Have you ever wondered what makes the Coptic Christian Church different from the Catholic Church ? I mean theologically, not related to power or culture. Or what makes a Methodist different from a Presbyterian ? If so, then the course of The Teaching Company titled, History of Christian Theology, is for you. See http://www.teach12.com/
I have wondered about those distinctions. Reading many, many books on philosophy and history of places and times like the Byzantium Empire and the many empires of the Asian steppes, I ran across $10 and $100 words like hypostasis, monophysite, dyophysite, and even the $10,000 word, miaphysite. The concepts embodied in these words had real influence on history in the transition period from antiquity to late antiquity circa 300-400 AD and also later into the High Middle Ages (1000 AD to 1300 AD). To try to make sense of all this, I listened to the aforementioned CD course and have researched the meanings of those terms in my copy of The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions and other reference works. My nascent study of ancient Greek has also helped immensely.
MUCH CONFUSION EXISTS ONLINE AND IN BOOKS AND EVEN DICTIONARIES. This appears to arise from linguistic ignorance and translation confusion. Many languages are involved, such as ancient Greek, Latin, Syrian, Persian, etc.
Below I provide my understanding of these terms ... as of now. As best as possible, I am applying Occam's Razor to these explanations - viz, I keep only what I deem essential to understanding.
A monophysite [$10] holds that there was a single birth with one nature of Christ. The word is made from combining the Greek word, 'monos', meaning alone, only, single, unique, with the Greek word, 'physis', meaning nature, inborn quality. An indisputably monophysite doctrine holds that Christ had a human body and a divine nature: there was a single birth of a human body with one divine nature. Mary is still the Mother of God. The doctrines of Eutychianism and Apollinarianism are indisputable monophysite.
A miaphysite [$10,000] holds that Christ had a human body with a united, conjoined nature, both human and divine, united indivisibly. This concept comes from the writings of St. Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria from 412 AD: "miaphysis tou theou logou sesarkoumenc" as transliterated from ancient Greek meaning "the one nature of God the Incarnate Logos/Word". The word is made from combining the Greek word, 'mia', which is the feminine form for 'one' with the Greek word, 'physis', meaning nature, inborn quality. Further elaborating, the "one nature" was both human and divine at once and never separate. There was one birth with a human body and one united nature (human+divine): Mary is still Mother of God under miaphysitism.
This is the Christology of the Coptic, Ethiopian and Armenian Orthodox Churches. Many, many references exists calling these churches 'monophysite', but they themselves reject the term. The confusion seems to arise from a lack of understanding of ancient Greek and from lifting words out of context. Notice the subtle difference between "one" as a single, unique entity, and a "one" that is a united entity.
A dyophysite [$100] maintains that Christ has two natures: one divine and one human, that are indivisible but separate. There is one human birth with two natures: Mary is Mother of God here, too. "... dyophysite Christology originated in the theology of Antioch (called Nestorians), but became modified as the single person, two perfect natures that are distinguishable (indivisible but separate) (Pope Leo I)." [source: History of the Byzantine State by Ostrogorsky, page 58].. This Christology eventually predominated in the council of Chalcedon (451 AD) and is held by both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The Oriental Orthodox Churches split off from the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches after that the Council of Chalcedon.
A Nestorian [$10] holds that there are two distinct persons in Christ - human and divine. Nestorianism holds that Mary gave birth to a human person who was immediately infused with the divine nature. Mary is NOT the Mother of God in this Christology. This Christology is held to derive from Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 (d. 451). His Christology was strongly opposed by Cyril of Alexandria and rejected by the council of Ephesus in 431.
"Henceforth [after Chalcedon], Nestorianism became the label for Christologies that divided the humanities of Christ from his divinity, as if Christ were not one person but a combination of two separately-acting principles or persons." [source: History of Christian Theology, #11, Notes, page 42, para. III(C)(2)]
"The so-called Nestorian Church is the ancient church of the Persian Empire, now most properly called the Church of the East. ... The Nestorian Church expanded away from the dominating West, establishing itself in India and China. " [source: The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, page 692]. Many wives of Mongol khans were Nestorian, which caused those khans to give better treatment to Christians as they conquered much of Asia.
Word of the Day
"Hypostasis" - noun [$10]
Hypostasis means 1. (Medical) an accumulation of fluid or blood in the lower parts of the body or organs under the influence of gravity, in cases of poor circulation; 2. (metaphysics) an underlying substance, as opposed to attributes or that which is unsubstantial; 3. (in Christian theology) a. the person of Christ, combining human and divine natures; b. each of the three person of the Trinity.
Sentence: (A) (classical from Plotinus) "Plotinus spoke of a hierarchy of three divine hypostases: One, Mind and Soul." [from History of Christian Theology, #13, Notes, page 51]. (B) Miaphysite doctrine holds the two natures, human and divine, were united in one hypostasis, never were separate even for a moment.