History & Tradition

John Philoponus (490-580):

Sixth century Alexandrian Theologian, Scientist & Philosopher

By: Fr Anthony St Shenouda


When we speak of the church fathers we immediately think of St Athanasius, St Cyril, St John Chrysostom, Clement of Alexandria, and the many other well known patriarchs & deans of the School of Alexandria. Only recently have I come across a man who has been very influential in Coptic Church in the sixth century, yet virtually unknown to many Copts today. He was no patriarch, or a priest or even a monk, yet his theological, philosophical, and scientific, writings have been very influential in his time and only started to resonate its effect in the late 20th century in the scholarly field.

John Philoponus[1] was born from Christian parents in Egypt around the year 490 A.D. He received his philosophical learning at the pagan school of Alexandria, which was rising to prominence over and against the declining school of Athens which shut down by an edict of Justinian in 529 A.D. He received his learning from Ammonius Hermeion a skilled pagan philosopher. John’s youth was not spent in barren academic learning but he belonged to a group of committed Christians in Egypt along with St. Severus of Antioch who later on become the non-Chalcidonian patriarch of Antioch. This group of Christians – like the first seven deacons in Acts – embarked on charitable works; building churches, and holding heated discussions with non-Christians.

At the age of 27 he started writing his series of commentaries on Aristotle’s work. In this work he did not only prove himself to be successful in his Christian life and learning, but his success in religious life was reflected on his secular learning. In his commentaries he refuted Aristotle’s concept of “eternity of the world” in which he scientifically and philosophically proved that the world had to have a beginning and that beginning took place in Genesis’ creation narrative. L.S.B MacCoull[2] further suggests that in another work he published a “path breaking rejection of the steady-state universe in favour of a ‘big bang theory’ consistent with the Christian doctrine of creation.”

Also in his commentaries on Aristotle’s work he argued against Aristotle’s theories of motion, hinting to a theory that was eventually developed by later great scientists such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Isaac Newton. He argued against the common Aristotelian theory of the time that there is a duality between that which is heavenly and that which is earthly. Philoponus also argued that the light of the heavens with that was produced by creatures upon the earth both belonged to a wholeness that was the creation of the logos of the creator[3] against the Aristotelian theory that they were separate.

John Philoponus in his defence of Christianity in the scientific arena did not only offer original and clear arguments against common misconceptions in the field of science in his time but he also laid the foundation for modern scientific methods with compelling influence upon the scientific culture down to our present time.

“However, of greatest important is Philoponus’ cosmology, based upon his monotheism. Believing that heaven and earth were both created by God ex nihilo he vehemently attacked Aristotle’s assumptions with regard to the eternity of the universe and its dichotomy into a heavenly and sublunary region. In particular he tried to disprove by physical considerations Aristotle’s belief that the sun and the stars consisted of aether, and claimed that they were sources of fire of the same kind as terrestrial fires, being like those subject to creation and decay. Moreover, he declared that all matter everywhere is nothing but tri-dimensional extension and in this respect, too, there is no difference between heaven and earth. Philoponus’ philosophy found no echo in his time, and twelve hundred years had to pass until the impact of Galileo’s ideas brought about a complete change in scientific thought.”[4]

John Philoponus did not only leave his work on the scientific front, he also contributed immensely to the Christological controversy of his time. In the aftermath of the council of Chalcedon many attempts were taking place to reconcile the two parties of the controversy. Justinian the Roman emperor at the time who sided with the Chalcedonians, asked John to come and debate the issue in person. But to our good fortune Philoponus declined the offer, but he set out to write down his theological position as a representative of the non-Chalcedonian church. This document “The Arbiter” comes down to us in Syriac and was recently translated to English by Uwe Michael Lang[5].

In the Arbiter Philoponus has strongly defended the non-Chalcedonian position without attacking the opposing party. He emphasises the fact that two sides are believing the same concept yet one emphasises unity of natures in fear of duality and the other emphasises duality of natures in fear of confusion. This is how he explained it:

Our contemporaries, who contend on the holy Incarnation of the Logos, the majority of them, as it were, except for a few in number, while their opinions largely agree, are only opposed in words to each other; while the one side has agreed to say that after the holy union, which is beyond reason, of the Logos with humanity, they confess one composite nature of Christ, the others have decreed that after the union nonetheless two natures ought to be predicated, and not one. A sign that their opinions, as I have said, do not conflict with each other is the fact that the majority of our contemporaries do not say these things in controversy. Rather, in every statement which is pronounced by either of them, each side avoids the absurd implications of its opinions; the one of change and alteration of the natures that have come into union, the other of a division into particular hypostases, so that each hypos­tasis would appear simply on its own, as one can hear from those sick with the impiety of Nestorius who speak of the same union only to the degree of a relationship. For the one party say they name two natures only because of fear of confusion, and the others seek to avoid the term “duality”, because they fear dissolving the union; they preserve the property of each nature without confusion, even though the one Christ is recognised by them as the end-product of their composition. Thus the denial of the absurdities believed to attach to each of these propositions is a proof, I think, of agreement in doctrine. You will not find that this happens with the other heresies. For each of them embraces as true doctrines the points criticised by those of orthodox views and they champion them and imagine that their opponents act impiously. But I hold it to be a feature of the piety of lovers of truth that each of them can introduce matters which unite the separation created by such controversial language.

Further down in his argument he explains that the one-nature formulation makes sense logically and soteriologically. The church he says would never have disunited if the formulation of “two natures of Christ” had never been perpetrated. Philoponus also explains well how with a “composite one” we can speak of certain parts of the composite without having to assert their unity. This letter caused him to be declared a heretic by the Chalcedonian party in their second council of Constantinople in 553 A.D.

In another polemic work against Chalcedon Tmemeata he attacks the notion of the primacy of the Pope of Rome in ecclesiastical matters, which started to surface at the council of Chalcedon. He argues that his primacy is a mere custom, supported by the greatness of the city of Rome because of its imperial authority and not in accordance with any ecclesiastical order.

There are many writings by John that are extant and that deal with various aspects of Christian life, for example on Pascha, which he describes the events of the first Eucharistic service on Holy Thursday, affirming among other things that Christ used leavened bread. There is also his commentary in Genesis, in which he among other things discusses the nature of angels.

John’s fate is not certain in the Coptic tradition. It is claimed with some evidence that he was condemned for heretical views on the resurrection, which also may explain his absence from Coptic Church liturgy books. Yet his legacy will be like that of his Alexandrian predecessor Origen, who’s some of his disputed works condemned him a heretic yet his influence in biblical exegesis is very clear in the writings of many of his orthodox contempories.

Philoponus’ work[6] from the sixth century can help us in thinking about our Christian views on scientific matters today in the 21st century. His works can also be a common ground of discussion with the Eastern Orthodox church especially that they have recently lifted the condemnation of his work “the Arbiter”.

To sum up, this very little known great figure of our church is worthy of notes. He lived in a world that was overcome by pagan philosophies and scientific beliefs that directly attacked Christianity, while the church was in turmoil over the Christological controversy. This environment is very familiar to us today in many ways. Despite the many challenges he faced he found ways to reconcile scientific methods with Church beliefs on one front and participate in theological debates when need arose.

[1] Philponus means ‘lover of work’ which is sometimes corrupted by his opponents to ’mataioponus’ which ‘means one who strives in vain’

[2] A senior research scholar of the society for Coptic Archaeology in North America has published numerous articles on John Philoponus

[3] John McKenna, Quodibet Journal: Vol 5 No 1, 2003

[4] Shmuel Sambursky, Physical Thought from the presocratics to the quantum physicists, (Pica Press: New York, 1975, p. 45

[5] Uwe Michael Lang, John Philoponus and the controversies over Chalcedon in the sixth century: a study and translation of the Arbiter, Leuven 2001

[6] In the 1980’s Richard Sorabji has embarked on the translation and study of John’s work to bring it back to life

2 thoughts on “John Philoponus (490-580):

  1. Some mention of the Very Rev. Thomas F. Torrance and the way in his later works he championed the cause of Philoponus, especially with his light and inertia theories, ought to be made here, if we are going to understand the Grammarian as successfully moving beyond the debates between Monophysite and Chalcedonians, debates that in one form or another continue to this day in the Church of Jesus Christ.

    John McKenna

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