The Ecthesis: When Emperor Heraclius sought to conciliate Syriac dissenters with the doctrine of Christ’s ‘single will’, but failed

By Fr Alberto Meouchi priest of the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch

The Ecthesis (ἔκθεσις) is a letter published in the year 638 AD by Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (610-641). Ecthesis ἔκθεσις is Greek for ‘exposition’ of faith. In Syriac: ܡܰܘܕܥܳܢܽܘܬ ܗܰܝܡܳܢܽܘܬܳܐ.

In the letter, Heraclius declared monothelism the official imperial Christian doctrine. Emperor Heraclius’ intention with the Ecthesis was to reconcile the different Christian dogmatic positions about Jesus Christ in his empire.

The Christological doctrinal crisis of the 5th-7th century had become manifest after ancient Christian Churches like the Coptic, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Ethiopian Orthodox, Eritrean, and the Malankara Syrian Orthodox churches refused to accept the dogma of faith of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD). The Chalcedonian dogma declared that in Christ there is one divine person and two natural ones, the human and the divine.

Chalcedonian declaration of Christ’s nature: “perfect both in deity and in humanness; this selfsame one is also actually God and actually man.”

In this context of dogmatic strife, the doctrine of Patriarch of Constantinople Nestorius (ca. 386-451) is pivotal. His doctrine denied the unity of the divine Person in Christ. Nestorius chose to declare that there were two persons in Christ, a human person and a divine person.

The Chalcedonian declaration of the two natures in Christ was much contested by adherents of Monophysism, and later Miaphysim, which was embraced by the Jacobite or Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch. Miaphysim is a term derived from the Greek words for μία mia, “single”, and φύσις physis, “nature”. In Syriac, physis was translated as kyono ܟܝܢܐ.

One year after Chalcedon, Emperor Marcian (450-457) is claimed to have built the Monastery of Maron – known as Beit Maron ܒܶܝܬ ܡܳܪܘܢ – northeast of ancient Apamea or contemporary Ma’rat al-Na’aman in northwest Syria. The Syriac monks of Beit Maron were defended by Emperor Heraclius (610-641) – a determined opponent of Monophysism – because the Syriac Maronites faithfully embraced the Chalcedonian council.

St Maximus the Confessor
Patriarch Nestorius

The Syriac Maronites firmly rejected Nestorius’ doctrine, and it is in Beit Maron that, with the arrival of Roman prisoners in Antioch, the Syriac Maronites began to hear of the teaching of the ‘two wills’ in Christ, i.e. diotelism. The Syriac Maronites, frightened because they did not understand this teaching well, believed that they were talking about two people in Christ. They fiercely opposed this doctrine that some Maximites had embraced and which the Syriac Maronites considered Nestorian heresy.

This is where the Syriac separation of adherents to the Chalcedonian dogma into two parties begins:

* The Syriac Melkite Chalcedonian Maximites, so called because they followed St. Maximus the Confessor. The current Syriac Melkite Patriarchate is in Damascus;
* The Syriac Melkite Chalcedonian Maronites, so called because they were disciples of St Maron. The current Syriac Maronite Patriarchate is in Bkerké, Lebanon.

The disputes between the two Syriac Chalcedonian parties were based on a misunderstanding.

For the Maximites, there were two wills in Christ, whether discordant or not; but the Syriac Maronites understood two discordant wills as confessing to two persons in Christ. For this reason, the Syriac Maronites have been accused by some historians of being monothelites because by affirming that there were two wills in total harmony in Christ, they were included with the supporters of one will. In fact, not only the Syriac Maronites were confused; Pope Honorius I (d. 638) incurred, in writing, in this terminological, but not theological, confusion.

Honoring history, this was not the case, because when Emperor Heraclius published the Ecthesis in which he declared that in Christ there should be only one will (monothelism), the Syriac Maronites denied it categorically and did not accept its doctrinal content.

Although the Syriac Maronites were initially protected by Heraclius, for them the Ecthesis constitutes a key document to show that they never confessed to monothelism (despite the confusing language that they sometimes used to explain their Christological doctrinal position). Their opposition to the idea of “two wills” was based on the interpretation of “two wills” as “two contrary wills”, and not to monothelism as the Ecthesis declared it.

So, with his Ecthesis Emperor Heraclius sought to conciliate the Syriac dissenters with the doctrine of Christ’s single will – but he failed.

Father Alberto Meouchi is priest of the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch in Chihuahua, Mexico.

Disclaimer: translated from the original Spanish see maronitas.org.

How to cite: Meouchi, Alberto (2019). Diccionario Enciclopedico Maronita. Chihuahua, Mexico: iCharbel.editorial.


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