Home » Articles » Chalcedonians and Non Chalcedonians: Realizing Unity

Chalcedonians and Non Chalcedonians: Realizing Unity

Recent Posts

Chalcedonians and Non Chalcedonians: Realizing Unity

by Peter Bouteneff

The modern situation of the dialogue between the two church families, the Chalcedonian or “Eastern” Orthodox and the Non-Chalcedonian or “Oriental” Orthodox churches, is simultaneously encouraging and frustrating. On the one hand, the encounters of the past decades (and particularly the official dialogues since 1985) have produced some striking results which brought many people to raise hopes and expectations for imminent reunion. On the other hand, it seems that there has been little visible change “on the ground,” and little recognition or awareness of the dialogues in our local churches. My purpose here is to set out some of the issues which have already received attention (at times, perhaps, insufficient attention), as well as some of the other factors which contribute to slowing the realization of our unity.

I will discuss three basic areas: first, there are the issues of Christology, specifically as regards the particular ways in which one affirms the double quality and the single personhood of Christ. Second, there is the question of the meaning and authority of ecumenical councils, as regards both the place of what Chal-cedonians regard as the Fourth through the Seventh Ecumenical Councils, as well as the anathemas proclaimed at those councils against persons revered as saints by the Non-Chalcedonians. (The Oriental Orthodox, for their part, have also anathematized certain saints of the Eastern Orthodox.) Third, there are a host of issues which revolve around the problem of the reception of the recognition and reconciliation that have been taking place through the official and unofficial dialogue process. Again, all of these factors—which arise from varying combinations of theology, popular piety, and the sheer habit of division—have received varying degrees of treatment in the context of the dialogues themselves. Yet it seems fitting at this juncture to take another assessment of where these dialogues have actually led us in the present day, what theological and non-theological factors still need to be addressed, and what is preventing the churches involved from receiving the results and taking further steps.

I. Christology

A. Physis

The Christological issue, which has always been the starting place for the dialogue process, has up until now focused almost exclusively on the issue of the term physis. The convergences which have been reached in the Joint Declarations would seem to be clear enough, but particularly as the use of the old “monophysite” and “dyophysite” slogans has not died out on either side, it is worth repeating the basis of these convergences as well as propose some fresh insights regarding them.

Virtually as soon as the two church families managed to come into constructive dialogue with each other in this century, it was realized that physis (and its analogs in other languages) was being used in different ways in our different churches; this has been the case even since before our division. Once the meanings were unpacked in the present day, it came to be ever clearer that physis meant something to the Non-Chalcedonians which would make a two-nature formulation sound completely Nestorian (compromising Christ s unity of person), whereas it meant another thing to the Chalcedonians, which would make a one-nature formulation sound Eutychian (minimizing unto extinction Christ’s real humanity). There was a certain bi-valence to the terni physis even from the fourth century as it was first beginning to see use in Christology. Even then, it could just as easily denote a generic, qualitative reality as it could a concrete, in effect personal reality. This is -whyphysis was taken by some as meaning something purely qualitative, and by others as synonymous with (or necessarily implying) hypostasis.

(This last point is important: the issues surrounding the term physis concern not only the definitions it carried but the ontological presuppositions behind it. To some, hypostasis necessarily ensues from physis in such a way that it is impossible to conceive of two physeis without two hypostaseis. In Byzantine theology, the two terms were progressively unlinked ontologically, whereas in, e.g., the Syriac world, a parallel process did not occur for the analogous terms, kyana and qnoma. This problem will be revisited further below.)

Yet even when there is basic agreement on what physis is taken to mean, one-nature and two-nature formulations have complementary functions, depending on which truth about Christ they are seeking to convey, i.e., the thoroughness of the union of natures, or Christ’s double-consubstantiality. As we all now know, St Cyril of Alexandria himself acknowledged that, provided one knew what one was saying, both one-nature and two-nature formulations are acceptable. So that “monophysite” statements such as Cyril’s mia physis formula did not contradict “dyophysite” formulas as properly understood. This approach was maintained through the Fifth Ecumenical Council, then in St Maximus the Confessor, and so onwards. The point is that when we speak of a “union without confusion” we have to admit that a paradoxical situation is being described. Two things are being said concerning Christ’s humanity and divinity, which are in turn reflected in two seemingly contradictory statements concerning physis or “nature”: Jesus Christ’s person has two natures, at least as we can distinguish these in our minds, but the union is so profound in the one person—the person of the Logos—that we can point to one Christ, the Logos incarnate, the God-man, a whole and unschizo-phrenic persona bearing one nature.

+ + +

One result of these findings, which are shared by the dialogue representatives from both families, is the need at the very least to qualify the use of the terms “monophysite” and “dyophysite” to describe a Christology, a person, or a church. In our day their use most often carries a derogatory signification, functionally synonymous with “heretic.” Such usage is not merely “politically incorrect,” it is theologically careless. This fact is clear not only from an examination of the history of Christology and terminology, but from the fact that Chalcedonians and Non-Chalcedonians alike confess the doubL· con-substantiality of Christ: he is homoousios with God and homoousios with us. Any Christology in which the double consubstantiality is confessed is neither a monophysite Christology in the Eutychian sense, nor a dyophysite Christology in the Nestorian sense.

B. Hypostasis and Prosopon

While the emphasis in the dialogue process has lain chiefly on the physis question, it should not stop there. Now the terms hypostasis and prosopon, and in particular the way in which they relate to physis, need similar reflection, preferably done in common by the two church families. I only wish to touch on the issues here in order to point towards the serious need to address them. To illustrate I will draw from certain facets of Armenian Christology and point to the apparent divergences between it and the representative Christology of the Chalcedonian Orthodox.

A clear example of the different uses of the terms hypostasis and prosopon can be found in the Christologies of certain Armenian theologians, who teach that because it is impossible that there be a nature without a hypostasis, one cannot say that the Logos assumed human nature alone from the Virgin Mary, but a human hypostasis and prosopon. To Chalcedonian ears, at any rate, this sounds not like monophysitism but Nestorianism! But here again one must give account of the different understanding of the terms involved. There is precedent for such thinking in the Christology (and even the anthropology) of Severus of Antioch. Severus taught that the human body and soul were each “hypostases,” coming together to form a “composite hypostasis” in one human person, and that Christ was likewise a composite hypostasis of the human and divine hypostaseis. But to take a figure whose authority is not in question by either side, St Cyril too revealed the versatility of the term hypostasis when, in taking it as synonymous with physis, he nonetheless was able to acknowledge two physeis in Christ. In one place he even states that “the form of the servant and [the form] of God have not been united without their hypostaseis.” And certainly the Armenian theologians, together with both Severus and Cyril, would confess that Christ is one (composite) hypostasis. Most important within this question is the continuity of person, of “self ” or subject of identity. Here again, both the Eastern and Oriental churches rightly proclaim that the One who was begotten timelessly of the Father before all ages is one and the same as the One who was born in time of the Virgin Mary. The affirmation of the double con-substantiality requires also the affirmation what the Fifth Ecumenical Council called the double birth, or rather the personal continuity through eternal begottenness and temporal birth.

At any rate, while these varying usages oí hypostasis and physis should not necessarily be seen as irreconcilable, it is interesting to note the existence of divergences in expression and usage not only between “Eastern” and “Oriental” churches, but within the Armenian Church as well. The idea of the assumption of a human hypostasis, or a “hypostatic human nature” is absent, e.g., from the Christology of the Profession of Faith of St Nersess Shnorhali (AD 1165), which is normative for the Armenian Church. It is also absent from the Christology of the official dialogues, though these do use the term “composite,” which is perfectly innocent and carries patristic precedent. It has been suggested to me that the Sev-eran usage of hypostasis represents a more “hard line” position within the Armenian Church, one that “has not been influenced by Western or Chalcedonian professors.” This entire area clearly needs further exploration, also with regard to the Christologies of the other Oriental Orthodox churches.

+ + +

Some might be disappointed in the need to draw attention to these further issues in the Christological sphere. Yet in the face of the enthusiasm for unity between the two church families which emanates from the dialogue process, it is of great importance in the service of realism and honesty (and thus a comprehensive and lasting union) to bring out and deal responsibly and soberly with all such questions. It might therefore be wise at this juncture to broaden the theological dialogue, involving theologians from a wider spectrum of viewpoints. Such an expansion might make for rockier going, but the broader reception of the dialogue results would be worth the price.

II. Councils

The Chalcedonian Orthodox reckon seven Ecumenical Councils, the Non-Chalcedonians, three. What is more, each family, each church communion, has formalized this position in their own way. The Eastern Orthodox see theirs as “The Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils,” and the Oriental Orthodox like to identify themselves by means of explicit distance from the council of Chalcedon (hence “Pre-Chalcedonian” or “Non-Chalcedonian”). There is a significant amount of tension, therefore, as to what the proposed eucharistie union between the two communions would imply (or require) regarding the Ecumenical Councils. The questions, as they are commonly and reasonably posed, are: Is full acceptance of what the Chalcedonians call “Ecumenical Councils IVthrough VII” by the Non-Chalcedonians a requirement for unity? Is, on the other hand, some kind of refutation of Councils TVthrough VII required of the Chalcedonians by the Non-Chalcedonians?

The answers to these questions in fact lie within the consideration of other, more basic questions, which constitute the proper place to start:

1) What is an Ecumenical Council and what is the nature of its authority in the Church today?

2) How does the Church today interpret the authority of canon law and anathemas?

3) What are the precise reasons for the Non-Chalcedonians rejection of the Chalcedonianscouncils IV through VII?

4) Would a common confession of thefaith of the seven councils constitute sufficient ground for eucharistie unity?

(These questions are not new, and are addressed either directly or indirectly in the dialogues. While I hope here to fill out some of the observations of my predecessors and colleagues, it should be noted that the positions I suggest are merely historical and practical elaborations of the conclusions of the dialogues, and present nothing that goes beyond those agreements.)

Several points could be affirmed by way of partial answers to these questions in toto:

Firstly, it is necessary within the acts of the ecumenical councils to distinguish the intent, authority and nature of (a) the dogmatic definitions of faith, and (b) matters of church discipline, whether these be in the form of canon law or the anathematizing of persons or teachings. Regarding (a), the doctrinal definitions set down at the councils naturally represent something that is non-negotiable. However, here as in any situation involving human language, the absolute character of these definitions naturally presumes that we agree on what the words in the definition properly mean. Regarding (b), acts of church discipline and canon law have always been subject to evolution or reformulation in view of particular circumstances and new information. Canon 5 of Nicea, for example, states regarding excommunicated persons that “inquiry should be made whether they have been excommunicated through captiousness, or contentiousness, or any such like ungracious disposition in the bishop.” Theodoret of Cyrus and Ibas of Edessa, once deposed, were restored to the episcopacy after they accepted the Ephesus council of AD 431, and especially Cyril’s Twelve Chapters. Over a century later at the 553 council at Constantinople, certain of their writings were anathematized; in this way the Church’s actions evolved as the persons involved changed their approach, but also as more information came to light. Certain canons testify as well to reconsiderations of church discipline. Canon 4 of Nicea, for instance, lightens the stance of previous canonical thinking on the ordination of a bishop, stating that if it is difficult to have all the bishops of the province present, there should be at least three.

No one is suggesting the marginalization of the importance of the Church’s canons, which must be regarded as normative for her life. Yet to view them as fixed legislation codified for eternity represents thinking which is quite foreign to Orthodoxy. As one might well expect of a living and dynamic organism such as the Church (which is both eternal and also historical, located in time and space), canonical and disciplinary measures are apt to evolve together with the Church’s perception and evaluation of the circumstances. Secondly, in light of the above, within the anathematizing of a person one must distinguish between dogmatic and disciplinary rationale for the anathema. In either case, however, although one would never wish to say that “we know better than the Fathers” in a qualitative sense, we also must acknowledge that the benefit of hindsight, and in particular the Church’s continued historical, doctrinal and linguistic reflection, has often yielded new perspectives on the situation which produced the anathemas. Nor is this novel in our Church’s history. It is in this spirit that St Athanasius examined and exonerated some of the parties who were condemned at the Council of Sardica (AD 343). Reviewing their use of terminology (they were proclaiming that the Triune God was “one hypostasis,” but only because they were using “hypostasis” as synonymous with “ousia”), he saw that they were in fact confessing the orthodox truth about the Trinity, which was neither modalist nor tritheist.

To summarize, a monolithic and undifferentiated approach to the ecumenical councils is neither helpful nor in accordance with Orthodox Tradition. This does not mean that one should feel free to pick and choose the teachings and proceedings according to the preference of the moment, nor does it deny an absolute character to the authority of ecumenical councils. It means rather that we must approach the ecumenical council, just as we approach all loci theologici as understood by the Orthodox Church, with the question of how it expresses eternal truths in a time-and space-bound existence, how it is to be understood and applied given the situation before us and given what we now know. Just as we find ourselves needing to apply conciliar and patristic teaching to circumstances which could hardly have been envisaged by the human authors of the day (such as space travel, in vitro fertilization, or cloning), so must one account for evolving terminology, evolving church-political and geopolitical situations.

The Fathers themselves would never have it any other way—and this is why their teachings and those of the councils themselves testify to a certain progressive and dialogical character. The Fathers were always in the business of applying the legacy they were given to the circumstances of their own day, and to the actual persons and even theological camps of their time. This concern for applying one’s legacy to the actual present is part and parcel of the Orthodox principle oioikonomia, itself being the art of the application of Church discipline with a consideration for the situation of the here and now, and for the salvation of those persons concerned.

As a test case now, let us examine the case of Dioscorus. Dioscorus was anathematized at the Council of Chalcedon, which for the Chalcedonians obviously carries all the authority of an ecumenical council. But as the official dialogues and their accompanying research have pointed out, his censure by the Church arose not from doctrinal heresy but from disciplinary problems, which in turn arose from not accepting the Council of Chalcedon. We have now to ask whether that rejection involved terminological misunderstandings and political concerns, or church-dividing doctrinal differences. Lifting the anathema placed upon Dioscorus would then be possible if all would be convinced that (a) his teaching about Christ, bearing in mind the fluctuating use of terminology in his day, was not heretical, but ultimately in concert with the theology of Chalcedon, and (b) that the disciplinary reasons alone for the Church’s reproof would not justify continuing to consider him among the ranks of the anathematized of the Church.

Finally, lifting the anathemas on Dioscorus or Severus, or for that matter, the Non-Chalcedonians’ anathema on Leo of Rome or Flavian of Constantinople, presupposes an agreed approach to what anathemas are, and the extent to which they are binding for all eternity. It is earnestly hoped that such an agreement, throughout our churches, will be forthcoming.

+ + +

There are several reasons for the Non-Chalcedonians’ rejection, both in history and today, of Councils IV through VII as Ecumenical Councils. The doctrinal reasons are in away the easiest to cope with, provided one espouses a serious, honest and theologically sensitive approach to the different uses and meanings of theological terminology. The issue of one side’s anathematizing persons who were to be venerated as saints by the other side falls under the rubric of common reflection on the nature of ecumenical councils and their anathemas in general, and in specific on the precise anathemas involved. But there were also political and cultural reasons for these rejections which are becoming ever clearer with contemporary historical research. These must be accounted for particularly with reference to their continued relevance today. In addition, one must be prepared that the proposed reunion does not envisage total uniformity, such as does not even exist within either church family. What is foreseen is a communion of communions, in which each can largely retain its local customs, saints, clerical headgear, and so on.

To the extent that these matters can find honest resolution today, would it not be sufficient for eucharistie unity to:

(a) require of both families that they confess the faith of all seven of the Chalcedonians’ Ecumenical Councils;

(b) take steps to formulate that faith in common today;

(c) require of each family the lifting of the anathemas on the saints of the other, and this after studied reflection on each case involved?

These steps have either been proposed or are in the process of being taken through the official dialogues between the churches. The questions which remain concern church polity, liturgy, and perhaps most of all, the reception of the convergences reached so far. It is to such questions that we now turn.

III Reception: Realizing Unity

When we consider reception, which is the final and crucial step towards the reconciliation of the two communions, we come upon both practical and sociological or psychological factors. It is within these areas that a great deal of care, reflection, discernment, humility and repentance is necessary on the part of all of us to fulfill the work of the Holy Spirit.

The official and unofficial dialogues have raised and addressed the most critical issues concerning our division and our potential eucharistie union. These dialogues, which have no authority of their own, are given to the churches for their deliberation, reflection, criticism and, it is hoped, acceptance. As an aid in this reception process, the Joint Commission of the Theological Dialogue at its session in 1990 produced “Recommendations on Pastoral Issues” which are vital for the raising of awareness within our churches, the lowering of suspicions between them, and the suggestions of the possibility of some form of common life among them. Yet when we look at the situation today it is disappointing to note how few of these suggestions have been taken up. It is not too late to begin, of course. But what is preventing us from coming closer together, at least on the level of community and parish life, theological research, reflection and education, or mission to the world? This final portion of my essay, then, seeks to raise some of the obstacles we find in realizing unity.

Church-political factors

Some of the “non-theological factors” which divide us are in the church-political realm. Moves towards union would require dealing with the problem (already a menace within some of our church families today) of parallel jurisdictions. Within the aforementioned “communion of communions” model, parallel jurisdictions would be the rule rather than the exception. But this approach would not be ultimately satisfactory from the ecclesiological standpoint, except as a provisional structure on the way to full organic unity, where there could no longer be two patriarchs of Alexandria or of Antioch, one “Eastern” and one “Oriental.” As Fr. Meyendorff notes on this matter, “restored unity will therefore be a test of humility for some and of charity for all.” But even before organic unity can be envisaged, it will be a challenge to attain a balance between Church unity and church independence. If the communion of communions is to bear any meaning at all there must be a sense of mutual accountability on the theological and practical level. The gains which would be experienced in the witness of a united Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Church would come with huge tensions for our churches which, particularly in this century, are nationalistically structured, and sometimes only grudgingly conciliar in their governance and life.

Then there is the potential problem of the parallel bilateral negotiations in which our churches are involved. While it would seem that the two Orthodox families are closer to each other than they are to anyone else, it would be tragic if, say, the Armenian Church would unite eucharistically with the Roman Catholic Church before it was united with the Chalcedonian Orthodox. If this were to happen, the Chalcedonian Orthodox could not come into union with the Armenian Church without being in communion (at least by association) with the Roman Catholic Church. Similarly, the temptation to unite the two Orthodox families on a regional basis must be resisted—the union must be a holistic, ecclesial event. Regional unions, such as a union between the Eastern and the Oriental Patriarchates of Antioch, would only act as stumbling blocks to comprehensive union, potentially straining the relations between the churches of each family.

It is in no way novel or prophetic to cite the role of nationalism and ethnic identity in the origin and the continuation of our disunity. Non-Chalcedonians have often perceived Chalcedonians to be the Imperial Church, and as such the Church of the oppressor. Even with the demise of the Empire there can be a tendency, particularly on the part of the Chalcedonians, to require of the Non-Chalcedonians nothing short of total assimilation into their church structure, if not into their version of history. As a reaction, there is often a marked desire to maintain one’s separate ecclesiastical identity as an assertion of national identity and uniqueness. And theological issues are often brought in as a support, so that doctrinal convergences which might occur through careful theological work are deliberately resisted in the desire to remain distinct, or “distinctive,” on all fronts. All this makes clear how much has to happen in the area of the “healing of memories.”

Other obstacles to reception and realization

Clearly, many factors in our disunity go outside of the theological and beyond the practical. Here the question which is being asked is not “what is theologically and practically proper or viable?” butu what do we want?’ Do we really want unity, with all the joys and also all the challenges and strains that arise from an increased diversity? Reasons for resisting our convergences might be boiled down to two: complacency and fear.

We are complacent most often when we have not encountered the other. Most of Greece, Russia and the Balkans, for example represent areas where Non-Chalcedonians are virtually absent. In India, Chalcedonian Orthodox are scarcely to be found. In such lands where the face of Orthodoxy is something more or less homogeneous, the thirst for unity with the other Orthodox family tends to be less palpable. This is contrasted to the attitude in areas of the Middle East, where Chalcedonians and Non-Chalcedonians dwell side by side. In Damascus, Patriarch Ignatius IV can say, “What is stopping us from completing the task with the [Oriental] Churches? Why do we not talk day and night to restore what was damaged as a result of many and varied circumstances? …What are we waiting for?” It is likewise in these areas where the most movement can be seen at all levels of church life. But no matter where one is geographically, the complacency with (or patriotism for) ones own church family, ones own national church, one’s own parish, is always a threat.

Is there not also at times fear of unity? There is certainly, on the one hand, a legitimate fear oífake unity, of a union hastily achieved without sufficient theological, practical and conciliar/ecclesial groundwork. Such a unity would be a disastrous one, potentially creating “aftershock” schisms and confusion. But in all our churches there can also be found pockets of mistrust of any dialogue or steps towards unity, unless it comes as a result of the complete assimilation of the dialogue partners into one s own system and customs. One finds a tenacious mistrust of the idea of simply re-examining our divisions, partly because this implies a re-examination of what in our Church is absolute and unchangeable and what is more flexible. Instead of taking these opportunities, we tend to hide behind either inaction or epithets of mistrust. Yet to reject such introspection is not only unfaithful to the patristic legacy, it forestalls at the outset any possibility of mutual agreement and tolerance.

So tensions are apparent in contemporary Orthodox Church life as regards all encounters of our churches with other Christian bodies, not to mention with other religious faiths. If it sometimes feels as if such tensions run the highest concerning the process of convergence between Chalcedonians and Non-Chalcedonians, it might be pardy because this is the most realistic of the church-union possibilities which face the Orthodox today, and therefore presents the greatest threat to those who prefer the status quo. Moreover, looking at the Christian landscape in our world, surely neither of our church communions, Eastern or Oriental, could find elsewhere a similarity of doctrine, church life and church sensibility on a par with that which is found between us. And so often the rivalries and struggles between close siblings are the most severe.

Finally, in some strange way we seem to cherish our disunity. We seem to draw security in denouncing the other. We fear that our beloved anathemas might be threatened! We define our own church by pointing to our difference with the other. Of course, most Christian doctrine arose precisely out of the need to define the truth in opposition to the heresies that would arise over time. But those conflicts have also been known to leave behind many right-thinking, right-praising (= orthodox) people. St Gregory of Nazianzus noted how when we take up a quantity of water into our hands, some water can be found slipping through the fingers—”in the same way there is a separation between us and, not only those who hold aloof in their impiety, but also those who are most pious, and that both in regard to such doctrines as are of small consequence and also in regard to expressions intended to bear the same meaning.” Does not Gregory here have in mind precisely the kind of split we experience today between Chalcedonians and Non-Chalcedonians—right down to the fact that our different word formulations may carry the same meaning?


This essay has pointed to many well-known problems as well as some not so well-known. If it seems as if the initial enthusiasm and expectation of the dialogue process have come upon something of a slow-down, this is because (a) there are still real issues which need to be dealt with, and (b) thus far the dialogue and the entire convergence process have been known almost exclusively to a small circle of informed experts. And this second problem stems largely from the lack, in many of our local situations, of the thirst for unity. All of this is changing, however gradually. The rate and the spirit of our continued encounters, of the continued uncovering of convergence, of our increased common life, will be dependent on the quality of our theological reflections. Ultimately it all depends of course upon God, but also on our answer to the question: What do we want?
If we desire the healing of the ancient split, we must continue the theological dialogue and broaden it with regard to both the issues it treats and the persons involved. If we desire to realize this unity, we must engage the local churches, the seminaries, the academies, the parishes. If we desire to bring together again these church families, let the reception process begin in earnest. And as rocky as the road may be, let us be guided by the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Truth.

SOURCE: Peter Bouteneff, “Chalcedonians and Non Chalcedonians: Realizing Unity,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 42 (1998)


Recent Posts

%d bloggers like this: