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Three Chapters

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Three Chapters.—The Three Chapters (tria kephalaia) were propositions anathematizing: (I) the person and writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia; (2) certain writings of Theodoret of Cyrus; (3) the letter of Ibas to Maris. At a very early stage of the controversy the incriminated writings themselves came to be spoken of as the “Three Chapters”. In consequence those who refused to anathematize these writings were said to defend the Three Chapters; and, vice versa, those who anathematized them, to condemn the Three Chapters. Thus, that most important work, the “Defensio trium capitulorum” by Facundus, Bishop of Hermiane, was an attack on the anathematization of the writings of Theodore, etc. The history of the controversy may be divided into three periods: the first ending with the arrival of Vigilius at Constantinople; the second with his ratification of the Second Council of Constantinople in which the Three Chapters were condemned; the third with the final healing of the schisms in the West caused by the papal ratification of the aforesaid council. We shall treat very cursorily of the second and third periods, referring the reader for fuller details to the articles on the council, Pelagius I, Pelagius II, and Vigilius.

At the end of 543 or the beginning of 544 an edict was issued in the name of the Emperor Justinian in which the Three Chapters were anathematized. Justinian’s purpose was to facilitate the return of the Monophysites to the Church. These heretics accused the Church of Nestorianism, and, when assured that Nestorius was regarded as a heretic, pointed to the writings of his teacher Theodore of Mopsuestia, which were quite as incorrect, and yet had never been condemned. They added that Theodoret, the friend and defender of Nestorius, had been restored to his see by the Council of Chalcedon, and that the epistle of Ibas had even been treated as harmless by the council. It was sincerely hoped by Justinian that when grounds of complaint against the council had been removed, the Monophysites might be induced to accept the decisions of the council and the letters of St. Leo, which they now insisted on misinterpreting in a Nestorian sense. As a temporal ruler he wished to heal religious divisions which threatened the security of the empire, and as a good amateur theologian he was probably rather pleased with himself at being able to lay his finger upon what seemed to him an important omission on the part of the Council of Chalcedon. But upright as he was, he was really being engineered by Origenists who were desirous of escaping his attention. (For Justinian’s campaign against the Origenists see XI, 311.) Evagrius (Hist. eccl., IV, xxviii) tells us that Theodorus Ascidas, the leader of the Origenists, came to Justinian who was consulting about further measures against the Origenists, and raised the question of the Three Chapters to divert the attention of the emperor. According to Liberatus (Breviarium, c. 24) Ascidas wished to take his revenge on the memory of Theodore of Mopsuestia, who had written much against Origen; and finding the emperor engaged upon a treatise which was to convert a sect of Monophysites known as the Acephali, suggested a more expeditious plan. If the writings of Theodore and the epistle of Ibas were anathematized, the Council of Chalcedon being thus revised and expurgated (Synodus … retractata et expurgata) would no longer be a stumbling block to the Monophysites. The admissions, quoted by Facundus (Def., I, 2; IV, 4), made by Domitian, Bishop of Ancyra, to Vigilius, tell the same story of an Origenist intrigue.

The leading Eastern bishops were coerced, after a short resistance, into subscribing. Mennas, Patriarch of Constantinople, first protested that to sign was to condemn the Council of Chalcedon, and then yielded on the distinct understanding, as he told Stephen the Roman apocrisarius at Constantinople, that his subscription should be returned to him if the Apostolic See disapproved of it. Stephen and Dacius, Bishop of Milan, who was then at Constantinople, broke off communion with him. Mennas had next to coerce his suffragans. They also yielded, but lodged protests with Stephen to be transmitted to the pope, in which they declared that they acted under compulsion. Ephraim, Patriarch of Alexandria, resisted, then yielded and sent a message to Vigilius, who was in Sicily, affirming that he had signed under compulsion. Zoilus, Patriarch of Antioch, and Peter, Bishop of Jerusalem, made a like resistance and then yielded (Facundus, “Def.”, IV, 4). Of the other bishops, those who subscribed were rewarded, those who refused were deposed or had to “conceal themselves” (Liberatus, “Brev.”, 24; Facundus, “Def.”, II, 3 and “Cont. Moe.”, in Gallandi, XI, 813). While the resistance of the Greek-speaking bishops collapsed, the Latin, even those like Dacius of Milan and Facundus, who were then at Constantinople, stood firm. Their general attitude is represented in two letters still extant. The first is from an African bishop named Pontianus, in which he entreats the emperor to withdraw the Three Chapters on the ground that their condemnation struck at Chalcedon. The other is that of the Carthaginian deacon, Ferrandus; his opinion as a most learned canonist was asked by the Roman deacons Pelagius (afterwards pope, at this time a strong defender of the Three Chapters) and Anatolius. He fastened on the epistle of Ibas—if this was received at Chalcedon, to anathematize it now was to condemn the council. An even stronger use of the benevolence of the council towards this epistle was made by Facundus at one of the conferences held by Vigilius before he issued his “Judicatum”. He wished it to protect the memory of Theodore of Mopsuestia because Ibas had spoken of him in terms of commendation (Cont. Moe., loc. cit.). When in January, 547, Vigilius arrived at Constantinople while Italy, Africa, Sardinia, Sicily, and the countries of Illyricum and Hellas through which he journeyed were up in arms against the condemnation of the Three Chapters, it was clear that the Greek-speaking bishops as a whole were not prepared to withstand the emperor.

With regard to the merits of the controversy, theological errors and, in the case of Theodore, very serious ones, were to be found in the incriminated writings (Theodore was practically a Nestorian before Nestorius); the mistakes of Theodoret and Ibas were chiefly but not wholly due to a misunderstanding of St. Cyril’s language. Yet these errors even when admitted did not make the question of their condemnation an easy one. There were no good precedents for thus dealing harshly with the memory of men who had died in the peace of the Church. St. Cyprian, as Facundus argued (“Cont. Moe.”, in Gallandi, X, 815), had erred about the rebaptism of heretics, yet no one would dream of anathematizing him. The condemnation was not demanded to crush a heresy, but to conciliate heretics who were implacable enemies of the Council of Chalcedon. Both Ibas and Theodoret had been deprived of their bishoprics by heretics, and had been restored by the Holy See and the Council of Chalcedon on anathematizing Nestorius. Yet the council had their writings before it, and, in the case of the epistle of Ibas, things were said which could easily be construed into an approval of it. All this made the condemnation look like an oblique blow at St. Leo and Chalcedon.

The matter was further complicated by the fact that the Latins, Vigilius among them, were for the most part ignorant of Greek and therefore unable to judge the incriminated writings for themselves. Pelagius II in his third epistle to Elias, probably drawn up by St. Gregory the Great, ascribes all the trouble to this ignorance. All they had to go upon was the general attitude of the Fathers of Chalcedon. These facts should be remembered in judging the conduct of Vigilius. He came to Constantinople in a very resolute frame of mind, and his first step was to excommunicate Mennas. But he must have felt the ground was being cut from under his feet when he was supplied with translations of some of the worst passages in the writings of Theodore. In 548 he issued his “Judicatum” in which the Three Chapters were condemned, and then temporarily withdrew it when the storm it raised showed how ill-prepared the Latins were for it. Next he and Justinian agreed to a general council in which Vigilius pledged himself to bring about the condemnation of the Three Chapters, it being understood that the emperor should take no further steps till the council should be arranged. The emperor broke his pledge by issuing a fresh edict condemning the Chapters. Vigilius had twice to take sanctuary, first in the Basilica of St. Peter, and then in the Church of St. Euphemia at Chalcedon, from which he issued an Encyclical to the whole Church describing the treatment he had received. Then an agreement was patched up and Vigilius agreed to a general council but soon withdrew his assent. Nevertheless, the council was held, and, after refusing to accept the “Consitutum” of Vigilius (see Pope Vigilius), it then condemned the Three Chapters. Finally Vigilius succumbed, confirmed the council, and was set free. But he died before reaching Italy, leaving his successor Pelagius the task of dealing with the schisms in the West. The most enduring of these were those of Aquileia and Milan. The latter came to an end when Fronto, the schismatical bishop, died about 581.


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