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Anathama: An Obstacle To Reunion?

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Anathama: An Obstacle To Reunion?

by Fr. John H. Erickson (Published in St. Nersess Theological Review 3:1-2 (1998) 67-75)

Few Christian divisions have been more long-lasting or painful than that between the Eastern, or Chalcedonian, Orthodox Churches and the Oriental, or non-Chalcedonian, Orthodox Churches. The separation of these church families began during the Christological controversies of antiquity, in the wake of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. This separation has now lasted over 1500 years. Yet developments over recent decades, beginning with informal dialogue in the 1960s and continuing with formal dialogue in the 1980s and 1990s, have brought these two families of churches close to reunion. In 1990 the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the churches could go so far as to declare: “In the light of our Agreed Statement on Christology…, we have now clearly understood that both families have always loyally maintained the same authentic Orthodox Christological faith, and the unbroken continuity of the apostolic tradition, though they may have used Christological terms in different ways” (1990 Chambesy Agreed Statement, para. 9). Indeed, as the documents of the dialogue point out, “Our mutual agreement is not limited to Christology, but encompasses the whole faith of the one undivided church of the early centuries” (1989 Anba Bishoy Agreed Statement, para. 11), including, for example, the veneration of icons.

But if there is full unity of faith, what more is needed? We face a moment of truth. In their official statements on ecumenism, both Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches have insisted vigorously on the necessity of unity of faith, that unity of faith is the essential precondition for communion. In so doing our churches have at least implied that, when unity of faith is present, full communion is not only the logical but even the necessary consequence. But at this point the dialogue of our churches has hit an unexpected snag. What is to be done about the anathemas which each side hurled against its opponents during our many centuries of estrangement? The 1990 Agreed Statement of the Joint Commission went on to say: “Both families agree that all the anathemas and condemnations of the past which now divide us should be lifted by the Churches in order that the last obstacle to the full unity and communion of our two families can be removed by the grace and power of God. Both families agree that the lifting of anathemas and condemnations will be consummated on the basis that the Councils and fathers previously anathematized or condemned are not heretical.” (para. 10) But so far this has not been done. In fact, from both Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian quarters, criticism – sometimes quite strident – has come to focus precisely on this issue. How can we lift these anathemas without betraying our holy fathers awho imposed them in the first place? How can we enter into communion with those who honor as saints precisely those whom our holy fathers in the past anathematized as heretics?

One can read statements from both Oriental and Eastern Orthodox arguing precisely this. For example, according to a popular presentation of the position of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahido Church:

…to lift the anathemas imposed in the past upon those Chalcedonian Fathers and to accept them as saints would dishonor those Oriental Orthodox Church Fathers who condemned the Chalcedonians…. Since these anathemas have been observed for about 1500 years by our Holy Fathers as inscribed in our liturgical texts and hymnody, they shall not be lifted.’

Much the same attitude can be seen in a memorandum from the monks of Mount Athos, which vigorously objects to “purging the liturgical books of texts which refer to the Anti-Chalcedonians as heretical.” As the memorandum continues:

The sacred services of many confessors of the Faith, of many righteous Fathers, and especially the Holy Fathers of the Fourth Council in Chalcedon will be mutilated…. We ask: Are all the texts referred to above simply ornamental elements in Orthodox hymnology so that they can be painlessly and harmlessly removed, or are they basic elements of Orthodoxy, whose removal will cause the eradication of what we understand as Orthodoxy,2

The memorandum from Mount Athos also rejects that line of thinking which “considers that the anathemas were laid upon the heretics by the Ecumenical Councils in a spirit lacking love, while today, since love now exists, union can be accomplished.” “Such a way of thinking,” the memorandum states, “directs a profound blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, through Whose inspiration these decisions were made, and against the sacred memory of the Holy Fathers, whom the Church calls God-bearers, Mouths of the Word, and Harps of the Spirit….”

Practically inseparable is the question of the meaning and authority of ecumenical councils. The Oriental Orthodox regard three councils as ecumenical, the Eastern Orthodox, seven. It was in councils four through seven that Oriental fathers like Dioscorus of Alexandria and Severus of Antioch were condemned; and it was in these councils that Leo of Rome, condemned as crypto-Nestorian by the Orientals, was hailed as a pillar of right belief. According to the Joint Commission for dialogue, a sufficient basis for reconciliation is the fact that both families of churches confess the faith of all seven of the councils recognized as ecumenical by the Chalcedonians, even though they do not accord the same ecumenical authority to all these councils. But is this sufficient? According to some Eastern Orthodox, the Orientals must indicate their full and unqualified acceptance of seven ecumenical councils; they must accept not only the substance of the faith of these councils but also their disciplinary norms and terminology – and presumably also their anathemas. For example, Patriarch Diodorus of Jerusalem in 1997 wrote a letter to Patriarch Ignatius of Antioch protesting, among other things, the latter’s eagerness to move forward to reunion on the basis of the work of the Joint Commission for dialogue. “According to Holy Tradition,” Patriarch Diodorus avers, “the Non-Chalcedonians ought to accept absolutely and completely all the terms and canons of the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, in its entirety, as well as the following Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Ecumenical Councils, also in their entirety.” 3

For the Chalcedonian Orthodox, can the anathemas pronounced at councils four through seven be lifted? If so, how? This question sometimes has been approached from a juridical perspective: Who has the authority to lift an anathema? In this perspective, the answer would appear to be clear: An anathema can be lifted, but only by a body of the same or greater authority as the one which imposed it. According to this line of thinking, it was possible for Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI in 1965 to lift the anathemas of 1054, since these had involved only the local churches in question – indeed only the heads of these churches, the distant predecessors of the current patriarch and pope. So also, according to this line of thinking, it was possible for a plenary council of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1971 to lift the anathemas which had been leveled against the Old Believers by the Moscow Council of 1666-67. But what about an anathema pronounced by an ecumenical council? The Joint Commission in 1993 urged that “the lifting of anathemas should be made unanimously and simultaneously by the heads of all churches of both sides.” But are “the heads of the all the churches” the juridically competent body? Not according to the memorandum from Mount Athos, which denounces this “decision of the Joint Commission concerning the possibility of lifting an anathema placed by an ecumenical council.” According to the memorandum, this is “alien to the sound mind of the Church” and “offends the fundamental consciousness of the Church concerning the authority of the ecumenical councils.” From this juridical perspective, only another ecumenical council would have the authority to lift the anathemas imposed by councils four through seven, though in a pinch presumably a Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church would do – when and if such a council meets.

But the issue of the anathemas is not simply a juridical question. It is a question of the historical consistency of Orthodoxy itself, a question of the unity of the Church not only in space, with other professing Christians here and now, but in time, with the holy fathers and mothers of all ages. In this perspective, it becomes a matter of considerable significance whether one labels a given individual a saint or a heretic. As Metropolitan John Zizioulas has pointed out, membership in the Church does not mean simply the enjoyment of an a-temporal communion with Christ. It implies entering into communion with the saints of all the ages, as expressed among other places in the diptychs, the calendar, and liturgical observances. And here by “saints” we should not think simply of those conspicuous for their personal sanctity. As Zizioulas points out, “saints are signs of the glory of God in this world not so much as individuals as in the context of the communion of saints, the advance guard of the One Body. ‘Saint’ therefore is a relational term; if relationship is broken – if unity is broken – the meaning of sanctity itself dramatically shifts.”4 Can any body, even an ecumenical council, attempt to overturn the decision of a previous ecumenical council concerning who is a holy father and who is a heretic without calling into question the unity and continuity of the church through time? This is the question which the memorandum from Mount Athos raises when it denounces “the attack upon the validity and authority of the Holy Ecumenical Councils by the decision of the Joint Commission that the Anti-Chalcedonian heresiarchs Dioscorus, Jacob, Severus, etc. be considered not heretical but Orthodox in their thinking.” As the memorandum continues, “The consciousness of the Orthodox Church recognizes that infallibility and authority in the Holy Spirit is in the ecumenical councils and refuses to accept the possibility of revising the decisions of an ecumenical council by another ecumenical council without the latter council being considered as an heretical conventicle…”

How can one respond to such denunciations? Here it is important to consider what kind of authority we ascribe to ecumenical councils.

The memorandum from Mount Athos uses the word “infallibility.” This may be an unfortunate choice of words, the result of an understandable but regrettable reaction to Roman claims of papal infallibility. It would be more accurate simply to say that the ecumenical councils have inerrantly defined the faith and delineated the boundaries of true piety. But even if we speak of the “infallibility”of ecumenical councils, certainly this infallibility does not imply full and direct divine inspiration for each and every statement made in the course of these councils. It does not, for example, mean that councils and council fathers cannot be mistaken concerning matters of fact or inconsistent in their terminology. Councils bear witness to the faith of the Church, and the adequacy of their words for this faith – and the appropriateness of their terminology and of their anathemas – must always be evaluated in the light of this faith.

Let us turn specifically to anathemas as these have been pronounced by successive ecumenical councils. These show an interesting progression as we move from earlier councils to subsequent councils. At the time when a given error or heresy is most pressing, an anathema, if pronounced, is usually quite specific about the position that is being condemned. The first ecumenical council at Nicaea, for example, reacting against the heresy which subsequent generations have called Arianism, concluded its creed with the following words: “And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a difference substance (hypostasis) or essence (ousia) [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion – all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.”5 As we come to later councils, the formulation becomes much less specific about the errors in question. Instead, it tends to be attached specifically to the person of Arius rather than to the position which he espoused: Anathema to Arius! We see a similar progression when it comes to other heresies. In the early stages of the Christological controversies, St. Cyril’s Twelve Anathematisms directed against the theology of Nestorius are quite specific. For example, the fourth anathematism reads: “If anyone shall divide between two persons or subsistences those expressions which are contained in the Evangelical and Apostolical writings, or which have been said concerning Christ by the Saints, or by himself, and shall apply some to him as to a man separate from the Word of God, and shall apply others to only the Word of God the Father, on the ground that they are fit to be applied to God: let him be anathema.”6 These anathematisms were included verbatim in the acts of the third ecumenical council, Ephesus (431 A.D.), but thereafter, formulations generally are content simply to anathematize Nestorius. In other words, a kind of theological “short-hand” develops. Instead of anathematizing a heretical position, which may be rather cumbersome to summarize and explain, we give this position a name and anathematize it as a heresy – Arianism or Nestorianism – or, more often, we associate it with a specific person and anathematize him – Arius or Nestorius.

In the case of Arius or Nestorius, the meaning of this “short-hand” is reasonably clear to the point of being self-evident. By saying “anathema to Nestorius” we are saying “anathema” to the positions enumerated by St. Cyril and repeated at the council of Ephesus. But in some cases this “short-hand” can deceive. If we are very clear about what is being condemned, well and good. But if we rely simply on the “shorthand” of later councils, we may be misled. This point may be illustrated by reference to what Chalcedonian Orthodox regard as the sixth ecumenical council, III Constantinople (681 A.D.), which proclaimed anathema to Dioscorus “hated of God” and to the “impious” Severus of Antioch. This council was faced by the heresies of monotheletism and monenergism, which held that there was but one will and one natural energy in Christ. As frequently the case when faced with a new challenge, orthodox churchmen on the one hand denounced these heresies as dangerous innovations, but on the other they tried to demonstrate that the new heresies were simply old, longcondemned heresies in disguise. Like the monks of Mount Athos, like the fathers of the ancient councils generally, and for that matter like the heretics who assembled in the various ancient pseudo-councils, the fathers of III Constantinople wished to demonstrate the historical consistency of their position and at the same time, the coherence of their opponents’ position with that of earlier heretics. Thus at III Constantinople the contemporary monothelites were seen as holding, among other things, the heresy of Apollinarius, who had held that Jesus Christ did not possess a human rational soul (nous) – a heresy which, according to III Constantinople, was condemned at 1 Constantinople (381 A.D.). In fact the story of I Constantinople is much more complex than a reading simply of the acts of III Constantinople would suggest; at I Constantinople itself, the question of Apollinarius’ teaching seems to have been tangential at most.7 So also, at Constantinople III the monothelites were seen as holding the heretical positions condemned at Chalcedon and II Constantinople (553 A.D.), which the council associated respectively with Dioscorus and Severus, among others.

Hence, in the course of a long series of anathemas pronounced at the final session of the council, we find the names of Dioscorus (elsewhere described by the council as “hated by God”) and Severus (elsewhere characterized as “impious”). Clearly, by the time of III Constantinople popular opinion did associate these names with heretical positions condemned at earlier councils. And this tendency continues in later centuries. For example, hymnography for the Feast of the Seven Ecumenical Councils (July 16) can exhort the orthodox to “abhor” Dioscorus and Severus along with a multitude of other heretics.8 But these formulations – these “short-hand” notes from later times – in fact are very misleading.

Let us first consider the case of Dioscorus. While III Constantinople can say anathema to Dioscorus and regard him as a progenitor of the monothelite heresy, this does not accurately reflect the views and activities of Dioscorus or how the Council of Chalcedon actually dealt with him. At the council Dioscorus was indeed deposed, but as the acts of the council indicate, “it was not for the faith that Dioscorus was deposed but because he had excommunicated the lord Leo, archbishop [of Rome], and that summoned three times, he did not come. This is why he was deposed.”9 He did not in fact espouse the teaching of Eutyches, whose teaching concerning Christ and whose person was condemned at Chalcedon. To use the words of John Romanides, an Eastern Orthodox theologian deeply engaged in the theological dialogue with the Oriental Orthodox: “The backbone of the Orthodox tradition is the fact that the Logos became consubstantial with us. There can be no doubt that Dioscorus agrees with this fact and so could never be accused of being a monophysite along with Eutyches.” 10

Let us also consider the case of Severus. He clearly affirms the basic Christological truth that Jesus Christ is consubstantial with His Father in his divinity and consubstantial with us in his humanity. In other words, he does not fall into the heresy of Eutyches condemned at Chalcedon, which denied Christ’s consubstantiality with us and thus his full humanity. But Severus uses technical terms like hypostasis and physis in ways very different from the later formulations of Chalcedonian Orthodoxy. If read on his own terms, he is not guilty of either the heresy of monophysitism or the heresy of monotheletism as these have been condemned by the ecumenical councils.” His terminology may seem idiosyncratic, but it is hardly less so than that of most of his contemporaries, whether Chalcedonian (like Leontius of Byzantium) or non-Chalcedonian. In other words, he was misunderstood, perhaps deliberately, perhaps inadvertently, by the time that Constantinople III labeled him “infamous” and anathematized him as one of the progenitors of monotheletism.

Here a further question may be posed. What weight should be given to an objection raised by Patriarch Diodorus in his letter to Patriarch Ignatius: “Are we to believe that they [viz., the theologians of the period in question] did not correctly understand those present in the Synods with whom they communicated in a common language and education?” But while it certainly is true that these theologians were working in the same language, Greek, it does not follow that they used technical terms – especially those with a philosophical coloring – in the same way. We sometimes face the same problem today. English now serves as an international language in much the way that Greek did in antiquity, but as a frequent participant in international meetings once remarked, “We live in a world in which everyone knows English – bad English!” A concrete word like “shoe” will be understood in the same way by virtually every speaker of the English language, even by those for whom English is a second language, but a word like “existential” or “natural” will mean different things to different people, even to those whose only language is English. And of course the problem becomes even more complicated in the case of theologians who worked in different languages.

The faith of the ancient councils – I Nicaea, I Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon, II Constantinople, III Constantinople, II Nicaea – is consistent, whether one labels all seven or only the first three as ecumenical. But their terminology is not always consistent. I Nicaea, for example, used the words hypostasis and ousia as synonyms, while the later councils took great pains to distinguish them. So too, the anathemas of the ancient councils are not always consistent. Too often we have mistaken the “short-hand” of later periods for historical fact. The conclusion of the Joint Commission therefore is quite appropriate:

“Both families agree that the lifting of anathemas and condemnations will be consummated on the basis that the Councils and fathers previously anathematized or condemned are not heretical” (1990 Chambesy Agreed Statement, para. 10).

Let us hope that this mutual lifting of anathemas occurs soon!


1 The Ethiopian Texvahido Church (New York?, n.d.)108.

2 Memorandum of the Sacred Community of the Holy Mountain Concerning the Dialogue Between the Orthodox and the Anti-Chalcedonian Churches, ser. no. ph2/l 16/455, May 14/27, 1995.

3 Letter no. 361, May 17, 1997.

4 “Ecclesiological Issues Inherent in the Relations Between Eastern Chalcedonian and Oriental Non-Chalcedonian Churches,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 16 (1971) 144-62 at p. 149.

5 Trans. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ser. 2, vol. 14, 3.

6 Ibid. 211.

7 For a convenient presentation of I Constantinople see Archbishop Peter L’Huillier, The Church of the Ancient Councils: The Disciplinary Work of the First Four Ecumenical Councils (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, CrestwoodNY: 1996) 101-42.

8 On the this and other issues related to our subject, see now Dorothea Wendebourg, “Chalcedon in Ecumenical Discourse,” Pro Ecclesia 7 (1998) 307-32.

9 Patriarch Anatolius of Constantinople, in Session 5, quoted by L’Huilllier, op. cit. 189, with further discussion of the case of Dioscorus.

10 Leo of Rome’s Support of Theodoret, Dioscorus of Alexandria’s Support of Eutyches, and the Lifting of the Anathemas,” paper (as yet unpublished?) presented at the November 1993 meeting of the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches (Geneva), 6.

11 On this subject see most conveniently John Behr, “Severus of Antioch: Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Perspectives,” paper presented at the 1997 Eastern Orthodox – Oriental Orthodox Symposium and published in the present issue, pp. 23-35.


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