that passage in isolation, disjoined from the rest of the Tome, with a deliberate disregard for its theological and ecclesial context, Leo’s other writings, Chalcedon, subsequent Councils, Tradition, and so on and so forth.


      • Mina says:

        Scholars have said the same for Nestorius and Theodore of Mopsuestia, that is they are read in isolation disjointed from the rest of their own writings that do not make them out as heretical as they seem.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Tony says:

    Thank you Mina for expressing the OO understanding of the Julianist heresy, which confirms that the charge against Father Emmanuel as espousing Aphthartodocetism in His book “Jesus:Fallen?” is unwarranted and unfair.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Tony, I believe that you are technically correct, in that Julian apparently claimed that prelapsarian human nature was intrinsically immortal and incorruptible, and Fr Emmanuel does not say that. But by claiming (a) that Christ’s humanity was immortal and incorruptible at conception (pp. 202-207) and by insisting (b) upon the consent of the Christ’s human will to the assumption of passions and mortality (when precisely did this occur? in the womb? after birth? age of maturity? at baptism?), Fr Emmanuel effectively ends up in a position similar to the Aphartodocetists—not identical but similar enough to raise concerns.

      I think I have provided sufficient documentation in my extended review of Jesus: Fallen to support this reading. I’m sure my reading is debatable—given the length of the book, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t—but I do not accept your charge that it is unfair. At the very minimum, Fr Emmanuel has left himself wide open to the interpretation of his position that I have advanced in my series.

      Liked by 1 person

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