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Chalcedonians and Non-Chalcedonians: The Last Steps to Unity

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Chalcedonians and Non-Chalcedonians: The Last Steps to Unity
by Protopresbyter John Meyendorff, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 33.4 (1989) 319-329.
(Originally published in Orthodox Identity in India. Essays in honor of V. C. Samuel. Edited by M. K. Kuriakose, Bangalore, 1988, pp. 105-117)

Our century has witnessed significant steps towards better understanding and doctrinal unity between Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Eastern Christians. Of course, the basic identity of christological understanding between the churches was affirmed earlier; for instance, by the very well-informed Russian Bishop Porphyry Uspensky, who, during his long travels throughout the Middle East, was in close contact, particularly with the Coptic Church, and wrote about his impressions subsequently.

In this century, the many encounters and dialogues, involving responsible bishops and theologians from both sides, have all reached the same conclusion: the christology of St Cyril of Alexandria is our common christology, and the schism involves only a different understanding of formulas and expressions which have been accepted as standard and doctrinally binding by one side or the other. It is therefore highly appropriate to raise the issue of the “last steps”: why is it that the churches, whose responsible spokesmen seemed to have agreed with enthusiasm in saying that no real doctrinal problem remains between them, have not yet entered eucharistic communion in a formal way?

There are reasons of human, political, or institutional nature, which cannot be all listed and analyzed in this paper. But there are also problems of ecclesiological perception and institutional procedure which might explain why the “human” obstacles are not being overcome sooner, why concrete steps are not considered urgent, why things remain the same for decades, or even centuries, without people being really disturbed by the situation. It is my conviction that unless we examine—in a sincere and open way—these respective ecclesiological perceptions and accept the judgment of God upon their limitations, there is no way in which, even if appropriate procedures are defined, the “last steps” towards unity can be taken.

Ecclesiological perceptions

Both Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians share the belief in the essential oneness of the Church. Christ founded the Church—the Church which we all confess in the Creed as being “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” Of course there are a variety of ways in which this “oneness” is conceived. The prevailing view among Protestants is that all Christian confessions, as they exist today, constitute together the “one church,” in spite of all the variety of theological convictions, ecclesial expressions and disciplinary incompatibility. This inner, formally inexpressible oneness can manifest itself in a joint participation in the Eucharist, or “inter-communion,” i.e., a “communion” between still-divided Christians. Although Protestant confessions, or individuals may differ in their evaluation of the importance of the persisting divisions, their acceptance of inter-communion presupposes that the differences are secondary when compared to essential oneness.

The Roman Catholics and the Orthodox disagree, in principle, with this Protestant approach. The real heart of the disagreement lies in the concept of Tradition. The unity of the Church is not only a unity “in space,” between the Christian communities existing today, so that the One Church is constituted by all those who confess Christ in our day and age, but it is also a unity “in time”: the oneness of the true Church includes the apostles, the fathers and mothers, the saints of the past, and the angels in heaven. The true faith is shared by them all, as well as by us, in virtue of our baptism, and all of them, with us, are sharing in the eucharistic mystery. This last spiritual reality is well expressed in the liturgical rite of the proskomide in the Byzantine tradition. It requires continuity and consistency in faith with the apostles and all the generations, which cannot be exchanged for a formal unity “in space” today. Such is, indeed, the meaning of Tradition. It is not, of course, a verbal continuity, and does not consist in a simple repetition of Scripture texts, of conciliar statements, or of patristic opinions. It does not exclude new issues, new theological approaches, and the acceptance, within the catholic tradition of different mentalities and philosophical conceptions, as the missionary expansion of the Church reaches new civilizations and covers new historical periods, but all this diversity is to be judged—in its inner substance and real content—by the Truth, revealed to the saints, once and for all, in the apostolic kerygma.

The consultations and studies of our times seem to have established quite clearly two crucial points:

1) That the christological position which expresses itself by affirming that Christ, the God-man, is “one hypostasis and one nature,” and which is generally designated as “monophysitism,” was the position of Cyril of Alexandria, and remained that of Dioscoros and Severus of Antioch; that it does not imply agreement with Eutyches, who had denied the “double con-substantiability” of Christ (i.e. that He was not only consubstantial with the Father, in His Divinity, but also consubstantial with us in His humanity), and who was condemned for that by the above-mentioned leaders of the non-Chalcedonians, as well as by the council of Chalcedon, although archbishop Dioscoros of Alexandria made the regrettable mistake of admitting Eutyches to communion for a time in 449.

2) That the Orthodox christological position which expresses itself by affirming that Christ, the God-man, is “one hypostasis in two natures,” and which is generally designated as “diphysitism,” is not a Nestorian position. The council of Chalcedon (451), by affirming it, did not depart in any way from the Christology of St Cyril, but intended to exclude Eutychianism: this was a real problem at the time, since Dioscoros (perhaps by temporary misunderstanding) had accepted Eutyches in 449. However, the formula of Chalcedon by itself does not solve all problems. No formula—not even a Scriptural one, not even the Nicean creed—solves all problems. All such formulae can be, and often were, interpreted in a heretical sense. Thus, Chalcedon was interpreted in a Nestorianizing sense (e.g., rejection of “theopaschism” and other Cyrillian formulations) by some Chalcedonians, including Theodoret of Cyrus and Ibas of Edessa. Such non-Cyrillian interpretations were formally condemned by the Chalcedonian Orthodox Church at the Fifth ecumenical council in Constantinople (553).

Agreement on these two points seems to imply clearly that there is unity on the substance of the christological doctrine; that, since the Chalcedonians are not saying that Cyrillian “monophysitism” implies Eutychianism, and since the non-Chalcedonians are not implying that Chalcedon was a Nestorian council, there is no obstacle to eucharistic communion and full unity.

But—as I mentioned earlier—full eucharistic communion has not yet been achieved. This might find partial explanation in ignorance (beyond the circle of informed theologians), or in institutional passivity, to which all Eastern churches have been accustomed by centuries of isolation. However, there also remain psychological and institutional factors which necessarily influence ecclesiological perceptions. I wish to mention some of them here.

The Orthodox understanding of the Church implies the reality of local fullness and of universal unity. Local fullness, which is particularly emphasized in what is called today “eucharistic ecclesiology,” affirms, with St Ignatius of Antioch, that “where Christ is, there is the catholic church” (Smym. 8:2). The eucharist of a local community, presided by a bishop, manifests not a part, or a fraction of the Body of Christ, but its very fullness. What this perspective (which is unquestionably true) strongly affirms is that sacramental reality does not depend on geographic universality, that it is a gift of God, even to the “two or three” who gather in the name of Jesus Christ. But true “catholicity” also implies that every local community remains in communion with all the other communities which share in the same faith. “Eucharistic” ecclesiology is not Protestant Congregationalism. The bishops, in particular, are responsible for unity between the local churches. A local church is not a “part” or a “fraction” of the Church—it is the “whole” catholic church. But it can possess this wholeness only if it shares it with other communities, if its bishop has received the laying-on-of-hands from other bishops, if he belongs to the one and united episcopate of the Church universal: episcopatus unus est, as we read in St Cyprian of Carthage.

In order to secure this universal unity, the Roman Catholic Church has developed a rigid system based on the power of one bishop, the bishop of Rome. Unity, then, implies submission to that universal center. Although we, the Orthodox, recognize the legitimacy of the concern of universal unity, which, in part, contributed to Western ecclesiological developments, we do not accept the form which these developments took. Nevertheless, the Orthodox Chalcedonian Church has always consistently thought of itself as being one church. Although, especially at the present time, it represents a decentralized association of autocephalous churches, it shares a single canonical system; the autocephalous churches are related to one another in a certain “order”; the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople is acknowledged by all as “first among equals”; there is a long common history during which individual autocephalous churches appeared, then disappeared again, while the Church itself remained. Furthermore, long after the christological schisms of the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries, missionary expansion took place, which led to the establishment of new churches: the Slavonic and the Romanian, and more recently new missionary churches in Japan, in America, and elsewhere. Perhaps such newly-established churches are less able than their ancient “mothers” to understand the reasons for the lingering division between Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians, where no rationally definable doctrinal difference seems to exist. Be that as it may, the multinational and missionary history and reality of Chalcedonian Orthodoxy contributes to an ecclesiological perception which must be acknowledged when one approaches the issue of unity.

It is clear that fundamental ecclesiology is the same within the non-Chalcedonian churches. But their history is different. In the Middle East, the overwhelming concern for survival within Muslim society prevented both external contacts and missionary activity. There were, of course, strong acknowledgements of Christian and ecclesial multi-ethnicity: there was the memory of the theological debates between non-Chalcedonian patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch in the seventh century on the issue of “Tritheism”; there were the continuing canonical ties linking the Coptic and Ethiopian churches. But the Armenians and the Indians had a more separate history. The Armenian church dedicated all its efforts almost exclusively to the survival of the Armenian nation, whereas the “church of St Thomas” in India received no help from anywhere, as it was despoiled by Western proselytism. Perhaps more than other non-Chalcedonians, the Church in India, living in a relatively free society, is more open to missionary tasks and could assume a leading role in recognizing the inseparability between mission and unity. The psychological result of these different histories has been that the universal dimension of ecclesiology, the ontological need for unity with world Orthodoxy, was somewhat overshadowed by local—and often tragically immediate—concerns. Orthodox ecclesiology remained both in the liturgical tradition and in the consciousness of the people, but temptations arose to formulate it in two opposite ways: as a sectarian isolationism (a temptation present particularly among the less learned and monastic clergy), or along the lines of the Anglican branch theory, where the “true” and “one” church is seen as divided into several “branches” with different degrees of legitimacy.

I must say that the same temptations exist also within Chalcedonian Orthodoxy, but the more “catholic” view of the Church is fortunately prevailing quite generally.

I would like to suggest here that, wherever they occur, these temptations are serious obstacles to the task of achieving true unity, in the true Orthodox faith, within the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, as the councils and the fathers have defined it. Sectarian isolation and a relativistic “branch theory” attitude have in common that they preclude the urgency of unity and justify the perpetuation of the status quo. Meanwhile, if anything is really needed in the relationship between Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians today, it is readiness to break with age-long frozenness: bold steps are needed to put into practice the theoretical agreements reached by theologians.

Institutional procedures: last steps to unity

The first step to unity is necessarily doctrinal agreement. As we mentioned earlier, this first—and spiritually the most important—step is probably, in our case, the easiest. A draft of a doctrinal agreement was already produced at the Consultation in Bristol. What is needed now is for this draft, or a similar form of agreement in the faith, to be formally approved by the churches. Psychologically and ecclesiologically, it is important that this agreement be positive in form and in content: both sides must acknowledge the positive value of each other’s tradition. The Chalcedonians could easily and explicitly recognize that the fears of Nestorianism among many Cyrillians, following 451, were legitimate, or at least honest and sincere. (Actually, the condemnation of the “Three Chapters” in 553 is already precisely a recognition of this sort.) The non-Chalcedonians should recognize also that the council of Chalcedon had the legitimate intention to condemn Eutychianism; that the weight carried at the council by the text of the Tome of Leo and by the papal legates reflected a legitimate concern for unity between East and West. There was no “capitulation” before the West, since Leo’s faith was declared orthodox only after it was examined on its merits and compared with the acknowledged criterion of orthodoxy, St Cyril.

Aside from such a formal agreement in doctrine, and on the basis of the mutual respect and common belonging to the spiritual traditions of the early Christian East, there should be an understanding on the veneration of those whom each side considers as its fathers in the faith. The difficulty here of course is that the schism has led to opposing views and anthemas concerning persons like Leo of Rome and Flavian of Constantinople, on the one side, and Dioscoros of Alexandria, Philoxenos of Mabbugh and Severus of Antioch on the other. In some ways, since our churches are churches holding strongly to tradition and continuity, this problem might be seen as more agonizing and difficult than the doctrinal agreement itself. But on the other hand, one should remember that the Church never believed in the infallibility of any human being, not even the saints. St Cyril of Alexandria and St Epiphanius of Cyprus were fiercely opposed to St John Chrysostom, considering him to be a heretic and an impostor; nevertheless, these fathers are now venerated together with the great Chrysostom as saints. Furthermore, the Chalcedonian Church of Georgia continues to venerate Peter the Iberian, a well-known Georgian bishop of Gaza in Palestine, who in the late fifth century fought against the council of Chalcedon. The Coptic Church keeps among its saints the names of Chalcedonian patriarchs like John the Merciful. And St Isaac of Syria was a Nestorian bishop of Nineveh.

It seems possible, therefore, that regional veneration of ancient saints is possible in spite of past conflicts, for this veneration acknowledges their merits, not their faults, which are left to the judgment of God.

If the issue of the saints can still create problems, so can questions related to church order and inter-church relations. Of course, a re-union between Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians does not involve any “submission” of one church to another. Our Orthodox ecclesiology is based on the identity of all local churches in the faith, and a fully legitimate diversity of liturgical and linguistic expression of that credal unity. However, it also presupposes regional and local unity. There cannot be two bishops in one place. This is a rule from which today the Chalcedonian Orthodox church itself occasionally departs, but such departures are considered unfortunate and temporary, and the present conciliar process aims at eliminating them altogether. Unity in the faith presupposes unity in sacraments and in church life, in each place. In case of a restored unity between Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians, pastoral adjustments and temporary arrangements will certainly be required to meet the psychological difficulty of forgetting, all at once, centuries of separate life. Nevertheless, it is clear that it would be inconceivable, when unity comes, to admit the existence of two patriarchs of Alexandria, or two patriarchs of Antioch.

Restored unity will therefore be a test of humility for some and of charity for all.

Furthermore, there are problems of priority and leadership, such as the honorary primacy of the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople. Of course, this primacy does not appear to be a questionable issue in itself, since both traditions are committed, even now, to the decision of the second ecumenical council of 381, which defined Constantinople’s “privileges” (presveia), as equal to that of “Old Rome.” However, the implications of the controversial “28th canon” of Chalcedon are more precise and less clear. The text stipulates that the archbishop of the then imperial capital ordains bishops among the “barbarians” of the dioceses of Asia, Pontus and Thrace. It is hardly justifiable to invoke this text in a generalized sense, as referring to all countries where there is no established church (as it is done by some), but historically the text did concern Armenia, originally dependent upon Caesarea-in-Cappadocia, in the diocese of Pontus, and its adoption at Chalcedon played a role in the rejection of the council by the Armenians. An insignificant detail, perhaps, but sudden resurgences of unnecessary formalism are known to have created obstacles to church unity in the past. . . . Let us not have this point also stand in the way.

The “last step” in achieving unity will consist in a solemn joint celebration of the Eucharist, fulfilling the doctrinal agreement and also an understanding (perhaps only implicit) of such issues as the veneration of saints and the future common life of our churches, with full sacramental and canonical relations restored.

How are we to accomplish this last step?

The ideal solution would, of course, be the tenure of a joint Great Council, at which unity would be proclaimed and sealed in a joint Divine Liturgy. Such a council would have to be carefully prepared by solving most difficult issues in advance. This preparation should be on the forefront of the agenda of the Dialogue which has now been officially set up. However, the difficult circumstances of the late twentieth century, the political divisions and internal conflicts existing within the churches, the organizational weakness and inexperience which unfortunately characterize many of us, may still delay the tenure of a general council. The history of the Church has also known precedents for initiatives taken regionally. Indeed, some regional circumstances may, in fact, favor unions which cannot be initiated elsewhere. For instance, the “Catholicos of the East” in India and his Holy Church may theologically and psychologically be more ready to take decisive steps than other churches. There were also recent talks about union within the framework of the ancient Antiochian realm, between the Chalcedonian and “Jacobite” patriarchates. Furthermore, the charismatic figure of pope Shenuda of Egypt evokes real hopes for the Christian world as a whole.

Be that as it may, there is danger in “regional” unions. They could occur in such a way as to become obstacles to further steps leading to a general union. Such dangers—to be avoided at all costs—should be met through a responsible and truly “ecclesial” approach to the steps to be taken. No issues concerning doctrine, ecclesiology and discipline should be overlooked. Substitute “ideologies” such as regional nationalism, or antiWestern animosity, or political considerations involving the influence of foreign interests, should be regarded as poison. A union, solemnly proclaimed on a regional basis, would be communicated officially to all the churches on the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian sides, and their approval would be formally asked. A positive reaction should logically lead to further union steps. A negative reply would place before the church involved a clear option: it would have to decide which “communion” it considers to be the communion of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

None of these procedures, the general, conciliar one-much to be preferred—or the regional solutions, which involve risks, and which would also require a responsible ecclesial and theological approach, will succeed unless they are based on an inner, spiritual commitment and enthusiasm for the true faith, for the saving power of the Spirit, and for the divine gift bestowed upon the whole of humanity when “the Word became flesh.”

Bibliographical note
This article represents a practical conclusion of several publications by the author related to the christological issue and the issues of unity between Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians. These previous studies are fully documented with references to sources and secondary literature. The studies in question include Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, 2nd ed., St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1975; Christ as Savior in B. McGinn and J. Meyendorff. eds., Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century, Crossroads, New York, 1985, pp. 231-251; J. Meyendorff, Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions: The Church From 450 to 680 AD, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1988. For issues related to church order, see J. Meyendorff, Catholicity and the Church, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1983. However, the most important basis for the conclusions reached in this study are to be found in the Minutes of Consultations between “Eastern” and “Oriental” Orthodox theologians published in The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, (Brookline, MA) 10, 2 (Winter, 1964-65); and 13, 1 (1968).

Source: Protopresbyter John Meyendorff, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 33.4 (1989) 319-329


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