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Ss. Eutychius of Constantinople and Anastasius of Antioch were deposed and exiled because they openly opposed Emperor St. Justinian's edict in 564 on Aphthartodocetism, the belief that Christ's body, from the incarnation, was incorruptible.

In the Hagiography of Eutychius of Constantinople we read:

After the death of the holy Patriarch Menas, the Apostle Peter appeared in a vision to the emperor Justinian and, pointing his hand at Eutychius, said, 'Let him be made your bishop.' At the very beginning of his patriarchal service, St Eutychius convened the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553), at which the Fathers condemned the heresies cropping up and anathematized them. However, after several years a new heresy arose in the Church: Aphthartodocetism or imperishability which taught that the flesh of Christ, before His death on the Cross and Resurrection, was not capable of suffering. St Eutychius vigorously denounced this heresy, but the emperor Justinian himself inclined toward it, and turned his wrath upon the saint. By order of the emperor, soldiers seized the saint in the church, removed his patriarchal vestments, and sent him into exile to an Amasean monastery (565).

Hagiography of Eutychius of Constantinople.

The surviving extant about that edict is preserved by Evagrius Scholasticus:

At that time Justinian, abandoning the right road of doctrine, and following a path untrodden by the apostles and fathers, became entangled among thorns and briers; with which wishing to fill the Church also, he failed in his purpose, and thereby fulfilled the prediction of prophecy ; the Lord having secured the royal road with an unfailing fence, that murderers might not leap, as it were, upon a tottering wall or a broken hedge. Thus, at the time when John, named also Catelinus, was bishop of the elder Rome, after Vigilius; John from Seremis, of New Rome; Apollinaris, of Alexandria; Anastasius, of Theopolis, after Domninus; and Macarius, of Jerusalem, had been restored to his see; Justinian, after he had anathematized Origen, Didymus, and Evagrius, issued what the Latins call an Edict, after the deposition of Eustochius, in which he termed the body of the Lord incorruptible and incapable of the natural and blameless passions; affirming that the Lord ate before his passion in the same manner as after his resurrection, his holy body having undergone no conversion or change from the time of its actual formation in the womb, not even in respect of the voluntary and natural passions, nor yet after the resurrection. To this, he proceeded to compel the bishops in all quarters to give their assent. However, they all professed to look to Anastasius, the bishop of Antioch, and thus avoided the first attack.

Evagrius Scholasticus, Church History, 4:39, Departure of Justinian from Orthodoxy.

Fr. Asterios Gerostergios in his book Justinian the Great: The Emperor and Saint, rejects the assertion that Justinian succumbed in his last years to the heresy of aphthartodocetism.

Eutychius himself later lapsed into the same heresy before renouncing it on his death bed. Was Justinian for a time temporarily fell into this aphthartodocetic heresy and repented shortly before his death bed similar to what happen to Eutychius latter? This question is not made to defame a holy and pious saint venerated by both Catholic and Orthodox. I ask this question to study a historical event in the Church history.

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Historians widely agree that Justinian did indeed issue an edict imposing aphthartodocetism (the idea that Jesus's body was always incorruptible), citing the testimony you quoted from Evagrius Scholasticus.

One of the primary theological issues that Justinian faced was related to the nature of the incarnation of Jesus – advocates of the Chalcedonian Definition on one side, and those supporting Monophysitism (or, more charitably, Miaphysitism) on the other. Justinian made various efforts to achieve unity during his rule (cf. the Three-Chapter Controversy), and it seems that near the end of his life, he thought that one way to achieve that might be by imposing aphthartodocetism. Adolf von Harnack writes:

[Justinian] could not find the right dogmatic formula for the World-Empire which he created; what he did settle was the specific formula for the patriarchate of Constantinople and its immediate belongings. He, however, saw that himself; he wished to sanction Aphthartodoketism (564) which was in harmony with his own dogmatic views and which might perhaps win over the Monophysites. His policy was a logical one, and the Emperor set about carrying it out with his wonted energy, beginning as usual by deposing the patriarch of the capital. (History of Dogma, IV, 251)

Similarly, J. A. S. Evans attributes political motives to Justinian on this matter, and traces several efforts to resolve the controversy leading up to the edict:

[Bishop Theodore Askidas] reminded the old emperor that there was more than one Monophysite sect, and if he could not win over the followers of Severus, why not approach the Aphthartodocetists? The suggestion must have piqued the emperor's interest. In 557, he had convoked Jacob Baradaeus and a large selection of his monks in Constantinople in another effort to solve the Monophysite problem, but the meeting had been fruitless. On the eve of the rededication of Hagia Sophia, he issued an edict proclaiming the orthodoxy of Chalcedon. But then, near the end of 564, he promulgated an edict affirming the incorruptibility of Christ's body. (Age of Justinian, 262)

Other historians more readily attribute this change to a mental decline; J. B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire, II (393), indicates that it "is generally considered an aberration due to senility." Others hold that the change was compatible with his long-held beliefs:

[Justinian's] edict on the incorruptibility of Christ's body (564 or 565) is difficult to understand. Even though the emperor's aphthartodocetic views most likely had a place within his Chalcedonian convictions, they show once again how until his very last breath he attempted to describe the union of the natures in Christ in a language that would be acceptable to (a major segment of) the anti-Chalcedonians. (Lucas Van Rompay, in Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian, 254)

Even the Catholic Encyclopedia, though calling him a "wonderful" and "great" man, is largely negative regarding his ecclesiastical polity. The aphthartodocetism edict is not explicitly mentioned, but his various interventions in the Monophysite controversies earn him the labels "semi-Monophysite" and "a persecutor of the Church."

Despite all this agreement, there is at least one prominent dissenter, Asterios Gerostergios, an Eastern Orthodox thinker. He defends Justinian's reputation, casting doubt on the reliability of Evagrius and arguing that such a significant edict would have been mentioned in a variety of other contexts if it actually existed. For details, see this summary, or Gerostergios's book, Justinian the Great.

Summary

The argument from silence of Asterios Gerostergios does seem to have some merit, and as in many questions of early medieval history, we might desire that more evidence survived. Nonetheless, while recognizing that absolute certainty is impossible, it is difficult to reject the consensus view – that Justinian did indeed issue an edict imposing aphthartodocetism. What his mental condition and motives were at the time, however, is less certain.

As for the possibility of a deathbed rejection of aphthartodocetism, we lack evidence of events immediately surrounding his death. But all indications suggest that Justinian pursued the enforcement of his edict until his death.

  • Thanks for giving your time to compile this excellent answer. Initially I was hesitant with this conclusion because I haven't been able to find extensive analysis from Catholic and Orthodox scholars on this debate to get complete picture. This is a good contribution. – Adithia Kusno Jul 24 '17 at 3:01
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Admittedly I'm reporting mostly silence, but my copy of "Heresies" by Harold O. J. Brown mentions aphthartodocetism on page 185. He does not, however, mention anything about Justinian or any other emperor adhering to this doctrine. According to him:

If monophysitism had not gone beyond Severus [presumably Severus of Antioch], it would at most have been schismatic, but not heretical. His successors, Julian of Halicarnassus and Gaianus of Alexandria, pushed the tendency of monophysitism so far as to say that Jesus must have possessed a glorified nature from the incarnation, not merely from the resurrection, as most Christians hold; hence his humanity was always aphthartos, "indestructible." To the extent that this is a legitimate inference from the original monophysite premise, it produces a docetic Christ, and indeed this party was derided as "aphthartodocetists." Curiously, Julian did not deny the sufferings of Christ, but asserted that miraculously he willed his flesh to suffer, although by nature it was impassible[sic]. Human frailties, such as hunger and thirst, sweat and tears, fatigue and fear were foreign to him. Even the less drastic Monophysites who followed Severus insisted that Jesus did not suffer human experiences through his nature, but only according to his will; true humanity thus seems to have been sacrificed, exactly as was the case with Apollinaris. [italics in the original]

There is just this one paragraph in the entire book.

From wikipedia's article on Severus (linked above) we see that empress Theodora favored Severus and his monophysites, but Justinian banished him. It therefore seems inconsistent to accuse Justinian of an even more radical heresy.

  • I don't think it's inconsistent. St Justinian according the hagiography of St. Eutychius of Constantinople and the record of Evagrius Scholasticus did in fact issue an edict. Even St Peter after protecting the Lord in the Garden later succumbed temporarily when he denied Him three times. It's possible and not inconsistent. What I don't know is whether or not he recanted in his death bed. That I'm not sure. Even Eutychius himself after being restored to his See lapsed into the same error and recanted on his death bed. – Adithia Kusno Jul 29 '15 at 20:24

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