Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian
A resume of some recent contacts
Paulos Mar Gregorios
Few people are aware that two of the largest separations
in the Universal Church took place more than fifteen centuries
ago. The first was the break between the Church of the Byzantine
Empire and the Persian Empire in the fifth and sixth centuries.
A remnant of that large Church of the Persian Empire which once
extended to East China and South India now survives as the Church
of the East, more popularly known in the West as Nestorian Christians.
The second was a split within the Church of the
Byzantine Empire itself, between the Hellenic and Latin peoples on the
one hand and the Christian peoples of the ancient civilizations
of Syria and Egypt on the other. The remnants of this latter
group, which was also quite numerous and flourishing before the
rise of Islam and even later, now find themselves in the five 'Oriental
Orthodox Churches' of Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Armenia and India.
They reject the name 'monophysites' applied to them by Western scholars.
They believe in the one incarnate nature of God's Word—in
mia phusis, one united
nature (tewahdo, 'one'-d,
as the Ethiopians call it) of Jesus Christ the God-Man, but certainly
not in mone phusis, which
would mean one nature only.
The controversy stems from the Council of Chalcedon
(451), but the split itself is difficult to date. The Churches of
Syria and Egypt rejected the Council of Chalcedon, first because
they felt the procedure there was coercive and therefore not properly
conciliar, and second because they were opposed to any addition
to the Symbol of Nicea, Ephesus and Constantinople.
The Oriental (as distinct from Eastern, a necessary
quibble) Orthodox Churches have in general rejected the Council of
Chalcedon as contrary also to the spirit and teaching of Cyril of
Alexandria (d. 444), who is their authority in matters of Christology.
fidei of the Council of Chalcedon was felt by these Churches to
be approving of the Tome of Leo, which later, according to them,
not only contradicts the teachings of Cyril, but goes beyond Cyril
to make statements which they regard as positively heretical.
Today many Oriental Orthodox theologians are disposed
to accept the formal confession of faith in the definition of Chalcedon
as in basic agreement with their Christological tradition, with
insistence, however, on one textual variant:
Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all with one
voice teach that it should be confessed that our Lord Jesus Christ
is one and the same Son, the Same perfect in Godhead, the Same perfect
in manhood, truly God and truly man, the Same [consisting] of a rational
soul and a body; homoousios
with the Father as to his Godhead, and the same homoousios with us as to his
manhood; in all things like unto us, sin only excepted; begotten
of the Father before ages as to his Godhead, and in the last days,
the Same, for us and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin Theotokos
as to his manhood;
One and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten,
made known in two natures [which exist] without confusion, without
change, without division, without separation; the difference of the
natures having been in no wise taken away by reason of the union, but
rather the properties of each being preserved, and [both] concurring
into one Person (frosofon)
and one hypo-stasis-not
parted or divided into two Persons (prosopa) but one and the same
Son and Only-begotten, the divine Logos, the Lord Jesus Christ; even
as the prophets from of old [have spoken] concerning him, and as
the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and as the Symbol of
the Fathers has delivered to us.’ 1
The textual variant is ‘of two natures’, in place
of ‘in two natures’.2 ‘Of’ is acceptable
to the Oriental Orthodox, ‘in’ is difficult. But the Greek text
of the minutes of the Council has ‘of’.
This brief article is not the place to enter into
the substance of the controversy itself. What is truly noteworthy is
the fact, however, that the issue between the Oriental Orthodox
Churches and the Eastern Orthodox Churches (those in communion
with Constantinople) seems much less clear today, fifteen centuries
after the controversy. Our Christological and ecclesiological traditions,
even after fifteen centuries of separate development, show a
remarkable harmony. This fact was formally recognized by theologians
of both sides in their unofficial consultation held at the
University of Aarhus, Denmark, 11-15 August 1964. They issued the
Ever since the second decade of our century, representatives
of our Orthodox Churches, some accepting seven Oecumenical Councils
and others accepting three, have often met in ecumenical gatherings.
The desire to know each other and to restore our unity in the one
Church of Christ has been growing all these years. Our meeting together
in Rhodos at the Pan-Orthodox Conference of 1961 confirmed this
Out of this has come about our unofficial gathering
of fifteen theologians from both sides, for three days of informal
conversations, in connection with the meeting of the Faith and Order
Commission in Aarhus, Denmark.
We have spoken to each other in the openness of charity
and with the conviction of truth. All of us learned from each other.
Our inherited misunderstandings have begun to clear up. We recognize
in each other the one Orthodox faith of the Church. Fifteen centuries
of alienation have not led us astray from the faith of our Fathers.
In common study of the Council of Chalcedon, the well-known
phrase used by our common Father in Christ, St Cyril of Alexandria,
mia phusis (or mia hypostasis) tou Theou logon sesarkomene (the
one phusis or hypo-stasis of God's Word incarnate)
with its implications, was at the centre of our conversations. On
the essence of the Christological dogma we found ourselves in full
agreement. Through the different terminologies used by each side,
we saw the same truth expressed. Since we agree in rejecting without
reservation the teaching of Eutychus as well as of Nestorius, the
acceptance or non-acceptance of the Council of Chalcedon does not
entail the acceptance of either heresy. Both sides found themselves
fundamentally following the Christological teaching of the one undivided
Church as expressed by St Cyril.
The Council of Chalcedon (451), we realize, can only
be understood as reaffirming the decisions of Ephesus (431) and best
understood in the light of the later Council of Constantinople (553).
All councils, we have recognized, have to be seen as stages in an
integral development and no council or document should be studied
The significant role of political, sociological and
cultural factors in creating tension between factions in the past
should be recognized and studied together. They should not, however,
continue to divide us.
We see the need to move forward together. The issue
at stake is of crucial importance to all Churches in the East and West
alike and for the unity of the whole Church of Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit, Who indwells the Church of Jesus
Christ, will lead us together to the fullness of truth and of love. To
that end we respectfully submit to our Churches the fruit of our
common work of three days together. Many practical problems remain,
but the same Spirit Who led us together here will, we believe, continue
to lead our Churches to a common solution of these.’
- His Grace Bishop
Emilianos of Meloa (Oecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople)
- The Very Rev. Professor
G. Florovsky (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of
North and South America, Oecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople)
- The Very Rev. Professor
J. S. Romanides (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of
North and South America, Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople)
- The Very Rev. Professor
Vitaly Borovoy (Russian Orthodox Church)
- His Grace Archbishop
Mar Severius Zakka Iwas of Mosul (Syrian Orthodox Church)
- His Grace Metropolitan
Mar Thoma Dionysius (Orthodox Syrian Church of the East)
- The Rev. Professor
J. Meyendorff (Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of North
- Professor G. Konidaris
(Church of Greece)
- His Grace Archbishop
Tiran Nersoyan (Armenian Apostolic Church)
- His Grace Bishop
Karekin Sarkissian (Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicate
- The Very Rev. Like
Siltanat Habte Mariam Worqineh (Ethiopian Orthodox Church)
- The Rev. Professor
V. C. Samuel (Orthodox Syrian Church of the East)
- Dr. Getachew Haile
(Ethiopian Orthodox Church)3
There has been no official action on the part of
the Churches on either side directly confirming the statement of the
theologians. It has, however, been welcomed by both sides as a
significant contribution to the discussion.
Official actions by the Churches have proceeded
independently of the Aarhus decisions, though not unaffected by
The Conference of the Heads of Oriental Orthodox
Churches, which met at Addis Ababa in January 1965, stated:
Though in our concern for the reunion of Christendom
we have in our minds the reunion of all Churches, from the point
of view of closer affinity in faith and spiritual kinship with us
we need to develop different approaches in our relationship with
them. This consideration leads us to take up the question of our
relation with the Eastern Orthodox Churches as a first step. We shared
the same faith and communion till the Council of Chalcedon in 451,
and then the division took place.
Concerning the Christological controversy which caused
the division, we hope that common studies in a spirit of mutual understanding
can shed light on our understanding of each other's positions. So
we decide that we should institute formally a fresh study of the Christological
doctrine in its historical setting to be undertaken by our scholars,
taking into account the earlier studies on this subject as well as
the informal consultations held in connection with the meetings of
the World Council of Churches. Meanwhile, we express our agreement
that our churches could seek closer relationship and co-operate with
the Eastern Orthodox Churches in practical affairs. 4
On the side of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the
Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, in their
meeting of 9 June 1965, took a formal decision, which includes a
practical proposal for the restoration of communion between the two
families of Churches. After having stated that ‘the systematic
promotion and working out of relations with these venerable Churches
is fully in accordance with the view and desire of our Churches’,
the synodical decision laid down the following proposal:
In view of these facts, and on the basis of the experience
that our Orthodox Church has gained in her contacts with other Churches
and Christian confessions, the progressive steps for the further
development of the relations of our Holy Eastern Orthodox Churches
with these venerable Churches of the Orient can now be formulated
in the following manner.
Preparation of the ground through various approaches
through all forms of communication, exchange of visits at various
levels, exchange of professors, students, etc., paralleled by
theological preparation of the work which could be analysed as follows:
(a) the setting up on both sides of theological
commissions, one inter-Orthodox, the other inter-Oriental, on the
lines of the Orthodox-Anglican and Orthodox-Old Catholic commissions.
(b) Study separately by these two commissions
of the various topics that touch directly on the theological differences
between the Orthodox and Oriental Churches, which could be considered
under the following heads:
I. The historical reasons for the conflicts
between the Churches.
II. The present Christological position of the
III. Other different general topics of a dogmatic,
historical or canonical nature (ecclesiastical order, administration,
(c) After these topics have been studied by the
two sides separately, their theological conclusions, those of the
Orthodox and of the Orientals, shall be submitted to their Churches
for criticism and responsible judgment.
(d) In case the theological work of the two sides
is deemed inadequate, separate and parallel pan-Orthodox and pan-Oriental
conferences are to be convoked, in order to make definite formulations
regarding the theological conclusions of the two sides.
(e) After the decision of these pan-Orthodox and pan-Oriental
conferences regarding the respective theological conclusions, the
convocation of the Orthodox Churches to a pan-Orthodox Synod for
the formally ecclesiastical confirmation of the agreements reached,
and to pronounce, from the Orthodox side, the conciliar decision
on these matters. An analogical procedure will be followed by the
Oriental Churches in accordance with the practice of their Churches.
(f) After the decisions have been taken on the
high conciliar level, a joint meeting shall be convened of the heads
of the Churches, on both sides, for finally ratifying and proclaiming
before the world their union and to give liturgical expression to
the great event.
These decisions have now been re-affirmed in a
Patriarchal memorandum dated 8 June 1966, almost exactly a year later;
but the appointment of the Commissions has been proceeding at the
usual Orthodox pace. Some of the Orthodox Churches in communion
with Constantinople have taken quick formal action--among them
the three major Churches of Russia, Rumania and Greece. Others
are understood to be moving more slowly.
As for the Oriental Orthodox, the Standing Committee
of the Oriental Orthodox Churches has appointed itself as the theological
Commission on their side, with the power of co-option, willing to
meet with the Eastern Orthodox Commission as soon as practicable
after the latter comes into existence.
Meanwhile, the 15-centuries-old mutual suspicion
has also been finding opportunities to express itself. Professor
Trembellas of the Greek Orthodox Theological Faculty of Athens raised
the issue of ‘Monothelitism’ (that there is only one will in
Christ) as a charge against the Christology of the Oriental Orthodox
Catholicos Vazken of the Armenian Church in his
Gontag (encyclical) of 4 July 1965, emphasized unity in diversity, and
asked that ‘each historically developed Christian Church with its
saints, doctrines, traditions, etc., should be preserved in their
purity, whole and unmixed, and unchanged, without the addition
or subtraction of an iota’. His view was that
Doctrinal and Christological differences are no longer
impediments to or conditions for the maintenance of amicable relations
and for the brotherly co-operation of Churches. Efforts for unity
through the re-examination of doctrinal positions so as to effect
uniformity are still premature. Such efforts may open the door to
new disputes, new misunderstandings and new dissensions.6
These two objections reflect some of the apprehensions
on both sides. On the one hand, there is the fear that the separation
in the fifth and sixth centuries may have been caused by more than
cultural tensions or terminological misunderstandings. Professor
Trembellas and Professor Verhovsky of the St Vladimir's Russian
Orthodox Seminary in New York belong to this school, and their hesitations
would have to be taken up seriously in the forthcoming meetings.
The fear of Catholicos Vazken, who has not yet
formally joined the conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches, is
also a widespread one. Small Churches on both sides are afraid of
being absorbed by their larger neighbour, whether in the USSR or in
Egypt. In personal discussion among theologians, it has however
been explicitly affirmed that, if some day by the grace of God communion
is restored between the two sides, this would leave the present
jurisdictional and liturgical status of the Churches completely
intact. Neither the Armenian Church in the USSR nor the Greek
Patriarchate of Alexandria, for example, would have any interference
in their administrative autonomy.
It is quite unrealistic to hope that a separation
that has lasted 1,500 years will be removed in fifteen years. But what
has already happened in our time in the ecumenical field is always
so surprising that none of us can dare to set limits to the working
out of God's plans for His One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
tr. in R. V. Sellers, The Council of Chalcedon, London, S.P.C.K.,
1953, pp. 210-11.
duo phuseon, instead of en duo phusesin. The Greek text of
the records of the Council has the former, but many Western
scholars have assumed the latter to be the original-without
sufficient ground, it seems.
papers and minutes of this consultation have been published
by the Greek Orthodox Theological Review, volume x, number
2 (Winter 1964-1965), 50 Goddard Avenue, Brookline, Massachusetts
02146, U.S.A., 168 pp. Price $3.00.
Oriental Orthodox Churches Addis Ababa Conference, January
1965. Edited by the Interim Secretariat, Oriental Orthodox
Conference, Addis Ababa, August 1965, pp. 109-10.
Ekklesia, 1-15 September 1965, no. 17-18, pp. 458-9.
translation in The Armenian Church, July 1965, published from
630, Second Avenue, New York.