The fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries rumbled with prolonged controversy about the nature of Christ, and numerous councils convened to grapple with this issue. The Council of Nicaea in 325 said that Christ was fully divine. Fifty years later, the Council of Constantinople proclaimed Christ fully human. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 formulated the famous creed that Christ is “truly God and truly man … two natures without confusion, without change, without division, or without separation. … ”
On this day in Christian history, May 5, 553, another council was convoked, this one by Emperor Justinian in Constantinople. Justinian, brilliant and tireless, longed to be religious. He spent many nights in prayer and fasting, and endless days in theological study. He built the fabulous cathedral of Hagia Sophia and spoke longingly of a unified church.
But Justinian was also vain, ambitious, ostentatious, and easily influenced. His beautiful wife Theodora, daughter of a bear trainer, was ruthless, and she played him like a marionette. Unable to understand the two natures of Christ, she held the Monophysite view—that Jesus had no human nature but possessed only a divine nature, clothed somehow in human flesh. At the Council of Constantinople, Justinian, manipulated by his wife, issued a decree favorable to the Monophysites.
Pope Vigilius had refused to attend the council due to fear for his safety and because of the preponderance of Eastern bishops. In Rome he received news of the council’s actions with disdain but eventually accepted its decisions as unimportant. Monophysite views, however, continue to this day in Abyssinia, Syria, and in the Coptic church of Egypt.
And Justinian? He eventually became a full-fledged heretic, preaching that the body of Christ, being incorruptible, could not have experienced suffering and death. He died in 565, unrepentant, at age 83, his later years darkened by perpetual disasters.
Healthy Christianity demands both a correct theological knowledge of Christ and a personal knowledge of the Savior through faith and obedience. Justinian grappled with the former, never arrived at the latter, and makes us wonder what the Lord thinks of his title in history—Justinian the Great.
In the beginning was the one who is called the Word. The Word was with God and was truly God. From the very beginning the Word was with God. And with this Word, God created all things. Nothing was made without the Word. (John 1:1-3a)
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). May 5.